A preview of the Purple Line is already running in Baltimore: Check out part FOUR of a series on the Purple Line.
A woman tends to her yard behind the Nursery Road station on Baltimore's light rail. Check out this slideshow comparing Charm City's trains to the potential Purple Line.
You might scoff at Baltimore's single light-rail line, but it gives Washington-area transit riders a good idea of what the proposed Purple Line will look like if the Maryland Transit Administration - which runs Baltimore's light rail and subway - decides to use the same technology here. A friend and I rode the rails from the BWI Business District station in Linthicum into Baltimore for Artscape, a yearly art festival, to avoid parking - but also to catch a glimpse of our possible future.
so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .
The Baltimore light-rail first began service in 1992 between Timonium, north of the city, and Glen Burnie to the south. In 1997, the line was extended further north to Hunt Valley along with spurs to BWI Marshall Airport and Penn Station. Originally, the entire system had a single track, severely limiting the number of trains the system could run at a given time and stifling ridership. A second track was added last year. Today, the light-rail averages 36,000 passengers a day.
While the Washington Metro's been responsible for revitalizing neighborhoods throughout the region, Baltimore's light rail has been relatively less successful, possibly because it covers such a limited area. It also doesn't connect with the city's single subway line - a major concern for Purple Line skeptics who worry about messy transfers between it and the Red, Green and Orange lines.
People cross the tracks as a train approaches near the Mount Royal station.
Simply put, if you hopped off the platform at a Metro station and touched the third rail, you would die. Not so in Baltimore: the light-rail gets its power from overhead wires called a catenary. This enables light-rail lines to be placed at-grade; on Baltimore's system, it runs in the street through the city and on regular train tracks in the suburbs. The catenary wires are visible, but no more visually distracting than telephone wires or streetlights or anything else you'd expect to see in an urban or suburban street.
Where the tracks intersect with a street, gates are lowered to prevent cars from running into the train. This doesn't occur in the city; the trains have special lanes with some sort of barrier between them, but they use the same stoplights as everyone else. One downside to this is that trains WILL stop at every light, slowing the trip through Baltimore into an interminable crawl.
Like the Georgetown Branch in Chevy Chase, the rights-of-way north and south of the city was originally used for freight trains and streetcars. At about thirty feet from end to end, it's only as wide as it has to be, and it appears that the homes and neighborhoods adjacent to the line were not disturbed by the train's operation. We saw kids playing in yards and people tending to gardens pretty much oblivious to the trains rushing past them.
Even smaller Metro stations like Forest Glen have large platforms, elevators and escalators, and acres of parking. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Highlands station just south of the city consists solely of a bench and a ticket machine under a shelter. There's a park-and-ride lot, but it's small. (Keep in mind that the Purple Line may not even have park-and-ride lots.) The distance from the platform to the nearest house is less than half a block.
The neighborhoods the light-rail serves both in and outside of Baltimore were built around streetcars - much like Chevy Chase and Takoma Park, two towns the Purple Line will stop in. In these older communities, there were a lot of mature trees. We were surprised by how thick the tree cover was along the right-of-way and at some stations. The North Linthicum station, especially, appeared to be in a well-forested area.
Baltimore's trains are unusually large for light rail vehicles. While that means they're a little more comfortable inside than the smaller streetcars used in Boston or Toronto, it also means they can overwhelm their surroundings. A three-car train is nearly three hundred feet long, which could snarl traffic on some of Downtown Silver Spring's shorter blocks.
Nevertheless, the view from inside a light rail train is commanding. (Take that, SUV owners.) Passengers can actually see what's on a street, giving them more of an incentive to get off and look around. We rode into Baltimore the weekend of Otakon, a major anime convention held at the Baltimore Convention Center, and the sidewalks were filled with cosplayers (people dressing up as anime characters).
The train's height comes at a disadvantage: the platforms aren't high, so passengers have to climb stairs to board the train. MTA is bound to have accomodations for handicapped riders, but they aren't easy to spot.
Passengers wait for a train at the Cultural Center station.
We have to admit: the light rail is slow. Wikipedia suggests that trains have a maximum speed of 60 miles per hour - comparable with Metro's - but due to the number of stops on the line and a lack of special timing at intersections, the ten-mile trip from BWI to the Mount Royal station took forty minutes.
A rush-hour trip on the J4 Metrobus takes fifty-seven minutes to go from College Park to Bethesda, a distance of about ten miles. Light-rail may not be fast, but it would still beat the bus.
Obviously, our experiment leaves a lot of questions to be asked. What's ridership like on a weekday? Are riders willing to transfer between the light rail and other modes of transportation (car, bus, subway, commuter train)? Baltimore's system also doesn't have the added requirement of accomodating a trail next to the tracks. What's it like biking next to the light-rail train? It looks like we might have to do some more research.
Heads-up to Scott Kozel's Roads to the Future for enlightening us on the history of Baltimore's light rail.