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Few commuters catch the habit of catching the train

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- For Brian McNeill, a 13-year veteran of the grueling Frederick-to-Washington commute, the new MARC station in downtown Frederick seemed a perfect fit. The sparkling terminal is a five-minute walk from his house, and the trains -- at three times each morning -- would take him right near his work in Washington, the Washington Post reported.

Ideal, except for one fundamental flaw: "It was inconvenient," said McNeill, a commuter-rail devotee.

So he found himself doing what he's been doing since 1989, driving to the MARC station in Point of Rocks, about 15 miles from Frederick, and taking the train from there.

Nearly a year has passed since MARC began train service between Frederick and Washington, and growth in ridership has not been nearly as steep as many hoped. While a growing corps of commuters uses the train, there is a sense that the new 13.5-mile Frederick Line, much heralded last year as a critical mass-transit link to the exurbs, is not living up to its billing.

Transit officials and Frederick leaders caution that it is too early to jump to conclusions. But if the growth in ridership since the Frederick station opened Dec. 17 is any indication, estimates that the trains would carry 1,600 passengers daily by 2005 -- estimates released in March 2000, just before the Frederick station's groundbreaking -- were wildly optimistic.

Statistics from October, the most recent figures available, show that an average of 287 passengers were using the service daily at both Frederick stations, one downtown and another on the city's outskirts.

That's a decrease from the service's peak ridership -- 307 daily passengers in April -- but up from a sluggish summer, when ridership bottomed out at 223 in August.

Maryland Transit Administration officials had forecast that 350 people would use the service initially, but ridership has yet to reach that.

"I hear disappointment that ridership hasn't caught on as much as was hoped," said David Lingg, chairman of a community board that advises Frederick County commissioners on transportation.

He added that the rail's users are "very glad to have it" and that Frederick transit officials "believe the potential is there for more success."

Summer ridership was held down by a July Amtrak derailment in Kensington, which shut down much rail traffic in the area for days. Increased safety precautions following the accident depressed commuter-rail use in the region through August.

Also, Montgomery County transit officials recently reduced fares on commuter buses from Frederick County, siphoning off some business.

State transit officials expressed optimism that the Frederick Line will continue to grow in popularity as word gets out.

"You don't open up and instantaneously get all the ridership you anticipated," said Simon Taylor, MARC's acting manager and chief executive.

Estimates that Frederick ridership would reach 1,600 daily by 2005 were based on projections that the number of trains running from Frederick would double. But transit officials said adding trains soon is unlikely, especially given the state's budget woes. Funding to run more trains won't arrive until demand increases. And many of those who don't use the service say the reason is that there aren't enough trains.

Tim Pollak, for instance.

The Walkersville accountant took the Washington-bound train to Rockville on Wednesday -- one of his few trips since the Frederick station opened -- because it was one of the few times he didn't have to take his children to school.

He drops them off normally at 7:45, a half-hour after the last Washington-bound train leaves Frederick. He can ride the train when school's out in the summer and said he plans to, but with so few options for leaving Frederick, he will continue to have to drive during the school year.

"I think the service is great," said Pollak, 40, as he waited on the platform. "But I'm a little bit nervous because there's not a lot of people that seem to be using it."

More troubling for MARC fans are cases like that of McNeill, the veteran MARC passenger who drives to Point of Rocks even though he lives almost within view of the downtown Frederick station.

He has continued to drive to a more distant station for the simple reason that it gets him to work earlier.

If he catches the 5:17 a.m. train in Frederick, he arrives at his office about 7 a.m. If, on the other hand, he gets on the 5:20 train at Point of Rocks -- which does mean leaving his house earlier -- he's in the office by 6:38.

Every minute counts on the long road to Washington, McNeill said.

"With the kind of commutes people in Frederick have, 25 minutes can just tip the balance," he said.

Some critics say a better route for the Frederick Line would have been straight down Interstate 270. Instead, the route swings almost due west to Point of Rocks before heading south toward Washington.

But the cost of building a due-south line would have been prohibitive, because there is a considerable elevation drop from Frederick into Montgomery County that is less pronounced along the Potomac River, which the train follows south of Point of Rocks.

A direct route is paying off across the Potomac for Virginia Railway Express. Its line between Fredericksburg and Washington -- about the same distance as from Frederick -- goes almost straight, and VRE's business is booming. In the 10 years since that service began, the line is at "100 percent capacity," said VRE spokesman Mark Roeber.

More than 900 passengers a day ride the seven trains that leave Fredericksburg each morning -- more than was projected when the service began, Roeber said.

During rush hour, the drive from Frederick to downtown Washington can take more than two hours. If traffic is especially bad, it can stretch to three.

Frances Flynn, 67, a first-time Frederick MARC passenger, said last week that she was "very happy" Frederick is linked with Washington in a way it never has been.

"It should have happened a long time ago," said Flynn, who boarded the 7:15 train. "Why should we have to drive?"

Tuesday, December 3, 2002

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