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A tale of two train stations

Seattle's King Street Station can't match the comfort and appeal of Portland's Union Station. But work is on track to bring interior restoration, a tree-lined plaza, and other improvements.


A few weeks before this winter’s multitude of mudslides started wiping out train tracks, affecting both Amtrak and Sounder service, I took Amtrak Cascades south to Portland. It was an odd direction for me to go, as usually I take the train from Everett north to Vancouver, B.C. After all, I’m a self-proclaimed Closet Canuck, with a somewhat strange addiction to most everything north of the 49th Parallel. But since I hadn’t spent any time in the "Rose City" since my last visit in August of 2008, I was happy to head off to Oregon for three days.

I rode into Seattle with my hubby on a drizzly weekday morning to catch Amtrak #501 to Portland. The train didn’t leave until 7:30 a.m., and with an hour to kill, I opted to wait at the nearby Zeitgeist Coffee. It’s just a train whistle away from King Street Station, and much more pleasant.

Viewed from afar, King Street Station isn’t all that bad. The 1906 building, with its 12-story clock tower, is fairly impressive — sort of the non-churchgoing twin to the Campanile di San Marco in Venice. Viva, Italia! But a quick check around the neighborhood flattens that fantasy faster than a Seattle sports team leaving town. With Seahawks Stadium and Safeco Field a pigskin toss and baseball lob away, I knew there was little chance of spotting Sophia Loren or Marcello Mastroianni lurking around the station anytime soon.

Sadly, the train station is much less inviting inside, with the only Italian connection being a few wayward birds hopping and flying about. And even though the historic building’s design is often referred to as Railroad Italiante, don’t expect to be served the perfect cappuccino by a handsome waiter garbed in black and white. If you want something to sip or nosh on, you’ll have to put your greenbacks into a non-speaking vending machine.

King Street Station stands in stark contrast to Portland’s Union Station, located in Portland’s Old Town/Chinatown. It opened in 1896 and boasts an impressive 150-foot-tall clock tower described as Romanesque. Atop the tower is the neon Go By Train sign that was added to the tower sometime after World War II.

Union Station was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 and has been renovated since being taken over by the Portland Development Commission in 1987, as part of the Downtown Waterfront Urban Renewal Area. Today it’s comfortable, clean, and spacious with plenty of traveler amenities. Also housed in the station is Wilf’s, a cozy restaurant and jazz bar.

But here I am back at Seattle’s King Street Station, where dozens of travelers are lined up for morning trains headed north and south. Strollers, bicycles, and yoga mats make up the motley mix while a mother says a tearful goodbye to her son and others are hugging their smart phones, laptops, and e-book readers. Outside of the waiting passengers and on-duty Amtrak staff, the only other human activity is a service guy filling up an ATM located next to an uninviting women’s room. No thanks.

The good news for Seattle rail travelers is that King Street Station is perking up, albeit slowly. Cosmetic restoration started on the building in 2003, and the City of Seattle purchased the station from BNSF Railway five years later. In 2010, the U.S. Transportation Department awarded the King Street Station Restoration project $18.2 million, from $2.4 billion in high-speed intercity passenger rail-service funding.

The funds will complete seismic regrades and interior restoration of the station. This spring, a tree-lined plaza on Jackson Street is scheduled to open, replacing a parking lot. Details about the King Street Station Restoration may be found on the Seattle Department of Transportation’s website.

Sue Frause is a Whidbey Island freelance writer and photographer. You can reach her at sue@suefrause.com.


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