The Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) train service is the fastest commuter railroad in the country, routinely reaching speeds of 125 mph on the Penn line on the Northeast Corridor.
The MARC rail system, whose service areas include Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and surrounding areas, as well as Martinsburg, W. Va., operates on the Penn, Camden and Brunswick lines, with an average of 36,000 daily trips. It is run by the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), a division of the Maryland Department of Transportation and one of the largest multimodal transit systems in the U.S. Additionally, the MTA operates local and commuter buses, light rail, Metro subway and a comprehensive paratransit system. MTA also manages the Taxi Access system and directs funding and statewide assistance to locally operated transit systems in each of Maryland’s 23 counties, Baltimore City, Annapolis and Ocean City.
Service changes, feedback
Currently, the MARC service is facing ridership declines, according to Erich Kolig, director, MARC train and commuter bus service. “They are rather slight, only about a percent down from last year,” he explains. “But we are not experiencing the 3% growth that we have been maintaining for the last 10 years.”
One of the reasons has been the historically low gas prices, Kolig says. The other reason for the decrease is MARC’s ridership is comprised of approximately 80% federal workers. These workers are now being offered telework programs, working from home and flex work-week options, so it has changed the nature of MARC’s ridership. “This is not necessarily reducing the number of passengers we have, but the number of trips those passengers are making,” Kolig says. “Where we had parking lots filled to capacity three years ago, we now have 15% empty slots on Mondays and Fridays.”
As a result, MARC is seeking to grow the number of private industry passengers they carry. One of the programs the agency has initiated is to run on the minor holidays, “banker’s holidays,” such as MLK day and Veterans Day. “Typical holidays where the federal government is closed, but the private sectors that serve them are still open,” explains Kolig. “We run a reduced schedule to compensate for the lower number of riders, but still offer some level of service on those days. That brings balance to offering service, but not paying to run empty trains.”
In December 2013, MARC also started offering weekend service on the Penn line, which has been a success, Kolig says. The following year, MARC expanded weekend service to include bike cars to allow passengers to bring their full-size bikes on board. “We’re transitioning from the idea of ‘you’re riding our trains’ to a ‘we’re providing your trains’ mindset in responding to our ridership’s needs and wants,” he says of the service initiatives.
Another way the MTA is working to meet the needs of its riders is through MARC’s Riders Advisory Council, which is made up of upper management and representatives from MARC’s service providers, Bombardier and Amtrak. Also, an estimated 20 passengers, riding each of the three MARC lines from varying points, were selected to be representatives on the council, Kolig explains.
These meetings allow passengers to interface with MARC management and to review service statistics like on-time performance, incidents that delayed service and new MARC initiatives. “This is a great forum for management to see what the riders are seeing,” Kolig says.
Issues brought up during the meetings may lead to targeted solutions like better quiet car signage, new policies concerning crew conduct, etc. The council is also used as a sounding board for new initiatives or schedule changes proposed by the MTA and MARC. “It’s a good way to get cross-sectional feedback,” he adds.
Amenities, equipment changes
MTA will be launching a mobile ticketing application for MARC rail and commuter bus passengers next year. This will allow riders to purchase tickets from their phones and then present the phone for ticket validation onboard the trains.
MARC also has a number of capital programs out to modernize its locomotives and the passenger railcars. The service is overhauling its 15-year-old Kawasaki cars and its older GP39 engines. The MTA is buying eight new EPA Tier IV 125-mph-capable diesel locomotives and MARC just completed the purchase of 54 new multi-level cars built by Bombardier. These cars allowed the retirement of 50-year-old gallery cars, Kolig explains. Additionally, the purchase expanded the fleet to allow for older single-level cars to be renovated into the bike-car fleet. The new cars also allowed the replacement of single-level cars in certain consists with these multi-levels.
According to Kolig, the bike-car conversions have offered a great upgrade to service. Passengers may bring their bikes on board the specially appointed weekend trains for no additional charge. “There’s enough seating that you can sit on the same car right next to your bike and enjoy the ride between the bike-friendly cities of Washington D.C. and Baltimore,” Kolig says.
The aforementioned Bombardier multi-level vehicles, which went into service in 2015, feature upper and lower seating levels as well as a spacious intermediate level at each end of the car. Each coach has 15% to 30% more seating capacity than a typical single-level car. The low-profile vehicle is specially designed to meet the infrastructure constraints of certain rail networks, such as those posed by legacy tunnels, according to Maryanne Roberts, Bombardier’s U.S. head of communications/public relations.
The two-by-two seating configuration eliminates the middle seat found on many single-level vehicles. Additionally, large side doors located at the intermediate level provide accessibility from both high- and low-level platforms and wider aisles facilitate passenger boarding and alighting.
The multi-level vehicles also offer state-of-the-art technical features including an automatic public address system, LED destination screens, external public address speakers to keep passengers informed, whether on the train or on the platform; an advanced heating, ventilation and air conditioning system; microprocessor-controlled door systems; and a monitoring system that diagnoses and displays the status of all major train systems.
Earlier this year, the MTA awarded Bombardier a contract valued at $37 million to overhaul 63 MARC III bi-level commuter railcars, which have been in service nearly 17 years. “MTA is committed to providing safe, efficient and reliable transit with world-class customer service,” says MTA Administrator/CEO Paul Comfort. “Overhauling [these cars] is a cost-effective way to improve the safety and reliability of our fleet so we can deliver on those goals.”
In addition to supplying new railcars and overhauling other portions of MARC’s fleet, Bombardier also took over operation and maintenance of the commuter service in July 2013. MARC is a tenant railroad as it doesn’t own the tracks it operates over, Kolig explains. The MTA has operating access agreements with Amtrak, which owns and operates MARC’s Penn line and CSX Transportation, which owns the Camden and Brunswick lines.
After three decades of service, CSX decided to focus on its core business, freight, and end its involvement in passenger rail operations, Kolig says. The contract with Bombardier provides for both the operation and service, and maintenance of equipment, facilities and rights-of-way used in providing service along the Camden and Brunswick lines.
“It has been wildly successful and they have maintained and increased the on-time performance of the service,” Kolig says. “We now run across all lines between 93% and 96% given the particular month, which is a fantastic rate of getting our riders where they want to be on time. One of the biggest challenges is consistency in providing service and we do a very good job of doing that.”