If as many people rode the trains every day as they do over the Thanksgiving holiday, Amtrak just might earn a profit, a spokesman for the rail service said yesterday.
"We'll carry more than half a million people just through the Northeast states alone," Amtrak's Cliff Black said.
A breathless Peggy Plater of Wilson, N.C., getting off a train with heavy baggage at 6:20 last night, said, "It's very harried. It's very harried. I was supposed to catch a train in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, but the train was two hours late so Amtrak bused us to Washington where we got reticketed and put on a train and here I am two hours late."
Exasperated after standing up part of the trip, she said, "I expected a train ride."
Whether by train, plane or automobile, Thanksgiving is America's busiest period of travel, a tradition created by people in pursuit of more pleasant holiday traditions.
An estimated 3.5 million people will be traveling by plane, train, or bus this weekend, and another 22.5 million -- about 9 percent of the nation's total population -- will be traveling 100 miles or more by car.
Marylanders joined the Point A-to-Point B frenzy by the tens of thousands yesterday, a ritual they will repeat in reverse sometime between this evening and Sunday night.
"It hasn't slowed up because of the price of gas," said William F. Zorzi Sr., a spokesman for AAA-Automobile Club of Maryland.
Gasoline was a good 30 cents more expensive per gallon this Thanksgiving than last year, with the average gallon of self-serve unleaded going for $1.40, about 2 cents above the national average, he said.
Baltimore-Washington International Airport expected about 44,000 travelers through its terminal by the end of the day; an estimated 423,000 local motorists were expected to drive 100 miles or more; and state police put extra troopers on overtime to follow those drivers and look for speeders.
Eight people were killed on Maryland highways in automobile wrecks during the last Thanksgiving holiday, and state police said that if everyone obeyed the 55-mph limit, that number could be cut in half.
Why is Thanksgiving such a big holiday for leaving home, going home or just to roam?
"For one thing, it's a non-sectarian holiday," said Mr. Black, spokesman for the government-subsidized railroad. "And schools, offices and businesses all let out at the same time and open back up at the same time. It's a universally popular holiday. It's the day you go to grandmother's house."
Paul Berman was traveling yesterday -- waiting for an Amtrak Metroliner to New York at Baltimore's Penn Station -- but he was doing things a bit differently than most.
A 50-year-old radio announcer who had a bit part in the Woody Allen movie "Radio Days," Mr. Berman came back to his native Baltimore on Tuesday to visit his children, passed the day with them, and yesterday was headed back to his New York home in the midst of standing-room-only crowds on all non-reserved trains.
"This reminds me of wartime when I was a kid," he said, remembering World War II as college students walked by with parents and suitcases. "All the train stations were crowded with GIs, and it was standing-room-only on every train.
"I turned my ticket back in for a reserved seat two hours ago, and I'm still waiting for a Metroliner," he said. "I didn't want to carry my bags standing up for three hours, so I'm waiting in the station instead."
And Tom Moran of Lutherville was waiting for his brother-in-law to arrive on a train from New York last night. "This is very unpleasant but not like it used to be," he said. "For the last 20 years, I made the trip between relatives in Boston, New York and Baltimore, and I decided at age 43 that I was going to be permanently home for Thanksgiving for at least the next 20 years of my life."
Tonight, his brother-in-law will hop a plane back home.