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Seeing a Future Along Old Tracks

"We're trying to bring back what we had at the turn of the century," said Patrick Prangley, Riverdale Park's town administrator for more than 20 years. Prangley and his colleagues have attracted $14 million worth of improvements to the town, mostly from government grants. He talks about plans on the books for 490 condominiums that would transform the area around the tracks.

The town's support for commuter rail means the railroad is a key partner in making it all happen. "I think CSX is going to be very pleased to see this kind of housing coming next to their rail line," Prangley said.

A Choice of Trains

Homes near the tracks can also be found in Garrett Park, a stop on MARC's Brunswick Line, which begins at Union Station and ends in Martinsburg, W.Va. The trains have been pulling into the little Montgomery County town since 1895. It bears its railroad roots proudly, taking its name from Robert Garrett, the son of a former president of the B&O, John W. Garrett.

The original 150-acre town was laid out to resemble an English village, with winding lanes and irregularly shaped lots. William Saunders, who served in the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the Lincoln administration, contributed horticultural expertise. Early residents of Garrett Park's Victorian houses included military officers and railroad executives.

To spur development and add customers, the railroad offered incentives to potential homeowners, including half-price rates for transporting building materials and the workers who would construct the houses. Families could also take the first ride to their new homes for free while carrying "household supplies not bulky in character."

Today, the railroad remains a part of daily life. "The train is right in our back yard," said Nancy Schwartz, a resident of Garrett Park. "Most of the time, I enjoy it, but you can also get an engineer who thinks it's as cool as can be to blow the whistle in the middle of the night." Schwartz, a retired government worker, has been coping with those noisy engineers since 1985.

Chris Keller is a federal government lawyer who lives three houses back from the tracks. He has been in the neighborhood for 25 years. He contrasts the noise of diesel-powered train engines favorably with the jet noise inflicted on him when he lived in Georgetown, where "entertaining in the garden was lousy; you simply stopped talking."

Some residents confess a concern over hazardous cargo on the freight trains that rumble by.

"I worry the same way I worried about nuclear weapons in high school," said Paul Dickson, a writer who has lived in Garrett Park since 1978. "But it's not a real fear, like termites."

Like the residents of Riverdale Park, those who live in Garrett Park have a choice of rail systems.

Schwartz and her family rarely ride the train, but they were drawn to the neighborhood for transportation reasons. "We were determined not to commute by car," Schwartz said, "and the Metro is also within walking distance."

Dickson rides MARC out of Garrett Park several times a year. It gets him to Union Station in about 20 minutes -- unless the engineer has to wait for a passing freight train.

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