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Car-free family trip idea: Baltimore

If you have young children and don't own a car or just don't like driving, you know what a pain weekend trips can be. With the new weekend MARC service to Baltimore, Charm City can be a fun family car-free trip, especially when the weather calls for indoor activities.


Photo by Kevin Labianco on Flickr.

I've taken my 5-year-old son to Baltimore for car-free weekends about 6 times, and he is always asking to go again. It's easily done without the hassle of a car, because most attractions are within easy walking distance of the Inner Harbor.

Getting there and back

You can take the Amtrak or MARC trains 7 days per week between Union Station and Baltimore's Penn Station. The Amtrak Northeast Regional runs between the two stations with tickets as low as $12 and takes 40 minutes. The MARC Penn Line does the same trip in an hour for only $7.00 and now runs 9 trains each way on Saturdays and 6 on Sundays. You can also spend $70 per ticket on the Acela and arrive in only 28 minutes.

My son and I either take an afternoon train on Friday afternoon in time to get him in bed in a hotel on time, or an early morning Saturday train. Kids love trains, of course, and it's wonderful to arrive without the stress of driving.

When you get to Penn Station, you need to take a bus to the Inner Harbor, which is probably where your hotel and activities are. Baltimore has a Circulator bus just like DC, but theirs is free, which is nice. It's called the Charm City Circulator, and the Purple Line runs between Penn Station and the harbor every 10-15 minutes.

The Circulator will take you down the west side of the Harbor. If you are headed to Harbor East, which is where we usually stay, you can either transfer onto the Orange Line or impress your family by taking the local Maryland Transit Administration bus directly from Penn Station to Harbor East. Check out bus directions on Google Maps on your phone and you'll find the next 11 bus running every 30 minutes between Penn Station and Harbor East. Have $1.60 ready per passenger, including kids.

Where to stay

Inner Harbor accommodations can get pricey, but we've found a fantastic hotel option. The Homewood Suites in Harbor East is situated in between all the kids' activities, and has a kiddie pool inside. A large, good breakfast is included.

It's an all-suite hotel, which is a nice perk allowing parents to relax after kids go to sleep. Advance reservations start at $170/night, while same-week reservations start at $189/night. If you're flexible, they drop prices the day before your trip when the hotel isn't filling up, and I've paid as little as $120 as a result.

What to do

There are three big things for kids to do in the Inner Harbor: the National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center and the Port Discovery Children's Museum. Here's our time-tested routine.

We arrive Saturday morning, and after taking the Purple Line Circulator bus to Pratt Street, we walk down to Miss Shirley's for lunch. Your kids will love the kids meals in giant bento boxes, and you'll love the crab cake fried green tomatoes eggs benedict.

It may seem like the only restaurants in the Inner Harbor are chains, but there are fantastic local restaurants as well. You just have to head to the east side of the Harbor to find them.

After lunch, we head to the Port Discovery Children's Museum, which is right behind Miss Shirley's. Port Discovery is awesome, and will help your kids get their wiggles out after sitting on the train and a bus.

After the Children's Museum we walk to the Homewood Suites Harbor East, which is an easy 10 minute walk. If we have time, we stop by Vaccaro's Italian Pastry in Little Italy for ice cream, which is right on the way.

We have a little resting time in the hotel, then walk back into Little Italy to get a pizza at Isabella's Pizza, the best pizza in Little Italy.

After a good night's sleep, we wake up Sunday morning and have breakfast in the hotel before headed to the hotel kiddie pool. The big decision to make is whether to then head to the Aquarium or the Science Museum.

The National Aquarium is a very pleasant walk over a couple wooden bridges from Harbor East, away from the tourists on the west and north sides of the harbor. At $35 for adults and $22 for kids under 12, it's a pricey attraction but worth the money if your kid is old enough to really take it in.

Don't head to the aquarium for dolphin shows, because those ended in 2012. By allowing all visitors to observe dolphins in an interactive space designed for dolphins, the Aquarium was able to ensure everyone can see them.

My son likes the Maryland Science Center more than the Aquarium, so we usually go there, which is nice because it costs just $19 for adults and $16 for kids under 13. He could spend hours in the interactive Kids Room.

And any trip across the harbor, like we take from Harbor East to the Science Center, is better taken on the Baltimore Water Taxi. After a long day at the museum, we hop on the Purple Line Circulator back to Penn Station to take the train back to Union Station.

People often tell me it must be great to raise a kid in DC with so many museums. But I've wondered why all neighboring East Coast cities like Philadelphia and Richmond have both a top-tier children's museum and science museum, and DC has neither. That's why it's great to have Baltimore within such an easy reach.

Know any other car-free family trip destinations? Mention them in the comments. You can also read about Harpers Ferry for a car-free family trip.

Transit


Everywhere you can get on intercity transit in America, in one map

This map, from the American Intercity Bus Riders Association, attempts to show all the major intercity transit routes in America. It includes Amtrak, Greyhound, and several other bus carriers.


Map of Amtrak and intercity bus lines, from AIBRA.

It's probably impossible for this kind of map to be 100% accurate all the time. In all likelihood there are some missing links, and missing carriers. But it's still quite an impressive undertaking, and a useful tool to bookmark.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


VRE's future could include off-peak and weekend service

Faced with growing ridership but limited capacity, VRE has released a plan to significantly expand commuter rail service in Northern Virginia, including reverse-commute, off-peak, and weekend services and an extension to Gainesville and Haymarket.


Photo by DearEdward on Flickr.

The $2.68 billion, 25-year capital improvement plan is split into three phases with modest capacity improvements through 2020. By 2030, it proposes major infrastructure projects including a new Long Bridge over the Potomac River, with further improvements in its last decade through 2040. It is the first new strategic plan for the railroad since 2004.

VRE planners say their vision is delivers a lot for a relatively low cost. "Significant capacity increases can take place almost entirely within the existing right of way, at a cost, and in a time frame competitive with highway and heavy rail construction projects in the region," the plan says.

Expansion is sorely needed. CSX and Norfolk-Southern own the tracks VRE's two lines use, and provide few slots for the commuter rail, limiting its schedule. Chokepoints in the region's rail network, most notably the Long Bridge, restrict the number of trains VRE can run. They also share track with Amtrak regional and long-distance trains.

During the railroad's 2013 fiscal year, which ended in June, VRE's average daily ridership was 18,878, though it regularly spikes above 20,000, according to recent comments by VRE Chief Executive Doug Allen. Capacity is about 19,000 passengers per day.

Under the plan, capacity on the commuter railroad would increase to about 43,000 passengers per day on weekdays, a 24,000 passenger increase. It also allows for about 6,000 passengers per day on weekends.

VRE would not cover the entire cost of the plan. The railroad, local, and regional jurisdictions would only be on the hook for about $1.19 billion under the plan, with the rest coming from project partners, for example CSX or Amtrak, and the federal government.

The VRE operations board unanimously approved the plan during its meeting January 17.

Plan proposes new Long Bridge, through-running with MARC

The first phase of VRE's plan, between 2015 and 2020, includes longer trains, an additional round-trip on both the Fredericksburg and Manassas lines, expanded parking at stations, and improved station facilities. These would cost the railroad $285 million. VRE says that these are cost-effective plans that can occur under its existing agreements with CSX and Norfolk-Southern.

The second phase, between 2021 and 2030, includes arguably the largest, and most important, project in VRE's plan: the Long Bridge replacement. Budgeted at about $1.1 billion, this could involve replacing the existing two-track structure with a new four-track bridge, as well as adding new tracks for four from L'Enfant Plaza to Alexandria.

VRE is participating in the Long Bridge replacement study, which the DC Department of Transportation is leading. The commuter railroad estimates that it would only need to contribute up to $111 million to the project under the plan.

A new bridge and additional tracks would also enable through-running with MARC. According to the plan, VRE says that it would work with its Maryland sibling, which is planning to do the same thing.

Other projects during phase two include the $295 million extension to Gainesville and Haymarket, initial investments in a third tr

Transit


All northeast US passenger rail on one awesome map

This map shows every Amtrak, commuter rail, metro, light rail, and tourist rail line from Maine to North Carolina, to scale.

It comes from NortheastRailMap.com, and you can even download it in a fully-editable Adobe Illustrator format.


Image from NortheastRailMap.com.


Image from NortheastRailMap.com.

Cross-posted to BeyondDC.

Update: The map's author has requested that you "like" their page on Facebook. Please help them out and do that!

Transit


MARC plan calls for new stations, more service

MARC commuter rail could eventually get new stations, more frequent service, and connections to Northern Virginia and Delaware. That's what a draft update of the system's Growth and Investment Plan calls for over the next 40 years.


Photo by morganglines on Flickr.

The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) envisions $467 million in capital improvements between 2013 and 2019 and another $1.8 billion for the following decade, according to the draft plan, an update of the original 2007 plan. It also includes potential plans for between 2030 and 2050.

The draft update identifies four trends affecting MARC. Over the past 15 years, system ridership has gone up an average of 3.5% per year, largely due to the Penn Line between DC, Baltimore, and Perryville. Parking is at capacity at stations on all 3 lines. MTA wants to make the system more sustainable. And MTA wants to encourage transit-oriented development.

MTA already has programmed investments for MARC that are either underway or are planned to happen soon. They include weekend service on the Penn Line, starting December 7; a new station at Halethorpe, on the Penn Line; and the purchase of 54 new railcars. MTA also plans to buy 10 new diesel locomotives, overhaul 63 bi-level railcars, and repower 6 diesel locomotives.

MTA also plans to implement positive train control, as required by law. And MTA plans to improve the track on the Camden and Brunswick Lines, build a facility for mid-day train storage in Washington, procure a maintenance facility at Riverside Yard in Baltimore, and build an interlocking at Hanson, just south of New Carrollton.

For the future, the draft update lays out four objectives for MARC: maintain a state of good repair, increase ridership, improve service, and enhance the customer experience.

On the Penn Line, MTA has $1.296 billion of planned improvements for 2020-2029, including new stations at West Baltimore and BWI and station construction at Bayview (in Baltimore) and at Elkton (in Cecil County). Plans also include expanded parking at Aberdeen, Halethorpe, Odenton, Bowie State, and Seabrook. Trains would have expanded peak and reverse peak hours and 30-minute headways for off-peak service. And there would be a shuttle link with SEPTA, the transit system for Philadelphia and southeastern Pennsylvania. MTA also plans to expand capacity at the Martins maintenance yard north of Baltimore and to build a pedestrian overpass at Odenton.

For 2030-2050, the potential plans for the Penn Line include a complete fourth track, including new bridges and tunnels, as well as service to L'Enfant Plaza and northern Virginia.

On the Camden Line, the $33 million of planned improvements for 2013-2019 include longer trains, a pedestrian crossover at Savage, 2 additional round trips, and turnback service between Washington and Dorsey. For 2020-2029, the $186 million of planned improvements include parking expansions at Laurel, Muirkirk, and Laurel Park Raceway; a third track between Savage and Laurel; one additional mid-day afternoon train; and one additional reverse-peak train. The potential plans for 2030-2050 include more third track, 20-minute headways for peak service, limited mid-day service, and weekend service.

On the Brunswick Line, the $57 million of planned improvements for 2013-2019 include longer trains and more bus connections. The $264 million of planned improvements for 2020-2029 include a third track on Barnesville Hill, east of the Monocacy River, as well as an additional or expanded station in Montgomery County and a parking garage at Germantown. There would be increased limited-stop and express service, along with one additional round trip from Brunswick and one reverse-peak trip to Brunswick. Potential plans for 2030-2050 include more third track, limited reverse-peak service, and 3 additional round trips from Frederick.

For comments on the draft update, you can e-mail MTA at MGIP@mta.maryland.gov until mid-November.

Transit


In 4 years, ride Amtrak to Roanoke

Having recently added new rail service to Norfolk and Lynchburg, Amtrak is now beginning planning to extend service to Roanoke.


Amtrak's route to Roanoke. Image by the author.

The plan is simply to extend the highly successful Lynchburg train a few miles further southwest. But since Roanoke hasn't had rail service in decades, it will take 3-4 years to get everything ready.

Even if progress is slow, it's exciting to see American intercity rail become popular again.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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