By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; August 16, 2023
Note to those conducting the FRA Long Distance Study and Amtrak: Chicago is NOT the center of the passenger railroad world in North America.
Yes, Chicago Union Station is a busy place, and yes, the Empire Builder, California Zephyr, Southwest Chief and Texas Eagle all originate/terminate in Chicago, along with the Lake Shore Limited, Capitol Limited, City of New Orleans, Cardinal and a large selection of regional, state-supported routes to/from Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. Add Metra regional commuter service and South Shore Line regional service to South Bend, Indiana along with a few subway lines and it’s a passenger train paradise for some.
However, even though Chicago is the headquarters of Corridor Rail Development Corporation, which owns this website, it’s time to think outside of the Chicago box. Apologies to Jim Coston, the Corridor Rail Development big boss, who is a native of, and life-long resident of Chicago and former Amtrak Chicago Union Station ticket agent during his college years.
Yes, in due time (a long time) the Chicago CREATE projects will be completed, just in time for a new set of projects to be planned and funded. Unless you are a young university student reading this, it’s not likely you will live to see all of the many things which need to be done to untangle Chicago’s rail infrastructure. It took over a century and a half to make the railroad mess in Chicago, and it will take decades to clear the mess out of the way for totally efficient passenger train operations.
It’s time for a “what’s old is new” moment and look to St. Louis, which is much closer to the center of the country than Chicago.
The current passenger train facility in St. Louis is the Gateway Transportation Center, a modest facility with two island platforms and four passenger train tracks. It opened in 2008, after a three decade process which included use for over 25 years of what was known to passenger train wags as SLUT – St. Louis Union Trailers, which was basically a portable train station that far outlasted its original purpose as a “temporary” station.
The original, magnificent, St. Louis Union Station, which still stands today as an upscale hotel facility and shopping and entertainment venue was a massive complex which spoke of the importance of St. Louis as a national transportation center.
The history of St. Louis goes back to 1764. It was the jumping off point for the famous Louis and Clark Expedition sponsored by President Thomas Jefferson after the Louisiana Purchase. St. Louis was an important trading center and as it is near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, it grew into a bustling city and commercial center. From canoes and flat-bottom boats to paddle-wheel steamboats, St. Louis was a city based on transportation.
As St. Louis became the gateway to the west for explorers and those looking for new opportunities in the frontier, the railroads arrived with a vengeance and fueled greater expansion. For 110 years, from 1872 to 1982, the Missouri Pacific Railroad was headquartered in St. Louis before it was absorbed into the Union Pacific Railroad.
St. Louis would build an airport in the early days of manned flight (which Charles Lindbergh would use on his way to the East Coast to begin his famous trans-Atlantic flight to Paris in 1927.) The airport would grow as the St. Louis business community grew, becoming the national hub for TWA and to a lesser extent, Ozark Airlines. The future of St. Louis has always depended on transportation.
By the last decade of the 19th Century, St. Louis was in dire need of a new union station, and it got an incredible one. Here’s the Wikipedia telling of the passenger train life of St. Louis Union Station:
“The station was opened on September 1, 1894, by the Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis. The station … included three main areas: the Headhouse and the Midway, and the 11.5-acre Train Shed … The headhouse originally housed a hotel, a restaurant, passenger waiting rooms and railroad ticketing offices. It featured a gold-leafed Grand Hall, Romanesque arches, a 65-foot barrel-vaulted ceiling and stained-glass windows. The clock tower is 230 feet high.
“Union Station’s headhouse and midway … initially included 32 tracks under its vast trainshed terminating in the stub-end terminal. Its Grand Hall, which cost around $6.5 million and was about 75 by 125 feet large, was considered to be one of the most beautiful public lobbies.
“At its opening, it was the world’s largest and busiest railroad station and its trainshed was the largest roof span in the world.
“In 1903, Union Station was expanded to accommodate visitors to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. In the 1920s, it remained the largest American railroad terminal.
“At its height, the station combined the St. 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. The famous photograph of Harry S. Truman holding aloft the erroneous Chicago Tribune headline, ‘Dewey Defeats Truman’, was shot at the station as Truman headed back to Washington, D.C., from Independence, Missouri, after the 1948 Presidential election.
“The 1940s expansion added a new ticket counter designed as a half-circle and a mural by Louis Grell could be found atop the customer waiting area which depicted the history of St. Louis with an old fashion steam engine, two large steamboats and the Eads Bridge in the background.
“As … railroad passenger services declined in the 1950s and 1960s, the massive station became obsolete and too expensive to maintain … By 1961, several tracks had been paved over for parking. Amtrak took over passenger service in 1971, but abandoned Union Station on October 31, 1978. By then, Amtrak had cut back service to four routes per day – the State House, the Ann Rutledge, the National Limited (formerly the Spirit of St. Louis) and the Inter-American. The eight total trains were nowhere near enough to justify the use of such a large facility. The last train to leave Union Station was a Chicago-bound Inter-American. Passenger service shifted to a temporary-style ‘Amshack’ two blocks east. Amtrak has since moved its St. Louis service to the Gateway Transportation Center, one block east of Union Station.
“The station was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1970, as an important surviving example of large-scale railroad architecture from the late 19th century. …
“In August 1985, after a $150 million renovation designed by HOK, Union Station was reopened with a 539-room hotel, shopping mall, restaurants and food court. … The hotel is housed in the headhouse and part of the train shed, which also houses a lake and shopping, entertainment and dining establishments. Omni Hotels was the original hotel operator, followed by Hyatt Regency Hotel chain and Marriott Hotels.”
Today, the hotel has rebranded as a DoubleTree and renovations and expansions are the order of the day, again. The former union station still has two island platforms with four tracks used primarily for excursion trains.
Now, the Gateway Transportation Center (which is also a bus terminal) hosts seven daily trains which totals to 12 Amtrak trains originating or terminating in St. Louis and the daily northbound and southbound Texas Eagle, which has a Chicago-St. Louis coach cut/added each day. The state-sponsored trains are Illinois Lincoln Service trains and Missouri River Runner frequencies with service to and from Kansas City.
With four tracks, the Gateway Transportation Center is a good start for more frequencies, both originating and passing through St. Louis.
St. Louis is no small place. It’s the third largest freight rail hub in the country and the metropolitan area has close to three million denizens.
Should Amtrak divert any of the existing long distance/inter-regional trains from Chicago to St. Louis? Probably not, but it’s not unreasonable to consider a St. Louis section of any of those trains. Just as the westbound Empire Builder splits in Spokane with one section going to Seattle and the other to Portland, so could, as an example, the eastbound Southwest Chief could split in Kansas City with one section going to Chicago and one section going to St. Louis, offering “one seat rides” to each terminal.
More so, as upcoming competitors to Amtrak start taking a serious look at inter-regional and regional routes, St. Louis is a logical place to recreate a major passenger train hub.
In a hopeful future where passenger train travel becomes more than a force than it is today (as Amtrak remains America’s Best Kept Secret), there will be a need for old/new hubs to emerge beyond Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York and Washington. America is a big place, and again tying it efficiently together with steel wheels on steel rails will require thinking beyond what is common today.
The delightful re-emergence of night trains in the 21st Century makes any afficionado of the joys and delights of the former Pullman Company’s famed 20th Century night trains have a hope for the future. Night trains are catching on all over the civilized world and have gone beyond the testing phase to a proven concept which appeals to all demographic groups.
The geographic advantages of St. Louis offer many night train possibilities due to optimal route lengths and travel times; here are just the first six:
Chicago-St. Louis-Kansas City Yes, this is the “long way around” but it ties together three major business/travel markets, and with the former Pullman Company concept of “set-out cars,” it makes great sense. One of the advantages of night trains between major terminals is the ability to have a leisurely schedule. Passengers are buying sleeping space and while sleeping, don’t mind if the train is traveling 79 mph or 60 mph and long dwell times at stations are not a problem. Amtrak’s former Twilight Shoreliner, a night train on the Northeast Corridor, had both a leisurely schedule and long station dwell times. Passengers did not book the train for speed.
It’s a simple idea to have the night train depart both terminals with St. Louis set-out cars, drop them in the middle of the night in St. Louis and simultaneously pick up occupied cars in St. Louis going both to Chicago and Kansas City. The sleeping passengers continue to occupy their accommodations until a civilized time in the morning in St. Louis after sunrise.
This used to be a common occurrence on just about every passenger train railroad, including Amtrak which offered the Northeast Corridor’s Executive Sleeper between Washington Union Station and New York Pennsylvania Station in years past.
As far as cutting/adding cars to a train, three days a week, through-cars are cut from/added to the Texas Eagle in San Antonio and become/became through-cars for the Sunset Limited. The same is true for the Lake Shore Limited in Albany, New York where the Boston section is added/subtracted to/from the New York section.
For those who don’t have a full sense of set-out cars, here’s an example: In St. Louis, two cars would be spotted in the station and open for occupancy at a reasonable hour, say 9 p.m. The full train from each direction will arrive some time in the middle of the night, and cut off cars from their respective origin terminals of Chicago and Kansas City. Simultaneously, the cars with sleeping passengers who boarded them earlier in the evening and then retired for the night will be added to the trains and carried to their final terminals. All that is required for this to happen is shore power for the cars’ lighting and heating and cooling.
St. Louis-Chicago-Detroit/Port Huron/Grand Rapids Another train with adding/subtracting cars (best accomplished in Michigan City, Indiana, away from the congestion emanating east of Chicago) and the main body of the train terminating in Detroit (hopefully at a reborn Michigan Central Station). Grand Rapids with its expansive business community is an easy choice for a section of this train; the Port Huron route serves the Lansing area, Michigan’s capital city.
St. Louis-Memphis This is a partial reconstitution of the former Amtrak River Cities, with service via Carbondale, Illinois.
St. Louis-Indianapolis In a modern world, the need for passenger train service is not just north/south such as many of today’s Amtrak routes, but also east/west, northeast/southwest, northwest/southeast, and all of the directions in between.
St. Louis-Tulsa-Oklahoma City With great irony, when the modern interstate highway system was developed after World War II, many of the soon-to-be interstate highways followed popular passenger train routes (the same was often true of early airline routes, too). Two-thirds of a century later, new passenger train/night train routes will follow today’s popular interstate highway routes.
St. Louis-Kansas City-Omaha If the both the tracks and demand are there, successful night train service is possible.
For those who are living in the past and have mentally and emotionally succumbed to the idea that today’s freight railroads hate the idea of passenger trains traveling on their tracks, it’s time to update your thinking. The freight railroads may be very busy in some places, but there is room for more in the right places.
One thing is true: freight railroads do not want passenger trains on their tracks when their tracks are provided as what many think is a public service obligation. The freight railroads pay a lot of taxes and maintenance costs for those tracks. Those tracks are private property and should be respected as such.
The deal Congress created over half a century ago for Amtrak service to begin was the railroads would be paid by Amtrak for the use of their tracks, but only at a fraction of the full cost for use of the tracks. The freight railroads agreed to a contract that paid them the equivalent of moving an entire passenger train for what they charged to move a single boxcar. It was a deal with the devil to shed not only passenger trains, but giant passenger train stations which had been erected in a long-ago time when railroads built extravagant and costly temples as passenger stations. Passenger cars and locomotives were nearing the end of their useful life after the post-war surge of new streamliners replacing heavyweight car fleets.
To railroad executives in the middle of the “merge or die” frenzy of the middle of the 20th Century, Amtrak looked pretty good. And, sure, throw in first priority for the movement of passenger trains over hotshot freight trains and enshrine it into law (which VIA Rail Canada to this day is envious of, since they don’t have it).
Few railroad executives today want more passenger trains under those conditions.
The key is to fairly and adequately compensate the freight railroads for use of their private property. Compete with shippers to be a good customer, one the freight railroads seek and want to retain. Pay well to be treated well.
New routes in and out of St. Louis, be they inter-regional trains, regional day trains or night trains, all are possible with the correct vision from the beginning. The name of the game is mutually-beneficial partnerships, not forced, adversarial relationships with constant conflict.
The future is bright.
On another subject, Part One: CSX has proudly completed a new paint job on one of its locomotives, this time with a nod to its heritage and history by dressing the locomotive in the theme and colors of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway, one of its primary predecessor railroads (The “C” in CSX represents the Chessie System, which was a direct descendant of the C&O.). CSX has other heritage locomotives as well. Norfolk Southern, Metra in Chicago, New Jersey Transit and other freight and commuter railroads have also displayed their heritage through locomotive paint themes. Amtrak, for its 50th anniversary treated the public to a fleet of locomotives painted in various heritage themes from its own history.
No modern organizations stands alone on its current accomplishments. These nods to history and heritage keep alive the memory of once-important contributors to our nation’s growth and well-being. Well done, CSX, Norfolk Southern, Amtrak, Metra, New Jersey Transit and others. Never stop now acknowledging and celebrating history.
On another subject, Part Two: Every day which goes by brings us another day closer to the introduction of new Brightline service in and out of Orlando International Airport to MiamiCentral Station. Hoping for a September 1st inaugural run, Brightline delayed the start of service because a few issues still had to be resolved. Best information available is most likely the first run will still be in September, but later in the month. We’ve waited this long, another couple of weeks waiting won’t be the end of the world, but to some it will certainly feel so.