Weekend MARC service to be selling point for BWI

Weekend passenger train service will be a boon for travelers flying in and out of Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Airport officials welcomed last week's announcement by Gov. Martin O'Malley that weekend MARC train services between Baltimore and Washington will be offered for the first time starting in December.

"It's been a priority of ours for a while," said Paul Wiedefeld, the airport's executive director, noting that the airport was an early supporter of expanding rail service.

The state is setting aside $46 million to pay for the new weekend rail service from the added revenue it expects to generate from the gas tax increase approved this year by the General Assembly.

When international travelers touch down at BWI or call ahead about possible travel connections, they often ask about train service to Washington, Wiedefeld said.

"They look for that and ask us about it constantly," he said. "It's one of the first things we sell."

The Anne Arundel County airport wants to expand its international service options and has been in talks with Southwest Airlines about expanding such flights out of BWI.

Brad Hawkins, a Southwest spokesman, said the airline is pleased about the added weekend rail service.

"We embrace, clearly, anything that makes it easier for people to get to us on the weekends, and MARC is a low-cost option at the moment, given gas prices," Hawkins said. "So it's a win-win for us."

Of course, Wiedefeld said, plenty of domestic fliers also have Washington in their sights, and about 45 percent of BWI's business comes from the Washington region.

MARC trains, operated by the Maryland Transit Administration, will make nine Saturday round trips and six Sunday round trips between Penn Station in Baltimore and Union Station in Washington, beginning Dec. 7.

The weekend trains will make BWI more accessible to customers than ever, Wiedefeld said.

An estimated 3 percent of the passengers who start or end their travel at BWI arrive or leave the airport via MARC or Amtrak, said Jonathan Dean, an airport spokesman. About 70 percent of BWI's passengers start or end their travel there as opposed to connecting to other flights at the airport.

Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with the Teal Group Corp. in Fairfax, Va., noted that there are other weekend mass transit options for getting to BWI from the Washington area already, including Amtrak and bus connections from Washington's Metro system.

Still, MARC will be another cheap access route for an airport that caters to non-business travelers with less to spend, he said.

"It lowers the price point, increasing accessibility, and that's good for an airport that relies on leisure passengers," he said.

Last year, BWI passed Dulles International Airport in passenger count, becoming the nation's 22nd-busiest airport, according to Airports Council International. Passenger volume at BWI rose 1.25 percent to nearly 22.7 million in 2012, compared with Dulles' 22.4 million, a decline of 2.89 percent.

The airport does not track traffic by day, so statistics are not available for the percentage of fliers at BWI who arrive or depart on weekends, Dean said.

But he said airport officials "have heard from many customers over the years that they would use MARC if weekend service was offered, so we anticipate that the number of BWI passengers using MARC rail will increase with the addition of weekend service."

Wiedefeld said he hopes the increased access will help all of the airports in Baltimore and Washington attract more fliers, not just win customers away from one another.