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Readers Want the Impossible: Amtrak Trains at St. Louis Union Station

November 21, 2018 Featured, History/Preservation, Planning & Design, Transportation, Travel Comments Off on Readers Want the Impossible: Amtrak Trains at St. Louis Union Station
Grand Hall in St. Louis Union Station

In the recent non-scientific Sunday Poll readers overwhelmingly indicated they’d consider using Amtrak if trains departed/arrived at St. Louis Union Station.

Q: Agree or disagree: I’d consider taking Amtrak if trains arrived/departed at St. Louis Union Station

  • Strongly agree: 22 [53.66%]
  • Agree: 6 [14.63%]
  • Somewhat agree: 2 [4.88%]
  • Neither agree or disagree: 5 [12.2%]
  • Somewhat disagree: 0 [0%]
  • Disagree: 3 [7.32%]
  • Strongly disagree: 3 [7.32%]
  • Unsure/No Answer: 0 [0%]

Well, to the nearly 75% who agreed I have some bad news for you. Amtrak trains will never use Union Station again. Ever.

For more than 28 years I’ve lived in St. Louis I’ve heard people suggesting the return of Amtrak to Union Station and for 28 years I’ve just been struck by a complete lack of understanding about rail service and station design.

The decline of trail [rail] travel began following World War II, as traffic dropped significantly, even while railroads began to update their passenger fleets with new equipment in the 1950s hoping to retain passengers and ward off ever increasing competition from the automobile and airplane (the development of jet propulsion only worsened the situation).  Technically, passenger rail travel peaked in this country during the first two decades of the 20th century and slowly declined thereafter, particularly with the onset of the Great Depression.  However, it also did not help that President Dwight Eisenhower enacted the Interstate Highway System in 1956 (also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act).  By that time railroads were beginning to see the writing on the wall and cutback their services, with most giving it up altogether by the start of Amtrak in 1971. (American-Rail.com)

By the time the stock market crashed in 1929 St. Louis Union Station had been open for 35 years. This was a poor time to be the largest U.S. railroad station. The last train pulled out from the huge train shed 49 years later.  The main building (from “Headhouse”) hadn’t been used for nearly a decade. With only a few trains per day having such a huge facility made no sense. It would’ve happened sooner if another option existed.

Under the big shed in 2012

You might point out the Kansas City still uses their Union Station for Amtrak service. Yes, yes they do.  It’s a through-station, not an end-station.

Through-stations and end-stations are completely different design and planning problems.  They generate completely different kinds of space and completely different sensations of arrival and departure.  It’s pointless, for example, to compare New York’s dreary Penn Station, a through-station, with magnificent Grand Central, an end-station.  They are apples and radishes. (Human Transit)

In the 19th century when 22 railroads built Union Station they correctly saw St. Louis’ population computing to grow. They wanted a facility they wouldn’t outgrow like the original St. Louis Union Station on 12th (Tucker).  They decided their station would be an end-station, not a through-station.  Half a century later the decline of rail passengers, the failure of passenger rail companies, and the fact Chicago beat St. Louis as the midwest end city meant St. Louis Union Station, a beautiful design, was incredibly obsolete for rail travel.

Kansas City’s Union Station has been able to reutilize most of the building to other uses, with Amtrak using a small part for ticketing and waiting, It’s a short distance out to the platform at the through tracks. From the back of the shed at St. Louis Union Station it’s still a very long distance to the tracks — plus office buildings and the closed movie theater block the path.

In the 70s Amshack was built at the tracks. I recall using this in the 90s. Then a slightly nicer Amshack 2 was built, I used this in the aughts. The station I’ve used the most opened a decade ago…today. Yes, it took until November 21, 2008 to open a proper station. I was there for the ribbon cutting ten years ago, and I’ve been back many times since as a traveling customer.

Comptroller Darlene Green speaking at the opening ten years ago

Over the last decade the maintenance was allowed to get behind, prompting me to label it Amshack 3 in 2017.  Thankfully it was improved on my last train trip, in February 2018.

Please understand Union Station is a magnificent asset to St. Louis — but it was last useful as a train station about 75 years ago.  Embrace the current station, or use the new Alton Station if you’re headed North on Amtrak. The rail improvements started during the Obama administration have greatly improved the St. Louis to Chicago experience.  Stop waiting for trains at Union Station — use the station we’ve had for the last decade.

— Steve Patterson

 

A Look At Kansas City’s New Modern Streetcar

Last week leaders in the St. Louis region argued publicly over future pubic transit:

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay has made clear his support for a north-south MetroLink expansion, saying it’s a top priority in his final year in office. But a recent push for money to plan such a route has met with strong resistance from St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger.

Stenger, in a letter to the Federal Transit Administration, said he will not endorse the north-south route until other proposed routes are studied. (Post-Dispatch)

At the other end of the state, in Kansas City, there’s also a disagreement about the expansion of rail-based public transit. The local non-profit behind the new KC Streetcar wants to expand South on Main Street, while another is pushing a light rail plan.

[Clay] Chastain argues his plan gives Kansas City residents a real choice and a much more extensive rail transit system, from the airport to the Cerner Trails campus under construction in south Kansas City and from Union Station to the stadium complex. 

He estimates it would cost $2 billion to build, or about $45 million per mile, although some light-rail systems have cost considerably more than that per mile. He assumes the federal government would provide $1 billion of that amount.

The local match would come from a 3/8-cent sales tax increase for 25 years, plus 3/8 cents that currently go for the bus system, once that tax expires in 2024. (Kansas City Star)

Anyone who has flown in/out of KC’s airport knows it is a long distance from downtown KC. It’s a 20-25 minute drive, but takes over an hour by bus. Frankly, they need to do both — expand the new streetcar and build light rail to far off destinations like their airport and stadiums.

Kansas City was without rail-based public transit from 1957 until May 6, 2016 — the day the 2.2 mile starter streetcar opened.

THE FUNDING:

  • Cost to build: $100 million — $37 million from the federal government, $63 million from bonds.
  • Cost to operate: $4 million annually to be paid by a combination of sales & property taxes within the transportation district.
  • Fare:  $0 — free
  • Local comparison: Our Loop Trolley vintage streetcar project. also 2.2 miles long, is costing $51 million to build. The 8-mile cross-county MetroLink extension that opened in 2006 cost $430 million.

THE VEHICLES:

  • “Each vehicle is 77 feet and 8 inches long; 78,000 pounds; and 12 feet tall.”
  • “Each vehicle capacity is approximately 150 riders and is bi-directional (can run both directions). There is a combination of sitting and standing within the streetcar.”
  • “There are three “cars” in each streetcar vehicle, with 4 sets of doors (one on each end and two in the middle car).”
  • Each of the four vehicles cost $4.39 million each (source).
  • Same as vehicles used in the Cincinnati Streetcar opening later this year.
  • Model: CAF Urbos 3 100% low-floor
  • Manufactured in Elmira NY by CAF USA, a subsidiary of a Spanish company.
  • To meet US crash-standards the body is made of steel
  • Comparison: our 4-car light rail vehicles are 90 feet long; capacity of 72 seated plus 106 standing
Each end is identical
Each end is identical
The lights change depending upon direction of travel. The step on this end of the Union Station platform is annoying.
The lights change depending upon direction of travel. The step on this end of the Union Station platform is annoying.
This view gives you an overview of the three cars in each vehicle -- middle and two ends. Wheelchairs, strollers. bikes, the middle car, the door on each end has a step
This view gives you an overview of the three cars in each vehicle — middle and two ends. Wheelchairs, strollers. bikes, the middle car, the door on each end has a step
The center car is very open, the ends are filled with fixed seating. The floor is level throughout,
The center car is very open, the ends are filled with fixed seating. The floor is level throughout,
The center car has two areas with theater seats. My wheelchair fit here and my husband could sit on one seat.
The center car has two areas with theater seats. My wheelchair fit here and my husband could sit on one seat.
It got packed to capacity a few times we were riding
It got packed to capacity a few times we were riding

THE ROUTE:

Kansas City is lucky to have Main Street as a central arterial. We have Olive/Lindell, but they’re very different. The 2.2 mile route does a loop on the North end around their River Market area. It goes down Main and ends at Union Station.

The route is 2.2 miles long and travels along Main Street in downtown Kansas City from the River Market to Union Station/Crown Center. The route also includes a loop around the City Market and runs on 3rd St on the north, Delaware on the west, 5th St on the south, and Grand on the east. (KC Streetcar FAQ)

An extension to continue South on Main Street is already being planned.

Looking North on Main St toward Downtown Kansas City
Looking North on Main St toward Downtown Kansas City.
Looking South in the CBD
Looking South in the CBD

See a route map here.

THE STOPS:

Stops are every few blocks, over the 3-day weekend I rode the streetcar a few times but also traveled the route on the sidewalk. For the most part. the stops are built out into the parking lane — leaving the sidewalk unblocked.

Another view of the Union Station stop
Another view of the Union Station stop
The River Market North stop is the only stop in the middle of traffic
The River Market North stop is the only stop in the middle of traffic
Another view of the River Market North stop
Another view of the River Market North stop
Next stop is River Market West
Next stop is River Market West
The view from the sidewalk
The view from the sidewalk
Looking North you can see the streetcar coming around the corner in the background
Looking North you can see the streetcar coming around the corner in the background
People gathering for the next streetcar, we tried to get on here a couple of times but it was too full from the two prior stops
People gathering for the next streetcar, we tried to get on here a couple of times but it was too full from the two prior stops
North Loop is the most unusual stop, as it's mostly parking lots
North Loop is the most unusual stop, as it’s mostly parking lots
Looking West from the stop
Looking West from the stop
Sidewalk next to Northbound Metro Center stop
Sidewalk next to Northbound Metro Center stop
Same stop, same direction -- just out near the curb
Same stop, same direction — just out near the curb
Opposite view
Opposite view
Southbound Metro Center stop
Southbound Metro Center stop
Streetcar at SB Power & Light stop
Streetcar at SB Power & Light stop
NB Crossroads stop
NB Crossroads stop

NEW CONSTRUCTION:

New construction is everywhere in Kansas City, especially near the streetcar route.

New construction at 13th & Baltimore, one block West of Main
New construction at 13th & Baltimore, one block West of Main
Rehab on E 19th, just East of Main
Rehab on E 19th, just East of Main
New construction E 5th & Grand
New construction E 5th & Grand
New infill on Main Street between 19th-20th
New infill on Main Street between 19th-20th

VIDEO:

I put together a brief video of various clips I took:

FINAL THOUGHTS:

Their streetcar isn’t meant to be a regional system, at least not initially. CAF makes very similar vehicles for use in higher-speed light rail applications, so if they ever do a light rail line the vehicles could look just like their streetcar.

The main problem we experienced was crowds — but it was a nice holiday weekend in the first month of service.  Would like to ride it on a regular weekday. We did speak to a retired couple that recently moved from the suburbs to new construction downtown — the streetcar was one reason,

Being right there it helped add life to the street. It’ll be interesting to see if they’ll be able to expand.

— Steve Patterson

 

Reduced Fare Smart Card For Chicago, Still Waiting On St. Louis

Metro St. Louis is busy working on smart cards for paying transit fares, some have been testing the new technology. Meanwhile, we’ve been using the Ventra smart card for nearly 2 years when visiting Chicago. See Contactless Transit Smart Cards from February 2014. Last month I finally decided to apply for a reduced fare card.

Full fare Ventra card (top) and my reduced fare card (bottom)
Full fare Ventra card (top) and my reduced fare card (bottom)

Both cards are now on one online account, allowing me to login to add value. My husband will use the full fare while I use the reduced fare with my picture. I applied in person in Chicago and the card was mailed to me in about a week. Both are “contactless” which means the user just taps it at the reader, both have a magnetic strip on the back. The same card works for all three Chicagoland systems: CTA, Metra, & Pace. It doesn’t appear my new reduced fare card can be used as a debit card — that won’t matter to me but it might to others.

In St. Louis, our Metro isn’t going to have a debit card connection — deemed too costly. I’m told existing reduced fare ID holders like myself will automatically receive a new reduced fare smart card — once ready. New applicants will apply in person but leave with the card rather than have it mailed. Since my current Metro reduced fare ID expires in February 2016 I’ll need to renew it once more before I get a smart card version.

— Steve Patterson

 

 

 

Cincinnati’s Modern Streetcar

Last month I visited Cleveland to check out the best Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) route in the country, see Cleveland’s Healthline Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), Part 4. Earlier this month I was back in Ohio, this time in Cincinnati.

During my 3-day visit for a Streetsblog meeting we checked out the upcoming Cincinnati Streetcar. Expected to be operational by the end of September 2016, the tracks, overhead wires, & platforms are all in place.

My first sighting of their streetcar project was the tracks near The Banks (development between stadiums) turning to cross the highway and enter the central business district.
My first sighting of their streetcar project was the tracks near The Banks (development between stadiums) turning to cross the highway and enter the central business district. Second St to Main St
The platform here is little more than the sidewalk.
The platform here is little more than the sidewalk.
Most platforms are higher than the adjacent sidewalk, but very close
Most platforms are higher than the adjacent sidewalk, but very close
The platforms, built within the parking lane, are higher than the sidewalk to allow for level boarding.
The platforms, built within the parking lane, are higher than the sidewalk to allow for level boarding.
Same platform from the other direction. This platform had ramps at both ends, some only have one ramp.
Same platform from the other direction. This platform had ramps at both ends, some only have one ramp.
Warning signs are up to alert cyclists to the danger of the tracks.
Warning signs are up to alert cyclists to the danger of the tracks.
A colorful welcome at one platform
A colorful welcome at one platform
Looking east
Looking east
The overhead wires are visible in this view, looking East along Central Parkway from Race St
The overhead wires are visible in this view, looking East along Central Parkway from Race St
Looking West on Central Parkway from Walnut, the streetcar track cut into the median to make the turn into the near land on Walnut. At numerous intersections cameras are able to detect the streetcar, causing the traffic signals to go into a special mode to stop all traffic -- in this case allowing the streetcar to turn right across several lanes of traffic.
Looking West on Central Parkway from Walnut, the streetcar track cut into the median to make the turn into the near land on Walnut. At numerous intersections cameras are able to detect the streetcar, causing the traffic signals to go into a special mode to stop all traffic — in this case allowing the streetcar to turn right across several lanes of traffic.
On Walnut the streetcar turns into the right travel lane
On Walnut the streetcar turns into the right travel lane
This platform on Elm @ Elder is next to Findlay public market, 1.5 miles from The Banks. The streetcar will connect these points and everything in between.
This platform on Elm @ Elder is next to Findlay public market, 1.5 miles from The Banks. The streetcar will connect these points and everything in between.
The far end of the initial line is Henry St., now closed to cars because streetcars will enter/exit maintenance yard to the left. This is at the edge of Cincinnati's Brewery District
The far end of the initial line is Henry St., now closed to cars because streetcars will enter/exit maintenance yard to the left. This is at the edge of Cincinnati’s Brewery District
The maintenance facility is a new structure.
The maintenance facility is a new structure.
End of the maintenance building as seen from the yard,
End of the maintenance building as seen from the yard
They've received their first of five vehicles, #1175. Their last streetcars ended in #1174. Each costs $2.9 million
They’ve received their first of five vehicles, #1175. Their last streetcars ended in #1174. Each costs $2.9 million

Their streetcar will run north-south on their grid of streets. Where we’ve butchered our grid, theirs remains largely intact, albeit mostly one-way couplets. I traveled over a mile on each of four parallel streets: Elm, Race, Vine, & Walnut. Their rights-of-way are also much narrower than ours are now — they didn’t have someone like our Harland Bartholomew aggressively widening streets by forcibly taking the front bay of buildings.

What we call a trolley or streetcar, Europeans call a tram.  Same thing, different name.

The vehicles are CAF Urbos 3, which are 100% low floor. If Cincinnati decides to do a light rail line out to the suburbs in the future they can use the same vehicles. Yes, modern streetcars use the same vehicles as light rail. The difference comes in how the route is designed. Kansas City is using the same vehicle for their streetcar line, which will also open next Fall.

If we do street-running light rail, or a streetcar, these would be in consideration. To meet requirements for federal projects, they have at least 60% US content.

Like most cities, Cincinnati had streetcars in the 19th century, a subway was started but abandoned. Cincinnati hasn’t had rail transit in decades. See their official stteetcar page here.

— Steve Patterson

 

Streetsblog Meeting in Cincinnati

November 10, 2015 Featured, Site Info, Travel 3 Comments

In January the Streetsblog  network expanded into new areas, including a Streetsblog St. Louis. In April many of us gathered in Dallas to discuss urban blogging, followed by the 23rd Congress for the New Urbanism conference.  Later this week we’ll meet again, this time in Cincinnati. Three weeks after taking Megabus to Cleveland via Chicago I’ll be back on Megabus to Chicago and across Indiana into Ohio.

I’ve driven past Cincinnati several times over the years, but I’ve never stopped. Like many my age, I grew up watching WKRP in Cincinnati. To this pre-teen, in Oklahoma City, Cincinnati looked more like what I thought a city should be — based solely on the show’s opening sequence.

With Thanksgiving coming up I had to include a clip from a classic episode.

I’m sure Cincinnati today is nothing like 1978 sitcom Cincinnati, I’ll have three nights to explore. I don’t know much about the city, only what I’ve read. I’ll check out Fountain Square:

Fountain Square has been the symbolic center of Cincinnati since 1871. The square, which replaced a butcher’s market, was a gift from Henry Probasco in memory of Tyler Davidson. Probasco traveled to Munich and commissioned a bronze allegorical fountain from Ferdinand von Miller named The Genius of Water. Originally, the square occupied a large island in the middle of Fifth Street with buildings to the north and south, much like nearby Piatt Park. A 1971 renovation of the square included slightly moving and re-orienting the fountain to the west, and enlarging the plaza by removing the original westbound portion of 5th Street and demolishing buildings to the north. It is used for lunch-breaks, rallies, and other gatherings. (Wikipedia)

Of course I’ll read a lot on the UrbanCincy blog, also part of the Streetblog network. I’ll check out their public transit — including the route of the modern streetcar line opening September 2016. Their never completed subway sounds fascinating. Few things I love more than seeing a new city for the first time, thank you Streetsblog!’

— Steve Patterson

 

 

 

 

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