Tuesday, May 25, 2010

School groups on MARC

Last week I received an email from a MARC commuter concerned about how the system handles school groups aboard the trains. Specifically she was pleased to received advance notice on May 13 that a group would be aboard train #513 the next morning.

She was not pleased that the students were given the first two cars for the following reasons:
- When the group disembarks the students clog the platform awaiting instructions from teachers
- Daily commuters should get priority boarding for the first two cars since they're the closest to the station upon arrival. Why are consistent commuters being penalized for their loyalty over occasional riders?
- If students need to be close to the bathroom (reason given by conductor to commuter for why students had to ride at the front of the train) why not add another bathroom car?

I brought the commuter's above concerns to Rafi Guroian, chair of MRAC (MARC Riders' Advisory Council). Rafi had received similar complaints from other riders and had already brought the issue up with the MTA.

Rafi providing the following explanation for the May 14 incident with the school group (I've edited his full response for brevity).

1. The group boarded at Perryville, whose switch track only allows boarding at the southern end of the train.
2. MTA had attempted to get the train crew to instruct the school supervisors to keep their charges on the train until everyone else disembarked. Alas the ball was dropped somewhere along the way on that one. (I'm sure any teachers/parents in audience are sympathetic here).
3. MTA conceded that they'd overbooked school groups, promising to split groups over multiple trains in the future.

Also, Rafi noted his genuine concerns about reports that both teachers and students were yelled at and cursed at by commuters. "We take trains instead of driving to relax, presumably, and there's no call for vulgarity amongst each other-- adults, most of us-- God forbid children," Rafi wrote.

In closing Rafi noted that the school group incident is emblematic of a larger problem MARC is facing: adequately handling increased ridership. "I believe what happened Friday is a small preview of things to come," Rafi warned.

Rafi detailed the severe capacity constraints that the MARC system and Union Station in particular are facing: no hard, funded plans for new equipment in the near future, no space to put new cars even if we procured them, no money to alleviate space issues at Union Station.

Compared to similar metro areas around the U.S., DC-Baltimore "looks like a skeleton with no meat," says Rafi. He continues that the State of Maryland, specifically the lawmakers that hold the purse and policy strings in Annapolis, need to wake up and "Do something to really plan for the future of our transit systems in MD."

Rafi concluded by conceding that MTA/MARC folks probably could have handled Friday's school group more smoothly, but he argued that the system is operating with very limited equipment, stations and funding. "They're stretching a rubber band just about as far as it'll go," he wrote.

Help Rafi bring more attention to transit needs by contacting your state elected officials. Look them up and find their contact info here.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Java Moon Cafe promises review of policy

I will be suspending my boycott of Java Moon Cafe. (See yesterday's post.)

I wrote to the Java Moon parent company after I was refused coffee in my travel mug at the cafe in Penn Station yesterday. The refusal upset me because many companies like The Daily Grind in Baltimore and Caribou Coffee in D.C. encourage customers to use their travel mugs and cut down on waste by offering discounts.

In response to my complaints, I received an emailed apology from a company BP, promising a closer review of the policy, which does not allow customers to use travel mugs for fear that they might be sued if dirty mugs are filled with their coffee. I was pleasantly surprised by the speedy reply, less than 24 hours after I filed my complaint.

The VP graciously offered five days of free coffee in my travel mug and a discount on pastries, for taking time to tell her about my experience. I will decline the offer so as to remain somewhat neutral, but I appreciate the spirit.

I look forward to hearing the outcome of the company's review to see whether it results in a change in policy, posting of a sign explaining the policy or other consideration.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Penn Station's Java Moon Cafe enforces regressive rule

What a way to start a Monday.

I stood in line for over five minutes at the new Java Moon Cafe in Penn Station, Baltimore this morning to get a cup of coffee.

When I handed over my plastic travel mug, the cashier shot me a look and said, 'We won't use your cup. We will only give you coffee in our own cups.'

After asking why not the cashier refused to give me an explanation.

"That seems like a waste," I said.

Then I left and went to get coffee at Dunkin Donuts instead. As I waited in line the manager from Java Moon walked by. I told her that if they were going to enforce such a ridiculous, regressive policy they should at least post a sign informing customers.

The manager just kept repeating "It's a company rule," when I asked her why the rule existed. Finally she motioned for me to step out of the line and she would whisper the reason for the rule.

I told her in front of the crowd that if the company was going to enforce such a rule it shouldn't be a secret and the public had a right to know the reasons behind the rule.

Finally she told me the rule was to prevent customers from using dirty travel mugs and then suing the company for putting their coffee in the dirty mugs. She was not amused when I asked her to smell my mug and tell me if it was dirty or not.

At first she countered that the company, Java Moon Cafe, is a franchise. I told her that I would write to the company to complain because a) the lawsuit excuse is ridiculous b) the policy is regressive when many other companies promote good environmental practices by giving customers who use their own cups a discount c) not using their cups saves the company money d) for MARC commuters who travel with coffee there's no place to put a cup, so you have to wedge it between the seats which only works with a hard travel mug and not a flimsy paper cup.

I will be writing to Java Moon to complain - you can do the same, click here. Let their Facebook friends know about the nonsensical policy by posting on their wall.

In the meantime I'm boycotting Java Moon. I'd also like to find out of the public has any input into who gets concessions at Penn Stations. If you have any information about this please let me know.

That's all for my Monday morning rant.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Police enforce MARC boarding

Two police officers stood guard on the platform outside Union Station during tonight's rush hour, presumably to prevent crowding on the platform. I wonder if a specific incident caused their presence or if it's a more general effort to prevent the choas that occassionally occurs at this hour. It could also be because the 6:40pm Penn Line is delayed.

I think it would be helpful if MARC could post the length of the delay so that those of us who have the option to do so can choose to take the Camden Line instead, which departs three minutes after the closest Penn Line departure at 6:43pm.
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A little commuting perspective from Mumbai

"At least your commute isn't as bad as this," wrote a friend in an email with this link from CNN's Mumbai editor, Sita Wadhwani.

The video shows a crush of female commuters, talking loudly, hanging on to metal handles in what looks more like a cage than a train. Ms. Wadhwani translated some of the shouting as "WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING?"

She quipped that the government's official term for rush hour commutes is "superdense crush load."

A global perspective helps when we're complaining about the new MARC seats and the violators of the quiet car rules...