CHARLES TOWN – To retired minister and rail advocate J. Charles Riecks, the time has come for a solution that will offer long-term peace of mind to MARC commuters living in the Eastern Panhandle.
“The last ‘solution’ lasted only four years and now once again service to West Virginia in jeopardy,” said Riecks, who volunteers with the National Association of Railroad Passengers from his home in Charleston.
“This time we need to hammer out a real, long-term solution – and what else could that mean but for West Virginia to step up and begin helping to pay for the costs involved in operating the trains?”
Riecks has been invited by Maryland Area Regional Commuter officials to take part in Saturday afternoon’s town hall in Charles Town, where commuters and others interested in the Panhandle’s transportation future can weigh in on a proposed shakeup to MARC’s evening schedule.
According to a news release from MARC, Riecks “will provide attendees with advice on making their voices heard at the State Capitol.”
The current Brunswick Line drama has its roots in another standoff, when Panhandle lawmakers were forced to scramble to get Maryland officials to stave off cuts in service.
MARC’s Brunswick Line begins at Union Station in D.C. and includes three stops in the Mountain State. Two of the stops are in Jefferson County, in Duffields and Harpers Ferry, and the 73-mile line ends at the Caperton Train Station in Martinsburg.
In 2008, MARC agreed to continue service if West Virginia passengers would pay more for their tickets. The state of West Virginia doesn’t include funding for MARC in its budget.
A surcharge of $2 each way (or $80 per month) took effect at the start of 2009. It now contributes about $200,000 annually to the MARC budget.
Then late last year MARC officials again proposed changes to the Brunswick Line. A spokesman for MARC said West Virginia commuters would see a curtailed schedule by the end of January, but that plan was derailed after a Jan. 7 town hall in Charles town where dozens of Panhandle residents expressed their ire for the changes.
Following a three-hour public hearing, Maryland Transit Administration Deputy Administrator Simon R. H. Taylor assured the crowd of about 60 that MARC would listen to their distaste for the plan, which would have axed the Brunswick Line’s last three evening stops.
Opponents of the change said it would entice Panhandle residents to drive to the station in Brunswick, Md., to ensure they could work later and still catch a train home. More than 7,000 people rely on the Brunswick Line to get to and from work each weekday.
Last month, MARC unveiled its latest tweak to the Brunswick Line schedule: West Virginia commuters riding the late train would switch in Brunswick to a designated PanTran bus to continue the trip back to West Virginia.
To Riecks, the latest proposal is as bad or worse than the original, he explained Friday during a visit to Martinsburg where he talked about MARC’s future with state Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, and other local officials.
The D.C. native – who fell in love with train travel as a youngster headed cross-country to visit his maternal grandmother in Los Angeles in 1954 – would like to see MARC leave the Brunswick Line’s service as is.
With ever-higher gas prices as well as the environmental drawbacks to commuting by car from the Panhandle into D.C., trains must be part of West Virginia’s transportation future, Riecks said.
“To me, the bottom line is the need for West Virginia and Maryland to enter into a partnership,” he said. “West Virginia has to own up to the importance of MARC to its citizens here. What other way is there?”
Want to go?
Who: MARC commuters and others interested in transit in the Eastern Panhandle
What: Town hall meeting on proposed MARC train schedule changes
When: 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: Charles Town Public Library, 200 E. Washington St.
Also: Additional Town Hall meetings are scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in Rockville, Md., and for 6 p.m. May 23 in Frederick, Md. For more information, go to www.mta.maryland.gov and search Brunswick Line changes.