A weekend in Baltimore: Has this city lost its railroad charm?

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I spent this past weekend in Baltimore with members of the city's National Railway Historical Society chapter, which marks its 75th anniversary this year. It's among the oldest organized railfan groups in the country still in existence - Lancaster, Pa., is No. 1, and Philadelphia is No. 3 in longevity among NRHS groups. Being back in "Charm City," its nickname since the mid-1970s, gave me the chance to visit old haunts as well as the opportunity to see new places. I think you'll find what I saw and learned fascinating too, so indulge me with highlights of a visit to Baltimore, birthplace of the Baltimore & Ohio, a key location on Amtrak's busy Northeast Corridor, and a city that probably ranked No. 1 in the days of carload freight for more street trackage per capita. 

I got to town about noon on Friday, and my first stop after arriving on AirTran was nearby BWI station, a 1982 concrete bunker of a train depot. It has all the charm of a Cold War Berlin bunker but it's incredible useful, and I was glad to see renovations and longer platforms. It was immediately apparent to me that things were not as they should be: A southbound MARC commuter train was loading on the middle track, eschewing the southbound platform. An Amtrak station manager was herding passengers to the north end of the platform and carefully escorting them across the main at track to climb the steps back onto the MARC train. I took the stairs and the walkway over to the opposite platform and an employee allowed that the track adjacent to the southbound platform was out of service due to a train that was broken down north of here. A series of Amtrak and MARC trains pulled into the station and loaded this way, and finally a "rescue engine," a General Electric P32-BWH No. 512, of all things, appeared solo running northbound to tie onto the stranded train. Meanwhile, the continuous passage of northbound and southbound Amtrak and MARC trains continued to provide a fascinating parade. Late in the afternoon, No. 512 came into sight running long hood forward, throttle notched out and an exhaust plume shooting skyward. The unit, now relegated to work trains, was towing, of all things, an Acela high speed train. The platform agent applauded. 

My host, Sandy Mitchell (pictured above), provided a tour of CSX going into Baltimore. This included the famed Thomas Viaduct and, just around the hillside, the remarkably tiny shelter at St. Denis station, followed by a quick stop at the relatively new, elegant but empty Dorsey station, both on MARC's Camden line. CSX had a series of trains stacked up and waiting to yard in Baltimore. Incidentally, if you want to rub shoulders with CSX freight crews that run to Cumberland, stay at the LaQuinta on Philadelphia Road: They were coming and going at all hours of the day and night. 

On Saturday, the chapter celebrated its three quarters of a century with a luncheon, speakers, and a display of memorabilia from excursions run and days gone by. I got to catch up with new and old friends including Bob Janssen, the chapter's most enthusiastic member who calculates that he's now ridden 6,219 trains in his 86 years; Carl Franz, the famous steam photo charter organizer at Western Maryland Scenic, Cass Scenic, and Poland's Wolsztyn experience for operating a steam locomotive yourself at track speed; and Alex Mayes, whose photography has graced the pages of Trains for years and a friend who I've enjoyed chasing trains with many times. I enjoyed spending time with the chapter's Charlie Plantholt, who I had the good fortune to share a trip on the White Pass & Yukon with a few years back; President Buzz Ritte; brothers Bill and Don Kalkman, both excellent photographers; and so many others.

On Sunday, I visited the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, where I took rides on United Railways & Electric Co. No. 264, a Brownell car, built in 1900, a Peter Wit street car, and a PCC car. Motorman Ben Bates even provided lessons for the editor in the operation of a PCC car, Baltimore Transit Co. No. 7407, my first attempt at running such a vehicle. My steam friend from Delaware, Tom Gears, gave it a shot as well.  The result: Tom ran much more smoothly than I did; during my time in the seat, we jerked along but arrived back in one piece, although I was convinced at the end of the run that I had broken the car! Mitchell even brought out a sign placed on Baltimore streetcars in the day that designated the car as an NRHS special.

In the afternoon, it was back to NEC action around MARC's Halethorpe station and a quick visit to St. Denis. Watching trains on the NEC is an amazing, exhilarating experience. Under sunny skies, the trains ran fast and frequently, and on this day, I even saw a meet between regional trains, racing north and south at around 100 mph. Is Baltimore Charm City? Yes, I think you could say that! 

 

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  • When the BWI station opened (I believe it was 1980) it was for only one reason, Senator Mac Matthias wrote in a bill.  At that time MARC was operating a handful of trips, New Carrollton was the area's suburban station and no one had ever heard of Southwest Airlines.  So Amtrak took the cheap way out by not building a platform on the center track.  As a result over three quarters of Amtrak northbound trains cross from the middle track to track 1 to make the station stop at BWI.  When one of the tracks is out of service for whatever reason you get the chaos you saw. BWI is now the third heaviest station on the PennLine and in Amtrak's top 20. Maryland has a grant to do preliminary engineering and environmental work for 9 miles of fourth track between Halethorpe and Grove interlocking, a new station, and new platforms on four tracks.

    St. Denis once was a fairly well used station but lost most of its riders to Halethorpe and Dorsey.  Dorsey is actually the heaviest station on the Camden Line but if you were there in the middle of the day that wouldn't be obvious.  

  • In Jan 1981 issue of TRAINS, Don Phillips (aka The Potomac Pundit) called the new BWI Station "a new momument to the willingness of the Federal Government to spend money."  His comments were in a paragraph titled "A Station for Nowhere."  Don allowed that the new station might become as popular as Amtrak's Capital Beltway Station.  A quote, "I'll publicly eat my words if that happens."  Are we there yet, Don?  

  • If you're in Baltimore, try not to miss Fort McHenry, a VERY inspiring place, and I'm sure everyone knows why.  Also, don't miss the USS Constellation in the inner harbor.  Constellation is the last surviving ship from the Civil War US Navy.  None of these are train related of course, but they shouldn't be missed if you've got the opportunity to see them!

A weekend in Baltimore: Has this city lost its railroad charm?