Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Amtrak wants 7 billion dollar overhaul of Washington Union Station


Amtrak is proposing a $7 billion transformation of Union Station, intended to triple passenger capacity and transform the overcrowded station into a high-speed rail hub for the Northeast.
The plan, to be unveiled Wednesday afternoon, calls for doubling the number of trains the station can accommodate and improving the passenger experience at what is the second-busiest Amtrak station in the country, with 100,000 passenger trips per day.
The building’s corridors, concourses and platforms — many dating to the station’s 1907 opening — are regularly jammed during rush hour and major tourist events. The station’s overcrowded tracks hinder Amtrak and regional train operators from adding new trains despite growing demand.
But what the proposal lacks is a vision for financing the plan, which even in stages probably would require huge government funding commitments.
Joseph H. Boardman, Amtrak president and chief executive, said in an interview that the rail line is reimagining what it will take to make rail a vital, viable part of the region’s transportation infrastructure.
“The problem that we have is that we’ve got a lack of balance and investment in a mode that moves a lot of people, that is an environmentally responsible mode, and that changes the way that people are going to be able to travel in the future with the technology that is available today,” Boardman said.
Much of Union Station’s expansion would come below ground, where Amtrak plans to add new platforms, tracks and shopping, all of which would enjoy natural light from a 50-foot-wide, 100-foot-long glass-encased main concourse.
Six tracks dedicated to high-speed rail would be added. The high-speed lines could mean travel times as short as 94 minutes to New York City’s Penn Station by 2030 — that’s 66 minutes faster than today’s Acela trains.
District-based developer Akridge also plans a $1.5 billion complex of offices, residential towers and a hotel. The development, to be constructed on a deck built over the tracks behind Union Station, would link Capitol Hill to the NoMa neighborhood.
Dubbed Burnham Place after Union Station architect Daniel Burnham, the 3-million-square-foot project would include a rebuilt H Street bridge and an expanded street grid that would welcome pedestrians to a large new northern entrance to the station. Pedestrian access would be added on all sides of Union Station.
At this point, someone really needs to call OSHA and have an investigation launched into the water supply of Amtrak's headquarters to find out whatever it is causing mass insanity amongst Amtrak's corporate staff.

There is literally no excuse for such an absurdly over expensive plan; not one single excuse for this monstrosity.

Does there need to be work done? I don't doubt that, even with the best planners on Earth, that some degree of overhaul wouldn't be necessary in order to handle future growth. But seven billion dollars for six tracks? The Transbay Terminal in San Francisco is only pegged at $4.2 billion for a brand new underground facility with six tracks, a 1.3 mile rail tunnel, bus depot, and assorted other goodies. Stuttgart 21, in Germany, is €4.8 billion for "60km of new tracks, a six mile twin-tube tunnel", and eight underground tracks. So how in the world does Amtrak manage to screw this up so badly that that they inflate the cost to $7 billion and say it with a straight face? They're even managing to screw up the future by dedicating these tracks solely to high speed rail, with no increase in capacity for current operations. Washington is the southern terminus of the NEC, there is no justification for Regionals, MARC, VRE, and HSR not sharing the same platforms. In fact, I'm fairly certain there's no capacity justification for more tracks. Amtrak, VRE, and MARC have 14 trains per hour arriving at Union Station during the peak hours. Now, admittedly, I was not a math major, but I'm fairly certain that with 18 platforms and 20 tracks, Washington is not only capable of handling current traffic without problems but handling major increases in service; increases that would, in all likelihood, probably be outside of peak hours.

Now, the development on top of the station is certainly a good thing and I'm all for that, as long as the architect has all hopes and dreams of creativity firmly crushed (Washington seems to magnify already existing trends towards aesthetic insanity in art and architecture). Every new station and every rebuilt station, both commuter and intercity, should be designed with transit oriented development in, on, and around it, preferably in such a way as to enhance off-peak and reverse traffic.

As a final consideration: This station overhaul represents 14% of Amtrak's anticipated spending for NextGen HSR between Washington D.C. and New York City. Combined with the ten billion dollar tunnel in Philadelphia, at least a third of Amtrak's NextGen HSR plan between Washington D.C. and New York City is composed of utterly pointless projects that simply waste money.


  1. Fukutoshin line: 9km bored subway, 8 new stations (with express bypass tracks) in very challenging and expensive locations (including an extremely large [completely underground] 4-track station in shibuya): $2.5 billion

    Hmm, it would be interesting to see some breakdown of the cost...

  2. It seems Amtrak is proposing to build essentially a Stuttgart 21-style station within the current Union Station. According to this document the new station for Stuttgart will cost about $2.5 billion, including the tunnels through the city.

    So - assuming the $7 billion estimate includes the $1.5bn office complex, this projects costs are entirely in line with the general rule that public transportation infrastructure costs twice as much in the USA as in Europe. This is not a good thing, but it isn't an Amtrak thing either.

  3. Amtrak's proposal is definitely atrociously expensive. But don't attack it for what it isn't.

    "So how in the world does Amtrak manage to screw this up so badly that that they inflate the cost to $7 billion and say it with a straight face? They're even managing to screw up the future by dedicating these tracks solely to high speed rail"

    Phases 1-3 include tracks for all current rail services - Amtrak Regionals and Acela, MARC and VRE. There is a separate Phase 4 dedicated to Next-Gen HSR that will be on a future lower-level. Amtrak has not dared give a cost estimate for this phase, presumably because of how expensive a tunnel from the Anacostia River to Union Station (and, eventually, then south to VA) will be.

    FYI, the $6.5-$7.5 billion explicitly excludes the office complex, that's an additional $1.5-$2 billion in development costs

  4. Yup, it appears that the original WaPo article got it wrong, and that the $7 billion doesn't actually pay for the 6 HSR tracks. Looks like the majority is going to burying parking garages, redoing tracks (there are no numbers for track lengths, but there's a diagram on page 10) to improve their "geometry" and length, adding stub ends, and adding glitzy glass (atrium and concourses to hold all of the people until they're marched half a mile to their trains, I guess?) and green stuff outside.

    The idea that Amtrak lacks pedestrian circulation capacity is especially rich, considering how much space there is between the waiting trains themselves and the areas where Amtrak corrals you until it's ready to let you onto the platform. It's a pretty long walk, as far as these things go (longer than even New York Penn's Amtrak holding pen BS).

  5. I would suggest building a secondary station in DC for the through services. A station at the Minnesota Ave metro stop could be constructed quickly and relatively cheaply, even with great architecture. You'd have to reroute a freeway, but there seems to be land available.

    Northeast Regionals and trains from the South/Midwest would stop there instead of Union, while Union Station itself would be reserved for commuter services, premium Northeast Corridor services, and the Capitol Limited/Vermonter.

  6. I don't understand why there needs to be additional platforms installed as it is.

    18 platforms should be able to support 36+ trains per hour.

    Please don't tell me they are using them for carriage stabling... can someone not buy them a nice field somewhere next to the line outside Washington, it can't be that expensive even if they have to extend electrification south into Virginia to reach it.

    1. I used to ride by Union Station every day on the Metro Red Line, and MARC indeed uses several tracks at the station to store equipment.


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