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In the 1920s, the three railroad companies that carried passengers to and from Los Angeles decided to consolidate their operations in a large new station. They originally planned to build it on the site of El Pueblo de Los Angeles, where Los Angeles was founded as a Spanish pueblo (town) in the 18th century. That historic district had been neglected for years, and its run-down buildings were deemed overdue for demolition.
Fortunately for the many visitors to Olvera Street, in the restored El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Park across from the station, the railroads determined that demolishing the adjacent Chinatown would be cheaper and politically simpler. Chinatown was an even more decrepit slum that many local residents and officials were eager to be rid of. Opposition to the destruction of El Pueblo was also gaining momentum as planning for the station began.
After lengthy delays for litigation over the ownership and value of land in Chinatown, the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal opened in 1939. It turned out to be America’s last major passenger railroad station. (The word union in the names of several large American train stations has nothing to do with labor or collective bargaining. In the days when passenger rail was a thriving business with multiple railroad companies, it meant a station shared by two or more of those railroads. The Union Pacific, Santa Fe, and Southern Pacific railroads shared— and paid for— the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal.)
The building’s exterior has the gleaming white stucco of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, surrounded with palm trees to enhance the Southern California ambiance. Inspired by the Franciscan missions of 18th century California, this style originated with the 1915 Panama-California International Exposition in San Diego’s Balboa Park. By the 1930s it had become ubiquitous throughout Southern California, and was practically obligatory for any major public building.
Architects John and Donald Parkinson (John also designed Los Angeles City Hall) had more latitude in designing the station’s interior. They employed the Art Deco and Streamline Moderne styles, which travelers in 1939 would have regarded as both elegant and ultra-modern.
Today’s passengers still wait for their trains in the restored upholstered seats of the station’s spacious main waiting hall. The floor inlaid with geometric patterns and the brass chandeliers are typical of the Art Deco style. The walls are made of alabaster and a corkboard material that was an early kind of acoustical tile.
The Ticketing Concourse at the station’s entrance is similarly opulent. After automated kiosks replaced ticketing agents at windows, the large hall became a venue for advertising and movie shoots, weddings, and other private functions. It’s closed to the public, but you can often peer into it as you enter the station.
Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal was the city’s main transportation hub through the 1950s. Despite the usual pressures to replace it with something newer and better, the station remained intact (and on the National Register of Historic Places) to await a resurgence.
That resurgence began when Catellus Development Corporation— originally the real estate holding company for the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific Railroads after they merged— bought the station in 1990. After refurbishment and renaming as “Los Angeles Union Station,” it has once again become a major transit hub. Over 60,000 people use the station every day, a number expected to grow to 100,000 by 2020.
Amtrak has four once-daily interstate trains, for passengers who have the time to enjoy watching scenery glide by at a leisurely pace. But most of the trains at Union Station operate within Southern California. Metrolink® mainly serves commuters who live in far-flung parts of “Greater Los Angeles.” It’s operated by the Southern California Regional Rail Authority, a consortium of transportation agencies in five counties. Pacific Surfliner® trains carry commuters and vacationers on a scenic coastal route from San Diego to Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. They’re operated by Amtrak, but funded and managed by the California Department of Transportation. (A second “Amtrak California” route, the San Joaquin®, is promoted as running between Sacramento and Los Angeles. But the southern end of the route is actually in Bakersfield, with a bus providing the 180km connection to and from Union Station.)
Union Station is also a stop on three Metro Rail light rail lines operated by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority (“Metro”), which bought Union Station in 2011. The Red and Purple Lines are underground, but the above-ground Gold Line uses a regular train platform. A ride on the Gold Line to Chinatown, Little Tokyo, or Pasadena might be the cheapest way to get a small taste of what rail travel at Union Station must have been like in its heyday.
Patsaouras Transit Plaza, at the east end of the station, is a bus station for Metro and various other municipal transit agencies that serve Downtown. Dedicated in 1995, it’s named for Nick Patsaouras, an advocate of bus transit and long-time member of Metro’s advisory board. The plaza’s indoor lobby has a large semicircular skylight, an information booth, and escalators leading to the Metro Rail Red and Purple Lines.
For years, homeless people had often camped out in Union Station’s main waiting hall, creating hygienic concerns and preventing train passengers from using the seats. At the end of 2013, Metro authorities implemented a widely-criticized response. They roped off most of the seating in the waiting hall, and restricted what was left to holders of valid tickets for the few Amtrak trains that depart from Union Station. If you’re waiting for a Metrolink train, or if you’re waiting to meet a passenger arriving on an often-tardy Amtrak train, enforcing officers will evict you from the seats. You’ll then have to stand, as the waiting hall has the station’s only seating.
Homelessness is a complex social problem in the United States, with root causes that politicians and bureaucrats resolutely refuse to address. As with most social problems, the preferred approach is to pass ordinances that let police, prosecutors, and prisons take care of it. Officials sometimes devise other measures that follow logic known only to themselves. At Union Station, the homeless made the waiting hall an unwelcoming place for passengers and visitors. Metro officials replaced the homeless with ropes, restrictions, and officers— which they apparently consider a better way to make the waiting hall an unwelcoming place for passengers and visitors.
If you’re visiting Downtown Los Angeles, getting there on mass transit (Metrolink, Metro Rail, or buses) is greatly preferable to driving in heavily congested traffic and paying astronomical prices for parking. But if you must drive, your best option might be to park in the Metro Headquarters garage next to Union Station. The cost is substantially less than hotel parking lots or other private parking; and there is plenty of capacity because transit planners assume that Southern California’s rail passengers will drive their cars to Union Station. (Consistent with that assumption, Metro makes using mass transit to get to Union Station impractical for overnight trips. Overnight parking is prohibited at the Metro Rail stations that have parking lots. Taxis and shuttle services between Union Station and most of Southern California are extremely expensive. But you can check the Metro trip planner to find the nearest Metro Rail station or express bus stop. A taxi to and from there, or perhaps a ride from a friend or neighbor, might be a viable alternative to driving to Union Station.) Metro Rail, Metro buses, or DASH buses from Union Station can take you anywhere in the Downtown area, if you don’t feel like walking.