Well, here we are, either reinventing the wheel or again recreating what we once had before. Real old-timers would know that commuters have traveled into Washington from Maryland by train for time immemorial and so-called accommodation trains carried commuters from Virginia until after World War II.
The Maryland trains came close to oblivion, but were rescued by timely action of the state government. Now we have the announcement that, supported by a federal grant, a commuter service in Virginia will begin as early as next January from Fredericksburg with a possible Manassas service to follow.
What few people realize today is that commuting by train was a Washington area invention. Although the New York & Harlem Railroad, a forerunner of the commuter lines that still run into New York's Grand Central Terminal, may have begun service earlier strictly within Manhattan, Washington was the first place where trains brought commuters in from a more remote community.
The Civil War was the impetus. John W. Garrett, president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (for whom both the Montgomery County town of Garrett Park and Maryland's most westerly Garrett County are named), was troubled by large numbers of "females employed in the war business at the capital" who managed somehow to ride his trains each day without paying.
When the Baltimore- Washington line was double-tracked in 1863, Garrett instituted the "commutation train" in addition to regular main-line trains between the two cities -- "a real novelty . . . . a wartime necessity," B&O's corporate biographer, Edward Hungerford, was to write in 1927.
The Civil War, he wrote, "found Washington a rather haphazard overcrowded town of, say, 50,000," with housing tight. "And so folk employed in the capital began living in Baltimore and going back and forth each working day, a practice that has continued to this day ." It's still the case in 1985, though traffic is shared with the parallel Amtrak line.
Starting in 1863, the special B&O train for commuters departed Baltimore at 7:10 a.m. daily and departed Washington at 4:30 p.m. for the return trip. The revolutionary aspect was a reduced-fare commutation ticket -- initially $200 a year, later reduced to $125, the latter averaging about $10.40 a month, payable all at once. The present fare, paid monthly for commuting over the same line, where commuter trains are still operating after 122 years, is $93.
"Here," wrote historian Hungerford, "was a beginning, if not the earliest one, of a form of traffic that was to grow greatly in its volume at most of the large cities . . . . and was no small problem in the design of . . . . [railroad] terminal facilities."