Thursday, February 18, 2010

Commuting in Maryland

Returning from sunny climes on Amtrak, I stopped in DC and Maryland yesterday to check out their commuter rail facilities.

On the way into DC, there was lots of evidence of transit-oriented development (TOD) in the Virginia suburbs, like these office+apartments near the Alexandria Amtrak/Virginia Rail Express/Metro station.

I spent the night in Baltimore, continuing from DC Union Station. "Make no small Plans," wrote Daniel Burnham, architect of that noble station and one of my personal heroes, "they have no power to stir men's blood."

During a refreshing pause in the lower level food court (above), I thought about which of two roughly parallel commuter lines I'd take to Baltimore. MARC (Maryland Area Rail Commuter) evolved from local service of the Baltimore & Ohio and Pennsylvania Railroads, crystallizing as a state-run service in 1976 with the collapse of private passenger service through the US. Michigan faced a similar decision at about the same time, but took a different route: we killed our commuter rail subsidies in the 1980s. SEMTA (Detroit-Pontiac) lost state funding and died in 1983, and the Michigan Executive (Detroit-Ann Arbor) perished of the same cause in 1988.

I decided to start on the Camden Line (Washington Union Station to Baltimore Camden Station) which runs over the B&O tracks on which service began in the 1830s . It's a diesel-hauled double-track line; my train was pulled by this GP40WP-2 (shown here at the Camden end of the line, only 4/5 of a mile from Mount Clare Station, the first railway station in the US, started in 1828).

The single-level Sumitomo/Nippon Sharyo coaches are a bit cramped with 3+2 seating; I managed to read on my laptop, but typing was impossible, even though my neighbor was a slender young woman.

In the morning, I took the a Baltimore light rail train to Penn Station, chatting with a friendly woman who was taking a passenger survey.

Baltimore's Penn Station is beautifully designed, but is showing its age and in need renovation and ADA upgrades.

I caught a Penn Line train back to DC. As you might guess, this runs along the former Pennsylvania main line, electrified in 1935. MARC uses AEM-7 and HHP-8 electric locomotives on this line. I'm not sure which pushed my train (our locomotive was beyond the end of the platform), but here's a picture of the MARC HHP-8 which was waiting behind us on the arrival track in DC.

All MARC trains push south into Union Station and pull out north. MARC's Penn line is said to be the fastest commuter line in the US, with some trains traveling up to 125 MPH. I doubt that my all-stops local got quite that high, judging from the WHOOSH with which an Acela passed us going the same direction.

The Kawasaki bilevel coaches were more roomy, and I was able to take care of email on the way (using my cell modem - no en route WIFI).

An amazing number of people streamed off the train into the station.

All in all, it was a smooth, enjoyable commute each way, except for the tight seating in the single-level coaches. I can't wait for Michigan to get our own commuter and light rail systems!

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