Union Station Revitalization Update (Part I) (Updated)

The Union Station Revitalization proposal, described here in another post, was approved by Toronto’s Executive Committee on Monday, November 26.  Press coverage of this event appeared in The Star and The Globe & Mail here and here.

The Union Station Revitalization Public Advisory Group (USRPAG), of which I am a member, presented a deputation to the Executive Committee which will appear in Part II of this thread.

Since the current scheme surfaced, so to speak, I have had various comments here (not all published) asking about the viability of the proposed retail concourse and the links between it and the rail concourse above.  So that readers can better understand the proposal, I have included below a number of illustrations taken from a virtual tour of the redesign scheme.

[Updated:  Views of the proposed atrium in the GO Trainshed have been added.] 

One important thing to remember is that the layouts are not cast in stone, and improvements can be made.

The Existing Go Concourse is located under the east wing of the station and only extends about half way down the trainshed.  The rail level is about 1.5 stories above this, and the GO area includes a cramped set of mezzanines between the concourse level and the tracks.  The north end of this concourse is primarily occupied by fast food outlets.

The Existing Concourse Elevations are all at different levels.  (In these drawings, elevations are relative to a “zero” at teh base of the structure. 

  • The Bay Street Concourse (used by GO) is at 7’6″.  This is actually a bit below the level of the Arrivals Hall under the Great Hall — remember that there are a few steps up as you go west from the GO area into the Great Hall itself.
  • The York Street Concourse (now used primary by a rental car agency) is at 10’00”.
  • The Lower Centre Concourse (the basement under the Via Rail concourse) is at 4’6″.

This arrangement makes movement between the concourses impossible. 

The proposed new retail concourse is at elevation 2’0″ across the entire width of the building.  This is important because it is the same level as the mezzanine of Union Subway Station to which it will directly connect.

The New Retail Level lies under the GO and Via Concourses.  Visible in this drawing is the retail space (pink), the connection up to the Via Concourse (light blue with red arrow), the new loading dock (large gray area on the York Street side), new covers over the moat and teamways (blue) and, in the upper right corner, the connection to the subway.

It is not immediately obvious, but this drawing actually includes the subway mezzanine.  The east end of the moat will be excavated to provide a direct connection from the Retail Level across into the subway.  By the way, the new second platform for Union Subway Station is under the moat and at the same level as the Harbourfront Streetcar loop to which it will directly connect.

The New Concourse Above Retail Level will be built to match the level of the existing Via Concourse.  There is actually a slight difference between them, but it is small enough that the transition can easily be handled by ramps.  Note the slot with the red arrow in the north end of the Bay Street Concourse.  This is for an escalator bay that, at its lower level, points directly at the crossing to the subway.

There is also an oval-shaped opening in the floor of the Via Concourse that lines up with the existing ramp down from the Great Hall.  This is a direct link down to the Retail Level via escalator.  Other openings are shown in the Concourse Level to provide views and connections down to the Retail Level, but the locations are not fixed and are shown for illustration only.

The New Go Stairs provide many more connections from the much-expanded GO Concourse to the track level above.

The New Concourse With Stairs shows a similar view, but with the Via Concourse.  The red and green boxes are new connections to and from the track level.  Remember that the GO Concourse will be higher than it is now, and the distance between it and the tracks will be about 2/3 of what it is today. 

(In case anyone is trying to visualize the change, remember that there is the small stair up to the Arrivals Concourse from the GO Concourse, and then the ramp up from the Arrivals Concourse to the Via Concourse.  The change in height is roughly the combination of these two increments.)

Also visible in this drawing is the new exit to Union Plaza at the south end of the building (in blue).  This will not only provide access from the station to new developments in the area, but access to the station and its Retail Concourse for the large population who will live within walking distance.  Anyone who has seen the Dominion in the basement of College Park (Yonge and College) will know the kind of demand a forest of condos can generate.

The Proposed Moat Coverings will provide protection from rain and snow in the moat which is now open to the elements.   The central part of the moat is already covered by the bridge from the sidewalk to the Great Hall which is now being restored.  Note also the new widened entrance to the Promenade area at York Street and the new stairs down into the moat from the northeast and northwest corners. For other views of the station plans, please refer to my original post.

One additional item worth mentioning is the Go Trainshed Proposal.  It is not part of the Union Station project, but is a major plan by GO (who owns the trainshed) to brighten and enhance the platform space.  Much of the trainshed will be renovated and painted as it is a heritage structure.  However, a central span, matching exactly the width of the Via Concourse below, will be removed and replaced by a raised glass canopy.  The position of this structure is dictated by the location of supports below.

Here is the GO Atrium By Night, and you can see it in the distance in the view of Union Plaza linked above. 

Finally, there has been some discussion about the possibility of widening platforms and moving tracks.  Moving the tracks is physically impossible because they stand on columns that go down to bedrock.  Those columns are not going anywhere.

One option that has been proposed is to remove some tracks so that platforms could be widened into the vacated space.  I am not sure that we would be left with enough usable track space, although railway stations in other parts of the world are claimed to operate successfully with very frequent service and much different track layouts.  However, a major change in the platform arrangement at Union is highly unlikely and, in any event, is not in the scope of the Revitalization Project because the City of Toronto does not own the trainshed itself, only the structure beneath and the air rights overhead.

7 thoughts on “Union Station Revitalization Update (Part I) (Updated)

  1. 1. The stairs seem to be laid out very haphazardly. Would it be possible to lay them out in a more regular pattern by removing some of the existing stairs and laying new stairwells in a regular pattern, in order to create larger through passageways between the stairwells?

    2. Would it be possible to open up the concourses, in order to install stairwells between them? This would allow continuous passenger movement between the three concourses.

    3. Why is it necessary to keep the moat? The moat should be covered over and the passageways running through it fully enclosed so that passengers don’t have to go outside to get to Union Station. It seems to simply be used for parking – couldn’t the parking be moved?


    1. The layout of the stairs is constrained by the space above on the platforms.

    2. Yes. The layout of the connections between the two concourses is only shown as an example.

    3. The moat is covered over in this plan. The west end is intended as commercial space, and the east end is the connection to the subway as described in my post.


  2. Track realignment is not impossible outright, but it is indeed very limited in flexibility. A project of this nature has already happened in the past in the late 70s when GO comissioned Rounthwaite, Dick and Hadley Architects to renovate the station, both concourse and platform levels. I know, I have copies of some of their drawings from that project (obtained through contact with UPG about 5 years back for a college project on Union).

    I recently read, however, that GO is not interested in getting into any new track realignment projects at Union… at all (read: too expensive). However, I would support a simple elimination of track 4. Track 3B is (or has this perhaps changed?) the “regular” track for Lakeshore service… and having used it countless times, peak and off, it is too narrow for the volumes of people unloaded upon it.

    It would be fine if GO’s trains weren’t bi-level, but the bi-level loads I find to be too much for when the trains are 10 (and along Lakeshore West soon some growing to 12) cars long. I’d be tempted to argue a safety case here. If you only want to run 6-car Bi-levels along that track, I’d say the platform can cope if some stairways are added (grossly lacking on track 3B/4A today, especially if compared to track 2’s access (although those stairs go to Via Rail’s concourse instead of GO Transit’s…)).

    GO has in the past shown reluctance to rearrange what track at Union services which corridor in its network, they claim due to customers’ habitual attachment to “their” track that they’ve “always” used (I find this argument extremely weak). Bradford remaining on the southernmost GO track (currently track 7) I find particularly mindboggling since they had the chance to take advantage of a great excuse and move it to track 1 or 2 when surrendering tracks 12 and 13 – the straightest tracks (6 and 7) should obviously go to Lakeshore service.

    Some practical track reassigning at Union would simplify rolling stock maneuvering and scheduling a great deal and increase capacity in the rush (if they have the rolling stock to match, of course), even taking into consideration that grade-separated rail-rail crossing to the west side of the station. By practical, I mean “stacking” the lines aligning with the direction their corridor goes from Union:

    Track 1: Bradford/Richmond Hill
    Track 2: Georgetown
    Track 3: Milton
    Track 4: Lakeshore West Express/Milton
    Track 5: Lakeshore West Local
    Track 6: Lakeshore East Express/Stouffville (off-peak: Lakeshore West)
    Track 7: Lakeshore East Local

    I can’t think of any good reason for not doing it that way, but we’re all used to management knowing better here, aren’t we?

    Steve: Track 1 is the planned location of the Airport shuttle as and when it appears. The reasoning is that this will allow direct access to the Great Hall and adjacent wings from the track so that Airport passengers can be ticketed and boarded without getting embroiled in the GO and Via passenger flows.

    Also, GO is expanding at the south end of the station.


  3. Steve: I was criticizing the current setup resulting from track re-allocations following the discontinuation of tracks 12 and 13. No complaints about track 1 going to the airport shuttle (however, given the opposition that still exists to that project, that’s still an “if” at the moment, rather than a “when”), and agree with keeping such passengers out of the concourses below, but the main point about track assigning I was making was that GO’s management of platform level operations and scheduling is poor and causing unnecessary complications. Fixing these complications could improve the comfort, efficiency, and image of the system to its most-traveled corridors’ users. Such re-assignments can be done at virtually no cost since it does not require any new infrastructure (beyond stairways that are already being added), so GO has no excuses for this relatively simple problem being allowed to continue.

    Steve: I concur.


  4. Steve,

    This may be an ignorant question because I’m not too familiar with the GO rolling stock, but are there any plans to introduce high platforms? I know that in VIA’s case this would be useful.

    Steve: I don’t know of any such proposal and doubt that GO plans anything beyond isolated ramps to its trains. Also, the lower level of GO double-deckers is considerably lower than the high floor level in Via trains. Sorting all of this out will be a real challenge.


  5. Some interesting points from Richard Gilbert in yesterday’s Star.

    Steve: As I sit on the Union Station Revitalization Public Advisory Group, I have limited my comments here to factual discussions about plans for Union Station. It happens that I support the plan put forward by the City, although there are specific issues that USRPAG has with the overall scheme, notably the governance model (or absence thereof).

    I will not comment on Gilbert’s article beyond saying that he is wrong on many accounts. At this point, I do not know whether USRPAG and/or the City will be penning a reply.


  6. The city plan looks pretty good to me overall as well. That Gilbert thinks it might be good if it fails so a new train station could then be built to the east or west strikes me as odd. But his points about widening the platforms so that passengers aren’t bottlenecked in the “pre-loading” area make sense to me.

    Steve: Two points here.

    First, the pre-loading scheme will likely be abandoned by GO Transit as they have realized from pedestrian flow modeling that it won’t work. Second, the location and width of the platforms are dictated by the location of structural elements in the station that cannot be moved. Gilbert proposes to remove some tracks to allow widening of some platforms, but that won’t work across the width of the station.


  7. Would the “structural elements that cannot be moved” be the canopy? Gilbert proposes a new, modern, airy, glass canopy along the lines of the newer (or reno-ed) european stations. Maybe we could get Sr. Calatrava, who designed the award-winning BCE Place atrium/mall, to do it.

    What does GO have in mind then, if they are abandoning the pre-loading scheme? Something’s gotta give with too many people on too-narrow platforms.

    Steve: The canopy (which is to be restored and will look much better for the effort) is a fixed item and obviously is tied to the current platform layout. There will be a glass canopy for the central part of the station replacing about 1/4 of the existing canopy.

    The big problem is the pillars on which the tracks rest. These cannot be moved. The only way to get wider platforms is to have fewer operating tracks.

    As for people on platforms, there will be many more vertical connections between the GO concourses and track level and this will spread out the load better than it is today. Yes, congestion is still an issue, but the total passenger volume is supposed to be addressed by running more trains and using more tracks for GO service during peak periods.


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