Why can't light rail handle big night events?
Every time there's a major night event downtown, it seems the Maryland Transit Administration and civic leaders urge people to use rail transit to get there and get home.
Maybe that's working on the Metro. Seldom does Getting There hear complaints from that system. But the light rail system is a different story. Any time there's a big night event -- such as Wednesday's U2 concert at M&T Bank Stadium -- and we start getting emails like this from Sarah LW:
A tip - MTA has once again dropped the ball. I'm standing on the light
rail northbound platform outside of M&T Bank stadium, still waiting to
board a train, with hundreds of other concertgoers. There was one
northbound train shortly after 11:00 pm, and one right before midnight.
Southbound service fared slightly better, though there are still people
waiting there as well.
Given that the MTA promoted their service, and that a crowd of 70,000
people was expected at the concert, it would be useful to ask them why
they didn't have more trains waiting, and/or provide more trains in a
timely manner. Completely unacceptable.
Sarah said she finally boarded a train heading north about 12:24 p.m. Other readers reported similar experiences.
This is nothing new. The light rail system consistently has problems after big events, even when the MTA says it is adding cars to the system -- as it did last night.
This isn't necessarily a matter of MTA operational incompetence, though that can't be ruled out as a contributing factor. Some of the light rail system's problems go back to its original design. The Baltimore light rail line is a monument to the folly of building infrastructure on the cheap.
Terry Owens, a spokesman for the MTA, said the agency threw every piece of equipment it had into getting people to and from the concert, which was scheduled to end by 11 p.m.. It ran three-car trains instead of the usual two cars. But at exactly the worst possible time, 11:10 p.m., a northbound train out of BWI developed a mechanical problem. Owens said the next northbound train couldn't depart until 11:30.
The spokesman said the MTA ran an extra train around midnight and had cleared the platforms by 12:33 p.m. That means the least lucky concert-goers may have had an hour and a half wait after the event ended. One can only hope they stopped at the rest room before leaving the stadium.
Some common sense has to be applied here. Anyone who expects to get out of a jam-packed stadium and to stroll onto the first train that arrives and then to get a prime seat is near-delusional.
"When you're talking about a crowd of 80,000 people, it's going to take some time to clear out such a load," Owens said.
Absolutely true. And it should be noted that people who drove didn't necessarily get out of the stadium parking lots without a wait.
But nearly 16 hours later, Owens didn't know and couldn't find out how the light rail performed when compared with the parking lots. That isn't his fault. The MTA should be monitoring its performance against other modes of transportation. Otherwise it doesn't understand its own product.
Owens said the MTA sent out email alerts about its mechanical problem at 11:43 p.m. But that's both late and insufficient for a crowd including many infrequent users who aren't signed up for the alerts.
The MTA ought to rely on a secondary communications method -- a real MTA employee at the platform giving accurate updates -- on big-event nights. And it needs to educate transit users about what it considers realistic expectations. Then people can decide whether its services are right for them.