|The new CTP: Only 25% of transportation funds go to transit|
This article is about the rail service with the maybe largest untapped potential.
What is it?
It operates on existing long distance or freight tracks and serves several city centers but it also has stations in the suburbs. It connects to Amtrak, light rail buses. Large parcels of land surround its stations. It has siblings all across the United States and which were, with two exceptions, all born in one single decade, the 1980s. The Maryland version ranks #9 in the nation by ridership in spite of the state's small size and large rural sections. It is operating speeds of up to over 100mph to be increased to 125mph, making it reportedly the fastest of its kind in the country.
|2 diesel engines, four coaches: Too much railroad, not enough Metro|
We are talking about commuter rail, of course, known in Maryland as MARC, a system that uses Amtrak and CSX tracks, and is managed by the same entity which runs Baltimore's buses, light rail and metro, the Maryland Transit Administration. The current administration has come to call the system a "virtual railroad" since it neither owns the tracks nor employs the engineers and conductors which run it nor conducts its daily operations, even though its music plays on the platforms. Born in 1984, the system has grown to the current level of service where it is 200 miles long and has 42 stations and slightly less tahn 40,000 riders a day. (Ridership fell recently). It operates 3 routes and dispatches 96 trains a day. Only the system serving the New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and LA metro areas predictably beat MARC in track length and riders. MARC reaches far out to Perryville in the north, and Martinsburg and Frederick in the northwest but chiefly connects Baltimore with Washington on two alternative routes, the Penn and the Camden lines.
|July was a bad month with 74% on-time preformance|
Until recently, MARC was the darling among the MTA modes, its trains ran reliably, tickets were cheap and service was expanded to run all day, later into the evening and also on weekends. Lately, the service suffered from many disruptions which left riders furious. (MARC delays were 'awful' this summer. There's been some improvement, but problems still linger. Baltimore SUN, Oct 4, 2018) Many of the delays come from (Amtrak) track work and insufficient drainage which became obvious due to the heavy rains. There are also about a dozen trains per month failing due to mechanical or equipment failures.
This article addresses untapped potential of MARC beyond the problems of this summer.
The long range MARC plans
The obvious question is, how could MARC be more? This question occurred also to Maryland's transit officials, at least back in 2009 when they prepared a long range plan and in 2013 when it was updated, both happened before the current administration came into office. This begs the additional question, what does the Rahn-Hogan team think about the MARC plan they inherited and are they willing to follow through with the suggested investments?
|MARC long range plan updated 2013|
The first phase of the plan envisioned a new Halethorpe Station, an expansion of the West Baltimore Parking lot, procurement of 54 MARC IV multi-level railcars to replace old coaches plus increase number of seats for $180 million, procurement of 10 new diesel locomotives to replace electric locomotives for $40 million, and the overhaul of 63 MARC III railcars for $34 million.
Rahn's MDOT notes that most of these projects were accomplished, including MARC IV Railcars, new SC-44 “Charger” locomotives, the construction of a Wedge Yard (midday layover for Brunswick Line), positive train control, plus new real time arrival signs, public address systems, ticket vending machines (Summer 2018) and mobile ticketing (Summer 2018). Still, the bulk of those investments goes back to decisions of the old administration and their funding plans. Many smaller steps were added. Two larger MARC improvements that were previously planned for a time after 2019 were moved up: new station facilities at Camden and BWI Stations.
|MARC: Reaching wide and far: It has urban transit potential|
Dropped from the plans of the previous administration was a new Bayview Station and a modified West Baltimore Station, originally designed as intermodal stations with connections to the Red Line. Also dropped a MARC maintenance facility. After the Red Line has been cancelled, officials don't see any longer the need for a Bayview MARC station or a better West Baltimore MARC station, a problematic stand as we shall see.
Improvements not yet in place, but listed in the long range plan for the time after 2020, include shorter headways in the peak hours, shortening headways during off peak to 30 minutes and the insertion of express service. More trains lead to capacity issues thanks to shared tracks. An important element of the future plans is, therefore, an additional track which would allow separating the fast Amtrak trains from the slower MARC trains (two tracks each, for a total of four on the Penn Line) and a Washington terminal expansion. A third track on parts of the Brunswick line would untangle MARC service from freight service. Also needed is the replacement of the two track Baltimore tunnel known as the B&P tunnel, a costly part of Amtrak's plans for the Northeast corridor from which Amtrak and MARC would greatly benefit. In total the long range plan assumed MARC investments totaling $2.35 billion by 2050, about the initial cost of the new Purple Line light rail line. (The B&P tunnel is estimated to cost $4.5 billion, cost not currently in any budget). None of those essential capacity enhancing items are funded in the CTP.
What is missing?
The MARC long range plan (there are no such plans for Metro or LRT, in spite of earlier promises by MTA to get those prepared) looks like an excellent document in the transit diaspora we have now. But even those documents from a much more transit friendly administration lack the excitement of a well defined vision. A real vision would elevate the service from being a stepchild of Amtrak and CSX to the status of a premier interurban form of 21st century transit. Sorely missing is also what is natural to maturing transit systems, the transformation from a park and ride transit system to one that fosters development at it stations. If Maryland won't get any new rail transit, it should get at least new development at existing rail stations. The reality is quite different: Except for some rather tepid transit oriented development at Odenton and a few bolder attempts at New Carrolton, MARC train stations are surrounded by a sea of parking (or nothing at all). The problem is common for US commuter rail systems. Studies show that for each rider taking up one parking space transit could get four more riders if the parking space were converted to TOD.
|Paris RER: Regional commuter trains, in the city like Metro|
It isn't easy to find stellar commuter rail systems applicable to our conditions, especially in the US where passenger rail always takes second place behind freight. Additionally, definitions are fluid. What is metro or subway, what light rail, what commuter rail, what intercity high speed rail? All these modes serve large metro areas and they often overlap in the way they provide service just like one can reach Washington from Baltimore via Metroliner, Acela and MARC.
To see how beefed up commuter rail transit could look, one has to go New York or abroad: Paris, Sidney, Shanghai or Munich. The best commuter systems seem to be the ones which operate in the center similar to an advanced metro or light rail but become more like a railroad in the periphery. The noted cities are examples for this approach.
In my hometown of Stuttgart (and many other large German cities) commuter trains (S trains) have been operated by the German Rail system for decades much in the same way as US commuter trains, i.e. as an overlay of service on the long distance rail system. Starting in the 1970s, several metro S systems were expanded beyond the traditional tracks to move underground in high density urban cores. In the case of Stuttgart, S trains tunneled underneath the dead-end train station, traverse downtown with several stops and reconnect with the circumferential main lines on the other side of town.
|Sleek bi-level cars in Sydney|
How would an ambitious MARC system look?
It isn't to be expected that MARC would tunnel anytime soon under Washington, even though, Washington's Metro could certainly use some relief. But a more seamless service integration with Virginia's VRE commuter system should be possible, since both already serve Union Station (Through running trains). To the north MARC service could be extended to connect to SEPTA commuter trains, making the entire corridor from NYC to Virginia commuter rail territory.
In Baltimore, by contrast new tunnels are planned as part of Amtraks NEC plans, except without a station. The originally planned new Bayview Station and also the once suggested new East Baltimore station at Broadway would make MARC a bigger part of Baltimore's urban transportation without costly new lines or tunnels. And for the proposed replacement of the ancient B&P tunnel, MARC could relatively easily include a station at Penn and North as an underground intermodal transfer to the already Metro station there. This would be especially important, since the area is still waiting for a convincing response to the 2015 unrest and because MARC doesn't connect to Baltimore's Metro anywhere. Both, a station at Broadway and a Penn/North station would provide such intermodal connectivity. With six stations in the city (Bayview, East Baltimore, Penn Station, Penn North, West Baltimore and Camden) MARC would be a viable means of rail transit in the city with Halethorpe and Martins Airport providing access to the county.
|modern bil-level self propelled, electric commuter train, Germany|
In spite of all the engine and coach replacement, MARC doesn't have cutting edge rolling stock. In the long run it doesn't make sense that MARC operates with diesel engines on an electrified line, when everyone tries to electrify transportation. The reason that Amtrak charges exorbitant electricity fees must be resolved politically, even modern diesel-electric engines aren't clean enough, especially when they idle for hours in the heart of the city. Suburban trains in Europe are self propelled electric trains, many of them sleek bi-level coaches with wide doors and level boarding for quick getting in and out, a far cry from MARC trains and their narrow manually operated doors and steep steps at stations without high platforms. Many valuable minutes could be shaved off from the run-times to DC if trains could load and accelerate faster. With additional trains running, express trains which don't stop everywhere could achieve even higher speeds and further reduce trip times. Of course, it also doesn't make sense that MARC trains are maintained in Amtrak facilities allowing Amtrak to hold MTA over the barrel everytime a maintenance contract expires. The fact that the CTP has eliminated further work on MTA's own MARC maintenance facility doesn't bode well for an attempt to run the system with less dependence from Amtrak and CSX.
|West Baltimore MARC: A bus station and three parking lots but no TOD|
All in all, MARC must become much more like a cross between Metro and Acela and be much less like an old fashioned railroad. This would require to run MARC more like NJ Transit, with some own tracks, their own rolling stock and their own operations management. Such as system could be a huge boost for Baltimore and do a lot to tie the mega statistical area of DC and Baltimore closer together. MARC as the spine for regional smart growth was for a short time a vision discussed in the context of BRAC, the base realignment concept that brought so many additional jobs to Maryland. The idea is still viable. It is the first thing that should go into the new regional rail plan as a relatively low hanging fruit.