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With a new administration in D.C., it's time to think outside of the box because passenger rail's survival just may depend on it

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Historic Train Stations as Rail Hubs

When it comes to the future of passenger rail, the talk is usually about developing new intermodal transit centers for high speed rail. Most of these people give little notice to historic train stations. However, there is room for older train stations to function as their primary purpose. When Amtrak was formed, a lot of these stations were abandoned as the carrier decided to move to smaller facilities in some cities and was forced to consolidate operations under one roof in other cities. Most of these stations that were left out in the Amtrak era were fortunate enough to be declared as National Register of Historic Places landmarks.


What I'm proposing is something a bit different: While the historic stations can still serve as places for trains, their primary use will be for unconventional rail travel while providing lots of other types of (non-rail) business. Rather than having Amtrak or HSR as the focus, these stations will have public-private partnerships with host/regional/shortline railroads, tourist destinations, cruise companies and international travel as routes. This expansion of intercity rail travel will result in spreading the idea to other historic stations that don't currently have any train service or are currently limited to local and regional transportation.


I have provided a list of nine stations that meet the criteria:
Michigan Central Station
  • The Rundown: If it isn't demolished, this station will be the testing ground for unconventional rail travel  
  • Types of Services to be Provided: Auto Train, international service to Toronto, Special Themes, Cruise Trains
  • Standard Rail (Conventional or HSR) Availability: SNCF has proposed an Express HSR route to Chicago via Toledo and Fort Wayne. Rail Consortium's East and Central subdivisions would handle long-distance service to Florida
  • Possible Nonrail Uses: Private offices, hotel
Grand Central Terminal
  • The Rundown:This was once the proud home to elegant intercity travel but it has only served commuter trains since 1991 when Amtrak completed the West Side Connection, which allowed it to consolidate all of its trains at Penn Station. Housatonic Railroad will likely resume Berkshire Line service by 2016 when trains will continue to Danbury, CT on its way to Pittsfield, MA. The shortline railroad's presence could make Grand Central a premiere place to be to catch a train once again, albeit a different type of train travel than what is offered now
  • Types of Services to be Provided: Special themes, international and overnight trains to the Midwest and Canada, a southern extension of SNCRR Ski Train service, Cruise Fun Trains to the Finger Lakes District and Buffalo 
  • Standard Rail Availability: None besides Housatonic since Amtrak controls the Empire Corridor and the operator already has plans to use the James Farley Post Office to relieve overcrowding at Penn Station
  • Possible Nonrail Uses: GCT already has shopping centers and restaurants for Metro-North and subway passengers as well as tourists
Buffalo Central Terminal

  • The Rundown: The building has been abandoned since 1979 when Amtrak built Depew Station as the city's primary train station. There is currently a debate over whether HSR should stop here or at a new facility downtown. Due to the lack of commuter trains, BCT will be an alternate testing ground for specialty rail travel if MCS proves to be unusable
  • Types of Services to be Provided: Limited stop international trains to Ontario, western terminus of Cruise Fun Trains, Special Themes
  • Standard Rail Availability: HSR is possible but not probable
  • Possible Nonrail Uses: Hotel, restaurants, museum, offices


Main Street Station

  • The Rundown: The historic facility in downtown Richmond, VA was reopened to Amtrak service in 2003 after a 28-year hiatus. The now-defunct American Orient Express stopped at this location. Amtrak doesn't currently staff anyone here and management has decided that it will build a new station at Parham Road to replace the current Staples Mill Road facility as the city's primary station per its NEC Master Plan 
  • Types of Services to be Provided: Special Themes, Cruise Trains, Cruise Fun Trains
  • Standard Rail Availability: Corridor service to Norfolk, Roanoke and Bristol will augment current Northeast Regional Amtrak service and this will be a primary stop on the SEHSR route system
  • Possible Nonrail Uses: MSS currently has its upper floors occupied for private use, and it also rents out to private parties 


La Salle Street Station, Millennium Station & Oglivie Transportation Center

  • The Rundown: The Chicago Trio are all homes to METRA commuter rail and Millennium station also provides South Shore service. All three stations should be given consideration by MWHSR leaders but the best that they can do is come up with an OTC-Union Station merger and develop new HSR-only stations while they leave the other two as METRA-only stations. While SNCF is conjuring up Union Station and O'Hare Airport as stops for Express HSR, Millennium is home base to the city's only two all-electric routes and is begging to be used
  • Types of Services to be Provided: Special Themes and Cruise Trains at all three locations, international service to Winnipeg via OTC and to Toronto via LSS
  • Standard Rail Availability: If someone other than Amtrak can break through, then LSS and OTC are available for Emerging and Regional HSR routes and certain long-distance routes while some of SNCF's competitors like DB could use Millennium Station for Express HSR routes
  • Possible Nonrail Uses: The Chicago Stock Exchange high rise shares LSS with METRA, Millennium Station also serves as a shopping center, and OTC is host to multiple amenities like shops and restaurants


St. Louis Union Station

  • The Rundown: Amtrak moved out in 1978 after rail travel was drastically reduced. Seven years later, the station was renovated as a multi-use facility
  • Types of Services to be Provided: Auto Train, Special Themes, Cruise Trains
  • Standard Rail Availability: This could be the Express HSR hub as well as a place for non-Amtrak intercity service
  • Possible Nonrail Uses: Currently a mixture of a Marriott, restaurants and shops



Phoenix Union Station

  • The Rundown: The last regularly scheduled train pulled out in 1996. Buses then served the location until the Maricopa station's opening led Amtrak to sever the bus connection in 2001. Sprint has occupied the building since 2006 but regional leaders hope to provide intercity and commuter service
  • Types of Services to be Provided: Special Themes would be a likely choice while Auto Train and a revived Fun Trains could also assist
  • Standard Rail Availability: At first, PHXUS will serve as a hub for all types of passenger rail, but once a new multi-use facility at Sky Harbor Airport opens up, Union Station will be limited to commuter trains and passenger trains serving southern Arizona
  • Possible Nonrail Uses: Once Sky Harbor replaces it as Phoenix's main rail hub, Union Station could become a place to gather and meet for conferences

4 comments:

  1. Just to let you know, the current owner of St. Louis Union Station does not want trains running through his property. The city has tried to negotiate with him, but he won't even come to the table.

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  2. Would the Saint Paul Union Depot in Minnesota be a possible candidate for your list? I'm not aware of any unconventional rail service planned from there. It's planned to become a hub for transit and intercity buses. I have my doubts about its usefulness as a local transit hub, since getting to the designated hub location basically involves running around in circles, but it's probably fine for intercity transportation. It'll be underutilized as a train station for some time, with only one daily service to start out (the Empire Builder). Hopefully the few excursion trains that originate in the Twin Cities each year will be able to use it, though I don't know if any other unconventional services have been contemplated. There had been some hopes to have a train to Duluth originate there, but it looks like it will start in Minneapolis instead.

    The headhouse has been used for offices and a restaurant for a long time, and a handful of condos were put in a few years ago.

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  3. Helen: Sad to hear that about STLUS. Bummer!

    Mulad: The depot in St. Paul could be a prime candidate due to Minneapolis starting over with Target Field (in place of the GN Union Depot) and Amtrak being the only game in town rail-wise next year.

    Special themes, Auto Train, and a Chicago-Winnipeg international route would all stop there before ZipRail and other types of HSR arrive to STPUD, provided the entrepreneurial spirit is there.

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  4. Good list! We do keep an eye out for good uses of historic stations not to mention the combination of economic development and rail stations that we serve.

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