Commuter rail service between West Virginia and Washington DC dates to the 1950s. The MARC Brunswick Line service operated by the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) currently serves three stations in the Eastern Panhandle — Harpers Ferry, Duffields (Jefferson County) and Martinsburg. Terminating at Union Station in downtown Washington, the line also stops at Germantown, Gaithersburg, Rockville, and Silver Spring, with connections to bus routes, Metro, and Amtrak at various stations along the route.
The pandemic has both strained the MTA’s workforce and put a dent in ridership. In the spring of 2020, the MTA reduced rail service throughout the system, scheduling a single train a day each way on the Brunswick line. The MTA resumed regular service of three trains a day on the Brunswick line in July. In September 2020, the MTA reported that summer ridership continued to lag throughout the system — reporting drops of 51% in local bus rider counts, 87% in commuter bus rider counts, and 89% in MARC train rider counts compared to prior year usage patterns. In November, the MTA reverted to a single train a day schedule for the Brunswick line. An MTA spokesperson stated that this schedule allowed MTA “to preserve MARC train slots with CSX and Amtrak and will allow the agency to respond nimbly as Maryland’s economy recovers and more riders cease teleworking or return to transit.” For December 2020, the MTA reports that ridership on the MARC Brunswick line was down 96% compared to pre-COVID-19 levels.
In 2018, MTA and the West Virginia Rail Authority signed a five-year contract for service for MTA to continue to provide MARC Train service in West Virginia. Under this agreement, the MTA requests West Virginia to fund the expense of operating trains for the 25 miles between Brunswick (Maryland) and Martinsburg, with the costs calculated on a per-mile basis and offset by any fare revenue generated by passengers arriving or departing from the three West Virginia stations.
For the fiscal year that runs from July 2020 to June 2021, West Virginia agreed to pay approximately $3.4 million to support the three trains/day service. This funding agreement was announced in December 2019, and followed public hearings that raised the possibility of eliminating the MARC train service in West Virginia, which in turn led to discussions between the Governor’s office, the State Auditor’s office, and all of the local governments in Berkeley and Jefferson counties. The current year’s funding included $300,000 contributed by these local governments. Discussions about West Virginia’s rail funding for the next fiscal year (from July 2021) will begin when the state Legislature receives the Governor’s budget proposal in early February.By Staff Contributor