Rail transit in Baltimore, Maryland

From Academic Kids

Baltimore, Maryland has two main rail-based public transit systems: the Metro Subway and the Light Rail. Both are operated by the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA). In addition, the MTA's MARC commuter rail system has several stops in Baltimore; however, as this is a commuter railway rather than a true mass transit system, it falls outside the scope of this article.


Metro Subway

Missing image
Baltimore Metro Subway system map. Click to enlarge.

The Metro Subway is a single-line urban heavy rail system that draws power from an electric third rail. The Subway opened in 1983 with service between Charles Center in downtown and Reisterstown Road Plaza in the northwest section of the city. In 1987, an extension from Reisterstown Road Plaza to Owings Mills in Baltimore County was added, and in 1994 a further extension from Charles Center to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore City was also opened. The current system is 24.5 km long. 10 km is underground, 3.5 km is elevated, and the rest is at ground level.

Passengers must pass through a faregate in order to enter any Metro Subway station; small tickets similar to those used in the Paris Metro are used to pass through the entry gates. Currently a one-way trip between any two points on the Metro Subway costs $1.60. In the early 1990s, fares varied based on distance, and passengers had to use a ticket to exit the station as well as enter it, but fares were soon made uniform throughout the line, and with the removal of exit faregates in 2005, the situation is unlikely to change soon. MTA daily, weekly, and monthly passes are also good on the Metro Subway. Passengers with one of these passes must show it to a station attendant in order to enter the platform area.

See also: List of Baltimore subway stations

Light Rail

Light rail at BWI station. Click to enlarge.
Light rail at BWI station. Click to enlarge.

Baltimore also has a light rail system known simply as the Light Rail. This system runs generally north-south. Its northern terminus is at the Hunt Valley mall and business park in northern Baltimore County. It has two southern termini: one at Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI), and another at Cromwell in Glen Burnie, both in Anne Arundel County. In between the line travels more or less through the middle of Baltimore City; there is also a short spur that leads off of the main line to Baltimore's Penn Station, where passengers can transfer to MARC and Amtrak trains.

The system opened in 1992 and the current system was complete by 1997. The entire system is built at ground level, excepting a few brief stretches on bridges. (The longest of these carries the line over the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River just south of downtown Baltimore.) The majority of the Light Rail line's route is separated from all other road and rail traffic, though much of the section traveling through downtown Baltimore runs either down the middle of or immediately adjacent to Howard Street and must interact with cars and stop at traffic lights. On outlying sections of the line, the light rail tracks cross roads just like a passenger or freight line, complete with railroad crossing gates.

Baltimore Light Rail system map. Click to enlarge.
Baltimore Light Rail system map. Click to enlarge.

The Light Rail line follows for much of its route existing but previously disused right of way that had once been used by interurban streetcar routes. This allowed the system to be built at a substantial cost saving so that no federal money was required for the initial construction -- a rarity in modern American mass transit. Much of the political willpower to build the line the came from William Donald Schaefer, who was Mayor of Baltimore from 1971 to 1987 and Governor of Maryland from 1987 to 1994. It is no accident that the light rail services Baltimore's Camden Yards baseball park -- this stadium was another one of the projects that Schaefer spearheaded.

Up until February 2004, the system essentially operated as two lines: one running between BWI Airport and Penn Station, and one running between Cromwell/Glen Burnie and Hunt Valley. These lines were generally colored blue and yellow on MTA maps, respectively. However, in practice, the system isn't really thought of as two lines; and terms like "Yellow Line" or "Blue Line" aren't used. This is probably because the two lines had an extensive shared section in Anne Arundel County and southern and downtown Baltimore City, and there were only three stations (BWI Airport, BWI Business District, and Penn Station) that were on the "Yellow" line but not the "Blue" line. In practice, directions on the system are only labeled "Northbound" and "Southbound", and passengers must observe destination signs on trains to make sure they are getting on the right one. (The Light Rail system's routing is currently in flux; see more below on future directions.)

The Light Rail's ticketing is based on a proof-of-payment system, similar to that used in mass transit in Berlin. Passengers can buy single- or round-trip tickets, or daily, weekly, or monthly passes, from vending machines located at stations. MTA police officers ride some trains and spot-check passengers to make sure that they are carrying a valid ticket or pass.

See also: List of Baltimore light rail stations

System shortcomings?

Although Baltimore's rail systems carry tens of thousands of passengers daily, they are viewed by many in the region as somewhat of a disappointment. This section will review some of the system's perceived problems.

Lack of integration

One of the first thing that strikes a public transit rider about Baltimore's rail systems is that they are in fact two systems rather than one integrated system. There is in fact no station where one can transfer directly and easily between the two systems. Both systems have stations at Lexington Market; however, to go from the Metro Subway station to the Light Rail station involves a 200-yard walk down a city street. In addition, because the two systems have totally different ticketing schemes, passengers cannot use a single ticket to travel on both systems. For instance, imagine that a doctor is flying into Baltimore to visit the renowned Johns Hopkins Hospital. She would buy a ticket at the BWI Airport Light Rail station, board a train there, and get off at Lexington Market. After walking to the Lexington Market Metro station, however, she would have to buy another ticket there to finish her trip to the hospital. In almost any other system in the world, a single ticket would suffice for the entire journey.

Stations not well placed

The Metro Subway route was drawn from scratch to pass through many residential neighborhoods on the west side of Baltimore and Baltimore County. However, because it follows previously existing interurban routes, the Light Rail line doesn't pass through the center of many neighborhoods; rather, it passes along their edges, often in parallel with the elevated Jones Falls Expressway (I-83). This means that Light Rail stations are sometimes inconveniently located.

In many cities, tourists make up a significant portion of the passenger base of a public transit system. However, Baltimore's rail systems don't take passengers directly to many of the city's biggest tourist attractions. Tourists would need to walk 500 yards to get from a rail station to the Inner Harbor, nearly a mile to get from a rail station to Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness Stakes; and more than a mile to get from a rail station to Fells Point.

Baltimore's Penn Station has potential as a major transit hub, and it also immediately adjacent to a burgeoning arts and entertainment district. However, the spur that connects the main line to the platform level at Penn Station is only a single track, and thus cannot be used for through service. This means that trains can only enter and leave the station from the south, thus cutting off the entire northern half of the line from easy access to the station.

Long headways and slow service on the Light Rail

In order to complete it under budget, the Light Rail line was built with long stretches of only single track. As a result, trains could run on each of the two lines no more often than once every 17 minutes. (Times would be staggered so that on the shared section trains came every 8.5 minutes.) Thus, on much of the system, it was impossible to run trains at the 5-10 minute frequencies that most commuters would expect at rush hours. In addition, if an accident occurred on a single-track section of the line, then it would be impossible to run trains at all past that point until the problem was solved.

As noted, the section of the Light Rail line that passes through downtown Baltimore must interact with automobiles and streetlights; unlike many other similar systems, light rail vehicles have no ability to preempt signaling. This means that trains travel through this section of the line at what can be an interminable crawl.

The future of rail transit in Baltimore

Double-tracking and changing the routes of the Light Rail

In February 2004, the Light Rail system south of downtown Baltimore City was shut down so that all single-tracked areas of that portion of the system could be double-tracked. In July 2004, most of this section reopened; this stations south of North Linthicum, which include the two southern termini at Cromwell and BWI, were reopened in September 2004. Other single-tracked sections are also scheduled to be double-tracked by 2006, and it's likely that similar broad shutdowns will be employed during construction. A double-tracked system will see improved performance and could feature faster and variable headways, though the latter may require the purchase of more light rail vehicles -- a purchase for with the MTA currently has no budget.

Just before the shutdown, the MTA changed the Light Rail route pattern: Trains travelled between Hunt Valley and BWI Airport, and between Penn Station and Cromwell/Glen Burnie. This route structure offers direct access to the airport from the northern portions of the line. It's not clear what the route pattern will be when the two southern branches of the system reopen.

Future expansion?

In 2002, an independent commission issued a report on the future of Baltimore-area transit. The report suggested the an ambitious program that would tie together the two existing rail lines better and add miles of new track throughout the area. The existing Metro Subway would be rebranded as the "Green Line", while the two Light Rail lines would become the "Blue" and "Yellow" lines that they already were on maps. Part of the Yellow Line would be rerouted through a different portion of central Baltimore, and would be extended past the airport as far as Columbia, Maryland. The Green Line would be extended from Johns Hopkins Hospital to Morgan State University in the northeast of the city. An all-new rail line, called the Red Line, would run east-west from the Social Security Administration complex west of the city through downtown Baltimore to the burgeoning Fells Point and Canton neighborhoods.

Area transit riders and advocates were extremely excited by the report, though ; the Baltimore City Paper dubbed the map that accompanied it "transit porn." However, the report was never more than a guideline for future plans, and there was no budget attached to it. Additionally, November 2002 saw the election of Republican Robert L. Ehrlich as governor of Maryland. Ehrlich's transportation agenda was centered on the Intercounty Connector, a long-proposed highway that would connect Montgomery County and Prince George's County in the south part of the state. Ehrlich's Secretary of Transportation, Robert L. Flanagan, has been ambivalent at best on the prospects of implementing any of the recommendations of the report. He initially proposed bus rapid transit in place of some of the rail lines advocated in the report.

However, under pressure from Baltimore-area Congressional representatives, Maryland is now lobbying the Federal government for money to build the Red Line, probably as a light rail line with an underground section in the city center, and extend the Green Line. Such money can be hard to come by, and whether Congress will apportion such money to a state that appears to be ambivalent about using it to build rail lines remains to be seen.


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