A sequel: a new station for Charleston

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, February 7, 2019

Rare pleasure in 2019: a brand-new railroad station for a major metropolitan area. On February 5, the new depot at North Charleston, S.C., was complete, and work was progressing on landscaping. Kevin P. Keefe
It’s not every day you encounter a brand-new passenger station — especially a substantial one — in America these days. But there I was this week, walking along a spotless concrete covered platform, hard by a busy double-track main line. Inside the main building, passengers were ensconced in a spacious, sparkling interior, enjoying comfortable new seats, soothed by indirect lighting. Outside, the building was surrounded by the raw material for what soon will be handsome (and semi-tropical) landscaping. 

Welcome to the depot at North Charleston, S.C., opened just weeks ago to serve the rather large (pop. 550,000) Charleston metro area. Built by the city of North Charleston with a mix of federal and local funding, the new structure replaces the former Atlantic Coast Line station, which had served the city since 1956.

Now passengers traveling on either the daytime New York–Savannah Palmettoor the overnight New York–Miami Silver Meteor will arrive and depart from a station worthy of those great old train names. Gone is the rusting, foreboding chain link and barbed-wire fence that was emblematic of the former station, as well as its dark parking lot and its careworn waiting rooms. Two of them, to be exact; Jim Crow was still in effect when the ACL station opened, complete with segregated facilities.

Before the new station opened, Amtrak's Charleston passengers used a depot built by the Atlantic Coast Line in 1956. Wikipedia
It should be noted that there’s more to the station than Amtrak. The official name of the place is the North Charleston Intermodal Transportation Center, reflecting the fact that it is also a hub for Southeastern Stages, a regional intercity bus company, and the transit buses of the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA).

It was just a year ago that I last reported in this space about an encounter with the old station. That earlier story included a brief history of Charleston’s passenger service, including the wonderful twin-towered Spanish Renaissance stub-end station that formerly served Charleston at the corner of Columbus and East Bay Streets by the harbor. But that station mostly burned down in 1947, so ACL moved its operation out to North Charleston, obviating the wye move required for through trains.

A vaulted ceiling crowns the waiting area in the new North Charleston station. Kevin P. Keefe
I enjoyed that visit a year ago, partly because a balmy evening in February just doesn’t happen in my hometown of Milwaukee, but also because the old ACL station had its charms. I’m sure local folks won’t miss that place, but I tried to give it some credit. 

“Traditionalists might dismiss its boxy simplicity,” I wrote, “but the two-story Mid-Century Modernist building has pleasing proportions set off by an appealing surface texture of red brick on the first floor and green-dyed concrete on the second, where ACL’s old Charleston Division freight office was located. The color scheme is appropriate for a semi-tropical city known for its palmetto trees. I’d call the style Low Country Bauhaus.”

Sadly, the powers that be here made quick work of the old stalwart. As soon as the new building was ready for occupancy in mid-December, the wreckers moved in and tore the ACL depot down, apparently because a new, larger parking lot is needed, and the station site was the only place to put it. As of this week, they’re still grading the lot.

Amtrak's southbound Palmetto calls at the new station's brilliantly lit platform. Kevin P. Keefe
So, what will knowledgeable train riders make of the new place?

I think they’ll like it. The station’s roomy 14,000-square foot interior has spacious corridors that double as waiting rooms, with a handsome circular information booth in the center. Meeting rooms and rest rooms occupy the south wing of the building, with Amtrak and bus ticket offices on the north. I was told by Amtrak ticket personnel that there are no plans to “unstaff” the station and convert to ticket machines, something I found reassuring.

The best part of the new station, of course, is outside, along those roomy platforms that extend several hundred feet along the CSX main line, lit up brilliantly at night. Lined with comfortable steel benches, it’s a very pleasant place to wait for a train, and looking north you can see an oncoming train for several miles up the CSX straightaway.

The new station's platform features a NORTH CHARLESTON sign at the end of the shed. Kevin P. Keefe
I can’t say for sure what passengers were thinking the other night as the southbound Palmetto pulled into the station and a fairly large crowd disembarked, but I hope the Charlestonians among them are grateful that they now have a train station worthy of a great city. 

What did I like best? It’s at the end of the platform, where angled sans serif letters mounted atop the platform roof spell out NORTH CHARLESTON in an obvious homage to the lettering on the old ACL platforms. It’s a small thing, I suppose, but it’s nice the architects thought to include it. 

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