Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.
On Thursday, MARC announced a new schedule on the Brunswick Line, to go into effect on January 30. For riders at the far end of the line, it will mean a faster trip. But for riders in Frederick and closer-in Montgomery County, it will mean fewer trains and longer waits.
MARC says the rationale for the change is the reduction of delays, something every Brunswick Line rider naturally supports. But not only does this schedule fails to address the major causes of the Brunswick Line’s many delays, it will actually make things worse for many Brunswick Line riders. The schedule is a failure, and MARC should reconsider it.
As Brunswick Line riders were reminded only last Friday, mechanical problems, communications problems, and CSX responses are major causes of delays. Other causes include trackwork, signal problems, freight train interference, and freight congestion. There are also heat orders when it’s hot, and flash flood orders when it rains. And sometimes there are fatalities or other unusual events.
But these delays are not caused by the current schedule, and this new schedule will not solve the problems.
The winners in the new schedule are riders who board at the Brunswick and Point of Rocks stations. They will have more limited-stop trains and comparatively shorter trips. Of the 12 trains that serve Brunswick, 5 will have fewer stops under the plan and just 1 will be making more stops. Even with the schedule’s increased time for loading passengers, 5 trains will still have travel times that are up to 10% shorter than in the current schedule.
There are two likely reasons for MARC’s decision to benefit these riders. First, Brunswick and Point of Rocks are two of MARC’s busiest Brunswick Line stations, with riders from Virginia and West Virginia as well as Maryland. Second, MARC places primary importance on “overall speed of service”, i.e., getting the trains from origin to final destination as fast as possible.
Meanwhile, the losers in the new schedule are riders boarding at stations in Montgomery County and at the Monocacy and Frederick stops. They will face reduced train access and longer train rides in return for the improvements at Brunswick and Point of Rocks.
In Montgomery County, Kensington will lose 1 train in each direction. Garrett Park will lose 2 outbound trains. Barnesville will lose 1 inbound train. Metropolitan Grove will lose 2 inbound trains and 1 outbound train. And Boyds and Dickerson will have gaps of 90 minutes between trains.
The most probable reason for this worsening of service is, again, MARC’s belief that access to service is less important than speed of service.
Service at most of these stations is already marginal. For many current riders, losing service will mean that taking the train is no longer a viable option. This will lead to a death spiral of lower ridership and reduced service, ending finally in closing the stations altogether.
The decision to reduce service at Metropolitan Grove is especially baffling. Metropolitan Grove is one of the few stations in Montgomery County with a lot of unused parking. And, because the parking lots at Germantown are full, Montgomery County has actually been encouraging riders to board at Metropolitan Grove, the next stop.
As for the Frederick branch, there will be fewer limited-stops trains and longer trips — the opposite of the schedule’s effect on Brunswick and Point of Rocks. Of the 6 trains serving Frederick, 4 will have more stops and just 1 will make fewer stops. Travel times on the Frederick trains will be up to 12% longer.
While Frederick and Monocacy currently serve fewer riders than Brunswick and Point of Rocks, this is surely related to the fact that the Frederick service has less than half the number of trains.
In addition, MARC’s decision to favor riders from Brunswick and Point of Rocks over riders from Frederick and Monocacy is at odds with state transportation policy. Congestion on I-270 is so bad that in 2009, the state of Maryland proposed spending up to $3.8 billion on highway widening between Germantown and Frederick. Improving MARC service to Frederick is an obvious way of reducing traffic on I-270. But instead, the new MARC schedule worsens it.
Service to West Virginia also has its winners and losers. Earlier commuters will gain a morning train, leaving Martinsburg at 5:00 am, and an extension of the first daily afternoon train to West Virginia. But later commuters are clear losers, with West Virginia service for the last evening train canceled, and departure of West Virginia’s new last train delayed from 5:40 pm to 6:15 pm at Union Station.
Do the majority of West Virginia riders want these changes? Who knows? Certainly not MARC, which is only now asking for information from West Virginia riders, after announcing the new schedule.
So what happens next?
MARC has decided not to hold public hearings or to create a public record.
Instead, they will have a series of “Meet-the-MARC-Management” events at selected MARC stations in the afternoon. The first of these meetings will be tonight at the Rockville station.
Meetings will follow at other stations over the next few weeks: Silver Spring on December 7, Monocacy on December 8, Union Station on December 13, Brunswick on December 14, Germantown on December 20, and Barnesville on January 4.
Given that the first event comes only 5 days after MARC’s announcement, this is an ambitious timetable.
It also remains to be seen whether MARC commuters on their way home, during the holiday season, will have the time or inclination to stop and tell the MARC managers their opinion of the new schedule. And MARC riders who dislike the schedule may doubt that their feedback will change the minds of the very people who came up with the schedule in the first place.
MARC will hold further “town hall” events in Brunswick on January 3, Kensington on January 5, and Charles Town, West Virginia, on January 7. These meetings are supposed to provide an opportunity for community members, interest groups, government officials, and elected representatives to have their say.
If you can’t attend one of these events, there are other ways to provide your feedback. MARC is hosting an online comment form. You can also e-mail comments to the general MARC address of email@example.com, and CC your local officials.
Yes, the Brunswick Line contends with substantial operational and fiscal constraints. And its true that no public transit schedule can make everybody happy. But this is no excuse for a schedule that’s practically guaranteed to make things worse, not better, for large numbers of the riders it’s meant to serve. MARC should honor its commitments to all Brunswick Line riders by withdrawing this schedule.