Playing with Trains

C. GARDNER MALLONEE

March 07, 1992|By C. GARDNER MALLONEE

Many years ago when I was in high school I used to help my neighbor set up his Christmas garden. It was a big thing, taking up over half his cellar floor space. One of my favorites was the trolley car.

This car would travel down its track from one end of the town to the other, clanging its bell when it crossed the highway. At the end it would reverse direction and retrace its route. It was effective, but my neighbor decided to reroute it so that it made two grade crossing with one of the many trains that shared the garden. We rigged up pressure switches which worked to cut power to the trolley when the train neared the intersection. This worked well but he still wasn't satisfied.

He added a second trolley car. He didn't have enough room to put parallel tracks all over the garden so he devised a system where one would wait on a siding while the second passed in the opposite direction. He never got it to work quite right; there were always accidents, and he finally scrapped it and laid out his garden the next year with all double track.

Today our state is installing a trolley system that will be running on a single track for 40 percent of its length. I have full confidence that the computers of today will solve the problems we had with our miniature system of the '50s and that there won't be any head-on collisions on the one-way stretches.

The Swedish computers will ensure that the Danish-built bodies will remain intact. But why are there one-way sections of track in a system that costs the taxpayers over $240 million? Could a way be found to snake through the Jones Falls valley more expeditiously or go through Ruxton using a broader right-of-way?

The Christmas garden never considered passenger comforts on the trolleys; light rail has to since that is what it is supposed to do. How long will people tolerate sitting at a siding waiting for the car coming the opposite way to pass? What if this car gets delayed somehow? How long will a trip take from Towson to Oriole Park at Camden Yard? Will 30,000 people take to the light rail and give up their cars, knowing that it will only run at 15-minute intervals? What of the sections south of Baltimore out toward the airport?

My neighbor's Christmas garden was a treat to the whole community who came to see and admire. But the financial burden was all his. The Central Light Rail system is everybody's burden, and so should be scrutinized in a different light. People are going to ride on this system and they will expect it to work like the Metro or like the old trolleys did. Sitting on a siding is not going to endear it to many.

9- C. Gardner Mallonee writes from Rosedale.

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