All aboard for summer fun: The new Central Light Rail Line is not just a way to get from here to there, it's an adventure.
Think of it as a $446.3 million theme park ride along a scenic and historic route that links Baltimore's urban center with its verdant fringes and burgeoning suburbs. Only, this isn't a Busch Gardens' eye view of Charm City and its environs, this is real.
Get on anywhere, get off anywhere and explore. Meander. Take your bike and sightsee beyond walking distance. (Bikes are legal, a Mass Transit Administration spokeswoman says.) Picnic in the grass at Robert E. Lee Memorial Park, just half a mile from the Falls Road stop.
Look for treasure on Antique Row. Feast on chicken wings at Lexington Market. Have a cold drink at the Mount Royal Tavern. Examine the refurbished face of University Center, which includes the University of Maryland at Baltimore and the loft district. Stop at Pratt Street and cruise toward the Inner Harbor. Take the train to Timonium for the Maryland State Fair in August. Get back on the light rail, and ride for the sake of riding.
But be forewarned: The ride may not be completely smooth. Baltimore's newest mode of transportation has drawn criticism for its slowness (it takes roughly 40 minutes to get from Timonium to Camden Yards), overcrowding on Oriole game days and insufficient parking at most stops (only four have parking areas).
"We think we've overcome a lot of these initial criticisms," said Dianna Rosborough, an MTA spokeswoman. "The trains have been running on time 96 percent of the time."
Some families may plan a specific itinerary, others may take their chances, as they travel along the light rail route, now open from Timonium to Camden Yards. (All 24 stops along the line, from Timonium south to Glen Burnie, will be open by spring of 1993; extensions to Hunt Valley, Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Penn Station are expected to be completed in 1994.)
A pretty day in mid-June set the stage for a perfect afternoon of light rail hopping. The trip began at Woodberry, the historic mill town born again as a center for artisans, a bakery and the Clipper City Rock Gym, where frustrated mountaineers climb interiors of Clipper Industrial Park. With its solid stone houses, dramatic view of Jones Falls Valley, and rambling, secret streets, Woodberry, itself, justifies a leisurely tour.
On board the light rail train, several dozen boisterous Gilman School boys are returning from a class trip just before summer vacation. The students, dressed in white polo shirts and navy shorts, roar, laugh and sing. When they disembark at the Falls Road stop, remaining passengers draw in the sudden silence with a deep breath.
Along the old North Central Railroad path, through the Jones Falls watershed, the train travels north to Lutherville. Across Lake Roland, with fleeting glimpses of backyards, suburban lanes, swimming pools and playgrounds, the light rail system shifts the visual grid away from the same old views afforded by the JFX, Charles Street or York Road to a more intimate perspective. There is a woman working in her garden. There are the week's specials advertised in Graul's windows. There is a wild deer standing still near Druid Hill Park.
After a pastoral, sun-dappled ride, the first sight that greets passengers in Lutherville is a surprise: the Timonium Shopping Center, home to Loehmann's, Caldor and Circuit City and its neighbor, the Yorkridge Shopping Center.
On such a day it is easy to resist Loehmann's, the advertised air conditioner sales (they're tough to haul back on the train) and the matinee at Yorkridge 4 Cinemas, to discover historic Lutherville.
Old Lutherville, unblighted by suburban sprawl, is a 15-minute walk around the corner from the station. The community, founded in 1852 as the location of the Lutherville Female Seminary, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Huge Victorian homes, including one housing Twin Gates, a bed and breakfast, define the slightly shaggy village where sidewalks are few and honeysuckle drugs the air with sweetness.
Stroll past the old seminary, now a retirement home; Oak Grove, the pink mansion where Lutherville's founder John G. Morris, once made his home; and the town's remarkable octagon house, and then it's time to scurry back to the station and zip to Mount Washington for lunch.
By light rail, Mount Washington, filled with quirky, colorful shops, seems a world apart from the rest of Baltimore. It could be an idiosyncratic country village where locals live an independent life and tourists come to savor its difference. In the Hurricane bead shop, two high school boys free from school graze among thousands of beads to find just the right specimens for summer bracelets. A sign tells customers that a percentage of all sales goes to help the homeless and the environment.
The nearby Stone Mill Bakery is a wonderful place for a prosciutto and Camembert sandwich on Italian flatbread and a cup of "brown lemonade" sweetened with brown sugar. Then, a brisk walk to the train with a whole-wheat baguette under one arm. How Continental!
From Mount Washington, the light rail travels south, out of the leafy portion of the railroad right-of-way into the city proper, where the skyline emerges from a new, slightly skewed angle. The train continues to North Avenue (walking distance to the Baltimore Streetcar Museum) and on to the Mount Royal stop, which will place you smack in the middle of ArtScape July 17-19. After the Cultural Center stop, there is the Centre Street stop.
Antique Row on Howard Street is just a block to the north. There, collectibles, a tarot card reader and rare book stores squeeze together in a dusty retreat from today's world. Yakov's Antiques and Restoration offers everything from wooden Ukrainian eggs to eerie, surreal paintings of women metamorphosing into liquor bottles. At the Galleria, one shopkeeper says that light rail passengers have yet to discover Antique Row's riches. While she talks to a visitor, her dog, clad in a bathrobe, rests peacefully on a display case.
Down the street is Mee Rack, a lovely Korean restaurant, and around the corner on Monument Street, is the Maryland Historical Society, where the "Mining the Museum" exhibit, which depicts the history of African-Americans and Native Americans, has caught national attention for its unique approach.
There is more. A lot more. But it is left to the adventurous to discover for themselves where light rail can go. Here's one last tip: Don't forget to stop at Camden Yards Station. It is said there is a stadium somewhere nearby.
Riding light rail
One-way fares are $1.10 for the general public; 75 cents for students through high school age with an ID; 40 cents for seniors and disabled. Round-trip fares are double the one-way fees. Up to two children under 6 may ride with full-fare paying adult with no proof of payment required. Both one-way and round-trip tickets are good until midnight on the day they are purchased. MTA security guards routinely board trains and check for tickets.
Light rail trains leave each station every 15 minutes for trips north and south. The light rail runs 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday; 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. until 7 p.m. Sunday.
On days when Orioles games take place outside normal operating hours, the light rail runs two hours before game time and one hour after the game ends.
The MTA information number is (410) 539-5000.