Friday, June 12

Increased Transit Subsidy?

If you are a federal employee, and judging from the hits on this blog, most of you are, then you probably recently received an increase in your SmartBenefits. In most cases your increase will, in fact, cover the full cost of the MARC monthly fare and then some. That is, until the MARC-ons realize that the feds are getting more money and decided to raise the fares.

What you should do NOW (before June 17th) is update your account to reflect the new "Promise" amount that would go toward the Renewable Order for your MARC monthly pass. I just tried this and while it is ridiculously simple there are a few things to watch for.

1. Click here and log into your CD account. Set or skip the new security question option.
2. Click My Account on the left
3. Click the Renewable Order tab at the top
4. Click the tiny "edit\suspend order" button
5. Change the promise amount (DELETE the decimal and trailing zeroes. For me the amount shows $90.00. If you change it $125.00, it will think you actually mean $1,250! Just enter 125.)
6. Click the Save button at the bottom. Basta.

So now, the full amount of my purchase should be covered by the SmartBenefits. On July 1, I will add the remaining amount onto my SmarTrip Card at the Metro station.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, June 11

Trapped! Nightmare on Train 530

The evening commute on MARC is always a crap shoot. Commuters literally throw caution to the wind when they board the northbound trains at Union Station every evening. Some are innocents; tourists or such, who don't know what may be in store for them. But the majority are veterans who walk with a slow hesitation, knowing full well that they are about to board the train to hell. I can't explain the veterans who actually exert themselves, running to near exhaustion (especially the asthmatics!) to catch the train.

Monday night may well prove to be the loss of this innocence and stupidity. Apparently this train, even before it left Union Station, was experiencing electrical power trouble affecting the lights and, worse, the air conditioning. I'll let MTA tell the story as only they can. But link to Michael Dresser's Sun blog for some comments.

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Maryland Transit Administration
Date:Tue, Jun 9, 2009 at 2:14 PM
Subject: MTA: June 9, 2009 2:12 PM
June 9, 2009 2:12 PM

To Our Penn Line Passengers:
We sincerely apologize for yesterday’s mechanical breakdown on train 530 near the Seabrook station. As those of you on the train know all too well, train 530 became disabled shortly after departing New Carrollton. Not only was the train unable to move, but the train lost all lighting and air conditioning. As soon as the problem with Train 530 was reported, Amtrak sent a mechanical technician out on the next train to attempt to repair the train. The locomotive involved has been removed from service pending a thorough investigation and repairs.

The MTA contracts with Amtrak to operate the Penn Line MARC trains. The MARC operations center was notified of Train 530’s problems byAmtrak just before 5:00pm. We sent a text and email message out to all Penn Line riders at 5:01pm, with updates following.

We understand that the temperature and conditions on board train 530 quickly became unbearable. Many of you expressed frustration that several MARC trains passed train 530 without stopping. The challenge of rush hour operations is that these trains themselves are already filled to capacity themselves and cannot take on additional passengers. While the train stopped agonizingly short of the platform at Seabrook, it is not possible to unload passengers at a location that is not a station stop.

When it became clear that train 530 was not going to be able to move for a significant period of time, trains 439 and 440 were cancelled and its equipment sent non-stop from Baltimore to Seabrook to transfer passengers. While 439 was en route, the technician was able to get 530’s locomotive working, lights and air conditioning restored, and the train departed Seabrook. MARC then “uncancelledd” train 440, the 6:40pm departure from Washington.

Today, MARC management has been reviewing this incident with Amtrak. One of our primary concerns is, based upon on your e-mails to us, that the train crew did not provide updates to passengers. This is unacceptable and we have told Amtrak that we expect their employees to provide regular updates to our passengers, even when there is no new information to report. MARC’s mechanical department will also be meeting with Amtrak mechanical personnel to determine what went wrong with the locomotive.

While yesterday’s incident was, to say the least, frustrating and the temperature uncomfortable, we do need to ask one thing of our passengers. Please do not ever remove windows from a train, unless directed by a member of the train crew. Doing this makes an already difficult situation worse—once windows are removed, a train cannot proceed until the car(s) in which the windows have been removed are unoccupied and even then the train can only proceed at a significantly reduced speed. It is also extremely dangerous to exit a train through the emergency windows. In addition to the potential injury you may incur falling from the train, trains pass on parallel tracks at speeds of up to 135 miles per hour. These trains approach very quickly and quietly. Again, while we understand the conditions on board train 530, removal of windows and exiting the train is extremely dangerous and should never be done unless directed by a uniformed Amtrak/MARC employee.

We appreciate your understanding of this matter.


Sunday, May 10

MARC Passengers II - On the Platform

As an observer of the human condition, I can't help but record my observations for future generations of commuters, anthropologists and other observers of the human condition. So I hope readers will take the following comments in that vein. Again, if you find you resemble any of the remarks below, you probably do and are advised to curtail the annoying behavior.

The Road Block. The average MARC station platform is at most 6 or 7 feet wide. The platform is "conveniently" designed around other station and railway infrastructure such as the giant iron supports for the hundreds of miles of catenary cabling. These are right in the middle of the platform at Odenton and effectively halve the available space on the platform, providing the perfect spot for the most annoying passenger to stand with all his stuff.

Yes, right in front of the support posts, seemingly oblivious to fact the he has cut off one lane of traffic for those other annoying passengers, the Platform Nomads, forcing them to go around the support on the far side, dodging ME and these foot-long steel levers that stick out parallel to the platform. Now, as everyone knows, I like to take up a spot to the rear of the platform, hang my bag on the steel lever and use the other parts of the structure as a shelf. It's handy and it's out of the way, that is until the Road Blocks take up a position as close to the edge of the platform as possible so that they can be the first to board, which is very important to them.

The Platform Nomads. These are the passengers whose lives are not complete until they have walked the full length of the platform, annoying every single passenger with their drag-a-long luggage and inane Bluetooth banter. Why don't they just pick a spot close to one of the four entrances to the platform and stay there? Or, if they have a favorite spot, they should use the entrance closest to that spot.

The Nomad is the most annoying when he gets to the station late and platform is visibly crowded. No matter, he must go to his spot. Not satisfied with a simple annoyance, some Nomads will walk or worse, run, the length of the crowded platform to get to the coffee shop or the ticket counter and run back the length to get to their spot. This habit places them in the extraordinary annoyance class. But at least they are a fleeting problem, unless combined with the Road Block, who you must suffer interminably.

Platfrom Ranks. These are not so much an annoyance as a weird curiosity. I have been forced to take the early trains for the past two weeks and I have noticed a strange difference in the way passengers on the early trains behave. They will invariably form neat ranks, two or three deep behind no more than eight people standing side-by-side right the edge of the platform.

Each rank is separated by 15 feet or so of empty platform. What makes these passengers form such spontaneous ranks? Pheromones? Military indoctrination? A few of them seem to know each other, but for the most part each rank is an anonymous mini-mob. Weird. Someone please explain!

Monday, April 20

MARC Passengers...Fellow Commuters...

Lend me your ears. It is not enough, apparently, that we must suffer the legendary MARC commuter service twice a day. No. We must suffer also each others' company. Most folks do so in a good-natured silence. But I can be silent no more. So I hereby give voice to all of our darkest thoughts about our fellow commuters.

First of all, let's be honest. All of us would rather not have to share a bench or the cafe seats with anyone, unless they are those friends and/or colleagues you actually do look forward to seeing and chatting with for whatever reasons. But the people who THEY look forward to seeing and chatting with just may not be your cup of tea and, well, there is little within the bounds of polite social discourse that can be done. Face it, the man who first said "Any friend of yours is a friend of mine," was lying through his teeth.

So you do avoid these awkward moments. Over the years you have come to recognize the attributes and habits of your fellow commuters that will allow you to do so with relative ease. Are you (am I?) one of those passengers whom others avoid? Here are a few clues:

1. Do you, upon boarding, feel you must be a one-man fashion show? Standing next to your seated fellow commuters (perfect strangers) while carefully removing your outer garments, which you then gracefully fold and gently lay upon the overhead rack. You are civilized, after all, unlike the unwashed next to whom you are about to sit. You seem oblivious to fact that you are partially blocking the aisle while normal people are trying to board the train and find a seat quickly without holding up the rest of us.

2. Do you prepare and consume meals on the train? Like the sartorial circus act, there are a few passengers whose eating habits are just plain gross. One in particular combines the likable qualities described above with the need, every evening, to prepare and consume a tossed salad. After neatly folding and storing his garments he will begin extracting a small garden pantry from his back pack; various cut vegetables and croutons stored in separate baggies, a large plastic bowl and a full-size bottle of salad dressing. I watched in that combination horror\wonder we reserve usually for car accidents as he prepared this salad careful not to over do any one ingredient and to carefully re-wrap and replace the extras for tomorrow's train salad. Then I had to watch him eat it.

Please feel free to send me ( your favorite annoying passenger or passenger habits! I can't do this myself!

This should be a warning to all MARC commuters: you never know when a blogger is watching and itching to describe you to a 'T.' So if you feel like you resemble some of the remarks, lighten up, laugh at yourself and maybe try to be a bit more considerate of your fellow MARC victims. remember, we're all in this together, literally.

Saturday, February 28

MARC and Your Smartbenefits

While I would prefer that people visit The MARC... Train blog to read about the gross mismanagement of taxpayer money dressed up as a commuter rail service, I can't help noticing that many of you are looking for information on how to use your SmartBenefits, your SmarTrip Card AND pay for your MARC abuse at the same time.

Accomplishing this trifecta of fraud, waste and abuse takes some planning and timing, but it can be done. I've done it, more than once. Here is the basic terminology:

The SmarTrip Card - This can be a standalone card system to which you add money. The difference between the card and the paper ticket is that your money is not on the card. So if you lose it you don't lose the money (that is if you report it lost or stolen before someone goes joyriding on the Metro system). There are other benefits of having a card account over the paper ticket as we'll see.

The SmartBenefits - This is a transit subsidy program that many of you have heard of and may even be taking advantage of whether you know it or not. Your employer establishes a SmartBenefits program through Metro and begins sending your transit subsidy there. Metro has a big database and keeps everyones name and employer sorted out.

The trick is to make sure your SmarTrip Card account is associated with your SmartBenefits in the big database. If you are not sure this is done call WMATA at 202-962-1326 and ask. Have your SmarTrip Card or account number handy.

This done, you can Add Benefits to your card on the first day of each month. Simply go up to any METRO card reading fare machine and start. (Tip: Don't be in a rush. Don't try to do this AND make the next train. Do this when you have the time to let a few trains me).
1. Touch your card
2. Select Add Benefits
3. Select "From SmartBenefits"
4. After that you're on your own. There are options to select how much to put on the card, whether you'd like a receipt, etc. have the have the SmartBenefits....what about MARC? OK. This is where comes in. Account - Set up a account by going to their web page:

Log in with your new account and click on the SmartBenefits tab. Add a SmartBenefits account. Just follow the prompts.
Then click on the Payment methods and provide a Credit Card number.
Then click on Renewable Orders and select MARC. Here is where you decide how much of your SmartBenefits to allocate to you Renewable Order (my order is a Monthly Pass). I take $90 from my SmartBenefits (my "Promise") and the rest from my credit card.

Then on the First business day of each month I load the rest of my SmartBenefits to my SmarTrip card!

Easy as pie. Please feel free to let me know just how lame you found this "help" to be.

Tuesday, January 27

MARC...Activism: Keep the Ten-Trip!

You just knew it would come to this! First an e-mail group, then the blogs now an On-Line Petition! That's right. Fellow MARC victim and avid fan of The MARC...Train - Katrina Prieur of Baltimore has drafted a petition that you can review and sign on line at:

Katrina is also turning up the political heat, too. At least one member of Congress has co-sponsored this petition and a review of the signatories includes one Robert "Peak Oil" Bartlett. While the names on the petition are of a dubious nature, I am going to assume that Maryland's only Republican congressman has actually signed the petition.

The Ten-Trip ticket, as the petition describes it, will be missed by those commuters who do not use the MARC "service" everyday of the week or month. The Ten-Trip allows these commuters a more cost-effective way of paying the fare. Without this option they are forced buy Weekly or Monthly passes at a premium since they won't be using the service.

The other option is to purchase a raft of one way tickets, also amounting to a premium over the Ten-Trip. This option means that you have to estimate the number of trips you'll be taking times the expiration period of the one-way tickets divided by annulled-train factor times the Dangerous Overcrowding coefficient. This is a complex formula and invariably results in a fraction of a trip or a negative trip, both of which, unfortunately, are entirely realistic.

So, if you value your time and money and are not real strong in math, please visit the on-line petition and sign your name. My advice is to just give your general location, not your exact mailing address.

Tuesday, January 20


Well, its all over. As promised your intrepid MARC reporter visited the Odenton Station Tuesday morning around 9. I know it was a little late, but I figured there would still be evidence of rioting, looting, and general chaos.

If there had been any of that you would be gazing upon pictures of burning MARC train carriages, the charred shell that used to be the coffee shop, the smoking remains of the station itself.

But there was none of that to show. Less than a hundred cars were in the lot. No passengers milling about. Only maintenance crews laying down a fresh layer of salt on the platform. There were four county police cars patroling the area. Obviously MARC and other State officials who read this blog took the necessary precautions to rob me of the opportunity to say I told you so!

With liberal leave in effect for federal workers today, there should be good parking today. I'll see you there!

By the way, you may have noticed a new MARC Poll has been today! Also I have added a new feature that is supposed display "feeds" from various sources.

Jeff Quinton of Inside Charm City fame is an intrepid MARC commuter and usually posts reliable service conditions through out the day.

And Luisa of Commuter Rail to Hell fame posts her kindred commentary on how MARC is screwing up her life now and again.

Sunday, January 18

MARC Inaugural Train

Over the last two months or so, this blog has been visited by people all over the country. Judging by their Goolge search strings, they are the folks who have rented everything with a roof and indoor plumbing in advance of the Inaugural.

If you were one of the folks who checked this blog for "official" information, you were no doubt disappointed. However, if you were checking this blog for a realistic, user-oriented perspective on the MARC train service to DC and back then I hope you found what you were looking for.

At this point, hours away from the Big Day, all of the $25 reserved-seat tickets and souvenir programs have been sold-out. Never fear, the much maligned free market, conspiring yet again to provide scarce commodities and resources at a price the market will bear, has as late as yesterday been offering these tickets on Craig's List and e-bay.

About these tickets, one visitor came to this blog wondering: "do you have to give them your marc train ticket or can you keep" them? While I have never seen one, I can only imagine that, as with everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) Obama the special $25 inaugural tickets are decorated to the hilt with The One's name and images. I do not believe the MTA did this just so they can be collected by the MARC train conductors.

About the legendary MARC train customer service one visitor asks: "what food services are on board marc trains"? I don't think I addressed such a question in any of my posts, so here goes: There is no food service on board MARC trains.

Another visitor is looking for "help getting to marc train station on Jan. 20th." As far as I know it's every man for himself. Via con Dios.

Seeking wisdom from the Oracle at Yahoo a visitor asks: "are metro and marc trains the same thing?" Unfortunately, not. The METRO is a light-rail system designed to carry passengers, packed like sardines in safety and comfort. The system is completely computer controlled and designed to minimize disruptions in service by providing track-level power and easily maintained rolling-stock.

The MARC train is, by comparison, a series of lumbering hulks dragged up and down Amtrak and CSX railbeds that are in some places centuries old. Also centuries old is the management-style that forces Marylanders to pay people union scale to walk up and down the carriages collecting and in some case selling tickets (though not on Inauguration Day). As they did when trains were powered exclusively by steam, these conductors punch holes in paper tickets, chase freeloaders off and shout "All Aboard!" It's all very quaint, kind of like some of the nostalgia rides in Disneyworld and Williamsburg. Quaint, but not a very efficient use of resources and not a very effective way of providing a reliable service.

Which brings me to the next question: "Is the Marc train running on Wednesday evening?" This would be The Day After the Jubilee. For those poor souls finding themselves in DC on Jan. 21 (and I may be one of them) my simple answer is: Maybe. That is, the trains may be running or not depending on the reliability of the system I described above. It's an even bet at best. As with all such bets, it's best to hedge, or have a Plan B.

Thursday, January 1

MARC on Inauguration Day

A sizable fraction of the 2 million pilgrims expected to attend the inaugural ceremony and festivities on Jan. 20th, will doubtlessly be taking advantage of the Penn Line trains, stations, restrooms, parking lots, and coffee shops.

That fraction is referred to by transit authorities as "crush capacity." This is comparable to the Dangerous Overcrowding that MARC victims subject themselves to nearly twice a day during tourist season. The Department of Homeland Security thought it necessary to put out an advisory this week warning of the expected throng's impact on the local infrastructure. Not for us, of course. We are used to it. But the pilgrims may want to reconsider.

Given the expected crush, I invite my hardy band of MARC fans who have the day off anyway, to join me on MARC-Town Hill overlooking Odenton Station to bear witness to this event. We will need to cover the parking lots (both Old, New and Loser Lot) to witness and take digital photos of the mayhem that will no doubt ensue. I can't be everywhere at once. We'll need witnesses for the coffee shop, and the station, the tunnel (where trampled pilgrims are likely to get caught first). Bring a set of two-way walky-talkys and a half dozen donuts.

I will set up a command post in the Ford F-150 on MARC-Town Hill. All coffee and donuts will be available from the Command Vehicle on rotating shifts. Bonus donuts will be awarded to the shift that brings in the most outrageous story and pictures.

Now since they are running only 12 trains starting at 5 am. I figure that if we get there by 6 we should be in good shape of hours of fun.

Why do I expect there to be anymore chaos and confusion than MARC perpetrates on the commuting public on a daily basis? Because on Jan 20th, these people are not going to be regular commuters. They are going to be tourists paying $25 each to be crushed into MARC carriages that will most likely be full before they even get to Odenton. The potential for friction between the pilgrims and the working stiffs who don't get the day off or can't take the day off is great.

And I don't expect MARC customer service to magically appear either, unless MARC gives the regular crew a break and hires airline stewards and stewardesses. And they will be using the same locomotives and carriages whose chances of breaking down on any given day are pretty good.

So let's sum up: Same equipment, same "service," at five times the regular price. A recipe for disaster. Well, that is what I am predicting, anyway. And if it turns out to be wrong, I'll blog about that too.