The Baltimore Penn Station has been the Baltimore terminus of the Penn Line's DC-Baltimore commuter service since 1911. Image by Public domain.

Much of DC beyond the original L'Enfant city and Georgetown consists of “streetcar suburbs,” namely late-19th and early-20th Century communities that grew up around streetcar lines. While electric streetcars didn't extend to Maryland until the 1890s, Washington's first steam railroad line, to Baltimore, opened in 1837 and commuters from Maryland rode trains into the city as early as the Civil War.

I recently wrote about commuter rail service on the B&O Railroad's Washington Branch (now the Camden Line) and the Metropolitan Branch (now the Brunswick Line). Now it's time to discuss the B&O Railroad's main competitor in Maryland: the Pennsylvania Railroad, which operated what became the Penn Line.

New competition: the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad's Washington Branch was the only railroad serving Washington from the north for the first 35 years after its opening in 1837. Not until 1872 did it get a competitor in the form of the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad, today's MARC Penn Line.

The B&P followed a less direct route between Baltimore and Washington, crossing the Patuxent further east and entering the District south of the Anacostia before crossing the near the Washington Navy Yard.

Here are the 19th and early 20th Century stations on the Pennsylvania Railroad's main line and Pope's Creek Branch through DC and Prince George's County.  Original names of stations whose names have changed are in parenthesis. Image by the author.

This route was a consequence of the B&P being originally chartered to connect Baltimore to southern Maryland, bypassing Washington. The line into Washington was technically built as a “branch line” from Bowie.

However, by the time it opened, the B&P had been aquired by the Pennsylvania Railroad, which used the Baltimore-Washington route as its primary line. The route into Southern Maryland from Bowie was a branch named after its terminus at Pope's Creek in Charles County.

The Pope's Creek Branch was more for freight than people

The Pope's Creek branch doesn't seem to have ever seen a great deal of passenger service use. The 1879 Official Guide of the Railways shows it having two passenger trains a day in each direction, and while this increased to four in 1921 before tapering back off to one by 1937, it served very rural areas and likely got its main traffic in its early years from farm freight.

Passenger service ended in 1949, and today most of the traffic it carries are coal trains to a power plant near its terminus at Pope's Creek.

The Bowie Railroad Museum, in the former control tower
at the wye junction of the Penn Line and the Pope's Creek Branch. Image by Mattysc licensed under Creative Commons.

Even when it was in use, the service on the Pope's Creek branch was not really useful for commuters. After the first few years of operation, all southbound trains left Bowie in the morning and northbound trains returned to it in the evening, presumably to avoid having to overnight a locomotive and train crew to Pope's Creek.

Despite the line's circumferential nature, in 2009 the MTA studied using it for MARC service to Charles and southern Prince George's Counties.

The history of the Penn Line

Unlike the Pope's Creek Branch, the B&P's main line between Baltimore and Washington has carried significant long-distance and local traffic since it opened. Today it carries Amtrak's Northeast Corridor trains in addition to MARC service.

The B&P ran several local trains a day, stopping at the Navy Yard, at a station called Benning near the current Minnesota Avenue Metro station, at a station called Wilson's near the current Landover Metro station, in Seabrook at the location of the current MARC Seabrook station, and at the junction with the Pope's Creek branch in what is now Old Bowie.

The 1879 Hopkins Atlas shows additional stations at Lanham (near the intersection of Annapolis Road with the Beltway today), Glenn Dale, and Springfield Road. It also shows the beginning of a town with its own post office established at the Glenn Dale station and the newly plotted-out street grid of “Huntington City,” which is now Old Bowie.

The Seabrook MARC station is the only original Penn Line station in Prince George's County that still gets commuter rail service. Image by Pi.1415926535 licensed under Creative Commons.

This, along with the fact that the railroad was running a number of local trains in each direction each day, and the existence of the Navy Yard station which was presumably mainly used by commuters, suggests that commuting by rail had already started on the B&P line at this point.

Commuter service on the B&P — which was finally fully absorbed by the Pennsylvania in 1902 — seems to have peaked a bit later than on the B&O Washington Branch. That's probably because the line opened later, and because it never had to compete with nearby streetcar lines.

Union Station and the route into the District

The Pennsylvania Railroad's original entrance into the District was along the south bank of the Anacostia along the route that currently takes freight to the Virginia Avenue Tunnel. Passenger trains crossed the Mall to reach a station just north of it, while the B&O Railroad served a station just north of the Capitol, near the current site of Union Station.

In 1907, this arrangement was changed with when Union Station was constructed and with the opening of the First Street tunnel that Amtrak and VRE trains departing Union Station for Virginia still use today.

The Pennsylvania Railroad's passenger trains were sent down new tracks along what is now New York Avenue to join B&O Railroad tracks on the way to Union Station. The Navy Yard station, which had previously seen commuter traffic, was abandoned and the Virginia Avenue Tunnel route was left to be used solely for freight service.

From 1910 until 1958, there were at least two daily trains in each direction stopping at eachof Landover, Ardwick (near Ardwick-Ardmore Road), Lanham, Seabrook, Glenn Dale, and Bowie, along with at least one train a day in each direction at Tuxedo (now the Cheverly Metro station). Until the mid-1930s, there were at least six trains in each direction at all of these stops.

Why didn't this line lead to walkable, dense development?

So why didn't these stations develop walkable, dense communities to the same degree as the stations along the B&O Washington Branch? It's hard to be sure from this data alone. However, two likely causes jump out to me.

One is the fact that US-50 was built just north of the line inside the Beltway, and the line in turn runs just north of Lower Beaverdam Creek. The early, railroad-focused developments in Landover and Cheverly were built on hilly heights overlooking the creek, but have been cut off partially (or completely, in the case of the Landover Metro station, which has no pedestrian crossing of US-50) from the railroad.

A look at the industrial land along the south side of the Penn Line using Google Maps' terrain view shows that it is mostly the flat floodplain of Lower Beaverdam Creek. This area was likely considered too swampy and prone to flooding to subdivide as homes for well-off railroad commuters.

A similar pattern is visible along the Camden Line, where the oldest suburban developments along the line are built up on heights, and the low-level ones in the floodplains of the Northwest Branch and Paint Branch are either still industrial or parkland. There were later, less-desirable developments in low-lying areas such as the Lakeland neighborhood of College Park, but they flooded often. Lakeland became home to an African-American community because legal segregation kept more desirable areas on higher ground all white.

A second point worth considering is that, while steam railroad commuters were responsible for building early suburban developments, they were not particularly numerous. It was only the advent of electric streetcars in the 1890s that really allowed significant numbers of working-class people to move out of the city and into suburbs.

The lack of streetcar lines along the Penn Line meant that it couldn't attract nearly as many suburban commuters as the area along the Camden Line, which was well-served by streetcars, and contributed to its having smaller and less dense suburbs along it.

This seems to be confirmed by Census data on the population history of the county. Until the 1900 Census, none of the county's election districts seem to have really broken away from the county's overall agricultural population density, although Laurel and Hyattsville did achieve populations of 2,000 and 1,500 by the 1890 Census. Starting with the 1900 Census, though, the area along US-1, which was served by two electric streetcars starting at this time, really starts to break away from the rest of the county's population.

The Penn Line in the present day

As late as 1958, the Official Guide shows several commuter trains in each direction on the Penn Line, with four locals in each direction stopping in Seabrook and five at Bowie each day. Service was taken over by Penn Central after the Pennsylvania Railroad-New York Central merger in 1968. In 1971, Amtrak took over intercity service on the line. However, Penn Central continued to operate commuter service without subsidy until it went bankrupt in 1976.

A three car train of PRR MP54s in Penn Central Washington-Baltimore service seen near Capital Beltway station in July 1970 Image by Marty Bernard.

Commuter service on the Penn Line was maintained by Conrail from 1976 until 1983, when the railroad transferred its commuter rail services in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and the Baltimore-Washington area to local and state governments. However, unlike the MBTA, Metro-North, New Jersey Transit, and SEPTA, MARC did not purchase any of the commuter rail lines it took over service on and, today, the Penn Line is owned by Amtrak while the Camden and Brunswick lines are owned by the freight railroad CSX.

After MARC took over service on the Penn Line, the number of daily commuter trains increased until there was hourly service on weekdays. In 2013, it became the first MARC line to have weekend service. However, the number of stations also decreased; service to Cheverly, Landover, Glendale, and Bowie was cut; and the Ardwick and Lanham stations were consolidated into the New Carrollton station.

DW Rowlands is an adjunct chemistry professor and Prince George’s County native, currently living in College Park. More of their writing on transportation-related and other topics can be found on their website.  They also write on DC transportation and demographic issues for the DC Policy Center, where they are a Fellow. In their spare time, they volunteer for Prince George’s Advocates for Community-Based Transit. However, the views expressed here are their own.