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Talks reignite on MARC, SEPTA commuter rail link  

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MARC train Maryland

A MARC train may soon be stopping in Newark after Maryland lawmakers directed its operator to begin negotiations. | PHOTO COURTESY OF WIKIPEDIA

NEWARK – The long-discussed goal of having commuter rail service between Delaware and northeast Maryland now seems just a matter of time, according to transit authorities in both states.

“There have been talks about it for a number of years and now we now have an agreement to identify obstacles and choose a path forward,” said John Sisson, CEO of DART First State, the public transit agency for Delaware.

Maryland Area Rail Commuter (MARC) spokesman Jerimiah Moerke said, “Stakeholders and elected officials in both Delaware and Maryland have shown strong support for closing the commuter rail gap between the MARC system and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) system.”

Currently, MARC trains only reach as far northeast from Baltimore on the rail corridor as Perryville on the eastern side of the Susquehanna River, while SEPTA service stretches southwest to Newark. The 20-mile gap between Newark and Perryville marks the only missing link in the commuter rail system between New York City and Washington, D.C.

According to Moerke, discussions began at the initiative of Maryland lawmakers. 

“During the 2020 legislative session, the Maryland General Assembly adopted House Bill 1236 which required MDOT MTA [Maryland Department of Transportation’s transit administration] to engage in good faith negotiations to reach an agreement on a pilot program to establish MARC train service between Perryville and Newark,” he said.

“We don’t have a specific time to complete work,” Sisson added, “and there are a number of issues we have to explore.” 

Among those issues are:

  • Discussions will have to be held with Amtrak, which owns the rail network in question, as to whether it has concerns or issues about additional trains on that section of tracks. For example, with increased traffic, there would have to be sufficient “turnouts,” ‘where trains could switch tracks to allow oncoming trains to pass.
  • Decisions will have to be made on whether MARC service would stop at Newark or extend into Wilmington, which would overlap SEPTA’s existing service between the two cities. “There certainly would be a bigger market if it is extended to include Wilmington,” Sisson said.
  • Studies anticipating potential consumer demand will have to redone. “For example, after COVID, SEPTA passenger usage is only about half of what it was before,” Sisson pointed out. However, he notes that the University of Delaware’s STAR campus, with its research facilities and educational, scientific and governmental ties, is attracting additional regional visitors. 

Both Sisson and Moerke say that Elkton, Md., located between Perryville and Newark, may not be part of the scheduled plan, at least initially. While there is a historic station there, it is not reportedly in operational status.

Moerke said that initial discussions have centered on a proposed pilot service that would consist of two morning and two evening trains between Perryville and Newark. He also noted that in 2017, the Wilmington Area Planning Council (WILMAPCO) completed a study to estimate the ridership potential for MARC-SEPTA commuter rail connection and recommended that the implementing agencies create a memorandum of agreement for this service connection. In addition to extending into Delaware, MARC is also discussing connections to create service into Virginia to complete its interstate network.

Sisson is optimistic that the plan will move forward speedily. 

“We’re excited about the potential of filling in this important gap in commuter service,” he said.

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