St. Louis’ Gateway Transportation Center is quite new. It was completed in 2008. It has four tracks, a dozen Greyhound bus bays, and connections with Metrolink and the St. Louis bus system. It’s a step up from the modular Amshack that previously inhabited the site. It won an award. But that doesn’t mean it’s very good.
Indeed, it’s crammed into some residual space under the I-64 viaduct. It’s a better entry to the city than what Cleveland still has (of course, Cleveland only gets its Amtrak trains at 2 AM), but it doesn’t hold a candle to St. Louis Union Station, a couple of blocks to the west.
That said, St. Louis Union Station — formerly a 42-track stub terminal — doesn’t match modern passenger rail needs particularly well, either. When the station was built, it was a true terminal: you could catch a train there in any direction, but all of the two dozen or so railroads that went to St. Louis either began or ended there. If you wanted to go from Kansas City to Indianapolis, say, you had to change trains at St. Louis: nobody ran one straight through.
The biggest problem with Gateway, though, is that it’s much like Providence station. There, the station was built to handle 1980s traffic; it’s already become congested as traffic volumes along the Northeast Corridor have risen. Here, too, the station was built around mid-2000s traffic — the facilities are extremely undersized for even modest traffic growth.
And St. Louis, which once had some two dozen railroads servicing it, is well-placed for more than just “modest” traffic growth. If even regular hourly or semi-hourly service to Chicago and Kansas City would overwhelm Gateway’s current facilities, then what would 4-train-a-day service to Little Rock do? Or new service to Indianapolis? Louisville? Oklahoma City? A dozen major destinations lie between 200 and 500 miles from St. Louis, and Amtrak currently only offers service to a quarter of them. St. Louis as intercity corridor hub demands a larger facility. And that’s without investigating the potential for commuter rail in the St. Louis region! (Clearly, with two dozen major railroads accessing the city, the opportunities for commuter service throughout the region are extensive.)
The First Problem
Buses can access most points in downtown St. Louis. Trains can’t. Even constructed as a run-through station, there are only so many places where a major intercity station can be built, simply because there are only so many places where adequate station boxes can be provided.
It’s arguable that American intercity rail is so skeletal that it’s difficult to get a good sense of how large a station box at a 12-route nexus ought to be. This is only partly true — actually, there are a number of former stations, some still in use, scattered around the country. Buffalo Central Terminal, currently abandoned, had 14 tracks — but was noted for being too large for its traffic. Detroit’s Michigan Central Station, also abandoned, had 10 or 11 tracks, while Toledo’s Central Union Terminal — still in use — had 12 tracks historically and has 5 tracks today. Fort Wayne’s Baker Street Station’s box is in a condition that can charitably be called “decrepit” (seriously, Michigan Central’s box is in better condition), but it appears it historically hosted six tracks. Indianapolis Union Station had 12 tracks. Baltimore Penn has 8 tracks. And so on.
Generally speaking, a station track requires platform space of equivalent width (by loading gauge) to board and deboard. That is, if the track has a loading gauge of 15 feet, then 15 feet of platform width is required. The Association of American Railroad (ARRA)’s loading gauge is 10’8″; this suggests the platform width per track also needs to be 10’8″. We can then simplify by rounding to 11′; this yields a per-track platform width of 11’4. (We can see this in action at the current Gateway transportation center, where two tracks and the platform servicing them is a total of 44′ wide.) The upshot of this is that the station box needs to be between 132′ (6 tracks) and 264′ (12 tracks) wide.
There are six such sites available in St. Louis.
- The first site is, of course, the former Union Station box. The idea here would be to rip out the failing urban mall in the trainshed and convert it into a new station facility; another possibility would be to use the umbrella-platform annex to the west as the main facility. The stub nature of this box, however, is a significant detriment.
- The second site is the current Gateway box. This site is relatively narrow, bordering I-64 to the north and a Terminal Railroad Association (TRRA) yard to the south. This suggests it is expandable, but any such expansion would have to involve moving TRRA tracks around.
- A third possibility would be a transverse underground station box as part of a Union Station redevelopment (to replace the failing mall etc.). Redevelopment on the trainshed’s east side renders this difficult, as buildings stand where the throat would need to be.
- A large parking lot lies between the TRRA tracks and Busch Stadium. Using this space for a major train station is tantalizing, but it is also psychologically the furthest from downtown and has the poorest connection with Metrolink. It is also close to the end of the MacArthur Bridge approach.
- Gateway Park itself certainly has room to host a station within its limits. A station between the Arch and the Eads Bridge has excellent access to Metrolink here, and of course the station entrance would be one of the country’s most unique, evoking Chicago’s Millennium Station and not much else. The problem with this site, though, is that there is no good access to it from the MacArthur Bridge, forcing any traffic into Illinois across the Merchants Bridge.
- Finally, there’s the Edward Jones Dome. The Rams recently vacated the space, moving to Los Angeles, and while a major station would be an interesting use of a 20-year-old arena, and be convenient to the busiest part of downtown St. Louis, such a facility would also have to be stub-tracked with no connection to the MacArthur Bridge at all.
For this discussion, I’m focusing on improving facilities around the current Gateway site.
Gateway: The Challenge of Building Under a Bridge
Clearly, the dominant feature of the Gateway site is I-64. It sets roof heights between Poplar Street and the station box. The escalator ramp needed to solve this clearance challenge renders part of the station box unusable (part of why Gateway currently only has four tracks rather than six). And, for as much of an improvement as it offers, Gateway still feels less like a proper city entrance and more like something crammed under the Interstate. Which is, of course, exactly what it is.
But there is a difference between having your design fight your site and having it work with your site. Gateway’s design ultimately fails because it fights its site at every turn. It tries its level best to ignore the Interstate until it can’t anymore, and — partly because of that fight — runs its bus dock up the site’s north side, keeping the station from truly opening into the city.
The thing is, building under a bridge is a solved challenge. It’s not uncommon to find the spaces under European railroad viaducts let to vendors, and the base of the Queensboro Bridge is home to a supermarket. If you let it, the I-64 viaduct can drive your design and make a better project than you thought possible. In order to do this though, you have to do more than just build around the bridge — you have to let your structure be part of the bridge.
Programming the Station
Here’s one way to do it.
First, the section under the higher span (~25′-63′ clearance) is separated into two hall spaces. The western block is the intercity bus terminal hall, with major entrances onto 18th under the viaduct, and at the corner of 16th and Poplar. The bus bays themselves lie under the eastbound viaduct, accessed via 16th, with a busway directly linking to 20th or 21st streets. This section is structurally separate from the rest of the facility, but its curtain wall will be in the same style as the main hall; above the bus entrance on 16th will be a large sign with a station logo on it.
The second hall span is the Grand Hall, the principal public feature of the whole facility. Extending from ~60′ east of 15th all the way to 16th, all under I-64’s westbound viaduct, the Grand Hall is a towering space, defined by a glass curtain wall on its north side with a narrow clerestory suspended between the eastbound and westbound viaducts. This gives a serene, gracious, sunlit space. The Grand Hall functions as the primary pedestrian path linking the bus terminal with the rest of the station; in addition, an adjacent food court spills out into it.
Just below the Grand Hall, under the eastbound viaduct (~38′ clearance), is the West Hall, home of the main food court. Keep in mind here that the food court is located between the two intercity termini — this makes it easy for weary laid-over travelers (and Greyhound sure does like their layovers) to find food. The ceiling, while significantly lower than the Grand Hall’s, is still spacious, but the space will most likely be organized into a cafeteria surrounded by small commissaries. Access to the food court can be had from the Grand Hall and the waiting room. Restrooms are also conveniently located in it.
East of the food court is the Amtrak waiting hall and concourse. The Grand Hall’s huge expanse means this facility doesn’t have to be as large as it otherwise might; even so, the main hall fills the space under I-64’s eastbound spaces from the columns west of 15th to those east of it. Locating the concourse entrance slightly west of where it currently is gives it slightly more room under the slip ramp to 14th Street, which in turn makes the facility’s most significant vertical pinch point less of one. In addition, once the pinch point is passed, access to the concourse is had by a pair of elevators flanking a a grand stair — grand stairs can be squeezed into less space than escalators, and every inch of space that isn’t involved in other station functions is an inch we can squeeze into the station box for wider platforms or more tracks.
East of the Amtrak concourse, the Grand Hall meets the West Hall. This is where the under-the-interstate portion of the facility meets the (mostly) freestanding portion. The West Hall runs along 15th Street from Spruce to Poplar, and midway along it lies the station’s dropoff porte-cochere, a feature that makes an unobtrusive overall imprint on the façade. This part of the station, which curls east into a North Hall along the 1400 block of Spruce, is an “entrance complex”, connecting the station with the city. It fronts a public park occupying the block bounded by Clark Avenue and 14th, 15th, and Spruce streets, covering the Metrolink tracks’ curve.
Next, we have the Metro Concourse. This concourse connects from roughly where the Grand Hall meets the West Hall east to the MetroBus terminal along 14th Street, with a north branch connecting to Metrolink’s Civic Center station. Between this concourse and the entrance halls, we have an internal square, which could be viewed as expansion space for station services.
Finally, we turn our attention to the back of house. A baggage facility lies alongside the station box, perhaps connecting to a baggage carousel next to the Amtrak concourse; under the viaduct to the east are station offices and administration. This can further extend out along the rooftop of the North Building, which may well offer an event space as well. And a parking deck along Poplar between 16th and 18th streets offers rental car and long-term storage for station users.
Be the Building, Be the Bridge
Okay, what about the architectural treatment?
Well, we clearly have plenty of structural members already in place to work with — the bridge pillars and deck. This bridge is designed to take moving traffic; cleverly designed, most of the relatively light static load of the station can be integrated into this dynamic load. The idea here, then, is to develop the south building’s structural members as cantilevers, with only the parts closest to the ground being transferred onto their own foundations.
Overall, the site is split into two structures: the south and north buildings. The south building is wholly integrated into the I-64 viaduct: its structure is attached to the overlying bridge, and its building program is determined by the bridge’s constraints. The north building is freestanding; its roofline should be similar in height to the eastbound I-64 roadway deck, perhaps curving up to provide a more dramatic flair and strong boundary to the station park. The offices can also extend along the middle of the north building, especially if the north end of the structure gets an events hall — they can share the same elevator core, one in the freestanding north building.
That said, the steel structure used to suspend the Grand Hall’s glass curtain will almost certainly decide the entire station’s ornamentation and branding regime. Every other façade, even the clerestory between the interstate’s decks, will have to relate to it in some way. I suspect a sunburst pattern for the main girders will do the job, which can then be extended in a sort of spiky Gothic-like pattern all around the north building …
The basic plan here involves a modest improvement to throughput capacity — where the current station box is only four tracks (three through and one stub), this plan has a six-track (all through) station box; there would be about a dozen intercity bus bays. One can certainly argue this is not enough — St. Louis is the natural hub for all travel from the Midwest to points southwest (e.g. in Oklahoma or Texas), and about a dozen natural corridors radiate from the city. Beyond that, any commuter rail in the St. Louis region will run through Gateway, as will high-speed rail, both taking up slots of their own.
It is worth noting, however, that the minor TRRA yard immediately to the south of the box offers significant expansion space, though perhaps one with the price that TRRA will have to reconfigure its traffic patterns — as it stands, this TRRA yard appears to be an arrivals facility for traffic off of the ex-Frisco and ex-MoPac lines to the southwest.
The plan for Gateway Terminal that I’ve outlined is instead meant to provide major improvements for site circulation and enough available space to handle increased demands, one that can grow along with the terminal’s needs. This is perhaps the greatest advantage of its current site — this ability to grow from a small facility to a large one, perhaps modularly over time.
While looking into old Midwestern intercity stations, I discovered that many of them, ca. 1950, handled 3,000-5,000 passengers a day; this is roughly the amount Los Angeles Union Station currently serves. For Gateway Terminal, handling that many passengers should be the natural end goal.
This is not unattainable, especially not for a well-designed transportation hub. The city’s main north-south and east-west light-rail corridors intersect at this site; any reasonable commuter rail schema would converge on it; and St. Louis sits at one of the Midwest’s largest corridor hubs, with paths stretching to Chicago, Columbus, Cincinnati, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.
Hopefully the ideas I’ve laid out here can grow into a hub St. Louisians find handsome, eminently usable, and able to take them wherever their hearts’ desire takes them.