Tadd Buffington

Tadd Buffington, a NASA employee, drives his Harley-Davidson Road King from Baltimore to the BWI Amtrak/MARC train station and then takes the train to Washington. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston / June 27, 2012)

Many federal workers in and around Washington make their home in the Baltimore area, so when two of them get together at a party, they immediately begin swapping commuting strategies.

"Invariably, the first question that I get when I say I commute to D.C. is 'Oh, do you take the train?'" said Elaine Papp, a Federal Hill resident who works for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in southeast Washington. "When I say, 'No,' then they say, 'How do you get there?'"

How to get "there" is a question thousands of Marylanders must figure out. About 101,370 federal employees in Maryland commute to Washington, according to 2010 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. And around 17,465 of them live in Baltimore and the surrounding counties.

The usual mode of travel is either car or train — or a combination of the two. And timing is everything. Workers calculate when to leave the house in the morning to encounter the least amount of traffic or to get to the train with just the right amount of time to spare. They make a similar analysis for the journey home.

A round trip can easily eat up more than two hours of the day — if everything goes well. A roadside accident or a breakdown on the tracks can throw a schedule off by hours.

"It's like a house of cards. One thing goes wrong, and the whole thing falls apart," Papp said.

She drives a half hour to Greenbelt and then rides the Metro for 40 minutes. Driving the entire way would be quicker, but Papp won't hear of it.

"Because it's too hectic," she says. "I sit on the train. I read the paper. I do the crossword puzzle. Sometimes I write Christmas cards. It's a nice way to kind of chill out before I actually get to work."

Public transportation isn't stress-free, though. Commuters haven't forgotten the "hell train" two years ago when a Baltimore-bound MARC train broke down in sweltering weather, leaving hundreds of people sweating it out for hours.

Wesley Branch, a federal forensic toxicologist for the Pretrial Services Agency for the District of Columbia, was on that train. He said it took him six hours to get home.

"It was in the middle of the going-home traffic," he said. "Everything was shut down and there was no air conditioning. Nobody could move."

Branch, who lives in South Baltimore, has been commuting to Washington for more than nine years. In that time, he said, he and his fellow passengers have seen plenty of train troubles.

"It's those problems that bind us," he said.

Still, the train remains the choice of many.

"It's horrible driving all the way" and a dusting of snow on the roads can add hours to a trip, said Vigdis Jacobsen, a grants management specialist for the U.S. Forest Service in Rosslyn, Va.

The Baltimore resident drives to Halethorpe to catch the MARC train before the cars get crowded.

"You learn the drill. Some people talk too much, so you stay away from them," Jacobsen said.

For some, the train isn't a convenient option.

Adam Minakowski, for example, drives from Timonium to his job at the National Archives in College Park, just outside Washington. He usually leaves at 6 a.m. or so to avoid traffic on his route from the Jones Falls Expressway to the Capital Beltway.