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Capital Commuting

With a sun-drenched U.S. Capitol building as a backdrop, northbound Virginia Railway Express train 312 (at left) meets southbound VRE train 305 (above) at the L’Enfant Plaza station on March 19, 2007. Mike Schaller photo

Capital Commuting

PTJ 2020-02By El Simon/photos as noted

The summer of 1969 found me in Washington, D.C., newly discharged from the Air Force and beginning my auditing career. We stayed in a motel out on New York Avenue that abutted Penn Central and Baltimore & Ohio’s lines between Washington, Baltimore, and points east. As a native of Philadelphia, I was used to the extensive local service provided by Reading and Penn Central, with a little extra thrown in by Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines out of Camden, N.J., across the river from Philadelphia.

By contrast, the U.S. capitol, at the time, was served only by five B&O trains from Baltimore during commuting hours, plus a few other trains that served as connections to B&O’s remaining long-distance trains—holdovers from the time when the trains named below originated/terminated in Jersey City, across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Those Washington-based intercity services were the Washington–Chicago Capitol Limited, the Washington–Akron (Ohio) Shenandoah, the Washington–St. Louis George Washington, and the Washington–Cincinnati Metropolitan. Some of these trains could also serve commuters from outlying points (and the evening westbound Capitol Limited frequently did so).

MARC and Metro

MARC meets Metro. MARC service connects with rapid-transit trains of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, better known as the Metro (and a story in itself). Here at Silver Spring, Md., in 1991, an outbound MARC train departs the former B&O station as a Metro train does a turnback at the adjacent Metro station. Mike Schafer photo

There were only two round trips over B&O’s Metropolitan Subdivision, between Washington, Brunswick, and Cumberland, Md., that provided commuter service. There were no commuter trains coming in from points south of Washington on either Southern Railway or the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac.
As for Penn Central, it provided frequent express service between Washington and Baltimore on New York and Boston intercity trains and was building up the recently introduced Metroliners. But, the only true commuter service was provided by two round trips between Baltimore and Washington protected by a fleet of seven ex-Pennsylvania Railroad “owl eye” MP54 MU (multiple-unit) cars.

Then, as now, these three routes con-verged on Washington’s stunning Union Station. By the 1970s, though, WUS had become a sort of blight because of the decline of rail passenger service that led to Amtrak’s formation. But the start of the station’s phoenix-like rise to stardom, so far as commuter traffic was concerned, came with the 1976 opening of the first segment of the Metro subway system, with Union Station as its principal stop. Now, commuters and intercity passengers could travel into the heart of Washington as well as to select tourist attractions quickly in all kinds of weather.

That Seventies Look
As far as American long-distance and commuter-rail passenger service was concerned, the 1970s often meant an array of handed-down, well-used equipment.

The final (1971) Official Register of Passenger Train Equipment Register listed only 68 cars for B&O, including 18 baggage and express cars. Of that total, there were 17 Budd-built Rail Diesel Cars (RDCs) and 16 coaches designated for commuter service. Those coaches were made up of five surviving Columbian lightweight coaches, two cars rebuilt in 1948 to like-new condition for the National Limited (five sisters had become Food Bar coaches), and the 3528, a car that had been rebuilt several times and would, in fact, go on to become the last active B&O passenger car. The remaining eight cars were Cincinnatian veterans, rebuilt in 1946–47.


EBefore new governmental entities assumed responsibility for commuter-rail and transit operations in major cities throughout North America, railroads themselves provided such services. There was a time when the venerable Baltimore & Ohio—the nation’s first common-carrier—was a key player in providing regional and commuter service in the D.C. area. The bulk of its operations were handled by Budd-built Rail Diesel Cars, such as this RDC leaving Baltimore for Washington in June 1970. At that time, this Baltimore–D.C. run was scheduled to also serve as a connection to the Capitol Limited at Washington—a holdover from the days when most B&O long-distance trains originated and terminated at Baltimore. Dale Jacobsen photo

B&O Baltimore-Washington TimetableBaltimore & Ohio had been an early sampler of the RDC and had acquired its first two RDC-1s in 1950. More had come in 1953, and these were followed in 1956 by B&O’s Daylight Speedliner RDCs that featured reclining seats and sit-down meal service for a new service between Philadelphia (later Washington) and Pittsburgh, 294 miles. One of a number of B&O innovations, by 1969 this daylight run between those two cities was but a pleasant memory, and its Speedliner RDCs were relegated to serving in the general commuter pool for B&O’s commuter operations in both the Pittsburgh and Washington metropolitan areas.

Baltimore & Ohio’s Pittsburgh-based commuter service fell victim to the decline of the city’s steel industry in the Monongahela Valley, which is what B&O commuter trains served—later as “PATrains” under the Port Authority of Allegheny County. When that funding source dried up in the 1980s, B&O threw in the towel on Pittsburgh commuter operations. This freed up several RDCs for reassignment and off to D.C. they went.

Initially, RDCs dominated B&O’s Washington commuter service; however, conventional equipment was occasionally substituted for operational reasons such as the movement of cars and locomotives to and from the shops in Baltimore. It should be noted that some RDCs carried as many as five different numbers during their lifetime. They started as 6500s, then became 1900s, 9900s, 9800s, and finally MARC one- and two-digit numbers.

Throughout the 1970s, the Brunswick and Camden lines were operated with a mix of RDCs and locomotive-hauled coaches. But on the Brunswick Line, business was increasing and consists were lengthening. Additional equipment was needed.


B&O RDCs lived on under the fledgling MARC commuter rail service of the early 1990s. At Halethorpe, Md., a quartet of them accelerates away from HX Tower (background) in February 1991. Dale Jacobsen photo

B&O negotiated a subsidy agreement with the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) that took full effect in 1974. The state was now committed to obtain rolling stock for the commuter service. Until equipment could be purchased, B&O made do with a fleet of leased coaches (and some locomotives) that came and went but eventually totaled at least 47 different cars over the period.
Among these were at least eight former B&O coaches now owned by Railroad Passenger Cars, Inc., several aforementioned Columbian streamlined coaches, two cars from C&O, and even a former C&O Pere Marquette coach painted in Western Maryland colors (though WM had long been out of the passenger service, it had acquired this car for company service). Later, additional cars were leased from other sources, including Amtrak and several NRHS chapters.

Perhaps the most colorful cars were a number of former RF&P modernized coaches from the Old Dominion Chapter NRHS that were painted in the vibrant Chessie scheme to operate on the various Chessie steam-locomotive excursion trains between 1977 and 1981.

Baltimore & Ohio Harper's Ferry Timetables

Collection Otto M. Vondrak

Several RDCs succumbed to fires or other causes over time, but the railroad was able to acquire additional cars from several railroads as replacements. Now, as part of the MDOT refurbishing program, eight cars were given a major over-haul at General Electric and two others were outshopped by Mechtron in Wilmington, Del. Three were New Haven veterans, including a pair of RDC-1s and the distinctive Roger Williams B-unit, easily identified by its distinctive fluting.

In 1975, MDOT began reimbursing B&O for operating losses involving the commuter trains. It was 1981 before Maryland’s support would be manifested in replacement equipment. The first batch of these cars and locomotives took the form of six former B&O F3 and F7 locomotives that were rebuilt to F9 standards. Five were rebuilt as locomotives (numbers 7181–7185) and one to a control car (7100).
Twenty-two former-PRR coaches were rebuilt by General Electric for MDOT. These were from two groups totaling 70 cars rebuilt from PRR sleepers in 1963–64. They were numbered in three series; 1400–1414, originally Norfolk & Western 10–6 sleepers; and 1501, 1502, and 1511–1515, originally PRR 21-roomette sleepers. These cars replaced the vintage coaches on MDOT’s B&O side.

Baltimore-Washington Penn Central

Collection Otto M. Vondrak

As for the Penn Central/Conrail Washington–Baltimore commuter service, there was a step backward when, in mid-1974, the former-PRR MP-54 electric multiple-unit trainsets were replaced with older versions—the MP54-E-5 cars, or as Penn Central now designated them, the MA-9Es. They were maintained at a small facility in Orangeville on the east side of Baltimore.

In 1976 a small fleet of these cars was transferred to the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT), which was becoming involved with commuter rail operations. Not all of the cars were even operable and the fleet was augmented by five cars from SEPTA—Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, which serves the Philadelphia area.

Meanwhile, and also in 1976, Penn Central had passed on to Conrail. Conrail continued to operate the two Washington–Baltimore round trips with those ancient ex-PRR/PC m.u. cars. MDOT took over that operation in 1977 after Conrail threatened to end the service.

Baltimore-Washington Conrail

Collection Otto M. Vondrak

Help came in 1977 when New Jersey Transit experienced a temporary surplus of m.u. cars. Amtrak arranged a lease of NJT Arrow II MUs and assigned them to its New York–Philadelphia Clockers and the MDOT-sponsored Washington–Baltimore runs, including Amtrak’s Chesapeake, a semi-express between Philadelphia and Washington that also was used to ferry cars to and from Maryland. Ten cars were assigned to the Chesapeake and the Baltimore locals.

When New Jersey arranged to upgrade and renumber these cars, they were re-placed by new Arrow III MUs for approximately a year. When the Arrow IIIs were returned to New Jersey for the inauguration of re-electrification of NJ Transit’s former Lackawanna lines in the early 1980s, their place on MDOT’s Penn Line was taken by some of the rebuilt PRR sleepers in the 1400 and 1500 series. There were now three four-car trainsets on the Penn Line and power was usually provided by Amtrak F40 diesels or either an E-60 or AEM-7 electric.

It should be noted that, during the 1970s, B&O was also going through a succession of corporate and equipment changes, starting with the formation of an umbrella company called Chessie System. This new holding company acquired ownership of B&O, Chesapeake & Ohio, and Western Maryland, integrating their operations and pooling their locomotives and freight and passenger cars. In 1980, Chessie System merged with Seaboard Coast Line to form what is today known as CSX Transportation.
MDOT grouped its increased commuter rail operations under a new department: Maryland Rail Commuter, better known now as MARC…

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This article was posted on: July 2, 2020