Union Station’s lonely years

In the 1970s and ’80s, Union Station was a quiet, little-used transportation hub, long after its glory years of the ’30s and ’40s and before its revival into the 21st century. In a March 1, 1987, article, staff writer Steve Harvey reported:

There is a haunting quality to Union Station. The high ceilings are a part of it, as well as the vast halls with their many empty chairs and closed ticket booths, and the silence.

It’s so quiet that often the flapping wings of the resident pigeons can be heard on their hopeful sorties through the coffee shop.

Much of the interior, from the black walnut beams and the 3,000-pound chandeliers down to the marble mosaic walkway in the waiting room, remains remarkably intact after almost half a century.

“You can almost sense the presence of all the politicians and movie stars who’ve walked through here,” said CBS broadcaster and aerophobe John Madden, who says he rides 100,000 miles of rails some years.

The station’s dim lighting adds to the B-mystery-movie atmosphere. Not long ago, in fact, a ticket clerk recognized an escaped felon on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list–the FBI furnishes the station with photos–and the fugitive was arrested as he tried to board a train. …

Originally, the Southern Pacific, Union Pacific and Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroads had separate stations. In 1915, the city of Los Angeles proposed a new terminal for the three (hence the name “union”) to upgrade facilities and reduce the number of grade crossings on the streets.

After two court defeats, the railroads grudgingly agreed to pay for the construction, which took six years and cost $11 million (the amount currently budgeted for about 1 1/2 miles of track for Metro Rail). …

A half million people attended opening day ceremonies in 1939, which culminated with a historical parade featuring horsemen, mule-skinners, stagecoaches, horse cars, trolleys and an 1869 locomotive, the Southern Pacific’s Collis P. Huntington.

At first, more than 60 trains a day passed through the station. But railroading was already on the decline, and then came jet airliners and superhighways. One of the gloomiest phrases for a train man is “air mail.”

The station was down to nine trains a day by 1971 when the government-subsidized National Railroad Passenger Corp. (Amtrak) took over passenger operations at Union Station. The agency leased the facilities from Santa Fe Southern Pacific Corp., which controls 77% of the property through its two railroad subsidiaries, and Union Pacific, which owns the rest.

Rail service has increased somewhat. Union Station, now also a depot for Trailways buses, currently sees 18 trains (and about 7,000 passengers) a day. …

Steve Harvey’s full 1987 story Union Station is online. Three of the photos in the above photo gallery accompanied Harvey’s story. A couple of these images were added to this previous From the Archives photo gallery: Union Station at 75.

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