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Project: Amtrak Subway Map, 2016

2016 Amtrak Subway Map - Small

Click on the image above or here to view a large version of the map!

One of my longest-running projects is a subway diagram-styled map of Amtrak’s passenger rail network, with the original version dating back to 2010. I always made sure to update it regularly over the years, adding and deleting stations to keep it current. In April last year, I attempted to update the design of the map as well, although I ended up trying a few too many overly-clever things with it — overlaying lines on top of each other just because I was in love with transparency effects being the worst offender. The final result ended up being less than satisfactory, and I shelved the project while I worked on other things.

Coming back with fresh eyes almost a year-and-a-half later, I was able to be ruthlessly objective about what worked and what didn’t in that 2015 draft. The confusing overlaid route lines definitely had to go, but the new typography – using the superb Fira Sans – and larger route designation bullets were huge improvements over the original design. From this starting point, I set out with some clear goals for improvement this time around.

First and foremost was more intelligent, harmonious spacing of stations. Previous versions crammed some sections in very tightly, while giving far too much space to other parts of the map. The chief offenders for closely-packed stations have always been the Keystone/Pennsylvanian routes running west out of Philadelphia, all the Michigan Service routes,  and the Missouri River Runner between St. Louis and Kansas City – so I paid extra attention to these sections, ensuring that the minimum distance between stops on these sections was the same as that defined elsewhere on the map. For the record, the gap between stations on the Northeast Corridor was used as the “building block” for the rest of the map, and it’s been much more faithfully adhered to in this version of the map.

More intelligent spacing also helped a lot on the west coast. Previously, I’d spaced these stations relatively evenly from Vancouver, BC all the way down to San Diego. This looks nice enough in isolation, but it caused the split route lines in the Empire Builder at Spokane to take up way too much space – the three stations on each of these two branches were placed much further apart than any other stations on the entire map. Eastern Washington state is big, but not that big!

In this version, I broke the west coast into a “Pacific Northwest” section from Vancouver down to Eugene-Springfield, and a “California” section from Sacramento all the way down to San Diego. These two sections were spaced as tightly as their Northeast Corridor counterpart on the east coast, with the connecting rural Oregon/California section on the Coast Starlight being more loosely spaced to fill in the resulting gap between the two regions. This improved the spacing and visual size of the Empire Builder branches immensely, possibly the single biggest improvement on the map. I’d always used a similar approach on the City of New Orleans route right from the first version of the map, so doing this actually made the design of the map more consistent.

I also reworked the trajectory of the Southwest Chief on this version. It’s a little twistier than before, but it puts the Colorado stations in a better location relative to Denver, which I think is a spatial improvement.

Keen-eyed readers will have noticed that there’s a new Amtrak service shown on the map – the Winter Park Ski Train that will start running between Denver and the Winter Park ski resort this January! It only has one return trip each Saturday and Sunday (and on the Presidents Day and MLK Day holidays) through to the end of March, but it’s definitely exciting to add a new line to the map, no matter how short it is! The new purpose-built station at Winter Park will not be served by the daily California Zephyr, which will continue to stop just down the line at Fraser instead.

This version of the map also shows two future Amtrak stations – Hillsborough, North Carolina (opening 2020), and Arcadia Valley, Missouri (potentially opening as early as Fall this year) – as well as the “suspended” section of the Sunset Limited between New Orleans and Orlando. I put this last bit in to show that the map is intentionally designed to accommodate it, just in case – by some miracle – it ever gets reinstated. The potential extension of Northeast Regional service to Roanoke is a little further into the future, so it remains off the map for now (although it would be quite easy to add when the time comes).

As usual, your thought and comments are welcome! Prints are now on sale in my online shop from just $27: there’s a version that includes the suspended Sunset Limited track, and another that just shows the current services.

15 Comments

  1. This map is so absolutely incredible. I keep it on my desktop and reference it daily. Really excited to see a new iteration!

    One idea for future maps: If it doesn’t overcomplicate things, could you add Thruway routes to the next version?

    • I’ve looked at adding Thruways, but the sheer density of them in California throws the balance of the map right off. Maybe one day I’ll revisit the idea, but I feel it almost needs to be a completely new map, rather than trying to shoehorn things into this framework.

  2. VRE Rider

    This is a fantastic creation. One small errata–I think Kennebunk, ME (future service) is between Wells and Saco, not between Wells and Dover. Also, I don’t if this is something you would want to include, but certain NER trains stop at L’Enfant Plaza for VRE riders that have paid step-up fares, and others stop at Perryville and Edgewood for MARC riders that paid step-up fares. Since those stops are not for true Amtrak passengers, perhaps they are best excluded from this map.

  3. Craig

    This is just brilliant. The way you illustrate the side jaunt of the Star (aka Starve as the diner is gone from the train), the Star’s weird out and back to Tampa, and the connections between the Silver Star, the Piedmonts and the Carolinians is wonderfully done.

  4. David Sindel

    Wow, this iteration is very good-looking indeed!

    If you’re showing Hillsborough, there’s a number of other stations opening sooner that you should show as well. Kennebunk will get a seasonal stop in either 2017 or 2018. Fairfield-Vacaville is under construction and opens next year; the stop at Hercules may come as early as 2018. And the Roanoke extension is coming faster than you may think – construction should be starting this fall for an opening next year.

    • David, thanks for all these! It’s surprisingly difficult to track down all these future Amtrak stations. I’ll look at integrating these into the map soon, and maybe I’ll just bite the bullet and add Roanoke as well.

      • David Sindel

        You’re entirely right – and I might well have missed others that I don’t know about. Because so many station projects are largely at the state or local level, there’s no good unified list. I try to keep Wikipedia’s list updated, but it’s still got some errors.

        I would leave space for an intermediate between Lynchburg and Roanoke – the city of Bedford is strongly advocating for the return of their stop. Amtrak is against it, but it’s certainly a possibility.

        Amtrak will be moving to Miami Central Station (Miami Airport) any week now. That’s probably worth a subtitle.

  5. Zach Fisher

    Great job! I always love massive projects like this – one thing though. In Vermont, St. Albans and Essex are further to the west, and that may be important in 2020, as an extension of the Ethan Allen Express from Rutland up to Burlington may happen. I know Burlington isn’t on the Vermonter, but it is very close to Essex. Overall great job though!

    • Yep, that’s one of those “I’ll deal with it when it happens” problems. At the moment, the simplicity of the straight Vermonter route outweighs future geographical conundrums. As well as that Ethan Allen extension, there’s the possibility that the Vermonter will get extended to Montreal, so that would necessitate a major reworking of that line as well…

  6. This is great! I think my favorite part is how you represented the interlining between the Texas Eagle and Sunset Limited in San Antonio. Also, for some reason I just find the Missouri River Runner to be particularly pretty in this version.

    I do have a few suggestions, though, and a couple of them deal with the Southwest Chief. I do like the spatial improvement relative to Denver that you described, but one effect of that is that the stations in Colorado and New Mexico are spaced very far apart. Perhaps the route between Raton and Los Angeles could all be on a diagonal? The stations past Raton aren’t directly south of Denver anymore, so that wouldn’t really detract from the spatial arrangement. Also, the 90-degree turns on the Southwest Chief seem a bit out of place with the rest of the map, with the double angles…I’d think those would work better with wide 90-degree angles like between Albany-Rensselaer and Hudson.

    Also, I’m wondering if there might be a way to work around the little squiggles where routes move around other routes that end. The one just south of Washington, DC is the most noticeable example, although I can understand how that would be really hard to work around. But there is one that does look fixable, with the Empire Builder and Coast Starlight in Seattle. If you move the Cascades service to the right of the Coast Starlight, then that solves it!

    Another thing: for stations along multiple diagonal routes, I’m not really feeling the horizontal layout of the dots. Since all the other stations have dots arranged perpendicular to the routes, I’d think it would work much better if you used the arrangements you used in the original map, where the dots are aligned on the perpendicular diagonal. This would also result in making the individual stations narrower, which I think would make the Northeast Corridor a lot easier to follow.

    And one very minor fix: I like what you did with putting the station subtitles (for lack of a better word) in small bold text after the city names. But it looks like you missed one place: I think “Burbank-Bob Hope Airport” should get the same treatment.

    Thanks for making this wonderful map, and I can’t wait to see how it progresses further!

    • As always, Kara, thanks for your thoughtful comments! A lot of this nitty-gritty stuff comes to to personal design preferences, and everyone has different opinions.

      On this map, I made a decision that I didn’t mind if the more rural parts of the map got a little more spread out, which is why the Coast Starlight, Southwest Chief and City of New Orleans all have sections that are loosely spaced in comparison to other parts of the line. For example, an evenly-spaced City of New Orleans would move Carbondale (which is still in Illinois!) way too far south… so there’s a “tight” Illinois section, a “loose” regional section and then another “tight” section coming into New Orleans through Mississippi and Louisiana.

      With the Southwest Chief, there are a lot of compromises to be made. If it’s important to keep the Colorado stations in a good position relative to Denver, then it’s equally important to keep those stations from Needles to Gallup in the “right” place — that section of track very definitely runs east/west. If you do both of those at either end of the line, then your options for the middle become limited. As for the curves, I’m happy with them as they are: all curves have the same base radius unless forced into a larger one by another line or lines inside it on the curve (like the Empire Corridor curve you cite).

      The horizontal dots are really designed for the Northeast Corridor. On the 2010 version of the map, the dots were arranged at a 45-degree angle, perpendicular to the direction of the line. I always felt that it was hard work to find a station name, read back to the left and then scan upwards along that 45-degree line to see if the train stopped there. This way, the name and the dots are all in the same horizontal plane as each other, which I think makes them easier to scan. It also helps to make the map more compact, especially the curve just south of Alexandria – compare the amount of space that used to take up in the old map versus this one!

      Moving the Cascades to the right to get rid of the little bump in the Empire Builder exchanges one minor problem for another. The bump goes away, but the station labels north of Everett would have to jump over to the right as well to stay in the right place relative to the route line. I prefer the station labels to be in one neat column for the entire length of the Cascades route, so my solution works better for me.

      Subtitles, as you call them, are used only where there could be confusion — the two Stockton stations, or the two Carlsbad stations — or to add a distinguishing element to the name in larger cities, like “Santa Fe Depot” for San Diego, or “Union Station” at Los Angeles. The name at Burbank is just the full name of the station, so it doesn’t get the subtitle treatment. Compare to “Newark Liberty Airport” which is treated the same way.

      Thanks for the Sanford fix — that’s corrected now!

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