Union Station is the main transportation hub in Washington DC with access to the Metro, trains, buses, bikeshare, taxis and more. This beautiful building as been a big part of Washington DC life since it open and has been going a recent multi year renovation to bring it back to its original glory. With beauty and history of its own, this isn’t just a train station. Take our Self Guided Tour to find out more about this local treasure.
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Stop A- Columbus Fountain
Start at the large marble statue in the traffic circle in front of Union station. This fountain, situated in the center of Columbus Circle, was designed by famed American sculptor Lorado Taft in 1912. Taft was one of the very first artists to hire women in his studio, using whatever skilled labor was available during the construction of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. Columbus Fountain symbolizes the spirit of exploration during Columbus’s epochal 1492 expedition to the New World. Christopher Columbus sits at the center on a ship’s prow, with a globe of the Western World atop a pedestal behind him. The crouched figure on the north side of the statue represents the Old World, while the Native American figure on the south side represents the New World. A relief of King Ferdinand & Queen Isabella, the Spanish monarchs who sponsored Columbus’ expedition across the Atlantic Ocean, is carved into the back of the center pedestal. Three flag poles located in the circle (between the fountain and station) represent the three ships of Columbus’ fleet; the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.
Walk toward the station to the other side of Columbus Fountain.
Stop B- Freedom Bell
This large cast iron bell was presented by the American Legion to Congress in celebration of the 1976 bicentennial of United States Independence. The Freedom Bell is a scale replica of the Liberty Bell, located in downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Liberty Bell hung in the bell tower atop Independence Hall, and was supposedly rung in 1776 at the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence. The bell is a national symbol of American liberty and independence. The Freedom Bell was cast by the Whitechapel Foundry in Great Britain, the same foundry that cast the original Liberty Bell in 1752.
Turn around to face the front of Union Station, with the Freedom Bell behind you.
Stop C- Front Façade of Union Station
Once the largest train station in the world, Union Station was originally commissioned by Teddy Roosevelt as part of a large-scale urban redevelopment project in 1903. The building was meant to be a “great vestibule to the city of Washington,” relocating two train stations formerly situated on the National Mall, owned by the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad and Pennsylvania Railroad, respectively. The name Union Station refers to the uniting of these two competing railroads into one grand station.
Union Station was designed by prolific turn-of-the-century architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham, known most famously for his quote: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood…” Burnham was influential throughout the United States and oversaw the redevelopment of major cities like Chicago and Washington D.C. He is considered to be the father of the skyscraper—the Flatiron Building in New York City is one of his most famous works. He is also widely known for directing the planning of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, alongside other prolific designers like Frederick Law Olmstead and Lorado Taft.
Stop D- The Progress of Railroading
Look above the three center arches in front of you and notice six granite figures towering over the main entrance to Union Station. These 18ft tall sculptures, completed in 1908 by sculptor Louis St. Gaudens, depict Greek figures representing the invention and triumph of the railroad industry. To the far left you can see Prometheus with a torch, known in Greek mythology for giving fire to man. Next to Prometheus is Thales, a Greek philosopher known to be the first to study electricity. Next is Themis, goddess of law and justice, then Apollo, god of inspiration, Ceres, goddess of agriculture, and lastly Archimedes, god of mechanics (note the gear behind him).
Walk under the center arch through the main entrance of Union Station, into the Waiting Room.
Stop E- Main Waiting Room
Union Station is one of the largest granite buildings in the world, built of stone from Bethel, Vermont with a cast iron/steel frame. Hundreds of Italian stone masons were brought over to build the structure and were housed in parked rail cars during construction. Daniel Burnham used only the finest materials and most lofty precedents for his design. The Main Waiting Room, which is modeled after the ancient Roman Baths of Diocletian, is comprised of massive 96ft high barrel vaults. The room is 220 feet wide by 120 feet long, with marble floors and gold leaf throughout the coffered plaster ceiling.
In its heyday during WWII, Union Station saw 200,000 people pass through each day. This incredible activity was captured in a 1942 Washington Post headline: “The Capital’s Railroad Terminal Holds the Pulse of a Nation at War.” Note the 36 Roman centurions standing guard above you around the perimeter of the waiting room. Originally these statues were designed to be nude, but shields and clothing were added to the final design.
With your back to the main entrance, make a right and walk into the East Hall. Note the clock above the entrance to the East Hall, with the roman numeral showing IIII instead of IV on its face.
Stop F- East Hall
The decoration in the East Hall is taken directly from ancient Pompeii, which was being excavated around the time Daniel Burnham designed Union Station. This area was originally used as a public dining room but was converted into retail space in the 1980s. Walk to the back of the East Hall and look through the glass door in the center of the back wall. This bar area was once part of the Presidential Suite, built for the President of the United States to travel and greet visiting dignitaries. This area was added to the original station plans after President James Garfield was assassinated in 1881 at the former Baltimore & Potomac railroad station near what is now the National Gallery of Art. The suite was converted to a USO lounge in 1941 to accommodate large numbers of troops coming through the station during WWII. The area has since been used as a restaurant and a private event space.
Walk back into the Main Waiting Room and make a right, through the center doors into the Main Concourse. You’ll see a curved staircase in front of you, walk up to the top level and stand near the top of the stairs.
Stop G- Main Concourse
This area was once the largest single room in the world, stretching 760 feet down the length of the concourse. Passengers would walk straight through this massive corridor to get to the train platforms beyond. With your back to the Waiting Room, look across the length of the concourse to your left and notice a dirty looking patch of the ceiling. This portion of the ceiling was left to show what the state of this room was like with trains billowing smoke and ash into this enclosed area as they loaded and unloaded passengers from the tracks.
The concourse has undergone substantial changes, reflecting the rise, deterioration, and eventual revitalization of Union Station. After the frenzy of activity during WWII, rail travel declined rapidly in favor of car and air transit. Union Station went from a busting hub of urban life to an off-the-beaten-path attraction surrounded by underused government buildings and seedy neighborhoods. In 1976, Congress attempted to convert the station into the “National Visitor’s Center,” installing a massive multimedia display in a sunken area carved out of the floor of the Waiting Room referred to as “the pit.” The Visitor’s Center was a total flop and failed to draw visitors off of the National Mall and into Union Station. The building continued to deteriorate until a massive storm in 1980 brought down parts of the plaster ceiling in the Waiting Room and Concourse, which forced the station to close entirely.
In 1981 Congress passed a redevelopment act that invested $160 million dollars into revitalizing the station. Amtrak, the primary interstate passenger railway in the United States, contributed funds and, in exchange, was permitted to use Union Station as its new national headquarters. One of the major successes in this renovation was the addition of retail, which brought business and activity back into the station. The track beds were pushed back, adding a modern train waiting area behind the original building, and the massive Concourse was converted into retail space.
Walk back down the stairs and take the escalators on either side down to the bottom food court level.
Stop H- Baggage & Mail Level
This food court was once used at the baggage and mail area, where trains would offload packages as passengers disembarked upstairs. You can still see the low arches of the original track beds, with numbers in the tile work indicating track numbers. The basement mail level was converted at the same time as the concourse above to bring activity back into the station.
This area was also the site of one of the most dramatic runaway train stories in American history, known as the Federal Express train wreck. (This event inspired the 1976 film, Silver Streak). On January 14th, 1953, the overnight Federal Express No. 173 departed Boston at 11pm carrying both passengers and mail en route to Washington D.C. The engineer reported trouble with the air brakes about 45 minutes later, and an inspection was carried out during the New Your City stop, though no problems were discovered. The Federal Express departed New York City at 4:38am, continuing to Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore, and departed from Baltimore at 7:50am for the last stop at Union Station.
The train accelerated to 80 mph (normal speed) until reaching Landover, Maryland, when the engineer attempted to apply the brakes and start slowing for the approach to Washington D.C. The regular brakes only slowed the train to 60mph, and emergency breaks applied moments later brought it down to 50mph. The engineer then tried to throw the train into reverse, but the stress caused the electric engine to spark and malfunction. As the train began the final decent into the city, a grade change caused the Federal Express to pick up speed. Finally, the engineer sounded the distress signal, and began running through the cars telling passengers to get down and brace. The signal worker in the yard quickly directed the train onto track 16 and phoned the stationmaster’s office to warn them and of the approaching train, supposedly shouting “Runaway on track 16! Run for your lives!” Twenty seconds later, the Federal Express barreled through the stationmaster’s office at 45 miles per hour, just barely missing the fleeing master and his staff.
The Federal Express struck the bumper at the end of the track bed going 35 mph and crashed through the bumper, offices, a newsstand, and finally into the concourse itself. The concourse floor gave way beneath the 240-ton locomotive, and the engine plunged into the mail level below (where you are standing), coming to rest 6 inches from the foundation of the Main Waiting Room beyond.
Incredibly, no one died or was even seriously injured in the crash, and train service was delayed but not suspended. News coverage of the event came in just one hour after the crash, which was the fastest live nationwide broadcast ever made up to that point. The engine that had crashed through the floor was back in service nine months later, and continued to operate until 1985.
Proceed back up the escalators to the main level. From here you can exit back out of the station via the Main Waiting Room, or peruse the shops and dining! To access the metro station, walk past the Amtrak ticket counters into the modern train waiting area. Make a left and walk down to the end of the corridor, where you will see the metro station entrance on your right.
Written by Carolyn Muraskin.