Amtrak’s proposed Union Station renovation is a terrible idea 

Source: Slow Boring

(SLOW BORING) Matthew Yglesias, July 18, 2022

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 investmentsAs 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:

Matthew Yglesias