By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; November 4, 2022
Many modern day cities base their civic pride on their public buildings; city hall, a downtown public library, a courthouse, and, more and more, the airport.
Airports are designed for more than the purpose of handling passenger traffic, they are also designed as gateways to a city. Often, the design and passenger flow of an airport defines how new arrivals judge the city. If the airport is congested, or ill-designed, or rundown, that sets the psychological stage for arriving passengers.
Being a city’s gateway is a relatively new task assigned to airports; up until the early 1960s, train stations were considered to be a city’s gateway for new arrivals. Somewhere around the mid-1960s the last of the large train stations were constructed; after that, “small was good” because there was an expectation of declining passenger traffic. The days of new union stations were gone, too, as merger-fever had taken hold of the railroad industry.
Many consider New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal, completed in 1954, to be the last of the great union stations constructed in a major city. Originally built with nine passenger tracks, NOUPT served the Southern Pacific, Kansas City Southern, Louisville & Nashville, and the Southern Railway as the principal tenants. Later, some of the stub-end station tracks and half of the waiting area would be sacrificed to accommodate an intercity bus terminal. The station was renovated in 2005, and has been a major Amtrak terminal for the Sunset Limited, City of New Orleans and Crescent. At times it was also the home of versions of the short-lived Gulf Coast Limited.
Railroads, when building their passenger stations, whether in small or large cities had an expensive habit of building temples to themselves. Some of the most stunning architecture across North America is that of passenger train stations.
In some places, such as Grand Central Terminal in New York City, Chicago Union Station, Denver Union Station, Los Angeles Union Passenger Station, Main Street Station in Richmond, Virginia and others, these original temples have been mercifully maintained and restored and today still show their originally intended glory while performing as passenger train stations along with other functions. They are magnificent.
In many smaller cities and large towns, once beautiful and functional passenger train stations have not only been discarded, they have been razed in the unholy name of progress. Of course, the darkest example of this was the desperation move by the Pennsylvania Railroad to allow New York Pennsylvania Station to be destroyed because the railroad deemed it too expensive to maintain and needed the cash paid by developers for a “modern” office building in the space as well as a newer Madison Square Garden sports and entertainment arena. The loss of New York Penn has been rightly labeled by many as civic/architectural vandalism.
In cities such as Jacksonville, Florida, the former Jacksonville Union Terminal was saved by a deal between a railroad chairman and a local millionaire who teamed up to save the building for future use. The Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center is named for the late railroad president (and, later chairman) and a brass plaque is on a wall of the former station concourse area honoring the millionaire. At its peak, Jacksonville Union Terminal hosted 142 trains and 20,000 passengers a day. The terminal had 32 tracks, including mail and express tracks. The terminal had a restaurant, snack bars, newsstands, a barber shop, florist, drug store and gift shops.
Elsewhere in Jacksonville, at a site miles from the center city along CSX tracks, sits the “new” Jacksonville station, built by Amtrak as the first of its prototype smaller stations. It opened in January of 1974. The Amtrak station features a parking lot, waiting room, ticket office and two station tracks, plus a third house track once used for mail and express. At its peak, the station has hosted as many as 10 trains a day when the tri-weekly Sunset Limited also served Jacksonville.
In the Southwest, the Santa Fe and other railroads built stations that reflected Spanish-influenced Southwest architecture. In the Southeast, The Atlantic Coast Line and Seaboard Air Line built stations that reflected Florida’s Spanish heritage architecture. In the middle of the east coast, the Chesapeake & Ohio built colonial style stations. In the Northeast, the New York Central built stations that reflected the strength and muscle of a railroad capable of building New York’s Grand Central Terminal.
As we are in the third decade of the 21st Century, what do we do with all of these passenger stations?
In many cities which no longer have passenger service, the stations have either been torn down or repurposed as restaurants or chamber of commerce headquarters, visitor centers, or gift shops.
In cities such as Jacksonville which have a shadow of their former passenger train service, many of the larger stations have been abandoned and replaced by – putting it kindly – non-distinguished architecture that often looks more like a military bunker. In almost every instance, the new stations built solely by Amtrak have been grossly under-estimated in size for passenger traffic.
In Charlottesville, Virginia, in the late 1990s, Amtrak opened a new station in the old REA Express building of the former Southern Railway station complex which had been bought by a private developer. The old Southern station, which served Amtrak for over 10 years, was ramshackle, depressing, and an embarrassment to mankind. The new, smaller station next door had every amenity of a good station when it was built and opened; a secure ticket office which handled baggage, a crew base, and good parking. The current problem is the station, which when it opened served the Crescent and the tri-weekly Cardinal, now serves both of those trains plus the Lynchburg/Roanoke trains. Because the trains are now so convenient and accessible, the parking lot is inadequate, the waiting room is grossly inadequate, and the station groans under the weight of what is required of it.
There are stories such as this all over the country.
In Raleigh, North Carolina, the new union station is across the tracks from the former Southern Railway station in a warehouse district. It’s magnificent. Well designed, well built, adequate parking, future expansion provided for easily. It serves the Silver Star, Carolinian and Piedmont Service. The planners understood North Carolina’s Rail Division of the Department of Transportation is one of the best in the country and has a decades-long history of expanding rail in North Carolina, with or without the help of the federal government.
Brightline is building all-new stations for its Florida service. The stations are designed to handle both first class and coach passengers, have more than adequate parking, have spacious waiting areas, and level-boarding. Rolling stock and stations were designed in harmony for easy entraining and detraining and a pleasant travel atmosphere.
Here’s the question: With all of the aging – some wonderfully restored, some not – passenger train stations in the country, should money, be it federal or state or local, be put into turning old stations useful again, or build new? And, if you build new, how ambitious should you be? There are examples along the former New York Central line in New York State where some beautiful old stations, beyond saving, were razed and wonderful new stations, of appropriate size and appearance, replaced them.
Who should be responsible for train stations?
When the Tampa, Florida union station was first restored 20-some years ago, it was a project by the City of Tampa, which owns the building. Amtrak pre-paid the entire amount of a long-term lease for part of the station as its contribution (a forward-looking and wise move, all around). The building is now undergoing further renovation and the city is looking for other tenants to use office parts of the building.
If the airlines don’t own any airports, should passenger railroads not own any passenger stations? Back to Brightline; they will gladly build new, additional stations if local government finance the building cost. Brightline understands the locals need them as much as they need the locals. It makes sense for local money to build and maintain train stations while the passenger carrier is a lessee.
Looking at the Great American Stations website, we see a number of combinations of who/what owns stations, parking lots, platforms, and tracks. There seems to be no single set formula.
The age of railroads building temples to themselves through their local stations is over. Brightline got the pump primed by building a few of its core system stations, but quickly moved to local involvement if any particular city/town wanted its own station.
There has been one temple restoration/expansion. In New York City, led by the State of New York, in the former James A. Farley Post Office building across the street from New York Penn station and over the same passenger platforms and tracks below, has opened the Moynihan Train Hall as a partial replacement for the long-gone original New York Pennsylvania station. This was a project which cost billions; the purpose was to move Amtrak out of the basement which was what was left of the original New York Penn station into a large, open, bright and airy new gateway to New York City. While Amtrak contributed to the cost of the new facility, it is a lessee, not an owner.
Because rarely does one size fit all, perhaps a tiered policy towards stations would be best.
1) When a historic station building can be reused, renovated at a reasonable cost, meet the current codes for Americans with Disabilities Act and provide safe use for passengers, then that should be a first consideration. But, the station should have ownership by someone other than the railroad providing the passenger trains. The railroad – or its franchisee for operating station ticket offices and baggage service – should just be a lessee.
2) When a historic station building cannot be reused, it should be taken out of service and either repurposed or discarded. There is no excuse for passengers being forced to use inadequate, dangerous, or unsavory facilities.
3) If a city or town wants a new station, build one, to the specifications of the passenger railroad. If a city wanted new air service, the same thing would automatically happen.
4) If new stations are built, reasonably plan for an optimistic future, not a gloomy future. Plan for station expansion and plan for stability. The lesson of Charlottesville should be a warning for every other location thinking of a new station facility.
5) Think outside the box. The former Illinois Central station in Memphis, Tennessee has gone through several phases since its initial renovation in the late 1990s. Amtrak’s one train a day in each direction, the City of New Orleans calls late at night northbound and early morning southbound. The Memphis nightlife influence has finally extended to the area of the station, and atop the station, what was once Illinois Central offices is now one of the Hilton Hotel brand properties. Train stations can suddenly become popular places with multiple public functions. Think broadly when planning.
6) No more temples. Just common sense architecture. Some can be fun, some can be plain, some can be innovative, as long as it’s always passenger-friendly. Don’t lose sight of the fact travelers are coming and going, and have basic needs as a result.
Here is a final thought: Baltimore, Maryland has a Pennsylvania station. There is New York Pennsylvania station. Newark, New Jersey has a Pennsylvania station. The Pennsylvania Railroad faded into history with the inception of the Penn Central Transportation Company in 1968. Many Americans are not known as intellectually inquisitive about history. How many people refer to, and use New York Pennsylvania station or Baltimore Pennsylvania station or any of the others and never wonder why a station in New York, New Jersey or Maryland has the word Pennsylvania in the name?
Please consider:Both the United States and Canada have an overwhelming history of passenger train stations large and small, from temples to minor trackside buildings. For the United States, the Great American Stations website (www.greatamericanstations.com) has a compelling wealth of knowledge and historic background on America’s train stations, many of which were built when America was building itself to become the world super power it is today. For many of the same stations and those still in use for other purposes but with a fascinating story, consult Wikipedia for many extensive articles. You will be glad you did.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on this platform on February 6, 2021. It has been updated along with photographs and illustrations added. – Corridorrail.com Editor