As subway operator Jimmy Hardnett approached the Owings Mills Metro station one blazing-hot day last week, he slowed the train to a lumbering 20 mph as it approached a section where trains can switch from one track to another.
It's a crawl that's all too familiar to users of Baltimore's nearly 25-year-old subway system. But tomorrow at 8 p.m., the Maryland Transit Administration will close the subway's northernmost section for 16 days to replace that crossover - called an interlocking - and make other improvements to the Owings Mills station.
Maryland Transit Administration officials are hoping that this and other projects to speed the ride, upgrade ticket machines and generally spruce up Metro stations will attract more riders to a system that has never drawn the numbers predicted when it was planned in the 1970s.
Confined to one corridor - from Johns Hopkins Hospital through downtown to Owings Mills - the 15.5-mile subway is all but unknown to many longtime Baltimoreans who have had no reason to use the service. Even in the northwest corridor, many potential riders avoid it and rely on their cars to get to and from work.
Ed Cohen, president of the Transit Riders Action Council, said that despite its limited reach, Metro is "the most valuable transit asset we have locally - by far."
"It's a real workhorse. It does a great job. Try going from Owings Mills to Charles Center in 25 minutes in your car. You can't do it, especially at rush hour," he said.
Cohen pointed to 2003 statistics showing that Metro carries 54 percent of the downtown commuting traffic in the northwestern corridor, compared with 5.5 percent for light rail on its line downtown from Hunt Valley.
Most riders interviewed during a recent evening rush hour had little but praise for Metro's cleanliness, security and on-time performance, though some had complaints about its connections to the bus system. And riders said they have noticed improvements in the reliability of escalators and the subway system's general appearance.
"It's cleaner than it was when I was in high school," said D.T. Howarth, a student at the University of Maryland, College Park. "There used to be graffiti all over, but now you only see it once in a while."
Ralign Wells, Metro's operations director for the past two years, said that's no accident. He said the MTA is making an effort to prevent deterioration from taking hold. "We'll remove a train if we find graffiti on it," he said.
Wells, 40, said the main reason he hears for avoiding the system is that the trains arrive too infrequently outside rush hour. That, he said, is going to change with the completion of the $4.3 million Owings Mills project. Night trains will run every 11 minutes instead of 22 minutes, and every 15 minutes on weekends.
"There's going to be demand," he said.
Wells, a former bus operator who rose through the MTA ranks, said replacement of the interlocking will allow Metro trains to increase their top speed in that section from 60 mph to 70 mph. He's hoping to pare five minutes from the normal travel time from Owings Mills to downtown and get it under 20 minutes.
With improved run times and less waiting for trains, Wells is hoping to attract more suburban riders who are now battling traffic jams on Interstate 795.
Michael Bell of Reisterstown, who came out of retirement to work for the state retirement agency near Charles Center, said he wouldn't have taken a job downtown if he had to commute by car - a trip he estimates at 45 minutes to an hour. He said other potential riders might be avoiding the Metro because of safety concerns.
"Some people, especially some of your suburban or rural people, may be fearful of the subway," Bell said. He added that he has had no problems in the four months he has been riding.
Cohen said security has not been a problem on the Metro system. "Nobody is afraid to ride the subway. Everyone feels safe on it," he said. "It's the easiest place in town to get caught, so commit your crimes elsewhere."
Wells hopes to increase the number of weekday riders from about 48,000 to the 80,000 projected before the subway opened. He's tying his hopes to extensive new development at Owings Mills, where a 2,900-car parking garage is about to create space for a new town center, and to an expansion of the Kennedy-Krieger Institute at the Hopkins end of the line.
Baltimore's Metro stands out as an anomaly among U.S. subway systems. Launched just as the federal will to fund local commuter rail systems was fading, it has remained a single-line system since it opened in 1983. A subsequent north-south transit system was built as a light rail line - a slower mode of travel but cheaper to build than a heavy rail line like Metro. The only point of interconnection is at Lexington Market, where the systems come within a block of each other.
While transit advocates have pushed for a second subway line, MTA officials have signaled that the prospects for heavy rail on a proposed east-west Red Line are poor. There are long-range plans to extend the subway from Hopkins northeast toward Morgan State University - and perhaps, someday, to White Marsh. But that extension is behind at least three other transit projects around the state.
Wells isn't dwelling on a future build-out of the system but on maximizing the potential of the current line.
In recent years, the system has been troubled by malfunctioning ticket machines, dingy stations and unreliable escalators. Track problems have slowed trains and made bus connections a sometimes unpleasant adventure.
During a recent tour conducted by Wells, a visitor could see both the old and worn-out and the new and improved.
At the Lexington Market station, boarding was free that day because all of the ticket machines were out of operation. But Wells said machines there would soon be replaced with a new generation of technology that is working well at Metro's 13 other stations. Unlike the old machines, it will give change for bills up to $20.
The MTA has also undertaken a program to refurbish its stations. It has completed work at the Upton and Penn North stations, where the once-sooty walls have been resurfaced and the lighting improved.
At Mondawmin Mall, a visitor could see the contrast between Upton and a station that hasn't yet been refurbished. The walls were black with grime and the station was dark, but all of the turnstiles and ticket machines - many of which were out of order much of the time in recent years - were working.
Mondawmin is the next station slated for renovation. Wells said he expects the MTA to refurbish stations at the rate of two a year over the next five to seven years, then to repeat the cycle.
The work at Owings Mills is expected to shut down the track north of Old Court Station from 8 p.m. tomorrow until 5 a.m. Aug. 27 - the same day the new parking garage is scheduled to open.
The MTA will provide shuttle bus service between Owings Mills and Old Court during the shutdown, and officials say there is ample parking at the Milford Mill and Reisterstown Road stations for commuters who want to catch the Metro there.
Wells said his goal is to have a system that's running at full capacity once some transit-oriented development projects are in place. He noted that more riders could increase the system's approximately 30 percent "fare box recovery" - the percent of its budget paid for by riders.
"If we get the ridership we hope for, we'd like to be at least 60 percent. But we're shooting for 50 percent right now," he said.
That, combined with the environmental benefits of luring people out of their cars, could increase public support for transit, he said.
"Now green is sexy, so we're sexy right now," Wells said.