Judge Sklar's last laugh

Baltimore Glimpses

March 10, 1992|By GILBERT SANDLER

ON A DAY in early May, railroad passenger cars will leave

Timonium station, officially marking the restoration of full-time commuter service down the Jones Falls Valley. (This is the beginning of full service; limited service will begin serving the new baseball stadium at Camden Yards on Opening Day, April 6.)

It will be the first time for the service since the Public Service Commission authorized the Northern Central line to halt passenger service in 1959. Some people will be angry about it -- particularly Ruxtonites who fought light rail from the first moment it was discussed. Others will be happy, particularly those who will now have a fast and relatively pollution-free way of reaching downtown. But Judge Albert Sklar will be laughing.

Judge Sklar has plenty of reason.

In 1959 the battle to disband the Northern Central run had already been waged for at least four years. Trouble had surfaced as early as 1955, when the gargantuan Pennsylvania Railroad, which in 1914 had leased the Northern Central for 999 years and was operating the "Parkton Local" -- Parkton to Calvert Station -- began making noises about dropping the service.

The railroad claimed that rising costs and a decrease in passengers were causing it to lose $120,000 a year. But a battalion of irate commuters banded together and declared war on the railroad. It argued in several hearings, mostly through Francis X. Gallagher (a lawyer), John J. Redwood Jr. (a prominent banker then and now, and among the train's most enthusiastic supporters) and Howard R. Simpson (rail buff and son of a Baltimore & Ohio president) that the railroad could make a profit and simultaneously serve commuters, if only it would make certain changes in operations. Leaders of the Parkton Local Commuters Association worked hard the fall of 1958, handing out fliers and asking for volunteer time and dollars.

They failed. The PSC, with Judge Sklar in the minority, voted two-to-one to allow the railroad to cease passsenger service.

Judge Sklar's two PSC colleagues, Francis V. DuPont and Stanford Hoff, ruled that the railroad had no obligation to run the service at a loss. Judge Sklar, however, became the hero of the affair, defending commuters against what was perceived as the awesome power of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

"The legislation [establishing the system in the first place] intended public convenience and necessity to be paramount. Financial return was not the only issue," Judge Sklar wrote.

But he was outvoted. And so it was that on the morning of June 28, 1959, commuters read this notice: "By authority of order No. 54048 dated April 29 of the Public Service Commission, trains operating between Baltimore and Parkton will be discontinued."

As those who have followed the issue over the 33 intervening years know, some of the same residents who fought so hard to keep the railroad in the 1950s resisted its return a generation later. But Mr. Simpson is among those who fought hard to keep the train service and to get it back. "I've recently ridden those same tracks I rode 33 years ago," he said the other day. "The

view is different. But it's still a thrilling ride -- that hasn't changed."

*

The first of the light rail cars will leave the Timonium station at a.m. May 6. Pretty early for Judge Sklar. But he ought to be there -- to get the last laugh.

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