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Commuters worried about losing late train

By Staff | Jan 13, 2012

CHARLES TOWN – Bess Day of Martinsburg is pleased MARC commuter rail officials are making an effort to listen to concerns riders have about proposed schedule changes for the Brunswick Line.

“But I do not feel reassured by the outcome of this meeting,” she said after a town hall-style meeting conducted by MARC officials Saturday in Charles Town. “I’m concerned that changes to the service we’ve relied on for decades will be adversely affected.”

About 75 people attended the session – raucous at some times – that was conducted by Simon Taylor, deputy administrator and chief administrative officer for the Maryland Transit Administration.

The MTA, a part of the Maryland Department of Transportation, operates the Maryland Area Regional Commuter rail lines, including the Brunswick Line, with stops in Harpers Ferry, Duffields and Martinsburg.

In early December, a proposed schedule change for the Brunswick Line was announced that could add an early morning train from Martinsburg to Washington, D.C.; add an early afternoon train from Washington to Martinsburg; and stop a late train between Washington and Martinsburg from continuing onto stations in Jefferson and Berkeley counties, stopping it at Brunswick, Md., if the changes are adopted, Simon said.

He said the last time the Brunswick Line’s schedule changed was about 10 years ago, and in that time, a lot has changed, necessitating scheduling adjustments.

“There are more riders, which impacts on how the service flows,” Simon told the crowd.

Secondly, he explained that MARC does not own the tracks that its trains run on. CSX Railroad owns the tracks and MARC has to “work within the confines” of its service demands. He said CSX’s service demands are changing with the economy coming back.

“And of the three lines MARC operates, the on-time performance of the Brunswick Line is the worst,” Simon said. “The trains are not on time about 85 to 86 percent of the time. We need to look at ways to improve that.”

Simon emphasized that the schedule changes are draft proposals and will not be implemented by the end of January as was publicised by MARC. He said that a new proposed schedule would be out in mid- to late-March and MARC officials hope for a May implementation.

He also said there would be no ticket price changes associated with the schedule changes.

About three years ago, during a Maryland state budget crisis, MARC was going to drop altogether the late train to Martinsburg, designated the 883, to save money. Local officials and state legislators were able to negotiate a deal in which a surcharge would be added to MARC tickets sold in West Virginia to help pay for the service into the state.

Neither West Virginia nor local governments contribute any funds to the operation of the MARC line in West Virginia, but the West Virginia Rail Authority does maintain the three stations in West Virginia the line serves.

The surcharge is $4 for a daily ticket, $20 for a weekly ticket and $80 for a monthly ticket. Between 400 and 600 passengers board the Brunswick Line daily in Berkeley and Jefferson counties.

The surcharge covers about 50 percent of the cost to operate the late train in West Virginia. With the surcharge agreement, MARC kept the 883 running into West Virginia.

This point bothered Tim Ross, a 13-year veteran of riding the commuter rail from West Virginia to Washington.

“We’ll still pay the $80 for the train, but now, we’re not getting the train,” he said, although he added that he is embarrassed that West Virginia does not help pay for the service.

Several people spoke in favor of the proposal to add an early train to take passengers from West Virginia to Washington, but most of the audience was there to express their firm displeasure with the proposal to halt at Brunswick the late train bringing passengers home to West Virginia from Washington.

Cheryl Flagg of Martinsburg pleaded to keep the late train.

Originally from Martinsburg, she moved back home after working elsewhere, because she could use the commuter rail line to get to work in Washington. She does not want to drive to her job as executive assistant to the president of the Council of Graduate Schools.

“I hope (MARC officials) are listening, and I hope they do something, but I fear they have already made up their minds and this is just an exercise,” Flagg said of Saturday’s town hall-style meeting.