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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Shrinking Horizons and the Devolution of American Rail Transit




As I usually do at Christmas, I took the Amtrak Lincoln train to St. Louis to visit my family. I usually enjoy the ride even when the train is substantially delayed, for even though Amtrak service and amenities are very basic, they compare favorably with air travel in comfort and decency. After my last plane trip to St. Louis in 2005, a red-eye out of Midway, where I was subjected to vicious incivility usually experienced only at an open-seating rock concert, I decided I'd had enough of the savagery of modern air travel and reverted to travelling by Amtrak.

Amtrak service, while not luxurious by any standard, is still extremly comfortable relative to air travel, offering ample leg room, wide, deep seats,the opportunity to get up and walk around, and the freedom to enjoy my electronic devices at will along with an outlet at the seat to plug them into without fear that they'll somehow derange the landing gear or radar. Additionally, the atmosphere is relaxed and the personnel are genial and courteous. The only downside, really, is that it is just too slow, taking 5.5 hours minimum to travel between Chicago and St. Louis, and long delays of 30 minutes or more are distressingly frequent. Everytime I ride, I consider that there were once about a dozen interurban trains traveling between these two cities, and that in the 1920s, speeds of 100MPH were ordinary for passengers trains in the U.S., whose passenger rail system was the envy of the world. Nevertheless, I usually enjoy the trip, and settle into my seat with my music collection, headphones, and a book for the ride.

But the arrival in St. Louis is a distinct downer, and I get just a little depressed as the train rolls into its pocket at the new station downtown. Often, I ride to the charming old commuter station in Kirkwood, which is so close to my mother's house that in fine weather I can walk there, but the layover between St. Louis and the last leg to the Kirkwood Station has been lengthened to two hours, and I can think of better uses for that much time than milling around at the ugly new station, staring at the dismal scenery surrounding it and wondering why we let our cities, and our country, be reduced to this.

Nothing illustrates the devolution of rail transit in the United States like the contrast between the magnificent old Union Station at Market and 18th Streets in St. Louis (pictured at top), and St. Louis' new Gateway Multimodal Transportation Station, a bizarrely configured series of small, boxy segments jammed underneath a tangle of highway overpasses on 15th Street.

While old Union Station, built in the 1890s when St. Louis was the largest rail hub in the world, sits proudly on Market Street opposite beautiful Aloe Plaza with its incredible Carl Milles fountain, affording the rail travelers of the past an imposing view of the city, and grand welcome; the new station, with its two platforms and four pockets for passenger trains, is hidden away in a desolate pocket in downtown's neglected backyard. As you exit the station, the sight that greets you is not a lovely park with sweeping views of the city's skyline, but a dank, dark parking lot under the tangle of highway ramps and support pylons, the USPS parking lot across the street, and a jumble of weed-choked vacant lots and decrepit buildings, from where you can get a glimpse of Union Station's clock tower to the north and west, and your first thought is: why was $31 Million spent on this ugly jumble of buildings that will surely be inadequate to the needs of revived rail in the future, while the magnificent old building on Market Street sits underutilized, as a floundering shopping mall?

Where was the vision here? While rail travelers visiting the city are dumped into this ugly pocket in the city's service alley, Union Station's beautiful mall, which underwent a second renovation in 2007, is languishing, and continuing to lose traffic and retail tenants. The area surrounding the station is thinly populated, and poorly anchored by St. Louis' moribund downtown business district. Basing Amtrack service at Union Station would not only revive the lovely old structure as a rail station that could accomodate vastly expanded passenger rail in the future, but would present the city in its best light to visitors and would feed traffic to the hotel and shopping mall, while providing an impetus to further residential and commercial development in the immediate area.

This sad place is not only indicative of our lack of commitment to rebuilding our transportation system in keeping with the reality of dwindling fuel supplies, but most of all, illustrates the shrinking of our vision of the future and our acquiescence to increasing failure and dysfunction.