Friday, August 14, 2009


I've been reading Patapsco: Life Along Maryland's Historic River Valley (2008)--a collection of photos and interviews with longtime residents of Ellicott City, Oella, Elkridge, and Relay. It's a wonderful book, and perfectly suited for my interest in the local history of my adopted home. In the last interview of the book, Harold Hedeman of Avalon (adjacent to Relay) remembers:

I love trains--especially steam trains. Yeah, after the bridge went in, they had local trains that stopped at every station between Baltimore and Washington. Then they had an express train which was Relay, Laurel, Washington, that's all it stopped. And then, of course, they had the Capital Limited, as they called it, and that didn't stop anywhere. That just took you right over.

And from Washington to Baltimore on the steam train ('cause I rode it more than once) it's forty miles exactly. I would have my watch out and usually it was on time. It was supposed to get there in forty minutes--and many times it was there in thirty-eight minutes.

And I'm telling you, there are curves on this end of the line and there are curves on the other end, and there's a lot of straight track in the middle of that route between Baltimore and Washington on the B & O. And when those steam trains were on that straight stretch of track over there, they were going between eighty and ninety miles an hour, because they had to go slower on each end of the line where all the curves were.

Oh, I always loved trains. More than once, I would get over on the boulevard, 'cause Washington Boulevard is right smack alongside of that straight section of B & O track. And when you had a steam train going through there--one of these big locomotives like the Capital Limited, you know, a big long train? And those driving wheels are eighty inches in diameter on that train, three pairs of driving wheels on those passenger engines that run those trains.

And when they went by at that speed, I mean, that was a sight to see. The ground was trembling where you're standing, and you can imagine, you know, that big arm that connects those wheels? You can't believe it that piece of equipment can be going that way, but it's going so fast that you can't even see, you know, it's just a blur. I mean, those wheels and that arm are just a blur going by there.

So, you know, it's a sight to see. So when they changed to diesel engines, I thought, phooey, I don't want any part of those things. I'll take the steam train.

Today the MARC Camden line is the only passenger train that runs the route he's talking about. It doesn't have a nonstop like the Capital Limited. The fastest scheduled time is the 843 morning express, which stops at Dorsey, Savage, Laurel, Muirkirk, and Washington. The scheduled run is 1:04; I don't normally ride that train, so I can't say whether it ever arrives ahead of schedule. In my experience, they sometimes do, but not by much. More often, there are delays, including the ubiquitous summer "heat restrictions"--anytime the temperature gets over 90 degrees, CSX says it's too dangerous to run the trains over 50 mph.

Glad to see we've come so far in 80 years.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Simple--if Overly Specific--Guide to Commuting between Elkridge and NIH

When I moved to Elkridge almost a year ago and started commuting back and forth to NIH, I wasn't able to find much information online about the specifics of riding the MARC. On my first attempt, I boarded the wrong train coming home and only just missed sailing off to who-knows-where. It took time to figure out the best places to stand, the kinds of delays to expect, etc. In the interest of perhaps sparing someone such inconveniences, and at the risk of thwarting some adventure, I offer here a hopefully simple (but wordy) guide to my particular commute.

First leg: Elkridge Crossing to Dorsey MARC Station

I live in the Elkridge Crossing neighborhood, near the corner of Rt. 1 and Montgomery Rd. The public transit options include HowardTransit Purple Route, MTA Commuter Route 320, and MTA MARC Train Camden Line. The first two stop within walking distance, but neither is of much use for my commute. The Purple Route first run is at 7:00 a.m. I could catch the 320 a little after 6:00 a.m., but I'd still have to walk 15 min or more from Rt. 1 and Dorsey Rd. to the MARC station. The earliest I could start work is 8:00, which would get me back too late to catch the last 320. The last rush-hour Purple Route would get me home no earlier than 7:00 p.m., just when the kids were going to bed.

So, I bike to and from the MARC station. It takes about 20 min. each way--maybe a bit longer in the evening, since there's more uphill. As I've commented elsewhere, Dorsey is not designed well for bike access. You have no choice but to come down Rt. 1 (there are some more roundabout alternatives, but almost none of them keeps you off it for long), past the station at Rt. 100, turn left on Dorsey Rd., left again on Douglas Legum Dr., right on Deerpath Rd., cut through to the station parking lot, and lock your bike up down by the station itself. I don't know how much the lockers are. I'm cheap, so I just leave my clunker at the bike rack, and so far nothing has happened to it.

NOTE: St. Denis MARC Station is probably about the same distance away, in the opposite direction. I can't comment on getting to it because I've never tried. The train stops there infrequently, so for my schedule it would be impossible.

Second Leg: Dorsey MARC Station to Washington Union Station

I take the first train of the morning, but I haven't noticed much difference on the rare occasion that I've taken a later train. Normally you wait on the platform closest to the station to head south. If the signal is red, it may mean that the train will come in on the opposite track. There are loudspeakers, and sometimes you'll get a message indicating if there's a delay or track change. You can also sign up for e-mail notifications, which I would recommend if you carry a blackberry or some such device.

The main thing you need to know about riding the Camden Line is that it runs on CSX (freight) tracks. Freight traffic seems to get the priority in most cases, so sometimes a train will have to wait for something (never sure what) to happen. Sometimes you'll have to change tracks to accommodate a more important schedule. Then there are signal problems, switching problems, and the ubiquitous "heat restrictions," where CSX limits the speed of the MARC trains any time it gets over 90 degrees. Basically, expect to arrive late, and be appreciative if you arrive on time. Afternoons tend to be worse, but it won't be long before you spend half an hour standing on the platform in the morning, waiting for a train that's delayed for some vague reason.

The car closest to the engine is usually the quiet car. At some stations, the platform is too small, and you have to board or exit through certain cars. Aside from that, if you want to make the best time possible, identify the car that will get you closest to where you want to go. In the morning, you want one of the front two cars. Normally you can only use the rear doors in the first car or the front doors in the second car. Since they're next to each other, it makes little difference which car you actually ride in--just get as close to the doors as you can. You'll want to wait somewhere around the far end of the second bench on the platform. If you can't get a seat close to the door, you can do like a lot of people and stand in the aisle after Riverdale.

Union Station is the end of the line, so there's no danger of sleeping through your stop. One side of the aisle has two-seaters, the other has three. I prefer the two-seat side if I don't have to go far to get it. The aisle seat on the three-seat side is too short to sleep comfortably, and it's awkward to sit down in the middle seat if there are only two passengers in the row. If you don't mind sitting by the window, the side doesn't matter much. The bathroom is usually in the end car, though personally I've never used it. I usually go when I get to the train station.

When you exit at Union Station, walk toward the front of the train. Once through the doors, head right, then down the escalators, and through the turnstiles. If you need the men's room, it's straight through the doors from the platform. I think the women's room is further down to the left.

Third Leg: Union Station to Medical Center

There's good information on the WMATA site about riding Metro, so I'm not going to say much here. If you have time, head all the way down toward the opposite end of the platform. Wait along the railing next to the last escalator structure. By boarding the train there, you'll be just about in position to head right up the escalator when you get off at the other end. I usually get out of my seat at Bethesda and get in position by the door.

Fourth Leg: Medical Center Metro to Building 31

I usually walk up the escalator to save time. Keep walking straight ahead. Visitors have to go through the Gateway Center to your left. Anyone with a badge can walk down to the other end and enter through the turnstiles. Once inside, you can take a shuttle or walk. If I arrive more or less on schedule, I can usually tell by the time and the number of people waiting whether the Campus Shuttle has already come by or not. If it has, and I don't see Mid-Pike, I'll walk. Otherwise I'll usually wait. Mid-Pike is faster, since it goes straight from the gate to 31. Campus is more regular, because it doesn't have to deal with outside traffic. It also comes more frequently.

Return Trip

I take the Rockledge or Executive Plaza Shuttle back to the Metro. Campus Limited would also work. Again, I jog down the escalator, and if there's a wait, I walk all the way to the opposite end of the platform. The further you can get to the front of the train, the better. The escalator at Union Station will be just outside the front door, and it's usually mobbed. Get a seat right by the door, or stake out a spot to stand somewhere around Metro Center. Doors open on the left.

Up the escalator, through the turnstiles, up the next escalator, then straight ahead. Check the screen for your gate. This is important. There are electronic displays at the end of the tracks, but they don't always work. More on that in a bit. I usually run to the bathroom if I have plenty of time, so I don't have to again before riding home. There's also a display in the passenger waiting area, if you didn't already get your gate number. Everything's Gate A. I think that's all MARC trains--definitely all Camden.

Now, here's the tricky part. If the track displays are working, take a quick look at yours. It should say "far north end," if the trains are stacked. Sometimes they'll put one train in front of another. Unless you're super early, that almost always means yours is out on the end. You'll have to walk *past* the train behind it. Most of the time, the rear train isn't boarding yet, so you can tell by the closed doors that it's not yours. If it is, check the size of the cars. Camden trains are mostly single-decker, occasionally with one double. If you see a lot of double-decker cars, keep walking. Once you've been riding a while, you'll get to know the faces on your regular train and the conductors (though they do change). When in doubt, ask. Ask the conductor if possible; ask people around you if you don't see one. There will usually be an announcement at some point before the train pulls out, but if you got on the wrong one, chances are pretty good you'll miss the one you wanted by the time you hear anything.

This time, you want the rear of the train. I usually go for the second-to-last car, because they fill up faster, and the bathroom in the last car pushes you back from the door. If you don't get a good spot, you can move forward once people start clearing out, or stand in the aisle after Savage. Just watch where the conductor is hanging out, so he'll have room to get by. Once you exit, walk around the rear of the train and across the tracks back to the station side. If you need to use the bathroom or wait for a ride, the doors facing the parking lot should be open.

I ride my bike back the way I came, with one exception. I take Old Washington Blvd at the split to simplify turning left on Montgomery Rd. Traffic is more of an issue later in the day. You have more shoulder to work with, but don't get too comfortable with it. It will vanish into a turn lane or a curb without much warning.

NOTE: A word about MARC tickets. There are ticket machines in most stations. I don't use them, because I get a subsidy and you can't pay with vouchers. The Amtrak counter at Union Station will sell MARC tickets, but for my purposes it's very inefficient. Because I don't commute every day, I buy one-way tickets. Because I get subsidy vouchers, I buy large quantities at a time. At a manned MARC counter, this is pretty easy--they just punch in your destination and the number of tickets, and hit print. At the Amtrak counter, they have to key and print each ticket separately. Make sure to budget time if you have to buy your tickets that way.

What Not to Read

I'm considering a sporadic series of brief posts on books that the average Orthodox layman or inquirer probably should not read. I realize it's a presumptuous venture. For starters, just because I shouldn't have read something doesn't mean no one should. I understand that, and everything I write here must be qualified, at least by saying that I have no authority to speak from anything but personal experience. Take my advice for what it's worth, or don't take it at all. Another problem is that, obviously, for me to comment that a book is better left unread, I must have read it myself. (I suppose this is not strictly true, since I could just pass along useful advice I've found elsewhere, but that's not really my intention here.) Why, if I bothered to read it myself, would I tell others to avoid it? And why didn't I get (or follow) some good advice before diving in and reading the book in the first place? Well, again, you have to take my advice for what it is. Yes, I do let my curiosity get the better of me. But if I can spare someone else from making the same mistake, it's worth the effort to try.

Having said that, the first book I want to advise against reading is the Rudder. This well-known collection of Orthodox canon law is noteworthy--if you're at all familiar with the field in Roman Catholicism--for its outlandish brevity. Even so, it contains very little that is of any direct use to a layman. Perhaps most importantly, canon must always be handled with economy. Knowing the rule is certainly useful; but knowing the rule without knowing how and when to apply it is dangerous. In practice, many of these rules are relaxed in various ways and at various times. We might quibble over cases where perhaps the rules are relaxed too far (though speaking for myself, I have absolutely no basis from which to quibble), but it is axiomatic in Orthodox canon law that economy plays a critical role. Economy is the domain of clergy, and the specific application of canons is best left to their discretion. A layman is ill-equipped to do much of anything beneficial to himself or anyone else in this area.

That much I knew before I ever tried to read the Rudder, which is actually why I felt safe carrying out the project I assigned myself. I had no serious expectation that I would end up with a bunch of new rules to follow. I just wanted to satisfy my curiosity about the contents of the book, particularly how much would have any bearing on someone who's not a monk or cleric. The simple answer is--very little. Most of the canons have to do with things like the appointment, movements, and discipline of clergy and monastics. Of those that don't, two large categories remain--established penalties for various types of sin (which should be applied by a confessor, not by an individual to himself), and statements about doctrine, heresy, and how to resolve schisms. The theological statements may be of some general use, but their contents are repeated in so many places--and often much more clearly and completely--that it hardly bears recommendation as a key source for learning Orthodox doctrine. Even what one might glean from the canons about discipline, since they incidentally identify various types of sin, is probably not worth the trouble. There are plenty of guides for confession, any of which would contain a more or less effective list of sins. The Rudder is not organized as a confession guide, so it's best not used as one. Indeed, if that's what you're looking for, the Exomologetarion would be a much handier tool, and it's still probably in at least the debatable category for lay use.

I might add that most of the sins listed are so straightforward in Scripture that they need no special comment as sins. Again, the point of the canons is to address the means of discipline, not identify the sin as such. As I was skimming through, I found only a handful of offenses that I wouldn't have picked up from a general familiarity with biblical morality. I repeat them here as the minuscule produce of several hundred pages:
  • Several canons order discipline for participation in or viewing of dramatic entertainment. I can't say myself whether this would apply directly to the kind of entertainment that is popular today, or if there was a more explicitly pagan component at that time. Of course, there are plenty of good reasons to think very carefully about the visual entertainment one consumes.
  • In a few different places, there are canons indicating that Bright Week (the week after Pascha) should be observed by refraining from work and spending as much time as possible in church. I don't know of any church these days where enough services would be offered (perhaps in a monastery), but it's probably not a bad principle to apply generally, if one can actually spare the time off of work.
  • In a few places, the importance of Sunday is emphasized. Notably, one should not travel unnecessarily on Sunday, nor should one skip three consecutive Sundays in church without a compelling reason. The latter is pretty straightforward as a general rule; the former is a beautiful continuation of the Jewish Sabbath observance and one that I think we would do well to take seriously in our lives today.
  • Finally, I found at least one reference in passing to the goal for laymen of eating for sustenance, not primarily for pleasure. The main point, if I understand correctly, was to caution against excessive partying; but I thought it was an interesting argument, which I've seen plenty of times in ascetic literature, but I can't recall whether I've seen it applied elsewhere to laymen.
So there you have it. IMHO these four points are about all a layman might gain for his daily life from reading the Rudder. When weighed against the risks, particularly for those of us who tend to be rule-oriented anyway, it's probably better left to monks and clergy.