MARC issues persist, readers report
A new day brings a new influx of complaints about the MARC system some well-justified, others more questionable. Here's one from Jim Moloney of Baltimore that represents a little bit of both:
I have been reading the Sun’s continued coverage of the latest problems concerning MARC and wanted to let you know they are still continuing.
Last night we attempted to take the 5:15 train from Washington to Baltimore. At 5:10 we were told that the engine was disabled and were told to “run” to catch the 5:20 train leaving from another track. Those of us who could “run” did.
When we got to the track where the 5:20 was leaving from, we were met by a barricade, a police officer and an angry MARC employee yelling that the 5:20 was “closed” to further passengers. Passengers understandably became irate. We were threatened with arrest if we “hindered” the operation of MARC. We were told to head to the 5:30 which was leaving from another track.
When we got to the 5:30 train we asked a conductor if it was headed to Baltimore. He smirked and said “who wants to know”. I got disgusted and left (a fellow passenger advised me it was going to Baltimore).
That was the last time we saw a conductor on the train. No tickets were collected at all. A fellow passenger said he rarely ever saw a conductor collect tickets on the 5:30 train.
When we reached Baltimore we were stuck in the tunnel outside Penn Station for 7 minutes. Contrary to recent MARC public relations, no announcements were made.
I’m telling you this because there is no improvement in MARC. The lack of professionalism and competence is appalling. I am a past rider on the Long Island Railroad and Metro North systems in New York. It’s shocking to me how bad the MARC system really is.
It is also a tragedy waiting to happen. The MARC staff seems totally unprepared and ill-trained for emergencies. It is only a matter of time before a real tragedy happens that could have been prevented had something been done to correct these issues.
And here is an account by Bill Robertson of Baltimore:
Tuesday, July 13, I along with hundreds of MARC passengers boarded the Penn Line departing Union Station at 5:15 p.m., At 5:10 an annoucement was made that the train engine was not working and a replacement was being brought in which would take 15 minutes to hook up. The conductors instructed passengers who wanted to catch the 5:20 Penn Line to go over to track 9. With 5 minutes to spare, a large number of us ran over only to be met by a discourteous Amtrak/MARC employee who told us we could not board the train because it was full. However if anyone was going to stops beyond Baltimore you could board the train. Now how does this make any sense? Why would we be directed to track 9 only to be told we can't board when that train stops in Baltimore? Then he put up a gate to keep us off the platform and customer service went right out the window. A number of us became irate as we were herded off to track 16. It took 3 trains and 45 minutes to leave the station. What poor service again.
Here's what MTA spokesman Terry Owens had to say about the incident:
We understand your frustration. Senior officials from the Maryland Department of Transportation were at Union Station last night and witnessed the problem first hand.
As you pointed out 450 was cancelled due to a last minute defect found on the locomotive. We are examining how our passengers could have been directed to other trains more efficiently. Despite the confusion 530 was 9 minutes late leaving the Union Station. We apologize for the delay, and are looking for ways to better communicate when a change in trains is necessary.
Owens, of course, needs to be a diplomat. I'm under no such pressure, so here's how I see it:
I understand that nerves are frayed over MARC service, but it's time for some riders to take a chill pill. The decision to cancel a train -- in this case made by Amtrak -- is a fact of life. Equipment breaks down, you can't run the train. Does it happen far too often? Yes. But on the day-to-day decision to cancel, that's clearly a matter for professional train operators. (What I and many MARC rider object to is the description of a canceled train as a "minor" disruption. It has serious cascading effect that is anything but.)
So the decision is made to cancel but there's another train leaving in 10 minutes. What's the train crew to do? Tell people and send them on the run? Not tell them, and give the faster riders no chance to catch it? Then the people who operate see 500 people (number picked out of thin air) for a train that can accommodate maybe 250 extra with people standing in the aisles. Clearly they have to stop at least part of the horde coming their way, and it's likely they have to be firm and loud to have any effect. That can sometimes be misinterpreted as anger or discourtesy, but you can't have shrinking violets delivering a message that a train is full.
I would say passengers under such circumstances has the right to be disappointed, dismayed and even disgusted, but not irate. The Amtrak employees at the platform were clearly working to maintain order and safety. Venting one's frustrations at them -- if that is in fact what happened -- would have been bad form and a safety hazard.
Not having been there, I can't say whether the threat of arrest was justified. From the mail I've received about this and other incidents, the Amtrak police are a bit quick to resort to arrest threats but there are no doubt times when they have to remind an "irate" passenger of the need to obey proper safety orders. Yes, a passenger who tries to board a closed train would have to be arrested -- and would be in the wrong no matter how badly MARC is performing.
If Amtrak employees were giving seating preference to those going beyond Baltimore, they probably had a good reason. Only a few Penn Line trains go all the way to Perryville, and missing one involves a longer delay for long-distance riders than those getting off at Baltimore or nearer. I vote with the Martin Airport -Edgewood-Aberdeen-Perryville riders on this one.
The conductor who gave the smart answer to a legitimate inquiry was clearly out of bounds. A customer would have been fully justified in taking down any identifying information on the uniform and lodging a complaint. Amtrak has been getting a lot of heat about the conduct of its employees on MARC trains -- and deservedly so. The MTA needs to hound Amtrak about this as long as it takes. Amtrak employees need to be given the message in clear terms that MARC riders are to be extended all the courtesies given to Amtrak customers.
Not seeing a conductor on a train strikes me as no big deal as long as the train is operating well. On a crowded train, it might be better for all if the conductor doesn't take tickets. Whether tickets are collected or not is more a revenue question and a service question.
If there were serious service issues, I would expect a conductor to move through the train -- checking on passengers' well-being and providing whatever information is available (which didn't happen on the hell train). I wouldn't necessarily expect that for a seven-minute delay, however. Information just doesn't get passed along that quickly in even the most efficient organization. In view of the fact the tunnel south of Penn Station is more than 100 years old and a notorious bottleneck, operational delays there can be expected. And when trains stop there, the call is made by Amtrak operations. Were it not for earlier frustrations, a seven-minute delay is something most MARC riders wouldn't sweat.
Comparisons between MARC and other commuter railroads are inevitable but flawed. MARC owns none of its right-or-way and is entirely dependent on contractors -- Amtrak and CSX, both of which operate antiquated systems.
If you're going to ride MARC, it's better to understand the nature of the beast you're dealing with. It might not get you home sooner, but it's better for one's inner peace.