A longtime Arlington County Board member shakes up Virginia politics by announcing plans to step away. Uncertainty clouds the future for the chief of one of Maryland's treasured public school systems. And the field of candidates narrows in D.C.'s special elections looming in the spring.
For many Maryland commuters, the MARC train is a key part of their daily routines. We’ll talk with the head of the Maryland Transit Administration about commuter trains and the role they’ll play in the future, particularly as the area around Fort Meade braces for major growth.
- Ralign Wells Administrator, Maryland Transit Administration
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, new controversy for D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray. We discussed new allegations that his campaign staff gave cash payments to another mayoral candidate. But first, commuting to work is a lot less painful if you can read a book, listen to music, even sleep instead of sitting behind the wheel. That's why an increasing number of residents in our region are taking commuter trains, especially in the busy corridor between Baltimore and Washington.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe problem is that those trains don't always run on time. Commuters in Maryland's MARC trains say service has been deteriorating in recent years with more delays, more breakdowns, and more people forced to stand in the aisles as the trains chug their way into the city. Well, MARC officials say they're making improvements, particularly on the busy Penn Line, and joining us now to talk about some of the changes is Ralign Wells, the head of the Maryland Transit Administration. Ralign Wells, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. RALIGN WELLSGood afternoon. Thank you very much for having me.
NNAMDICan we talk first about how many people are using the MARC train system? Can you give us some sense of ridership has gone up in recent years?
WELLSSure. We're looking at over 33,000 riders per day on the MARC systems, and just to give to a sense of perspective, about 20 years ago we were looking at about 10,000 riders. So we've more than tripled.
NNAMDIOver the past ten years or so. Gas prices are now at well over $3.50 in much of the region, and there are estimates that prices could go over $4.00 by Memorial Day. How do those changes in gas prices tend to impact your ridership?
WELLSWell, absolutely, they affect transit services, and transit -- this is a good problem for us when we get increased ridership. Of course, you know, we have capacity constraints on the MARC side, because we are, as you mentioned earlier, we are at near capacity, and we continue to add more capacity to the system. But, again, it's a good problem for us. We're looking at additional riders that we -- as we saw in 2009, we also saw a ridership spike when gas prices did reach near $4. We plan to add about a thousand seats come March the 14th, which will also help deal with some of that increased ridership that we expect that we're gonna get.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, our guest is Ralign Wells. He is administrator of the Maryland Transit Administration, which oversees transit networks in Maryland, including the MARC commuter train system. Do you ride the MARC commuter trains? Call us at 800-433-8850. What is your daily commuting experience like? 800-433-8850. You can ask that question at our website, kojoshow.org, by way of Twitter, @kojoshow, or you can simply send us an e-mail to email@example.com. Ralign Wells, we mentioned that there are changes about to be implemented to the Penn line service. Can you tell us a little about that?
WELLSSure. Effective March 14th, we'll see an additional thousand seats added to the schedule, and that's by way of additional trips. So there will be many more options for passengers who use the Penn line service, because the schedules will increase by two trips in the afternoon and two trips in the p.m. on both sides, Union Station side and the Baltimore side, the Perryville side.
NNAMDIIf you listen to our local newscast in the morning, you hear regularly about delays on the MARC commuter lines. In general, are delays getting worse as some commuters allege?
WELLSNo. Actually, delays are starting to go down. We're starting to see an improvement in service. And one of the things that's helped us deal with the services, we've been working closely with Amtrak and CSX to address service issues, so we're, actually, drilling down on the trains that are having the most problems. So we're looking like in the 80 percent -- 80, high 80s, 90 percent. There are some trains that are lower than that, and we're working on those, but, again, once we put the new schedules in place, we'll be able to see exactly how the on-time performance is. One of the things that I like most about this new schedule is we've worked with Amtrak to adjust our scheduled trains around their scheduled trains before they would conflict.
WELLSOne of the challenges about our system is that, you know, we deal with freight traffic on the CSX side. We deal with other passenger service from Amtrak. We also don't own the tracks, so we don't have our own right of way. And we don't manage the crews, so the priorities are set by our providers. So if you can understand what I'm -- where I'm going here, we're just trying to work with Amtrak to make sure that we have priority and that our schedule is kinda work with theirs.
NNAMDILet me be clear to see if I understand where you're going. If Amtrak and CSX actually control the lines that you run on, it is my understanding that quite of the -- quite a few of the delays, maybe half of them, result from Amtrak and CSX dispatchers holding your MARC trains in order to allow Amtrak passenger and CSX freight trains to move ahead. How can you negotiate a change in that arrangement?
WELLSWell, we basically tried to get them to understand the importance of our services as well. We've had conversations with them regularly about this issue, and they've quite, you know, understood what our concerns are. And they've actually admitted to some of those issues and have committed to trying to make sure that it is equitable. And this schedule adjustment that we've put in place is one of the first steps towards trying to work together to make sure that everybody has equal access to track time.
WELLSAgain, we've talked about the fact that we've tripled our service over the last year, well, tripled the demand, I should say. And, of course, you know, track space is limited, and track time is limited. So everybody is vying for position, just like a highway that's getting to its maximum capacity is the same way the railway is starting to get.
NNAMDITo what extent are delays caused by equipment problems, power problems, congestion on the rails?
WELLSWell, actually, there are a number of delays that are caused by other trains. Sometimes, freight trains, they go -- their brakes -- they can't get their brakes off, so we're behind them. Sometimes, freight traffic is up. That's good news for the economy. We see freight traffic up, so we hold for those. Sometimes, there are signal issues that occur and have to get crews to the signals. There's dispatching issues, all kinds of things that can cause us to have to hold.
NNAMDIDo you ride the MARC commuter trains? We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Call us to tell us what your daily commuting experience is like. 800-433-8850. You can also call to tell us what role do you think commuter trains should play in the transportation infrastructure in our region. The number again, 800-433-8850. Or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. We're talking with Ralign Wells. He is the administrator of the Maryland Transit Administration. The Maryland Transit Administration oversees transit networks in Maryland, including the MARC commuter train system.
NNAMDIOne of the things that can complicate MARC's schedule is the fact that you're not the only ones using those tracks, and we talked earlier about your relationship with Amtrak and CSN. So let's move on. Last year, on June 21st, there was a Penn line train that broke down in sweltering heat. Passengers had to call 911 because temperatures got so hot in the train. People dubbed it the hell train, and it prompted a major review of MARC operations. What problems did you identify in that review?
WELLSOne of the things that we identified was that (unintelligible) myopic view of trying to repair the train as opposed to dealing with the time that goes by. While you're working on the train, people are still sitting inside the train. We -- they went to plan A and B, but they didn't have a plan C prepared. And one of the problems that I had is that our staff didn't actually go to the scene to kinda oversee the Amtrak operations, you know? And then, we've had other things in place where, you know, before Amtrak's trains would bypass or continue past our train if our train was in -- has some problems, they would continue on. Well, now, we've made arrangements with Amtrak that their train would stop if there's a situation like that and help to board our passengers who are in distress due to a train being failed.
NNAMDIAny other way...
WELLSSo we've work with them.
NNAMDIAny other way that your operations may have changed since that incident?
WELLSWell, we've actually added -- made sure we have a spare train set in Union Station to switch out and bring down and just transfer those passengers right away in the event. There were some dispatching decisions that we weren't satisfied with. In fact, you know, before sending another train in service out, we wanted them to send that empty train to the location and board those passengers. And just the passengers that we're waiting to board that train would just have to wait at Union Station. At least, they would be in comfort. We also instituted a go team where MTA's team would actually respond to the location with waters and different other things to assist with the boarding, assist with passenger information.
WELLSWe work with Amtrak to make sure that they had their crews trained. We have bullhorns on the trains now so that they can speak to the passengers if a passenger is at a distance. So there were a number of things. We make sure that water is on the trains. So there are a number of things that we've done to improve our response to trains that were broken down.
NNAMDIPresumably lessening the likelihood that there won't be another hell train incident on MARC trains this summer?
WELLSYeah. Absolutely. And one of the things that we're trying to do with this new schedule, we hope that this new schedule would take some of the pressure off of that and reduce the likelihood of trains breaking down for that reason. Because if you notice those trains that were -- seemed to fail through our analysis tend to be the longer train sets, the ones that are eight or nine cars long. And with this new schedule that we're putting out, it should have about six or seven car lengths, which we think would take some of the pressure off of those -- the electric locomotives.
NNAMDIWe're gonna take a short break. If you have already called, stay on the line. If like to join the conversation about MARC train service, if you happen to be a rider or are considering becoming a rider, you can call us at 800-433-8850 with your questions or comments. What role do you think commuter trains should play in the transportation infrastructure in our region? You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Ralign Wells. He is the administrator of the Maryland Transit Administration, which oversees transit networks in Maryland, including the MARC commuter train system. We have been inviting your calls at 800-433-8850, so we'll go immediately to the telephone and start with Susan in Baltimore, Md. Susan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SUSANHi. Thank you so much for having me on. And I appreciate that you're covering the issue of MARC trains. But I'm a Baltimore resident, and I'm intimately familiar with -- and working with Baltimore city public schools. And I'm interested in knowing what improvements are happening or in place in regards to helping to ensure that Baltimore city public school students have a safe ride experience that gets them to school on time every day.
WELLSYeah. That's a good question. We do have that covered. We are working with CMTA, which -- we wrote a rate your ride campaign that allows the Baltimore City Public School students, and actually anyone, to basically rate their ride and give us issues that they're having with their rides. Before that, we expanded the hours that school students can use the system. Now, they can use the system up until 8 p.m. because they have after school events, and it's where we are working closely with the school system to see what their needs are, just to determine their needs so we can make the proper adjustments accordingly.
NNAMDISusan, does that answer your question?
SUSANIt does, sort of. I think -- one more thing, though. Just -- my real concern, and what I see quite frequently -- I have a child who's a high school student -- I've actually witnessed this, is the pass bys, where you have students standing on the bus stop, waiting to get to school and then the bus passes them by. It's such a sad situation because they're trying to get there and then they, you know, don't.
SUSANAnd so I'm wondering if there's any specific action related to the pass bys.
WELLSWell, that's a good question because -- go ahead. I'm sorry, Susan.
SUSANOh. And then I was just gonna say thank you and I'll take the rest of my answer offline.
NNAMDIOkay, Susan. Thank you for your call.
WELLSYeah. I don't know if you know, but I used to -- I actually operate a bus myself. I drove for eight years before I started moving into management.
NNAMDII knew that.
WELLSBut one of the -- yeah, you did know that. Good.
WELLSI'm glad. One of the challenges we have as operators is, again -- you know, when a bus is full and we try to get everyone to move to the back, we now have a code that we can push to let our control center know that we have to do what we call a pass up because we're just too full to take anymore. And at that point, we do look at and analyze the data to see what areas we're having pass ups and make sure we put more equipment out on that line if we need to.
WELLSOne of the other concerns is that, as you know, we can stop and open the doors, but all students aren't always wanting to get on. They always wait until the last bus. They wanna hang with their friends. So we can't make them get on the bus. So it is a challenge, and we're continuing to monitor and see how we can address it. It's a moving target trying to make sure we have the right service, you know, where it's needed.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Metro Montage says -- asking, "What is the timeline for weekend service to start on the MARC?" And I think that is also the question that Zekai (sp?) in Washington, D.C. has on the phone. Zekai, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ZEKAIYeah. You know, I think the MARC service is really great. I use it and my fiancé uses it to travel back and forth to work during the week, but on the weekend, there's no MARC. And, I think, having cities that are so close to each other, and have so much to offer each other, I think it's really something that's missing, and having us to be on the road particularly with these gas prices. I think it'll be really great if you guys were able to go on the weekends.
WELLSYeah. Absolutely. I think we all think that that would be a good service to have. I mean, we obviously want to bridge, you know, the region where -- between Baltimore and Washington. But as you can imagine, there's an extreme cost to making sure you provide that service. And if you don't -- you're not gonna have the kind of ridership numbers on the weekend as you would during the days. And so, you actually -- it'll be -- you'd be -- that many more -- that much more we would have to supplement in cost, you know, as far as not getting the fare box recovery back from that. So one of those things we'll do is continue to watch demand, and we'll decide whether there's enough demand. We'll move forward and see whether or not we can justify that cost.
NNAMDIZekai, thank you so much for your call. We move on to Pat who is in Cobb Island, Md. Pat, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PATKojo, I'm calling you because when it comes to public transportation, we have zero down here in Southern Maryland, and I wish someday you'd come and do a show about Southern Maryland's transportation. But I also wanted to say how much I envy the people with the MARC and Penn Lines. I grew up in the city of Philadelphia, and you can then and you can still get anywhere in the city on public transportation. And it's running seven days a week and the trains are full all the time.
PATIt's called the SEPTA system. I'm sure your guest knows about it, and it's a wonderful model. Of course, this was probably built, I think, before the days when everybody had cars, so that was an advantage. So please keep us in mind here in Southern Maryland. That's my message.
NNAMDIThank you very much. I'm hoping Ralign Wells also got that message. Did you get that message, Ralign Wells?
WELLSYes, we do. We do have a little bit of service -- our commuter bus service there, but I think she might be just talking about inner city transit. But certainly, transit is good. We agree that there is a demand for transit services. And, again, as the demand increases, there'll be more justification to putting that expense out, you know?
NNAMDIThank you. Speaking of expenses, as you know, times are tight for both the federal and state government. A number of country executives in Maryland are calling for an increase in the state gasoline tax to fund transportation improvements. One advocacy organization, Action Committee for Transit, thinks some of the money from a higher gas tax should be spent to fund and expansion of several lines, several MARC lines, the Brunswick line which goes to Martinsburg, W. Va. through Frederick, Brunswick in the western suburbs into Washington. Would the MTA benefit, in your view, if there is an increase in the gas tax? And in general, do you support this idea?
WELLSWell, there's always a benefit to having more revenue going to the transportation trust fund, but I believe this issue has been put in front of the Blue Ribbon Commission, which is a commission that looks at the funding and looks at transits projects, and it makes recommendations based on what's out -- what's happening right now. They make recommendations as to what they feel we should do with regard to how we should get more funding. So right now, that type of question is on front of the Blue Ribbon Commission, and we'll be taking some advisement from them once it comes out. I would expect a report from them probably at the end of the year.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that federal funding for security improvements at MARC stations is now in doubt. The House passed a bill last week that cuts money from transit funding. Do you expect that that money will be restored before the Senate votes?
WELLSWell, I'm not sure about that, but I can tell you, we have been very good at obtaining grant funding and capital funding within our existing budgets to deal with homeland security issues. So we've been tapping quite a bit of grant funding in order to put camera systems up and PA systems and, you know, different type passenger displays up. So we are tapping that grant money that's available.
NNAMDIOur guest is Ralign Wells. He is administrator of the Maryland Transit Administration, which oversees transit networks in Maryland, including the MARC Commuter Train System. If you have questions for him, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you ride the MARC commuter trains? Do you have any complaints or any words of praise for Ralign Wells? You can call us at 800-433-8850. We got this via e-mail from Joe. "Does MARC have any plans for new rail line infrastructure between Annapolis and Washington, D.C.?"
WELLSNo, not to my -- not at this time. There's none.
NNAMDIAnd this e-mail we got from Brian. "I'd love to take the MARC more, but require the flexibility to take the Camden line off hours occasionally. I therefore have to drive because I can't risk being stuck in the middle of the city. How hard will it be to add one midday Camden line train?"
WELLSWell, if we're gonna continue -- that's one of the schedules that we're also gonna be working with CSX to modify, just like we did the Penn Line. So those are the kinds of things that we'll be looking at when we do that modification. Certainly as there's -- I hate to keep saying cost, but there's a cost to every decision and, obviously, you have to have the demand for the service. So you can't have a train out there with a small amount of people on it. It just doesn't recover the cost.
NNAMDIThere are real concerns about the BRAC, Base Realignment plan, and how it would affect communities around Fort Meade. How do you think the changes will affect the demands for MARC train service?
WELLSWell, we've already done a few things. We've added a reverse commute train from Perryville, and we also have service going in that direction when we once didn't have service. So I suggest people look at the schedules to see what we have right now. But certainly, we're gonna be doing a wait and see approach and see which way demand is, and then we'll continually make adjustments to make sure we reach the demand.
NNAMDIFederal government shutdown is still a very real possibility. Will MARC trains still run if the government closes its doors?
WELLSYou know, yes. Right now -- you know, that's a good question because we've been discussing that. And right now, we plan to continue to run. Now, there may be some reduction in our commuter bus service because that's also a federally -- you know, heavily used from, federal employees so if we -- well, if we do anything, we'd look at the commuter bus side first.
NNAMDIHere's Patrick in Columbia, Md. Patrick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please
PATRICKHi. Thank you so much for taking my call. I ride the MARC train from Harpers Ferry, and it would be very beneficial if I could take my bicycle on the train. I wonder if there's any plans to make bicycle -- the ability to bring bicycles on the train available.
WELLSThat's been a demand on our local service as well. On the commuter side, there are some safety risks with bringing the bike unless we can have mounting -- a mounting place for those bikes. And you would have to take some of your capacity away. So right now, there's no plan to do that. You'd have to have it bike mounted, because the transit is moving over 100 miles per hour. It could be a projectile. So we can't bring those on. However, what I can tell you though is we found that some of our riders have given us some tips about buying a cheap bike for each end. They just use it that way. So that's a tip for you.
WELLSYeah. We learned from our riders. They said they buy cheap $20 bike and put it to each end and they use it.
NNAMDIHey, that's a tip for you, Patrick.
PATRICKIt works. Yes.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call.
PATRICKThank you very much.
WELLSThank you, Patrick.
NNAMDIWe move on to Kimberly in Martinsburg, W. Va. Kimberly, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KIMBERLYThank you. I had kind of a funny idea. Actually, I thought it might increase your ridership if you were to put a gym, gym equipment bolted down inside the MARC Train. I'm on -- I'm at the end of the Brunswick's line. But I just thought, how great it would be for all those people that had to spend an hour and a half, an hour, two hours, on the train, if they could actually get in there, work out, on the way home. So, I don't know. I think it's kind of a funny idea. But then again, I thought about the DVD is going into cars and minivans about three years before they came out, so... (laugh)
WELLSRight. Right. No, actually, it's a...
KIMBERLYWhat's the feasibility of that?
WELLS...I mean, those are good ideas. I mean, obviously, everything is -- there's always a safety issue and there's always a projectile concern. And we -- I've ridden the Brunswick's trains a few time. And you're right, there's a good, little commute there. And people send -- tend to have a good camaraderie there. So as many things, activities that we can provide, that would be great. But, right now, I don't think there's something that's gonna be too feasible for us, because there's a capacity issue as well.
NNAMDIKimberly, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Alex in Baltimore, Md. Alex, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALEXYeah. Good afternoon. Yeah, I was calling to find out how do you assess demands on the weekend when no one in the MARC system works for the weekends?
ALEXSo I live in Baltimore, and I think that's a great opportunity seeing this. I mean, if you could just do a pilot train, maybe one in the morning, one in the afternoon during the summer, that you could assess exactly how many people would really take it because I would use it all the time.
WELLSRight. A lot of the information that we get is -- comes from legislators. Lots of people would, say, my constituents want this. So demands come in various ways, you know? People let us know what they really need. And we assess, you know, what do we think? How many people do we think was gonna really use the service, because definitely it's gonna cut in the budget, so we'd have to take from it from somewhere.
WELLSAnd that's the thing, whenever we add service -- even just on the core bus side -- if we put a bus in, we have to take it from somewhere else. And, you know, fortunately, on the bus side, there may be buses that have lower ridership and we can take it from there and put it to another area. But in here, there's no lower ridership on the MARC. Everything is pretty, pretty well utilized.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Alex. The MARC is currently a train system primarily used by Maryland-based commuters trying to get to D.C. Do you envision this being a system used more by tourists or even people looking to come in to D.C., say, for dinner or the theater?
WELLSSure. You know, they can leave BWI. When they leave BWI station, they can head over to D.C. So absolutely, we'd like to make sure that it's for tourists as well. It's a very reasonable price, and it's a good trip.
NNAMDIWhere does MARC fit in to the bigger picture of transit in Maryland? What are the big things on your to-do list as head of the MTA?
WELLSWell, I mean, certainly, we wanna meet the demands of our service area. And certainly, MARC is gonna fit in the red line and purple line, because people would be able to connect to those modes that are being added to the service area. So, I mean, you have -- that is a transfer option from the red line. Thank God, New Carrollton area is where the purple line is scheduled to run from. So people who are using the purple line would actually be able to come over to the market, New Carrollton, and get on there and coming towards Baltimore or going to D.C. So it does -- it will still work for the systems that we're building, we're adding to the service area.
NNAMDIAnd, finally, here's Tom in Shenandoah Junction, W. Va. Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TOMYeah. I'd like to make a comment about the on-time service out here in West Virginia. My wife takes the train from (word?) to Rockville and has done so for about the last 12 years. And in the summer, the service beyond time schedule is really unacceptable. The rails apparently expand and contract in the summer. And as a consequence, there are the long delays.
TOMAnd my question is does MARC ever heard of technology that you might use in the desert? I mean, it's been going on for 12 years. And if anything, the service has gotten worse.
NNAMDIDoes the heat have anything to do with that, Ralign Wells?
WELLSYeah. Yes. He's absolutely right. I mean, heat restricts all railroads. And, you know, we are -- we know what we know in our area. But when I talked to our peers in other areas, they experienced the same thing. Even in Arizona, they experienced the same thing due to heat. So, yes, heat does affect the railroads on-time performance. Amtrak can tell you their on-time performance suffers in areas of high -- locations -- it's just -- that's one of the things that we continue to -- try to overcome. We're analyzing the data to find out which trains are experiencing the most problems. And we're trying to deal with it that way.
NNAMDIRalign Wells, thank you very much for joining us.
WELLSThank you so much for having me. I'd love to come back anytime.
NNAMDIRalign Wells is a administrator of the Maryland Transit Administration, which oversees transit networks in Maryland, including the MARC commuter train system. We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, the latest on the story involving allegations of cash payments made to a candidate in last year's mayoral race. We'll be talking with Washington Post reporter Nikita Stewart. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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