Amtrak has built some humdingers of depressing rail stations over its forty year history. Compare the current Cleveland, Ohio shed where passengers now alight, compared to the glorious Terminal Tower. Recently, I switched trains at Springfield, Massachusetts. A grim 1970s box with plastic seats sat opposite the tracks from the mothballed 1926 Boston and Albany station (which will receive a $75 million restoration this year – so much luckier than its demolished cousins). It was the 1970s, the railroads were starved and Amtrak was charged with keeping rail going after an era of decline and cheap gas. Rail said old. Airports were looked to as a source of analogous design. Deteriorating historic rail structures were demolished in favor of parking lots or commercial development. The historic preservation movement was still ramping up their message.
Gas prices aren’t coming down again and airlines trim away service to even large cities, prompting new interest and expanded rail service. Last year, Brunswick and Freeport, Maine and Norfolk, Virginia all regained rail. At the same time, the local train station, if it still survives, has become once again a symbol of local meaning, of heritage, of craftsmanship, and of its potential for local economic revitalization. Whether it still receives service or has become a restaurant or theater, it’s a good time for railroad stations. Perhaps as an act of contrition and redemption for their soulless 1970s waiting room boxes, Amtrak has launched the Great American Stations project. The website offers towns information on how to begin a station renewal project, including historic preservation, fundraising, and design resources. It’s good for Amtrak because they get local assistance renovating a station. But it’s good for the community as they turn an abandoned building into a showpiece and get an added boost for their area – see this case study on economic revitalization around a station restoration project in Hattiesburg, MS.
There is an interactive map where you can click on a station and read about its design and use. The writing about each station is sometimes forcedly cheerful. The dreadfully utilitarian 1987 Stamford, CT station is described “The building’s boxy, hard appearance is broken by a series of dramatic cross braces that form large two-story “X” figures over the glass walls of the waiting room. A bold red stripe wraps around the access towers, bringing a punch of color to an otherwise gray color palate.” Yahoo. The map also needs to keep up with Amtrak expansion – Norfolk, Brunswick, and Freeport do not yet appear on the interactive map.
The era of the Amtrak box is over. Here’s a neat statistic: Amtrak has 170 working rail stations on the National Register of Historic Places. I wish all American station buildings were on this website, but only those actively served or owned by Amtrak. Check out the Leave No Station Unphotographed project at SubwayNut.com.