Railroads & Locomotives Hot Spots 10 historic rail stations to visit

10 historic rail stations to visit

By Lucas Iverson | December 11, 2023

Experience these must-see landmarks continuing to offer service for today’s passenger rail

Email Newsletter

Get the newest photos, videos, stories, and more from Trains.com brands. Sign-up for email today!

At the turn of the 20th century, stunning, cathedral-like structures were commonly served by passenger-rail carriers. These stations were hubs of activity in major cities, from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles and in between. The hustle and bustle within the walls reflected the height of passenger-rail service in the United States at the time. Not all of these buildings survived the times and fewer still are used for passenger operations today. But there are some historic stations you can still visit by train, all of which have retained the grandeur of the early days. Here are 10 favorites worth visiting.

Grand Central Terminal

Historic rail stations: New York’s Grand Central Terminal on Nov. 16, 2022. David Lassen

Living up to its name since its 1913 opening for the New York Central, New York City’s Grand Central Terminal is an architectural marvel. This iconic station is rightly named a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Although the premier long-distance trains that once served this station are no longer in operation, its two-level, underground platforms still embrace commuter travel for the Metro-North Railroad, connecting the northern suburbs of New York and Connecticut, the Long Island Railroad, and the metropolitan’s subway systems. Amidst the modern-day stores and restaurants that occupy sections of the building, afternoon tours are offered to explore the more historic areas of the station. T Main Concourse, Vanderbilt Hall, and Grand Central Clock are a must-see. They’ll help you appreciate the masterful work by Reed & Stem and Warren & Wetmore, which designed and built Grand Central Terminal. Read more about Grand Central Terminal in Trains’ February 2013 issue.

Washington Union Station

Large open space with ornate arched ceiling
Historic rail stations: The interior of Washington Union Station. Virginia Railway Express

Offering rail connections to the nation’s capital, this 1908-built Washington Union Station is a gateway to Beaux-Arts style, thanks to renowned architect Daniel Burnhams. Various landmarks and attractions in Washington D.C. are just a brief stroll away, notably the U.S. Capitol and multiple Smithsonian museums and galleries. Though typecast today as a shopping mall more than a train station, passenger service remains healthy. Union Station is a commuter hub for Washington Metro, Maryland Rail Commuter Service (MARC) and Virginia Railway Express (VRE), which stretches out to communities in Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia. Meanwhile, most of Amtrak’s routes serving the northeast region use this landmark as either a through station or stub-end terminal, especially as the south end of the busy Northeast Corridor.

William H. Gray III 30th Street Station

Historic rail stations: The interior of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station in 2010.  Mitch Goldman

Joining the Philadelphia skyline in 1933 by the former Pennsylvania Railroad, Philadelphia’s eight-story 30th Street Station is Amtrak’s third busiest station. Not a surprise since the Northeast Corridor cuts through the city with the Acela, Northeast Regional, Keystone Service to Harrisburg, plus eight long-distance trains make their regular station stops here. Then there’s the commuter services offered by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) and NJ Transit. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Gray 30th Street Station is currently undergoing renovation and redevelopment by Plenary Infrastructure Philadelphia, to be completed in 2025. While modern amenities will include expanded retail and office spaces, in addition to reconnecting SEPTA’s Market-Frankfort Line, the architectural history that pays homage to the PRR will remain. Read more about William H. Gray III 30th Street Station in Trains’ March 2011 issue.

Cincinnati Union Terminal

Current station for Amtrak Cincinnati services at Cincinnati Union Terminal
Historic rail stations: Since 1991, Amtrak uses space in Cincinnati Union Terminal, shown in October 2011. Brian M. Schmidt

Passenger service at the 1933-built Cincinnati Union Terminal has dwindled to a single night stop by Amtrak’s Cardinal, but a visit to this Art-Deco marvel is still worthwhile. The National Historic Landmark is home to a multi-museum complex, operated by the Cincinnati Museum Center. However, it’s the restored exterior facade and interior rotunda that together make the station a must-see. On the outside stands a striking, 10-story half dome, the largest of its kind in the western hemisphere. Inside the main concourse of the rotunda there is a proud display of Cincinnati’s history across a classic mosaic mural. As then-Trains Editor David P. Morgan said in the February 1972 issue, “CUT was a built-for-the-ages edifice, fit for the tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh, aptly acclaimed by the local chamber of commerce as a ‘great temple of transportation.’” Read more about Cincinnati Union Terminal in Trains’ August 2020 issue.

Chicago Union Station

Inside the big waiting room at a train station
Historic rail stations: Chicago Union Station’s Great Hall on July 26, 2021. Lucas Iverson

You certainly won’t find much of a challenge visiting the 1925-built Chicago Union Station by rail, especially when you disembark right in the heart of the Windy City. Union Station is Chicago’s only intercity passenger station in service today and one of the busiest railroad stations in the U.S. It hosts all of Amtrak’s Midwest regionals and most of the long-distance trains to all parts of the country, while serving as one of the four commuter hubs for Metra. We recommend you take in the Great Hall, inside out. The main waiting room’s towering columns, statues, and skyline dome are the centerpiece of epic proportions. When it’s time to board, set your eyes on the historic “To Trains” sign and arrow that’ll point you to the back-to-back concourses and platforms facing North and South.

St. Paul Union Depot

Historic rail stations: The waiting room of St. Paul Union Depot is shown just prior to the renovated station’s reopening in December 2012. Steve Glischinski

Since its 2014 re-genesis, the 1926-built transportation hub for the Twin Cities has seen a renaissance with no signs of slowing down. Currently a through station for Amtrak’s Chicago-Seattle Empire Builder, expect Union Depot to also receive a second St. Paul-Chicago service in 2024. The Metro Green Line light rail also uses the station as its St. Paul terminal when connecting to nearby Minneapolis. In addition to receiving passengers, the restored concourse and waiting room have been redeveloped as a multi-use event venue. The nearby Rail View Picnic Area overlooks the busy wye at Division Street, enhancing Union Depot’s credibility as a must-visit for railfans, with something for everyone. Read more about Union Depot St. Paul in Trains’ August 2014 issue.

Kansas City Union Station

Ornate interior of passenger station
Historic rail stations: The Grand Plaza of Kansas City Union Station. David Lassen

Constructed in 1914 with architect Jarvis Hunt leading the way, Kansas City Union Station has the appeal of a classic passenger terminal fit for a big city. Today, the massive structure has become a popular gathering space for the city it serves with restaurants, theaters, a model railroad layout, and the Science City museum full of exhibits and a planetarium. Against the backdrop of modern amenities, Union Station’s historic purpose remains with the Grand Plaza of Beaux-Arts style seeing daily riders aboard Amtrak’s Southwest Chief and Missouri River Runner, in addition to the Kansas City Streetcar. Read more about Kansas City Union Station in Trains’ December 2014 issue.

Denver Union Station

Historic rail stations: Amtrak NPCU No. 406 at Denver Union Station, promoting the Winter Park Express on Jan. 3, 2017. Dave Schaaf

Blazing brightly in the heart of the Mile High City is the vintage “Travel by Train” neon sign adorning Denver Union Station. Built in 1914, the station was renovated in 2012 and converted into an intermodal transportation hub. Today, it includes modern shopping and dining. Yet the allure of rail travel through the Rocky Mountain West remains with the preservation of the building’s historic exterior and waiting room in Beaux-Arts style. Step onto the platform and you’ll see trains for two commuter systems of the Regional Transportation District (RTD): a metropolitan light-rail network, and an extensive route to Denver’s airport. Three scheduled passenger trains also depart from Union Station each day: The Rocky Mountaineer to Moab, Utah; Amtrak’s Winter Park Express ski train; and Amtrak’s Chicago-Emeryville, Calif. California Zephyr.

Portland Union Station

Passenger train with white, green and brown locomotive at station
Historic rail stations: Amtrak’s Cascades departing Portland Union Station in June 2021. Bob Johnston

While the size and grandeur of Portland Union Station may not be able to compete with the likes of Chicago or Los Angeles, its heritage makes the station a standout among its peers. Built in 1896 by the Northwest Pacific Terminal Co. — joint ownership between Northern Pacific, Union Pacific, and Southern Pacific — this station has remained a fully active passenger hub for the Pacific Northwest ever since. Amtrak’s Cascades, Coast Starlight, and the Portland section of the Empire Builder are the regular stops while MAX light rail and Portland Streetcars connect passengers to the City of Roses. Portland Union Station has undergone renovation work throughout the years, but the building’s historic features of the 1940s remain — from the waiting room’s Art-Deco marble to the Romanesque clock tower and landmarked “Go By Train” neon sign. Read more about Portland Union Station in Trains’ November 2005 issue.

Los Angeles Union Station

Historic rail stations: Los Angeles Union Station on June 25, 2014. David Lustig

Built in 1939, Los Angeles Union Station has been called the “last of the great railway stations.” Today, it remains one of the busiest hubs for passenger rail in the West. Metro light rail, Metrolink, and Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner provide round-the-clock commuter service from Union Station to most of the Southern California region. Meanwhile, four of Amtrak’s long-distance trains depart Los Angeles and stretch out to Seattle, Chicago, and New Orleans. Locals, tourists, and film/television crews have become regulars to the Art-Deco beauty and history of the terminal. David Lustig said it best in Trains’ September 2019 issue that Los Angeles Union Station is a “bustling, rarely sleeping community of its own.”

Of course, there are many more historic stations out there to visit, whether still by train or another form of transportation. To learn more about these cathedral-like landmarks of the past, stay tuned for Trains’ upcoming Railroad Stations In American Life DVD!

You must login to submit a comment