Thursday, January 28, 2010

Listen Now to Obama's announcement of $8b for high speed rail

Listen to a live audio feed from the White House Web site on this topic.

CBS News has a live video.

MARC to benefit from $8b in improvements to high speed rail

Yesterday I speculated as to whether or not the MARC system would benefit from $8 billion in stimulus funds that will go toward high speed rail across the country, which an AP article reported would be announced by the President and the Vice President today.

Today's press release from the White House emailed to reporters ahead of President Obama and Vice President Biden's arrival in Florida-- where they'll announce the grant recipients-- reveals that indeed Baltimore will directly benefit from $112 million in improvements to the Northeast Corridor, specifically from Boston to New York and Washington DC. (For a broader perspective of funds going to the entire Northeast corridor, check out this Dept. of Transportation/Recovery Act PDF).

A chart of the grants released by the White House specifically says $112 million will go toward "major, long-needed projects such as the completion of engineering and environmental work for a new tunnel in Baltimore and a new station at BWI Airport." It adds that "projects will span Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maryland and Washington, D.C."

The President and VP are also touting the infrastructure improvements as a much-needed job measure, but what Stuck on MARC cares most about is helping people get to their jobs, or to job interviews on time!

For a local perspective I asked MRAC (MARC Riders Advisory Council) chair Rafi Guroian yesterday to tell Stuck on MARC readers what the improvements will mean for area commuters. He wrote me last night before the details of the plan were announced, but I think his comments are still instructive.

Here's what Rafi emailed Stuck on MARC yesterday (emphasis is mine as it relates to today's announced improvements).
Let's assume for a moment that Obama does, in fact, announce funding specifically for northeast corridor improvements between, say, Elkton, MD and New Carrolton, MD. The known speedbumps for rail traffic in this area are bridges, tunnels (specifically the tunnels into and out of Penn Station Baltimore), and bottlenecking of tracks. That will most likely be where the money will be put to use, primarily for Amtrak's benefit. MARC, however, happens to run on those same tracks and MARC trains are subject to those same speedbumps, so any improvements that are made to that infrastructure would not only allow Amtrak to run its trains at faster speeds and greater frequencies through those areas, but it would also allow MARC trains to do the same.

Keep in mind, we're not talking about running MARC trains faster than their top speed today. We're talking about running trains faster in areas where they currently have to run at restricted speeds. We're also talking about added flexibility to run trains at times we currently aren't able due to space constraints on the corridor. The MARC Penn Line is the fastest commuter line in North America (125 MPH when using electric engines and the bilevel cars); the cars aren't rated to go any faster than that without serious upgrades. So where we may see improvement is in areas like West Baltimore into Baltimore, for example, where trains are restricted to about 15-30 MPH, depending on traffic. We may also see service extended to Elkton, MD and Wilmington, DE earlier than anticipated as well; only time will tell.

If Obama announces any improvements to the track capacity and infrastructure from Washington south to Virginia, we could also see MARC service extended to places like L'Enfant Plaza, Crystal City, and Alexandria. All of these things I've mentioned are items on the Maryland MTA's "wish list" (see their 35 year plan). Making them a reality requires a lot of funding and interagency collaboration. If Obama's announcements focus on any of those areas of Maryland, then at least we're part of the way there with funding. It'll be up to Amtrak and the Maryland MTA to work together in making it a reality.
Now comes the hard part: holding Amtrak and Maryland MTA's feet to the fire to get the engineering and environmental work done in a timely matter so that actual construction can begin on the improvements.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

President to announce $8b boost to high speed rail

The Associated Press is reporting that President Obama will announce $8 billion in stimulus funds for the creation of high speed rail corridors tomorrow during a trip to Florida. He will also tout the project as a job creator/saver for tens of thousands of workers.

The President will be joined by VP Biden in Florida to announce the infrastructure project, which leads the AP to speculate that " a high-speed line connecting Orlando and Tampa is likely to receive funding."

The AP reports that the funds will go to 13 new projects and some smaller improvements to benefit 31 states. No word yet if Maryland is among those states, but I'd venture a guess that Amtrak's Northeast corridor will be a beneficiary of funds for improvement, which will at least indirectly improve travel for Maryland rail users.

In an interview last fall rail guru Rafi Guroian told Stuck on MARC that commuter systems like MARC would benefit from upgrades to high speed rail. Here's the exchange:
Q: When I was listening to Obama and Biden tout the high speed rail portion of stimulus money I wondered why they aren’t supporting commuter rails since it’s a very middle class initiative and enjoys increasing ridership.
A: You’ll have to ask them, but I can tell you that any money that goes to high speed rail is almost certainly going to benefit commuter rail that exists or may exist because it’s going to piggyback on that infrastructure. I think your money is better spent on inner city passenger rail improvements, because not only will you cover Amtrak services, but any commuter services that exist are going to be able to run at faster speed. If they don’t exist the environment may be created where they’re realistic where they weren’t before.

Q: So you’re optimistic about a potential piggyback?
A: Yeah. My worry is there’s not enough money. It’s like throwing a little piece of meat into a piranha tank and everybody wants it.
I'll send an email to Rafi today with a link to the story to get his take on how the announcement might affect the MARC system.

Monday, January 25, 2010

New diesel debuts on Penn, electric breakdown an "isolated incident"

Trainmaster Dave Johnson emailed Stuck on MARC earlier today to let us know that the new diesel locomotive is scheduled to debut on the following Penn Line trains this week:
  • 405 (Southbound from Penn Station at 5:52am)
  • 428 (Northbound from Union Station at 4:15pm)
  • 439 (Southbound from Penn Station at 5:25pm)
  • and 440 (Northbound from Union Station at 6:40pm)
If you ride any of those trains, let us know if you noticed a difference in your commute.

I asked Johnson for news on the rehabbed electric locomotive that broke down on the Penn Line last week, causing delays up to 90 minutes. He said it was an "isolated incident," which should stem fears of potential system-wide effects cited by Sun transportation reporter Michael Dresser in his recent blog post.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

MARC delays less worse than beltway traffic?

Then again when I remind myself of the pain and torture that is driving from Baltimore to DC and back every day of the week, I count myself lucky to be able to nap or read through MARC delays.

Here's a Tweet posted by Inside Charm City that got me thinking about my options:
insidecharmcity RT @MDSHA: N I-95 backed up to I-195. 695 Inner loop delayed back to I-95. Outer loop is backed up to Liberty Road. #baltraffic

Dresser reports on problem with rehabbed electric locomotive

The Sun's Dresser tracked down the problem that caused delays of up to 90 minutes on this morning's commute for Penn Line passengers.

On his blog "Getting There" he reports:

"The breakdown came in one of the AEM-7 electric locomotives that has only recently been returned to the tracks after several years in Amtrak's Wilmington shop. Late last year, Amtrak found the supposed fix, and began reurning the supposedly operative engines to MARC."
Dresser quoted an MTA spokeswoman who said the exact cause of the breakdown was yet to be determined, which may account for the fact that emails notifying passengers of this morning's delays lacked any explanations.

The faulty locomotive is back in Amtrak's Washington yard, according to Dresser. For the sake of us commuters whose bosses disapprove of their employees regularly trickling into work 30 minutes late, Dresser warns: "MARC riders had better hope the problem is not related to the AEM-7's previous electrical woes. Otherwise it might be a long winter and spring on the Penn Line."

Thursday, January 14, 2010

3 down, 23 to go: update on new diesel locomotives

MARC Trainmaster Dave Johnson sent Stuck on MARC an update on the system's new diesel locomotives, which we first blogged about here.

Johnson reports that one (#12) of the two new diesel locomotives that are currently on the tracks "is now running solo on Brunswick trains 872 and 873 and Penn Line trains 410 and 429.

Johnson was aboard Penn Line train 429 yesterday and "the engine performed very well," during his trip he said.

The second diesel, #11 got was put into operation on Tuesday afternoon. Johnson said that #11 is operating on four Camden Line trains: 843, 842, 853, and 850. This second locomotive still has it's training wheels on - in the form of an older diesel - "but will go solo next week on the same trains," Johnson said.

The third diesel, #10 should be out on the road in the next week or so, according to Johnson.

MARC riders, let's keep our fingers crossed that the three new engines run smoothly so that MARC can begin to accept delivery from the manufacturer of the remaining 23 engines. The ultimate hope from a rider's perspective is that the updates will mean less delays and quicker travel time.

Friday, January 8, 2010

First new diesel locomotive undergoes testing on Camden, Penn lines

Trainmaster Dave Johnson sent Stuck on MARC this photo he took of a new MARC diesel locomotive on its second day of service last week.

Johnson explained that initially the new locomotive ran with a tried and true engine for protection. Yesterday the new diesel shed its training wheels and "made its first solo trip on Camden Line trains 843, 842, 853, and 850," reported Johnson, adding "The engine performed well with no significant problems."

The engine will continue to run on the Camden line for another three weeks, according to Johnson. Next week it will make mid-day trips on the Penn Line. If all the initial testing goes according to plan "we will accept delivery from the manufacturer and get all of the locomotives into service," Johnson said.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Biden endorses a bright future for Amtrak

Support for Amtrak must be strong--not because it is a cherished American institution, which it is--but because it is a powerful and indispensable way to carry us all into a leaner, cleaner, greener 21st century.

That's the main thrust of a recent article penned by Vice President Joe Biden for the tenth anniversary of the Amtrak magazine "Arrive." The piece also recently ran in the Huffington Post.

You can find it here and here.

I highlight this article, not as a political endorsement of Vice President Biden, but because I (and I expect many of my fellow MARC riders) share some of his sentiments and habits that he developed during the 7,000-plus trips he took between D.C. and Wilmington on Amtrak during his Senate career.

For example Biden talks about the family-like bond he had with conductor Gregg Weaver, who introduced the Vice President elect before he joined Obama for the Whistle Stop tour to the capitol. I share a similar relationship with a MARC Penn Line conductor named Mike who faithfully checks my monthly every morning and chides me on the days when I'm too lazy to bike to the station.

I've also learned from fellow commuters like Rafi Guroian that we all have our particular routines that help get us through the daily slog. For Rafi it's a quest to watch every single episode of the 'Star Trek' series. For me it's a combination of sleeping, playing BrickBreaker on my BlackBerry, and reading the news. Biden shares his routine in the article: reading the news, making phone calls, preparing for a hearing and editing opening statements.

I also wanted to give the piece a shout out because Biden highlights train history in our very own backyard:

In 1830, the first steam-engine locomotive, the Tom Thumb, graced America's railways. Its first run was a rickety 13-mile trek from Baltimore to Ellicott Mills, Md., but it became much more than that.

Finally I want to go back to a post I wrote this October that generated some controversy in the blogosphere (what that sphere is best at generating btw). I still find it pretty cool that one of the highest leaders in the land continues to take semi-public transportation instead of his own custom train a la Kim Jong Il (not trying to explicitly compare the two of course, but KJI luxury train travel is just too outrageous not to link to). Seems like the trend is catching on across the pond as well. Check out Queen Elizabeth's recent holiday trip aboard a- wait for it - commuter train!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The worst day in recent Penn Line history?

It's looking like tonight's commute home is going to be just as headachy as last night's. And I have plans to have dinner with a friend at Peter's Inn. Uggggggghhhhhhhhhhh.

Usually MARC can correct a few hitches without creating a complete dominoes effect of a system breakdown. I wonder what went wrong today. Today's problems seem to be the worst since I started riding MARC full time about two years ago.

Penn Line - Train 521 (901a DP PVL) is being delayed by police action in the Middle River area the amount of delay is unknown at this time. We will operat an OT train from BAL at 947a using extra equipment.... more to follow.
January 5, 2010 9:48 AM

Penn Line:Due to a trespasser strike involving an Amtrak train south of Martin Airport, scheduled train 521 will terminate at Martin Airport, passengers will be transfered to a bus that is en route. Other equipment has departed Baltimore as on time train 521. Updates will follow.
January 5, 2010 10:01 AM

Penn Line update #1 - Police action ongoing at Middle river. Train 521 from Perryville is holding at Martins Airport station. We are operating another train from Baltimore on 521 schedule that is currently ontime.
January 5, 2010 10:01 AM

Penn Line: Northbound train 414 having mechanical problems at New Carrollton, expecting 20-25 minute delay.
January 5, 2010 10:07 AM

Penn Line: Train 414 is operating 30 minutes late; expect train 423 to operate 30-35 minutes late
January 5, 2010 10:23 AM

Penn Line Update: Due to the severe delay of train 414 northbound to Baltimore train 423 southbound to Washington is canceled for today. The next southbound train will be train 425 expected to operate on time.
January 5, 2010 11:21 AM

Penn Line:Due to earlier delays and cancellations train 520 and 535 will both be canceled.Train 425 expected to depart Baltimore 30 to 35 minutes late due to Amtrak congestion in Baltimore. Update to follow.
January 5, 2010 11:58 AM

Penn Line Update
Due to earlier delays and cancellations, train 520 northbound Washington to Perryville and train 535 southbound Perryville to Washington are both cancelled for today. The next departure will be train 422.
Passengers for Martins Airport, Edgewood, Aberdeen, and Perryville should ride train 422 to Baltimore, where alternate transportation will be available to your station.
Stand by for updates on alternate arrangements for train 535.
January 5, 2010 12:44 PM

Train 429 is being delayed in Baltimore due to Amtrak congestion. Delay unknown at this time but will be at least 10 to 15 minutes. Updates to follow.
January 5, 2010 1:53 PM

Penn Line Update--
Train 433 (3:30pm departure from Baltimore) will hold at Baltimore Penn to operate on train 535's schedule. Train 433 will make all station stops today only.
For train 535's passengers from Perryville, Aberdeen, Edgewood, and Martins, Amtrak train #171 will stop to pick up MARC passengers. The following are ESTIMATED departure times for Amtrak train 171 at MARC stations:
Martins Airport-3:18pm
These are ESTIMATED times. Please arrive at your station at least fifteen minutes early to ensure that you make the train.
We regret the inconvenience of the disruptions this afternoon.
January 5, 2010 2:07 PM

Train 429 Update--Train is still in Baltimore Penn Station due to a late crew and Amtrak congestion. Train is now 30 minutes late with an additional 5 to 10 minutes of delay anticipated.
January 5, 2010 2:09 PM

Train 429 update--Train has departed Baltimore operating 30-35 minutes late, following two delayed Amtrak trains. An additional 5 to 10 minutes of delay can be anticipated en route.
January 5, 2010 2:13 PM

Penn: Marc 433 is operating approx 33 mins late in the Halethorpe area and is making all stops to cover for the cancelled Marc 535.
January 5, 2010 4:09 PM

Train 437 due to depart Baltimore 4:50 pm is being delayed due to mechanical problems. Currently train is 30 minutes late.
January 5, 2010 5:23 PM

Due to mechanical problems in Baltimore train 437 will operate express to Washington 45 minutes late. Expect train 538 out of Washington 6:05 pm is expected to be 15 minutes late.
January 5, 2010 5:39 PM

Marc train 439 5:25 pm is expected to operate 30 minutes late.
January 5, 2010 5:41 PM

Penn: Due to late arriving equipment, expect Marc 538 (605p WAS Dp) to depart WASH approx 15-20 mins late.
January 5, 2010 5:47 PM

Penn: Marc 440 (640p WAS Dp) expected to depart WASH approx 25-30 mins late due late equipment.
January 5, 2010 5:48 PM

Last night's Penn Line clogged in DC, MARC cited multiple reasons

My regular Penn train home last night - the 640pm departure was still sitting in Union Station at 653pm because the 534pm never left. At first MARC attributed the problem with the 534pm train to late equipment then it blamed an interference with an Acela train, finally it canceled the train citing mechanical problems.

An earlier train (446pm) was delayed by about 20 minutes because of speed restrictions and a following train (520pm) was operating two cars short.

The above problems explain why the 605pm left 35 minutes late at capacity and why my train was filled to the brim with standing room only. Though I'm still confused as to the real reason why the 534pm never left, or was it a combination of factors?

Here are the different explantions sent out by MARC:

Penn: Marc 436 (534p WAS Dp) has been cancelled due to mechanical problem with locomotive. Marc 538 will be departing WASH approximately 10 mins late.

Penn: Marc 436 (534p WAS Dp) will be departing WASH approx 30 mins late holding in terminal for a departing Amtrak Acela.

Penn: Marc 436 (534p WAS Dp) expected to depart WASH approx 20 mins late due to late equipment.

The problems continued throughout the night. The 725pm from Baltimore to Washington was also cut, with MARC citing shortage of equipment. Amtrak rescued passengers who were going to BWI, New Carrolton and D.C., but left stranded those who had planned to stop at Odenton until the next and last train left at 9:15pm.

Monday was a long day for many MARC commuters, who got home anywhere from 15 minutes to over an hour late.

Monday, January 4, 2010

MARC official on last week's holiday schedule

State Trainmaster Dave Johnson emailed Stuck on MARC yesterday in response to last week's post expressing frustration about the limited holiday "S" schedule. This schedule cuts a handful of regular trains from its daily roster, which isn't so bad, but the difficult part for me was that the latest train leaves at 7:40p.m. with the "S" schedule, rather than 10:30p.m. with the regular schedule. That means I had to purchase a $20 Amtrak ticket to get home after working late, or crash at a friend's apartment in D.C.

Johnson explained that the "S" schedule runs between the federal holidays of Christmas and New Years because "demand is very light" that week, and the reduction is necessary "In light of the state's budget situation."

"We know that it inconveniences some people and do regret that," Johnson said.

I also griped about the fact that Amtrak does not honor MARC monthly pass holders on Northeast Regional trains that run after the last MARC at 7:40p.m. around the holidays. Johnson explained:

"As for putting MARC passengers on Amtrak 198 (8:40 train) or 66 (10:00 train), in the past we have asked for that and been denied by Amtrak."

He said that the next "S" schedule won't happen until Veterans Day, but vowed to revisit the issue with higher ups.