All aboard for summer fun: The new Central Light Rail Line is not just a way to get from here to there, it's an adventure.
Think of it as a $446.3 million theme park ride along a scenic and historic route that links Baltimore's urban center with its verdant fringes and burgeoning suburbs. Only, this isn't a Busch Gardens' eye view of Charm City and its environs, this is real.
Get on anywhere, get off anywhere and explore. Meander. Take your bike and sightsee beyond walking distance. (Bikes are legal, a Mass Transit Administration spokeswoman says.) Picnic in the grass at Robert E. Lee Memorial Park, just half a mile from the Falls Road stop.
Look for treasure on Antique Row. Feast on chicken wings at Lexington Market. Have a cold drink at the Mount Royal Tavern. Examine the refurbished face of University Center, which includes the University of Maryland at Baltimore and the loft district. Stop at Pratt Street and cruise toward the Inner Harbor. Take the train to Timonium for the Maryland State Fair in August. Get back on the light rail, and ride for the sake of riding.
But be forewarned: The ride may not be completely smooth. Baltimore's newest mode of transportation has drawn criticism for its slowness (it takes roughly 40 minutes to get from Timonium to Camden Yards), overcrowding on Oriole game days and insufficient parking at most stops (only four have parking areas).
"We think we've overcome a lot of these initial criticisms," said Dianna Rosborough, an MTA spokeswoman. "The trains have been running on time 96 percent of the time."
Some families may plan a specific itinerary, others may take their chances, as they travel along the light rail route, now open from Timonium to Camden Yards. (All 24 stops along the line, from Timonium south to Glen Burnie, will be open by spring of 1993; extensions to Hunt Valley, Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Penn Station are expected to be completed in 1994.)
A pretty day in mid-June set the stage for a perfect afternoon of light rail hopping. The trip began at Woodberry, the historic mill town born again as a center for artisans, a bakery and the Clipper City Rock Gym, where frustrated mountaineers climb interiors of Clipper Industrial Park. With its solid stone houses, dramatic view of Jones Falls Valley, and rambling, secret streets, Woodberry, itself, justifies a leisurely tour.
On board the light rail train, several dozen boisterous Gilman School boys are returning from a class trip just before summer vacation. The students, dressed in white polo shirts and navy shorts, roar, laugh and sing. When they disembark at the Falls Road stop, remaining passengers draw in the sudden silence with a deep breath.
Along the old North Central Railroad path, through the Jones Falls watershed, the train travels north to Lutherville. Across Lake Roland, with fleeting glimpses of backyards, suburban lanes, swimming pools and playgrounds, the light rail system shifts the visual grid away from the same old views afforded by the JFX, Charles Street or York Road to a more intimate perspective. There is a woman working in her garden. There are the week's specials advertised in Graul's windows. There is a wild deer standing still near Druid Hill Park.
After a pastoral, sun-dappled ride, the first sight that greets passengers in Lutherville is a surprise: the Timonium Shopping Center, home to Loehmann's, Caldor and Circuit City and its neighbor, the Yorkridge Shopping Center.
On such a day it is easy to resist Loehmann's, the advertised air conditioner sales (they're tough to haul back on the train) and the matinee at Yorkridge 4 Cinemas, to discover historic Lutherville.
Old Lutherville, unblighted by suburban sprawl, is a 15-minute walk around the corner from the station. The community, founded in 1852 as the location of the Lutherville Female Seminary, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Huge Victorian homes, including one housing Twin Gates, a bed and breakfast, define the slightly shaggy village where sidewalks are few and honeysuckle drugs the air with sweetness.
Stroll past the old seminary, now a retirement home; Oak Grove, the pink mansion where Lutherville's founder John G. Morris, once made his home; and the town's remarkable octagon house, and then it's time to scurry back to the station and zip to Mount Washington for lunch.
By light rail, Mount Washington, filled with quirky, colorful shops, seems a world apart from the rest of Baltimore. It could be an idiosyncratic country village where locals live an independent life and tourists come to savor its difference. In the Hurricane bead shop, two high school boys free from school graze among thousands of beads to find just the right specimens for summer bracelets. A sign tells customers that a percentage of all sales goes to help the homeless and the environment.