New train station site is needed, and only 1
If you’ve ever felt a tinge of embarrassment at greeting an Amtrak visitor at our shabby rail station gateway, you can relate to this story by architectural historian Calder Loth.
“I had a visitor from Russia one time, and she was going to come down from New York,” Loth recalled. “I said I was going to meet her at the station.”
The visitor, unaware of the modest dimensions of Staples Mill Station in Henrico County, asked Loth: “How will I find you?” He advised her that she needn’t worry.
Upon meeting her at the station, Loth said he hustled her into his car “and rode her down Monument Avenue to try to regain her sense of aesthetics.”
Having recently traveled via Staples Mill Station — and stepped outdoors to use its upscale portable bathroom because of construction inside — I understand Loth’s impulse. In Henrico, we have one of the busiest and homeliest Amtrak stations in the South.
In Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom, we have a stately, Victoria-era train station with a signature clock
tower situated on a route that would require expensive upgrades and possibly a new bridge over the James River for higherspeed rail.
The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation recommends new platforms and a parking deck at Main Street Station and a new station building, parking and platforms at Staples Mill Road Station. At a public hearing Tuesday, several speakers generally supported the idea of two full-service stations.
I don’t get it.
If major cities along the Eastern Seaboard can get by with one Amtrak station, why — beyond our region’s usual jurisdictional and political gamesmanship — does metro Richmond need two?
As a Hanover County resident, I can drive to North Boulevard as quickly as I can travel to Staples Mill Station. Chesterfield and South Richmond residents might fare even better. A proposed North Boulevard train station site sits between the other stations.
The association that represents the Boulevard and neighboring Scott’s Addition is positioning this area to be the site of a commuter rail station on the Boulevard, as proposed by former Virginia Commonwealth University President Eugene Trani and former state Sen. John C. Watkins.
I can understand wanting to salvage Main Street Station as a viable railroad station. Beyond the amount of investment in attaining that goal, we’re talking a lot of history.
Where railroad stations were concerned, Richmond once had an embarrassment of riches: the architectural gems of Main Street Station (1901) and Broad Street Station (now the Science Museum of Virginia, built in 1917), both on the National Register of Historic Places. Both were built when rail was the nation’s primary mode of transportation, before being supplanted by automobiles, buses and airplanes.
“They were gateways to the city,” Loth said of ornate train stations nationwide. “It was your first impression, and it became a great tradition to make them important.”
I thought Loth, retired from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, would be all-in for the re-establishment of Main Street Station as the main rail depot of the region. But he thinks the proposed train station on North Boulevard is a great idea.
He acknowledges that there will be pushback from supporters of the Staples Mill and Main Street stations, “but if you really want to serve the public, that is the best way to do it.”
“I wish Main Street Station were more accommodating,” he said, “but it just doesn’t serve well the main (rail) traffic coming through Richmond, which is the North-South line.”
For some, Main Street Station embodies the long-standing misgivings about Shockoe Bottom that made folks leery about building a ballpark there — its proximity to slave trade history, its relative congestion, its spasms of violent crime. Perhaps the upgrades, or the presence of The Pulse bus rapid transit, would be a game changer. But for now, the site does not seem user-friendly.
Yes, we’ve sunk a lot of money into Main Street Station (though the elaborate train shed renovation was subsidized mainly by federal and state dollars). But an awful lot more will be required to bring the station up to snuff for higher-speed rail. This project has the familiar whiff of the Richmond long shot that inevitably throws good money after bad.
I don’t say this lightly. I’m a sucker for grand old train stations. Weary of the usual slog of a drive up Interstate 95, I’ve been traveling Amtrak more often to Washington’s Union Station and Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.
Their relative grandeur made Staples Mill Station feel even shabbier. We can build a new building on Staples Mill, but the environs will remain underwhelming.
As for Main Street Station, it’s nice having a rail depot in the heart of town, but how many of us have actually used it?
Part of the reason both of our grand railroad stations failed is because declining rail traveler traffic rendered these large spaces impractical. Main Street Station is a lovely building, but find another use for the building and the glittering renovated shed, which as a retail site would never receive enough travelers to be sustaining. The shed — an event space in a city with a glut of them — symbolizes the folly of pursuing this course.
Our railroad station belongs in the region’s hub. But Main Street Station’s heyday as a train station cannot be replicated. For Richmond or Henrico to cling to either or both of these flawed sites seems stubborn.
We need a gateway that’s both aesthetically pleasing and practical. We don’t need two train stations. A fresh start on the Boulevard might put us on the right track.