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A world of VIAs

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Garl B. Latham

Ruminations of a foaming professional.

A world of VIAs

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Down in San Antonio, Texas, mention the word "VIA" in conjunction with passenger transportation and only a few railfans and dedicated passenger train riders will think first of VIA Rail Canada. That's because the Alamo City's public bus agency is also named VIA - and it credibly serves the one-and-a-third million residents with a comprehensive network of intracity routes and services.

VIA Metropolitan Transit has earned several national safety awards, takes a leadership role in vehicle management techniques and remains on the cutting edge of energy efficiency (including the development of solar-powered passenger facilities). In 1990, VIA was named the Best Transit System in North America by APTA.

Unfortunately, they seem to know very little about trains.

I suppose that shouldn't be too surprising. The last street railway service in VIA's hometown was ingloriously abandoned 44 years prior to the agency's birth (making San Antonio the first major U.S. city to discontinue all rail-based transit). Besides, railroading tends to be a specialty enterprise - and there probably wouldn't be too many railroaders very adept at running a bus line!

Still, it irks me to remember VIA's first major expansion programme: its so-called "historic streetcar" system downtown, which amounted to nothing more than circulator buses dressed in fancy garb - sort of a "wolf in sheep's clothing" approach to the movement of passengers.

With that sort of background, VIA, to me, possesses the same sort of reputation as any other rubber and asphalt transportation firm: well meaning, perhaps; but, when it comes to rail-based initiatives, suspect at best.

Which brings us 'round to their current endeavours.

VIA, with the City of San Antonio and Bexar County in full support, is now involved in a REAL, honest-to-goodness streetcar plan. It involves a starter system of two lines (nominally north/south and east/west), crossing downtown and connecting both popular tourist destinations and passenger transport nodes.

This is where it all begins to get interesting.

Integral to the streetcar proposal, VIA's future development goals and San Antonio's "SA2020" plan is the creation of a new Westside Multimodal Transit Center. By the end of this year, the location should be serving as one of the two central city stations for "Primo" - VIA's new B.R.T. line.

Yes, that's Bus Rapid Transit.

So, where do the trains come into play? Well, eventually, at least one of the street railway lines, the proposed Lone Star Rail regional service north into (and beyond) Austin, and (at least in theory) Amtrak are all to call on the newly resurrected depot. As for now, in an effort to "address the current challenges while not precluding future rail," VIA's consulting firm, EE&K (nee Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects, a Perkins Eastman Company), is placing their emphasis on improving bus operations (as they simultaneously speak of "marketing people out of their cars").

And I suppose that, in itself, is fine - as long as they don't lose track (as it were) of the alternatives.

I do, however, have a problem with the chosen location of this proposed transit centre and the various needs it will supposedly meet.

A bit o' railway history (of the genuine type): Back in the days, San Antonio was never blessed with a true Union Station. Each system called upon its own depot: one each for the Southern Pacific Lines (T&NO), the Missouri Pacific Lines (I-GN) and the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad.

The Katy's was by far the prettiest (which, considering the field of competitors, is honestly saying quite a lot!) and the first to be abandoned. By the mid-60s, the structure's existence was superfluous (and costly) to a railroad fighting for its survival. It survives now only in photographs and memories.

Conversely, both the Missouri Pacific and SP stations are still standing, in pretty good shape (although both falling under "alternative uses" categories) and graced with live trackage alongside.

It's the former MP depot (now occupied by a credit union) which is to become VIA's west side home.

Please don't get me wrong. I love the idea of restoring modern passenger train operations to a genuine passenger train facility. Adaptive reuse is fine (for what its worth), presuming that's what it takes to secure the structure's future; but, I'll ALWAYS vote for railroad stations being (re)designed to serve railroad functions.

Granted, I wish the desire for a modern (or at least current) title didn't leave us with a cumbersome appellation like "Westside Multimodal Transit Center." There are so many other possibilities, including location (Central Station), function (Terminal Station), address (Medina Street Station), history (Missouri Pacific Station)...any one of which has a far more pleasing railroad-esque sound to it.

But, ultimately, I honestly don't care WHAT it's called as long as the "multimodal" execution is effective from an operational perspective. And, since VIA is a bus company, I have no fear they'll understand and meet the projected needs of their new-and-improved buses.

That leaves us with the trains.

In one sentence, I guess we might sum things up thusly: just because a track runs past a building doesn't automatically make that structure a good place for a railroad station.

Back to San Antonio's railroad history for just a moment:

There was a _reason_ why the Alamo City never had a true Union Station: the necessary track work was never executed which would have made such a station operationally feasible. This is vital to note if Amtrak services are really to be included in the project (and not just a nice sounding but inherently meaningless declaration for politicians to parrot).

Today, south of downtown, a new intercity facility _could _ be built at the site of Tower 105, where UP's former SP and MP main lines cross. Unfortunately, it's (shall we say) not the best of locations - for much of ANYthing, save an interlocking plant.

Besides, one area in which the planners and I wholeheartedly agree is the necessity for keeping the main railway terminal downtown. This basically true in every case; but, it's especially true when dealing with a high trafficked, tourist-oriented destination city like San Antonio.

So, if we are to keep things downtown, there is only one existing location where current Amtrak services could call without cumbersome, expensive and potentially dangerous movements: the Southern Pacific station site - where Amtrak has its existing depot and maintenance buildings.

I understand this statement not only flies directly in the face of what VIA has stated to be possible - that Amtrak join it at the newly restored Missouri Pacific site - but it also contradicts what the Texas D.O.T.'s own Rail Division noted in its Texas Rail Plan.

Section 4.7 of that plan covers the importance of railway passenger trains' "connectivity with other rail services as well as intercity bus and local transit services." They mention a goal of "seamless transfer" and hopes for the concerted "development of intermodal stations." The first example used in that document is "the proposed San Antonio West Side Multimodal Center," for which TxDOT submitted a grant application. Page 4-92 specifically mentions "Amtrak...services" as a part of the mix.

Certainly, VIA can't be held solely accountable for making erroneous assumptions regarding intercity passenger service requirements if TxDOT's Rail Division agreed with its depot assessment, and TxDOT should be forgiven if they were simply allowing Amtrak to define its own future needs. Besides, at least in theory, intercity passenger trains could serve the MP site in some fashion. Still, one reason Dallas' Union Terminal has an inadequate number of platforms tracks today - even for its current needs, much less tomorrow's - is because the city listened to Amtrak back in 1974 and believed them when they declared the station's future infrastructure requirements.

Regrettably, one cannot take what Amtrak's hierarchy says at face value regarding these things. If nothing else, Amtrak will go where they have the best chance of inexpensive digs. Additionally, with earlier proposals in place (including breaking the current Sunset Limited operation into two separate trains: one east out of San Antonio and one west), a planner might, with a straight face, defend the MP station site choice.

Now that the matter is back on the table, however, there are no excuses.

As I've already mentioned, the original SP depot is still extant. Had those in positions of power understood what was at stake and has supported such a concept, that specific structure could have remained active as a train station.

Instead, once the building was lovingly refurbished, it was rechristened "Sunset Station" and turned into a live music venue with bar service. Amtrak was forced to build new structures, for passengers, employees and maintenance, adjacent to the original depot. Today's passenger trains still use the one remaining original platform and shed.

At the time this work was being completed, I heard several arguments against restoring the facility for railway passenger use, among them that the building was now far too big for that singular purpose (untrue) and that the historic structure would be placed in danger through its constant contact with the general public (versus making it a BAR; are you KIDDING ME?!).

Just for the record, the so-called "Sunset Station" now stands locked and empty most days, open only to special events through prior arrangement (something about the historic structure being placed in danger through its constant contact with bar patrons...).

By all appearances, it stands ready to reclaim its rightful role as a train station, once the right people buy into the idea and the right sources of cash are secured. Things could certainly be be worse.

Unfortunately, the site's utility as a modern railroad passenger terminal was additionally undermined by construction of the nearby Alamo Dome; however, "difficult" and "impossible" aren't synonymous.

In addition, every route Amtrak now operates or has ever operated to or through San Antonio could be made to efficiently call upon the SP depot. Future trains to the Gulf coast and the Valley could easily use that station. Even re-extending the Texas Eagle back to Laredo could still work out of Espee depot, without any reverse movements (using the Tower 105 crossing and a restored Katy/SP connection at the Camp Travis lead). Conversely, none other than the Sunset Limited, itself - the oldest continuously-operated name train in the world - could never work (as a through service) out of the Missorui Pacific station - the first choice for VIA's multimodal home.

Hope is not lost; far from it! We simply need to inject a healthy bit of reason and knowledge into the discussion.

First of all, let us consider keeping San Antonio a two train station town. That might not the be ultimate solution, had reasonable solutions been considered from the start, but they weren't - and what we're able to accomplish at this juncture is quite different that what was possible a quarter-century ago.

Allow Amtrak and any future intercity passenger operators to concentrate their operations at the SP site. Bring all travelers' services, including ticketing and baggage, back inside the former SP depot building (and please, lose the "Sunset Station" moniker!). Connect the SP and MP stations with a streetcar line.

Eliminate the idea of direct connections between Amtrak and Lone Star Rail trains in San Antonio. Instead, emphasise the possibility of making transfers from regional services to intercity trains and back again in places like Austin and San Marcos. [Sadly, Austin is yet another place where a single, multipurpose railway terminal may have been possible at one time, but is no longer economically feasible. Paint the happiest face on things and move on.]

Now, go ahead and create VIA's West Side station at the former Missouri Pacific location. It will be a wonderful (though ironic) way to make local history come full circle and it holds a great deal of significance to residents.

I do have a few suggestions, however:

Design the new multimodal terminal in such a way that pedestrian flow is routed THROUGH the building, not around it. The head house should not only be used for VIA offices (or other restricted purposes) but, just like the SP depot, provide for all the traveler's needs: passenger information, food service, newsstands, shops. Back to Dallas (a station near and dear to my heart): a fatal flaw in its new-and-improved design is the fact that, to most DART passengers, the station building is simply something to circumnavigate on your way into town. There is practically no value to the station's floor space, since the majority of the thousands of passengers who use that depot daily never go inside.

Early conceptual designs of VIA's West Side Multimodal facility shows many of the passenger activities taking place outside. This is a tragic mistake.

At a terminal like this, both train-to-train and mode-to-mode transfers will be of great importance. All direct rail-based connections should be made in the same area: from the public's perspective, "behind" the building, at trackside. Streetcar operations can be centred at one of the adjacent railway platforms, along with all of the other train services.

Unlike Dallas (think some of this has stuck in my craw?), no motor vehicles, whatsoever - no buses, no taxi cabs, no parking - should be allowed between the trains and the depot structure. Buses can be across the street in the plaza area, as EE&K's drawings show: a convenient, contiguous facility for connections...but not in the way of the trains.

Continue to dream and plan for the future. Believe in the possibilities! Don't allow a lack of faith to hinder progress - and don't let this opportunity pass us by, like so many other have in the past. Who knows how many more chances we'll get to do this right?!

In a good year, San Antonio attracts nearly 30 million tourists, visitors and business travelers to the city. If only a relative handful choose to travel by train, the city will be glad it took these things seriously, accepted the constraints of existing railroad properties, reclaimed history and otherwise planned with tomorrow in mind.

 

  • Garl, somewhere a while ago, I read that the big problem with the SP station currently used by Amtrak is a short piece of rail which did exist but was torn out consequently making all that slow maneuvering by the Sunset/Texas Eagle necessary.  The fix was a relatively cheap restoration of under a quarter mile of track to make things work and cut about half an hour off the toing & froing now needed. I have no idea if this is true but given what you describe above, it would seem that common sense does not prevail in San Antonio.  By the way, it is a lovely place to visit just before Christmas, especially when you arrive from the north by train!

  • How very sensible!  Do it VIA.