Union Station Master Plan Finished

The Union Station Master Plan has been completed, and it doesn’t look all that much different from the proposals put forth by Amtrak, Metra, and the Chicago Department of Transportation at the beginning of the process last year.

First, a little background —

Union Station is a mess.  Short-sightedness on the part of people in the 1960’s who thought that passenger rail service in America was dying led to infrastructure changes that turned Chicago Union Station (210 South Canal Street) from a beautiful transportation hub into some kind of Logan’s Run subterranean food court.

Fifth Third Center

Fifth Third Center

The most damage was done when the station’s concourse building was demolished in 1968 and replaced by what is now known as the Fifth Third Center (formerly 222 South Riverside, formerly Gateway Center III).  In fact, the year this building opened the number of passengers using Union Station increased.  Whether this was an “oh crap” moment for the Pennsylvania Central Railroad and its minority partners in the Chicago Union Station Company is academic.  The 35-story skyscraper was already built, and tens of thousands of daily train passengers were relegated to the basement.

Much of Union Station’s current inefficiency comes from his historical baggage.  Literally.  The platforms were designs so that when a train pulled in, passengers would get off on one side while simultaneously, mail and Railway Express packages would be unloaded from the other.  Highways and jets killed rail mail, but the platforms remain.

On the topic of mail, there were come bright ideas floating about that maybe the Old Post Office (435 West Van Buren Street) could be used as part of the Union Station rehabilitation.  It certainly has enough space, and a great lobby.  But after some consideration, this plan was vetoed.  The Old Post Office is just too far away from Union Station to act as an annex, and running it as a separate station would involve a lot of duplication.  Plus, there would be no method for people to transfer from one building to the other, and a big part of the Union Station Master Plan is about moving people from one mode of transportation to another quickly and efficiently.

United States Post Office Chicago Main

Old Chicago Main Post Office

Plus, the Post Office is now in the hands of a private, foreign, developer whose public plans don’t involve surface rail, even though Amtrak and Metra lines run right beneath the building.

Remember in 2008 there was a big media hoo-ha over a contest to come up with plans for a new intermodal Union Station?  We liked the winning design because it had the audacity to include water taxis in its plan.  But while the winner was certainly pretty, it doesn’t work for two important reasons.  One, it envisions the demolition of the 35-story skyscraper that replaced the Concourse Building.  And two, it left no room for any Metra commuter rail lines.  They’d all have to be relocated “somewhere else” with no indication of where all those 250 daily trains might go.  This is why the public finds architects so frustrating.

What we have now in the completed Union Station Master Plan is far less pretty, but far more practical.  It gets things done while trying to be an asset to the local community.

“The Union Station Master Plan Study team has worked closely with a Civic Advisory Committee established by the Metropolitan Planning Council to advance the goal of creating a transportation terminal that is vibrant, a civic asset, and a catalyst for growth in the West Loop and region, as well as exploring innovative financing strategies for the overall redevelopment effort. These placemaking principles call for the station’s redesign to favor the creation of vibrant public spaces that have the potential to transform an imposing historic structure into one that invites interaction with its users and the surrounding city. Through the planned investments, the station should not only evolve into an efficient intercity and regional railroad hub, with easy connections to other transit modes, but also become a truly great place that attracts travelers and non-travelers alike.”

Enough of the pretty words.  Here’s the information dump:

Background information on Union Station

  • Union Station handles 300 trains each weekday.
  • Union Station moves 120,000 people each day.  That’s more than Midway Airport.  If it was an airport, it would be in the top ten busiest airports in America.
  • Union Station moves more people today than it did back in the 1940’s, which is considered to be the heyday of passenger rail service in America.
  • Currently the Union Station concourse operates at capacity.
  • Union Station used to be connected directly to the L.  This connection was removed in 1958 when the elevated line went underground and became what we now know as the Blue Line, with a station at Congress and Clinton.

Goals of the Union Station Master Plan

  • Allow Union Station to handle an anticipated 40% increase in passengers over the next 30 years.
  • Prepare for even more capacity increases in the future.
  • Make the station more inviting for passengers.
  • Improve connections to other modes of transportation: CTA bus, CTA train, taxis, private shuttle buses, car pick-up and drop-off.

Short-Term Changes (already in planning, design, and funding stages)

  • Replace the concrete Jersey barriers at the entrances with proper bollards.  This should be done by 2013.
  • Move the waiting area for long-distance passengers to the headhouse, doubling its size.  If you’ve ever gone cross-country on Amtrak from Chicago, you know that most people have to stand in the waiting room for hours before the train boards.
  • Execute the downtown Bus Rapid Transit plan to relieve congestion and improve bus flow around Union Station.
  • Build a bus terminal on the surface parking lot at Canal and Jackson (property owned by Amtrak).

Medium-Term Changes (5-10 years – Must go through more study and computer simulations)

  • Convert many of the baggage platforms into passenger platforms.
  • Remove two baggage platforms so that tracks can be relocated and existing platforms widened to accommodate stairs and elevators directly to street level.
  • Convert the unused mail platform into a passenger platform.
  • Convert the mail platform tracks for use by through trains, allowing people to travel from one city to another through Chicago without changing trains for the first time.
  • Convert the unused basement and tunnel beneath the station into a waiting area for passengers.
  • Renovate the existing concourse so that it’s more open and can handle more people.
  • Concourse renovations to create different flow patterns for Metra and Amtrak passengers.
  • Rebuild the Canal Street Viaduct to install traffic islands and curbside pick-up and drop-off areas with direct access to the tracks below.
  • Separate bus traffic from car and taxi traffic on Canal Street.

Long Term Changes

  • Option one – Build a new train station at 300 south Riverside (owned by Amtrak), integrating it into the existing office building.
  • Option two – Build a new train station at 200 South Riverside, demolishing that big black Miesian building at Canal and Jackson.
  • Build new tracks and platforms in a tunnel beneath either Clinton or Canal streets, allowing trains to continue through Union Station instead of terminating here.

Want even more nitty-gritty details, including lots of historic photographs and diagrams?  Read the entire report for yourself here.

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at chicagoarchitectureinfo@gmail.com.

Share This Post On