Baltimore Penn Station overhaul would help speed up Amtrak trains in the Northeast

The Baltimore project is the first phase of a renovation of the rail hub and surrounding area, signaling a revitalization for an area long defined by wasteland, busy highways and weathered buildings. It is also expected to improve travel along the aging corridor, adding capacity to meet future demand as ridership increases two years into the coronavirus pandemic.

Baltimore-based Penn Station Partners is working with Amtrak on plans to envision a modern rail hub followed by at least $400 million in private investment to add housing, offices, restaurants and retail near the station in the years to come. Railroad and local authorities say a modernized station will raise Baltimore’s profile as a destination for residents, visitors and businesses.

“This is a priority for Amtrak,” said Brian Traylor, director of Amtrak major station planning. “It’s a historic station. It’s beautiful. It holds a very special place in the heart of every Baltimorean” but “the building itself is not in good condition”.

Owned by Amtrak, Penn Station is served by the railroad’s Northeast Regional and Acela trains. It is a major stop on the Maryland commuter rail system, which carries passengers from Baltimore to Washington, and serves as a stop for a Baltimore Light RailLink line.

Amtrak pays for station improvements using federal grants for capital projects. The company received a state contribution of $4 million and said the private developer would finance the commercial part.

Improvements to the facade and interior of the railway station are scheduled to begin this summer. This will include masonry repairs, window refurbishment, a new roof and work on the building’s outdated mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.

The concourse will be extended above the tracks to a vacant parking lot, where Amtrak will relocate the ticketing and baggage areas to free up space for retail and other commercial uses. Work to expand the plot north of the tracks is expected to begin this fall and be completed in 2025.

Crews are already working to add two platforms for Amtrak and MARC commuter trains, essentially doubling capacity for passenger operations. Amtrak ridership nationwide is hovering between 60% and 75% of pre-pandemic levels, an increase in the weeks since the omicron variant disrupted a gradual recovery.

Amtrak said the work will also help meet expected growth for its Acela service. With a new Acela fleet, the railway’s flagship high-speed service is expected to increase train frequency over the next decade. The new platforms will allow Acela trains to bypass regional and commuter trains at the station.

Baltimore is one of several Amtrak stations in the Northeast Corridor, the backbone of the country’s passenger rail infrastructure, which is awaiting a major overhaul. It follows other projects to modernize aging infrastructure, including at stations that lack accessibility and amenities and have not seen upgrades in years.

The 50-year-old passenger railroad is continuing an ambitious $75 billion expansion to bring trains to dozens of cities and towns across the country. The infrastructure law passed last year invested $66 billion in rail, which Amtrak plans to use for expansion while tackling improvements to tracks, tunnels, bridges and stations. The Penn Station project had already obtained funding through grants from the Federal Railroad Administration before the law was passed.

In its most active market, Amtrak last year opened Moynihan Train Hall, a $1.6 billion extension of Penn Station in New York. The facility, with 92-foot-tall skylights, offers dining and shopping options, as well as a lounge area with amenities for first-class passengers. South of New York, the company is advancing a $400 million redevelopment of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.

In Washington, a proposed multibillion-dollar expansion and overhaul of Union Station would add concourses and tracks, more retail options, a new train hall, and modern parking and bus facilities . The proposed expansion, a private and public investment of at least $10 billion, calls for a transformation of the nation’s second busiest rail hub by 2040.

The Federal Railroad Administration temporarily halted its analysis of the redevelopment project a year ago to revise key elements of the plan, including a planned parking lot as part of the redesign. The agency is expected to resume the process this year, although it’s unclear how soon such a costly project could go ahead without significant funding.

“We need to refocus on Union Station in Washington and put that project aside and move forward. We can look to Baltimore as an example of what is possible with the private and public sectors working hand in hand,” said Joe McAndrew, vice president of government affairs at the Greater Washington Partnership, a group of business leaders who advocate for investments in transportation from Baltimore to Richmond.

Infrastructure improvements in Baltimore, McAndrew said, have the potential to spur growth and economic development in Charm City. Adding offices and housing around the station could attract businesses to Baltimore, where they would have access to job candidates from across the greater Washington area with an easier transportation option.

The top three floors of the building, which have been vacant for decades, will be restored and converted into shared office spaces, which project officials say would target start-ups and entrepreneurs in a post-pandemic environment. The restoration of office space is expected to be completed next year, according to Penn Station Partners, a joint venture of Beatty Development Group and Cross Street Partners.

Tim Pula, vice president of community development at Beatty Development Group, said the revamped Baltimore station will also add restaurants, cafes and retail outlets, an improvement over the current offering of two cafes and a a newspaper stand.

“One of our desires is really for this place to be more than just a place for people who travel by train,” Pula said. “We really see it as a place for the community. A place where people go to have a meal or to meet friends for a drink or attend events in the square in front of the station.

As part of the agreement Along with Amtrak, Penn Station Partners will also develop land around the station, including for luxury apartments. Pula also said the addition of multi-family housing near the train stop would bring vibrancy while providing high demand housing. “There are people who see the value of living in a place that isn’t as expensive to live as some of our neighboring metro areas,” he said.

In a statement, the office of Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott (D) said the city supports more transit-oriented development and investment in rail. He said his administration is seeking more federal support for Amtrak and is asking the state to prioritize investing in rail infrastructure in the city. “Penn Station is a vital transportation hub for Baltimore residents and visitors, and its redevelopment is a critical part of improving the city’s overall transportation infrastructure,” he said.

South of Penn Station, Amtrak plans to replace the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel over the next decade at a cost of $4 billion, which would eliminate a major bottleneck for Amtrak, MARC trains and commercial rail traffic in the northeast. Also nearby, CSX is working on the 8,700-foot Howard Street Tunnel expansion, which runs under Baltimore and is critical to expanding freight capacity in the Interstate 95 corridor.

Penn Station last underwent a major renovation in 1984. Today, fencing is in place and crews are working to restore an unused platform, a top priority before moving on to other projects in and around the station. It will be a construction area for three years, but Amtrak officials said the work should not affect train operations.

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