TCS: Last of the Great Train Stations

Good Morning!


Welcome to The Coffee Shop, just for you early risers on Monday mornings.
This is an Open Thread forum, so if you have an off-topic opinion burning a
hole in your brainpan, feel free to add a comment.


“Nothing was more up-to-date when it was built, or
is more obsolete today, than the railroad station.”

– Ada Louise Huxtable, architecture critic,
awarded the first Pulitzer Prize for Criticism



“Los Angeles Union Station was built in 1939 and is the largest railroad passenger terminal in the Western United States. It is widely regarded as “the last of the great train stations.” The station’s signature Mission Moderne style makes it one of L.A.’s architectural gems. It was designed by the father-son architect team of John and Donald Parkinson with an innovative blend of Spanish Colonial, Mission Revival, and Art Deco architecture now commonly referred to as Mission Moderne. In the 76 years since its opening, Union Station has captured the spirit and soul of Los Angeles. The station was designed as an expression of the California lifestyle with a spacious ticket hall. It is equipped with an 110-foot-long ticket counter crafted from American Black Walnut and has a vast waiting room, featuring towering 40-foot windows. Also, it is embellished with brass, massive art deco chandeliers, inlaid marble floors and hand-painted mission tiles, along with expansive shaded patios, towering palm trees and a clock tower looming 100 feet above the city. In 1972, Union Station was designated as a Los Angeles Historic–Cultural Monument and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.”

— description from




Union Station is a rarity in Los Angeles —  an iconic landmark that still looks much the way it did when it first opened — a Way-Back Machine to the ages of film noir, 1940s wartime, and 1950s glamour. It’s been featured in countless motion pictures. First-time visitors often experience déjà vu, the surroundings seem so familiar. There was even a movie made here in 1950 called Union Station, starring William Holden and Nancy Olson, a noir detective thriller about a kidnapping.



In this century, Metrolink commuters are likely to outnumber train passengers, but the last of the Western grande dames of rail travel’s glory days still outshines its overcrowded neighborhood, and you can still walk over to Philippe’s, “Home of the Original French Dip Sandwich” since 1908, and step even farther back in time.



Wishing you a mellow Monday

About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for the past 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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11 Responses to TCS: Last of the Great Train Stations

  1. Terry Welshans says:

    Ah, yes!

    Having worked for both Santa Fe and Amtrak in Los Angeles, I am very familiar with Union Station. It such a unique venue that you see it often in the background of commercial and music videos. It is instantly recognizable once you look behind the performers. Another common background is the Los Angeles River. with its wide sloping sides and a rivulet, not much more than a trickle most of the year that becomes a bank-to-bank raging torrent when it rains. You may also see some of the art deco concrete arched bridges that conducts traffic across the once dry riverbed.

    This station replaced the Southern Pacific station on Alameda, not far away from this structure. The SP station was in the middle of the wide street, and I am sure its demise was celebrated by motorists. The Santa Fe station was east of the SP station, nestled alongside the river. The Union Pacific railroad station was across the river in East Los Angeles. All three of these early stations were left disused or were razed once Union Station was opened.

    The little know Pacific Electric interurban rail line and the Los Angeles Railway city trolly lines had transfer loops at Union Station where passengers could switch from a long distance train to a local route. Pacific Electric served the Los Angeles suburbs and included a line to Mt. Lowe where passengers could transfer to a steep mountain line that ended at Ye Alpine Tavern and the Echo Mountain Promotory after a harrowing ride up an inclined railway.

    You can not easily see the complex interwoven track structure that connects Union Station to the three railroad properties. Mission Tower is the control center where all of the tracks are switched to connect the in or outbound routes with the proper station platform. At Mission Tower the operator lines up a route and the train winds its way through to transition through its interlocking plant.

    The Southern Pacific tracks run alongside the river on the east side, heading north to Burbank Junction where they branch to either the Coast Route and San Francisco or the Valley Route that heads north through the Mojave Desert, across two mountain passes to head up the San Joaquin Valley to Oakland. The SP also heads south to cross the mountains at Beaumont Pass and then on to New Orleans.

    The Santa Fe runs along the west side of the river, heading north through Pasadena on its way to San Bernardino and on to Chicago, or to the south toward Fullerton where it branches to San Diego or to San Bernardino where it joins the Pasadena route.

    The Union Pacific tracks end at a rail yard in East Los Angeles, near the old UP station. The tracks head east to San Bernardino where they share the Santa Fe route through Cajon Pass and then on through Las Vegas and east to Chicago through Omaha.

    • wordcloud9 says:

      Thanks Terry for the additional history!

      I think a number of people would love to see train travel come back – commercial air flights are such a hassle now, and the ever-shrinking seating and leg room make hours spent in the air more and more like being confined in a straight jacket.

      Right now, it’s often hard for a traveler to get from point A to point B on a train – my husband took a trip from Los Angeles to Austin TX a few years ago, with a stop in Albuquerque to see his sister, and the route he finally plotted out was bizarre, and involved spending hours on a bus to bridge a gap not covered by the trains. He’s tall, so given enough time, is very willing to either drive or take a train rather than fly.

      Airlines, take note – people are getting larger and taller, not shrinking – we need more room, not less!

      • Terry Welshans says:

        With only one train each way daily, there is no real good way to get from point “A” to point “B” by train if your endpoints are not starting and ending points. There are few places to change from one train to another except at certain cities. Los Angeles to Washington DC is a 5 day trip with one train change in Chicago, and that is if the inbound arrives on time. I missed a number of easy 4 hour connections due to a late arriving train. Most states have one or at most two passenger lines. New England is different. You have a wide selection of trains between New York and Washington DC, but north and south of that corridor, you drop back to far less service.

        I have ridden Amtrak’s very high-speed trains – if you cal 125 mph very high speed. When one meets another with both at speed – there is a blast of turbulence that moves the car windows within their rubber mounts with a sound like a sonic boom.

        • Imagine two of these passing on parallel tracks. Note the chase photography is from a Lear Jet, not a helicopter at 0:41.

          • Terry Welshans says:

            345 mph. Did you notice how smoothly the wheels ran on the track? Perfection! That is a perfect example of why the USA will never build a high-speed train like that.

            Alstom makes a pretty sophisticated control system. Metra Commuter Rail in Chicago bought a couple of dozens electrically powered car sets that had Alstom variable frequency/variable voltage three-phase motors that used an inverter to change the overhead 600-volt power to drive the 3 phase AC electric motors.

  2. Steel wheel rolling on a steel rail. The most efficient means of transportation invented to date. Coefficient of friction approaches zero.

    The primary limitation on the wheel is centrifugal force. A wheel flying apart at speed would be as bad as the turbines on a jet disintegrating in flight. We have seen that in recent history, and it was ugly. I recall Craig Breedlove having problems at Bonneville with the wheels on his early jet cars.

    According to my back-of-the-envelope calculations, the centripetal force on those train wheels at that speed is 6,249,481,992 pound-force (2,779,081 Newtons). Is anyone but the French, Germans, Japanese, and Chinese set up to produce rolling stock of the quality needed for safe operation?

    • Terry Welshans says:

      The problem I see with steel wheels is adhesion. When the rail is wet from rain, or a spot of grease finds its way to the top of the rail, steel wheels slip. One way to fix that is to spray sand ahead of the wheel when it starts slipping, but at speed, the motor will over rev and fly apart before the sand helps the wheel grab again. Next time I am down your way I will hand you a souvenir that I removed from a traction motor that had a slipping pinion gear (the gear that drives the wheels) that ‘birdcage’, a term describing how the motor’s armature looks when forces tear it apart at high rpm.
      One solution to the high rpm wheel problem is to make them smaller and turn at a higher rpm or make the wheel lighter. Trains depend on weight on the wheels to generate the traction. The best solution is maglev, no wheels, and no slip.

      • I am old enough to remember hearing my Dad’s steam locomotive spin its wheels trying to get started. For that matter, I have been in the engine cab when that happened (impossible in these OSHA days). Sand works well enough at two MPH, but at 300+ mph, sand becomes dust flying in the wind.

        As for “stuff” I have to find that throttle lock and set of Mylar reflective sun shields before you come down.

        • Terry Welshans says:

          Tanks. It will be at least two and perhaps three weeks depending on how the joint heals and rehabilitates.

    • Terry Welshans says:

      Braking is another issue, related to traction, both dealing with adhesion. Freight trains slow at a typical rate of 1 mph per second with full braking applied. Passenger trains slow at 1.5 mph per second with full braking. At 60 mph it will take a freight train one minute to stop. In that one minute, the train will travel 2640 feet down the track. Imagine a car that had brakes like that. Then, think about the brake response time. When the engineer applies the brake there will be up to ten seconds before any slowing is apparent, and the signal to apply the brake may take up to a minute to reach the last car on a mile long freight train. The front is slowing, the back end does not know that….. on a curve, you have a lot of dynamic forces as the coupler slack bunches up, pushing in a lateral direction, and a derailment results.

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