29 August 2011

What a weird commute

In the wake of Hurricane Irene, Amtrak service was canceled between Washington, DC and Boston on Sunday giving rise to the real possibility that MARC service on Monday would also be affected (the MARC Penn Line, which I ride to work, uses the same Northeast Corridor as Amtrak). Indeed, the MTA made an announcement on Sunday which told riders to expect the possibility and said further news would come by 6PM.

By 5:30PM, the MTA announced full service for all lines. Good news...for a while. Soon thereafter, the MTA retracted that announcement and said that full service would indeed occur on the Camden and Brunswick lines, but possibly not the Penn Line. Amtrak was inspecting the line and encountered enough issues to warrant the possibility of no service (or at least decreased service) on Monday. And as of 9:30PM last night, that was the story. The MARC Penn Line would run on the "S" schedule, which is the several weather schedule that amounts to about 2/3 of the normal trains. The notice also included some specific issues at stations, including power outages. I checked BWI: no issues; so far, so good.

Numerous traffic lights were out on Aviation Boulevard, and indeed as I headed down Amtrak Way to the BWI parking garage, the power to Garage 1 was out entirely. Other people were leaving. I managed to make my way through an open gate into Garage 1 and parked in my usual area. the "flashlight" feature of my phone came in handy since it was pitch black in the garage!

In the time I arrived, I realized by talking to some fellow passengers that the situation had changed a few more times. People were leaving because the station told people that the entire MARC schedule was canceled. Then, the 5:18 train (not on the S schedule) was just delayed, not canceled. Then, an announcement that MARC was operating on a holiday schedule (note: MARC doesn't operate on holidays!). In reality, it was back to the "S" schedule. The station manager at the BWI MARC station seemed to be suffering from a severe lack of communication. I have no doubt the situation did not change that many times; indeed, it is highly likely MARC was on the "S" schedule since last night, only the station manager didn't know.

Despite the reduced schedule, passenger volume seemed slightly below normal overall (on the other hand, it seems later trains are packed). The train ride was entirely uneventful: BWI, Odenton, Bowie State, Seabrook...until we got to New Carrollton.

A bit of background: the MARC trains have entrances on both ends of the car, and then a door leading into the passenger compartment. The area between those doors is a vestibule, and signs tell people not to stand in the vestibule. Conductors also tell people not to stand there.

That being said, there are occasions when people will stand in the vestibule. After the usual conductor checks tickets after the Bowie State stop, he moves toward the center of the train and passengers in the first two cars begin to queue up in the vestibule as to people to get off the train quickly (and so goes the rat race, but that's for another post). Nine times out of ten, the conductor does not come back and nothing happens. Occasionally, if the conductor does see someone standing in the vestibule, he or she will ask them to move and they do.  Additionally (and usually in the afternoon), some conductors are a bit lax in enforcing the vestibule policy, so instead of a hard-and-fast rule, it becomes a wait-and-see rule. People end up following the idea that it's easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission.

This morning being this morning, the usual conductor was not onboard and the alternate guy just happened to make his way back to the first two cars by New Carrollton. He passed through the vestibule and asked the passengers to move...and nothing. I was standing just inside the door of the the first car and he walked past in frustration, saying that he was giving up because no one listens to him. He even made an announcement of the same manner, explaining it was a safety requirement (it is), but no one moved. We arrived at Union Station without further incident. The passengers had won.

Or had they?

According to Md. TRANSPORTATION Code Ann. § 7-705  (2011):
(f) Obstruction, hinderance or interference with operation of transit vehicle or railroad passenger car. --
   (1) It is unlawful for any person to obstruct, hinder, or interfere with:
      (i) The operation or operator of a transit vehicle or railroad passenger car; or
      (ii) A person engaged in official duties as a station agent, conductor, or station attendant who is employed by:
         1. The Administration;
         2. An entity that provides transit service under contract with the Administration;
         3. A local government agency or public transit authority;
         4. A private entity that provides public transit service; or
         5. An entity that provides transit service under a transportation compact under Title 10 of this article.
   (2) Any person who violates this section is guilty of a misdemeanor and is subject to a fine of not more than $ 1,000, imprisonment not exceeding 90 days, or both, for each offense.
Now, I've never seen anyone threatened with this provision (although there are multiple signs posted identifying it), I think you could easily make the argument that not following a conductor's safety instructions is a violation.

I've stood in the vestibule before so I'm just as guilty as everyone else, but in the times that a conductor has asked me to return to the car, I've done so. On the other hand, outward defiance of the conductor is another thing altogether.

The last leg of my commute, the Metro, was (perhaps  surprisingly) the least noteworthy because all the trains were back to normal (frequent riders know what "normal" means!). In fact, WMATA never even reduced or changed their schedule at any time during the hurricane. Pretty impressive given shutdowns in other cities and WMATA's past track record.

This afternoon's commute should be interesting to say the least. The "S" schedule only provides for, on average, about one train an hour when I normally travel home, instead of two of three. I may go home early to avoid the expected mess.
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