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MARC official says Eastern Panhandle train service is not in danger

January 29, 2013|By RICHARD F. BELISLE | richardb@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W. Va. — Eastern Panhandle commuters on Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) trains were assured Tuesday night that their service is in no danger of being eliminated.

Those assurances came from John Hovatter, director of MARC. He was one of nearly 30 people Tuesday attending the last of eight regional meetings being held across West Virginia by the state Department of Transportation to gather public opinion on creation of a statewide rail plan.

The meeting, in the Berkeley County Council Chambers, was conducted by Cindy Butler, state rail authority executive director, and Steve Slavick, the consultant hired to do the survey.

Butler said Tuesday’s session had a larger turnout than the other seven.

The plan, when completed in December, will guide future freight and passenger rail planning and investment. It will also inform residents about the importance of the state’s rail systems as well as meet federal requirements for future funding, Slavick said.

The audience learned that the state’s freight rail network covers 2,200 route miles with 84 percent operated by Norfolk Southern and CSX. 

Two main passenger lines, both of which originate in Washington, D.C., and end in Chicago, go through West Virginia, Butler said. The Capital limited passes through the Panhandle with a stop in Martinsburg, and the Cardinal takes a southern route through the state from White Sulphur Springs to Huntington.

MARC will continue to carry about 500 daily commuters on three trains, morning and afternoon, from stops in Martinsburg in Berkeley County, and Duffields and Harpers Ferry in Jefferson County, Hovatter said.

“We’re not going to leave the Panhandle. It’s an important part of MARC,” he said.

Ridership is down in West Virginia, he said, mostly due to more riders choosing to work from home.

State Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson/Berkeley, said West Virginia “is not well equipped to handle commuter rail service. We’re not mass transportation oriented. MARC riders in the Panhandle are subsidized by Maryland’s gas tax. West Virginia has to subsidize it, too. It’s where we need to be.”

According to a profile of the state’s rail freight network in the plan, coal “dominates 94 percent of the originating freight traffic. It will dwindle drastically over the next 30 years,” he said. “We’ll need other industries to use the rails.”

Hovatter said MARC operates on a budget of $90 million a year and carries 36,500 commuters every day with about 65 percent from Montgomery County. The system has 112 cars in daily use in its total fleet of 123. He said 54 new cars will come on line in the fall.

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