Grand plans for D.C.’s grand station

A rendering of what Union Station's train shed may look like someday if ambitious plans to redevelop the station and the surrounding neighborhood come to fruition.
A rendering of what Union Station’s train shed may look like someday if ambitious plans to redevelop the station and the surrounding neighborhood come to fruition.

In an extensive online piece with several interactive features, The Washington Post‘s Steven Pearlstein examines ambitious plans to remake and expand Washington Union Station and the surrounding neighborhood. The master plan calls for a new passenger experience on expanded tracks and platforms within a massive development project that stitches back together an urban fabric split by Union Station’s rail yard for more than a century—at a cost of $10 billion or more over 25 years or longer. There will undoubtedly be, as Mr. Pearlstein explains, significant financial and political hurdles to overcome.

Nobody thinks we’d be better off today if government had not borrowed the money to build the Beltway, or the subway system or Dulles International Airport. It would be yet another symptom of today’s cramped political vision—and our false notion of economy—if we fail to make a similarly bold investment in the expansion and redevelopment of Union Station.

While most of the piece is solid, I find Mr. Pearlstein’s repeated references to Grand Central Terminal here in New York to be a bit of a stretch. Can Union Station be to D.C. what Grand Central is to NYC? Better yet, would we want it to be? Clearly there are many similarities: a grand Beaux Arts station in the heart of one of America’s great cities, used not only by commuters but a tourist and shopping destination in its own right, saved from neglect and outright destruction in the 1970s.

But if Washingtonians are expecting to recreate Grand Central in their city, there are significant differences that shouldn’t be overlooked. First is the sheer number of travelers who pass through Grand Central each year: 82 million. It has even more passengers today than it had during the “golden age” of train travel, when travel through the terminal peaked at 65 million in 1947. Compare that to Union Station’s 14 million annual passengers currently, or even 30 years from now when ridership is expected to triple to 42 million (and Grand Central’s ridership has increased to 115 million or more with the coming of the Long Island Rail Road).

It speaks to the paucity of our civic imagination, and the small-mindedness of our politics, that simply to describe a project of such ambition is to invite the knowing smirks and raised eyebrows of those who will immediately recognize it as wholly incompatible with the current political and budgetary environment.

Second is the state of the development around each station. Grand Central’s predecessors, as Mr. Pearlstein notes, were built on the edge of what was then New York City, mostly open farmland and fields that were ripe for development. By the time the current iteration of Grand Central was completed in 1913, New York was on the cusp of a massive building boom of skyscrapers; one which was the tallest in the world for a short time, the Chrysler Building, was even constructed directly across Lexington Avenue from the terminal and connected to it by an underground passage. Today, New York City is working on a massive “upzoning” around the terminal, which will increase the amount of office space—and building heights—within walking distance of the station, to take advantage of the coming East Side Access and rising property values. The area surrounding Union Station, on the other hand, while ready for redevelopment, isn’t on the city’s edge: it’s a mere four blocks from the Capitol at the very heart of the city. And not only is it hemmed in on the sides, but thanks to the Height of Buildings Act it’s also hemmed in on the top, limiting the area’s potential.

While Mr. Pearlstein would have you believe that travelers at Grand Central have a superior passenger experience, I wouldn’t be so sure. While there are many shops and amenities for travelers, perhaps the key difference lies in the platforms themselves: all of Grand Central’s 44 platforms lie underground, sweltering and stuffy in the summer and unsightly all year round. Trains enter and leave the terminal through the Park Avenue tunnel that stretches nearly 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) all the way to 97th Street. Though I have taken the train to and from Grand Central on a number of occasions, I can’t imagine beginning and ending my commute this way on a daily basis. While Union Station’s current platforms are even worse—whoever came up with the idea of putting a low roof over tracks served by diesel locomotives clearly wasn’t thinking straight (probably the result of breathing in diesel exhaust)—the proposed atrium-like train shed, filled with natural light, will be an entirely different—and far superior—experience for those traveling through Union Station.

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.

Metro, the D.C. area’s subway system, has its own grand plans for Union Station. A “superstation” has been proposed at Union Station, connected to a larger “inner loop” of stations and tracks encircling central Washington and providing the Metro system with much-needed capacity at its core. Combined with Amtrak, Maryland’s MARC trains, Virginia’s VRE commuter rail, and the intercity bus depot that was recently relocated and consolidated at Union Station, D.C.’s grand station could provide multimodal access to the city, the region, and beyond that Grand Central just can’t accommodate. While the arrival of the much-delayed and over-budget East Side Access, which will bring Long Island Rail Road trains into Grand Central, will be a boon to the station and travelers in the region, there is little that can be done to expand subway service under the terminal, and those wishing to take the subway from Grand Central will find cramped underground stations for decades to come. (The planned Second Avenue subway, which should relieve the overcrowded 4/5/6 line that passes under Grand Central, will pass three blocks to the east. If it ever makes it to 42nd Street.)

But the real obstacles to any visionary plan for Union Station are financial and political. Mr. Pearlstein writes:

It speaks to the paucity of our civic imagination, and the small-mindedness of our politics, that simply to describe a project of such ambition is to invite the knowing smirks and raised eyebrows of those who will immediately recognize it as wholly incompatible with the current political and budgetary environment. It’s hard to imagine a project more likely to raise the tea party’s hackles than having federal and state taxpayers borrow billions of dollars to increase subsidized train service in and out of Washington.

In closing, Mr. Pearlstein admonishes: “Nobody thinks we’d be better off today if government had not borrowed the money to build the Beltway, or the subway system or Dulles International Airport. It would be yet another symptom of today’s cramped political vision—and our false notion of economy—if we fail to make a similarly bold investment in the expansion and redevelopment of Union Station.”

I’m reminded of the timeless advice of Daniel Burnham, one of America’s greatest city planners: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.”

America’s capital needs grand plans and the visionary leadership needed to make them happen. And we shouldn’t let money and ideology stand in the way.

Read more
Reimagining Union Station
by Steven Pearlstein
The Washington Post, 12 September 2014


I will note one small error Mr. Pearlstein made in his piece. He writes, “The majestic main concourse was 275 feet long and 120 feet wide, flanked on both ends by grand marble staircases, underneath a massive concave ceiling on which was painted the constellations of the stars.” The main concourse originally had only one marble staircase; the East Staircase, though part of the original plans, was completed in 1998.

I will also note my personal affection for and connection to Union Station: it was where my now wife and I went on our first date in 2007.

Obama administration submits transportation bill to Congress

The White House and Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx (the former mayor of my hometown, Charlotte) have submitted a transportation bill to Congress—a first for the Obama administration, reports Streetsblog USA. Highlights from the four-year proposal include:

  • $206 billion for highway projects and $72 billion for transit projects over the next four years. That’s approximately a 75/25 highway/transit split, an improvement (as I see it) from the current 80/20 split.
  • It would plug the hole in the Highway Trust Fund using corporate tax reform. The U.S. Department of Transportation recently revealed that the trust fund may be out of money as soon as this summer.
  • Rail would receive $19 billion, including nearly $5 billion a year for high-speed rail.

Then there’s this interesting tidbit:

Reporters on the call were most interested in the increased authority the administration seeks for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in investigating and penalizing automakers who fail to act quickly on vehicle recalls. The administration seeks to increase civil penalty limits nearly tenfold, to $300 million, so that they would be “more than a rounding error” in the company’s bottom lines.

I’ll need a little more time to learn about the proposal and gather others’ reactions, but at first blush, though we still have  a ways to go in reforming the nation’s transportation policy, this appears to be a significant step in the right direction.

Read more
Obama Administration Sends Transportation Bill to Congress
by Tanya Snyder
Streetsblog USA, 29 April 2014

Train math

How do I know that I’ve already ridden 986.9 miles (1,588.3 kilometers), or 72%, of Greater New York’s rails? As it turns out, a better question is, how do I know that there are 1,379.9 miles (2,220.7 kilometers) of passenger rail routes in the New York City region in the first place? Because, as I searched for the number, I discovered that no one seemed to know.

So I added it up. Myself.

(And I have an awesome spreadsheet on Google Drive to prove it.)

It was not an easy task. The agencies that operate the rail systems are inconsistent, at best, on what data they provide themselves. From what I can find, both New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority don’t state anywhere on their websites how long their rail systems are.

Link opens in new tab/window
The MTA’s map of the Long Island Rail Road will help explain what I’m talking about in this paragraph.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is considerably better at providing this data online. For example, Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North station pages on MTA.info list how far each station is from Penn Station or Grand Central. With that information, determining the length of each LIRR branch and Metro-North line is a simple exercise in subtracting the distance or milepost of the near station, where each branch breaks off from another on the map, from that of the far station. For instance, I figured that the LIRR’s Port Jefferson Branch is 42.7 miles (68.7 kilometers) long by taking the distance the MTA says the Port Jefferson station is from Manhattan, 59.4 miles, and subtracting the milepost of the Floral Park station, 16.7 miles, where the Hempstead and Port Jefferson branches split. In turn, the Oyster Bay and Ronkonkoma branches split from the Port Jefferson Branch. (I’m very grateful for Google Sheets for helping me keep all this information straight.)

So using the MTA’s website to figure out how many route miles are covered by the LIRR and Metro-North was relatively easy. The length of the New York City Subway and the Staten Island Railway? Not so much.

The New York City Subway has 232 miles of routes, 656 miles of revenue trackage, and 842 total miles of tracks—enough to stretch from here to Chicago. But which number did I need for tracking my own goal?

The problem here is that there are multiple ways to calculate how long the tracks are, and it’s not always clear what method is being used or if that method is consistent with the how the region’s other rail systems are measured in a way that gives me an accurate number. Here’s what I mean. Statistical data available on the MTA’s website states that New York City Transit, with subway lines in four of New York City’s five boroughs, operates 659 miles (1,060.6 kilometers) of tracks. But is that route miles—the lines shown on the subway map—or total trackage? Much of the subway runs over four parallel tracks; in some spots as many as six or even eight. Is that counting the four tracks—two local and two express—that run approximately two miles under Queens Boulevard from the Grand Av-Newtown station to Forest Hills-71 Av as two miles, or as eight miles—two miles for each of the four tracks?

According to the final arbiter of all truth in today’s world, Wikipedia, 659 represents the latter. According to the online encyclopedia’s article on the New York City Subway, the system contains 656 miles (1,056 kilometers) of tracks in revenue service—tracks over which trains carrying fare-paying passengers run—and 842 miles (1,355 kilometers) of tracks if you include tracks in places such as railyards. The lines on the map represent 232 miles (373.4 kilometers) of routes. And that’s the number I’m looking for.

The same goes for the Staten Island Railway. That same statistical page at MTA.info states that it has 29 track miles (46.7 kilometers), but Wikipedia clarifies that the railway’s route from St. George to Tottenville covers 14 miles (22.5 kilometers).

For New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority, I relied upon data reported in the articles for each system on Wikipedia. That means, of course, that the data are subject to change if different, more reliable numbers come to light (or if, regrettably, I made an error in my math).

And even Wikipedia didn’t have all the numbers I was looking for. So a few questions remain, including:

  • What is the distance between Atlantic Terminal and Jamaica on the Long Island Rail Road? No mileage is listed on Atlantic Terminal’s station page. The Wikipedia article on the LIRR’s Atlantic Branch places Atlantic Terminal at 2.0 miles and Jamaica at 11.3—a different mileage than that indicated elsewhere for Jamaica, so I’m not sure what’s correct.
  • What is the length of the Raritan Valley Line? I can’t find a number anywhere, so I made an educated guess based on the fact that its western terminus, High Bridge, is in fare zone 21.
  • What is the length of the Atlantic City Line? I found two articles from The Press of Atlantic City that mentioned a length, but one said it was 64 miles (103 kilometers) and the other said it was 66 miles (106.2 kilometers). After making an arbitrary decision, I’m going with 66 unless someone tells me otherwise.
  • What is the distance between Secaucus Junction and Hoboken—3.5 or 5.0 miles (5.6 or 8.0 kilometers)? I saw both (I’m currently using 5.0 miles).

If anyone can help clarify any of these, I’d really appreciate it.

See the complete data and details on my Google Drive spreadsheet—and please send me additional information or corrections.


Photo
Newark Penn Station.
By Oleg Dulin via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Correcting my number

As it turns out, I had left out about 10 miles (16.1 kilometers) of routes covered by the Long Island Rail Road in my calculations of the total length of the New York City region’s rail network. It appears that the total route miles are 1,379.9 (2,220.7 kilometers). I’ll soon update the original blog post to reflect the more accurate number. And stay tuned for an explanation of how I came up with the aggregate number in the first place.

(Number still subject to change if I get more info, or realize I made another mistake.)

My quest to ride the New York City region’s entire passenger rail network

Those who know me personally and regular readers of this blog already know that I’m a bit of a foamer: I love trains, and riding the rails around North America is a top priority in my bucket list.

I was in eighth grade the first time I rode a subway. My kids? They rode the subway home from the hospital. My son, born in January, has yet to ride in a car.

It wasn’t always this way. The places I lived growing up—the Phoenix area; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Charlotte, which I consider my hometown—certainly had scant transit offerings at the time, and no rail transit to speak of. (Both Charlotte and Phoenix, however, have since opened modest light-rail systems, and each has ambitious transit expansion plans.) I didn’t ride a subway until I was in eighth grade, on a trip to Montréal with my middle-school French class—a far cry from my own children, whose trips home from the hospital were on the subways in their transit-heavy cities of birth, Washington, D.C., and New York City. Rail transportation, and transit in general, was never a part of my everyday life.

Until one day in high school, that is. When I was in tenth grade, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools launched a new board of students, two from each high school, that met with the superintendent on a regular basis and provided a student perspective on issues facing the schools. It was called the Student Advisory Group on Education, or SAGE for short, and it sounded like just the thing I wanted to be involved in. So I applied and was invited to be one of my school’s representatives.

Then came the group’s first meeting, and I had to figure out how to get there. My usual mode of travel—my mom—would be at work. Thinking about my problem, an unusual solution popped into my head one day: what about the bus? I knew that a bus ran from a shopping center up the street from my school, but I knew nothing about taking it. So we made a phone call to the transit system for some information, and ran by the Charlotte Transportation Center, the city’s central transit hub, to pick up a timetable. (Yes, we drove a car to pick up information on taking the bus. Ironic, I know. But you have to start somewhere.) I was ready for my first transit adventure.

It was love at first sight. I felt urbane and grown up and independent. For the first time in my life I was able to get around and explore the city in a way that didn’t involve a vehicle I didn’t have a license to drive—or a chauffeur that, as a teenager, I was becoming a little anxious to get away from. From that moment, transit was my key to independence, and I’ve been a committed rider ever since.

Now I live in New York City, home to what is by far the biggest transit and rail network in the Western Hemisphere and among the largest, most comprehensive, and most complex in the world. A whopping two-thirds of the nation’s daily trips on passenger rail take place  in this region, and an astounding 1.7 billion trips were taken on this city’s subway last year. For a transit and rail fan like me, it is an amazing place to live, and I want to take advantage of it. I want to see it all.

My goal is to ride every mile of passenger rail currently in regular service in the New York City region. Every line, every mile—1,380 miles in all.

So that has become my goal: I will ride every mile of passenger rail currently in regular service in the New York City region. That’s right: every line, every mile—1,379.9 miles (2,220.7 kilometers) in all, by my calculation (a number I reserve the right to adjust if additional information comes to light). With some ground rules in mind (see below), I’ve already come a long way toward achieving my goal—I’m almost three-quarters of the way there, if my math is correct. I don’t necessarily have much to show for my progress; aside from photos taken haphazardly, I’ve not done much to document my efforts, and I certainly haven’t held on to tickets or other memorabilia. I have the memories, and in the end, that’s what counts.

I stand with my daughter, sleeping in her stroller, and the Metro-North train that took us to the end of the Hudson Line in Poughkeepsie, New York, on 22 October 2011. My daughter had just turned 1 a few months earlier.
I stand with my daughter, sleeping in her stroller, and the Metro-North train that took us to the end of the Hudson Line in Poughkeepsie, New York, on 22 October 2011. My daughter had just turned 1 a few months earlier.

But now that I’ve gone public with this goal, I figure I might as well document my rail adventures a little more. So over the coming weeks and months, look for posts and photos detailing my travels here on my blog as well as my social-media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Oh, and one last thing: I’m bringing my daughter along for the ride. She seems to love trains just as much as I do. Her favorite is the Long Island Rail Road; she’s constantly asking me if we can ride the “Wong Wong Iswand Wail Woad” (she doubles the “Long” in the LIRR’s name for some reason). She’s been there for almost all of what I’ve accomplished of my goal so far, and she should be there for the rest. I’ll need company for the hours I’ll be spending on Greater New York’s trains, and I can’t think of anyone I’d rather spend the time with.

Ground rules
For the purposes of this goal, I will ride the entire rail networks owned and/or operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (the New York City Subway, the Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North, and the Staten Island Railway), New Jersey Transit (its 11 commuter lines as well as Hudson-Bergen, Newark, and River Line light rail), and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PATH as well as the AirTrain at JFK and Newark airports). That means route miles: all the lines on the system map, not necessarily all the actual tracks on the ground, and not necessarily both ways (though that’s how it will work in many instances). So, for example, when it comes to riding the A/C/E trains of the New York City Subway, it means traveling that entire blue line on the subway map from Inwood, Manhattan, to Far Rockaway, Queens, as well the short spur to Lefferts Boulevard/Ozone Park. Even though rush-hour A trains run to and from Rockaway Park, riding the Rockaway Park shuttle counts, and I don’t need to ride the C train separately, or set foot in the two intermediate stations, at 104th and 111th streets, on the Lefferts Boulevard spur. I don’t need to ride the E, F, M, and R trains separately under Queens Boulevard (though, by this point, I probably have), and I don’t have to ride the entire length of the line all at once.

Update | 11 April 2014
This post was updated to reflect a correction I made in the total number of route miles covered by the New York City region’s rail network.