Baltimore Light Rail by Paul Sableman licensed under Creative Commons.

This article was updated on February 27

If you’ve ridden Maryland’s MARC commuter rail lines, Baltimore’s Light Rail system or the Baltimore Metro Subway at any point in the past few years and felt like they were breaking down more often than other systems, statistically, you may be on to something.

The Maryland Transit Administration’s commuter, light, and heavy rail systems had the highest major breakdown rates in the country, more than any other system in each category, according to data released in December 2019 by the Federal Transit Administration.

By the numbers

At first glance, the data—collected in the National Transit Database, and recently obtained by the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance—doesn’t seem quite as bad for the MTA.

On the surface, the MTA only ranks seventh in total breakdown rate for commuter rail and it’s New Jersey Transit who takes the “breakdown crown” with 375 total mechanical failures in 2018, defined as incidences where “the train could not complete or start a trip.”

But as NJ Transit officials made sure to point out when asked about the findings by in December 2019, this reading of the NTD data doesn’t take into account the size of NJ Transit’s rail system, the largest statewide system in the nation.

Once broken down by a more contextual method of dividing “major” mechanical failures by train mileage and multiplying it by 100,000, the MTA jumps up from seventh-worst to worst for commuter rail (MARC), from sixth-worst to worst for heavy rail (Metro Subway), and second-worst to worst for light rail.

That distinction is important because it enables more accurate comparisons of larger and smaller systems.

For example, when taking mileage into account, Baltimore’s 15.4-mile Metro Subway system, which has only one line and hasn’t added any new stations since 1995 suffered more major breakdowns per 100,000 revenue miles in 2018, with 29, than Washington’s 117-mile, six-line Metrorail system, which has added one line and 15 stations in the past 25 years alone, with only five such breakdowns in 2018.

The MTA also suffered 60 major breakdowns per 100k revenue miles for its Light Rail system (New Jersey Transit’s light rail only had 27) and 15 major breakdowns per 100k revenue miles for MARC (Boston’s MBTA Commuter Rail only had five).

In all fairness to the MTA, some of the likely reasons for each rail system’s high mechanical breakdown rates may have been slightly more applicable in 2018 than they would be today.

2018 was infamously the year that the MTA had to abruptly shut down the entire Metro Subway system for almost a month after a routine safety inspection revealed large portions of the line’s tracks were too worn to operate safely. It was also largely before the agency began replacing some of the most outdated parts of its light rail car fleet (although recent MTA service advisories suggest even this hasn’t had much of an impact) and the same year that record rainfall and extensive trackwork on the Penn Line by Amtrak contributed to a particularly delay-plagued summer for MARC.

But even so, it’s interesting to note that Baltimore’s Metro, which is seven years younger, five lines smaller, and 112 miles shorter than its southern counterpart saw almost five times as many major breakdowns as WMATA’s in what would turn out to be the same year the Maryland General Assembly finally passed legislation to give Washington’s Metrorail its first real dedicated funding. And the fact that the MTA “leads” for breakdowns in every single rail category has regional transit advocates extremely concerned.

“The fact that every one of MTA’s rail services breaks down more often than every other comparable service in the country should be setting off alarm bells in Annapolis,” said Eric Norton, the Director of Policy and Programs for the CMTA. “These are systems that Marylanders rely on every day and they are failing.”

Because the MTA’s breakdown problems span so many different types of rail, it’s hard to pinpoint one specific reason for the NTD findings or to say if the results will be the same when the FTA releases its 2019 numbers for the database later this year.

An MDOT MTA spokesperson provided the following statement to GGWash:

“MDOT MTA remains committed to improving overall service delivery. Currently, we are undergoing an overhaul of our Light Rail train fleet with a $160 million investment in improvements for operator and passenger service. The agency is also investing $400 million to replace the Metro SubwayLink railcars and signal system. Once these fleet overhauls are complete, MDOT MTA will have one of the youngest rail fleet systems in the US.

MDOT MTA is committed to providing reliable service to all customers on all modes in our transit system. Even with the challenges of operating an aging fleet, our Metro SubwayLink OTP for 2019 was 95.92% and Light RailLink service achieved OTP of 93.23% for 2019.”

Baltimore subway by Elvert Barnes licensed under Creative Commons.

A light at the end of the tunnel?

Part of the solution to the MTA’s mechanical misfortunes could lie in a piece of legislation currently under consideration in Annapolis by the Maryland General Assembly. The Maryland Transit Safety and Investment Act, introduced in the House of Delegates by Delegate Brooke Lierman (D-Baltimore City) and in the State Senate by Sen. Craig Zucker (D-Montgomery) would give the MTA approximately an additional $125 million in capital funding to address its maintenance needs across all of its systems, both bus and rail alike, with language in the bill specifically tying the funding to the Capital Needs Inventory, the annual list of maintenance needs the MTA released for the first time last year.

“It would properly fund the MTA at the level they say they need in the Capital Needs Inventory to be able to get the system to a state of good repair,” Norton said. “And there’s accountability in that bill, too, in that it’s not just a blank check.”

Norton added that the bill would include a stipulation where the MTA would have to check in with the General Assembly annually, to ensure when, why and how the Capitol Needs Inventory items are being completed.

Maybe checking off this list will ensure that the MTA doesn’t top all the wrong lists in the future.

Alex Holt is a New York state native, Maryland transplant, and freelance writer. He lives in Mt. Washington in Baltimore and enjoys geeking out about all things transit, sports, politics, and comics, not necessarily in that order. He was formerly GGWash's Maryland Correspondent.