Our contributors recently got to comparing and contrasting Baltimore’s Penn Station with Union Station in DC. Some people say Penn Station is “in the middle of nowhere,” but the truth is that it’s closer to its respective downtown than Union Station. The difference is that Penn Station has fewer neighborhoods and tourist attractions nearby.

Penn Station in Baltimore. Photo by Forsaken Fotos on Flickr.

First, some details

Baltimore’s Penn Stations serves Amtrak trains on the Northeast Corridor, MARC trains on the Penn Line, and MTA Light Rail. The station station lies in between the neighborhoods of Mount Vernon, south of the station, and Station North, which is designated as Baltimore’s Arts and Entertainment District with venues such as The Charles Theatre nearby.

Union Station, Washington DC’s rail transportation hub, also serves Amtrak trains as the terminus of the Northeast Corridor, along with serving MARC, VRE, and Metro. It’s also a leisure destination with retail functions and eateries.

Is one of these stations “in the middle of nowhere?,” In this context, what does “middle of nowhere” even mean?

“Far” is all about perception

Penn Station isn’t in the middle of nowhere, says Matt Johnson. “It certainly isn’t more in the middle of nowhere than Union Station. I think it’s just a perception of how difficult is to get to ‘somewhere’ from Penn Station as compared to Union Station.”

“Baltimore Penn Station is 1.24 miles from Charles Center, the center of downtown Baltimore,” Matt adds. “Union Station, on the other hand, is 1.78 miles from Farragut Square, generally considered to be the centroid of downtown DC.”

But what people immediately see often shapes what they think. “From my perspective,” says Claire Jaffe, Penn Station seems to be in the middle of nowhere because it is almost completely surrounded by large roads and highways and very few buildings. When you come out of the station and do not go directly into a car, it’s hard to figure out where to go. Union Station, on the other hand, is much more bustling and is close to not only a tourist destination but lots of jobs.”

Photo by catharine robertson on Flickr.

“Even when Penn Station was also called Union Station, both railroads that used it had more central stations to the south for terminal trains,” says David Edmonson. “It’s not a new perception. That said, I think the subway messes with the perception of distance. It’s a very short ride through dark tunnels to Farragut, but a slow ride through the city to Charles Center. With the cityscape, it just feels longer.”

Union Station is more woven in with its surroundings

Canaan Merchant says Union Station feels like it’s better-located because “being next to the Capitol and Supreme Court helps. Though I kind of put those institutions and the Mall in general in kind of a separate category from Downtown where most workers are.”

Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

“Union Station may be farther from Farragut Square than Penn Station is from Charles Center,” says Dan Malouff, “but downtown DC extends east all the way to Union Station. Functionally, Union Station is on the edge of downtown. Penn Station is not on the edge of downtown Baltimore. There is a neighborhood in between. Baltimore’s situation is analogous to if Union Station were in Columbia Heights or at RFK. Not ‘nowhere,’ but definitely not the center of town.”

“I think this has a lot to do with Capitol Hill,” says Neil Flanagan. “Since the 80s, Union Station been a destination unto itself as a festival marketplace. So, there’s a lot to be said about vibrancy creating the sense that one neighborhood is connected to another.”

While Union Station is close to many of DC’s tourist attractions, Tracey Johnstone notes that Penn Station station is three miles from Camden Yards, the Inner Harbor and Aquarium, and Fells Point, Baltimore’s three primary tourist attractions that weekend travelers most often would like to visit:

“Penn Station is not nowhere, but its relatively hard to get downtown from there, or to the action and jobs in south and southeast Baltimore, or to the stadiums,” Jeff La Noue says. “The Red Line would have had a speedy connection to all of these from the West Baltimore MARC Station two miles west from Downtown. The West Baltimore MARC is 5-10 minutes shorter time than Penn Station if coming from DC on the MARC.  Without the Red Line, the west Baltimore MARC station is very isolated.”

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Michael Lewis is a native of Montgomery County and currently lives in Olney. He has a BS in Community & Regional Planning from Temple University in Philadelphia. An avid rider of Metrobus and Metrorail, he was formerly a Professional Development Associate at the American Planning Association and an intern at the Housing Opportunities Commission of Montgomery County.