Financial train wreck – the wasteful spending of extending MARC to Hagerstown (Opinion)

Cover Photo: Fortunately the MARC train system isn’t operating steam engines. At least not yet, anyway.

HAGERSTOWN, MD News (3/8/2023) – Who’s ready to take an almost 3 hour train trip to Washington, DC, then another 30 to 60 minutes on the DC Metro just to get to work? Anyone? Anyone? Because that’s what the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) is proposing in its MARC Brunswick Line study.

Previously we covered how the proposed re-opening of the B&O line would result in significant impact to southern Washington County property owners, as well as the potential safety concerns for running passenger trains on shared lines with freight trains as proposed in the Norfolk Southern and W&W options. However, it’s been determined that not only are these proposed options potentially unsafe or will significantly impact property owners, but after further analysis it seems that any effort to bring a MARC train to Hagerstown would be a waste of taxpayer dollars of epic proportions.

Completely disregarding the fact that Hagerstown already has three bus departures every weekday morning which take slightly over an hour to get from Hagerstown to Shady Grove Metro Station, or the fact that many businesses as well as the Federal government are starting to finally embrace remote work instead of forcing employees to commute every day, or the fact that MDOT is currently in the process of converting their bus fleet into zero-emission electric busses, MDOT has placed its bet on a dystopian future where Hagerstown to DC commuters will want to spend the extra time travelling by diesel powered trains run with the absolute worst track record for breakdowns in the United States.

As the editor of RFHC has previously commuted to DC utilizing the MARC train, he can personally attest that at times the reliability of the MARC system is so terrible, that he would rather face I-270 traffic to Shady Grove Metro than ride on the existing Brunswick line, and has on multiple occasions remarked to DC commuters “if you think the reliability of DC Metro is bad, you should try the MARC, they’ve turned reliability issues into an artform!” If you want an example of how bad things can get on the MARC train, look no further than when hundreds of passengers were stranded in a train for several hours without air conditioning in the middle of June in such terrible conditions that passengers actually removed the windows of the train due to temperatures in the train which resulted in several passengers being taken to the hospital.

The most glaring omission from the Brunswick report is the lack of inclusion of alternatives which are not rail. Apparently four alternatives to rail expansion were considered in the original version of this report, but omitted from the publicly posted version. This actually resulted in an error in the report as shown below. There is some irony about the United States’ worst train service not even formatting a public report properly.

Screenshot of Brunswick Line Technical Report

9.Brunswick Line Service to Western Maryland
MDOT MTA is exploring opportunities to extend commuter rail service to Washington, Allegany, and
Garrett counties through a viable rail alignment. This section examines the possibilities and challenges
related to establishing and operating MARC rail service in western Maryland.
Extension To Western Maryland
The three Western Maryland counties are projected to grow at a faster rate than the overall state.
According to the demographic projections prepared by the Maryland Department of Transportation,
these counties will add 32,153 more residents, or a 12.8% increase between 2020 and 2040. The highest
rate is projected for Washington County with 16% increase between this time period.
Four Western Maryland commuter rail expansion alternatives have been evaluated as shown in Error! R
eference source not found.. This preliminary planning analysis evaluated existing and future
population, commute patterns and available railroad corridors potentially viable for passenger service.
For any of these alternatives, significant detailed studies and negotiations with host railroads would be
needed. Nonetheless, the planning analyses summarized here provide a basis for considering which
Screenshot of Brunswick Line Technical Report which includes an invalid reference to a table that doesn’t exist in the document. We can only assume based on their breakdown rate, this is similar to their train maintenance practices.

Only 1,980 commuters travelled from Hagerstown area to Washington, DC in 2018. Post-COVID, these numbers are likely significantly reduced, with employers embracing remote work, or some commuters simply finding other jobs closer to home as part of the “great resignation”.

Screenshot of the options for extending the MARC Brunswick line.

1a - CSX to
1b – CSX to
Hancock and
2 - Hagerstown –
3 -
Hagerstown -
4 -
Hagerstown -
Hancock Cumberland and
Hagerstown Hagerstown Hagerstown
Allegany Allegany and Garrett Allegany and
Allegany and
Allegany and
Maryland 2040
73,560 104,320 253,010 253,010 253,010
Commuters to
84 202 1,980 1,980 1,980
Rail travel time
to Union
2 hours, 40
4 hours, 10 minutes 2 hours, 50
2 hours, 43
2 hours, 30
Railroad Access
CSX – existing
corridor used by
CSX – existing
corridor used by
CSX – existing
W&W – 22 miles
NS – 1 mile
CSX – existing
NS – 23 miles
CSX – existing
NS - .2 miles
Corridor Rightof-way
Hancock station
and storage yard
Stations and
Cumberland storage
station and
storage yard
station and
storage yard;
ROW may be
parallel to NS
owners; and
station and
storage yard
Construction CSX may require
CSX may require
passenger tracks
and upgrade to 22
miles of W&W
NS likely to
separate track
and bridges for
23 miles
Restore B&O
corridor for
18.3 miles and
existing track
for 5.8 miles
Range of Costs Low – less than
$50 million
Low – less than $50
Medium - $50
million to $500
Very High –
more than
$500 million
Very High –
more than
$500 million
Screenshot of the options for extending the MARC Brunswick line. Hagerstown service is expected to cost at least $50 million, but possibly over $500 million.

Most concerning is how the Brunswick report attempts to predict future ridership increases when the report itself even shows a significant decline in ridership post-COVID. These numbers speak volumes regarding long commutes post-COVID, and should not be ignored. Overall, based on available data in the report, Brunswick line boarding numbers have dropped from 7,095 to 2,374, only 33% of pre-COVID ridership.

Screenshot of MARC Brunswick report showing reduced ridership across the entire system post-covid.
Screenshot of MARC Brunswick report showing reduced ridership across the entire system post-COVID. Ridership is down between 1/2 and 1/3 from Brunswick and beyond.

Also noticeably absent from the report is any mention of trying to establish a public transit option between Hagerstown and Frederick. This is quite surprising, since over 10,000 commuters were estimated to travel from Hagerstown to Frederick daily pre-COVID.

Map of MARC Brunswick Origin-Destination Zones
Map of MARC Brunswick Origin-Destination Zones
Table corresponding home-to-work trip numbers. Note that travel from zone 5 "Hagerstown" to zone 3 "Frederick" is 10,152.
Table corresponding home-to-work trip numbers. Note that travel from zone 5 “Hagerstown” to zone 3 “Frederick” was 10,152 pre-COVID.

Despite the 10,152 daily commuters pre-COVID, there are currently no available public transit options to travel from Hagerstown to Frederick. The closest is the MTA 505 Bus which travels from Hagerstown to Myersville park-and-ride, then bypasses Frederick and continues to the Shady Grove Metro station, but there are no public transit options from that park-and-ride. Perhaps investing in a bus service between Hagerstown and Frederick would be a better option? After all, a direct rail line between Hagerstown and Frederick hasn’t existed since 1947, and the tracks and right-of-way are long since gone. The only viable public transit option for most of Washington County’s commuters would be a bus line, which could even connect Hagerstown commuters to the Frederick branch of the MARC station which MDOT seems so desperate to keep running for all 48 people who ride it daily to Washington, DC. If only 48 people currently ride MARC from Frederick to Washington, DC, how many people do you think would ride from Hagerstown? Not many. Hagerstown’s population is approximately half of Frederick’s, so we can likely expect half the ridership. Even if you include the 92 riders from Monocacy, the total usage of the Frederick branch is 140. This puts the Hagerstown branch’s expected maximum ridership at 70 riders per day. In fact, the only way this proposed MARC train would probably experience increased ridership is if MTA terminated the 505 bus line completely, almost doubling the commute of current riders. While MDOT did not mention the possibility of terminating the bus line, it’s quite likely on the table. After all, why would someone choose a 3 hour train ride over a 1 hour bus ride? If we truly want to connect MARC service to the Brunswick line, perhaps a bus could be purchased for far less than the estimated $50 million this MARC expansion to Hagerstown could cost. This single bus could travel from Hagerstown to Brunswick on a daily basis, and likely accommodate all of the potential passengers.

Simply put, this proposed MARC line to Hagerstown is misguided at best, or wasteful spending for the sake of spending at its worst. Unlike the rest of the MARC system which is electric, the Brunswick line requires diesel locomotives. Since MDOT believes that investing in “green” electric is the future of transportation, why would MDOT explore options that require burning diesel fuel, instead of embracing electric busses? At a price tag of around $750,000 each, MDOT could easily purchase over 50 new electric busses for less cost than the cheapest proposed diesel-operated MARC Hagerstown branch utilizing the W&W line. These busses could transport up to 4,000 commuters daily between Hagerstown and Frederick, have a lower carbon footprint than rail, and would be a much better investment than a $50 million train line to DC which would likely serve less than 70 people per day. To embrace diesel locomotives over electric busses is completely contrary to MDOT’s “commitment to sustainability and reduce the agency’s carbon footprint” mentioned in 2021.

Editor’s Note: The carbon footprint of electric busses is up for debate, and highly depends upon the electricity generation methods utilized. However, for the sake of this article, we’re going to go with MDOT’s claims that electric busses are better for the environment and that “500 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions will be avoided through use of electric buses instead of diesel buses” as stated in their 2021 article.

Maryland taxpayers deserve better management of our tax dollars than any of these wasteful proposals. A MARC train from Hagerstown to DC simply doesn’t make sense, because that doesn’t solve the majority of the transit issues for Washington County residents commuting outside of the county, and goes against all of MDOT’s other commitments towards “green energy”.

If you agree (or disagree) with our assessment, please use the Brunswick Line Technical Report page to submit your comments to MDOT. Also please feel free to reach out to your state and county elected representatives with your concerns (or support) of these efforts.

Opinion article by Ken Buckler, President and Managing Editor of Radio Free Hub City, with contributions by other RFHC contributors.

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