No New Washington Union Station, Please

A new presentation dropped for Amtrak’s plans to rebuild Union Station. It is mostly pictorial, but even the pictures suggest that this is a very low-value project, one with little to no transportation value and limited development value. The price tag is now $10 billion (it was $7 billion 10 years ago; the increase is somewhat more than cumulative inflation), but even if two zeros are cut from the budget it’s not necessarily worth it.

What are the features of good train stations?

A train station is interface between passengers and trains. Everything about their construction must serve this purpose. This includes the following features:

  • Platforms that can effectively connect to the trains (Union Station has a mix of high and low platforms; all platforms used by Northeast Corridor trains must be raised).
  • Minimum distance from platform to street or to urban transit.
  • Some concessions and seats for travelers, all in an open area.
  • Ticketing machines.
  • An information booth with maps of the area and station facilities.
  • Nothing more.

In particular, lavish waiting halls not only waste of money but also often have negative transport value, as they either force passenger to walk longer between street and platform or steer them to take an option that involves a longer walk; the new Moynihan Train Hall in New York is an example of the latter failure. Berlin Hauptbahnhof, a rare example of a major urban station built recently in a rich country, has extensive shopping, but it’s all designed around fast street-platform and S-Bahn-intercity connections.

What are the features of Washington Union Station expansion?

The presentation highlights the following features:

  • A new concourse beneath the platforms.
  • A new concourse on H Street with a prominent headhouse, with bus and streetcar connections.
  • An enclosed bus facility.
  • Underground parking.
  • Future air rights development.

All of the above are wasteful. Connections to H Street can be handled through direct egress points from the platforms to the street, and passengers can get between H Street and the main historic station via those egress points and the platforms themselves. The platforms are key circulation spaces at a train station and using them for passenger movements is normal; I can see an argument against that if the platforms are unusually narrow or crowded, as is the case in New York, but in Washington there is no such excuse.

Nor is Union Station a major node for city buses. Washington’s surface transit network serves the station, but it’s not a major bus node – only a handful of buses terminate there and they don’t run frequently – and even if it were, a surface bus loop akin to what Ostbahnhof has in Berlin would have sufficed. Thus, the bus infrastructure should be descoped, and buses should keep using the streets.

So, none of the transit connections have any value. Parking, moreover, has negative value, as it encourages access to the area by car, displacing transit trips. Union Station already has a Metro connection as well as some surface transit. Better rail operations would also improve commuter rail access for intercity rail riders. Unfortunately, the plan does not improve those operations, nor is there any plan for much needed capital investment to go alongside better mainline rail operations, such as Virginia electrification and high platforms.

What about the air rights?

They are a poor use of money. Building towers on top of active railyards is more difficult and more expensive than building them on firma. Hudson Yards projects in New York came in at around $12,000 per square meter in hard costs, twice the cost of Manhattan skyscrapers on firma except those associated with the World Trade Center, which were unusually costly.

Nor is the location just north of the historic Union Station so desirable that developers would voluntarily pay the railyard premium to be there. The commercial center of Washington is well to the west of the site, comprising Metro Center and Farragut. More office towers around Union Station would be nice for rebalancing and for generating demand for future mainline rail improvements, but the place for them is on firma around the existing station and not on top of the approach tracks.

What should be done?

The plan should be rejected in its entirety and no further funding should be committed to it. Good transit activists should demand that spending on public transportation and intercity rail go to those purposes and not toward building unnecessary train halls. Moreover, it is unlikely the managers at Amtrak who pushed for it and who still are the client for the project understand modern rail operations, nor is it likely that they will ever learn. With neither need nor use for the project, it should be canceled and the people involved in its management and supervision laid off.

111 comments

  1. Benjamin Turon

    It does seem that Americans are better at building shiny new stations then actual track and trains, as evidence in Upstate NY, all new stations, same old service unimproved and largely unchanged for thirty years.

    • Basil Marte

      It would appear that in American transportation, symbolism comes first and reality second (if at all).
      – Politicians are often happy to give money solely so that they can say that they gave money. A particularly perverse subclass involves e.g. climatewashing grade separations of road crossings (“trains are green, I gave money for ‘trains’, therefore I gave money for green”).
      – If they demand any outcomes in return, it is something that makes an easily comprehensible soundbite (or the visual analog thereof). Hence top speeds, architecture, and projects of the sort where politicians get to hold shovels or cut ribbons.
      – Planes are cool, they get so many passengers, if we make stuff look like planes, passengers will come to us, right? Let’s build a control tower from bamboo, buy Amfleet coaches and institute stupid boarding procedures.
      – Battery-electric vehicles are high-tech, let’s buy multi-car BEMUs for frequent commuter rail routes.

      If any of the theatric props happen to work is a fortunate side effect.

      • plaws0

        > It would appear that in American transportation, symbolism comes first and reality second (if at all).

        Strike “American transportation” and simply replace it with “America” and I think you’ve summed up the issue well. In that same subject city, we have a bicameral legislative institution whose members symbolically support the constitution they have sworn to uphold, but when push comes to shove (or death) it turns out that for many or even most of them, the previous symbolism was just cosplay.

        But yeah, winding it back, if the bulk of the money isn’t going towards moving people, either while they are in transit vehicles or accessing them, then the project is dumb. Sell or lease air or other imaginary rights to whoever will buy them and let those people put money into the new mall/hotel/apartment/office complex … as long as what they build doesn’t interfere with the whole moving people around thing.

      • Connor

        The main thing that should be upgraded at Union Station is to convert the low-level platforms to high-level platforms to help speed up the boarding process. The rest of the money that would be used for this should go towards electricifing and building the line south of DC along the proposed Southeast Corridor.

    • Alon Levy

      I don’t even think the US is especially good at building shiny new stations? It devotes a lot of money to them but I don’t think Moynihan is a particularly shiny station, not by Berlin Hbf standards at least.

      • plaws0

        Did you ever see the new Arborway terminal for the Green Line? It was part of the new Forest Hills station that combined Orange Line Rapid Transit and some Purple Line (no one calls it that) commuter rail on the NEC that goes back to the late 1980s rebuild of the whole SW corridor (~15 years after the South West Expressway and Inner Loop … sorry, Innah Loop … was cancelled). Lovely new surface level station opened c.1989 that would replace the open platforms that had existed near the Arborway carhouse on the other side of the El with a direct connection to the other services. Two track loop, all new brick paving. Really nice.

        Green Line service on the E-Arborway was “temporarily suspended” at the end of 1985 and never returned past the Heath St Loop. Don’t recall if they put tracks in the new trackways at the new terminal or not but regardless, no PCC, Boeing SLRV, or Type 7 ever called at the new Arborway. Ever.

        So we can build new stations, we just sometimes neglect to run trains to them.

      • Henry Miller

        Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When someone talks about how shiny a station is I assume they are talking subjective values and thus there is no possible answer. Is the US great or bad at building shiny stations – there is no way to agree so I stay away.

        Cost of stations is objectively measurable. When talking about shiny stations it is worth asking is the shininess worth the cost. Build a plane basic boring steel box, with the minimum required HVAC, fire exits, and so on. That is your baseline. Now add – say 5% – to the budget to making it nice, if that isn’t nice enough, then we can talk about how much more to add, but I’ve never seen that basic station costs so I can’t really debate if the shiny stations are a good deal.

        How usable the station is is also objectively measurable. Someone is running ‘late’, given their train will leave at X time, what is the latest they late can be while they still make their train. Repeat for a train running late and everyone needs to make connections. Some of the above people may need to buy a ticket, how does that change things. Some people are disabled, run analysis for them. Someone needs to use the restroom (note that females typically need longer than males – if your restrooms are full you need to account for this). There is a fire, how fast can you evacuate? There are a number of other things that an be objectively measured, but often architects do not.

    • Benjamin Turon

      The estimated $10 billion USD cost of the Washington Union Station Expansion Project will be more than the cost of the entirely new 240-mile Miami-Orlando Brightline service, which various sources show as being a project in the $4 billion range. Brightline West has a cost estimate of $8 billion for the 219 miles between Las Vegas and Rancho Cucamonga Metrolink Station. So, for $10 billion you could get a lot of “Higher Speed Rail” elsewhere in America, imagine what $10 billion invested in intercity rail NYC-Buffalo, Detroit-Chicago, Seattle-Portland could do for example.

      Then there are comparisons with other station rebuild costs. The rebuild of London’s St. Pancras Station for International Eurostar and Javelin service was £800 million in 2007. The building cost of HS1 from St Pancras, through London, under the Thames, through the hills of Kent to the Channel Tunnel was £6.84 billion. Kings Cross next door has more recently seen a renovation and new concourse expansion at the cost of £500 million, with a major track, signaling, and catenary project done at the cost of £237 million. And now Euston Station is seeing a major expansion and rebuild that will cost an estimated £2.6 billion to accommodate the needs of HS2, which in the London-Birmingham Phrase One will cost £44.6 billion, including the work at Euston.

      The closest European station project to the cost of the Washington Union Station expansion project is in Germany, the ongoing “Stuttgart 21” project (construction started in 2010) to rebuild Stuttgart Central Station from stub-end terminal to through-running. The originally estimated €4.5 billion project is now estimated to cost €9.15 billion, although this includes 35 miles of new railways, including 19 miles in tunnels, plus several new suburban stations. Large parts of the city are now on concrete stilts as the new railway is built underneath the buildings.

      Germany’s 27-Year Struggle to Complete a Rail Project

      • adirondacker12800

        3 billion gets you a tall skyscraper next to Grand Central and 20 billion gets you two blocks of skyscrapers west of Penn Station and the Old Post Office with a park where the tree roots have climate control systems.

  2. CA

    The station is a nice to have but not why people are riding Amtrak. I’d like to see Amtrak come up with a plan to have 4 trains leaving DC every hour for NYC, hopefully costing much less than $10B while attracting more riders and revenue.
    I don’t mean the $100B + NEC Future plan, but a real look at how to sweat assets and get the most out of the 4 hourly North River Tunnel slots Amtrak gets.

  3. adirondacker12800

    Minimum distance from platform to street or to urban transit.

    That ship sailed when the City Beautiful crowd put Union Station in back of palatial lawn. And put everything on one level instead of stacking stuff. The far end of the current platforms are almost as close to the next stop on the Metro as they are to the Union Station stop. They have the rest of the stuff but apparently someone somewhere thinks it’s a bad idea to let train passengers use the train station.

    Check what they want to do to Baltimore. Instead of letting … train passengers use the historic train station…. they want to put them on the far side of the tracks. In something that looks like Terminal 3 at O’Hare.

    They will change their minds 187 times between now and the time anything gets done. Governor Hochul apparently, I didn’t read press releases etc., thinks that making Penn Station New York one level, is a good thing.

    • brucewhain

      I had so much trouble logging in you beat me. I can’t change the comment now. But what I forgot is: if they’re gonna put stuff on top they should raise the platforms NOT – but lower the tracks. And then put faux authentic shed supports to hold the stuff up – but think it should allow some open air for the platforms – unlike any revisions planned or realized that they’ve made so before.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, so, building a new set of access points on H Street is a good thing. But it doesn’t require a new concourse or a waiting hall or interior bus infrastructure.

      And what’s happening in Baltimore? I haven’t followed closely but I thought the plan was to build new tunnels, which have positive transportation value? I think the current version of the B&P replacement is too expensive but it’s at least the right project to build…

      • Taylor

        Unless things have changed significantly since I moved out of Baltimore last year, they’re doing a station expansion consisting of the following:

        – Reactivating the abandoned platforms 2 and 3
        – Adding an additional platform on the north side of the tracks
        – Building a second station house on what is today the parking lot north of the station
        – Converting the abandoned office space on the upper floors of the current station house into rentable office space
        – Renovating the existing station, which was last updated in the 1980s

        I don’t know whether the new and reactivated platforms are for any particular service goal but the additional headhouse will make access significantly easier from the north and add additional concession space (the existing concessions are so busy during rush hour that I was never able to get a coffee without missing my train during morning rush). The existing station isn’t going to stop being used for passengers.

      • adirondacker12800

        The artist’s rendering I saw had a new bridge crossing all the tracks and platforms where if you wanted to do anything but board a train you had to walk through the existing, cross over the platforms go down a signature bank of stairs and escalators so you could be nearer the car rentals even though you aren’t renting one because you took a taxi or a bus.
        More than one train a day can stop at a platform. In some distant far off future when there might be 10 or even 15 trains an hour passing through Baltimore, how many platforms do they need?

        • Taylor

          Agreed they probably don’t need more platforms. I’ve not seen any renderings that are like what you describe, even though I’ve been following the project for three or four years at this point. The existing bridge over the tracks, which does double duty as a seating area, is shown in the renderings as the only connection between the old and new station houses. You can see it on the left in the rendering with the escalators – those escalators are going up to street level, nothing to do with rental cars.

          https://baltimorepennstation.com/gallery/renderings

          • adirondacker12800

            What does
            ” The majority of Amtrak’s operations will relocate from Penn Station to this new concourse.” mean?
            Or “Transit functions, such as ticketing and baggage, will be relocated to the new station expansion, freeing up the concourse level of Penn Station for commercial uses.”
            The vague artist’s concept drawings have the new airport terminal on the far side of the existing tracks. If they put the kiss-n-ride, taxi stand and bus stops on what is now the far side of the tracks people won’t be going into the existing station.

          • Taylor

            Surely it means they’re moving the ticketing and bag handling to the new headhouse, where they will have more modern facilities and be closer to the new kiss-and-ride and taxi stands? Most customers will continue to not check bags or speak to a ticket agent. The existing pickup/drop off area is really congested and horrible for pedestrians; it shouldn’t continue as it is today. I don’t see how this is equivalent to no longer using the old station house, which will continue to have a couple concessions, seating, bus stops, and pedestrian access to the south just like it does today.

          • adirondacker12800

            Far more people used it successfully in the past. People coming from the north already have access on this thing called a street. Re configuring the existing front of the station so it’s less confusing to yokels from the hinterlands would be a lot cheaper than a miniature airport terminal on the other side of the tracks that is farther away from downtown.

    • plaws0

      Poor PSNY. Can we not spend $10B on buying out MSG and replacing it with a better engineered station? I don’t mean going back to the original, but I do mean designing something that moves people (and the trains they need) more efficiently. If someone feels the need to install some sort of mall/hotel/apartment/office complex outside the envelope of what’s needed to move people to trains or people in trains, then great, sell them the rights to do that. But the goal has to be moving more people.

      • adirondacker12800

        They need more tunnels to do that. Or something that warps the time-space continuum so two trains can be at the same place at the same time in the tunnel.

  4. Phake Nick

    If Amtrak have extra station space then why don’t they sell some of those to NEMaglev to avoid having to make connection across subway network?

    > Hudson Yards projects in New York came in at around $12,000 per square meter in hard costs, twice the cost of Manhattan skyscrapers on firma except those associated with the World Trade Center, which were unusually costly.
    The more important problem seems to be will the development itself turn up a profit even with the higher cost?

    • adirondacker12800

      Assuming the cost and floor area numbers are correct for One Vanderbilt, other people build office towers that cost $20,000 a square meter, in Manhattan and find tenants. Though that had to work around a train terminal that has
      TWO LEVELS !! !!
      Quick glance at Zillow, the cheapest condo in Hudson Yards itself, not the places real estate agents are calling Hudson Yards, is $3.8 million. It’s Manhattan, they are going to make money. If they don’t, they’ll go bankrupt and someone else will.

      • Phake Nick

        Why do you think NEMaglev is a vaporware? It use existing technology and existing train model, with the backing of well established train operators

        • Eric2

          The technology exists, but the project will clearly never get built due to the extreme expense, difficulty of ROW acquisition, and bureaucratic obstacles.

      • Phake Nick

        As for why would they sell track to competitor, same reason why rail operators build intermodal connection with other transit options? Expanding the overall market share of public transit

        • Eric2

          NEMaglev would serve the same trips as Amtrak and be a direct competitor for those trips. The Northeast Corridor will have no reason to exist if NEMaglev can provide the same trips in 1/3 the travel time. If that happens, Amtrak as a whole might as well go out of business.

          • adirondacker12800

            No it wouldn’t. They should get together with the Hyperloop people and have someone to explain to them how Planet Earth works.

          • Eric2

            Yes, the corridor serves a lot of regional traffic, but that is run by MARC/SEPTA/NJT not by Amtrak. NEMaglev plans include stops in nearly all the stations Amtrak stops at – for example BWI as well as Washington and Baltimore. So yes Amtrak would lose its reason to exist if NEMaglev were built.

          • Phake Nick

            @adirondacker12800 Why would something that have been constantly running for more than a decade already, despite not being in revenue service, be responded with a simple “no”?

          • adirondacker12800

            It’s not nearly all the stops.
            I got as far as discovering that their “Baltimore” stop is technically within the city limits of Baltimore but off in a residential neighborhood and gave up trying to figure out more details. They are delusional.

          • Phake Nick

            That Baltimore station is like 3 light rail station away from cebter of the town… I don’t think it is uncommon around the world. And this also provide room for further extending the line to the North while possible to bypass the expensive tunneling through city center.

          • adirondacker12800

            It’s the same trolley line that serves BWI, why build a station at all, they could just take the trolley from the airport terminal.

          • adirondacker12800

            Newark Airport is only two stops from New York. 12 car NJTransit trains have lot more capacity than two or three car streetcars. Which actually run in the street in places.

          • Phake Nick

            My understanding is that they take the position of American have no transit seriously, and decided to provide a few thousand parking spots around the train station, same as Texas Central, or some rural Shinkansen station in Japan, instead of treating transit as the biggest source of passenger.

          • adirondacker12800

            People will leave their car at their origin station. That’s sort of a point of taking a plane, train or bus, you leave your car someplace else.

          • Phake Nick

            With this, and Baltimore being but just one of the many intermediate stations, I can’t see why a light rail might not have enough feeder capacity.

          • adirondacker12800

            If light rail has enough feeder capacity their aren’t enough passengers to be building maglev. Pesky arithmetic ruining things

          • Phake Nick

            The maglev will carry 1000 passengers on each trains. It will serve ~10 stations. Let say 1/10 of them will use the Baltimore stations instead of any other stations, that is 100 passengers. And let say half of them drive cars, that mean another half, or 50, will use the light rail. I can’t see how light rail cannot carry more than 50 passengers per trains.

          • adirondacker12800

            It’s 8 stations and three of them for some odd and peculiar reason are airports.
            The people living in the lovely suburbanesque neighborhood will take a dim view of enormous parking garages in their neighborhood. So will MDDOT and MDDEC or whatever they call them in Maryland.

          • adirondacker12800

            200 times 2 is 400. It’s going to be cramped on a 200-ish passenger light rail train.

          • Phake Nick

            What
            1000*1/5 is 200 instead of 100, so half of them driving the car and transit users would be 100 instead of 50, a multiplication factor of 2, not taking into account people who might connect via other transit options.

          • adirondacker12800

            There is no place to park and there aren’t any other transit options.

          • Sascha Claus

            Huiiiiih! That would be 25,000,000 € for the parking garage (with “functional” look, at German prices), almost enough to completely modernize a five-platform rail station. Or the area of a few dozen skyskrapers, if built as parking lot completely at grade.

          • adirondacker12800

            It’s a residential neighborhood. The chances of razing it to make it into parking are slim and none. They are delusional.

          • adirondacker12800

            BWI train station is popular because it has enormous parking garages a few steps away from the platforms. Apparently the maglev station is going to be in the airline terminal which doesn’t have parking. It may just be me but if you are expecting suburbanites to drive to the maglev station, they don’t need to see the airline check in counters.
            The airport isn’t in Baltimore. The purported Baltimore station is in a residential neighborhood. Razing that for parking garages isn’t going to go over well. Or carving an access road through it.

  5. adirondacker12800

    the new Moynihan Train Hall in New York is an example of the latter failure.

    The trains can be anywhere between Seventh Ave. and Moynihan. If you want to use the stairs on the lower level you still can. Just because yokels from the hinterlands are going to go gawk at the skylight doesn’t mean people who can cope with
    TWO levels !! !!
    have to. You can still walk along the platform and come up into the LIRR East Concourse if you want to, too.
    When they are running 16 cars trains some day far in the future they will be…… 16 cars long.
    Which is roughly from Seventh Ave to Moynihan. The car at the Seventh Ave. end will be at the nether reaches of Washington D.C when it gets there. It’s a long long long walk out to Massachusetts Avenue.

  6. bruce hain

    It’s impossible for men to make a comment on wordpress. I have unsubscribed.

    Here is the comment:

    It looks like the “Train Hall” (I wonder… does it have vomitoriums?) will take at least 200′ off of every station track.

    Das geht nicht.

    There’s no way to lengthen them at the other end. Maybe a few, I don’t really know. (I looked, WHAT A MESS) There’s several opportunities to lengthen platforms that were probably longer before. But curves have been introduced to make room for something that’s no longer there. They would have to be removed. IT DOESN’T MEAN THEY CAN JUST GO SHORTENING PLATFORMS, AND LENGTHENING THE WALK FROM THE STREET.

    I like the tunnel, but why can’t it have TWO stairs for each platform? Also, that should be the extent of it: there’s too much concourse or “Train Hall” in this diagram – What are they thinking? – and the deep stuff looks REALLY dull. Nothing so special about the “Train Hall” proper either, except it makes expensive concessions to “beauty” while clashing with the original, and it’s already ample such space. Do they intend to get rid of some of that really “AmShack” stuff built in the Eighties or Nineties? An international disgrace. Maybe they’ll finally raise the platforms.

    You should have seen it when they put the hole in the floor in the ’70s. They had to close it for years. It was some Bicentennial thing, but only got as far as the gaping hole then they changed their “minds”.

    I think they could make some money on the parking, but maybe they should make it closer to the premium properties. Why dig deeper than you have to? Hudson Yards is a worst case: it’s way underground with multi-levels of tracks, very difficult to find a place for columns, footings, requiring delicate maneuvering around what was already there. They can make faux authentic shed supports, saving some open air for the platforms, and limit the density and height of the buildings above/parking therefor. None of which they can be trusted to do.

    Bruce Hain

    • Alon Levy

      They’re shortening the platforms for this? This is really awful, I’m sorry. Do you have a link? I’m not doubting you, I just didn’t see it in the presentation and didn’t think they’d do something this stupid…

      Also, I have no idea why the spamfilter ate your comment three times before letting you post this :(. Nothing about the comment seemed especially suspicious? (I also have no idea why one version randomly referenced Putin.)

      • Bensh

        Looks like the stub-end platforms which extended just beyond G Street get shaved back to just reach it, up to 100 feet. Of course the tracks already got shortened once from the historic barrel-vault concourse to the AmShack to fit the awful mall complex.

        • Alex B.

          I don’t think any tracks are meaningfully shortened from their current conditions. The proposed ‘train hall’ area occupies the same space as the current concourse and the rooms behind it, which occupy an awful lot of space.

  7. Eric2

    Someone on Reddit commented “The plan adds more run-through tracks, and greatly increases the size of the platforms.” Which if true would be valuable.

  8. Matthew Hutton

    If the platforms get closer to a second metro station there should be a second exit, like there is on Crossrail or the RER.

  9. Alex B.

    I think a few things are lost in this critique:

    First, some background on the existing conditions:

    The existing platforms aren’t adequate. Many are low level, many are quite narrow, few meet ADA. Plus, all of them are located at the far (south) end of the station, meaning long walks for anyone alighting the train.

    The existing station geometry is also a challenge. The station is basically two side-by-side stations; the lower level through tracks and the upper level stub terminal. Adding to this is the challenge of streets and topography: most streets around the tracks are below that grade, but H Street is above.

    Finally, Congress mandated that Amtrak sell off certain assets. One of those assets was the air rights. A D.C. developer purchased them in 2002. They own the air rights fee simple; they have a right (per the terms of the agreement) to build above the tracks. Whether you think this is wise or not is somewhat irrelevant, as it is a real legal and practical design constraint.

    So, the basic plan meets the first of Alon’s criteria:

    – Widens the platforms, meets ADA, moves almost all to high level. I think they retain one track with low-level access for the occasional superliner train. The biggest sticking point here is VRE, and forcing their hand to move to different rolling stock capable of serving high level stations.

    – Adds a new concourse under H Street, as well as connecting concourses to link it back to the main station. This both spreads passenger loads, adds new points of access to the platforms, and offers new station entrances to connect passengers to the surrounding area. This minimizes the distances to connect to transit. The complicated topography means that connecting underneath the tracks is the best option.

    The other elements are included for pragmatic reasons. The bus facility is to serve as a replacement for the existing bus facility in the parking garage above the tracks. The garage must be replaced to support the track realignment to widen platforms. Many advocated for moving this facility off site, but lost that argument. The same is true of the parking.

    The final set of constraints are around property rights. The first is the air rights development; they have to plan for it and accommodate it. The second is the status of the historic station itself, where the retail management rights were sold off in the 1980s as part of the last redevelopment scheme for the station. Amtrak is attempting to re-acquire those rights (and therefore control of the historic station building) via eminent domain. The legal proceeding is ongoing.

    • Alon Levy

      1. It does not cost $10 billion to raise platforms. It does not cost $100 million to raise platforms, either.

      2. The platforms are narrow but that’s pretty normal, there is no pedestrian capacity crunch for alighting passengers.

      3. There is absolutely no need for H Street to be a concourse. Direct access between platforms and the street is again pretty normal for a secondary access point; Berlin Ostbahnhof has one concourse, to the south of the platforms, and north side access is direct via street-level passageways.

      4. There is no need to spend extra money on the air rights. If the developer wants to lose money on it then sure, but one the air rights become part of the public plan, tax breaks as with Hudson Yards are likely to follow.

      5. That advocates in DC are not in support of the garage does not make the WUS expansion better. Advocates need to learn to say “then we don’t support this” to bad plans and not simp for useless stuff on “muh process” or “muh coalition” grounds.

      • Alex B.

        1. The cost is excessive, but that is tangential to the discussion about scope.
        2. The platforms are narrow and need to be widened to meet various legal requirements, as well as make room for the columns for the air rights development.
        3. Yes there is, because H Street is not the only street. The topography means you need to provide access both up to the H Street bridge as well as down to the level of 1st and 2nd Streets, which is where the concourse is proposed.
        4. The air rights developer has a legal right to build; they are going to put down columns, and any plan needs to account for this. The developer is taking on all that financial risk.
        5. Advocates also need a better handle on the actual legal and policy constraints if they wish for their positions to be considered and not immediately disregarded.

          • Matthew Hutton

            Also how many trains per hour go into Washington union station?

          • adirondacker12800

            Not many but traffic and airports aren’t going to get any better in the future either. It might get up to 15 or even 20 someday.

          • Matthew Hutton

            So reducing the number of platforms by 1/3 or 1/2 could work as a solution with better operations.

        • Eric2

          3. No you don’t. You can put a staircase+elevator from each platform up to H Street. And a staircase+elevator from H Street down to 1st/2nd Streets. Total cost outside the US maybe $10 million. In the US, maybe $100 million. You save the spending of a couple billion on an underground concourse.

        • adirondacker12800

          You have to ask more generic questions like “why would anyone want to go to the traffic sewer highway overpass that is H street over the tracks?”. There’s nothing up there but automobile traffic that 1960s urban rewalists thought was a good idea.

          • spencepatrickj

            Walking home, presumably. Rather a lot of people live in NoMa.

          • adirondacker12800

            You could walk to I St or beyond by exiting on to 1st or 2nd and walking under the highway overpass that is H St. too.

          • Alex B.

            Congress sold off the air rights above the tracks in 2002. The developer that bought them absolutely intends to build. The net effect is that the H Street overpass will be a mostly-seamless streetscape with 3 million sf of development off of it.

            At the same time, the best access to the neighborhoods north and south are via the existing grade of 1st and 2nd streets, which can be access from under the tracks. That’s the fundamental design challenge here – the need to go both up and down.

          • adirondacker12800

            What are they going to with the block long highway ramp on either side of the station?

      • adirondacker12800

        Washington D.C. puts it’s skyscrapers in Virginia because Senators from the hinterlands think allowing tall buildings will turn it into Manhattan, ruin the majesty of the Washington Monument and the grandeur of the Capitol Dome. It’s not Manhattan and it’s very unlikely there is any enticement for anyone to building stubby office buildings over the tracks anywhere.

  10. Jonathan Hobbs

    That was a lot of words to say “I have no idea what I’m talking about”.
    In one breath you want parking reduced to discourage drivers and in the next you’d like buses to remain on the streets and not be housed in an intermodal transportation hub. And when those bus drivers need union required breaks or something goes wrong with the bus, you want them to remain blocking traffic?
    This whole article reeks of privilege. Let’s make riding trains the main focus and ignore those who can’t afford it, even though the Inter city bus system has millions of riders annually. Screw the poor, I guess? Bus ridership has always been a driving force at Union Station, be honest do you work for Amtrak? Because that’s the only answer I can see as to why you’d be grasping at straws to discredit the bus programs here. You’d have bus riders be treated as second class citizens. Absolutely disgusting attitude.

    • Alon Levy

      1. The city buses mostly run through Union Station, not to it as a terminal.

      2. Bus breakdowns can happen anywhere, there isn’t an indoor bus garage at every bus stop.

      3. The private intercity bus companies can pay for their own terminal if they’d like.

      • adirondacker12800

        The private buses are operating on a shoestring. They don’t have the money, they will never have the money.
        A very cursory glance at a D.C. bus map the “city” buses are on the far side of the palatial lawn or up on H Street. The lawn is quite lovely to look at, from a cab, but it’s a hike to get across it. After the hike across the station. After the hike from the car that was at the center of the non-terminals along the NEC. Because it’s all more or less on one level and instead of going up or down a flight of stairs you have to walk across it all.

    • Nilo

      Most intercity bus traffic is to NYC. Instead of building an underground bus facility it would be a much wiser use to capital dollars to improve the speed and capacity of the Northeast Corridor so that Amtrak lowered ticket prices.

      The remaining intercity buses could just use the curb.

  11. adirondacker12800

    all platforms used by Northeast Corridor trains must be raised
    There is this thing called the Americans with Disabilities Act. This looks suspiciously like something that would be a major improvement that would require all the platforms to be compliant.
    I seem to remember the last time I used stairs to get on or off a car in D.C. was back in olden times when any coach ticket was good on any coach. I looked at this wondrous thing called a timetable and picked the train with a dining car.

    • Matthew Hutton

      I would have thought you could build higher platforms for $50 million or so. Concrete isn’t expensive.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, I’m told on Twitter that this is indeed planned, except for one captive platform for Superliners. The trouble is that the cost of raising platforms based on SEPTA and MBTA budgets is around two orders of magnitude less than the projected WUS expansion cost.

      • adirondacker12800

        37 million for SEPTA’s Levittown completed in 2019 which included parking. 55 million to rehab NJTransit’s Elizabeth which is progress. That’s not sunk into dirt by the side of the tracks, it’s cantilevered off the viaduct and includes a 5th track.
        They built a whole block of Manhattan skyscrapers with park that has air conditioned tree roots for 10 billion.

  12. Frederick

    Concourse is not the problem. You can’t compare the situation to the German stations which have zero fare gates. For stations with fare gates, it is very useful to provide walkways or concourses so that pedestrians don’t need to leave the station in order to travel from one station exit to another.

    The train hall, though, is useless. Even a farmer’s market or a lawn will have more utility. At least you can picnic or do yoga on a lawn. Architects should realise we are not building another Parthenon or Luxor, and there is no need for a train station to inspire awe and fear. Those who continue to propose such a waste of space should get mummified and buried in Luxor, because those people’s minds are as modernised as the Pharaohs’.

    Another thing I don’t see mentioned is the metro station. As the Union Station get renovated, should the entrance to the metro station still huddle in the southwestern corner? Shouldn’t it get more attention, with walkways designed for it instead of designing around it? Because, currently, the design is putting the buses at the forefront, which is bad. And if the buses can get a station inside the Union Station, why not the streetcar? Why not build a track so that the streetcar can go straight into the main concourse?

    • Richard Mlynarik

      You can’t compare the situation to the German stations which have zero fare gates.

      Yes you can.

      Hugely negatively.

      Tens or hundreds of millions of dollars are spent, per station, to make riding trains slower, more expensive and more inconvenient.

      It”s about the worst possible way to burn funding. 100% public downside, 100% private rent-seeking profit.

    • Alon Levy

      There are no faregates on mainline rail in the United States, nor are there plans to install any. Amtrak likes controlling platform access but a) that’s stupid of it and it should stop, b) at the smaller NEC stations there’s no such access control, and c) at Penn Station the access control is easy to bypass and seasoned travelers do so in order to skip the lines.

      The streetcar, like the buses, is city transport, so it’s important to avoid detours. It just goes on H Street and that’s fine. The purpose of the interior bus hall is for the use not of city buses, which mostly run through, but of private intercity buses, which mostly run to Philadelphia or New York and directly compete with publicly-provided rail service, claiming that they’re much cheaper (because they get free infrastructure).

      • adirondacker12800

        They skimp on staff and maintenance too. And have decapitated passengers now and then. I’m sure the legacy carriers have them, just like the legacy airlines have them but they skimp on staff and maintenance.

    • adirondacker12800

      They have an awe inspiring train station that the Pennsylvania Railroad and it’s minions completed in 1907. They want to use that for a mall and build an airport terminal in back of it.

  13. plaws0

    (WP is giving me fits – they seem to have changed “reader” and made it harder to log in, so here is my wisdom unthreaded)

    Maglev is a solution looking for a problem.

    50 years after the Model T there were **millions** of cars on the road. 50 years after the Wright Brothers, and there was regular trans-oceanic air travel (and a few years later, the “Jet Age” would begin). 50 years after the Rainhill Trials, there were trains on every continent and there was scheduled passenger train service from one coast of North America to the other.

    50 years since the first working maglev plane prototypes and still no large scale adoption. The Chinese have a line or two but they are just doing that because they are tired of building 40,000 km of HSR … and all those lines are built to the same track gauge as that at the Rainhill Trials. The Germans poured how much money into TransRapid before finally dumping it?

    It exists but it is not useful.

    • Frederick

      Maglev has high upfront cost, so even prototype systems are few. There were probably more hours spent on operating flights in the 1910s than hours spent on operating maglev in the last 50 years.

      And if flights didn’t have military application, it would meet the same fate as maglev.

      • adirondacker12800

        US Postal Service drove flying. And subsidized it by charging high rates for air mail.
        Special stamps and envelopes. Big concrete arrows that were lit at night so the planes carrying mail could fly at night…

        • plaws0

          Not sure “drove it” is exactly right, but being able to move mail faster than by train was a problem someone was willing to pay to solve (and reading about the early airways and how they were navigated is a hoot!).

          What problem exists for magnetically levitated planes to solve? Faster than trains, sure, but not by a lot (cf. SNCF’s V150 campaign of 15 years ago) and at the expense of entirely new rights of way/infrastructure.

          Monorails are much in the same class though they are orders of magnitude cheaper than magnetically levitated planes so promoters have been able to con more governments into building them (and they’ve been viable for at least 2x as long as “Maglev”).

          • adirondacker12800

            It looked good in 1962 when all the experts agreed that the Japanese and Pennsylvania Railroad were nuts to think they could regularly run trains faster than 100 miles per hour. There were some other solutions actually tested back then. It’s not 1962 anymore.

  14. Pingback: How Washington Should Spend $10 Billion | Pedestrian Observations
  15. Daniel Bliss

    The Union Station proposal seems to be mostly about property development and very little about transportation.

    Having used Union Station as a passenger, and having processed crowds through there as an Amtrak employee on one of the station’s busiest ever days, my observations are as follows; the “Claytor Concourse” added in the 1980s is very constricted, the alterations to the former concourse for shopping and the food court in the 1980s are wasteful of space, and as a transportation facility it’s underutilized. The existing 1980s renovation, already altered by the more recent removal of the concession in the middle of the great hall, seemingly for the purpose of special events more than passengers, was basically to get people to feel they could safely go to a train station while putting as much of the bill on the mall developer and ultimately retail shoppers as possible. But today’s needs relate to mobility and converting away from cars and fossil fuel, not about mall and office space and Amtrak and planners in this post-Covid era are forgetting that.

    So, you either need to expand the Claytor Concourse, perhaps by widening it about another 50 to 75 feet to the north, or remove the mall features (except for the food court which remains a necessity) from the historic concourse. The latter solution would be preferable as it would mean platforms are maintained at least at their present length, an important consideration given how quickly the “throat” narrows north of the station, if you’re not to have to buy out some of the recent office development in that area to widen it again.

    Beyond that sale of air rights should be secondary to major expansion of the transport function of the facility and should avoid in any way constricting that possibility. After all, the cheapest way of mass conversion to sustainable transport is to incrementally use the space in and adjacent to the existing sustainable infrastructure, not closing that off only to find you need to start from scratch in ten years time.

    What the politicians don’t seem to understand is that sustainable transportation in general requires maximizing use of the infrastructure we have, large scale conversion from interstate highway to rail, large-scale enabling of people to reduce the number of cars they own. For the Northeast Corridor, that means recognizing that Union Station actually serves two NEC lines already with the possibility of a third and therefore needs to be able to handle a several-fold increase in its use, maximizing the existing NEC, restoring the gaps in the CSX Camden Line in northern Maryland and between West Trenton and Montclair, New Jersey so that too can become a through route to New York again, and resolving the question of whether to add another dedicated high speed line. That’s a lot of extra use, especially when you consider other service corridors like all-day, bi-directional, high frequency commuter services that provide a regional transport function and the possibility of replacing peoples’ cars and not just a slightly unreliable ride to work, and the planners need to keep open the possibility that Union might be called on to handle three, four, five times current traffic levels or more.

    That’s before we even consider DC Metro expansion, where the suggested map in this thread appears to me to posit an ideal solution so long as improved bus/trolleybus/streetcar service connecting to these lines is also part of the equation.

  16. staticvars

    Makes a lot of sense. I would say, reducing the parking reduces the chances I will use it for my regular trips to nyc. A real improvement to encourage use of Amtrak would expand everything. Cars are part of the solution. Perhaps the most annoying part of the station is the pickup/ drop off area. A simple redesign there to separate departures and arrivals would vastly improve the situation.

    I am not sure about the “force passenger to walk longer between street and platform” problem- the current design already has this (although not as bad as Moynihan, where it feels like you could have walked to Jersey). Isn’t the point of the existing grand hall to be where people wait? The one at Union Station does nothing, it’s like a museum of echoes with a Shake Shack. The Amtrak ticketing is in a dark area. The seated waiting areas are too small. There ia definitely a design to be made that makes better use of the current space at much lower cost, leaving more money to improve the rails.

    • Richard Mlynarik

      Isn’t the point of the existing grand hall to be where people wait?

      If you’re waiting at a station, there’s something really really wrong with the transportation service to and from the station.

      Arrive at station, at any number of dispersed and convenient entry points.
      Walk through station, maybe buying a coffee or something if you must.
      Walk directly to platform.
      Train arrives a minutes or two later.
      Board train.
      Go.

      No mandatory Grand Hall Experience.

      This isn’t 1920. Or it isn’t 1920 outside the US.

      • adirondacker12800

        I parked my car at Cornwells Heights which has a train, to or from Washington D.C. every half hour. It leaves Union Station at :20 or :50. I’m staying at a hotel in Crystal City. Unlikely but I may have to use the check out desk. While I’ve used Metro, I don’t remember how long it takes to change to the Red Line to get to Union Station. Or exactly how long it takes to trek across the single level of Union Station. I’m aiming for a :20, things go really well and I step off the Red Line train at :44.

        Or I decided that the parking fees at Cornwells Heights are almost as much as cab fare to Jenkintown so I took the once an hour train that uses the West Trenton line between New York and Philadelphia. It’s a pity this isn’t as uncomplicated as it is in railfans’ crayon drawings but I’m glad I can do something other than loiter on a platform for 37 minutes.

          • adirondacker12800

            Google maps is optimistic. And it’s not clairvoyant. It doesn’t know that something will delay me two minutes along my multi-transfer trip.

        • Richard Mlynarik

          I herp my car at herpderps herpderp herph has a herp to or herp herpderpderp herp herpy herp herp. It herp herpn herpderp at :20 or herp I’m herpderp at a herpl in herpderp herp. herpderp but I may herp to use the herpk out herp. herpe herp herp herp I herpt herpderp how herp it herps to herp to the Red herp to get to herpn herpderp Or herpderp how herp it herps to herp herp the herp herpl of herpn herpderp I’m herp for a herp herp go herp herp and I herp off the Red herp herpn at herpderp

          I herpderp herp the herpderp herp at herpderps herpderp are herp as herp as cab herp to herpderp so I herp the herp an herp herpn herp herp the herp herpderp herp herpderp New herp and herpderpderp. herp a herp herp herpt as herpderpcated as it is in herpderp’ herp herpderp but I’m herp I can do herpderpg herpr herp herp on a herpderp for 37 herpderp

          • adirondacker12800

            Your Sim City with a red line, blue line and green line seems to have gotten into a loop.

    • Alon Levy

      If you want to make the waiting experience better, install more seating space. Moynihan does not have seating because, true to Moynihan’s political legacy, the planners went for hostile architecture: maximum inconvenience for paying passengers is justified as long as homeless people are deterred.

      • adirondacker12800

        Moynihan has seating. The LIRR and NJTransit passengers passing through have to use the seating in the old part of the station.

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