It absolutely is a positive development that the old Baltimore & Ohio Railroad passenger station on West Bel Air Avenue in Aberdeen is poised to make the transition from dilapidated hulk to historic site.
There's something in the American psyche that identifies strongly with trains. Why else would there be so many different sizes of model railroads for hobbyists of all ages to enjoy? Realistic displays featuring model trains are among the most substantial non-shopping parts of the secular side of the Christmas season.
Importantly, few rail lines are as culturally ingrained as the B&O. It is one of four to have been memorialized on the board game Monopoly, along with the Reading, the Pennsylvania and the Short Line.
Building of the Transcontinental Railroad – and its associated telegraph line – is credited with helping to turn the United States into the two-ocean nation it is today. The railroads are also credited with helping to make possible the nation-preserving Union victory in the Civil War.
Trains are endlessly fascinating to Americans, and they are an important part of the national identity, and also were vital to the establishment of many communities, including, but not limited to, Aberdeen, Perryville and, to a lesser degree, Bel Air and Port Deposit.
The link between rail service and the establishment of Aberdeen as a commercial hub cannot be understated. Though the city has been closely associated with Aberdeen Proving Ground for 97 years, it's important to remember APG was named after a city that was already firmly established in 1917 as a commercially significant passenger and freight stop.
These days, the freight trains rumble through Aberdeen, rarely having occasion to make a stop. Amtrak's passenger rail service makes a few stops a day in the city, and the MARC commuter rail service is a regular at the train station a few blocks to the east of the old B&O station.
Rail service ain't what it used to be. Even as trains are held in high cultural regard, their day-to-day operations in modern times in these parts are often regarded as lowbrow. Commuter trains in the Baltimore area tend to be inconvenient, except for people with highly-predictable schedules. Amtrak service outside the Boston to Washington, D.C., corridor is a money loser for the heavily subsidized line.
It is telling that even as the Aberdeen B&O station is in line for a major overhaul into a visitor friendly historic site, the active station that serves Amtrak and MARC passengers remains an uninviting place to start or end a trip.
This is unfortunate. Possible upgrades to the active passenger station have been the subject of many a study and public discussion, but little else beyond paper and talk. Sure, there have been a few upgrades in recent years, but nothing substantial enough to turn it into a meaningful economic center.
Even as Aberdeen is able to celebrate its rail heritage with the upgrade of the old B&O station, its local government leaders should be vigorously pursuing a major upgrade or rebuilding of the active passenger rail station. Aberdeen, after all, grew up around a train that served as the community's primary economic draw. There's no reason a more inviting and vibrant active train station couldn't evolve into a much more important part of the city's economy than it is today.