Six-year-old Rey Powell sat next to his father, nose pressed against the window on the MARC train Saturday as he headed from Union Station in Washington to Penn Station in Baltimore aboard one of the system's first weekend trains.
The two planned to grab a taxi once they arrived for a visit to the National Aquarium — a father-and-son getaway for the boy's birthday.
"We love trains, and it takes away the hassle of driving," said his father, Rey Powell of Gaithersburg.
No one's sure how many weekend riders the MARC train will carry to and from Baltimore on its new, expanded Saturday and Sunday service, but Charm City marketing experts and transportation officials expect to collect on the state's $46 million venture in more places than just the fare box.
Curators and event planners, sports stadium managers and real estate brokers say they anticipate that the new train service will enable them to tap into a bigger tourism market, connecting them to regional travelers and visitors flying into Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport seven days a week.
Like other groups, city promoter Live Baltimore intends to incorporate the new weekend service into its 2014 advertising campaign. Transportation authorities want to make sure train stations and stops are appropriately stocked with maps and literature to help visitors find their way to attractions and navigate the city's public transportation. Other people, like City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, are looking forward to hopping on the train to catch a Washington Wizards game.
"We've got an asset-rich region anchored by two metropolitan cities only 40 miles apart," said Michele L. Whelley, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance. "The ability to get back and forth and take advantage of the region with an inexpensive, easy train ride will open up a world of opportunity."
For years, the alliance and others have pushed for the weekend service, but the General Assembly didn't come up with the cash for the Saturday and Sunday trips until earlier this year through the Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act, which will raise the gasoline tax by about 20 cents in 2016.
The Maryland Transit Administration set the goal as early as 2007, including seven-day service in an ambitious 28-year plan for the MARC. The state has invested more than $500 million on the MARC system in the last seven years.
"It's just a natural next step that we need to take," MTA administrator Robert L. Smith said. "It's part of our vision of growing ridership. It's part of our vision of making the region much more mobile. … We may be one of the only major metropolitan areas left that doesn't do weekend service."
The state did not analyze the potential economic impact of the extra trains and does not have estimates of projected ridership for the service, according to Smith. Weekend service has repeatedly surfaced as a demand in customer surveys, he said.
The MARC, a decades-old commuter rail line, has daily ridership between 35,000 and 40,000 passengers. A one-way weekend ticket from Baltimore's Penn Station to Washington's Union Station costs $7 on MARC, the same as during the week. That's compared to about $12 on Amtrak.
Amtrak reported about 6,000 one-way trips on weekends between Baltimore and Washington over a six-month period in 2012, Smith said. He hesitated when asked if the MARC expects to lure those passengers with its cheaper fares.
"We don't even want to say that, but what we will say is that that's a good gauge of the demand that's out there," Smith said.
Chris Peters and Andrea Kruszka canceled their Amtrak tickets from Baltimore to Washington in exchange for MARC tickets and saved $14. The couple came to Baltimore on Friday to see the aquarium and have sushi and drinks at the Inner Harbor, where they stayed the night at the Marriott.
"He likes the crab cakes, and I like that it's not D.C., a little different pace, scenery," Kruszka said. "It's a quick weekend trip."
Kruszka, who lives in Washington and works in marketing, said she thinks Baltimore could do a better job promoting the city. Peters was visiting from Chicago.
"I heard about this one time in D.C. and it's when I was waiting to get on the Metro," Kruszka said. "Other than that, I had no idea that this opportunity was even available. … Honestly, I don't think people in D.C. know about it."
Whelley said the alliance pushed for the expanded service with recommendations on how to pay for the expansion and proof of rail line capacity. The recession and lingering economic slump slowed efforts to expand the MARC service, which also had to negotiate with Amtrak, which owns the Penn Line rails, officials said.