Union Station Revitalization

On Wednesday, November 14, the City of Toronto will host an open house at Union Station to display plans for the station from 12:30 to 6:30 pm.  Further information on the Union Station project is available on the City’s website.

Please note that although I am a member of the Union Station Revitalization Public Advisory Group for this project, the following comments reflect my personal opinion, not that of the USRPAG.

Today, the National Post reported GO Transit’s Gary McNeil as saying that GO should buy the station to take it out of the hands of “dithering politicians”.  McNeil, along with others who mused recently about taking over the TTC, should stick to running their own businesses before they weigh in on City matters.

Union Station’s future was mired for years in a failed scheme to have it managed on a long-term contract by a private company, and there was good reason to believe both that the selection process for a private partner and the financial situation for the City were less than ideal.  Much time was wasted in this exercise.

Although the detailed report is not yet public, some indication of the short-term spending requirements has already appeared in the Budget Analyst’s notes for the City’s Capital Budget.  Some Council members will groan about the high cost of owning this heritage station, and McNeil’s proposal that GO would happily take the building on will have an eager audience.  They should think twice. 

GO has been starved for funding for well over a decade, and the last thing it needs is the expense of bringing an aging and poorly-maintained station up to first class condition.  Moreover, GO’s operations will soon fall under the GTTA which may have its own spending priorities.

Meanwhile, some members of Council mused recently about shops and markets in Union Station.  This is a nice idea, but why couldn’t they wait for the staff report on the station to come out? 

A fish market at Union, if nothing else, will lend a distinct aroma to Gary McNeil’s trains.  For those long winter nights when trains languish miles from Union Station, McNeil might add a self-serve grill to the GO concourse so hungry passengers can eat their catch-of-the-day while it’s still fresh.

Union Station needs a lot of work to handle the expected growth in demand over the coming decades.  Many agencies need to work together with each other, with the politicians and with the public to make Union Station the great hub it can be for downtown’s transportation systems.

Those who take off in their own directions wanting only to read their name in the National Post as often as possible do nothing to aid this vital project.

10 thoughts on “Union Station Revitalization

  1. Hmm…fish markets by the tracks…tell me this isn’t a part of a fishy (pardon the pun) scheme to commercialize as much space as possible and confuse everyone to thinking they’re in a mall rather than in a railway terminal, simply to reduce expenses. Maybe they’ll have special TTC employees selling snacks on the subway next.


  2. While, I think the station should belong to the city, this is one property that can actually be a money-making asset for the city if used properly. New shops are nice, maybe some office space as well. So any money put into redevelopment should be considered as investment. The city doesn’t (or shouldn’t) go into this venture alone.


  3. Having commercial space for selling everything from magazines to booze to fast food, coffee and souvenirs is great to make waiting at or passing through a railway terminal more enjoyable. I’ve been to a few railway stations in London England and they are reminiscent of airport terminals with the amenities. I recently passed through the new Terminal 1 Pier F and the amenities make waiting for your flight a heck of a lot more enjoyable than it ever was in old Terminal 1 or Terminal 2. Nobody wants to wait for their train in a dark dingy and dirty terminal with nowhere to buy a snack or a coffee.

    There is certainly an opportunity to make the commercial areas at Union Stn a lot more attractive and appealing. It can’t get much worse than it is now. What people who dream up crazy ideas like having shops and patios in the moat have to remember is that Union Station will never be a destination for people to just go and sit and linger over a latte or shop in specialty boutiques, but a place where people are detraining or waiting for a train or for arriving passengers. Commercial space needs to be designed to be attractive and agreeable to the architecture of the station, while keeping in mind that people are PASSING THROUGH, not going there like they would go to the Distillery District or some other destination. It should be designed for travellers and commuters. GO is not in the commerical property business so there is no good reason for it to take over the heritage building. The problem with the City’s schemes were that they were too grandiose, with shopping and office towers over the train shed and tree-lined boulevards in the moat. How about getting the very leaky roof fixed, repairing the worn-out floors, some paint, new light fixtures and a basic redesign of the commercial space? Even unsexy things like that would go a long way to making it a lot better.


  4. Steve, with all due respect, this is the second time recently where you are pointing to a public venture that was screwed up at the hands of politicians. Much like One Stop, which has a political angle since Mike Harris is behind the wheel on that one and is not a true example of private sector involvement as a result, the UPG failure that has caused undue delay to Union Station’s revitalization is the fault of Mel Lastman and his backroom deals, as a relative of his (who I believe was also connected to his retail business indirectly) would have been well-positioned to make it big in the deal that ultimately didn’t fly since UPG was too disorganized to manage the project.

    Mel Lastman, without a valid reason (there was a reason, but it was not valid grounds for a re-vote), cheated a Chicago firm (with a specialization in heritage railway stations no less) out of the Union Station deal by a margin so razor thin it could only have been engineered to be that close. That company is sueing the city (is that lawsuit finished? Haven’t heard anything about it for a while). It would not have been a waste if the original winner of the contract had been allowed to keep that contract as it was legally entitled to.

    I’d argue that this is another argument to keep transit out of politicians’ hands, rather than the other way around. Sure, Miller’s intentions are not problematic, I’m not worried about Miller, however, nobody knows what might happen when someone else becomes Mayor, just like nobody expected the carnage Mike Harris unleashed when things were looking pretty good for transit under Bob Rae. Politics can change drastically every 4 years per level.

    Union’s importance is going to last decades, and so needs an owner who’s going to be the same person with the same vision and intentions for decades as well, and politics is utterly incapable of providing that. That said, GO Transit should not take Union Station either, since GO is just an arm of the province, not a private company. I trust Queen’s Park less than City Hall to manage Union Station.

    Steve: Due respect has nothing to do with it. Politicians screw things up all the time and that’s not something that either the right or the left has an exclusive gift for. In many discussions here, some writers give the impression that the right wing private sector approach is infallible, while others swear by the lefties and the public sector. Both are quite capable of producing complete cock ups, often because some ideological baggage gets in the way of whatever needs doing.

    My biggest objection to the right wing is that they talk a good line about investment and risk and private capital as long as theirs isn’t on the line. The moment the word “loss” enters the discussion, they want guarantees and public sector backstops. If my tax dollars are going to bail out the private sector “investors”, why should I, the public, give away control of my assets in the first place?


  5. Weird coincidence — CBC Toronto’s News At Six had a piece on the $1.6 billion renovation of London’s St. Pancras station tonight (the newscast is streamed via their web site until tomorrow night; the segment starts at 56:33). The anchor seemed genuinely impressed by the whole thing.

    I don’t think we need to go quite so far with Union Station. But it’s definitely a mess the way it is today — the current layout might make sense for three times the VIA service and half the GO service. (Most people passing through the station don’t even experience much of its heritage, since so few of the trains are reached via the Great Hall.) And I agree with Robert, it shouldn’t be about creating the “Union Mall”, but integreated retail could both help with funding and be useful to commuters.


  6. The St. Pancras renewal looks spectacular. There’s no reason Toronto shouldn’t emulate it with Union Station. Well, we might not need to copy “Europe’s longest Champagne bar” that they have included. Oh, and it connects to no less than six tube lines as well as a new underground extension of the railway that runs through the chunnel to Paris.


    “Engineering challenges included laying track to pass over the River Medway, under the River Thames and through 11 miles (18km) of tunnels beneath London. “


  7. Back in the spring a huge scaffold was put up for several months in the western part of the station just off the great hall, where the candy and donut stand is so that the skylight could be worked on. I was expecting that the ceiling surrounding the skylight would be painted as well while the scaffold was up because it’s in terrible shape with old paint and pockmarked with many plaster patches.

    Do you think they had the ceiling surrounding the skylight painted while the scaffold was up for that project? No. Why would the opportunity to do a badly needed paint job while the construction scaffold needed to do it is in place for something else? When it does get painted, the expense and inconvenience of the scaffold being put in a second time will be incurred. I don’t understand why everybody insists on talking about grand plans for Union Station when even the simple things like doing badly needed painting when the opportunity to do it inexpensively as part of another project presents itself clearly can’t be handled by those in charge.

    Let’s get the basics out of the way and done right like cleaning the walls and ceiling in the great hall, some fresh paint in the other areas and fixing the roof so that it doesn’t leak before getting distracted by grand plans that have a strong track record of not coming to fruition.


  8. One thing about Union Station that I personally would be happy with improving or expanding is building a larger subway platform. This platform is great in some regards such as it is in the center of both trains instead of on the side, but the platform itself needs to be substatially larger. Sometimes, like after a game, the platform is so crowded that I think someone is going to be pushed onto the track. Kennedy, Warden, Finch are a few stations I think that have larger subway platforms then Union Station’s and I think that Union Station is in more need of a large center platform then any other station.

    Steve: The Union Station expansion project, now underway, will provide a separate, new northbound-to-Yonge platform south of the existing track. The existing platform will be dedicated to northbound-to-University riders. This is a complex project because of the amount of stuff that needs to be rearranged or moved out of the way. Work now in progress involves moving a large sewer that is directly in the space where the new platform will go. Construction of the new platform starts in 2009, I believe.

    You can see some info (the page has not been updated recently) on the City’s website.


  9. Rob said: “Let’s get the basics out of the way and done right like cleaning the walls and ceiling in the great hall, some fresh paint in the other areas and fixing the roof so that it doesn’t leak before getting distracted by grand plans that have a strong track record of not coming to fruition.”

    And grand plans never will come to fruition if bandaids and cosmetic repairs are used as stalling tactics. It’s imperative that Union Station, the greatest surface transportation nexus in the country, gets a comprehensive, integrated renewal if the TTC and GO system upgrades are going to work. Painting and cleaning can be part of that – it doesn’t have to be one or the other.


  10. Is there any way at all that a north platform could also be installed? Given the fact that the Royal Bank building setback from Front Street certainly should make it feasible although I’m unclear as to whether any of the subway station structure is in front of the Royal York Hotel. If it can be done at all there might as well be three platforms rather than two.

    Steve: The new platform you propose would be roughly under the north curb lane and possibly the sidewalk. However, since trains to the University line will already have the existing platform entirely to themselves, I don’t see why we would need a third one. Traffic to the Yonge line from Union is heavier than to University, and it will all use the new south platform.


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