A rendering of the South Concourse retail area at 30th Street Station (Plenary Infrastructure Philadelphia)

Amtrak is preparing to shut down parts of 30th Street Station as it moves ahead with a $550 million renovation that will bring a new outdoor plaza along Market Street, revamp the station’s restaurants and stores, and modernize systems throughout the monumental rail terminal.

Among other changes, the federal agency says it plans to put the station’s former split-flap departures board in a “prominent location” on the passenger concourse. 

The iconic 1970s-era Solari board was replaced five years ago by an ADA-compliant electronic sign, drawing protests from travelers who missed its classic clacking sound and called for its return. Its new position will be “non-functional” in a museum-type display, per Amtrak spokesperson Beth Toll, and it will remain uncharacteristically silent. The date of the installation has not been announced.

Officially named William H. Gray III 30th Street Station after the late Pennsylvania congressmember and civil rights activist, the 80-year-old building is Amtrak’s third-busiest transit hub, serving more than 3 million passengers a year. It’s being renovated with funding from the trillion-dollar federal infrastructure bill passed in 2021.

A priority for the rehab is to protect and highlight the station’s architecture, which includes Neoclassical, Art Deco, and Art Moderne designs, Amtrak officials said. 

Features like The Spirit of Transportation, a 30-foot wall sculpture created in 1895, will be preserved, and contractors will restore wood benches, bronze doors, marble finishes and other elements.

“We’ve worked with different historic preservation designers and have tried to be very sensitive to the historic fabric,” said Abigail Barman, Amtrak’s assistant project director for the rehab. “Where we are bringing in new elements, they’re within the same language, but in a modern feel.”

Neoclassical, Art Deco, and Art Moderne design elements in Philadelphia’s 30th Street station will be preserved and restored as part of Amtrak’s four-year renovation project. (Meir Rinde/Billy Penn)

Instead of a ring road, a public plaza (and maybe a farmer’s market)

Much of the work will take place above the soaring ceiling of the passenger concourse, in two towers that house Amtrak corporate offices. Work already started in August to upgrade systems such as fire protection, heating and cooling, electrical and roofing.

The first major construction visible to the public is set to kick off early next year.

Amtrak will close the station’s South Concourse, where restaurants and shops are located, along with part of the building’s ring road, the outdoor “Porch” area, and some station doors. Food and beverages will continue to be available from concession stands during construction.

A major planned change is the elimination of the south-side section of the ring road, which currently allows drivers in the west side parking area to go around the building to the east side and exit to the street.

A rendering of the planned outdoor plaza next to Gray 30th Street Station (Plenary Infrastructure Philadelphia)

That area, near Market Street, will become a large open plaza with glass awnings sheltering a proposed farmer’s market, along with landscaping and some cafe-style seating, according to renderings provided by Amtrak. A sidewalk will be built along the street.

“I’m happy to see that farmer’s market in the works,” said Evan Garcia, an urban planner who attended a Thursday afternoon open house at the station. “I live a couple blocks away, so I’d be very happy and excited to come buy some produce and buy some goods from here. I think it’s going to be a great project for the neighborhood.”

The exterior renovation will also create separate pick-up and drop-off areas for taxis and ride-sharing services in the west and east side parking areas.

New escalators, new food hall, revitalized steam heat

Inside the building, the concourse restaurant and retail area will be reorganized to create a food hall similar to Franklin’s Table at 34th and Walnut, said Barman, the assistant project director. There will be a new, separated sit-down restaurant that extends into the southwest corner of the main concourse.

Part of the concourse on the north side will be closed for construction, and a new waiting area and combined ticketing and baggage handling facility will be built in an area behind the current ticket booth. 

Elevators and escalators between the concourse, lower-level train platforms and other floors will be replaced, Barman said. The upstairs Metropolitan Lounge waiting area will be refurbished, and contractors will extensively renovate Amtrak’s offices for the first time since the 1980s, she said.

The North Concourse of 30th Street Station, where passengers line up to board Amtrak trains, is slated to become a waiting area and ticketing/baggage facility as part of Amtrak’s renovation plan for the building. (Meir Rinde/Billy Penn)

SEPTA’s Regional Rail platform will not be affected and passengers will continue to have direct access to those trains during construction, Toll said.

In a reversal, the project will not add new natural gas boilers to the station, and instead continue heating the building using steam generated at Vicinity Energy in Gray’s Ferry and moved through a network of underground pipes.

Amtrak credited the decision to lobbying by the Clean Air Council and Citizens Climate Lobby, who cited the climate-warming effects of natural gas pollution. The federal agency has also committed to clean energy and net-zero carbon emissions goals, and Barman said the renovation will help make 30th Street more energy efficient.

“The building’s 100 years old, there’s lots of drafty doors, windows, old systems — mechanical, electrical, plumbing,” said Barman. “All of those will be replaced, revitalized, and brought into a state of good repair. The steam system will be revitalized.”

A rendering of the planned revamped dining area at Gray 30th Street Station. (Plenary Infrastructure Philadelphia)

Public-private partnership, with lots of big-name stakeholders

The office renovations are beginning this month, according to a timeline provided by Amtrak. Construction on station retail will begin in January, and the building of the Market Street plaza is slated to run from September 2025 to September 2026. 

All the work is projected to wrap up by October 2027, later than initially planned. Amtrak had previously said construction would start in spring 2022 and finish in 2025.

Some residents and commuter leaders have asked Amtrak to restore the underground tunnel between 30th Street Station and SEPTA’s nearby Market Street station, but it remains unclear when that might happen.

“The current scope of construction underway at the station through Amtrak’s agreement with [the project contractors] does anticipate a potential future connection, but the design of the connection has not been completed, and the construction of the connection is not part of the current construction project,” said Toll the agency spokesperson. 

Amtrak applied for a Federal Transportation Administration CRISI grant to fund a design, but the application was not selected for funding, she said.

The old tunnel was closed in 1984, forcing travelers to go aboveground and cross a busy stretch of road to transfer between stations. 

Tyrone Phillips of Vara-Tech Services in Philadelphia attended an open house at 30th Street Station with information on Amtrak’s renovation plan for the building. His company hopes to bid on a construction contract on the project. (Meir Rinde/Billy Penn)

The overall renovation project is structured as a public-private partnership between Amtrak and Plenary Infrastructure Philadelphia, or PIP, which is handling financing, design, and construction, and will maintain the building for 50 years. 

The group includes lead developer Plenary America, Gilbane Building Company, Johnson Controls, and Vantage Airport Group for concessions management. The architect, Skidmore Owings & Merrill, has worked on a number of prominent transportation projects, including Moynihan Train Hall in New York, a Dulles Airport terminal expansion and Millennium Station in Chicago.

The project is also part of the 30th Street Station District Plan, an 8-year-old master plan for commercial development and improved transportation connectivity around the station. The plan partners are Amtrak, Brandywine Realty Trust, Drexel University, PennDOT and SEPTA.

Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Billy Penn covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...