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Phoenix Union Station

October 12, 2009 by J Seth Anderson

A few months ago I was walking around Globe, Arizona, marveling at the architecture and dense streets of this once prominent but now largely forgotten town. I must have taken, and I’m not exaggerating, 22 billion pictures of all the amazing buildings there. They just don’t build like that anymore, and seeing structures like those is rare in Phoenix. (They did exist in our fair city, but they went the way of the wrecking ball.) Eventually I found myself in the old train station in Globe. I learned that for many years the station had been shut down and used as a Laundromat until a group had raised enough money to restore it back to its original purpose. There were pictures inside of the project pre/during/post renovation. The final result was stunning. The walls echoed with stories and the history of a time not too long ago and not yet forgotten. I took this picture of a painting that says “To live well is to travel by train.”

PhoenixUnionStationI lived in Eastern Europe for 2.5 years and all the long distance travel I had to do was done by train. I’ll never forget the first time I watched the sun set beyond the pristine Russian countryside through the window of a speeding train. I don’t remember where I was when I fell asleep but I woke up in Moscow. On a different trip I arrived in Samara early one morning and my Russian friends were waiting for me on the platform with a balloon to welcome me back. On many occasions I had dinner in Moscow and breakfast in St. Petersburg. And sometimes I wasn’t even the person who was leaving on the train, but I would be at the station to say goodbye to friends. I even ran along side the train once, waving, as it sped away down the track and out of sight. I stood on the platform wondering if I’d ever see any of those friends again.

In June of 1996, Phoenix waved goodbye as the last train sped away from Union Station downtown. I wonder if we’ll ever see passenger trains there again. I hope so. Union Station is such a gem and so typical of Phoenix, i.e. so much potential to be something yet totally wasted. If it’s not an active train station, at least it should be a museum! I read that Sprint owns Union Station and uses it for storage. Because in Phoenix that’s what a 1923 historic train station should be used for of course.

Union Station was how most people arrived in Phoenix in the early part of the 20th century. It is how tourists arrived and the station gave Phoenix more national exposure. It remained prominent until the 1950s when the airport usurped that honor. I’m not downplaying the importance of Sky Harbor as an economic engine for the city. It is important. I just want options when I travel. Especially now that flying has become such an ordeal. Even when things go smoothly it’s exhausting. Remember when you only had to show up an hour before your flight? Nowadays if you get to the airport ONLY an hour before your flight, it’s pretty much a guarantee you will miss the plane! You need about two hours if you want to be on time. And remember how we were not treated like criminals when we passed through security? You now have to be practically stripped searched and subject yourself to the whims of TSA. On a recent flight I was on, an old lady in a wheelchair was pulled off to the side to be searched. What ever for!? We can’t take water through security. Or mouthwash. Everything has to be in a 3.4 oz bottle. Where did that number come from? It’s just some arbitrary number. Now we pay fees to check bags. We pay fees for drinks and snacks. We’re forced like cattle onto over sold flights.

But to live well is to travel by train. Sometimes traveling is about the journey as well as the destination. Imagine catching a train on a cool spring morning without hassle. No need to arrive hours before the departure time. Imagine speeding through the desert, no traffic, no stop lights, no construction, just a beautiful view of the blooming wildflowers, Saguaros and mountains, until you arrive in Tucson, Los Angeles, Flagstaff, etc.

What I love best about trains and train stations is that they are centrally located. That means no rental car is necessary to get from the airport. The train arrives in a developed part of the city and eliminates commuting, traffic, parking, etc. How is it that a city that developed in the Wild West, a city that was dependant on the trains for so much, has forsaken them for sprawl and parking lots and a dirty cloud of pollution? Why can’t we get on a train at Union Station in downtown Phoenix and arrive at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles without needing a car? I don’t pretend to know the logistics of train planning and scheduling and cost etc. But I do know that it is done, and done well, in pretty much every other part of the developed world. Trains are romantic and powerful symbols of progress, efficiency and sustainability. The light rail has already transformed the city (and it’s not even a year old). High speed passenger trains can do the same.

At the dedication ceremony in September 1923, the building was proclaimed a “Monument to the progressiveness and prosperity of the valley and a testimony of the confidence in the future of the Salt River Valley and Phoenix.”

I still share that vision.


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