Hundreds of people gathered in the great hall of Raleigh's new train station on Monday morning as politicians and state and federal transportation officials celebrated the culmination of an idea more than eight years in the making.
While Amtrak trains won't stop here for a month or more, Raleigh Union Station, built in the shell of a former Dillon Supply Co. steel warehouse on the western edge of downtown, appeared ready. The 9,200-square-foot waiting room, with high-backed wooden benches like those found in classic railroad stations, is five times larger than the one it will replace in the current Amtrak station across the tracks.
"One of the great visions for this facility was to create an entryway into downtown," Mayor Nancy McFarlane said from the podium Monday. "And in a sense, that is what we have created — a front door to the city in the heart of the city."
The City Council began talking about creating a place where trains and buses would meet downtown in 2010, McFarlane said. The bus portion of the station won't be finished for another four years or so, but the first Amtrak passengers are expected to pass through here in early June.
Here are some other things to know about Raleigh Union Station:
▪ The station retains elements of the old steel warehouse, including the massive steel pillars and ceiling beams in the main hall. Two gantries overhead that used to move steel around the building are fixed in place, as is the big sliding steel door on the back wall. The walkway leading to and from the train platform is lined with rusted steel plates salvaged from the warehouse.
▪ The platform has tracks on both sides, though only one set is connected at this point. The platform is 920 feet long — as long as the longest train to stop in Raleigh, the Silver Star between Miami, Fla., and New York, which often had to stop twice at the old station so people could get on and off. This is the first raised platform in North Carolina, and one of few in the South, so passengers will simply walk on or off without climbing or descending stairs.
"We wish we had this level boarding at all of our stations," said Joe McHugh, an Amtrak vice president.
▪ If the platform seems far away from the station, that’s in part because designers left room for another platform and a set of tracks for commuter or high-speed trains that may someday serve Raleigh. Those trains would stop between the Amtrak platform and the station, and passengers would use the same walkway and tunnel to reach them.
▪ There’s a circular driveway in front of the station for dropping off and picking up passengers, and if you need to park, there’s a short-term lot there with space for about two dozen cars. The city has also reserved spaces for Raleigh Union Station in the public garage in The Dillon office tower across West Street. Rates there are $2 an hour or $18 for the day.
▪ Some planned features of the station are not ready yet. There’s a place for an escalator to carry passengers from the tunnel up to the platform, but it turned out to be more expensive than the city had expected. And there will soon be a five-foot-tall clock — with hands, not digits — hanging on the wall just above the ticket counter. The status of arriving and departing trains will be on electronic boards similar to those you’d find in airports.
▪ You’ll be able to buy food in the station — but not yet. There’s room for shops and restaurants in the building, but no leases have been signed. York Properties is handling the leases for the city, looking for tenants for 3,847 square feet of retail on the ground floor, 6,262 square feet of offices on the second floor and a 2,702-square-foot retail or restaurant spot with a rooftop patio on the third floor.
Nearly 151,000 people got on or off Amtrak trains in Raleigh in the year ending Sept. 30, 2017, making it the second busiest train station in North Carolina after Charlotte. The number of trains that stop in Raleigh will grow from eight a day to 10 with the addition of another round-trip Piedmont train between Raleigh and Charlotte starting June 4.
Including the new train platform, tracks, an outdoor plaza and the underground walkway that takes passengers to and from the trains, Raleigh Union Station cost $111.4 million to build, according to the city. More than $70 million of that money came from the federal government, with the state and city governments picking up the rest.
McHugh said he has attended numerous station openings during his 24 years at Amtrak.
"And I will tell you that few match the vision, the grandeur, the utility and the basic this-was-built-for-the-ages feel that this station possesses," he said. "All great public buildings start with a vision, and the people who took this vision and delivered this building deserve a tremendous amount of praise and gratitude from all of us, for it is not an easy task."