Trains and Stations

January 10, 2004


The final thing I learned on my trip to the AHA was something I should have known: following 9/11 30th Street Station in Philadelphia lost its parking. I was running late and chose to drive in rather than taking a commuter line and then a subway. Half the time I saved by driving was spent looking for parking. I finally went to a garage, after realizing that I had mis-read their prices the first time and they were only expensive instead of being unconscionable. After that the train ride was easy.

I like the old train stations. Both 30th-Street in Philadelphia and Union Station in Washington DC are marble temples of transportation. They have the high vaulted ceilings, the artwork and moldings. They show layers of different uses as the buildings were adopted from steam to diesel and electric, and the spaces were adopted from Victorian to modern business.

Union station is cleaner than 30th street. The walls are more polished, the light is brighter. It is also more finished - there is a food court and some yuppie shops. The space has been gentrified - I don't know if it is used by commuters, or tourists, or folks who work in the local buildings, but it feels like a mall only with trains instead of anchor stores, and great vaulted marble ceilings instead of a box in the middle of an asphalt moat.

30th street is, while less pretty, more impressive. The main hall at 30th street is still used entirely for trains - it is a big open space. At one end of the space there is a WWI memorial to the employees of the Pennsylvania Railroad who died in that war. It is an impressive statue, a great tall grey-black winged angel ascending into heaven while holding a dead soldier. In its space at one end of the hall, framed by the marble, it is, not a memento mori, but a reminder of the sacred as it looms over people going about their daily business.

30th Street is an early 20th-century building, but in many ways it looks back to the Victorian era. It certainly falls within the long nineteenth century. Trains are sexy, and nostalgic, and romantic. They are falling out of favor in the US as trucks and planes and barges take the traffic from them. American trains never focused much on passenger traffic, and outside of the Northeast corridor Amtrak is mostly a money-losing tourist trap. One of the good things about living in the corridor is that I can, by foot and rail, get from my house to every city center from Boston to Washington, and nap along the way. (Well, I drive the mile to the commuter rail station, but I could walk it if I wanted to.)

And so to write.

Posted by Red Ted at January 10, 2004 11:00 AM | TrackBack