U.S., Amtrak stations: Railroads built temples to themselves; some good, some very good, some still used by Amtrak

Denver Union Station with its iconic neon sign was photographed in 2019. The core of the building was built in 1881, substantially altered and updated in 1914 and a century later was renovated again, opening in 2014. Denver Union Station consolidated stations of the Denver and Rio Grande; Denver, South Park and Pacific; Colorado Central; and Union Pacific railroads. Facility, platform and track ownership are all by the Regional Transportation District. Denver Union Station is used by Amtrak’s daily California Zephyr and various local commuter trains and other transit providers. Wikimedia Commons photo,.

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.

Shown in 1960, this well-known and heavily patronized Anaheim, California narrow gauge Santa Fe branch line station opened in July of 1955, exclusively serving the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad. The Santa Fe sponsorship lasted until 1974 when the railroad name was changed to the Disneyland Railroad. The steam engines were originally built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works. Annual ridership at this station often rivals or exceeds the largest train stations in North America. Wikimedia Commons photo.

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.

New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal opened in 1954, consolidating competing railroad passenger stations into one facility. When it was built, NOUPT was the only air-conditioned station in the country and served 44 daily passenger trains and seven railroads. Today it serves Amtrak’s Sunset Limited, City of New Orleans and Crescent. The station facility, parking lot, platforms and tracks are all owned by the City of New Orleans. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The murals adorning the NOUPT upper walls of the waiting room were recently refurbished. In addition to Amtrak, NOUPT is also the local Greyhound station. NOUPT provided a filming location for the 2010 Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Mary-Louise Parker and John Malkovich movie RED. The photographer is standing on the Amtrak side of the waiting room looking at the Greyhound side at the far end. Wikimedia Commons photo.
NOUPT is the terminal for the Superliner Sunset Limited and City of New Orleans and the single level Crescent. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Before Amtrak, as this 1967 photo shows, New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal hosted Kansas City Southern trains with their typical all-black passenger cars following a more colorful locomotive. Wikimedia Commons photo.

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.

Built from 1892 to 1894, this magnificent Saint Louis Union Station is today a hotel and shopping mall. In the 1920s it was the country’s largest railroad terminal. From Wikipedia: “At its height, the station combined the Saint Louis passenger services of 22 railroads, the most of any single terminal in the world. In the 1940s, it handled 100,000 passengers a day.” 2015 Wikimedia Commons photo.
In this November 4, 1948, file photo, President Harry S. Truman standing on the rear open platform of his private Pullman car at St. Louis Union Station holds up an election day edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, which – based on early results – mistakenly announced “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Associated Press Photo/Byron Rollins from Wikimedia Commons.
A 1909 postcard of the Saint Louis Union Station Grand Hall. Wikimedia commons image.
This 2011 photograph shows the beautiful restoration work done of Saint Louis Union Station and its signature clock. Wikimedia Commons photo.
At one point 22 separate railroads called at Saiont Louis Union Station including the Louisville & Nashville and the Chicago & Eastern Illinois railroads. Wikimedia Commons photo.
By January of 1972 the huge Saint Louis Union Station train shed is only hosting a handful of Amtrak trains compared to the previous dozens which called at Saint Louis. Today, the train shed covers a multitude of restaurants and shops. Amtrak trains now use the smaller nearby Saint Louis Gateway Transportation Center which was opened in 2008. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Completed in 1908 and designed by famed architect Daniel Burnham, Washington Union Station reflected the coming grandeur of a national capital of a nation which was growing and taking its place leading the world. Railroads were the primary form of land transportation of the day, and the president when traveling for the nation’s business or personal reasons, began and ended his journey at Washington Union Station. As part of this reality, a special presidential suite accommodation is included in the station’s design. The station facility is jointly owned by the Washington Terminal Company and the United States Department of Transportation. The parking lot/garage is owned by USDOT; the platforms and tracks are owned by Washington Terminal Company. Wikimedia Commons 2021 photo.
To walk inside Washington Union Station and simply allow the grandeur and splendor to wash over you is an important part of the station experience. While today its retail commercial activity has been sharply curtailed, the building itself is entertaining just to enjoy the magnificence. The facility is operated by Jones Lang LaSalle. In addition to Amtrak, Virginia Railway Express and MARC commuter rail services also call Washington Union Station home. Prior to Amtrak, the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad, the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Southern Railway all used Washington Union Station. In addition to Amtrak Northeast Regional corridor trains and Acela service, the daily Silver Meteor, Silver Star, Crescent, Capitol Limited, Cardinal, Palmetto,Carolinian and Vermonter all pass through or originate/terminate at Washington Union Station. While Washington Union Station is the southern terminus of Acela service, several Northeast Regional trains continue south into Virginia. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Detroit’s Michigan Central Station, opened in 1914 and after 1971 hosted Amtrak trains until 1988. The office building above has 13 stories of space, which at its peak in the 1940s housed 3,000 daily workers while the station itself often handled 4,000 daily passengers, entraining and detraining on 200 daily trains. When the station was built it was the tallest train station in the world. The station sat empty for decades until the past few years when it was rescued by a new owner with a new development purpose – an automobile maker, the Ford Motor Company. Wikimedia Commons 2012 photo.
Railroads using Michigan Central Station were the New York Central Railroad (which controlled the Michigan Central Railroad), Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and Canadian Pacific Railroad. The station was built with 10 island platforms, but after renovations, only four platforms remained. Wikimedia Commons 1976 photo.

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.

New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, opened in 1913, built by the New York Central Railroad, former terminal of the 20th Century Limited and the accompanying specialized red carpet on the platform. Host to some of the world’s most famous inter-regional passenger trains, now only used by Metro-North commuters. The building, inside and out is one of the world’s most famous train stations, but in 1962 suffered the indignity of having the Pan Am Building (Pan American World Airways, considered by many to be the unofficial national carrier of the United States) built above it, dwarfing the station. Pan Am did not survive, but Grand Central has. The former Pan Am Building is now the MetLIfe Building. Wikimedia Commons photo.
A classic look at the main hall of Grand Central Terminal, lovingly restored to its original glory as designed by the New York Central Railroad. Other pre-Amtrak railroads using Grand Central included the New Haven Railroad; today it serves Metro-North Railroad. The building and facility is now owned by New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Grand Central Terminal was built with 44 platforms and 67 tracks on two levels. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Denver Union Station under complete renovation in 2013. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Denver Union Station’s waiting area in June 2022. The station’s Great Hall waiting room also serves as the lobby for the Crawford Hotel which is contained in the station complex. In addition to the hotel, Denver Union Station contains restaurants and shops. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Richmond’s classic Main Street Station opened in 1901 with the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad and the Seaboard Air Line Railroad as the two tenants. Seaboard’s elevated tracks were on the west side of the station and C&O’s elevated tracks paralleled on the east side of the station. Stub-end station tracks under the shed were shared by the two railroads. Seaboard ended use of Main Street Station in 1959, moving to the nearby Broad Street Station, now the Science Museum of Virginia. The C&O stayed at Main Street until Amtrak Day and Amtrak remained there until the station was flooded by Hurricane Agnes in 1975. Amtrak returned in 2003 after major restoration and renovation efforts; downtown Main Street Station became Richmond’s second Amtrak station, complementing the busier suburban Staples Mill Road station which serves the Silver Meteor, Silver Star, Palmetto, Carolinian and Northeast Regional corridor trains. Main Street Station serves Northeast Regional corridor trains on the former C&O route to Williamsburg and Newport News, Virginia and one Northeast Regional corridor train which originates in Richmond. The station facility, parking lot, platforms and tracks are all owned by the City of Richmond. Wikimedia Commons image.
This contemporary photograph shows a rehabilitated Main Street Station, now over 120 years old. The station has survived various indignities such as flooding on the first floor by Hurricane Agnes, a major fire which destroyed much of the headhouse roof and upper office floors, the construction of Interstate 95 (left in the photo) which nearly hugs the station wall, conversion into an unsuccessful shopping mall, use as a nightclub and later conversion into medical office for the Virginia Department of Health. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The final restoration of Main Street Station created this waiting room celebrating the station’s original design and heritage. The area seen through the doors on the left, originally designed as a waiting room is now used as an upscale special event venue. The photo is taken from the west side of the station with the former C&O passenger track platform behind the photographer and through the windows is the former Seaboard main line tracks which hosted the Orange Blossom Special, Silver Meteor, Silver Star, Silver Comet and a number of unnamed secondary Seaboard passenger trains. CSX uses the former Seaboard line for local service and overflow freight train movements. C&O named trains calling at Main Street Station included The George Washington, The F.F.V. and The Sportsman, plus unnamed secondary trains. The C&O also operated Rail Diesel Car service between Main Street Station and Newport News. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Main Street Station’s train shed today is a glass-walled special events venue. When built, the train shed housed several stub-end station tracks that served both railroads. Wikimedia Commons photo.
A 1967 view of the east/C&O side of Main Street Station in its original form, a bit on the gritty side 66 years after opening with the first 50+ years serving trains with smoke-belching steam locomotives. The second floor passenger waiting rooms look out at the platforms;the upper floors are C&O local offices. The train will leave the station and proceed southeast to Colonial Williamsburg, Lee Hall and Newport News. A C&O bus will take passengers from Newport News to stops in Norfolk.
After the Seaboard left Main Street Station in 1959 to use the nearby Broad Street Station, for the first few months some passengers were confused about where Seaboard trains would stop in Richmond. The story goes that an older couple riding a Seaboard train was not aware of the change in stations. They asked a kindly Seaboard conductor if he would stop the train for them at Main Street Station so they could detrain since they were making a connection to the C&O. The conductor, thinking a small kindness was a good thing, stopped the train and the couple detrained. The C&O, which now had the full and complete monthly costs of Main Street Station on its books since the Seaboard left, promptly issued a bill to the Seaboard for an entire month’s worth of station upkeep as a result of the one stop by a kindly conductor. No word on what happened to the conductor, but very soon after that the Seaboard erected a sturdy chain-link fence the entire length of the west side track and platform to prevent any further acts of kindness by sympathetic conductors. Internet photo.
Saint Paul Union Depot – known by many simply as SPUD – opened in 1926. Union Depot serves the daily Empire Builder for Amtrak as well as Greyhound and local transit service. The station also contains a Hertz rental car location, coffee shop, restaurant, a bike shop, offices, a museum, and loft condominiums. The station facility, parking lot, platforms and tracks are all owned by the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority.
In 1978 Amtrak consolidated its Minnesota Twin Cities operations at the newly-built Midway Station in an approximate location between Saint Paul and Minneapolis. SPUD was restored to its original glory and reopened in 2011 and Midway Station was abandoned in favor of SPUD. The station, like Washington Union Station, is operated by Jones Lang LaSalle; the station has 1,000 long term parking spaces. Originally, the station had nine platforms and 18 tracks; today there are three platforms and two tracks. Wikimedia Commons photo.
St. Paul Union Depot main passenger concourse. Prior to Amtrak, the history of train service at St. Paul included the Great Northern Railroad (James J. Hill, the original “Empire Builder” was the primary force building SPUD), Northern Pacific Railroad, The Burlington Route, the Rock Island Railroad, Chicago & North Western Railroad, and The Milwaukee Road. Wikimedia Commons photo.

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.

Boston’s South Station was the last major railroad passenger station temple built in the 19th Century; it opened in 1899 and rebuilt in 1985. The New Haven Railroad and its subsidiaries and the New York Central Railroad were the principal users of South Station. It has been through a number of owners and renovations since the mid-20th Century and today the facility, platforms and tracks are all owned by the MBTA, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Wikimedia Commons photo.
New Haven trains of various shapes and sizes used South Station. Today, Amtrak has one long distance train, the Boston section of the Lake Shore Limited which originates in the station, and the rest of the Amtrak service is Northeast Regional and Acela service. MBTA trains also are principal users of the station.
Boston South Station is the northern terminus of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. Wikimedia Commons photo.
New York Pennsylvania Station, perhaps the greatest American train station temple built that was allowed to be destroyed because of the financial incompetence of the owning railroad. When New York Penn as it’s commonly referred to, opened in 1910, Pennsylvania Station had every modern amenity and a few others no one else had thought of before. It was the shining temple proclaiming the power and prestige of the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad. Wikimedia Commons photo.
A 1922 glimpse of just a fraction of the vast interior of New York City’s Pennsylvania Station. When the station was designed and built there were no such things as escalators and common use elevators. The multi-level station required numerous staircases for passengers and luggage-toting porters to move around. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Newspaper ad in 1910 announcing the opening of Pennsylvania Station. Wikimedia Commons image.
The financial horror of the Pennsylvania Railroad was in full bloom by the early 1960s. A terrible decision was made to sell Pennsylvania Station to private developers. The Pennsylvania Railroad would keep the station platforms and tracks operating and a new, subterranean station facility would be built under a new tall office building and a new Madison Square Garden sports and entertainment venue. The demolition and construction lasted from 1963 to 1968 as horrified New Yorkers looked at the destruction of one of their two major passenger train stations, both great works of architectural art which could never be replaced. In the photo above, one of the entrances to Penn Station is shown with the Farley Post Office Building on the right in the photo which today as become the Moynihan Train Hall for Amtrak passengers. Wikimedia Commons photo.
A dual entrance to the subterranean station and Madison Square Garden. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The exterior of Madison Square Garden lit up in an orange light accent. People often wonder why Madison Square Garden is in a round building. The name Madison Square Garden comes from a location, not a building. Throughout Manhattan there are planned street intersections and parks, which are “squares,” such as the famous Times Square, named for when The New York Times newspaper had its headquarters building there. Herald Square was the home of the New York Herald newspaper. Madison Square, named for former President James Madison, was the location of the original Madison Square Garden for 47 years until 1925. The building above is the fourth building to house Madison Square Garden. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Madison Square Garden, directly above New York Penn Station is a world famous sports venue which hosts basketball and hockey among other things as well as some of the world’s most celebrated entertainers in concert. Madison Square Garden is a multi-use venue which has been in operation for over 50 years. Wikimedia Commons photo.

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.

Built in 1919, Jacksonville Terminal saw every sitting president from Woodrow Wilson to Richard Nixon pass through the Florida station before it closed in 1974. When built, it was the largest railroad station in the South.
Today, the former station is the Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center, named in honor of the former CSX Chairman of the Board who worked to save the building for future use. Wikimedia Commons photo.
At its peak, with 20,000 passengers a day using Jacksonville Terminal, every inch of space was needed.
Jacksonville Terminal was built in the era of heavyweight consists and steam locomotives and saw the conversion to lightweight streamliners and diesel locomotives. The station was intentionally built as a segregated facility, but saw that disappear in the 1960s. Jacksonville Terminal was a full service station with restaurants, a drug store, barber shop, small medical facility, USO service and a newsstand.
Wikimedia Commons photo.
Jacksonville Terminal had a large footprint for a medium-sized Florida city when it opened. The terminal had a combination of 32 tracks, including through-tracks (left in the photo) which connected the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad trains to the Florida East Coast Railway for service from New York City and Chicago to Miami, stub-end tracks, and mail and express tracks (right in the photo; the largest building next to the tracks was the Post Office building.) The Pullman Company and REA Express also had station facilities at Jacksonville Terminal. When the station was opened in 1919 it was served by Jacksonville’s streetcars; not much consideration was given to automobile parking, which, after World War II became an everlasting problem until the station closed in 1974. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The four principal railroads served by Jacksonville Terminal were the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, Seaboard Air Line Railroad, Florida East Coast Railway and the Southern Railway. For trains not originating or terminating in Jacksonville, because of their joint operating agreement, Atlantic Coast Line, Southern and Florida East Coast trains operated as through-trains at the station. FEC tracks began at Jacksonville Terminal, crossed the Saint Johns River, then proceeded south to Miami. Seaboard trains had to back in or back out of the station as if it was a stub-end station. Famous name trains using the station included the Champion, Everglades, Havana Special, Florida Special, Vacationer, Orange Blossom Special, Gulf Wind, Silver Meteor, Silver Star, Seminole, South Wind, City of Miami, Ponce de Leon, Royal Palm, Kansas City-Florida Special and Dixieland. Wikimedia Commons image.
Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway was a major player boosting the construction of Jacksonville Terminal, but was mostly dependent on northern through-service trains from the Atlantic Coast Line and Southern for the majority of its service. Internet photo.
This is a trackside view of the Jacksonville, Florida Amtrak station after the late 1990s upgrade and renovation. Jacksonville was the first station Amtrak completely designed and built to replace the large, expensive to operate, no-longer-necessary downtown railroad temple that had opened a half a century before the creation of Amtrak. The facility and parking lot are owned by Amtrak; CSX owns the platforms and track. Wikimedia Commons photo.
This 1986 photo shows a CSX switch engine shoving a CSX business car on the rear of the northbound Silver Meteor at the Jacksonville Amtrak station. The two tracks on the left in the photograph are the former Atlantic Coast Line Railroad/now CSX main line from Florida leading into Georgia about 30 miles north of the station. The single passenger platform and two main station tracks are shown; barely visible on the right in the photo is the house track. After this photo was taken Amtrak procured a mail and express contract for Jacksonville trains and a large, covered mail and express handling facility was added next to the house track, south of the station building. That facility is still in place, but unused today. Wikimedia Commons photo.

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.

Built in 1939 to consolidate the stations of the Union Pacific Railroad, Southern Pacific Railroad and the Santa Fe Railway, Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal – today, Los Angeles Union Station – reflects the heavy Spanish influence of Southern California. Beautiful in every aspect, in non-pandemic times the station serves over 100,000 passengers a day between Amtrak inter-regional trains such as the Sunset Limited, Southwest Chief and Coast Starlight as well as the Pacific Surfliner fleet of regional trains and local transit services. The station facility, parking lot, platforms and tracks are all owned by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Through good times and bad, the overall characteristics of Los Angeles Union Station have stayed the same. In 2021 an eight-year renovation effort was completed; many hidden delights of the original design which had been “papered over” for various reasons since the 1939 original construction were brought back to life, adding to the station’s glory. The station through the decades was the home of such famous trains as the Super Chief, Chief, City of Los Angeles, Challenger, Coast Daylights, the original Sunset Limited, and many more. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The original Fred Harvey restaurant Harvey House space as designed for Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal when the station opened in 1939. After being closed for many years, the space is again open as a pub and restaurant. Scenes for several movies have been filmed in this space including 1973’s The Way We Were with Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford. In 2021 Los Angeles Union Station hosted the Academy Awards ceremony and show. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Atlantic Coast Line Railroad built and opened the Orlando train station in 1926. As with rival Seaboard Air Line Railroad, the ACL also built the majority of their major Florida station with Spanish-influenced architecture. The station was renovated in 1990. Today, the station hosts Amtrak’s daily Silver Meteor and Silver Star as well as SunRail Commuter trains. The station, parking lot, platforms and tracks are all owned by the Florida Department of Transportation. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Seaboard Air Line Railroad opened the Spanish-influenced West Palm Beach station in 1925 for the winter season Orange Blossom Special. The station has been in continuous operation since then and was renovated in 1991, now serving Amtrak’s daily Silver Meteor and Silver Star, Tri-Rail commuter trains and Greyhound. The station building is owned by the City of West Palm Beach, the parking lot by the City of West Palm Beach and Palm Beach County, the station platforms by the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority and the Florida Department of Transportation and the tracks are owned by the Florida Department of Transportation. Wikimedia Commons photo.

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.

The original colonial style architecture of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Charlottesville, Virginia station and offices is shown in 1976. C&O trains used both this station and the union station built and operated by the Southern Railway about a mile down the track. Amtrak closed this station and consolidated Charlottesville operations in the former Southern Railway union station. Today the building houses a law firm. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia station was built by the C&O in 1936, perhaps setting the theme for many other colonial-style C&O stations in their system. Today the station serves Amtrak as well as buses and is referred to as the Williamsburg Transportation Center. The station building and parking lot are owned by the City of Williamsburg and the station platform and tracks are owned by CSX. Wikimedia Commons photo.

As we are in the third decade of the 21st Century, what do we do with all of these passenger stations?

Buffalo Central Terminal was a train station for half a century, from 1929 to 1979. It is 17 stories tall and, according to Wikipedia: “The main concourse is 225 feet long, 66 feet wide, and 58.5 feet tall (63.5 feet at the domed ends). The concourse included various rental spaces; a restaurant with a dining room, lunch room, and coffee shop; a Western Union telegraph office; and a soda fountain, along with standard station necessities. Off the concourse there is a streetcar lobby and waiting room. … The concourse is currently owned by the Central Terminal Restoration Corporation. … The train concourse is 450 feet long and includes 14 low-level platforms. Each platform is accessed by a staircase and a ramp. The train concourse is owned by Amtrak, with the land being owned by CSX. In 1982, the bridge which connected the train concourse and passenger platforms from the terminal and main concourse was demolished to allow passage of high freight cars on the Belt Line. The rest of the concourse remains.” The station was built by the New York Central Railroad and opened just months before the beginning of the Great Depression. Scenes from the 1982 released Burt Reynolds, Goldie Hawn, Jessica Tandy movie Best Friends were filmed at the closed Buffalo Central Terminal during the winter in early 1982. Part of the early plot of the movie included Reynolds and Hawn on their honeymoon departing Los Angeles Union Station on a Superliner in warm California weather and ending up at Buffalo Central Terminal on a single level train in snow. Best Friends is one of the few movies which fairly accurately depicts an Amtrak sleeping car. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Burt Reynolds and Goldie Hawn as newly weds boarding a Superliner train at Los Angeles Union Station in Best Friends. Warner Brothers internet photo.
Burt Reynolds and Goldie Hawn experience the usual first-time sleeping car train riders antics in Best Friends. Warner Brothers internet photo.
Burt Reynolds and Goldie Hawn filmed in the winter of 1982 at Buffalo Central Terminal in the snow for Best Friends. The station had been closed since 1979 but everything was enough still in place for the filming, although when watching the movie the station looks like a lonely place. Warner Brothers internet photo.
Official Best Friends movie poster. Warner Brothers internet image.

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.

Charlottesville, Virginia Union Station is privately owned by Union Station Partners, LLC. Amtrak uses the former REA Express building (smaller building on the left) as its station facility, the main former Southern Railway two story building houses a private business. In this photo, the former C&O/CSX-now Buckingham Branch Railroad-owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia track is behind the station and is the route of the tri-weekly Cardinal. Not shown, but under the overpass the photographer is standing on is the former Southern Railway-now Norfolk Southern main line used by the Crescent and Roanoke daily trains. The parking lot is jointly owned by Union Station Partners LLC and the City of Charlottesville. Station platforms and tracks are owned respectively by the Commonwealth of Virginia and Norfolk Southern Railway. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The platform canopy and level-boarding platform constitute the entire Roanoke, Virginia Amtrak station, now serving two daily roundtrips from Roanoke to Washington, D.C. and the Northeast Corridor. The station is located on the former Norfolk & Western Railway main line, now Norfolk Southern Railroad and close to the Virginia Museum of Transportation. Wikimedia Commons photo.

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.

Raleigh Union Station held a grand opening in 2018; photo by North Carolina Department of Transportation via Wikimedia Commons. The station facility, parking lot and platform are all owned by the City of Raleigh and the tracks are owned by the North Carolina Railroad.
Raleigh Union Station interior in 2019. A modern feel with classic railroad waiting room benches. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Raleigh Union Station is the eastern terminus of North Carolina Department of Transportation’s sponsored Piedmont Service which operates daily between Raleigh and Charlotte. NCDOT owns the passenger cars and locomotives, uses a private equipment maintenance contractor, and uses Amtrak for train and engine operating crews and reservations. Wikimedia Commons photo.

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.

A happy dog, a new train, new train station and innovative passenger services. What’s not to like about Brightline in South Florida? Brightline publicity photo.
Brightline’s MiamiCentral Station could easily be considered a modern temple of a railroad station. Many of the best features of past major city passenger train stations have been included in this new, modern urban building that has been planned and designed for heavy use. Brightline publicity photo.
Like many predecessor railroads, including the Florida East Coast Railway which hosts Brightline passenger trains in South Florida, Brightline has created a station template that brings a consistent array of comforts and services to passengers while meeting the needs of contemporary passengers. When the FEC ended primary passenger service in the 1960s and all service just before the creation of Amtrak, the railroad closed and eventually removed the majority of its passenger stations. Brightline is starting with a clean slate and new construction for all of its stations. Brightline publicity photo.
As of this writing, Brightline’s new Aventura station in Miami-Dade County is nearing completion and will soon be accepting passengers. The station will serve the coming 16 roundtrips a day between Miami and Orlando International Airport as well as a proposed local Miami-Dade County commuter service. Brightline Publicity Photo.
Brightline has solved the “first mile/last mile” problem of moving Brightline passengers to and from its local stations by inaugurating a local on-demand car service at each of its South Florida stations that is included in the price of a Brightline train ticket. Brightline publicity photo.
Brightline has anticipated that not all of its South Florida passengers are traveling long distances and have luggage, so it has also created an on-demand bicycle service for passengers traveling short distances for day trips. Brightline publicity photo.

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?

Tampa Union Station, 2008. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Tampa Union Station waiting room, 2014, painted in typical Florida tropical colors of yellow and green. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Tampa Union Station opened in 1912; this photo of a track platform canopy was taken in 2014. A reasonable debate can be had as to whether or not the platform canopies were every repainted after the original installation. While the City of Tampa owns the station headhouse, CSX retains ownership of the station tracks and platforms. Since this photo was taken, a Federal Railroad Administration mandate for new level-boarding platforms has resulted in Tampa Union Station’s now-single platform to be constructed and all new canopies built, too for the use of the daily Amtrak Silver Star. Often, when station facilities are turned over to local control, only the station building and perhaps the parking lot change ownership; station tracks and platforms do not. Can CSX and its predecessor Seaboard Coast Line Railroad and SCL’s predecessor railroads be blamed for less than favorable maintenance of a facility they have no commercial use for? Should the operator of the station have enough pride in their appearance to their passengers to make sure all of the facility is properly as aesthetically maintained? Wikimedia Commons photo.

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.

File illustration.

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.

The Moynihan Train Hall as part of New York Penn Station; 2021 photo. Moynihan Train Hall is owned by Empire State Development Corporation and New York Penn Station – Amtrak. Platform and track ownership by Moynihan Train Hall and New York Penn Station – Amtrak. Wikimedia Commons photo.

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.

Seaboard Air Line Railroad built the unique Hamlet, North Carolina passenger station and division office building in 1900 when in the same year the Seaboard itself was newly formed as a railroad system from a group of smaller railroads. Today, the station is an Amtrak station serving the Silver Star, as well as the host building of the Hamlet Depot & Museums. The building is owned by the City of Hamlet; station platform and tracks are owned by CSX. Interestingly, the original site of the station was across the railroad tracks from its present location; the entire building was moved to its current site. Wikimedia Commons photo.

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.

30th Street Station in Philadelphia in 2017. The Pennsylvania Railroad built nothing small, including their hometown passenger train station temple to themselves. At one time in its history, the Standard Railroad of the World as the Pennsylvania modestly called itself, the railroad was the largest corporation in the world. 30th Street Station opened in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression and was lovingly restored in 1989. You may recognize this setting from the 1983 movie Trading Places starring Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd and Jamie Lee Curtis. The entire facility and tracks are owned by Amtrak. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Railroad Suburban Station was built and opened in 1930 strictly for local commuter trains in the Philadelphia area. It was renovated in 2007. The office building above was the headquarters of the Pennsylvania Railroad from 1930 to 1957. Both this station and the nearby 30th Street Station have continuously served Philadelphia since their original opening day. The front of the station also had a cameo appearance in the Trading Places movie. Station and tracks are owned by SEPTA Regional Rail. Wikimedia Commons photo.

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.

This 2015 photo of the former Pennsylvania Railroad Newark, New Jersey passenger train station must be confusing to some. It’s been an Amtrak station for over half a century, but it’s still called Pennsylvania Station. The station facility and platforms are owned by New Jersey Transit Corporation and Newark Penn Station Associates. The tracks are owned by New Jersey Transit Corporation. Wikimedia Commons photo.

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.

The Great American Stations website has a pleasantly astonishing amount of good information about our country’s hundreds of passenger train stations. At least three things stand out: Many modern train stations do not have what was once a standard feature: pay telephones, as seen above from New York Pennsylvania Station. The second item is how many train stations, large and small, Amtrak does not own, but is only a tenant in leased space, following the airline/airport model often where the large or small city being served owns the facility and the airline is the lessee tenant. The third thing is, based on photographic evidence of the original 19th Century and early 20th Century railroad passenger station temples, was it possible to design and build a major station without the use of huge Doric columns as part of the front of the station? Wikimedia Commons photo.

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

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