Improving Amtrak’s Washington Union Station

Improving Amtrak's Washington Union Station 1
Washington Union Station Concourse Modernization Project. AMTRAK photo.

The Passenger Concourse Modernization Project: First step of Washington Union Station’s 2nd Century Plan

By Matt Martella

Union Station has served Washington DC since it was built in 1908.
Union Station has served Washington DC since it was built in 1908.

Union Station in Washington DC has been an essential part of the area’s transportation system for over a century, but now its in vital need of modernization.

The station was built by the US Government in 1908 and has weathered many eras of ups and downs, with many restorations and several major projects changing the look and adding to capacity.

At one point in 1976, Union Station almost became the United State’s National Visitor Center but plans changed and that never happened.  The venerable building also suffered earthquake damage to its ornate ceilings during a 2011 event.

Beyond its Capacity

More than 37 million people pass through Washington Union Station each year, making it one of the busiest intercity and commuter rail stations on the East Coast. Union Station is operating regularly beyond its capacity, making expansion necessary now more than ever before.

The 2nd Century plan is a comprehensive improvement initiative that aims to triple passenger capacity and double train capacity over the next 20 years. Additionally, the Clayton Concourse will be doubled in its capacity. The Concourse Station project has been in the works since 2015 and is officially set to begin construction this year. Amtrak has set the completion of the project for 2023.

This modernization project is run by AMTRAK. The company has massive goals for this project, specifically saying, “The Claytor Concourse, Union Station’s intercity and commuter concourse, will be modernized and reconfigured to alleviate congested conditions, doubling its present capacity.

Improving Amtrak's Washington Union Station 2
Club Acela in Washington Union Station. AMTRAK photo.

 

“The Concourse Expansion Program will enhance passenger comfort and accessibility while enlivening the space with new architectural finishes and natural light. Improvements by WMATA for a new Metrorail staircase and new First Street entrance will bring a consolidated set of passenger improvements to the western portion of the concourse.”

Overwhelming Crowds 

The project will help mitigate overwhelming crowds and increase passenger comfort, space, and accessibility. Improvements to architectural design will be made to modernize the station and increase natural lighting.

The program’s architectural undertaking will “set the new foundation for the complete transformation of the complex into a world-class station befitting of the Nation’s Capital.” The Concourse Modernization Project is just one step in a grander design to redefine the customer experience on the Northeast Corridor, paving the way for the future of railway stations in the United States.

With nearly double the size of the Washington Union Station comes the opportunity to include even more additions and luxuries to the station. These new amenities include better passenger security, new restrooms, greater accessibility for customers with disabilities, a new expanded Metropolitan Lounge, additional seating areas with electrical outlets, and improved passenger boarding gates.

A large crowd at Union Station. AMTRAK photo.
A large crowd at Union Station. AMTRAK photo.

New Food and Priority Boarding Areas

The new Metropolitan lounge will include priority boarding, expanded food, and beverage offerings, dedicated customer service agents, private restrooms, and complimentary Wi-Fi.

The passenger boarding gates will be an especially welcomed sight for frequent users of the Washington Union Station. The Station has been criticized for having long, snaking lines that leave passengers confused as to which line leads to which train.

The Passenger Concourse Modernization Project comes at a very crucial time both for the region and for the railway business.

NoMa Neighborhood Boom Time

The communities around the concourse have experienced a recent economic boom. The NoMa neighborhood to the north of the train station has received new commercial and residential developments, while Capitol Crossing to the west is constructing three new city blocs and H Street NE to the east has recently enjoyed great commercial success.

The Passenger Concourse Modernization project will also include significant renovations to the Metro, which is the Washington DC subway.

These renovations will include a new stairway that connects the metro to the concourse, an expansion of the fare gate area, and a new entrance from First Street NE. Union Station is the busiest entry point in the metro, gathering more than 28,000 passengers daily via bus, commuter rail, or inner-city rail.

Adding More Tracks?

The new developments to Washington Union Station have provoked discussions of expanding rail capacity over the Potomac River to become more serious. These plans would include adding more tracks to the two-track Long Bridge to increase the number of passengers that can go back and forth over the Potomac River.

Another set of new tracks will allow “through service” between Virginia and Maryland. This will allow Virginia trains to continue north of Union Station into Maryland, and Maryland trains can continue further south over the Potomac River.

Exciting times are ahead for the future of the railway business in the Maryland/Virginia area. The new projects set by AMTRAK to expand and modernize Washington Union Station are completely necessary if the Station wants to profit from these potential new endeavors. The current station, although historic, is showing its age, especially with passenger dissatisfaction at poor train boarding systems.

Concourse Union Station. AMTRAK photo.
Concourse Union Station. AMTRAK photo.

AMTRAK is now the top railroad service in the United States with stops in over 500 destinations in the US and Canada and 21,000 network route miles in train tracks.

However, Virgin Trains USA has massive plans of its own, including a planned rail line connecting Las Vegas to Southern California and an extension of their rail line in Florida connecting Miami and Fort Lauderdale to Orlando.

Two More Projects

To make way for the full concourse expansion, AMTRAK has two additional projects underway: HVAC and the relocation of the Amtrak Police Department space.

AMTRAK is working in coordination with the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation, WMATA, District Department of Transportation, Maryland Transit Administration, VRE, and Federal Railroad Administration.

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