A nice place to get away from

March 21, 2012

It had been a lot of years since I regularly made use of the Aberdeen train station when a friend of my daughter's was scheduled to visit and had taken the train from New England.

Back when I made use of the train a few times a year, the MARC commuter rail system was in the planning phases, then in its infancy. One of the old train station buildings, as I recall, had been converted for use by a dry cleaner. The station itself was a mess, with two revolting features: the so-called Concrete Monster pedestrian bridge that linked the two sides of the track and the tunnel under the track that also linked the two sides, but which wasn't, and still isn't, handicapped compliant.

In those days, the Concrete Monster pedestrian bridge had a function beyond being a link for people whose rides were on one side of the tracks, but who boarded or disembarked on the other. It was also a gathering place for an assortment of loiterers, drug dealers and other menacing looking characters who you'd think would have something better to do with their time than lean against the chain link fence in a stairway to a pedestrian bridge.

Bad as the bridge was, it was on par with the tunnel. Though the loitering threats to civil society were absent in the tunnel, it was clear they used it as a latrine.

At some point in those days, I got so frustrated with the condition of the Aberdeen train station that I started driving to Wilmington when I needed to travel by train. Though it was in rough-looking territory (you really couldn't call it a neighborhood as in those days it was more of a rust belt type former industrial site) the Amtrak station in Wilmington was, and remains, a beacon of relative safety and cleanliness.

Then I got married, had a family and buying train tickets became more expensive than buying gasoline and paying tolls, so I largely forgot about the train, until a few weeks back when my daughter's friend visited. When we went to the station in Aberdeen to pick her up, I was shocked by how little had changed. While the waiting area had improved substantially, the tunnel remained the same revolting mess it was 20 years ago and it looked to me like the folks at the station were avoiding the Concrete Monster the same way they might avoid Godzilla.

As a gateway to the community, the train station says the same thing to visitors it did way back when: "Try not to step in anything."

Allow me to flash back a few years to a time when, as it is now, the matter of the train station being a gateway to the community was something that came up from time to time at meetings of what was then the Aberdeen Board of Town Commissioners. There was a substantially different cast in the five leadership positions in local government and a few of them were in the good graces of William Donald Schaefer, governor in those days. They invited the governor for a visit and it was turned into a typical Schaefer cavalcade, beginning with an arrival by train.

Much effort went into scrubbing the station, rounding up the usual malingering suspects and whitewashing the walls of the tunnel. As I recall, there was something of a lapse in security the night before the big show and some vandal besmirched the tunnel, much to the irritation of the folks in town government who wanted it to be nice for the governor. It has irritated me ever since that so much effort went into making the station nice for the governor, but none goes into making it nice for the working stiffs, who use it every day.

Which brings me to my daughter's friend's visit: No one whitewashed the station. Though the Aberdeen Police headquarters is about four blocks away, the station might as well have been on the outskirts and just beyond the city limits. And the smell of the tunnel was as familiar as it was offensive.

Aberdeen has for years fancied itself a transportation hub for Harford County, and with its Amtrak and MARC train stops, proximity to I-95 and its being host to the post (Aberdeen Proving Ground), it has the potential to become an important point of arrival and departure.

Unfortunately, as long as the train station is the filthy, dimly-lighted and potentially frightening place it has been for at least the past 20 years, it will continue to be worth driving to Baltimore, Wilmington or Philadelphia for the start of a long excursion.

Sadly, the situation could be turned around with a relatively minor investment in security and sanitation, but this has been true for decades. One thing is for sure: as long as no one does anything to improve the train station, it will be just like it is today, or worse.

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