Affordable express to D.C. is just push railroad needs in city

March 05, 2005|By JACQUES KELLY

THE OTHER night I was awakened by the sound of a locomotive working its way through the tunnels of Baltimore. As a non-driver who is also something of a train nut, I often consider the role trains have played in Baltimore's history.

The train situation here can be frustrating - trains surround us, but hardly live up to their potential. I was reminded of this recently when at a flea market I picked up a 1914 B&O schedule that gave the express running time between Baltimore and Washington as 45 minutes - with coal-powered steam locomotives.

There is no express on the Camden Line today. A 5:41 morning commuter leaves Camden Station and arrives at Washington's Union Station at 6:40, 59 minutes later.

Baltimore should be a major train city on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, but the high fares scare passengers away. I recently heard friends discussing strategies for getting to New York. To a person, they all ruled out taking Amtrak because of the basic $146 round-trip cost.

In the city that prides itself as the birthplace of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad I often hear friends talk about how the bus companies do a better job. They discuss taking a bus from the Travel Plaza in East Baltimore or one of the daily tour services that leave from the northern suburbs and go to New York City for $50.

I've often thought what excellent rail service Baltimore could and should have. Before Amtrak's finances became so jumbled, it was possible to get a reasonable fare to New York or Philadelphia. I think of the old weekend theater and shoppers' specials where the trains may not have contained the finest coaches, but they got you there for an affordable fare. I wonder if an $85 bargain fare on as-is coaches wouldn't sell.

Baltimore, unlike Philadelphia, has no lower-cost rail alternative to New York via state-run service. Let's revisit that 45-minute, 1914 coal-burner service between Baltimore and Washington during the Woodrow Wilson era. Running time was state of the art then.

What would it take to run an express commuter train from Baltimore's Penn Station to Union Station, Washington, in 30-35 minutes? Not a fancy expense-account train, but something for people who want to get to work quickly.

I dream about this when I notice the hundreds of vacant rowhouses within a 20-minute walk of Penn Station. Could we link these dwellings to Washington jobs via a speedy train?

The discussions about high-speed maglev trains in Baltimore seem to have withered. That's too bad. I think back a decade ago to the decision to place Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Suddenly, there was a justification - and a rather rapid construction - of a light rail system.

Sometimes I'll go down to Halethorpe and watch the trains roar through. The Acelas seem to work for the expense-account business traveler ($290 weekday round trip to New York), but what about our MARC travelers, who put up with a lot of commuting time?

I look over the two rail lines between Baltimore and Washington and see a lot of potential. But there are obstacles as well. Those rail tunnels of Baltimore are ancient; the main West Baltimore tunnel opened in 1871. Maybe it's time to set some new goals for our rail service.

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