Baltimore, The Charm City.
Baltimore, in the younger transit fan community is made famous for its bus system, which covers all of Baltimore City and most of Baltimore County. The state runs the show in this case, as the agency’s name is MTA Maryland, the Mass Transit Administration of Maryland. As far as the older fans, Baltimore is more famous for its extensive streetcar network, much of which was replaced by most of today’s bus routes and some of which were eliminated never to come back in any form. That was the network of the Baltimore Transit Company, or BTCo for short. The MTA Maryland light rail system is a comeback of sorts for streetcars, though with more private rights-of-way than with the old streetcars and quieter, faster cars.
There are three services available in this light rail system: Hunt Valley to Cromwell, Timonium to BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, and Penn Station to Camden Yards. During the midday hours, the Timonium line extends up to Hunt Valley to compensate for the longer intervals of BWI-Hunt Valley service at those hours. All three services run together from Mount Royal to Camden Yards, and the two longer services run together from Timonium (Hunt Valley during the peak hours) to Linthicum. It was decided to run the BWI line to Timonium to relieve overcrowding on the Hunt Valley Line,which meant that Penn Station service was reduce to a shuttle of sorts. This shuttle once ran from Penn Station to Mount Royal until about three years ago when it got extended to Camden Yards. The original route layout from when I first started visiting Baltimore was Hunt Valley to Cromwell (Blue Line) and BWI Airport to Penn Station (Yellow Line).
This system is a unique system in a number of ways. First and foremost, the light rail trunk line runs on northbound-only Howard Street in downtown Baltimore, in a tricky, winding pattern not seen nearly anywhere in my travels. Between Pratt Street and roughly Fayette Street, the tracks are on one side of the street to allow northbound traffic to use the other side…which is fine and dandy. Once the line crosses Lexington Street Street, the northbound track and the northbound traffic lane switches places so that the traffic runs between the two tracks. At Saratoga Street, it reverts back to the configuration south of Fayette Street. Upon crossing Madison Street, Howard street becomes two-way for traffic and the light rail is summonsed to the middle of the street. Upon reaching MLK Blvd, the light rail leaves street-running and runs along Howard Street on the eastbound side of the street until it turns onto Dolphin Street at the Mount Royal Station. At that point, the line splits with the tracks off to the right swooping down into Penn Station next to Amtrak and MARC and the tracks off to the left heading up to Hunt Valley.
The second thing about the light rail system is that, believe it or not, much of the system was single-tracked in several places. There were places where the line runs in a single-track alignment and then has passing sidings to allow trains to run past each other. North of Timonium and south of Patapsco come to mind. Also a section of track between Camden Yards and Westport was single-tracked. Due to trains being frequently delayed and ridership growing faster than expected, the line had to be shut down in sections for a second track to be installed in many places. The “Double Track Project” wreaked havoc on riders due to the fact that the shutdowns occurred in whole consecutive days, meaning that many riders had to take shuttle buses even during the weekday peak hours. What made things worse was that there were so many buses needed that older buses were taken out of storage or out of retirement not only for shuttle bus usage but for normal weekday bus service as well.
Third, the cars used on this system are custom-built for Baltimore and found absolutely nowhere else in the system. The first 30 cars were built by Asea Brown Boveri and the other 23 built by the AAI Corporation. They are high-floor cars built in the early 90’s. They can go as fast as 60MPH, but there’s only very limited sections where a train can operate at that speed, possibly towards Timonium Business Park. Most trains are two-car consists, with some single car trains running around during off-peak hours and at all times on the Penn Station-Camden Yards line. These cars are high-floor, low-entry cars similar to those found in Philadelphia, though the Baltimore cars are articulated while those in Philly are single-unit cars.
The better half of the system is the northern half, the section from Mount Royal to Hunt Valley, where the line runs on former railroad alignments and alongside Interstate 83’s banks. The line is mainly tree-line through Mount Washington to Timonium and then snake through business parks and industrial areas before it makes its way to the Hunt Valley Mall. Much of the line is fast right-of-way, which allows the trains to reach 50+ miles per hour with longer stop spacing than the rest of the system. It looks like any commuter rail line that winds through the suburbs, though stops are spaced closer than with commuter rail. The trains have decent acceleration to make full use of the long stop spacing, and their trucks are heavy enough to take a pounding.
What I don’t like about the system is that, though unique and modern in its time, it doesn’t have a modern light rail feel, other than the way the stations are designed. It looks more like an oversized streetcar with stations on sidewalks and fancy-looking canopies. Granted, other light rail systems are designed very much the same, but Baltimore’s system looks very cheaply built (never mind that it was, hence all of the single-track sections) and the cars have a minimalist look, like a copycat design. If the cars were a bit more defined, like a Siemens SD100 or a Kinkisharyo Type 7, it wouldn’t look so bad. The stations aren’t the greatest looking, but for a light rail system, it is bare minimum, minus the non-accessibility for wheelchairs; thus the front of the platforms have a mini-high platform and ramp for them to access at least the front of the first car of the train.
Baltimore has a long way to go in order to make their system more world-class, or even passable, though the Red Line crosstown light rail would have been by leaps and bounds better-designed than the current system. Whether it will be constructed remains to be seen, though I have no updates since 2011 about any progress. Even though there has been some community opposition to the project, saying it will displace families and disrupt quality of life in West Baltimore without any net socioeconomic gains, the Red Line would have made the #40 Quickbus line nearly obsolete and provide fast, smooth rail service to areas previously only served by buses (Routes 3, 15, 20, and 36 come to mind). Whatever happens, the city will still be in need of a better system to transport and attract to the city…not just relying on the Inner Harbor for revenue.