All but 63 miles of the 457-mile DC-Boston Northeast Corridor higher-speed rail line are served by commuter or regional rail trains, while Amtrak intercity trains cover the route’s entirety. If commuter trains were extended to fill these gaps, it would be possible to travel inexpensively from DC to Philadelphia with one change of train, from DC to New York with three changes, or DC to Boston with six changes.
In May 2018, Cecil Transit (Cecil County, Maryland’s regional transit agency) started offering a dedicated shuttle to fill the shortest of the two gaps: 20 rail miles from Perryville, MD to Newark, Deleware, which is just over two miles from the Maryland state line.
A 20-seat mini-bus makes three daily round-trips, two in the morning and one in the evening, designed to connect Maryland Area Rail Commuter (MARC) trains at their northern terminus of Perryville with Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) Regional Rail trains at their southern terminus of Newark.
The service only operates on weekdays, excluding holidays, and MARC Penn Line trains do not run north of Martin Airport. SEPTA does not operate beyond Wilmington on weekends and most holidays.
The Maryland Transit Administration started advertising the connection in the November MARC Penn Line timetable, also showing connecting SEPTA schedules to Philadelphia. However, according to the Cecil Transit driver who handles the route nearly all weekday mornings, ridership has been very poor, and buses often run empty. When I used the service for the first time on Tuesday, I was joined by only one other passenger: a Baltimore resident who teaches an art history course twice a week at the University of Delaware in Newark.
The bus trip takes 40 minutes one way, barring congestion on Interstate 95, with one intermediate stop at Cecil College’s main campus just off of I-95 in North East, Maryland. The adult cash fare is $2.00 and $1.00 for children, seniors, and people with disabilities, and discounted weekly and monthly passes available.
This makes the total adult fare from DC to center city Philadelphia $21.00 to $22.00, depending on the time of day. The lowest possible Amtrak Northeast Regional fare is $35.00, with fares typically much higher if purchased closer to departure. The total fare from DC to New York, with SEPTA-New Jersey Transit connection at Trenton, would be about $48.00, which is comparable to Amtrak’s minimum advance-purchase Regional fare of $49.00.
The schedule leaves very little time to make connections—sometimes less than 10 minutes. I used the second morning northbound schedule, leaving DC’s Union Station on the 6:10 am MARC train, arriving in Perryville at 7:50 am. With the help of my fellow passenger, I found the Cecil Transit bus stop, marked only by a sign beneath a stop sign, at the entrance to the station’s small parking lot from Broad Street.
The bus pulled up promptly at 8:10 am (despite a live tracker site on my fellow passenger’s phone indicating that it would be delayed by 25 minutes). We had a swift ride east on I-95 and pulled into the Newark station parking lot right on time at 8:50 am, where I found a new station building under construction. The Cecil Transit stop is at the east end of the parking lot, marked by a simple sign. The SEPTA train to Philadelphia left just eight minutes after that, getting me to Suburban Station at 10:10 am.
While I had a good experience and all three vehicles I used ran on-time, I would not recommend this train-bus-train connection to anyone who is inexperienced with taking public transit. It is absurdly inconvenient to have to use a bus just to cover a 20-mile gap in what would be a 135-mile train trip. MTA Maryland has expressed a desire to extend MARC Penn Line service to Newark, perhaps with a stop in North East or Elkton, and perhaps the station facility being built in Newark is designed to accommodate a MARC-SEPTA transfer.
Even if ridership on the bus connection starts to grow as more riders discover it in the MARC timetable, patronage for an inconvenient connection should not be used to judge how well-used a much more convenient all-rail option would be.
Should you decide to use this service to get between DC or Baltimore and Newark or points north, please note the following:
- If your train is running late enough that you think you might miss the bus, call Cecil Transit at (410) 996-5295, ext. 2, and the dispatcher can radio the driver and ask them to wait for a reasonable amount of time.
- Cecil Transit accepts only exact change on board. No electronic fare media or mobile payment is accepted.
- As of now, there is no station agent or SEPTA ticket vending machine at the Newark station. If you haven’t pre-purchased a ticket or pass from SEPTA, you must pay cash to the conductor on board. Conductors will make change.
- The only facilities currently available at the Newark station are bus shelters and port-a-johns.
- The Perryville train station has a 1905-built Georgian-style station building with waiting area, restrooms and a MARC ticket vending machine, but it is only open from 4:15 to 8:15 am and 2:00 to 8:30 pm on weekdays. MARC fares can also be paid using the CharmPass mobile app.
- Northbound, if you miss the 8:58 am SEPTA train from Newark, the next one is not until 11:45 am. An alternative is to take a DART First State bus or a ride-hailing car to Wilmington, where hourly SEPTA service is available.
- Southbound, if you miss the 8:30 am MARC train from Perryville, the next one is not until 2:30 pm. In the evening, the 6:25 pm train is the only southbound departure from Perryville and only goes as far as Baltimore Penn Station, requiring a 28-minute connection to another train bound for DC.
- Ride-hailing services are available, though spotty, at Perryville and Newark, and can be used to cover the rail gap in lieu of a bus for a fare of $40 to $50.