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Union Station prepares for a concourse makeover

Construction to modernize Union Station’s concourse is expected to begin in fall 2019 to double capacity, upgrade connectivity and enhance amenities. The area used by thousands of intercity and commuter train passengers would be brightened with natural light. (KGP Design Studio/Grimshaw)

The concourse at Washington’s Union Station will undergo a makeover beginning in the fall, a project that will double its capacity, relieve crowding and make for a more accessible and comfortable customer experience, Amtrak says.

In addition to providing a modern and brighter space for the 100,000 daily intercity, commuter and local travelers who pass through Union Station, the work also will improve access between Amtrak’s concourse and the mezzanine of the Metro station there.

“We will increase capacity, circulation and accessibility,” Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods said.

The railroad is in the process of selecting a general contractor for the project, which will be done in phases over three years to reduce the impact on travelers and station retailers.

The work is part of a larger plan to remake Washington’s main railroad station to double train and passenger capacity over the next two decades.

Amtrak declined to provide a cost estimate for the concourse improvements, citing the integrity of the open bidding process. The larger vision, known as Washington Union Station’s 2nd Century plan, which includes multiple projects over 20 years, is based on a 2012 master plan for Union Station that set the cost of the massive expansion and improvement at $7 billion.

Reimagining Union Station

The revitalization of Union Station is an important piece in Amtrak’s vision for the Northeast — the nation’s busiest rail corridor — which includes faster trains that could increase ridership between Washington and Boston. It’s even more critical as new private ventures vie to compete for the traveling public, whose numbers continue to grow and which is more frustrated by unreliable and antiquated service.

In the Washington region, for example, a group of private investors is exploring bringing the high-speed maglev train to the region, including putting a station about a mile from Union Station at Mount Vernon Square.

The concourse expansion will follow an economic boom in the neighborhoods surrounding the historic rail hub, including new commercial and residential development in the NoMa neighborhood to the north, a thriving commercial corridor on H Street NE to the east, and the construction of three new city blocks at Capitol Crossing to the west.

It also comes as talks get serious about expanding rail capacity over the Potomac River, including a proposal to add more tracks to the two-track Long Bridge, which would make it possible to increase passenger service in the region. Additional tracks would allow “through service” in which Virginia trains could continue north of Union Station to Maryland and Maryland trains could continue south over the Potomac.

Expanding the Long Bridge is key to region’s growing rail needs, officials say

Railroad and other officials and advocates say the improvements are necessary to ensure Union Station keeps up with the growth. The station, which opened in 1907, operates at capacity and is inadequate for existing and future demands, officials say.

“Ridership continues to soar, resulting in long and crowded areas of departing customers that routinely impede the public concourse, blocking flows and diminishing a fluid travel experience,” Woods said. “With conservative projections doubling ridership at Union Station by 2033, implementing near-term solutions to gain capacity is imperative to maintain safe and efficient station operations.”

Upgrades to the Claytor Concourse — a 70,000-square-foot space named after former Amtrak president William Graham Claytor Jr. — include opening up the space to create additional areas for boarding and queuing, which would help reduce chaos as passengers line up at the gate to board. There will be new restrooms, and the area will be brightened with natural light.

ClubAcela, an exclusive passenger lounge area, will be rebranded as Metropolitan Lounge and rebuilt to include additional seating options and provide a more modern space for first-class travelers and single-day pass holders.

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Amtrak’s support spaces at the First Street level also would be renovated. Other infrastructure improvements include upgrades and relocation of mechanical and electrical equipment and a new emergency generator.

“These improvements are sorely needed,” said Stephen A. Hansen, chair of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a nonprofit that has been lobbying for the preservation of the station.

“It’s a modern building. It’s got modern uses and needs,” Hansen said. “A building that doesn’t adapt disappears. This is what’s exciting about Union Station. It is adapting, it will adapt, and we just hope and expect that its historic integrity is protected throughout the process.”

Metro’s portion of the project will include a major facelift to its station that is accessed through the ground level of Union Station. In addition to improvements to the mezzanine, the plan calls for the installation of a new stairway to connect the mezzanine to the concourse, a new entrance from First Street NE and the expansion of the fare gate area.

Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said the changes are the result of years of planning to improve access and relieve congestion at Union Station, the busiest entry point into the Metro system with more than 28,000 daily entries, many of which are transfers from commuter rail, intercity rail and bus systems.

“Once complete, Metro riders will have quicker, easier access to enter/exit the station and better connect to the Union Station concourse,” Ly said in an email. “Not only will this save time, but the increased capacity will allow for future ridership growth.”

The concourse built in the 1980s is immediately adjacent to the historic station.

If the procurement process goes as planned, a contractor would be picked in the summer, and construction could begin in the fall, according to Amtrak.

D.C.’s Mount Vernon Square eyed for high-speed maglev train station