U.S., Florida, Virginia and Tennessee: The Sad Beginning For Intentionally Planning Too Small Amtrak Stations

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; May 17, 2021

All diseases start somewhere, and Amtrak’s Too Small Station Disease started here in Jacksonville, Florida in 1974.

Jacksonville Terminal, built during the heyday of railroad passenger train temples, opened in 1919 and was the largest railroad terminal in the South. At its peak, Jacksonville Terminal (and the Jacksonville Terminal Company) handled as many as 142 trains a day, serving about 20,000 daily passengers.

Jacksonville Terminal had all the modern amenities of its day including a restaurant, snack bars, news stands, a barber shop, florist, gift shops and a drug store. It had a total of 32 tracks including Post Office mail tracks; 29 of the tracks were for passenger trains with 15 of them stub-end tracks with bumpers. The Florida East Coast Railway had run-through tracks to service its trains and the through trains handed off by the Atlantic Coast Line.

Seaboard Air Line and Southern Railway were the other principal tenants of the station.

Along came Amtrak, and the peak of 142 daily trains was reduced to three trains a day in each direction, the Silver Meteor, Silver Star and Champion.

Jacksonville Terminal, in its bruised and tattered glory was an expensive albatross. The Post Office business was gone, trains originating and terminating in Jacksonville were gone, service over the under-strike conditions FEC was gone, there was no longer a need for Pullman Company offices and employees and parking was lousy for the automobiles of travelers. There was a subway tunnel under the longer run-through tracks passengers used to reach their train platforms that had a permanent odor of remnants of dead animals.

Wisely, Amtrak made a decision to leave the terminal and build a new station elsewhere that did not require every train to back into the station as the terminal required (The run-through tracks were only for trains going to or coming from the FEC.).

Amtrak made polite inquiries to Seaboard Coast Line as to a new Jacksonville station location. It is lost to history who at SCL told Amtrak they were allowed to build a new station on a choice of only one or two locations – each of them in perhaps the least passenger-friendly locations. It was a non-negotiation, take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Not even remotely close to downtown Jacksonville, the new station, opened in 1974 in a high-crime industrial and warehouse district was Amtrak’s prototype of a new station design – despite the location. Other stations, such as in Richmond, Virginia and Cleveland, Ohio would be built from the same basic plan and design.

The good news is when the station was built it had adequate automobile parking, long platforms which could accommodate an 18-car train and two house tracks off the main line. There are now also two storage tracks previously used for the defunct Amtrak mail and express service. A passenger train can dwell as long as necessary in Jacksonville while freight trains lumber by on the adjacent SCL-now-CSX main line.

Here is where the problems started: The station was designed for what was thought at the time would be a diminishing number of passengers riding, not an increase. The size of the station worked at first, and was much more budget friendly from almost every aspect.

Then, passenger traffic started building. The station suddenly started being crowded for almost every train calling at Jacksonville. By Amtrak’s 1993 fiscal year, the Jacksonville station was hosting 121,352 passenger a year, about 25,000 more than Miami that year. Jacksonville ranked third in the state behind Tampa and Orlando; Tampa was a metropolitan area over three times larger than Jacksonville and Orlando was the home to Walt Disney World and other major theme parks and vacation destinations.

Finally, in the late 1990s the Jacksonville station was updated and refurbished, but still has limited indoor waiting room seating.

This is where it began, with good intentions. Moving Amtrak out of the Jacksonville Terminal building – now beautifully restored as the Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center – saved Amtrak hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. There was elimination of a stub-end station, and everything was new and shiny.

But, there was a terrible miscalculation that Jacksonville only required what at best is a small-city intermediate station-stop facility. In pre-pandemic times, Amtrak’s FY 2018 state report shows Jacksonville having 66,471 passengers entraining and detraining, and FY 2019’s state report shows 63,969 passengers entraining and detraining. Both years showed totals higher for Jacksonville than Miami.

Amtrak planned for less, the traveling public – despite the difficulty of the Jacksonville station’s location – decided they want to ride the train. So the Amtrak station planning disease began: plan too small, build too small, underestimate the public desiring to ride a train. It’s a recipe for fiscal disaster.

• Charlottesville, Virginia Union Station

On a very cold February day in 1999 the former REA Express building at Charlottesville Union Station had an opening ceremony with 1,000 people in attendance. On hand was a Cardinal Superliner trainset open to the public (at that time the Cardinal was a bi-level train operating only as far east as Washington Union Station), and a gala inaugural luncheon for various local and railroad dignitaries was served in the dining car.

The then-thankfully-abandoned original Charlottesville Union Station, a former relic of the Southern Railway was closed and a private owner was about to gut the building and turn it into a restaurant. The old station was so decrepit there was no running water in the station and the interior somewhat looked as if it had once been a part of the nearby local Civil War battlefields. It was nothing short of a corporate embarrassment.

Train service to Charlottesville in 1999 was the daily Crescent in each direction and the tri-weekly Cardinal in each direction. The Crescent called at the west side of the station on Norfolk Southern trackage and the Cardinal called at the east side on CSX (now Buckingham Branch) trackage.

The nifty new station was well designed, bright, modern and cheery. No one would have guessed it was a former REA Express building.

The station was a bit crowded in the beginning, but tolerable. But, in 2009 a Northeast Regional train was extended to Lynchburg, south of Charlottesville. This immediately popular, well-scheduled train brought new ridership to every station including Charlottesville. Suddenly, the station was too small. Then, in 2017 the Lynchburg train was extended west to Roanoke, bringing more success to the route.

These days, the once-delightful station is now cramped, crowded and uncomfortable for passengers. There are not enough seats and the building is not large enough to hold waiting passengers during cold or inclement weather.

The station is a classic example of Amtrak’s inability to foresee growth and rely instead on an anticipated stagnation of passenger rail instead of a success formula.

• Memphis, Tennessee Central Station

Memphis Central Station, beautifully built by the Illinois Central Railroad and opened in 1914 originally had 10 tracks; five stub-end tracks and five through-tracks. Today, the station has one through track and one house track.

When IC built the station they added six floors of division offices on top of the station.

The Rock Island fielded five named trains a day through the station, the L&N had one, the Southern had one, the Frisco had three named trains, the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad had two trains and the IC had six named trains, including the Panama Limited and the City of New Orleans. It was a busy place.

By the 1980s the building had severely deteriorated and was near unfit for human habitation by the time the City of Memphis took over the building and a delightful refurbishment took place, finishing in 1999.

The division offices became apartments, the waiting room spaces became venues for weddings and other events, and all of the stub-end tracks disappeared into a parking lot. A police station was added to the building next to the new addition which served as the Amtrak ticket office and waiting area.

Today, after a further $55 million renovation, the apartments have been turned into Central Station Hotel, Curio by Hilton which includes a refurbished ballroom, two restaurants and a bar in addition to another relocation of the Amtrak ticket office to the former police station next to the parking lot.

Effectively, it would be difficult at this point to replace any trackage and platforms to the station due to the added hotel facilities. It has become a one-track station with an additional house track for special use.

The only train calling at Memphis is Amtrak’s City of New Orleans, northbound in the evening and southbound early morning.

Before anyone becomes excited about booking a room in the hotel for train-sightseeing, the track in and out of the station is only used for the City of New Orleans and the rare freight train if the main freight line to the east has been blocked or there is an overflow of freight traffic.

Central Station is in a booming part of downtown Memphis that has a good combination of new housing, restaurants, entertainment venues, art galleries and more.

The renovation of Central Station at the end of the 1990s was a major catalyst for the neighborhood surrounding the station to kick into a renovation overdrive.

The refurbished station inaugural took place on a warm Saturday in 1999 which had an estimated attendance of 10,000 visitors. A City of New Orleans trainset was open to the public for walk-through inspection including locomotive cab visits, various carnival vendors dotted the huge parking lot, and the previous evening an invitation-only formal event took place with a jazz and swing band providing the entertainment. For the Friday night event the trainset was backed up beyond the station and for the local media cameras a special City of New Orleans/Central Station Reopening banner was stretched across the tracks with the locomotive breaking it in the middle coming into the station, bell ringing and whistle blowing.

Memphis provides decent ridership to the City. In FY 2018 there were 71,311 passengers entraining and detraining in Memphis and FY 2019, 61,193 passengers passed through the station. Memphis could clearly support a second and third train. The question is, would the now-small station be able to support one or two new trains or has the lack of proper planning for the future doomed Memphis as an expansion candidate?

Coming soon: San Antonio, Texas, Denver Union Station, St. Paul Union Depot and more.

Full disclosure: This writer, as a contractor to Amtrak helped plan and organize the Charlottesville and Memphis station reopenings and was responsible for overseeing the opening day activities.

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