Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, May 13, 2022

May should be National Train Month: Rethinking promoting more comprehensively travel by train in the US

 I started this post in 2019, and then I had to move west and I never finished it.  

1.  A Los Angeles Times article ("At 80, Union Station tries to reinvent itself for a rail future") about the upgrading of Union Station in Los Angeles reiterates  that train stations should be thought of as key "marketing touchpoints" for transit, based on how stations are key city and community hubs in cities like London, Hamburg, Paris, Tokyo, etc.

I wrote about this general idea in my comments in 2015 on the DC State Rail Plan with regard to DC's Union Station.  

The basic point in those comments was how to "Fully leverage Washington Union Station's potential as a portal and visitor center and as a focus point for marketing transit, specifically rail service."

A long time before, I made the point that bus shelters are "marketing touchpoints" for the transit system in multiple ways: (1) for the user; (2) for people walking or driving by and wanting information; and (3) more generally in terms of aesthetics and maintenance and how it communicates whether or not the community values transit, with poor condition shelters and stops with few if any amenities making clear that transit isn't valued.

This goes double for transit stations: subway; bus; railroads; and their combinations.

(Interestingly, only this year has the Federal Railroad Administration devolved to incorporate the kinds of ideas and not the best ones, that I suggested then.  But none on marketing. "Union Station overhaul removes parking spaces, adds underground facility," Washington Post.)

2.  Make May National Train Month.

The National Train Day that Amtrak did in the mid-2000s then dropped for budgetary reasons should be revived, involving the entire rail industry, but redeveloped into: 

(a.) Train Month.  One day out of 365 puts too much pressure, and people can only do one thing.  Train Month allows for more activities, spread out over an entire month, more attention, etc.; 

(c.) involving all types of train service, not just Amtrak, but all passenger train service, including regional commuter rail services

(d.) including freight railroad service; (e.) which could help with funding and visibility

(f.) also involving train and transit museums and tourist railroads.

Working with the American Public Transportation Association, the National Railway Historical Society and its local chapters, regional and state transportation museums, transit media such as Railway Age, Trains Magazine, Mass Transit, Classic Trains, Progressive Railroading, and Metro, and possibly with freight railroads and the Association of American Railroads, as well as excursion (tourist) railways, railroad passenger transportation agencies should revive the concept and create Train Month as a way to promote travel and transportation by rail, for commuting and leisure travel..

Ogden, Utah is home to the location of the Golden Spike National Monument, the place where the transcontinental railroad joined up.  The Ogden Standard-Examiner published a special book for the 150th anniversary.

-- "Golden Spike Centennial Edition," Ogden Standard-Examiner, 1969

But rather than one day, it should be done for the entire month of May designated  as National Train Month, spreading out activities over the course of the month by creating a calendar of events, coordinated at multiple scales (regional, state, national).

This would be timely especially given Amtrak's refocusing on expansion through their Amtrak Connects US program, calling for significant expansion of passenger rail service across the United States.

3. Other good models are various promotions especially tourism efforts by railroads in Japan, as featured on the NHK World television program, "Japan Railway Journal."  

In the late 1980s, Japan began privatizing the national rail system.  It broke it up into seven companies.  Some are capable of being independent, some are still government owned.  The regional JR services, usually with the foundation of high speed rail, are complemented by private railways operating on lines where the ridership is strong enough to maintain profitability, and by what are called third sector lines, which are a mix of privately run, privately owned, community owned or community subsidized.

Because the country is shrinking in population, especially in rural areas, railroads have focused on special tourism ventures to build ridership and revenues in the face of decline.  Some train stations have museum, there are efforts engaging children.  Using regional foods and special meals on trains.  Revitalization efforts.  Etc.

Although there are plenty of exemplary efforts outside of Japan.  Places that do special services for sports events or concerts.  Virginia Railway Express and its support of Clifton Days, a community heritage festival with a big dose of trains.  Souvenir tickets for children on the LIRR.  Various tourist railroads in the US.  Tourism promotion efforts by rail lines in England, and by AMT in Greater Montreal.  Etc.

4.  Train stations can be living "transportation and tourism museums."

Developing spaces and opportunities to present railroad history should be considered within the  program for the station's expansion.

Hertz rental car ad, 1955, featuring Washington DC's Union StationThis 1955 Hertz rental car ad features Washington's Union Station.  Because Union Station is multi-modal (railroad, subway, local bus, inter-city bus, streetcar, tourist services, taxi, bicycle, walking) it's a good location for a transportation museum.

I see this as being done as a kind of joint venture with existing museums in a region, especially those museums already presenting aspects of railroad-related history with a local angle.

A "transportation" museum at a train station like Union Station  in DC wouldn't have to develop a large permanent collection.  

It could more be a place for existing museums to display items that would otherwise remain in vaults, complemented by changing exhibits curated both locally and developed by and with other transportation museums around the country.

Partners could include the National Museum of American History, the National Postal Museum, the National Railroad Historical Society Washington chapter, the B&O Museum in Baltimore, and the National Capital Trolley Museum.

Because of Washington's place as a leading tourist destination and the multimodality represented by Union Station, exhibits on other elements of transportation and visitation history would also be appropriate.

Private railcars on display at a railfan expo in Barstow, California.

Private railcar storage could be "displayed" to the public as part of the exhibit program also. [Note: when this was first written, Amtrak had an active program of renting space to privately owned passenger railcars, including at Union Station.  This has since been de-emphasized.]

The way active trains are staged within the St. Pancras Station in London shows this can be done.   There the Eurostar platform is placed above the ground floor retail.  The train engines were quiet, unlike comparable locomotive engines in the US.
Fire closes Channel Tunnel!  Eurostar trains stranded @ St Pancras London

Renderings presented by Amtrak for a redo of DC's Union Station show something similar, the incorporation of the train shed into a kind of atrium, with active tracks.  I believe that this element has since been deemphasized in future planning for the station.

An example of the kinds of exhibits that could be presented is  the companion exhibit--shown here when staged at Chicago's Union Station--to the book Terminal Town, which covers all of the types of transportation terminals in Chicago.
Terminal Town Display at the James R. Thompson Center
“Terminal Town: Celebrating 75 Years of Travel to the Windy City,” exhibit on display at Thompson Center by the DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development. Photo by Jamie Moncrief/DePaul University.

The Market Street Railway--the F Line streetcar--is operated in part as a living transit museum.

5.  Add excursion rail programs to big city train stations.  Many states have scenic-excursion railroads that are tourist attractions.  There are a number of these systems in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and the B&O Museum and the National Capital Trolley Museum have short tracks used for train riding.  NRHS chapters also organize excursion trips.

Most state rail plans do discuss, albeit briefly, excursion railroads and their place in the rail and tourism systems.  But they don't suggest integrating this into the passenger rail network as it currently exists.

For example, in the DC area, as a way to build interest and awareness of railroad service in the region, it could be worthwhile for the local commuter railroad agencies, MARC and Virginia Railway Express,  with the National Railway Historical Society and the proposed transportation museum in Union Station and the B&O Museum, to develop a special event railroad excursion program.

-- "Two train/regional transit ideas: Part 2 | Running tourist trains from Union Station," 2021

6.  Treating railroad stations within states and regions as a network.  I have been thinking about this for a number of months, after reading articles about railroad station efforts in Detroit ("MDOT wants to transform Detroit's 'cramped' Amtrak station into $57M hub with retail, more," Detroit Free Press) and Ann Arbor ("Ann Arbor tells feds it's willing to scale back $171M vision," Ann Arbor News), although I did make this point in a review of the Silver Spring Transit Center ("Multiple missed opportunities in the creation of the Silver Spring Transit Center," 2015; "Updating my review of the Silver Spring Transit Center: a few things I missed," 2018) and in "A well designed train station is a well designed train station: it's not about "luxury"," 2017.
and the Takoma Langley Crossroads Transit Center in Suburban Washington.

Of course the ultimate expressions of this idea are the station networks created by Southern Pacific in Southern California and the Boston & Albany Railroad's stations by H.H. Richardson, with landscaping by Olmstead.  

Santa Ana Train Station
Stations from San Diego to Santa Barbara express the California "Mediterranean" architectural style.

The efforts by Richardson and Olmstead, termed "railroad beautiful" influenced the development of the ideals of the "City Beautiful" Movement decades later.  (See "A Railroad Beautiful" and "The Treatment of City Squares--III; The Square Before the Railroad Station," House and Garden (2) 1902 and "Railroad Gardening," Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture.)  

7.  Train stations as vital urban hubs.  In "A well designed train station" I wrote:

I think more than "building a station to serve luxury markets," the issue is the design of the station as a way to maximize the quality of the trip and the experience, specifically: 

-- quality of accommodations for passenger throughput generally (entry and exit, connections to other transit services) 
-- quality of accommodations for passenger throughput specifically to/from and on platforms 
-- centrality of its location (for example the recently in the news Michigan Central Station was deliberately constructed in a location outside of the center "to avoid congestion" thinking it could attract patronage regardless) 
-- its place and position as the anchor of the area transit system and the mixed use district in which it is placed 
-- amenities, especially retail and food service 
-- architectural design and aesthetics.

We don't have to reinvent, the basic principles were set long ago.  For example, the book pictured at right was first published in 1916.  I can't find the cite but there's an equally great book on this, dating to the 1890s.

There is the new Penn Station in NYC, which I haven't yet had the chance to visit.  Grand Central and Penn Station in New York City, Union Station in DC, somewhat 30th Street Station in Philadelphia are much closer to the example of European train stations as major city hubs as well as transportation hubs--multiple stations in London, the main station in Hamburg, Gare de Lyon in Paris, etc. are all fabulous places, community and city centers, and mobility hubs.

Granted in the US, most major cities lack the kind of density needed to be able to create that kind of facility, as shown by the failure of new stations like the Anaheim Regional Transportation and Intermodal Center (poorly located, not served by a lot of transit, waiting for HSR).  

Still, it's the model to aim for.

8.  Finally, another element is interpreting transportation history not just as part of community cultural history interpretation programs, but as a part of transit systems.  Many years ago, Passaic County, New Jersey included this idea as a section of their county transportation plan, including railroads, transit, roads, canals, and rivers.  

DC's history trail interpretation program could be a model for the creation of community-wide railroad history "trails," with Union Station as the hub of the interpretation system.  

The sign below is in Chicago, and presents the history of a railroad bridge.  A handful of communities, the Ride Philadelphia program is one, information at the Queen Street Station in Lancaster, Pennsylvania is another, have transportation history interpretation programs that are good models.
Cherry Avenue bridge interpretation and facts
Cherry Avenue bridge interpretation sign, Chicago.  Flickr photo by Steven Vance.

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