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New data show ridership patterns on the Brunswick Line

MARC is proposing changes to the schedule on its Brunswick Line which significantly improves service to Montgomery County stations. The changes reflect new, recently-released boarding statistics for the line's 19 stations, statistics which can help them better serve commuters.


Photo by Mark Fisher on Flickr.

The data show, among other things, that Mont­gom­ery County stations account for roughly half of the line's eastbound riders; Germantown is one of MARC's big stations; riders go to destinations other than Rockville, Silver Spring, and Union Station; and Frederick branch ridership is not meeting proj­ec­tions, probably due to its infrequent service.

In addition, the Brunswick Line is a significant part of MARC's service; Brunswick and Point of Rocks ridership is big but smaller than Montgomery County's; and West Virginia has hundreds of people who ride the train despite infrequent service, long travel times, and ticket surcharges due to lack of state funding.

The Brunswick Line is arguably the most complicated of MARC's 3 lines. It's certainly the longest, running for 73 miles northwest through Montgomery and Frederick Counties and on to Martinsburg, West Virginia, with a 13.5-mile branch line to Frederick.

In addition, like MARC's Camden Line, it runs on tracks owned and controlled by freight carrier CSX. And it is constrained, despite growing ridership, because CSX refuses to allow MARC to add trains until the State of Maryland funds and builds a third track.

On weekday mornings, Brunswick Line trains bring people from Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia to jobs in Montgomery County, the District, and Alexandria and Arlington. On weekday afternoons and evenings, Brunswick Line trains take them home.

Meanwhile, there are big plans for the future along the line. Montgomery County is encouraging transit-oriented development on its part of the Brunswick Line. Frederick County is doing the same in and near Frederick. Even West Virginia is getting in on the act.

But good policy requires good data. So, where do the ridership data come from, and what do they show?

MARC's counting method

The data come from counts conducted on Wednesday, February 8, and Wednesday, March 14. MTA passed out the data at the monthly MARC Riders Advisory Council meeting on April 19.

On count days, conductors are supposed to count everybody who gets on and off their train at each station. The total number of people getting on and off each train is supposed to be equal.

The boarding numbers are misleadingly precise. That is, a count of 123 eastbound boardings on Frederick on March 14 does not mean that exactly 123 people got on. However, the numbers are still useful, as they are probably generally accurate, and anyway, they are the only numbers available.

The Brunswick Line overall

The Brunswick Line accounted for roughly 1/5 of total MARC boardings, while the Penn Line accounted for roughly 2/3, and the Camden Line accounted for the rest. Here is a comparison of Brunswick Line boardings to MARC's other two lines:

MARC LineDirection/TotalFebruary 8March 14
Brunswick LineEastbound (am)3,8984,102
Brunswick LineWestbound (pm)3,5623,844
Brunswick LineTotal7,4607,946
Camden LineTotal4,9654,711
Penn LineTotal22,91126,218

On both days, there were more eastbound than westbound boardings on the Brunswick Line. This may be a precision error, or there may actually have been 300-some people each day who went to work on MARC and home a different way.

Montgomery County

Montgomery County has 11 stations: Silver Spring, Kensington, Garrett Park, Rockville, Washington Grove, Gaithersburg, Metropolitan Grove, Germantown, Boyds, Barnesville, and Dickerson. Rockville and Silver Spring are major destination stations as well as origin stations.

9 daily trains in each direction currently make stops in Montgomery County. 2 eastbound and 4 westbound daily trains currently stop at all of the county stations.

Here are the boardings for Montgomery County:

Direction/TotalStation/TotalFebruary 8March 14
EastboundTotal1,8442,082
Germantown780837
WestboundTotal1,1701,071
Silver Spring605654
Rockville419312
Other*146105
Total3,0143,153
*Kensington, Garrett Park, Gaithersburg, Metropolitan Grove, Germantown

The data show three notable facts:

  1. Germantown is a big station, by MARC standards. It's the biggest station in Montgomery County and on the Brunswick Line overall, and it's bigger, in terms of one-way boardings, than all Camden Line stations and all but 4 Penn Line stations (Odenton, Halethorpe, BWI, and Penn Station). (This comparison excludes Union Station.)
  2. Rockville and Silver Spring are not the only destination stations in the county. People also ride MARC to jobs in Germantown, Metropolitan Grove, Gaithersburg, Garrett Park, and Kensington.
  3. On the March 14 count day, there were more eastbound boardings at Montgomery County stations than at all other stations on the Brunswick Line combined.
The Frederick branch

The Frederick branch has 2 stations: Monocacy and Frederick. The trains run on a 13.5-mile line that branches off just east of (and not connecting to) the Point of Rocks station. The State of Maryland built and owns most of the track. Currently, 3 eastbound trains leave from Frederick between 5:12 and 7:10 am, and 3 trains bound west for Frederick leave Union Station between 3:50 and 6:30 pm.

Here are the boarding numbers (all eastbound) on the Frederick Line:

StationFebruary 8March 14
Total442408
Frederick150123
Monocacy292285

The Frederick branch opened in 2001 with 3 eastbound and 3 westbound trains. Projected ridership was 1,600 by 2005, with double the number of trains. Obviously, Frederick ridership is still much less; on the other hand, the number of trains is still the same as in 2001. That more frequent trains would increase ridership is a reasonable assumption.

Brunswick and Point of Rocks

There are also 2 stations in Frederick County that are not on the Frederick branch: Point of Rocks and Brunswick. Currently, 6 eastbound trains leave Brunswick between 5:00 and 7:40 am, and 6 daily westbound trains stopping at Brunswick and Point of Rocks leave Union Station between 3:35 and 7:15 pm.

Here are the boarding numbers at Point of Rocks and Brunswick:

Direction/TotalStation/TotalFebruary 8March 14
EastboundTotal1,1351,162
Brunswick687677
Point of Rocks448485
WestboundTotal2917
Brunswick2815
Point of Rocks12
Total1,1641,179

Brunswick is the second-biggest origin station on the Brunswick Line, and Point of Rocks is roughly tied for third with Gaithersburg.

The eastbound boarders include residents of Virginia and West Virginia as well as Maryland. However, there do not seem to be any data on how many.

Some of the westbound boardings may represent West Virginia residents who work in Kensington, Gaithersburg, Metropolitan Grove, or Germantown, and transfer from a Brunswick-bound train to the West Virginia super-express that leaves Union Station at 4:55 pm. In Montgomery County, the super-express stops only in Silver Spring and Rockville.

West Virginia

West Virginia has 3 stations: Harpers Ferry, Duffields, and Martinsburg. Currently, 2 eastbound trains leave Martinsburg at 5:25 and 6:30 am, and 3 trains bound west for Martinsburg leave Union Station between 4:55 and 7:15 pm.

Here are the boarding numbers (all eastbound) at the West Virginia stations:

StationFebruary 8March 14
Total477450
Martinsburg199183
Duffields173175
Harpers Ferry10592

West Virginia no longer contributes to MARC funding. Eastern Panhandle legislators are trying to do something about this. Meanwhile, since 2009, West Virginia riders have paid a surcharge of $2 per one-way ticket, $20 per weekly ticket, and $80 per monthly ticket.

Miriam Schoenbaum lives in Montgomery County's Agricultural Reserve. She serves on the MARC Riders' Advisory Council and is a member of the Action Committee for Transit

Comments

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It's disappointing that the Brunswick Line and the Camden Line have less service COMBINED than the Penn Line. The Brunswick and Camden Lines pass through much more dense areas (Rockville, Silver Spring, College Park, Laurel) and have much more potential for TOD (Frederick, Germantown, Gaithersburg, Kensington on Brunswick; Riverdale, Muirkirk, Laurel, Savage, Elkridge on Camden) than the Penn Line, which mostly just stops at sprawling office parks.

by Dave Murphy on Apr 27, 2012 11:11 am • linkreport

I'd estimate that 80% of the Penn line riders go from Baltimore to Union Station. There is nothing as large as Baltimore on the Brunswick Line, and the Camden line is very slow to and from DC. These numbers are not surprising.

by Tom A. on Apr 27, 2012 11:34 am • linkreport

@Tom A.

February 8
Penn Station southbound boardings: 3,205
Total southbound boardings: 11,235

March 14
Penn Station southbound boardings: 3,301
Total southbound boardings: 12,859

by Miriam on Apr 27, 2012 11:47 am • linkreport

Miriam, thanks. I stand corrected. I've only commuted from DC to Baltimore, so assumed most people got on in Baltimore. I HAVE heard that many people in Baltimore drive to Halethorpe for the free parking that is not available at Baltimore or West Baltimore- which is understandable, yet annoying.

by Tom A. on Apr 27, 2012 12:09 pm • linkreport

Is it crazy talk to think there could be a metro service on this line like the multiple routes on each New York City line, ie. local and express? This would turn areas like Kensington, Garret Park, and who knows which others into metro stops.

by Thayer-D on Apr 27, 2012 12:33 pm • linkreport

@Thayer,

No, a metro-like service isn't crazy at all. Actually converting it to Metro is likely a non-starter, but the idea of beefing up all of our commuter rail services to offer high frequency, all-day service isn't that crazy.

MARC's investment plan would be a step in the right direction, adding capacity for freight purposes that will allow more passenger trains.

Now, it probably wouldn't make sense to operate that level of service all the way to WV, but you could easily short-turn trains at points in between.

by Alex B. on Apr 27, 2012 12:40 pm • linkreport

In my mind, MARC presents the best way for Maryland to build streetcar-suburb-style TOD and turn the station neighborhoods into town centers. Investment in MARC capacity should be a high priority for the state.

The San Francisco's North Bay is building a similar line to the Brunswick using DMUs and 30 minute headways in peak hours, and the cities and towns are extremely excited about the idea of TOD around commuter rail stations.

by OctaviusIII on Apr 27, 2012 12:51 pm • linkreport

Plus, I imagine a big part of Penn Line traffic is BWI, where more middle-of-the-day non-commuter trips (per se) make sense.

by Kolohe on Apr 27, 2012 12:52 pm • linkreport

Miriam wrote:

The Frederick branch has 2 stations: Monocacy and Frederick. The trains run on a 13.5-mile line that branches off just east of (and not connecting to) the Point of Rocks station. The State of Maryland built and owns most of the track.

I disagree with the above in part.

The line from Point-of-Rocks to Frederick Junction (a "wye") is the Baltimore & Ohio Old Main Line Subdivision (which runs between Point-of-Rocks and Baltimore) and dates back to the 19th Century, was built by the B&O and is now owned by CSX. Even the line from Frederick Junction to Monocacy and Frederick (known as the Frederick Branch) was built by the B&O, but it was essentially abandoned for many years before the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) funded extensive repairs and rehabilitation to allow MARC trains to operate over those tracks in to Frederick.

I believe MDOT funded some repairs and upgrades to the Old Mainline itself (since it had not carried scheduled passenger train service for many years) in preparation for the new MARC service to Frederick.

I am quite certain that CSX retains ownership of the Old Mainline, which still sees freight trains running between Point-of-Rocks and the Capital Subdivision at Relay in Baltimore County.

I am not certain if CSX or MDOT own the Frederick Branch.

by C. P. Zillliacus on Apr 27, 2012 12:59 pm • linkreport

@Thayer-D -- Not sure what you mean by "metro service". Do you mean The Metro? The lines are not the same. In effect, MARC should offer something like an express service out to Silver Spring and Kensington/Garret Park/White Flint. I live in a peculiar piece of real estate -- dead ends just below Strathmore Rd. I'm actually probably a few feet closer to the Garrett Park station than I am to the Grosvenor Metro, but I've never even considered taking MARC downtown. There is no bus to Garrett Park station, and I can park fairly close to the Metro, or take a bus if I don't want to walk over a mile. If the MARC was faster, and I knew the schedule was dependable, that might actually change my calculus -- but it would be even better if there were a bus that traveled down Strathmore Rd., making the Garrett Park station more accessible. Right now, the website lists the Ride On 4 as servicing Garrett Park, but it doesn' t come within a mile of the station. It does serve Kensington station, but doesn't come close enough to me to be useful.

There is potential to make MARC a good alternative for those who are commuting to Silver Spring, or to Union Station/Capitol Hill, but it would require imagination and investment...and a willingness to have a service that would compete with Metro. For example, having the last train leaving Union Station at 7:15? Let's say I parked at Garrett Park (17 spaces), or Kensington. Then I've got to make that last train, which means not staying late at work, and definitely not staying in town to do something. Or, take the Metro and figure a way over to get my car. That's very discouraging.

I think it's possible to design a commuter rail through western Montgomery and up to Frederick, which would be a good supplement to Metro, and could do a lot to alleviate the insane traffic jams on I-270.

First thing would be to change the route. It should be possible to boost ridership from Frederick, but that would require not just more trains, but faster trains. The commute should be quicker, but the train needs to be re-routed with a tunnel that would take it through the mountains instead of meandering around to Point of Rocks, before heading south. I know it seems ridiculous to talk about abandoning the Frederick Branch so soon, but it was never a great idea because it was done on the cheap. It's just too long a ride, in part because the line goes way out of the way. The line should parallel 270, with a stop in or on the east side of Clarksburg. If the line did that, and if it moved quickly from there. it would suddenly be an attractive alternative to the daily slog down 270. Unless Metro gets extended to Clarksburg, I think it's a worthwhile investment just to service those in Frederick and upper Montgomery, but I think Thayer does offer a worthwhile perspective in suggesting MARC could be a good service -- a much better service than it is now -- for those in southern and mid-County, too.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Apr 27, 2012 1:32 pm • linkreport

@Thayer-D @Alex B.

The idea of metro-like service along MARC has been mentioned here before, though it's been a while. The proposal would have VRE and MARC combined into a single agency and run what amounts to a Metro Express service around DC.

The service would need to be better connected to Metro than it is now (to minimize out-of-system transfers), but if it ran on Metro headways it would be a great concept. Future improvements, such as electrification and EMUs, would dramatically improve service and make for a more effective unified branding.

by OctaviusIII on Apr 27, 2012 1:32 pm • linkreport

@Dave Murphy
"It's disappointing that the Brunswick Line and the Camden Line have less service COMBINED than the Penn Line. The Brunswick and Camden Lines pass through much more dense areas (Rockville, Silver Spring, College Park, Laurel)."

Of your four "more dense areas," three (Rockville, Silver Spring, and College Park) are served by Metro, which provides far more frequent service. Camden and Brunswick lines require riders to come for specifically timed-trains, so its no wonder many of the transit riders in those areas use Metro alternatively. Also, if you ride Metro from one of those towns, it's far easier to transfer to another rail line, whereas riding Marc, only the red or green lines provide one-transfer service.

by arm on Apr 27, 2012 2:00 pm • linkreport

Have ridden the Penn Line many times, Camden less often. BWI is a major station for rush hour and mid-day trips. It's more convenient and more comfortable than the Green Line/Metrobus alternative, as well as cheaper for many people (such as myself). New Carrollton also gets quite a few passengers. The Penn Line is more convenient for some surprising destinations like JHU (which has a shuttle stop there for Homewood and the Medical campus).

by Rich on Apr 27, 2012 3:35 pm • linkreport

MDOT owns the Frederick branch, which is 3.1 miles from Frederick Station to the wye just south of Monocacy Station.

by Jamie on Apr 27, 2012 3:47 pm • linkreport

@C. P. Zillliacus Even the line from Frederick Junction to Monocacy and Frederick (known as the Frederick Branch) was built by the B&O, but it was essentially abandoned for many years before the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) funded extensive repairs and rehabilitation to allow MARC trains to operate over those tracks in to Frederick.

No, that branch has had continuous service since it was built. There is a fertilizer company a stone's throw from the Frederick station that receives several carloads a month. A grain elevator and cement plant (no longer in business) received carloads until the state rebuilt the tracks and grade crossings, but never went back to rail. Until 20 years ago or so, the tracks continued north with street running on East St. to serve several industries. There have been proposals to use those tracks for a heritage trolley type line to Walkersville, but that's not going to happen for many years, if at all.

@Fischy (Ed F.)

There will never be any new MARC lines built, just like there will never be any new VRE lines built. The plan for MARC is to build new parallel tracks, so MARC trains can bypass slow freights, and maybe even have expresses passing local trains. The long term plan was always that the CCT would be extended to Frederick, in fact most of the ROW is already in place. But it is too steep for conventional trains, only electric rail will work. Of course, if the corner cutting 'BRT' is chosen, that will never happen.

by kinverson on Apr 27, 2012 3:54 pm • linkreport

Very good article. Is there a link available to the full boarding stats for the entire system? I've ridden MARC from Germantown to Union Station/College Park/Greenbelt (via transfer in WAS) since 2005, though not as frequently in the last few years and ridership at Germantown has grown very quickly. There has been talk of building a parking garage there, but obviously funding has been short. Earlier this year they opened a satellite parking lot on MD117. I expect Metropolitan Grove to grow similarly thanks to the huge (and very delayed) mixed use development that's being constructed adjacent to it.

As for the current schedule proposal, its faaar better than the one released sixth months ago, and will undoubtedly be accepted by the vast majority of riders due to frequency increases at some stations. However, I would still like to see 871 returned to a daily train, instead of Friday-only. The MTA has filed a request with CSX to run another round trip on the line, which would be another big improvement.

by King Terrapin on Apr 27, 2012 9:20 pm • linkreport

You also forgot to mention that the Capitol Limited also runs on the Brunswick Line. That Amtrak train stops in Rockville, Haper's Ferry, and Martinsburg. I wonder if Amtrak would consider adding Silver Spring as stop if/when the Purple Line and the Transit Center opens. Another candidate for another stop might be Gaithersburg or Point of the Rocks.

I take Metro and Amtrak a lot places, but never MARC. I grew up in Rockville, but the Metro was always more accessible to me. Also one of the greatest weaknesses with MARC is that the service only runs Monday through Friday. On the Penn Line, with frequent Amtrak NE Corridor services, that generally isn't a problem because most Amtrak trains stop at New Carrollton, BWI, and Baltimore. There are also a few Amtrak trains that stop at Aberdeen. But that is a problem for the Camden and Brunswick Lines.

I know that there are probably political and financial obstacles to running weekend MARC service, but I think the ridership would be there for weekend service. The rest of the commuter rail services on the NE Corridor, including SEPTA, NJ Transit, the LIRR, Metro North, and Boston's T, all run on the weekends. Maybe if MARC only had four trains on Saturdays and Sundays--one in the morning, one at noon, one in the mid-to-late afternoon, and one in the evening--that would be enough. That is, such a train would enable people to come down to DC from the suburbs, spend the day, and then come home.

by Rain17 on Apr 28, 2012 5:45 pm • linkreport

I take issue with MARC's method of collecting passenger information. In today's climate of telework, comp-flex, etc..., to only collect on a single weekday (in this case Wednesday) I doubt provides an accurate picture of a full weeks ridership. Picking a varying day each week for a month would have been a more effective (and probably more enlightening) data collection method.

by dctravel on Apr 30, 2012 8:07 am • linkreport

Could it be due to these routes only having service one way or only during rushhour ? The Penn Line is the only line that runs morning, midday, evening and night whereas the others don't

There have been many occasions when I have wanted to go to a place on the Brunswick or Camden lines but couldnt due to the service only running during rushhour

by kk on Apr 30, 2012 10:33 pm • linkreport

The ridership is just going to increase more and more. I think Brunswich line should add an eariler train that can get to Rockville around 5:15am to reduce the 5:50am ridership, also it can be more in line with the DC Metro that opens at 5:00am

by Brian on Nov 14, 2013 2:33 am • linkreport

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