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Maryland seeks to begin Delaware MARC line negotiations

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

ANNAPOLIS – For the first time in nearly five years, Maryland and Delaware officials may be getting closer to completing a missing link in the regional commuter rail network.

Currently, the Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) train network stops service in Perryville, Md., about 20 miles from Newark, where the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) ends its southernmost lines. Delaware has long contracted with SEPTA to serve its four stations, allowing residents to easily commute into the Philadelphia region, but commuting south wasn’t easy.

For years, officials from both Delaware and Maryland have voiced a desire to bridge that gap, even meeting in 2015 to try to address the issue. That 20 miles is the only segment on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor from Virginia to Connecticut not served by regional rail.

With a $50 million total renovation to the Newark Regional Transportation Center set to allow two commuter trains to serve the station at the same time, however, discussions have begun anew about how to complete the long-sought-after goal.

The reconstructed Newark Regional Transportation Center, set to open in 2021, will be able to handle multiple commuter rail services. | PHOTO COURTESY OF DELDOT

That conversation was advanced on March 18, the last day of Maryland’s abbreviated legislature – it closed weeks early due to the coronavirus outbreak – when it passed a bill that directs the operator of the MARC system to negotiate with Delaware and railroad companies on the creation of a pilot program into the neighboring state. The bill also directed the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) to “consult with regional private entities, including leading employers, labor representatives, rider advisory committees, and regional planning boards, to determine the most effective means to establish a MARC train schedule.”

The MTA is required to update the state legislature by Dec. 1 annually on its efforts and any challenges and proposed solutions necessary to complete the link in Delaware.

According to Delaware Department of Transportation spokesman C.R. McLeod, there is discussion about the Delaware General Assembly also taking similar action as its Maryland counterpart, but those plans have been upended by the indefinite postponement of the legislature.

Leading the effort to attach the Delaware-focused directive to a Maryland bill that was largely aimed at increasing MARC service into Virginia was Delegate Kevin Hornberger, the lawmaker who represents neighboring Cecil County, Md. While he believes MARC service in Delaware is still a few years away, he said the bill’s reporting requirement “is a good way to cajole the [MTA] into staying focused.”

Hornberger said that the biggest obstacle to completing the new line is the actual infrastructure in the gap, because there are only two lines and no switch, which allows trains to move between the tracks.

“That’s the reason all this is held up. The tracks aren’t owned or controlled by Maryland or Amtrak, they just lease the right-of-way during certain hours,” he explained.

The rail lines are owned by the U.S. Department of Transportation, but used by Amtrak, MARC and the Norfolk Southern commercial railway. Because Amtrak holds the long-term lease on the lines, it would have to approve changes to the infrastructure and users.

Limited MARC service to Newark, such as the twice a morning and night schedule proposed by the legislature, could probably begin with investment in a track switch, Hornberger said. For more frequent service though, a third track would likely have to be laid – a costly proposition.

A third issue that would have to be addressed is where to maintain the MARC cars, Hornberger said.

“They don’t want to get very far away from Central Maryland, because at the end of the day, they’ve got to come all the way back [without passengers],” Hornberger explained. “Moving those cars without passengers is a drain of funds.”

A proposal to build a rail depot in Perryville was derailed by local opposition over noise and light pollution, and that leaves MTA with fewer options on where to store its trains overnight. Negotiations may include whether there would be space in Delaware to store those MARC trains, he said.

When the project does find a way forward, there will likely be demand for the service. A 2017 Wilmington Area Planning Council study of the proposal found that ridership would likely increase by about 6%, or as much as 10%, on the MARC and SEPTA rail lines. The findings don’t surprise Hornberger, who has often taken regional rail to his job in D.C.

 “You can go to the Perryville MARC station on any given morning and find license plates from New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware,” he said. “I think that the demand is there.”

By Jacob Owens

[email protected]

Editor’s note: This story originally reported that Norfolk Southern owns the lines in question. Actually, the U.S. Department of Transportation owns the lines with Amtrak holding long-term lease rights, while Norfolk Southern pays to utilize the same tracks. We regret the error.

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