Update (April 10, 2021) – The WV legislature did not include funding for the MARC train service in the budget for the next fiscal year (July 2021 through June 2022).
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 ran from July 2019 to June 2020 (FY2020), Maryland was asking West Virginia to pay approximately $3.4 million to support the three trains/day service into West Virginia. In the fall of 2019, Maryland held public hearings that raised the possibility of eliminating the MARC train service in West Virginia, which in turn led to discussions between the WV Governor’s office, the WV State Auditor’s office, and all of the local governments in Berkeley and Jefferson counties about funding for the MARC service in WV. The WV Governor’s office announced in December 2019 that it had secured funding to meet Maryland’s request from varous sources, including $300,000 contributed by these local governments in Berkeley and Jefferson counties.
The WV state budget for fiscal year 2021 (running from July 2020 to June 2021) included funding for the MARC service in WV, but the service reductions initiated by MTA and reduced commuter travel have affected both sides of the funding equation for the current year. The WV Legislature will consider funding MARC service in West Virginia for fiscal year 2022 (running from July 2021 to June 2022) in March and April of this year, as it works through the budget process.
This article has been updated to clarify the timing of the funding allocated by fiscal year.By Staff Contributor