U.S., Florida: The Butchering Of Tampa Union Station

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; May 6, 2021

The Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak have been butchering some of America’s best as well as newest passenger train stations with little forethought for a brighter future for passenger trains.

This isn’t as much about preserving wonderful temples the railroads built to themselves when passenger trains reigned supreme; this is about limiting current and future use of these stations as well as building newer stations too small.

Here in Florida, Tampa Union Station is a prime example. The station, built in 1912 and beautifully rebuilt/refurbished in 1998 has gone from an eight track station to a single track station in 2020 with a second track available for private car use or special trains.

Wikipedia has the details: “The station was originally built with eight tracks, although only one is in regular use today (designated as “Track 3”), with adjacent Track 2 used for private railroad cars and special display trains on occasion. Amtrak added a new, high-level platform and canopy to the station to improve accessibility, which opened in November 2020. The construction of the new platform resulted in changes to track configurations at the station. Tracks 4, 5, and 6 were removed to facilitate the construction of the high-level platform, although there are plans to restore them in the future if demand warrants. Although some of the other tracks remain in place, they are out of service.”

There is no question the old station tracks – mostly two streaks of wobbly steel that barely aligned – and the original platforms and canopies which probably last had serious maintenance done in the Hoover Administration were in terrible shape and needed serious attention. It’s the installation of the high-level platform for level boarding of single-level trains which has caused such havoc.

The station facility is owned by the City of Tampa and the platforms and tracks are owned by CSX Transportation. Amtrak has a multi-decade lease for the ticketing and baggage areas and use of the waiting room. Amtrak is the primary tenant of the facility.

About a decade ago, the Obama Administration FRA demanded any new station platform or platforms with major renovations must be high-level platforms to accommodate Americans With Disabilities Act passengers.

When the Roanoke, Virginia new station was constructed in 2017 the plan was to have a typical low-level platform as well as accommodate anyone requiring a wheelchair or needing special assistance. The plan was for the station to have the standard equipment found at hundreds of other Amtrak stations – a safe, portable mechanical wheelchair lift. The estimate based on statistical research was the instance of passengers traveling with a wheelchair was extremely low – low enough to be considered infrequent as opposed to ordinary.

The correct thought was, every passenger is welcome, and those needing special accommodations as defined under the ADA will be taken care of with dignity, grace, efficiency and good wishes.

That wasn’t good enough for the FRA; they demanded the much higher-cost high-level platforms must be installed. Amtrak and everyone caved to the FRA and spent the extra money for the high-level platform.

Now, something similar has happened in Tampa. A station built with eight tracks and which 40 years ago had a robust Amtrak maintenance operation on two of those tracks is now a single-track station with a house track for special movement needs.

So, you ask, what’s the big deal? Tampa only has service by the daily Silver Star and a Thruway Bus connection to the Silver Meteor in Orlando. Why do they need more than one track?

The answer is multi-fold. First, train scheduling. A very late southbound Silver Star (it’s happened more than once) could be occupying the single station track at the same time the on-time northbound Silver Star should be calling at the station. That can’t happen; one train has to be held outside of the station for the other train to clear.

Second, high-level platforms automatically preclude the use of Superliner equipment for trains calling at the station. (The FRA’s war on bi-level equipment is another story for another day.)

Third, while the Wikipedia article notes “there are plans” to restore some of the now-gone platforms and tracks if demand warrants, having to go through the new construction process for adding new station tracks and platforms could delay the introduction of any new train(s) for months or easily over a year.

Tampa is the heart of West Central Florida’s huge metropolitan area. Brightline is already planning expansion from Orlando to Tampa. Any rail planner looking at Florida will automatically look at the multi-million population of the Tampa Bay area and conclude it not only needs more passenger trains but some of those trains should terminate in Tampa. Not enough current station track space is enough to discourage many planners not wanting to consider having to build new station accommodations in addition to the trains themselves. It could be a deal killer.

There are other stations with similar circumstances we will address soon. For the Amtrak system to grow and prosper there must be a better foresight of the entire picture, including stations, maintenance facilities, rolling stock and much more. Planning for the future using pessimistic/the system will never grow goals hurts the overall effort of passenger trains and acknowledges that for many, the cause of passenger train expansion is unworthy.

Don’t forget, in many states, the entire costs of introducing new passenger trains is often about the equivalent – or less – than construction of a single interchange for an interstate highway. That isn’t modal envy; that merely points out how relatively inexpensive new passenger trains can be when properly planned and deployed.

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