Rebirth of a railway High hopes ride on tracks of B&A's high-tech successor

April 04, 1993|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Staff Writer Staff Writer Andrea F. Siegel contributed to this story.

More than four decades after the last Baltimore & Annapolis Railroad commuter train chugged through northern Anne Arundel communities built alongside the tracks, passengers returned to the rails once again.

Call it a journey back to the future, light rail's opening in North Arundel Friday.

But the "Bumble & Amble's" successor bears little resemblance to the clanking old trains that carried 1.7 million passengers a year during the railroad's heyday.

The 3,000 passengers expected to ride the southern-spur trains to Opening Day at Camden Yards tomorrow will board sleek, shiny trolleys that silently slice their way through woods, alongside back yards, past towns that grew up to the rhythm of train whistles, then over the Patapsco and into Baltimore.

State transportation planners herald the opening of the 22.5-mile Central Light Rail Line's southern spur as the beginning of a new era in transportation for the county, an environmentally correct antidote to smog-filled roadways.

"This is the mode of transportation we had 50 years ago, and now it has come back," says state Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer, a former Anne Arundel County Executive. "We are coming back to our roots, or to our rails. This is the future for transportation."

The future came slowly -- the first trains arrived a year after the original targeted debut, Opening Day 1992 at Camden Yards -- and many have good reason to celebrate its long-awaited arrival.

Merchants hope the hordes riding the rails will stop for a bite, a coffee and doughnut, some gas, maybe a bottle of wine. Residents eagerly anticipate trading a commuters' curse, suburban gridlock, for a stroll to anearby stop and a relaxing ride for $2.50.

Realtors tailor a new sales pitch to commuters and baseball fans alike. Old-timers wax poetic about the return of the romance of the rails, a cherished piece of the past resurrected.

Helen Del Brocco, 75, a former Fort Meade clerk-typist, says she watched North Linthicum's transformation from a quiet little railroad town to a congested suburb where new developments and fast-food joints multiplied and traffic grew unbearable.

People had it better back when they got around by walking a block or two to the train, she says.

Now Mrs. Del Brocco and her husband, Joseph, 92, a retired barber, plan to walk a few blocks to the North Linthicum station for regular journeys to the Inner Harbor, Timonium Fairgrounds and wherever else their fancy and the rails will take them. "I've seen so many changes in 40 years around here," she says, "but I think the light rail is the biggest improvement."

Just across the busy intersection of Camp Meade Road and Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard, the owners of The Rose Restaurant and the adjoining Comfort Inn have awaited the opening for a year.

They rushed to complete their new deli and convenience store, which they named the Deli and Donut Depot, in time for Opening Day 1992.

Now, says Cliff W. Wietstruk, sales and marketing director for the inn and restaurant, "Whenever we talk to clients, we always mention rail. It's about every third word that comes out." Stay here, the pitch goes, avoid the parking hassles and pricey glass-walled hotels around the Inner Harbor, and be at a convention, a business meeting or a ballgame in a matter of minutes.

Long-lost friend

Some who lamented the old B&A's demise said they never thought they'd see this day and welcome the newfangled rail like long-lost friend.

Don Weisman, 69, remembers better than most the days when passenger rail reigned. As a conductor, he took the tickets and called out the stations as the old B&A left Camden Station for its final passenger run at 1 a.m. on a chilly day in February 1950.

Afterward, he drove a B&A transit bus and worked on freight trains at Fort Meade. He eventually gave up retirement to return to the B&A rails in 1980, supervising crews on the freight runs, then steering the trains. But he says he has spent 43 years longing for trains that haul people instead of just freight.

"People hated to see the passenger end of the B&A disappear," he says. "They relied on the railroad."

Now that light rail has come to Anne Arundel County, he says, "My greatest disappointment is I'm not at an age where I can get a job."

Amid the hoopla surrounding yesterday's long-awaited official opening, it's easy to forget that few people in these parts took the possibility of a rail revival seriously at first.

Just ask Ken Pippin. When the avowed train freak bought B&A Railroad, the struggling freight hauler, in 1984, reviving a local passenger line along the route seemed to most no more than a fit of nostalgia.

Says Sen. Michael J. Wagner, a Ferndale Democrat: "Linthicum didn't want it. Nobody wanted it."

But in 1991, Mr. Pippin sold the six-mile B&A right-of-way needed for the southern light rail spur for $9 million. Just seven years before, he had paid less than $1 million for the old B&A Railroad.

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