M.Arch Thesis : re-imagining rail

rail paradigm and connectivity

The station model diagram is how many people interact with rail, they are in transit from one station to another often to visit family and friends, go to work or to reach a service. The majority of transit use is over short distances unless it is recreational and it would be impractical for people to reach special services over long distance. This project does not aim to dissolve this system but rather add to it with a new model, where services come to the people at places called Rail Living Centers. Instead of rows of seats, rail cars could be modified and purposefully designed to accommodate specialized programs traveling long distances. These programs could be educational, recreational, cultural, medical, or residential.

This map of rail lines for the area surrounding Minneapolis and St. Paul shows the connectivity that currently exists for transporting freight. There are nearly as many abandoned rail lines that could be revitalized if needed for the new model. This intricate infrastructure is all around yet for most people remains unseen.

major rail system map

When expanding the scope to a national level, major class I rail lines connect every large city in the United States. It is possible to cross the nation in about three days, or to travel between major cities in less than one. More importantly, is that in between these routes small, sometimes nearly off the map, towns are connected to this network. The aim for the project was to design a system that could take advantage of a network connecting so many people and allow them to utilize it in a more direct way.

amtrak as a dimensional standard

Using an Amtrak Superliner railcar as a dimensional model for modified railcars, design parameters surrounding the interface with rail program can begins to surface. Bi-level cars present the opportunity to create separate access to a second floor since the primary function is not to load and off load passengers. Overall the usable interior area of such a railcar would be approximately 1240 sq ft. While the railcar is a narrow space, design has adapted various comfortable living situations of a similar size.

Portland railcar image credit: Laurie Holland

rail living concept and context

Using this template as a model for design, the spaces within a rail car can be arranged to best suit the needs of new members of a community of people no longer bound by their location. Instead of relocating from one dwelling to another, or uprooting a business, members of the Rail Living community can bring their home or business with them to a new location as often as needed or desired.

These mobile programs such as restaurants, recording studios, and clinics represent a small fraction of possibilities that could transform a business district literally overnight. Small towns could subscribe to these services such as fine dinning, education, or retail to benefit from amenities and services that typically larger towns offer. In turn, members benefit from the increase in customer base and potentially benefit from each others success.

However, most rail sidings and rail yards do not have public access or are not conducive to public commerce. More is needed in order for programed rail cars to thrive.

opportune site for proof of concept

This site nearly presented itself as an ideal place to test this idea. Currently an Amtrak station, this site will effectively be vacant by the year 2014, as the Amtrak stop will be relocated to a newly renovated St. Paul Union Depot. This location has nearby access to public transportation and is centrally located between Minneapolis and St. Paul. This rail front property has ample space for additional rail sidings and spurs needed to accommodate modified rail program.

Rail Living Center

The Rail Living Center (RLC) is designed to allow the services and programs brought by rail to function both technically and experientially for members and visitors alike. By annexing the adjacent indoor space, a railcar can have room to expand its program. It could serve as additional seating for a restaurant, it’s where the audience could gather for a show, and a gallery for an artist. There are various spaces that can serve as temporary offices or storefronts for businesses. The RLC offers a base of operations with an area to resupply and repair the railcars. With access electric and water hook ups for the railcars it is a port of call and place to call home before moving on. Residents have access to green space and can stay long term or for a short time. In essence, the RLC is the logistical arm of the organization behind the operation that makes Rail Living possible.

ever changing program / business district

The Rail Living Center is broken into various zones based on access and program type. There is a retail pad where the railcar itself becomes the store front and has access to support space. There are areas where customers can park in front of a storefront that is outfitted by a railcar and places where their is no public access for private work space. Located at the RLC amenities such as parcel pick up and delivery, food stuff resupply, and car or truck rental. There is also a residential zone with guest parking and shared yard space. The elongated portion is called the rail hall and within it strings of rail programs are set next to each other and expand into the hall on either level.

sections and prototype schedules

This system is designed from the ground up to be mobile and flexible, allowing a great variety of programs and services to be available to the local community and Rail Living members living at the Rail Living Center. The RLC is an ever changing business district with the ability to offer entertainment, medical services, specialized education, and residence. With the ability to relocate several hundred miles overnight, railcars can be coming and going from the RLC over the course of the week or of the year. Members may choose to alternate between a few cities or make many stops at other RLCs across the country.

sections of rail activated program

In section, we see examples of how the rail hall can be configured and utilized based on the type of program present. A restaurant may choose to have seating on the second floor to provide an overlook of a nearby performance. The Rail Living Center becomes a social hub supported by activity. People will be drawn here for a specific program and interact with others that are there for an unrelated program. The RLC becomes known as a place where the program changes and in the process the local community is exposed to a variety of experiences.

Rail Living Center model photos

The hope is that the Rail Living Center becomes part of peoples lives, not just for the members, but becomes an asset to the local community. By having direct interactions with rail, the infrastructure that makes it possible will be seen as a worthy investment and less abstract. In turn, the rail network becomes a reminder to those who use the Rail Living concept as a way to connect with people from across the country.

St. Cloud Rail Living Site

St. Cloud, MN, was chosen as a secondary test site for the Rail Living concept at a smaller scale. This location is the current home to an Amtrak station and for this project the proposed location of the terminal stop for the Northstar commuter line. Combining a commuter center to interface with public transit and a smaller Rail Living Site (RLS) would add amenities and activity to this area of St. Cloud.

St. Cloud commuter hub and RLS

The Rail Living Site differs from a Rail Living Center in that programs are not intended to stay at the site long term. Additionally, there is no formal residential component at a Rail Living Site, and programs have limited access to resupply. Railcars back into the spaces or can be pulled into the hall providing a more intimate setting for locals to experience the programs.

model photos of St. Cloud RLS and Midway RLC

With private rail companies investing billions of dollars annually to maintain, improve and optimize for future freight rail service, the Rail Living concept could be conceived as a new business model for expansion. On a basic level, fright is in the business of moving goods from once place to another. Train consists are broken down and reclassified daily to sort the various railcars to their destinations. These programs could operate in much the same way by scheduling drop-offs and pick-ups on route to a destination. Additionally, the rail companies could lease the sidings where the railcar programs are located for additional revenue.

railcar as an application

This system provides a new way of life for a variety of people, and has far reaching impacts. Anyone who lives near a rail line could have access to this system and towns would be able to subscribe to services that they need or want. For those living in railcars the possibilities are only limited by their imagination. Having a framework for custom railcar design allows people to outfit a mobile program, or application, to suit their needs. The Rail Living Center offers an armature for these mobile applications to interface with the public. The success of the system stems from the availability of diverse, innovative, and appropriate mobile applications working in concert with the ability to relocate within a network of Rail Living Centers across the country.


M.Arch Thesis : 2011

University of Minnesota : Adviser Tom Fisher