Amtrak's proposed Union Station renovation is a terrible idea
An object lesson in American agencies' refusal to coordinate
A bit over a year ago, New York City premiered the Moynihan Train Hall at Penn Station, a very expensive train-related infrastructure project that did not increase the number of trains that can roll through Penn Station nor make the trains go faster nor increase the number of destinations the station can serve. In other words, it was a train project that had nothing to do with trains.
And now Amtrak wants to undertake a $10 billion reconstruction of Union Station in D.C. The project looks great in the renderings, but that raises similar questions. Amtrak is not saying this will allow them to provide new service to and from Union Station. They’re not saying it will increase the frequency of the trains that serve the station. Nor will the trains pass through, into, or out of the station faster. Because the renovation is not actually a renovation of the functional part of the station.
They’re also not talking about touching the historic Union Station building, a gorgeous architectural gem. Instead, the plan is basically to build a nicer shopping mall between the historic building and the platforms:
Visitors can make their way from the historic building to a new train hall, which is designed for daylight and for passengers to more easily spot where to catch their bus or train. The station also connects to Metro and DC Circulator services.
Parking is located at the lowest level, along with the majority of the pickup and drop-off area and two of the four concourses lined with retailors. From there, visitors have their pick of escalator or elevator to travel up to the train station. And above the train station is the bus facility. The project assumes increased use, so bus and train capacity has been added. The highest level offers an outdoor deck where people can be dropped off or picked up, or simply leisure along some green space.
There is also an ambitious plan to build a deck over the platforms themselves and the tracks north of the station to create a 15-acre mixed-use real estate development called Burnham Place.
These are just weird ideas to be seeking public funding for. Replacing the dingy existing train hall has some obvious upsides, but this is a commercial real estate project — either the nicer shopping facility will generate enough in additional sales and retail rents that it pencils out or it won’t. Either way, a real estate development project adjacent to the station should be a source of revenue for Amtrak, not something that it asks money for.
The point of spending public funds on train-related infrastructure upgrades should be to make the trains better.
The D.C. area needs infrastructure investments
As I’ve written a couple of times before, the D.C. area has most of the infrastructure it needs to stitch together MARC commuter rail to Maryland and VRE commuter rail to Virginia into a high-quality, high-frequency regional rail system similar to the RER in Paris or to the S-Bahns in the German-speaking world.
D.C. (unlike, say, Boston) already has a tunnel under the city that connects the tracks heading north to Baltimore to the tracks that head south. So just as some Amtrak trains currently pass through the city to serve points south, Maryland commuter trains could pass through the city to serve the huge job center at the Pentagon and then run out into the Virginia suburbs. And Virginia commuter trains could pass through the city into the Maryland suburbs and reach Baltimore. But a few changes are needed to make this a good experience that involves trains that run quickly and frequently at an affordable price:
Electrifying two of MARC’s three lines (one is already electrified) and both of the VRE lines
Replacing the MARC/VRE rolling stock with electric multiple units that accelerate faster out of the stations and can speed things up
Lots of small station upgrades in Virginia to create high platforms that let passengers board level with the train doors — this speeds ingress and egress and is a huge deal for accessibility
Replacing the Long Bridge over the Potomac River with one that has a higher capacity
Paying off a lot of wasteful conductors and replacing them with a system that requires spot checks of tickets in order to reduce labor costs and fares
These are non-trivial infrastructure investments, but they have a clear purpose related to transportation. Trips that are possible with the current infrastructure would become faster, more frequent, and more affordable with these upgrades. And many trips that are not currently possible would become possible. That’s the kind of thing the United States should be spending transportation infrastructure money on, making transportation infrastructure better.
Alon Levy, outraged by the extraordinary expense of the $10 billion station renovation project, has billions in new Metro construction projects they think D.C. should do over and above these commuter rail upgrades. I would love for everyone to get their shit together and do that stuff, too. But what I’m struck by is that before you even get into details of what’s a good project and what’s a bad one or what’s cost-effective and what isn’t, there’s a basic category error in these station projects: I want America’s transportation agencies to spend money on ideas to improve ridership while they want to do generic real estate development.
Train stations aren’t airports
Ever since I started writing about Amtrak’s peculiar ideas about how to board trains, I’ve noticed that the agency is inevitably run by an American airline-industry veteran rather than by a foreigner who has experience working at a successful passenger railroad. So really basic points like “trains have multiple doors while airplanes have just one and this makes a difference” seem to slip their grasp.
While planes have a lot of good features, those features often mean that the air travel experience involves a lot of waiting around in airports. Not only are planes fast, but they can also connect arbitrary geographies, which lets airlines do two things very well that even the more successful train systems don’t:
Low-frequency routes — United flies once a day between D.C. and Rome. So if you’re booked on that flight, missing it carries a very high cost. To avoid the high cost of missing that flight, most people arrive quite a bit early and end up waiting in the airport.
Hub and spoke transfers — People from smaller cities across the southeastern United States can take small planes to Dulles and switch to a larger plane serving Rome or other major international destinations. But transfer passengers need to wait for their flight.
On top of these two sources of waiting around, airports are generally very far from the city center. And even when they are kind of close, the security requirements mean there is a hard boundary between what’s inside the airport and what’s outside the airport. So making the airport a pleasant place to sit around and wait is a crucial determinant of the trip experience. The fact that Dulles isn’t very nice is a legitimate reason for a would-be traveler on a connecting flight to prefer to go through a different airport. That’s a bona fide competitive disadvantage for United vis a vis other carriers that use nicer hubs. So while making the airport nicer isn’t the biggest priority in the world for the airline (if it were, they’d have done it already), it’s absolutely on the list.
Train stations aren’t really like that — transfers are pretty unimportant. What trains are good at providing is frequent service along a busy corridor, mostly to commuters. And most of all, the station is right in the middle of the city with no security barriers.
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