Back in the ’50s and ’60s, much of downtown Columbus fell to the wrecking ball in an orgy of “urban renewal.” Many of the old structures that were built around the turn of the century were torn down and replaced by skyscrapers–or, more likely, surface parking lots. By the time my family moved here in 1971, the Neil House, a hotel across from the Statehouse, and Union Station, shown in the photograph below, still remained, but their days were numbered. Both were torn down in the late ’70s.
I wish Union Station had survived. It was an example of Beaux Arts architecture, and featured an arched arcade for its entrance. The arcade, with its series of arches, could have been repurposed into shops and restaurants and brew pubs, but the city planners of that day didn’t really have that kind of foresight. It was easier to remove than preserve, so that it what they did. It makes you appreciate the surviving structures, like the Ohio Theater, the Atlas Building, the Wyandotte Building, and the older buildings on Gay Street and elsewhere in the core downtown area, that also could have been demolished.
All that remains of the colossal Union Station facade is the arch shown above, which stands, alone, at the entrance to a small park in the Arena District. It’s a silent reminder of what once was, and what could still have have been.
The train tracks come into Columbus from the south. At night we regularly hear the whistles moan as the trains approach the downtown area. As the cars rattle past German Village, they roll underneath the Whittier Street overpass.
The overpass has a tightly meshed fence that keeps the passersby away from the tracks and makes it impossible to get an unobstructed picture of the trains as they rumble by. It’s an apt physical sign of Columbus’ circumstances when it comes to trains. We are serviced by freight trains galore, but we’re blocked from boarding any passenger trains. If you live in Columbus and want to take a train trip, you need to drive about a hundred miles south or a hundred miles north — because neither Amtrak nor any other passenger rail line stops in Ohio’s capital city.
If you look at a passenger rail service map, you can see Columbus’ isolation. It’s there smack dab in the middle of Ohio, far away from any of the operating rail stations. Even with efforts underway to increase passenger rail service in other cities, when it comes to trains Columbus is nowhere.
It didn’t use to be that way. If you talk to old-timers, they’ll tell you about Union Station, which used to anchor the northern edge of downtown Columbus, and how you could catch an interurban train to other cities in Ohio, take a long cross-country trip, or even book a ride on a special car that took Ohio State football fans up to Ann Arbor for the games against That Team Up North. But now Union Station is demolished, its classical entrance arch has been reconstructed in a park in the Arena District, and the train trips from Columbus are a distant memory. At some point, when the superhighways and the airports had taken away many of those former passengers, train travel became uneconomical, and somebody decided that Columbus really didn’t need passenger trains anymore.
Now we just hear the trains, and it’s a lonesome, sad sound.
I liked taking the train, and I’d take it again. The Acela Express leaves from Union Station in D.C., has stops in Baltimore, Wilmington, Delaware, Philadelphia, and Newark, then arrives in Penn Station about 2 hours and 50 minutes after you’ve left the Nation’s Capital. Total travel time is about what you’d have by air, factoring in the time needed to get to the airport and go through security, and you end up in the middle of Manhattan rather than at LaGuardia. The cost of my first-class Acela ticket was about the same as the cost of a flight, too.
The first-class car was clean and spacious, and the train was sold out. Most of the first-class passengers were taking advantage of the free wireless that was afforded and the free beverages; my traveling companion and I each had a glass of decent red wine. Our car was quiet and spacious. The train rocks a bit, but you can stretch your legs and walk to the cafe car if you want, or just watch the scenery roll by. As an added bonus, I saw a U.S. Senator on the trip — New Jersey’s Bob Menendez.
A New York attorney I know said the Acela Express advertises itself as the “civilized” travel alternative. That’s not inaccurate. Thanks, fellow taxpayers, for a pleasant journey!