Boston South Station opened amid great fanfare in 1899 midway through what many call the Golden Age of Railroads in the United States. From just after the Civil War to the 1920s, trains were the dominant form of transportation for both work and pleasure.
Perhaps just as significant, South Station survived what could be called the train industry’s Dark Age, the period of the 1950s-1970s when once stalwart companies crumbled, passenger rail travel plummeted, and landmarks such as New York’s Penn Station were demolished.
The post-World War II U.S. economic expansion seemed to embrace nearly every sector but the railroads: agriculture, manufacturing, home construction, and of course, the automobile industry. The creation of the interstate highway system deepened the train companies’ woes, making long-distance car travel more appealing and long-distance truck transportation more viable.
This was a devastating one-two punch to the railroads, which relied on freight and mail service revenue to cover much of the cost of passenger service. Scrambling to cut losses, many railroad companies merged, drastically cut passenger service, and even went out of business. In Boston, the New Haven and Boston & Albany Railroads steadily reduced passenger service.
How steep was the decline? The number of inter-city passenger trains in the U.S. fell from more than 6,000 at the end of World War II to 400 in 1970, according to the Handbook of Transportation Policy and Administration. South Station, built to accommodate more than 700 trains, saw traffic dwindle to fewer than 100 trains a day by the mid-1960s, according to a 1981 article in Passenger Train Journal. A big blow was the termination of the Old Colony Line in 1959, when the Massachusetts legislature failed to renew a one-year subsidy that had kept it afloat. The loss of Old Colony trains to and from the south suburbs cut the local train volume at South Station in half. Within the station, the restaurant, lunch counter, and drugstore immediately closed.
Trying to cut its losses, the Boston Terminal Company – the consortium of railroads that built, owned and operated South Station – sold off 7.5 acres of track at the station to make way for an expansion of the post office annex, which had opened along Dorchester Avenue in 1936.
It wasn’t enough. In 1961, the New Haven Railroad went bankrupt; that was a death knell for the Boston Terminal Company as New Haven was a 70 percent owner. In 1965, Boston Terminal Company sold South Station to the Boston Redevelopment Authority for $6.95 million, less than it had originally paid for the land alone.
Given the state of the industry, BRA planned to tear down the station and develop a trade and transportation complex on the site.
In 1972, the wing along Atlantic Avenue was demolished. The same year, the chapel in the far southeast section of the station closed and that part of the building was razed to make way for the Stone and Webster building at 245 Summer Street. When the dust settled, only 10 of the original 28 tracks and about one-third of the original station headhouse remained.
South Station’s fortunes changed in 1975 when the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, preventing further demolition. Having reintroduced commuter rail service from South Station and recognizing its renewed potential as a multi-modal transit center, the MBTA purchased the remaining station from the BRA for $6.1 million. Over the last three decades, the MBTA has overseen renovation and expansion activities to restore some of South Station’s glory.
Today, a half-century after the railroads’ darkest hour, South Station is bustling again. It handles more than 300 weekday MBTA Commuter Rail trains and serves 1.4 million annual riders on Amtrak.
With both providers planning additional service, MassDOT is working to meet the demand with the South Station Expansion project, which will add seven tracks while also improving safety, comfort, convenience and accessibility for passengers.
It all points toward another bright new age in South Station history.
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