The Gaithersburg MARC station on the Brunswick Line, which was built by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in 1884. Image by Wikipedia user BobDrzyzgula, public domain image.

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. This series is about the rail lines that shaped the region.

I recently wrote about commuter rail service on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's Washington Branch (now the Camden Line), which has connected DC to Baltimore for 180 years. This week I'm going to dig into the Metropolitan Branch and the Brunswick Line. The Washington Branch was built in the 1830s as a spur line to serve the then fairly minor city of Washington, while the B&O's main line ran west from Baltimore to Frederick and the Ohio River.

The B&O Metropolitan Branch

After the Civil War and the resulting growth of the federal government, the railroad reconsidered its decision to bypass Washington and built a second branch from the main line at Point of Rocks in Frederick County southeast of Washington.

When this route — originally called the Metropolitan Branch and now the MARC Brunswick Line — opened, the B&O downgraded its old main line to a secondary line and treated the Metropolitan and Washington branches as a single main line between Frederick and Baltimore.

19th and early 20th Century stations on the B&O Railroad's Washington Branch (now the Camden Line) and Metropolitan Branch (now the Brunswick Line). Original names of stations whose names have changed are in parenthesis. Image by the author.

The railroad routed all long-distance passenger trains from the west down the Metropolitan Branch to DC before they continued up the Washington Branch to Baltimore and the Northeast. Some local trains followed this pattern as well, but others, especially ones timed for rush hour service, served only one of the two branches.

Initial local service on the Metropolitan Branch was light: other than the Rockville station, which received five trains, and the Germantown station, which received two, local stations initially seem to have received only one train a day in each direction.

However, by 1890 local stops were receiving four trains a day in each direction, and a number of new stops had opened. Trains had originally stopped at Brooks (later called University, and now the site of Metro's Brookland-CUA station), Terra Cotta works (the site of an infamous and deadly collision in 1906 and the site of today's Fort Totten Metro station), Silver Spring, and Knowles (now Kensington) before reaching Rockville. By 1890, stations had opened at Forest Glen and Takoma Park.

In 1900, the Takoma Park and Silver Spring stations seem to have been receiving seven trains a day in each direction, and Kensington, Garrett Park, and Derwood (near the Shady Grove Metro station) were receiving four a day in each direction. Rockville and Gaithersburg were receiving nine.

The Official Guide of the Railways shows commuter rail stops on the Metropolitan Branch inconsistently, making it hard to determine what the maximum service on the line was. However, the peak amount of service may not have been as high as at stations in Prince George's County. Rockville received 13 trains daily in each direction in 1910 and 1921, compared to 24 and 17 for Laurel. Other stations are not consistently shown.

The number of local stations shown in the Official Guide and the existence and further stations at Windham, Randolph, and Halpine Roads in Garrett Park and Rockville suggests that there was significant commuter traffic on the line at its peak.

The decline of commuter service and transfer to MARC

In 1963 and 1968, the stations shown in the 1900 edition of the Official Guide appear to have still been open and receiving one or two trains a day in each direction, similar to the service the still-open stations on the Washington Branch were receiving.

After Amtrak's May 1, 1971 takeover of most American intercity passenger service, the B&O (now a part of the Chessie System) continued to provide commuter service on the Brunswick line without subsidies. However, in 1974, the state government started funding 50% of the cost of the service to Brunswick and, in 1975, the state and the B&O reached an agreement under which the state would supply the locomotives and cars and pay the full cost of providing service.

While Maryland initially only funded service south of Brunswick, the B&O railroad maintained a shuttle service between Martinsburg, West Virginia and Brunswick, Maryland without subsidy. However, the state of West Virginia started subsidizing this service late in the 1970s, and Maryland and West Virginia soon folded the two services into a single line to apply for an Urban Mass Transit Administration (the predecesssor to the FTA) grant.

A MARC train passes the Point of Rocks MARC station in 1987.  The station was originally built in 1873 at the junction of the B&O Railroad's Old Main Line and its newly-opened Metropolitan Branch. Image by Bruce Fingerhood licensed under Creative Commons.

In 1984, Maryland combined the Brunsiwck Line and the other two commuter rail lines it was subsidizing — the Penn and Camden Lines — under the MARC brand. Initially, one mid-day reverse commute train, along with two morning and three evening peak-direction trains were provided. The mid-day reverse commute train was eliminated except on Fridays in 2009 due to budget cuts. Today, MARC only runs peak-direction commuter service and one mid-day Friday train on the Brunswick Line.

Stay tuned for the next installment in this series: The Baltimore and Potomac Railroad and the Penn Line. Read the previous post about the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's Washington Branch (now the Camden Line) here.

DW Rowlands is a human geography grad student 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.