This past summer was a particularly frustrating time to be a MARC commuter. Delays during July and August were the worst I had endured since choosing it as my primary transportation mode to work. To see just how much of my time was spent delayed, I logged my commute from Odenton to Union Station for the month of September 2018. The results speak for themselves at a costly tune of more than $2,500 annually in fares and wasted time.
I'm not alone: many commutes in the “Capital Region,” from Baltimore to Richmond, are frustrating and costly. To alleviate the headache of driving in one of the country’s most congested regions, I originally turned to commuter rail for a faster, more reliable, and less stressful trip. However, since I began commuting via MARC train in February 2018, I have:
- Been left standing on a platform for a train that never arrives;
- Watched in disbelief as morning commuters standing on the Seabrook platform are told the train is stopping only to deboard because of overcrowded cars;
- Hustled to make it to the train station ahead of the scheduled departure time only to find out on the platform that the train has been canceled or delayed, rather than getting real-time notifications through MARC’s online tracker portal; and
- Experienced a myriad of uncomfortable weather conditions on uncovered platforms while waiting for a train running more than 20 minutes behind schedule.
To highlight the grind that the more than 30,000 MARC riders face every workday, I conducted a personal commuter train trip study in September 2018 to assess MARC’s on-time performance and reliability. Here's what I found.
The daily commute
To commute by MARC train, I spend $162 per month on a monthly pass that allows me unlimited travel between Odenton Station and Union Station on the Penn Line. In order to get to work in downtown Washington, DC on time, I must wake up by 5 am sharp to arrive at the Odenton MARC Station between 7 and 7:30 am to catch the 511, 413, or 415 southbound train.
My morning routine can vary from day to day because it depends on how quickly my wife and I are able to get our two kids ready and off to daycare. Unlike my morning commute, I have only one option in the evening—the 536 northbound train—which allows me far less flexibility.
Like many of MARC’s riders, I am a spouse and parent with responsibilities, such as picking up the kids from daycare, making dinner, and walking our dog. I rely on MARC to minimize my commute time.
However, if I miss the train home from work and am late to pick up the kids from daycare, I have to shell out cash—$30 for every 15 minutes late—which adds up quickly when relying on very unpredictable public transportation. While the above-mentioned issues may not seem to apply to all commuters, they are profoundly important to many of us.
Here's what my analysis showed
During the month of September, I documented my daily commute to work from the Odenton station to Union Station on the MARC Penn Line. My analysis focused on four key measures:
- Whether the train departed on time
- Whether the train arrived on time
- My personal experience (e.g. how crowded was the train, were seats available, etc.)
- Train issues encountered (e.g. delays due to weather or repairs)
During September, I arrived at my destination on time 81% of the time. Time spent delayed totaled three hours and four minutes (including both morning and evening commutes). Of the three hours and four minutes delayed, 92% of my time delayed occurred during my morning commute, causing conflicts that affected both my home and work schedules.
While the $162 monthly MARC pass seems reasonable, cost savings is the last thing that crosses my mind when my train has been canceled, or is arriving or departing late. Based on figures generated by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI), a unit value of a person’s time is worth $17.67 per hour (though many of us—including me—think it's worth much more).
Based on that amount, MARC took a total of $54.07 of my time in September. All things remaining constant, per year MARC costs me more than 35 hours of wasted time, amounting to almost one full week of work and equaling $648.84 of time lost waiting for my train. Internalizing this cost would increase my annual commute cost by 33% from $1,944 to $2,592.
In addition to costs, commuters also face conditions and situations that make riding the train almost unbearable at times. Take my commute on September 5 as an example. The goal was to arrive at the office by 7 am for an important meeting, which meant my wife would assume all duties we typically share every morning.
Once at the station, the digital destination sign advised that there was a significant delay for those taking the MARC 505 southbound. After waiting for 52 minutes at the Odenton station, a MARC train finally arrived. But patience and common courtesy had been lost during the delay, and commuters resorted to Black Friday tactics of pushing and yelling to find a spot.
After forcing my way onto the train, I was able to find space in the corner of the entrance area next to the vestibule with what felt like more than 25 of my new closest friends. As the train departed, the conductor notified passengers over the PA system that the train would stop at Bowie State or Seabrook stations for deboarding passengers only. Commuters waiting on the platforms of those two locations had to watch as the train stopped, deboarded, and departed without letting anyone on.
After an uncomfortable 48-minute commute and one hour and five minutes spent delayed, I arrived at Union Station 32 minutes past 7 am. Add in my Metro commute and walk to the office, I did not arrive to work until around 8 am and missed the meeting entirely.
Riders are not naïve and understand that trains, from time to time, experience delays and cancelations. Nonetheless, MARC’s service has a long way to go to reach its full potential. Effective, reliable, and timely service could nudge more commuters to take the MARC train instead of driving on congested roads.
What MARC can be
To improve MARC’s service and experience, investors and decision-makers must make it a priority. The Greater Washington Partnership, a first-of-its-kind civic alliance and my employer, launched the region’s first CEO-led Blueprint for Regional Mobility, which calls for prioritizing commuter rail.
The Blueprint provides a strategy to unlock the region’s commuter rail potential by making key investments in the region’s rail infrastructure. It would remove bottlenecks and move towards an integrated MARC-VRE commuter rail system that allows Maryland residents one-seat rides to jobs in Northern Virginia and National Landing, and vice-versa.
MARC service is last in line behind Amtrak and freight rail trains, which limits its ability to run more frequent, more express, and more reliable service. To change our rail system’s trajectory moving forward, we must invest in track expansion. These investments would correct the following four major choke points that are currently holding MARC back:
- Investment in B&P Tunnel: The Civil War-era tunnel restricts the number of trains and the speed of trains on the Penn Line. Preferred designs of a new tunnel have been finalized by the Maryland Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) but neither Amtrak—the owner of the tunnels—nor the state have identified the funding needed for construction to begin.
- Expansion of BWI station: This station serves 150 Amtrak and MARC trains per day, accommodating the travel needs of more than 30,000 consumers. Current track and platform alignment require lower speeds and limited flexibility to recover time lost. Amtrak and the state have received federal approval to increase the number of tracks from three to four, add a new platform, and reconstruct the existing station building. But limited progress has been made to move this project forward since 2016.
- Track expansion at Union Station: Union Station is the nation’s second-busiest train station serving more than 8,000 train passengers during weekday peak hours and is the multimodal hub connecting rail to WMATA bus and rail service, VRE, MARC, tour bus operations, intercity bus, District streetcar, taxis, and bicycle facilities. Expanding track and platform capacity will increase the number of trains serving the station and enable more efficient train movements.
- Doubling Long Bridge's capacity: Owned by CSX, Long Bridge’s two tracks restrict existing and planned growth of passenger rail and freight service to points south and west of the nation’s capital, and limit the ability for MARC trains to pass into Virginia. Already unable to meet current growth demands, Long Bridge is estimated to see a passenger and freight service growth of 150% over the next 20 years. CSX, the District, and Virginia are currently developing plans to expand its capacity.
If completed, four tracks would connect Baltimore and Washington, and MARC and VRE trains could run beyond Union Station. This would greatly expand efficiencies and boost ridership, and could increase transit-oriented development opportunities at the commuter rail stations as well.
All of these projects require collaboration to bridge jurisdictions and transport agencies. It is imperative that our region make targeted and sustained investment to remove these key chokepoints and advance the larger goal of transforming our transportation system—and of course, ease my commute.
To make trains run on time and attract more riders, MARC should take the actions set forth in the Blueprint. These enhanced services would decrease the amount of time riders spend commuting, and in turn, increase our time to spend with family and friends.