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The Amtrak Standard Stations Program


March 4, 2013

Since the 19th century, railroads have used standardized depot designs to shape a brand for their services. In the early days, color schemes were especially important since distinctive colors or patterns could be identified from a distance. Architectural design and building materials were also used to fashion an individual identity for a company. For example, the Santa Fe Railway employed Spanish Colonial and Mission Revival architectural styles for many of its depots in the Southwest and California. Hallmarks such as arcades, red tile roofs and metalwork were considered regionally appropriate since they tied into the area’s Spanish Colonial past. Depot size, layout and construction materials were determined by the population of the town and projected ridership; detailing could be adjusted based on available materials and regional preferences.

Amtrak was no different from its predecessors, and in its early years, it strove to design and construct new stations that would enhance the company’s image. Following World War II, railroads had invested in new equipment and other assets in an attempt to retain customers and attract new ones in the face of competition from highways and commercial air service, both of which received financial support from the federal government.1 Unable to hold onto market share, railroads in the 1960s put off non-essential capital costs such as station improvements; therefore, when Amtrak took over the nation’s intercity passenger rail service in 1971, many depots were in a state of disrepair.

Some facilities required significant renovations, while in other cases, route realignments, ownership conflicts or the lack of a building led Amtrak to construct new depots. In major metropolitan areas, grand stations or terminals were often considered too large; a new, smaller building offered Amtrak long-term cost savings. To guide the design process and ensure a consistent image across the national network, the office of the Chief Engineer, working with all Amtrak departments, developed the Amtrak Standard Stations Program. It produced a manual for use by architects and designers to “provide the necessary guidance to plan, implement, operate, and maintain station facilities throughout the Amtrak System.”

The manual clearly laid out the company’s intentions: it would create modern, progressive, efficient and comfortable depots that looked to the future and encouraged the public to think of Amtrak as a fresh, new approach to passenger railroading. Facilities would also complement sleek new equipment in use by the late 1970s, including Amfleet cars and the Turboliners. As the manual stated: “Amtrak is not a railroad of the past, but rather, a transportation system of the present and future. We must compete with the airlines and their jetports, the interstate highway system and its convenient and modern service stations and restaurants, and inter-city busses with their new or upgraded terminals.” Amtrak planners emphasized: “Our passenger stations are also our only permanent presence in most communities…Amtrak’s public image can be greatly enhanced, or easily destroyed by our facilities.”

Depot design was also driven by practical concerns for highly functional, flexible, cost-efficient structures. To the last point, the manual stated: “Unlike the railroads of the past, we have no place for grandiose, monumental stations that cannot be financed by our projected revenues.” The oil shortages of the decade led to spikes in Amtrak ridership, pointing to the possibility of permanent gains over time; therefore, it was paramount that depots also be designed with an eye to future expansion. Standardized designs permitted cost savings by avoiding extensive architects’ fees and also enforced a consistent “look” and branding through the use of the same interior and exterior finishes, signage and seating units.

Buff colored split concrete block at the
Minneapolis-St. Paul station.

Early prototype stations were generally rectangular, and all but the largest model was one story. Walls were composed of textured, precast concrete panels, split concrete block or brick, generally in a “play of bronze and tan” colors. When using split concrete blocks, the manual specified a unit that was “8’x8’x16’ with a minimum of 8 scored fractures.” Mortar was to be colored to match the blocks and thus present a uniform surface when viewed at a distance.

This Type 50C station in Canton, Ohio opened
in 1978.

A prominent cantilevered, flat black metal roof created deep eaves to protect passengers from inclement weather. The top edge of the walls was often beveled, leading the eye to a band of clerestory windows that allowed light to enter the interior. Viewed from a distance, the clerestory windows had the visual effect of making the roof appear as if it floated above the structure. Floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows provided for natural light while offering a sharp contrast to the walls’ solidity. In keeping with the tan color scheme, metal was to be bronzed while other surfaces received a coat of dark brown paint.

Station square footage and amenities were determined by the “peak hour passenger count” (peak count), or the number of passengers who passed through the building in the busiest hour of the day. Amtrak engineering developed five depot prototypes to guide new construction and renovation at small, medium and large stations; high-capacity facilities such as New York Penn Station and Washington Union Station would continue to be addressed on an individual basis. Prototypes included:

  • Type 300A: Peak count of 300+ passengers. Building included 18,100 square feet ideally sited on 8.9 acres. In addition to a grand double height waiting room, restrooms, ticket counter and baggage room, there was also space for administrative offices and support facilities such as a Red Cap lounge, station manager’s office, district supervisor’s office, commissary and onboard crew room. Passenger amenities were located on the ground floor with administrative offices on the second level.


Top: Drawing of a proposed Type 300A station similar to those built at Minneapolis-St. Paul and Miami. Bottom: The Minneapolis-St. Paul Midway Station (opened 1978) as seen in fall 2012.


The four other prototypes included passenger amenities such as a waiting room and ticket counter, but no railroad administrative offices or support facilities.

  • Type 150B: Peak count of 150-300 passengers. Building included 8,220 square feet ideally sited on 5 acres.
  • Type 50C: Peak count of 50-150 passengers. Building included 1,920 square feet ideally sited on 4 acres.
  • Type 25D: Peak count of 25-50 passengers. Building included 1,150 square feet ideally sited on 2 acres.
  • Type E: Unmanned station handling less than 25 passengers per peak hour. Building included 240 square feet ideally sited on 1 acre. This model consisted solely of a waiting room.


All but the Type E station were designed for easy expansion by removing the modular end wall panels and putting on additions to increase the size of the waiting area and baggage room. Due to its small size, Type E could be replaced by a 25D station should the need arise.

This floor plan of a Type 25D station shows the area for future expansion at top.


The basic layout placed the waiting room and baggage room at opposite ends of the structure with the ticket counter in the middle. “Logical and efficient” interiors were meant to provide a sense of order that passengers would then associate with the company at large. In choosing fittings and furnishings for the stations, the manual exhorted: “The same care and concern that goes into furnishing your own home must be applied to the stations’ interiors in order to create a pleasing environment for the passenger.”

Tan and neutral colors carried over from the exterior, but following popular design trends of the 1970s, bright and bold colors—usually reds, oranges and yellows—were selectively employed to draw attention to particular features, such as the carpeted wall behind the ticket counter. This splash of color was appropriate since that wall held the corporate logo and the schedule board. As the manual reminded designers, “Without a carefully considered color scheme, our stations would appear shoddy and poorly designed.”

The manual provided drawings of how the wall behind the ticket desk was
to be arranged to show off the Amtrak logo and images of destinations
served by the company.


Whereas pre-Modern architects hid functional components such as wiring and ductwork, Modernists celebrated these essential building systems by leaving them exposed to view. Thus, interior walls could be left bare if the “face of the concrete masonry units [has a] finish and workmanship of a high quality.” Emphasis was given to cost-effective, durable materials that would hold up under high volume traffic and be easy to clean and maintain.  The latter was especially important, since “the user should be thoroughly knowledgeable about the care and maintaining of the interior in order to sustain the original intent of the design.”

Floors were to be a combination of easy-to-maintain quarry tiles at entrances and in the main paths of travel, while red carpet gave a softer, more domestic appearance to the seating areas. On the ceiling, an aluminum slat system had integrated lights and HVAC outlets. The most important element of the waiting room was seating, and Amtrak designers chose three strikingly modern options. Gone were the hard wooden benches of yesteryear, replaced with comfortable, high-design pieces such as the Herman Miller LaFonda chair and the Knoll Morrison-Hanna chair. Although mass-produced, the furniture’s clean lines and contemporary finishes reinforced a progressive, forward-thinking design aesthetic.  

In 1978, the waiting room at the new Type 150B
station in Rochester, N.Y. included Herman Miller
LaFonda chairs.

The planning manual also showed a concern for passengers with disabilities, with a section devoted to design solutions for eliminating physical barriers. Drawing from the building industry standards of the day, the manual recommended wide entrances and hallways for wheelchair users, non-slip surfaces, elevators in the 300A stations, and ramps at curb cuts outside the station so wheelchair users could more easily move from parking facilities to the depot.

Even with the passage of time, the depots built by Amtrak in the 1970s and early 1980s remain distinct due to their strong rectilinear qualities and unity of materials. Their textured walls, abundant use of glass and functional, light-filled interiors remain a hallmark of the era. Like most buildings, at mid-life they fell victim to changing tastes and were often considered outmoded and visually unappealing. Fortunately, a greater understanding of the design intent behind these structures allows for an appreciation of their place in the long and rich history of railroad depot design.


1 John F. Stover, American Railroads  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 216-218.

In addition to the above links, sources consulted include:

National Railroad Passenger Corporation. Annual Reports  for FY 1978 and 1981.

National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Office of the Chief Engineer). Standard Stations Planning Manual. Washington, DC.

National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Office of the Chief Engineer). Standard Stations Program Executive Summary. Washington, DC, 1978.


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