Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Improving MARC

This is the second in a three-part series on improving transit in the southern part of the Northeast. The first focused on the Washington Metro, and the third will focus on mass transit in Baltimore.

MARC is Maryland's commuter rail system. It certainly does its job, with three lines emanating from Union Station, and three lines emanating from downtown Baltimore. The Penn Line runs from Perryville via Baltimore Penn Station to Union Station; the Camden Line from Camden Station in downtown Baltimore to Union Station; and the Brunswick Line from Martinsburg, WV, to Union Station. Along with the two VRE lines from Union Station to (a) Fredericksburg and (b) Manassas, MARC offers adequate commuter rail for the D.C. area. In concert with the Metro, this means the D.C. metropolitan area has the third-best transit infrastructure in the Northeast, and fourth-best in the nation, after New York, Chicago, and Boston.
MARC, current conditions. Wikipedia.
MARC could, however, be better. Its charter doesn't just call for D.C.-area commuter rail, it calls for commuter rail for all of Maryland. Its Baltimore lines are relatively poor, concentrating along the Royal Blue/Northeast Corridor axes rather than branching out throughout the metropolitan area, and it lacks service to either Maryland's state capital, Annapolis, or its sixth largest city, Hagerstown, despite reaching all the way to Martinsburg. MARC's paucity of lines, relative to potential (VRE has two lines, but all of the historic lines heading from D.C. into Virginia are accounted for between it and the Metro's Orange Line) makes it the Northeast's worst commuter rail system in terms of service scope.
VRE system map. VRE.org.
My improvements to MARC go well beyond just extending the Penn Line to Wilmington to interconnect with SEPTA. To offer excellent rail transit options at a commuter and low-level intercity capacity, the proposal is to merge MARC and VRE and to transform the system into a double-S-Bahn-type network, with an S-Bahn set emanating from Baltimore and a second from D.C. The current MARC network, when combined with VRE, produces a three-line double-S-Bahn network (Penn Line, Cumberland-Fredericksburg Line, Camden-Manassas Line), but only one of these three lines has a Baltimore nexus.
Line additions thus concentrate on Baltimore. Two new lines are proposed, extending from Gettysburg, PA via Baltimore to Frederick, with a branch to York, PA, and one from Westminster to Annapolis. Additionally, a branch of the Cumberland Line from Duffields (WV) to Hagerstown (MD) is proposed.
The plan of action for this new system would be to activate the lines into the city center first. These would take the form of two new lines terminating at Camden Station (one to Annapolis, and the other Frederick), and two at Penn Station (one to Westminster, and the other Gettysburg/York), constituting Phase II. Finally, once the lines are all in use, the interconnection between Camden Station and Penn Station will be built, linking the two sections of the Gettysburg-Frederick and Westminster-Annapolis lines together.
The line names are interesting. After thinking about it a bit, I decided to go with a 3-letter initialism, such that each line has the north origination first, the via city second, and the southern terminus last. Thus the Penn Line becomes WBW, or Wilmington via Baltimore to Washington, and the Cumberland-Fredericksburg Line becomes MWF, or Morgantown via Washington to Fredericksburg. This system is elegant and seems easy to apply to other networks, too.
MARC, improved. Five lines offer service throughout the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas.
A couple of interesting features are present in this system. First, because Martinsburg and Hagerstown are opposite poles of a micropolitan area, a shuttle train between the two would be immediately suggested; this shuttle, due to the nature of the system just outlined, would have a fare union with the broader network. Secondly, this network passes several Civil War sites (both Bull Runs, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Antietam), which effectively makes this system a Civil War railroad and thus able to provide excursions for reenactors, history buffs, school trips, Scouting trips, etc. Excursions, by their nature, are not scheduled trips; however, the equipment needed to run this system normally makes providing them a worthwhile promotion--a good loss-leader, if you will. And finally, this network suggests further extensions, including one to Harrisburg, another from Westminster to Hagerstown, and a third from Martinsburg to Cumberland.

MARC is an average system, by American standards. Let's make it better.


  1. Although there exist diesel S-Bahn systems (e.g. some lines of the Rhine-Ruhr S-Bahn), it'd be useful to electrify the lines around Washington.

    If Baltimore decides to get serious about passenger service on the Camden Line, it would need to build much more infrastructure for it. Separate tracks would be a start, culminating in a new passenger-dedicated tunnel connecting from Camden Station to Penn Station, in addition to the Great Circle tunnel proposed to replace the B & P Tunnels.

  2. I should have mentioned electrification of the existing (and growing) network being a major Phases I and II concern. The ideal is to have the majority (if not the entirety) of the system electrified when the connection between Camden Station and Penn Station is built.

    Given how technically obsolete the B&P Tunnels are, the Great Circle is also another important high-cost high-impact project. Actually, projects like the B&P Tunnel demonstrate that Baltimore was more serious about how rail infrastructure affects QOL before anybody else (if the project had been in Philadelphia, for example, it would have likely been a cut rather than a true tunnel).

    Too bad USDOT set a precedent in striking down a plan to use a new toll network to fund PA's mass transit. Tolling I-95 and I-70 to fund MARC would have been a beautiful plan.

  3. An S-Bahn-type system for this region is a good idea, in general. A few practical issues would need to be dealt with to get anywhere close to making it happen. (Just the things that jumped out at me).
    1. There are simply not enough people, not even tourists, traveling between Gettysburg and metro Baltimore to justify even the cheapest regular commuter rail service—that branch would have to scrapped from the plan. York/Hanover service is barely justifiable, too: most of the people commuting down (and moderately congesting) I-83 from PA to jobs in Hunt Valley and Baltimore are ex-Marylanders who hopped across the state line* and settled in southern York County, which your proposed line does not touch. Those areas are served by Rabbit express busses from York to Hunt Valley light rail, which are barely patronized.
    2. Ridership on the Westminster-Annapolis line would be significantly unbalanced. Half the corridor b/wn “Westmonster” (not a typo J) and Baltimore is less populated than the Baltimore/Annapolis corridor, the other half that is populated is already served by Metro Subway. Even with Baltimore/Owings Mills folks transferring to and from Metro to access Westminster and Reisterstown (and far more vice versa), this corridor’s ridership will justify lower service levels than the Annapolis corridor, leading to either half-empty extra trains to Westminster or a decision to split the corridor.
    3. Speaking of Annapolis, the northern section of the defunct B&A railroad is active electrified track in good condition—because it is already used by the light rail; MTA might not be keen on running commuter trains and light rail together, even though with proper organization it could probably work just fine. Most of the rest of the B&A is preserved as an active rail trail, which might be wide enough (the B&A was, I think, double-tracked), but abuts residential backyards nearly its whole route. And the southern end into Annapolis was street-running, and would probably require both a new bridge over the Severn River and either street-running (not feasible for commuter rail) or a tunnel (expensive). Plus, Anne Arundel County has serious NIMBYs; the suburb of Linthicum basically crowned the “loot rail” the official scapegoat for all the neighborhood’s crime before it was even built. A better bet than commuter rail would probably be a Baltimore-Annapolis light rail line, with its smaller, quieter trains, higher frequencies and ridership (the one LRT corridor has as many weekday boardings as the entire MARC system, and higher ridership is better for justifying an Annapolis tunnel), and its potential for street-running—in reserved median lanes down roomy Ritchie Hwy should NIMBYs kill a B&A alignment, and in Annapolis should tight budgets preclude a tunnel.
    Still, you’re off to a good start. Good luck on the job front, too (It’s tough out there. Do lots of networking, and make sure you give something back to the people who help you, sometimes even before they help you.)

    *Seeking cheaper greenfield housing, fewer rules, & lower taxes—we don’t have separate school taxes here, b/c our school districts are countywide and jointly funded out of the county and state general budgets, so PA school tax bills tend to be an unadvertised surprise for MD transplants.