Union Station isn’t as exciting as it used to be. But as DC lives with the monumental landmark through the next few years, Union Station will undergo a 15 to 20 year Master Plan to triple capacity, improve the building and its transit, and probably a bunch of stuff we don’t even know about yet.
Now, when I first visited Union Station back in junior high, I remember standing in the Great Hall and craning my head upward to see the expanse of barrel-vaulted ceiling. I thought it was the most beautiful, majestic, historic building I’d seen yet. I didn’t even think about the trains; standing in the Great Hall was enough to convince me that DC was the place for me. The high ceilings with statues of historical figures, the echoing footsteps, oh, and the Godiva store (decadent!) had me sold.
Then I grew up. These days, if I have to be inside it at all, I try to make it though the station as quickly as possible. I sneer at the snaking line outside the Starbucks. I cluck when I notice which local shop has been put out of business by which international chain (not you, Pret a Manger, you’re the best). I stay away from the food court in the basement if I can, though on National Free Cone Day, I line up at Ben and Jerry’s like everyone else.
Union Station started out as such a grand place, in my mind and back in 1907, when it opened. Then it was a solution rather than a problem. It represented the “union” of two competing railroads, which kept train traffic organized and off the surface of the city (and the Mall). Now it serves mostly as a commuter hub, but without any bombast or grandeur. It’s tough to be proud of prohibitive Amtrak prices.
So why would I be resistant to improvement? Could improvement be worth the years of construction DC will suffer through? And we know that construction won’t be quick. The road in Columbus Circle rattled the teeth of drivers for months, and that was just the boulevard out front. By 2030, will we have the wherewithal to make trains a viable form of transportation again?
It would have some of my favorite features in a public facility: high ceilings, green space… green space on the roof (green roof, so European right now). Added train tracks and space for commuters would come to $7 billion. What I’m afraid of, even marveling and impressed as I am at the beauteous new plan, is a lugubrious slow-starter, like the road in Columbus Circle. Maybe someone drilled up the road planning to do something better, but it’s been left that way so long, I’m not sure it’ll ever be fixed.
The answer lies with Amtrak. If their trains can make train travel a viable way to get from A to B, then yes, Union Station will be this grand new terminus. But if they can’t persuade Americans to travel by train again (no turbulence and you can keep your shoes on), then Union Station may end up half-finished.