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Hi MTA, What’s up?: MARC Commuter Rail and Freight

I’d like to have regular guest writers on this site to broaden the perspective on walking/biking/transit in the city. And really – how many irrelevant pictures of animals and 19th century clam herders can you all take?  If you regularly travel without an automobile in Baltimore and you have something interesting to say, contact me at the email address listed in the “About Me” page.

This is also the beginning of a new regular feature called, “Hi MTA, What’s up?”.  This is in lieu of more confrontational titles which were suggested, like “What the Hell?” and “MTA: Really?”.  I’d like this segment to be a start of a conversation rather than a scorched earth, no holds barred sounding board.

Here is a guest post by Scott Adams, a transportation planner at Baltimore City DOT.  Having recently moved to Maryland from Nashville, TN, he rides the MARC commuter rail into downtown Baltimore to work everyday and is damned proud of it.

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I use MARC Commuter Rail’s Camden Line most days and my train was 20 minutes late yesterday.  As to why it was late, part of the answer can be summarized in two words: freight rail.

Choo Choo

Although MARC (Maryland Area Regional Commuter) is one system/service, its Camden and Brunswick train lines are operated by CSX Transportation (BIG freight rail company), while the Penn Line is operated by AMTRAK.  Say what you will about the Penn Line (crowded trains, “Hell Trains” losing power and AC in 90+ degree heat), but at least that line is all-passenger rail and never has to deal with freight trains.

The Camden Line’s trains lumber along and often stop with the predictable silence, then an announcement over the intercom, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re stopped for a freight train.  We’ve got to let them pass by and then we’ll be on our way.”

Every time this happens (and it’s more frequent than you would think), I wonder to myself, “Why are there freight trains running during PEAK HOURS?”  MARC’s Camden Line runs three scheduled trains in the morning and three scheduled trains in the afternoon, so here’s my question: Do MARC and CSX have an operating agreement that specifically bars freight trains from the tracks during MARC’s AM/PM peak hour train runs?  Also, how critical is it to move bulk freight during peak commuting hours?  Can a shipment of coal or “piggybacking” UPS trucks be moved outside of peak hours?

I’m not a freight expert, but in asking these questions, I found an interesting article that stokes similar questions.  Can we have reliable, fast and affordable passenger rail in the U.S. and shift more freight to rail for more sustainable transport? (i.e. fuel efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions, local/national air quality, etc.)

If 45% of freight rail in the U.S. is indeed for coal (see article above), then I’d hope that cleaner, more localized energy sources (wind, solar, tidal power) could offset the need for all that dirty black stuff and thus free up rail capacity for passenger rail.

In the meantime, I’ll keep stocking up on good books to read while I’m sitting on a MARC train idling somewhere in rural Maryland, waiting on a freight train.


  • Dukiebiddle

    I'm no expert on the subject, but I was always told that freight had right of way on the CSX lines, as CSX is a for profit company, the freight is profitable, and they only begrudgingly allow Marc trains on their lines at all. Marc simply doesn't have the cash to back up a demand to keep the tracks clear of freight during peak commuting hours.

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