MARC's refreshing addition: a cafe-parlor car on some runs

THE INTREPID COMMUTER

April 04, 1994

Sit back and relax. Pick up your complimentary newspaper, Danish pastry and cup of coffee and watch the world go by.

It is not commuter heaven, but the new cafe-parlor car attached to selected Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) trains comes about as close as anything Intrepid Commuter has encountered.

On Friday, MARC introduced "The Braddock Inn," a refurbished 1949 Pennsylvania Railroad Pullman that will simply bowl you over. At one end is the parlor: 18 extra-wide reclining swivel seats, MARC's first experiment with first-class accommodations.

On the other end of the car is a snack bar with six restaurant-style booths seating up to two dozen passengers. While the first-class seats cost extra, the snack bar (the Cafe Metropolitan) and its tables are available to all passengers.

For $3.50, you can pick up a steaming plate of Belgian waffles with syrup or fruit. An additional $1.25 buys you a cup of cappuccino to go with it.

It surely is a surprise for passengers who are used to MARC's bare-bones approach to commuting. Unlike Amtrak intercity trains, MARC never has offered refreshments or premium seating.

"It cost $150,000 to refurbish [the old car], compared to the $1.2 million or more it would cost to buy it new," says David V. Nogar, MARC's director. "We're pretty happy with it."

The details of the make-over are fabulous. Covered in plush red velvet, the swivel seats come with overhead lights, flip-up tables and surge-protected 110-volt outlets for portable computers.

The table seats are covered in what looks from a distance like a plaid fabric. When you gaze closely, however, you can see the fabric is actually blue with the MARC logo repeated over and over in white lettering.

The two-tone table tops are simulated granite. Each comes with its own lamp, a copy of the kind used on the Pennsylvania Railroad.

The car is being tested during peak commuting hours on the Brunswick Line from West Virginia to Washington's Union Station, but it's also making some midday trips on the Penn Line between Baltimore and Washington.

Brunswick line commuters must pay $55 a month extra to reserve a parlor seat one-way and $105 round-trip. That's on top of $100 to $150 for a standard monthly pass. The reservations are available only on a monthly basis. On the Baltimore-Washington run, no reservations are required and you can pay by the trip. Just give the conductor an extra $5 when he checks your ticket.

Mr. Nogar says the parlor seats are 60 percent booked already. If the car becomes a success, he intends to refurbish two more coaches.

You can catch the new car between Washington and Baltimore on the No. 408 leaving Union Station at 10:25 a.m., on the No. 423 leaving Penn Station at 11:45 a.m., the No. 414 leaving Union Station at 1:30 p.m. and the No. 429 leaving Baltimore at 2:50 p.m.

Beltway signs: read and ignored

It takes a lot to irritate our readers (witness their loyal return each Monday to page 3B), but Beltway signs always rouse their wrath.

Consider a recent SunDial call from Marvin Yaker of Lutherville, who regularly drives the Beltway's outer loop at the Northwest Expressway. Unlike the Intrepid Commuter, he actually reads the overhead traffic signs.

According to the sign, the two right lanes are right-turn only. But that's not so. Motorists in the leftmost right-turn lane are permitted to go straight or turn, and the pavement is marked with a double arrow to reflect that fact.

"Why are the arrows in conflict with one another?" Mr. Yaker asks. "Please take a look at that."

We regret to say that our Intrepidness has passed that spot many times and never noticed the discrepancy. We took a look and discovered that Mr. Yaker is correct.

We asked the State Highway Administration for an explanation, which turned out to be a rather simple one.

First, the sign was designed when engineers expected to make the lanes both right-turn-only. But before it opened, designers fretted that westbound traffic coming from Reisterstown Road (one exit earlier) would have problems sliding two lanes to the left very quickly to avoid the Northwest Expressway exit.

Traffic engineer Darrell Wiles says the solution was to make one lane an optional turn lane. The optional lane ends about 1,500 feet beyond the exit, ultimately forcing traffic to merge to the left anyway.

In his defense, Mr. Wiles points out that the sign announcing two right-turn lanes is located past where motorists have to choose whether to go straight or turn.

"But if we were to start it all from scratch today, we might have moved the sign back slightly," he concedes.

We need a few more keen-eyed drivers such as Mr. Yaker to compensate for the kind encountered by Brian McClernan of Woodlawn. He complains of fellow motorists who don't seem to be able to read signs.

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