A Bitter Ode to Union Station

10_1_09_delete.jpgKoeppel’s photo essay on Union Station at Flickr is almost as good as this story.

I love this place. It is among the most beautiful train stations in the world, and I’m not
the only one who thinks so. And I feel bad for Union Station, too: for
years – and this may be part of the reason it hasn’t fallen to the wrecking ball – not much
happened here. Amtrak was sleepy before the State of California began funding
it. Bus services was weak. There was no Metro Red Line or Gold Line.
Now, with all that happening, and even more expansion coming in the next decade, L.A.’s primary transit hub actually has to
figure out how to function.

That’s not easy, since it requires the coordination of multiple
agencies, many of which are inexperienced and have yet to
figure out how to successfully build even internal infrastructure.

With that in mind, here’s some tough love – and hints on navigating – the now 70-year-old structure.

GHOST TOWN: The coolest parts of Union Station are roped off,
seemingly closed forever, gathering dust. The old ticketing area at the
station’s front end – an absolute masterpiece of design – is available
only as a movie set. Amtrak’s "new" customer service center is
functional, but artless and even difficult to find, hidden, as it is
behind pillars. The lovely information booth – see above – is also closed
forever. The station belongs to the people of Los Angeles – so why all
this "look, but don’t touch?" But be warning: If you try to sneak into on of the station’s forbidden zones, Homeland Security will probably catch you!

WHAT’S A PORTAL? The station’s back door, also known as the
"East Portal," also known as the Patsouras Transit Plaza, also known as
the Gateway Center, is where lots of buses – but not all – stop. You can’t easily figure out what leaves
from where – or how to get there from where you are. Wherever that is.
Here’s a crib sheet. East side: Flyaway Bus to LAX. Cheap (($6/day)
parking underneath. Freeway and express buses (mostly.) NO taxis. Live
Metrolink ticket both. More elevators than you’ll know what to do with.
A smallish newsstand with limited hours. At the main end of the
station: Amtrak tickets. Food. Clean bathrooms. Car rental. Two
information booths, one sometimes manned. Garden and main
waiting areas. Taxis. Expensive parking ($24/day.) Many local buses
(outside, on Alameda St.) Big newsstand and bagel shop. Good from both
ends: Access to Gold and Red lines.

10_1_09_three_names.jpg

YOU CAN’T GET THERE: I made this rant on my own blog last
month and you can read it in more detail there. My simple question:
why is there no bus service down Sunset Boulevard that stops directly
at Union Station, other than the peak-hours only 704? Sunset/Cesar
Chavez is the station’s northern boundary. It is arguably the city’s
most important thoroughfare, winding, as it does, from the Pacific, all
the way to East Los Angeles. But if you’re trying to get to Union
Station from the west, you end up having to transfer a maddening
half-mile or so from the actual station – the second bus ride, with
waiting time, adds another twenty minutes to the journey. And in
off-hours, the walk can be a little scary (see photo essay.) Why doesn’t a bus
actually go all the way down this big, important avenue all the way to
this big, important train station?

WHERE DO I PARK (MY BIKE?) There are bike lockers at Union Station, but I couldn’t find
them. Metro simply tells you that they’re "there." But even if I had located them, I’d have discovered they’re only available to
long-term renters. Other cities offer day-use bike lockers, or even
bike check facilities. Nobody in the station could tell me,
either. I couldn’t find the bike racks, either. 

WHERE DO I PARK (MY CAR?) There are four lots at Union
Station. The one in front, Lot B, costs $24 daily. You don’t want to
park there. But finding the cheaper parking – Lot D, over by that East
Portal, charges $6/day – isn’t easy. First, there’s are signs that appear to point you to parking (photo essay), but that don’t really lead to any parking or any parking for the public. Four entrances to the correct lot – once you find it – are gated. The sign indicating the actual entrance is so tiny that you need binoculars to read it (Photo essay. Again.) Finally, once
you’ve actually parked, you face a warren of elevators – at least five
– none of which do a good job telling you where they go. This is
awesome if you want to visit the new MTA tower that rises above the East Portal. Not so awesome if you don’t want to miss your train.
(You want the ones to East Portal or Patsouras Transit Plaza. Hit P1
to get to the station directly. Hitting P overshoots you by one story,
but does put you at Flyaway Bus level. The next choice on the elevator
panel was "3." I was afraid to push it.)

HUNGRY: The Traxx Restaurant serves good, pricey food. If you can afford it, and you happen to be around when it is open – which may not
be likely – give it a shot (speaking of shots, the Traxx Bar is open
seven days a week…) Otherwise, you’re stuck with Union Bagels, next
to the newsstand. Not bad, and not terribly overpriced, but be warned:
the service is horribly slow for a place where people are, by definition, in a rush. During peak hours, expect to
miss your train if you’ve allotted less than twenty minutes from the
time you queue up to order and when your coffee and
poppy-seed-with-a-schmear actually arrives. One place you won’t be able to eat is the
shuttered Harvey House restaurant on the station’s south side. Amble
over and stare at this gorgeously preserved, off-limits artifact of a
chain that once offered convenient, elegant dining at railway depots
across the West.

SIGNAGE HIJINKS IN UNION STATION and more tips are at the photo essay.

All that said, Union Station remains an absolute essential stop for
anyone interested in Los Angeles history – and all the better if you
actually use it. Even more challenges face the facility over the next
decade, as major track renovations – right now, trains dead end here and have to make a reverse-turnaround to re-exit the station – get
underway in order to accommodate a proposed high-speed rail line that
would get you to San Francisco in under three hours.

Bonus/Related tips:

  • If you need to use the rest room, choose the ones at the center of
    the station, near the Amtrak ticket offices. The east-side restrooms
    are generally pretty gross.
  • When you buy your Amtrak tickets electronically, you are asked
    whether you want to pick up your tickets at the Amtrak machines or the
    Metrolink machines. The implication is that you’ve got an either/or
    situation. Not true, which is good, because there are only three Amtrak
    devices, and finding them is practically a scavenger hunt. But Metrolink’s ticket robots are everywhere. The
    trick? Don’t choose the Metrolink option when purchasing. Opting for
    the Amtrak machines yields you a bar-coded receipt that only they can
    scan – but you can manually enter your Amtrak confirmation number into
    any Metrolink unit.
  • Speaking of Amtrak, the fare to San Diego can be made cheaper if
    you buy a AAA-member ticket (three days in advance.) You probably can
    get away without actually being a member. I’ve never been asked for ID.
  • Speaking of Amtrak, part II: For $14, you can get a
    business-class upgrade. You get, for that, a free drink, some snacks,
    and a reserved seat with power outlets. You don’t need it. There is
    ALWAYS plenty of room on the regular train. The seats and power outlets
    are exactly the same. The free drink (singular) and snacks aren’t worth the moolah. Correction: As one poster pointed out, my evaluation of seating options is very San Diego-bound-centric. Other trains can be packed, in which case a reserved spot might make sense.
  • If you’re super-hungry and the food places are closed, begin your
    quest at the main entrance (Olvera Street’s burrito joints; food carts.) There’s nothing but a horrid Denny’s near
    the East Portal.
  • See more of Union Station in movies – Chinatown and Blade Runner (where it was police headquarters). On television, my favorite appearance was on an old episode of (I suck, I know) Jackass. An unknowing commuter is sitting in the waiting room. First, a cop sites next to him. Then a construction worker. Then an indian chief…
  • Union Station has no official website. You’ll find snippets of info at various agency pages (Amtrak does OK
    with this) as well as at Wikipedia. A straight-ahead search lands you at a Sierra Club page, of all things – and then gets you a ton of links
    for the Washington, D.C. depot of the same name. Here’s the Google maps location.
  • You can live at Union Station, and not just beneath the nearby underpasses. The Mosaic Apartments
    are on-site. Studios start at $1,600. I’m not sure which option is better.

And this:

Bottom line is that you’re going to have a very hard time figuring
out if or whether your train has arrived unless you are sitting on top
of an Amtrak agent. Do not, therefore, repose in either the gorgeous
waiting room or the outdoor garden. Instead, waiting in the signed
"check-in area." (See the photos.) Even there, the giant, digital arrivals/departure board is merciless; it will not
show that your train is boarding, nor will it give you a track number.
But a very friendly agent – seriously, I’ve never met nicer, more
helpful real people in a transit system – will be happy to help you, if you can find one. (Best advice I’ve ever gotten: "The 7:20? RUN!")  That somewhat makes up for the
lack of clear info.

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