Light rail flunks on Artscape weekend
Artscape should be a showcase for the Maryland Transit Administration. It's an event that draws 350,000 people to a site that is served by the Metro, light rail and several bus lines. Government officials routinely urge people to use public transit to get there. It's an opportunity to expose people who don't usually use transit to the benefits.
So why did MTA light rail service bomb so badly during a weekend when it should have been at its best? According to spokesman Terry Owens, some events occurred that were outside the MTA's control. There was a report of an intruder on the tracks and a tree branch down on the line. But hundreds of people were left cooling their heels at stations without explanation. Here's some of their stories. The first comes from a gentleman whose name I will add if and when I get permission:
I've seen your recent articles about the troubles of the MARC train and the folly of trying to catch the new bus outside Penn station on Friday before Artscape started. The consistent inability of these government agencies to anticipate and put 2 and 2 together is a source of ongoing frustration.
Add my experience with Light rail Saturday evening around 6 pm to your list. I got to the Woodberry stop just as a train pulled away. No big deal I thought it happens. My wife, young daughter, and I were headed southbound for the UB stop to enjoy Artscape for a while before walking to a friends' birthday party. First the ticket machine wouldn't make change for my $20 on a $9.60 fare. Luckily I had a credit card and charged it. The next train arrived about 20 minutes later but was so packed no one on the platform could get on. Off it went. 4 trains go by northbound over the next 45 minutes before another train southbound arrived driving about 2 miles and hour. It said "finished service" and never stopped. A few minutes later now after 7 o'clock another train also going about 2 miles an hour pulls up equally crowded and again no one can get on. The platform probably had 100 people waiting. It had been over an hour now and there was no information given to us. It was hot, and several parents had young children with them. At this point, my daughter had had it and we left. We could leave unlike some others. Just thinking about driving down was too much after the long wait. We went out to dinner in the county.
Several points here:
Why can't the MTA anticipate the huge demand with Artscape and Orioles game. It's not like this is the first time. They encourage you to ride and then can't handle the obligation.
Was the heat causing the trains to go so slowly? The northbound trains seemed to be moving at a regular speed.
Is there the ability to make an announcement to the platform? How about informing the growing crowd if there is a problem or if a train is running particularly late.
Was anyone with the MTA monitoring the situation? The northbound drivers certainly saw it. Couldn't they call and tell someone?
How about a sign that uses GPS and wireless technology to show how long before the next train. A system that actually uses the trains' location and isn't just spitting back the schedule.
Let's go one further and have the MTA use the GPS to compare performance versus the schedule and post the results. Oh, and maybe use real time data from the ticket machines to indicate if there is a problem and to help schedule efficiently.
Supposedly knowing there is going to be huge ridership, the ticket machines need to be serviced throughout the day. Don't say you can accept $20 bills if you really can't. I have found on many occasions while taking light rail to Raven's games that the machines are out of order. I've read that they can arrest you for not having a ticket. What obligation does the MTA to see that you can actually buy one? These are the days to impress the many first time riders and the MTA can't seem to make sure the machines work on Saturday night.
I've been surprised at the Raven's games how long it takes to get a train home. The game is usually over within a half hour window and extra trains could be readied just north and south of the stadium and put in service as the game ends. It seems they just stick with the regular schedule and don't add service and don't care. I can't speak for O's games as I've only been to 2 in the last 10 years. Maybe ridership for the games at this point is so low it doesn't warrant extra attention.
The shame here is this was a chance for the MTA to show many first time and infrequent riders that Light Rail is a viable option and possibly gain more consistent ridership and they failed miserably.
MTA wants me to take this to the Airport? Maybe they will call the airline and have the plane held for me. Next time the new head of the MTA flies someplace he can start at the Hunt Valley stop. I bet he hasn't ever taken it to BWI.
The cynic in me wonders why politicians get upset when our government intelligence agencies can't connect the dots of terrorism by people who don't want to be detected, when other government agencies can't move the people they knew were going to be there and are right in front of their eyes.
I could go on with other Light Rail problems but I have to go to bed now.
Andrew Freeman sent this email Saturday:
Despite encouraging people attending Artscape to take the light rail, the MTA is again letting passengers down. Its on-line schedule says there will be trains every 15 minutes, or even more frequently. My daughter and a friend waited 50 minutes this afternoon at the Mt. Washington station for a southbound train. They’ve now been waiting over half an hour at the Mt. Royal station for a northbound train – after getting to spend far less time at Artscape than they’d planned.
Despite advertising extended hours after the “hell train,” the MTA information line is staffed only on weekdays, so there’s not anyone to call and get information from or complain to. That doesn't excuse the absence of a system to notify people of problems on the line.
The MTA's Terry Owens had an explanation for the problems that occurred at that time. It seems there was a report of an intruder on the tracks around Lutherville. As a result, the MTA slowed its trains down to 20 mph and conducted a search.
At 4:58 p.m. one of the trains struck a branch on the tracks, which became lodged under the train. The passengers had to be off-loaded to a following train. Once the delays started, they cascaded. Here's another email, this from Stan Zerkin of Pikesville.
We traveled from the Mt. Washington Station down to the festival on Saturday afternoon and returned that evening. Our experience was frustrating and actually embarrassing for us with out of town guests.Steve Bove of Crownsville reports that he and his friends missed a concert because the light rail train they expected to take into Baltimore didn't arrive after an hour's wait.
On the ride downtown at 5pm, we had about a 20 minute wait, while the crowd grew. A northbound train finally gave a message that something had been thrown on the tracks north of the station and that trains would commence after it was cleared. At least we were given some explanation. No explanation though why the ticket machines did not accept bills, which basically forced you to use a credit card.
The ride back was truly terrible. We knew that Artscape crowds would be bad, and with an Orioles game finishing around the same time, that things would be unusually crowded. We just thought that the MTA would know that as well, and would compensate by providing more trains. Apparently they did not get the memo. We waited 40 minutes with a crowd that swelled to hundreds of hot & tired festival goers. No word from MTA on why trains were running so infrequently. When the first train pulled into the station, it was impossible to board, as the cars were already jam packed with Orioles fans also returning home. After another 10 minute wait, another train came and there was a mad dash as everyone tried to fit in.
As an infrequent rider of the light rail, I would have expected the MTA to use this weekend as an opportunity to shine, and show people how well they can make a downtown commute. I'm sure that after our experience, only the most dedicated or desperate commuter will use their service. Infrequent trains, poor communication, faulty ticket equipment all add up to a poor ride and a bad reflection of Baltimore.
Three of us got to the light rail in Linthicum about 7pm. One train that arrived early left as we got to the platform. We waited until after 8pm, and no Northbound trains came at all, though 3 southbound trains came dropping off artscape and oriole visitors. One of us travels light rail every day, and was appalled that the service was so poor, in fact, nonexistent.Steve wasn't the only one deprived of Government Mule. Mike Paone had a similar experience.
We missed Govt Mule because of this, and we lost our $3.50 cents for the pass because no train came and the pass is only good for that day.
Being a good State Planner, Yes I tried to use light rail. Talked my two friends into using it with me to see the Gov't Mule concert. Embarrassed the hell out of me. Stood at North Linthicum from 7:28 PM to 8:35 PM. No train, no announcement, nothing! Just an ignorant comment from the conductor traveling southbound. "U be wasting your time waiting there" was the comment.
You get the picture -- but I'm not sure the MTA does. The agency didn't even have a full report on what went wrong on Owens' desk this morning so he could inform the public of what happened.
The public understands that sometimes breakdowns happen on transit systems. What the public doesn't understand -- and shouldn't have to understand -- is why there isn't a system in place to inform people waiting at stations that a train is not coming. At least then people would have the choice of making other arrangements.
MTA administrators have become quite expert at crafting apology letters to MARC riders. It seems to me that the users of the light rail system Saturday deserve the same consideration.
Here's another modest suggestion: Each morning a complete report should be placed on senior MTA officials' desk on everything that went seriously wrong overnight or over the weekend. A copy of that report should be posted on the MTA's web site that same morning. Now that's accountability.