U.S., Radical Thinking: Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak passenger trains should be easy and convenient to ride

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on this platform on February 18, 2021. He has been updated and expanded and photographs and illustrations have been added. – Corridorrail.com Editor

It’s 1969 at Broad Street Station in Richmond, Virginia, just two years before Amtrak. The Seaboard Coast Line’s Silver Star on the left became the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Silver Star northbound at Richmond. Same with the Silver Comet from Birmingham and Atlanta on the right with an RF&P locomotive. This centrally-located station before Amtrak in the 1960s handled 14 trains a day in each direction on its eight station tracks. It’s replacement in 1975 was Amtrak’s new Staples Mill Road non-central suburban station. Today, the over crowded and highly congested Staples Mill Road facility handles nine trains a day in each direction, nearly as many as handled at Broad Street, but with only two station tracks and a house track with little room for error. Wikimedia Commons photo.

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; August 26, 2022

Here is a totally radical thought: Riding a passenger train should be easy and convenient, especially when it comes to finding a nearby train station. The train station parking lot should be safe to leave your car for the time you are on your trip and there should be adequate parking for all passengers’ vehicles. The station should be well lit inside and out with clean and fully functioning restrooms and the public address system should be crisp and easy to understand. The trainside platform surface should be even and well maintained so hurrying passengers have no fear of tripping and falling. Just as other huge companies in the travel and hospitality industry are able to consistently do, station agents should be always friendly, respectful of passengers and helpful. In short, every station should be welcoming, safe and an impressive front door to the city or town it represents.

Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner’s preference on the national system is to have stations at least 50 miles apart; it would really like stations 100 miles or more apart. The theory behind this is passengers have the ability to get to the trains, wherever it may be convenient for Amtrak to place a terminal or station.

Some will incorrectly attempt to compare the scarcity of train stations with airports. The silly theory is passengers happily drive long distances to reach an airport – including airports often located outside of the middle of a large city – and, therefore the same mentality should apply to passengers seeking to ride a train.

A reality of these modern times is passenger trains are always playing from a minority position. For the majority of travelers who live outside of major cities with large commuter and regional rail systems, jet airplanes and automobiles/SUVs/small trucks are the preferred mode of intercity travel.

Circa 1962 brilliant Avis advertisement. Internet image.

Those of a certain age will remember the brilliant, original 1962 long-running Avis Rent-A-Car advertising campaign, “We Try Harder”. Avis was the perpetual second-place rental car company behind Hertz. The two had a playful attitude towards each other, all of which ultimately helped both companies become securely lodged in the public mind. We Try Harder became part of the national lexicon. When it comes to passenger transportation in the public mind, passenger train travel is way down the list of initial choices.

This, of course, is a direct result that Amtrak is America’s Best Kept Secret.

When it comes to station stops there are some things which can be done to mitigate this situation. One is more stations in large metropolitan areas, and the other is an examination of where current stations are, including many locations which now may be opportunities for better placement.

The pride of the Jacksonville Terminal Company. Opened in 1919, Jacksonville, Florida’s Union Station was the largest station in the South and at its peak handled 142 trains and 20,000 passengers a day. There were 32 tracks including those which handled the adjacent U.S. Post Office. Railroads served included the Florida East Coast, Atlantic Coast Line, Seaboard Air Line and Southern Railway. Every United States President from Woodrow Wilson to Richard Nixon passed through this Jacksonville station. The station’s last train was handled January 3, 1974 when the new Amtrak Jacksonville station opened. The building, now owned by the City of Jacksonville, is the Prime F. Osborne III Convention Center, named in honor of the late CSX Chairman who worked to save the station from the wrecker’s ball. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Amtrak’s Jacksonville station is appropriately somewhat less ambitious than the original Jacksonville Terminal. Opened January 1974, this was the first station designed specifically for Amtrak and was modified and architecturally updated in the late 1990s. In non-pandemic times the Jacksonville station handles two trains a day in each direction, the Silver Meteor and Silver Star. In the past it has also handled the Champion, Vacationer, Palmetto, Floridian, Silver Palm and Sunset Limited. During peak travel times it is not unusual for the station parking lot to overflow with cars. Wikimedia Commons photo from 2009.

Jacksonville, Florida is an excellent example of station misplacement. In the first days of Amtrak, Jacksonville Union Terminal on the edge of downtown Jacksonville had been in use since it was built in 1919. It was huge; 142 trains a day from four or more railroads called at the terminal in its prime. When Amtrak was created that number was reduced to eight trains a day: South Wind, Champion, Silver Meteor and Silver Star. The huge building, which had only marginally been updated probably in the 1950s was both expensive to operate and seemed more like a ghost town. Plus, it had lousy parking for passengers as well as being a stub-end station. Every train in and out had to back in, a time-consuming operation.

Amtrak decided to build a new, smaller station in Jacksonville. Seaboard Coast Line said fine, but here is a limited selection of sites we will allow the station to be built on our railroad. The final site was over five miles away from Jacksonville Terminal in northwest Jacksonville on the former Atlantic Coast Line main line, in an industrial/warehouse part of town that was lightly populated. Passengers from most of Jacksonville had to drive through one of the highest-crime areas of Jacksonville to reach the new station.

Amtrak had no choice but to accept the new location or keep spending a lot of money on the old terminal station.

The new station was the prototype Amtrak station of the future. Small, compact and designed similar to a fallout bunker.

The biggest problem still is you have to drive at least 30 minutes to reach the station from any of Jacksonville’s primary residential areas. If a resident of Jacksonville’s Westside or Southside decides to ride an Amtrak train south from Jacksonville, they have to drive about a half an hour to the station, board the train, then ride the train back through the exact same area for a half hour when heading south.

Originally Broad Street Station in Richmond, Virginia; now the Science Museum of Virginia. The former station has been severed from connecting railroad tracks. Opened in 1917, it was the southern terminus and headquarters offices of the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad. The station also served the Atlantic Coast Line, Seaboard Air Line (after moving over from the nearby shared with the C&O Main Street Station) and Norfolk & Western Railway. After Amtrak began service it also served the Southern Railway’s Asheville Special. In 1975 Amtrak built a new, smaller, more efficient (at the time) suburban station on Staples Mill Road. When Broad Street Station closed it was serving on three trains a day in each direction, the Silver Meteor, Silver Star and Champion. The public address acoustics in the huge train hall waiting room were terrible as the building was not designed for them when it opened in 1917. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Richmond, Virginia’s Staples Mill Road suburban station trackside, looking south. This station was opened in 1975 and was built on the same architectural plan as Jacksonville, Florida. The station has been modified on the outside but on the crowded inside appears much the same as it did when opened. Despite that Amtrak has two Richmond stations (downtown, Main Street Station which is on the route to Newport News/Hampton Roads), Staples Mill Road handles 18 Amtrak trains a day, nine in each direction. Ironically, this small, overcrowded suburban station now, 47 years after Amtrak abandoned Broad Street Station, handles nearly as many trains a day as the last decade of pre-Amtrak service at Broad Street Station. Wikimapia photo.
A 2018 aerial view of the Richmond, Virginia Staples Mill Road Amtrak Station and its parking lot which was being expanded at the time. Eventually, the parking lot grew to over 600 spaces and it stays full with, as of FY 2019, 361,191 passengers entraining and detraining at the station.The station is 118 rail miles south of Washington Union Station and Richmond has become a far suburb of Washington for federal workers who regularly commute daily from Richmond to Washington. NBC 12 photo.

An identical situation occurred in Richmond, Virginia about the same time period. The new Richmond station, which replaced the grand Broad Street Station, was built on the same design as the new Jacksonville station. Today, the Richmond Staples Mill Road station (not to be confused with the downtown Main Street station which in the past few years was beautifully restored and reactivated for Richmond trains serving Hampton Roads) still has much of the same design, whereas the Jacksonville station was partially redesigned and upgraded a bit in the late 1990s. Broad Street Station was in the middle of Richmond, the Staples Mill Road station is far removed from downtown Richmond and requires extensive driving for many area residents.

The answer is a second station in a high-density residential area. This same scenario plays out all over the country in places such as Houston, San Antonio, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and dozens of other examples.

Amtrak’s Atlanta,Georgia Peachtree Station, named for the street it is located on in the Brookwood area. Christmas season 2003 Wikimedia Commons photo.

Atlanta is served by a station originally built by the Southern Railway in 1918 as a suburban stop station. All of the original downtown Atlanta train stations are long gone. The embarrassingly small and undistinguished Houston Amtrak station which serves the Sunset Limited three times a week in each direction is something more suited to a small town than a major city. While it is fairly centrally located, the huge Houston metropolitan market with terrible traffic deserves something more convenient and easy to reach.

Southern Pacific Railroad’s Houston, Texas Grand Central Station which opened in 1934. It served 28 trains a day. It was sold in 1959 and today Houston’s main Post Office sits on the site. Texas State Historical Association photo.
Everything is allegedly bigger in Texas, except, of course for this smallish Houston Amtrak station built by the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1959 to replace SP’s demolished Grand Central Station. By the time this station was built the SP had only four trains a day in Houston. Today, Amtrak’s tri-weekly Sunset Limited is the only passenger train serving Houston. This station sits next to one of the original platform tracks of Grand Central Station. Wikimedia Commons photo.

There are many “standard” arguments made about the number of stations. Some will argue in these days of modern dispatching and precision scheduled railroading the host freight railroads will not allow more stations than already exist.

Some will argue more stations mean more expenses which means a need for larger federal subsidy.

Even some will argue against rocking the boat; be grateful for what we have, and settle for less because there will never be more than what there is today.

All are foolish arguments.

If you don’t ask the host railroads for more stations, they will never volunteer them. While Amtrak trains do not bring prime revenue to host railroads, they do bring revenue. Amtrak trains require dispatching and occasional motive power assistance when Amtrak’s State of Good Repair isn’t well done. Beyond that, the host railroads do not have to perform any equipment maintenance or provide train and engine crews.

Station location/availability is equally important as running passenger trains. If passengers can’t reach a train to entrain and have a place to detrain that is a desired destination, then running trains is not necessary.

Oliver Twist: “Please, sir, I want some more.” R.P. Productions, 2005, actor Barney Clark as Oliver Twist. IMDB photo.

Those who believe we should be grateful for what we have perhaps should consult Charles Dickens and Oliver Twist: “Please, sir, I want some more.”

There are many stations currently in use by Amtrak which are in historic buildings and some believe those buildings should continue to be local train stops. A realistic appraisal must be made of each station to determine if its location is still the best and most convenient for passengers. What was once the best location for a station in 1912 today may be one of the worst locations. Cities and towns should not be afraid to make a good decision about station locations and whether or not it is possible to retire a current station and build a new station with appropriate modern amenities, Americans With Disabilities Act compliance and decent, safe parking.

Brightline’s upcoming Aventura station in Miami-Dade County will serve as both an inter-city and commuter train station. Brightline publicity photo.

Florida’s innovative Brightline service, now running trains between the downtown MiamiCentral Station and West Palm Beach with construction slated to be completed in the first quarter of 2023 for service to begin to Orlando International Airport has adopted a workable business model for intermediate stations.

Brightline’s Orlando International Airport terminal will become active in the first quarter of 2023. The station is physically attached to the main airport building and air and rail passengers can change modes of travel without ever leaving the terminal building. Brightline publicity photo.

Brightline asks cities which seek their passenger train service to provide public funds for construction of local train stations and, once built to Brightline specifications, takes over operating responsibility for the stations. This is an almost identical model used for airports. The local government builds the airport and the airlines lease space as needed. It’s a very workable business model. Many present Amtrak stations follow this model, and it should become the standard for station expansion.

New Brightline stations are not the grand temples railroads built to themselves in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but they are more passenger-friendly and innovative than most other existing passenger train stations in the United States. Brightline doesn’t see its passenger stations as just an economic nuisance, but, rather, centers for creating revenue and higher passenger load factors.

Andrew Selden.

Andrew Selden has provided a sound model for the franchising of passenger train stations in the United States. Mr. Selden’s model includes, where possible, multiple businesses be housed in a passenger train station. As an example, a travel agency could be located in a train station and have a contract to handle passengers, ticketing and baggage as part of their station lease. Other examples in larger stations, such as Richmond’s Staples Mill Road Station which has over 360,000 passengers a year, many of them commuters, using the station, it may be an ideal location for a dry cleaner offering single day service. The possibilities are endless.

Station size, location, convenience, and amenities all count when seeking new passengers. Permanent growth cannot properly occur when stations are unappealing and inadequate.

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