Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Some of the nation’s train stations don’t make a great impression. That won’t change until Congress truly funds passenger rail.
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Where nobody’s waiting for a train. Seriously, no one. Welp. Time for a drink.
Train stations in America span all the styles of architecture this nation has to offer. There’s the the gorgeous Italianate train station in Jackson, Michigan. The Amtrak station in Raton, New Mexico, is a beautiful example of Mission Revival. Even the humble lil’ train station in Mineola, Texas, has got some flair. Whatever you might think about Orlando’s train station, it no doubt looks historic.
The stations I want to talk about are not those train stations. These are not the Art Deco transit hubs that look like vintage monuments to the future, or the Spanish Colonial stations that summon visions of desperados waiting for a train. These are the other train stations—the ones that make you wish you’d left the house a little later so you’d have to spend that much less time waiting at the station.
Here is the Amtrak station in Detroit, which appears to be a disused Sizzler restaurant. pic.twitter.com/RCN6KifaWZ— Eric Brasure (@ericbrasure) July 6, 2015
These are the saddest train stations in America. Sadly, regrettable transit hubs are to be found all across the nation. Most of them fall into a few distinct categories.
The fail station
Some train stations wouldn’t sit right in a ghost town. When such a train station is located in a great American city, it’s often a testament to a costly blunder.
The Amtrak station that serves Savannah, Georgia, today, for example, looks like an adult video store that’s gone out of business. This wasn’t always the case. Savannah Union Station, a gorgeous Elizabethan rail hub, was demolished in 1962, to pave the way for highway exit ramps. Fail.
Cleveland’s Tower City Center, once Cleveland Union Terminal, is the hub for the Regional Transit Authority’s rapid-transit lines (and a multi-use commercial and civic center to boot). That’s not a bad deal; arguably, city rail is a better use for a central train station than passenger rail, and the history supports the city’s decision to make the move.
But Lakefront Station, pictured above, the Cleveland terminal that Amtrak began using in 1977, leaves something to be desired.
To be fair to South Bend, Indiana, there’s also a slightly larger shed-station across the tracks, but it’s hardly luxurious. What makes the South Bend terminal so truly egregious is the fact that Union Station, a mighty Beaux-Arts building, still stands across town—but it no longer services trains.
The invisible station
There’s nothing exactly wrong with the Amtrak station in Newbern, Tennessee. After all, Newbern is a city with a population of just a scratch more than 3,300 people. No one expects it to be a bastion of exquisite architecture.
At the same time, though, Newbern bills itself as the “Home of the Newbern Illinois Central Depot.” The City of New Orleans, one of the great passenger lines in America, stops there, with daily departures to Memphis, Jackson, Chicago, Champaign-Urbana, and New Orleans. The train station is an opportunity for Newbern to really own it.
It’s too bad that some rail magnate never thought to pull an Andrew Carnegie and give away his immense fortune to build civic architecture in the service of rail. Even today, Carnegie libraries are often the gems of the hundreds of cities where they were erected at the turn of the century. Train stations tend to occupy the same pride of place as Carnegie libraries.
Many look the part. But many more are missed opportunities.
The has-been station
St. Louis, Missouri, opened its new train station in 2008. While it’s a vast improvement over the old St. Louis Amtrak station—a building that looks like a facility where unlicensed dentists practice their black-market trade—it’s still a crying shame for a city that once had the busiest train depot in the world. The city’s Union Station still services local rail, serving as a constant reminder of lost glory.
The not-even-a-station station
The shed that stands as the East River Road Amtrak station in Elyria, Ohio, makes the basement-dungeon depicted in the Saw series look like a Pixar playground. A fire—a cleansing, purifying, merciful fire—closed the station shed in 2013. Trains still stop there, according to Amtrak, even though the shed is now closed. Arguably, this situation is an improvement.
The by-unpopular-demand station
Riders argue passionately that Houston boasts one of the ugliest Amtrak stations in the nation. They are correct. Houston’s Amtrak station looks like a backwards veterinary practice, a place where the cats euthanize the doctors. It is rivaled only in its generalized sense of despair by the city’s Amtrak service barn. Houston's train station is so ugly, it looks like it’s in Louisiana.
The station that shall not be named
We do not speak of what replaced the original Penn Station in New York City.
The first step to better rail stations: better rail
When Americans say they support spending more tax dollars on passenger rail, they may be thinking about safety first and foremost, especially in light of the Amtrak crash in Philadelphia back in May. (We still don’t have many answers about that accident.)
Yet in a recent YouGov/Huffington Post poll about Amtrak, respondents said that they think train travel is somewhat or very safe (80 percent) and that the government should spend the same or more on mass transit (60 percent). They also say that they never ride trains (60 percent).
Some of our train stations just aren’t designed to make a great impression on passengers. That’s not going to change until Congress decides to truly fund passenger rail. If and when they do, they’ll be doing what Americans say they want Congress to do. For American cities, the results might be a beauty lift.
The Kansas City Star says that residents of Cowtown love passenger rail and want more of it. Might that have anything to do with the fact that Union Station, the city’s 1914 Beaux-Arts rail hub, is a victory of the City Beautiful movement—one that today hosts theater shows and museum exhibits, shops, and other attractions? I’m sure it doesn’t hurt.
This story has been updated to add two particularly sad stations: Houston and New York City.