Sunday, March 30, 2008

Driving Miss O'Hara

"Scarlett had always liked Atlanta for the very same reasons that made Savannah, Augusta and Macon condemn it. Like herself, the town was a mixture of the old and new in Georgia, in which the old often came off second best in its conflicts with the self-willed and vigorous new."
--Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind
Yesterday, I found myself particularly sentimental about my former home, Atlanta. I don’t know why I found the capital of the Peach State on my mind, but I couldn’t seem to keep from reminiscing. Perhaps it was the warm spring air or the sight of blooming flora that got me thinking. The catalyst is not as important, however, as the content of my thoughts.

So it was ironic that I accidentally found “Driving Miss Daisy” on television last night. I’d never seen the movie before, but it’s set in Atlanta, and it was heartwarming to hear the street and place names that I knew so well.

It seems that I miss Atlanta far more than I thought I would. The first 22 years of my life were spent in Georgia, and it has been difficult to adjust to a new place. It’s funny, in a way I feel homeless and in a way I feel that I have two homes.

This time last year, I would not have thought that I'd have these feelings. I was certainly apprehensive about leaving my friends, but I was also excited about living in a new place. For much of my adolescent life, I plotted on getting out of Georgia; only now that I've escaped do I realize how attached I was to the place.

In time, I know that I’ll come to know Washington as well as I know Atlanta, but it’s starting to dawn on me that Washington can never and should never replace Atlanta in my heart. I often wonder now, whether I was overly critical. Don’t get me wrong, I have no regrets about my relocation, but it has been a sad realization to know that while I can visit Atlanta, it will never be the same as it was. A chapter in my life has been closed, and I suppose my feelings are a desire to revisit some of my favorite paragraphs.

There's a song out there that reminds us that "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone," and I certainly agreed with the statement before moving to Washington, mainly in the sense indicated by another line in the song, where they "paved over paradise and put up a parking lot." This practice is commonplace in America, but is probably more so in Atlanta than in other places. A thought that occurred to me while watching "Driving Miss Daisy," was that it must have been hard to find filming locations that showed an Atlanta of the past. I have heard and read that one of the things that makes Atlanta a progressive city (at least for the South) is the sense of an inferiority complex.

Atlanta is surrounded by the agrarian South. Many rural Georgians claim that Atlanta isn't really part of the state. In their opinions, it's very un-southern. Of course, in my opinion, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Still, in order to prove to itself and to outsiders that it is not merely a product of its geography, Atlanta tries extra hard to make sure it's included in the list of modern, world-class cities. Atlanta feels the need to prove that it's a real city, and as such much of the historic architecture has been replaced by the gleaming steel and glass towers that mark it as the largest city between Washington and Miami.

However, because it grew up during the age of the automobile, it lacks the density of cities like Washington and Baltimore. Similarly, its efforts to modernize itself have, in many respects, robbed it of the charm that can be seen in other southern cities like Savannah and Charleston.

I've never really thought of myself as southern. I lack the characteristic accent of my fellow north Georgians and I am appalled by the racist history of the southland which many consider a matter of heritage. There is no denying it, however, Atlanta is southern and I am starting to realize, now, how southern I really am. The American South is often characterized as a place of hospitality, and I know that idea comes from the deference southerners give to respect for authority and keeping up appearances.

Atlanta is a city filled with people not only from Georgia but from around the world, yet there is a pervasive sense of politeness in the town. Traffic is tamer and strangers even chat on the subway. I suppose culture can still be shaped by geography and history even in these days of mobility and international trade.

Perhaps the realization that I am coming to is my way of dealing with my own history. I don't think that I've completely come to terms with my feelings, but I am starting to understand that perhaps I was too harsh in my judgment of the South. I doubt that I'll ever live there again, but now know that I will always carry the memory of growing up beneath the "southern skies" that Glenn Campbell was so fond of.

I suppose that this periodic sentimentality, perhaps similar to the 'Ostalgie' of East Germans, indicates that my being a southerner means more than drinking sweet tea (or trying to up here in Yankee-land) and calling my professors by their appropriate title.

Regardless of my introspection, my geographic choices have long been a study in contrasts. The aforementioned feelings of Georgians about Atlanta probably stems from those same attributes alluded to by Margaret Mitchell above. Atlanta is a decidedly southern city with a notably non-southern feel. Now, I live in a state which most southerners (myself included) think is northern, despite being located south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Still, most Marylanders consider the Old Line State to be a southern one. And the city which I moved here to live in, Washington, DC, was derided by John F. Kennedy as a city "of northern charm and southern efficiency."

I suppose I'll come to terms with these feelings eventually, but for now, it should suffice to say that I miss Atlanta and I'm not yet acclimated to Washington.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Taking the 'Broad Way'

My recent trip to New York was followed by a trip from Penn Station to Pittsburgh to visit family members. The train ride took me across one of the most famous railroads in American history; the 'Broad Way' of the Pennsy.

The Pennsylvania Railroad's premier train was the Broadway Limited, traveling between New York and Chicago from 1912 until 1995, outliving even the great PRR. Interestingly enough, while the Broadway served Manhattan Island at Pennsylvania Station, it was named not after New York's most famous street, but rather the 'broad way' which the Pennsy had carved across the country. Much of the railroad had been built four tracks wide, making it exceptional in American railroading.

Even today, much of the Northeast Corridor is four tracks wide; a legacy of good planning. Only in 1981 did Conrail remove the fourth track through the Horseshoe Curve. The curve took the Pennsylvania Railroad's Main Line over the Alleghenies at Kittanning Gap and opened the west to rail travel. The Pennsy believed strongly in constructing a railroad that would last, and that meant using lots of stone construction. Today, trains still travel over a bridge that survived the Johnstown flood of 1889.

While the Broadway survived, the Pennsylvania became a fallen flag after being merged with rival New York Central into Penn Central in 1968. The Broadway outlasted the Twentieth Century Limited as well, showpiece of the New York Central, when it was canceled December 2, 1967. In 1995, Amtrak discontinued the Broadway Limited, and September 9th marked the last day of service under that brand.

Service was briefly resurrected in 2005, as the Three Rivers, but today passengers can take the train only from New York to Pittsburgh aboard the Pennsylvanian. At Pittsburgh, they have to change to the former-B&O's flagship (flagtrain?), the Capitol Limited to continue to Chicago.

My journey across Pennsylvania by train was moving for me. The Broadway was my introduction to rail travel, at least through television. A PBS special, "Great Railway Journeys of the World," did an episode on 'America' (filmed in the early 1980s). The narrator traveled from New York to Los Angeles, and he started by purchasing a ticket for the Broadway. The film showed a train pulled by a former PRR GG1, painted black with 'Amtrak' in all white letters. At Harrisburg, the camera sweeps across a decaying station where grass pokes up through the platforms and light streams through holes in the roof. He takes this time to lament the sorry state of passenger rail travel in the United States.

Now, having made the journey myself, I have to say that Amtrak has made huge strides in improvement. The station at Harrisburg is in much better shape and while the Amfleet equipment isn't the same as the all-Pullman Broadway, it's better than the hand-me-downs that Amtrak started out with in the 1970s.

This trip brought to 21 the number of states I've traveled through on Amtrak. I added New York, New Jersey, and Delaware. My train trips over the last three years have taken me aboard:
  • The Heartland Flyer (OK, TX)
  • The Coast Starlight (WA, OR, CA)
  • The Capitol Corridor (CA)
  • The Capitol Limited (IL, IN, OH, PA, MD, WV)
  • The Crescent (LA, MS, AL, GA, SC, NC, VA)
  • Regional Service (PA, DE, MD) and
  • The Pennsylvanian (NY, NJ, PA)
At any rate, two of the most scenic trips I have made are those going through the Alleghenies, the Capitol Limited and the Pennsylvanian. I took some photos on my most recent trip:

A farm slides rapidly by near Lancaster

In the distance, the cooling towers
at the Three Mile Island Nuclear
Power Plant release steam (the
towers at left are connected to
Reactor 2, which partially melted down
in 1979, and are no longer functional)

Crossing the Susquehanna,
Harrisburg is on the horizon

NS helper units push a
freight up the Horseshoe
Curve near Altoona as we
pass by on the center track

Friday, March 28, 2008

Weekend Update

Sorry for the absence of posting for the last couple of days, but after I got back from Spring Break, I was swamped with work.

At any rate, I'm back and now I have finally ridden what is perhaps the most famous subway in the world. Last weekend was not my first time in New York, but because I was with a school trip before, there were no pilgrimages to transit.

I certainly rectified that on this trip. From Washington, I took the bus to Philadelphia. A short trip on PATCO brought me to Camden, where I took my first trip on the River Line. At Trenton, it was NJ Transit's commuter train to Newark. Since I stayed across the river in New Jersey, PATH ferried me back and forth to the Big Apple. Finally, came the moment I've waited for for a long time. Entering at Fulton Street, the 4 train took me to Bowling Green.

That evening, I traveled around New York, including an obligatory trip to Times Square and the Empire State Building. On Saturday, I visited Central Park, FAO Schwarz, and Grand Central. Later, a trip to lower Manhattan took me through Tribecca, SoHo, and Christopher Street, where I was surprised to learn that the Stonewall Inn is still in business.

Sunday took me on an obligatory visit to the NYC Transit Museum, well worth the trip. The museum, in an abandoned subway station in downtown Brooklyn holds a wide range of NYC Subway equipment and other transit stuff. Afterwards, I rode the F train to Coney Island. The trip reminded me of the Chicago L, although the scale of New York's system is overwhelming. After a walk on the boardwalk (which ended because of a sudden rainstorm) the D train took me back to Manhattan. Once there, I took the Staten Island Ferry out and back.

Monday morning, it was off to Penn Station for my trip to visit family in the Pittsburgh area. I'll talk more about that trip in a different post, though.

Overall, I was impressed by New York. As an urban planning student, the city is one which has many good and bad examples of urbanism, though the good ones definitely outnumber the bad ones. One of the things that I don't like about America's largest city is the scale. With buildings towering above on all sides, one can feel particularly small as a pedestrian. Still, the vibrant street life and mix of uses make it a place I would consider living.

I'm sure I'll be back in New York before too long. After all, one weekend is not enough time to do much in a city so large as this one. Besides, I didn't get a chance to ride the Long Island Railroad or the Metro-North lines.

While Penn Station's Track 29 is
fictitious, the one at Grand Central
is real enough.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Slow Blog Week

I'll be out of town over the next week, so I doubt I'll make any posts before next Friday.

Anyway, I'll make sure to tell you all about my trips to New York and Pittsburgh when I get back.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

RLS Kicking In

So for the last week or so, I've been bogged down with all sorts of work, and I haven't been able to continue blogging. I have often heard this referred to as "Real Life Syndrome" (RLS). It certainly feels like a syndrome to me.

And unlike the pharmaceutical marketing ploy with the same initials, this RLS actually does disrupt your blog. (Just kidding).

Anyway, I wanted to take this time to respond to comments left regarding my last post and to ensure everyone that, yes, I am still working on getting the rest of my transit plan out there.

Alex B.:
Interesting ideas.

The downtown tunnel idea is interesting, but I'm not sure it's the best use of resources. I'd be more inclined to create the New Blue line for Metro through this part of downtown, offering another connection at Union Station, giving passengers there two lines to access the core of downtown with. I realize that's not part of your scope here, but I think that would be a far more useful investment for the rest of the city, beyond just regional commuters.

Great job, though. Any ideas on how (or even if) to relocate the L'Enfant tracks, as per the NCPC's plan? I've always had in the back of my mind the crazy idea of re-routing all freight traffic outside of the District somehow, and building a new 'South Station' above the air rights on 395, which could then connect up to the existing 1st street tunnel. This would allow Maryland and Virginia Aves to be rebuilt and piece some of that area back together. Also, having a station there means some trains from MD could bypass Union Station by using the current single track tunnel under the SE Freeway to get to the new L'Enfant station.

Just an idea of mine. Great stuff.

I agree. Building a regional rail subway though downtown would not be cheap. It certainly should not come at the expense of the M Street Subway either. In my opinion building a subway to relieve chronic overcrowding in the Blue/Orange subway should be one of the region's highest priorities. But a regional rail subway serves a different purpose. It would make somewhat of a dent in getting Maryland commuters off of the busy Red Line, and could encourage more riders to ride. It worked in Philadelphia and I think it fits here as well.

As for the Virginia and Maryland Avenue tracks near L'Enfant Plaza, I think that they must remain in passenger service, if nothing else. There is no other direct route for passenger trains to use from Alexandria to Union Station, and service to L'Enfant is vital to our region. Freight service, on the other hand, is less desirable in the corridor. I don't see an easy way to relocate the tracks, however. Improvements will need to be made, as this corridor is an increasingly busy freight corridor through the Northeast.

Love the plan. On the Baltimore end, though, why not continue along the old Baltimore Belt Line base Mt. Royal? Instead of joining up with the NE Corridor, this would give stops in southern Charles Village (at 25th St.) and Cold Spring before ultimately joining back with the NE Corridor in East Baltimore. I believe MARC actually has such an idea in its long-range plan.

You are correct. The MTA has plans to use the Baltimore Belt-Line right-of-way to connect the Mount Royal Tunnel. I felt, however, that a connection between the regional rail line M1 at Penn Station was important to link commuters coming from the Perryville/Wilmington corridor to downtown Baltimore. Remember, I'm proposing bi-directional service of 15-30 minutes, which is better than light rail service is at present. A station at the Baltimore Belt-Line Railway and Charles Street is only 8 tenths of a mile north of Penn Station, approximately 15 minutes walking. While it would be great to serve Charles Village, I think it is outweighed by making a transfer available at Penn Station.

I am glad you commented though. This is the kind of feedback that I like. On a side note, at one point I considered running the M1 up Charles Street/York Road in subway to Towson. I think a light or heavy rail extension would do more justice to the corridor though.

I'm pretty sure that MARC already has plans to extend Penn Line service up to Wilmington. Don't have a link handy, sorry.

You are correct--sort of. I linked the document in the post "Make No Little Plans I", which I posted a day prior to this one. MTA's plans only call for an extension to Newark, Delaware, where passengers could connect to Philadelphia's SEPTA regional rail service. The link, if you want to see it, is:

One thing I think you missed is regional rail service to Loudon County. (e.g. Leesburg and beyond)

Interesting idea. I would be glad to hear suggestions about getting to Leesburg, though. Unfortunately, one of the most difficult parts of transportation planning is figuring out how to penetrate the urban core. With commuter/regional rail, usually existing train tracks are used. There are none in this case. I suppose one could use the W&OD right-of-way, which is currently a biking/walking facility. However, the Silver Line will be making stops as far as Route 772 (Ryan Road) in a few years if the FTA decides to fund it. If they don't fund the Silver Line, I doubt they'll fund regional rail out there.

Anonymous: (from Make No Little Plans I)

From my understanding of the issue, the clearance issues that led high platforms to be banned have to do with not providing enough clearance for railroad employees riding on the side of train cars. It's a regulation that made sense in the old days, but makes much less sense now, especially given all the inconvenience that it causes for wheelchair users and others.

The issue is not one of safety, but clearance. The freight railroads that own both of VRE's lines and the MARC Camden and Brunswick Lines require low platforms because freight cars are wider than passenger cars. You'll note that the only high platform stations on these all four of these routes are at Greenbelt and Camden Yards. Greenbelt has two "loop" tracks for passenger service only, meaning that at Greenbelt MARC Station, there are four tracks and freight trains never use those adjacent to the platforms. Camden Yards Station is off of the CSX main line, because it is north of the point where the freight trains dive into the Howard Street Tunnel.

So, as long as commuter trains operate on freight tracks (as opposed to separate ones alongside), we'll have to deal with the low-platform issue. The alternative would be to build stations like Greenbelt at every location, but that is infeasible in a lot of places with space constraints, like Downtown Manassas.

All of you, thanks for the input! I'd love to have more comments. Stay tuned for the rest of my transit plan, due out as soon as I can get it.