Genius or insane? Amtrak's $7 billion plan to remake D.C.'s Union Station

Should we invest billions in the train station of the future?

Image courtesy of Amtrak.

Somewhere in Washington, Joe Biden is grinning. Union Station, the landmark train station he passed through each evening on his storied trips home from Washington, D.C., is about to get a facelift.

On Wednesday, Amtrak announced plans for a $7 billion upgrade of Union Station, the nation's second-busiest rail hub. Built in 1907, Union Station was once one of the pre-eminent transit centers in the world. With 100,000 daily riders, today the station is "close to the limits of its practical capacity," Amtrak said.

The $7 billion renovation will not only magnify the number of trains that can enter and leave the station each day, it will also pave the way for faster, more enjoyable rail journeys in and out of the Washington area.

“It is a state-of-the-art design that they are bringing in,” Victor Hoskins, D.C. deputy mayor for planning and economic development, told the Washington Post. “It’s going to allow for light and air and flow in the train station like never before.”

The heart of the plan includes the construction of a giant glass train shed, not unlike the one currently being used in Berlin's Central Station. This, along with additional tracks, will allow Union Station to comfortably accomodate two times as many trains and three times as many passengers as it does today, Amtrak said.

Photo courtesy of Amtrak.

In addition to expanded capacity, the new station will pave the way for high-speed travel between Washington, D.C., and New York. Today, the journey takes 2 hours and 42 minutes on the Acela. Riding on one of the six high-speed rail lines that are included in the Union Station expansion, that trip will take just 94 minutes.

Other key components of the project include expanded waiting rooms, shopping facilities, and parking; hotel and office rentals; and a High Line-like greenway.

Photo courtesy of Amtrak.

While ambitious, not everyone was pleased with Wednesday's announcement. On Friday, Slate correspondent Matthew Yglesias called the plan's price tag "insane":

As a Washington resident, I'd obviously be thrilled with someone giving Amtrak the money to waste on this. But it's an amazingly costly project. In the project text they compare it to Berlin Haupbanhof, which only cost 700 million euros, and to St. Pancras in London, which cost 800 million pounds. Why should it cost many multiples of that to renovate a train station in America?

One explanation might be that the Union Station proposal was conceived to be equal parts urban renewal project and transportation hub. Rather than other train stations around the world, a more apt comparison would be to the $4 billion recently invested in downtown Phoenix, Arizona, or Stapleton, the neighborhood built on top of a demolished airport in Denver, Colorado.

The real question, however, is where the $7 billion will come from. Will the Union Station upgrade be a public-private partnership, like downtown Phoenix, or will it come out of public coffers?


Correction: This article initially stated that Amtrak's operating costs are covered by the federal budget. Today, the majority of Amtrak's operating costs are covered by ticket sales.

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