It was a sight even a hardened skeptic had to admit was real.
Yesterday, at 4:30 p.m., the corner of Howard and Centre streets was filled with patrons awaiting the arrival of a light-rail train. The crowd was not going to Oriole Park at Camden Yards. In fact, it was headed in the opposite direction, to homes in Mount Washington, Lutherville and Timonium.
It was only the second day of regular workday Central Light Rail Line service. Although the big white-and-blue cars have been operating since early April, this week is the real test. Will Baltimoreans use the new transportation system as something other than a trendy and novel means to get to a ball game?
I walked westward on Centre Street and wondered whether there would be any interest in the traffic island built in the middle of Howard Street to serve the light-rail patrons. Lo! The platform was filled with passengers, even though this stop is somewhat north of the busier parts of the downtown business district.
One woman remarked that she would be giving up driving her car downtown. Another man unfolded a schedule and consulted a watch. He looked up and spotted the train's headlight and smiled. You got the impression that for most of these people, this was their first time on public transit in many years.
The car approached but was preceded by a distinct high-pitched whirring sound. That tone is reminiscent of the noise made by the old No. 8 streetcar on York Road and Greenmount Avenue. Then came the streetcar bell, a sound that hasn't been heard in the streets of Baltimore for many decades.
These transit riders were anything but the urban terrorists feared by the Ruxton-Riderwood residents who so vehemently fought the light-rail line's arrival in their community. The riders consisted of business people. The men wore conservative blue suits, the women stylish outfits. I'm sure most of them hadn't ventured near Howard Street in years. I'm also sure a number of these people actually lived in Ruxton and Riderwood.
As soon as the cars dip into the Jones Falls Valley at North Avenue, the scenery turns lush and leafy. This week was a great time to inaugurate the regular service. The paulownia trees, which are scattered at intervals along the tracks, are in purple blossom. Last week's rains have made the Jones Falls into a more emphatic and vigorous stream.
People got on and off each stop. A woman, who got off near Mount Royal Station, said aloud, "This is a godsend." One man rode in his wheelchair. Another woman climbed the car's steps in an aluminum walker.
As the afternoon rush-hour crowd got off the northbound cars, many more people bound for last night's Oriole game stood on the other side of the track for the southbound cars to take them to Camden Yards. The ballpark fans were much more numerous than the homeward-bound workers. But after the playing season is over, it will be up to the people in the blue suits and stylish dresses to make the line work. Already, they seem to be voting with their fare cards.