Way Out: Change the Station
Waitin’ on a train at Charlotte’s least romantic place
It shouldn’t make a damn bit of difference what a train station looks like. The only reason you’re there, really, is to walk on or off a train. That’s it. You’re not there to take in the ambiance or to sip on an espresso while you read Le Monde.
Oh, but it does make a difference. Train stations somehow got caught in a weird Norman Rockwell time warp, in which every old station needs to have film noir lighting and an art deco clock on the wall. Airports are sterile. Bus stations are ewww. Trains have their own nostalgic lingo, with words such as conductor, Pullman car, and whistlestop. They are supposed to be monuments that match a classier way to go somewhere. Travel has become ordinary. Train stations are supposed to be extraordinary. Grander. Romantic, even.
Charlotte’s train station?
Some history: Charlotte used to have a train station uptown on West Trade Street. In the 1960s, Southern Railway built a new passenger terminal in its freight yard on North Tryon Street, across the street from Channel 9. A multi-use facility. Charlotte ended up with the Three Rivers Stadium of railroad stations.
It is also the ugliest. Greensboro, High Point, Kannapolis, and Salisbury all have retro stations that have been renovated and turned into landmarks. In Charlotte, you are greeted by a gas station-style ATM in one of the corners. The walls are made of gravel. The wooden benches look—and I’ll be generous here—vintage. The signs are made of cardboard. Once, I used the bathroom, which was designed with a faded light blue tile motif. A man who had spent a considerable amount of time in the stall next to the urinal walked out without washing his hands. It is the least romantic place in town.
Somehow, this squares with the fact that I take Amtrak strictly for unromantic reasons. My wife’s parents live in Greensboro, and on some visits, she drives up a few days before I do. We don’t want to drive two cars back. The price of a ticket is slightly less than the price of the gas it’d take to get me there. With construction on Interstate 85, I can get there faster, and with less road rage, on the train.
This is the only time I take the train anywhere. At some point, just once, I’d like a little sizzle with my steak. I’ve ridden trains in Europe, where trains are immensely popular and pull into gorgeous and busy depots that drop you off in a part of town you’d actually like to see. In Charlotte, you are greeted by 50-year-old semi-industrial taupe and terrazzo feng shui.
Despite its flaws, Charlotte’s Amtrak station is the busiest in the state. More than 201,000 people got on or off a train there last year, and those numbers keep crawling upward. And things are changing. Norfolk Southern is moving its rail yard out to the airport, and at last check, a new station, called the Gateway Station, is supposed to be built on West Trade Street uptown before the end of the decade. But for now, that square little building on North Tryon Street will have to do, and we’ll have to keep settling for a handshake while we long for the passionate kiss goodbye.