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GO launches major project to renew Union Station

Union Station is, arguably, the busiest and most important transportation facility in the Greater Toronto Area — possibly even the most important in Canada.

Ever since Edward, Prince of Wales, (later, and briefly, King Edward VIII), officially opened the building on August 6, 1927, Union Station has hosted millions of passengers, set the stage for hundreds of thousands of fond reunions and bittersweet farewells. It was the first part of Toronto to welcome immigrants and other newcomers to the city and the last to send off thousands of members of Canada’s armed forces to World War II, the Korean Conflict and many peacekeeping missions around the world.

Although in its early days, Union was mostly an interurban rail terminal, its more modern role is as a transit facility. The TTC has operated subway trains beneath Union since March 30, 1954. And, since 1967, GO Transit has operated commuter trains between Toronto and its suburbs with Union as the hub.

Now three separate projects promise to transform the old station. The City of Toronto — the owner of the building — is working with private partners Osmington Limited and Vanbots Inc. to start renovating and redeveloping the station, including rebuilding the concourses serving GO train passengers. Far below the main station, the TTC is building a second platform for subway riders. But, perhaps with the biggest project of all, GO is upgrading the railroad facilities.

Last fall, we at Transit Toronto were both flattered and excited when GO staff invited us to a media tour of Union Station.

Since we wanted to find out what GO was planning, on October 20 we joined reporters from The Toronto Star, the Toronto Sun and Global TV — and other transit bloggers, including Steve Munro and David Fisher — to look inside, below and above the station… most of us wound up the tour on the roof, watching the trains arrive and leave!

Since GO announced this week that it is starting to work on its multi-year, multi-million dollar project to renew the train-shed roof, now seems like a suitable time for us to talk about our tour of the station and what GO plans for the future of the structure.

So what’s going on?

Since 2006 and during the next five years, GO has been, or will be:

Renovating the train-shed roof

GO told us that restoring the roof above the passenger platforms and tracks — GO calls this area the “train shed” — is a major part of the Union Station renewal project.

It hopes to restore the east and west parts — totaling 30,000 square metres (300,000 square feet) — and to replace the central 5,000 square metres (50,000 square feet) of the train shed with a large glass atrium. Since the Government of Canada has designated the train shed as a heritage structure, GO staff worked with Parks Canada to make sure that the overall design preserves the heritage character of the building.

The new glass atrium will “float” over the tracks, allowing daylight into the platform level and letting passengers see the the waterfront from the station. GO plans to install a “green roof” with solar cells to help reduce the “heat island” effect that often raises temperatures in urban areas. This will also reduce the amount of rainwater running off the roof and generate enough electricity to offset whatever power the station needs to operate.

Work will start from the south end of the train shed and move northward. During the various stages of construction, GO will close two tracks into the station at a time and also shut down the platform between each pair of tracks. It will then build barriers around each construction zone to guarantee that work can continue without endangering passengers.

GO says it plans on clearly communicating to passengers — with signs and with electronic message boards — how each phase of this work will affect service. Passengers should visit GO’s train-status page on its website or check out the Union Station departure board on line or in the station to learn where to board their train during construction. Transit Toronto will also update passengers about the status of the construction.

During this phase of the project, which likely will continue for the next five years, GO will restore, repair and renovate from the top of the roof down to track level, including:

  • Replacing the roofing material, improving drainage, and waterproofing.
  • Cleaning and repairing the steel structure.
  • Replacing the tracks. GO will take tracks out of service (and the platforms between) two at a time. It will close off construction zones to separate them from passenger areas.
  • Replacing the waterproofing at track level to prevent water from leaking to the building below.
  • Replacing all the old wiring and much of the public communications equipment including the loudspeakers, signs, and lights.
  • Upgrading stairwells to glass structures — except at Platform 12/13, where GO will carefully restore the heritage features to their original finish.
  • Installing ten new elevators on the west side of the shed once the City has finshed a new concourse on the York Street side of the station (probably by 2012).
  • Installing two more two elevators in the middle of the east side of the shed (probably in 2014 - 2015).

Building a new south platform

During our tour, GO staff took us to the extreme south end of the station — practically on top of the Air Canada Centre — to show off its new, southernmost platform, Platform 26/27.

GO opened the new platform in May, 2009 to create much needed elbow room for trains to move around, into, out of and through Union Station. Construction started in September 2006.

The extra platform greatly increases GO’s capacity to handle more passengers at Union. As GO continues to expand its network to include all-day service along current and future corridors, including frequent, daily trains between Union Station and Toronto Pearson International Airport, it will need this platform to load and unload the expanding number of trains using the station.

And, in the short term, since its work on the train-shed roof requires it to shut down one platform at time, GO will use this extra platform to maintain its current levels of service during construction.

The new platform south of the main train shed is fully accessible with an elevator and nine sets of stairs. It has a canopy and a snow-melting system, and also offers a new south entrance into the station. While it was building this new platform, GO also improved the nearby Platform 24/25, adding five new sets of stairs and relocating the elevator.

Improving passenger access to the platforms

GO’s been building new stairs and elevators to the train platforms, making passenger trips to and from trains faster and easier. GO told us that, to accommodate increasing number of riders, it needs as many ways as possible to get passengers between the platforms and the current and future passenger waiting areas in the western sections of the station and to the “teamways” or covered walkways on both sides of Bay and York Streets.

Its main objective is to provide more access points along each platform that lead to different parts of the surrounding neighbourhood.

Enclosures for the new stairs and elevators have contemporary designs, but use industrial materials, such as angled steel and flat panels of glass, to match the original freight elevators at the end of the platforms. This helps preserve the heritage of the station, while also meeting the need for growth.

Because the City of Toronto owns the Union Station building, GO is working with the City to create a plan for developing concourse areas and platform access. Its target of completing this part of the project is 2014.

So far, GO has:

  • developed a master plan for building new stairwells and elevators.
  • planned construction to fit in with work on the train-shed roof. Work on both projects will occur until 2014.
  • renumbered the platforms and installed more passenger-friendly signs in October, 2008.

Upgrading signals

The Union Station Rail Corridor renewal program will allow GO to get ready for train traffic to double during the next 20 to 30 years.

It will get ready by renewing its signal system, dispatching trains by computer, consolidating dispatch offices, providing new routes to the platforms, eliminating track bottlenecks, increasing train speeds, improving platform access and installing new snow-clearing devices.

GO assured us that the vintage signaling system around Union Station continues to operate safely, but has become increasingly expensive to maintain. Increasing train volumes stretch the signal system to its limits, particularly when delays or bad weather interrupt regular service.

Signals are the stoplights and traffic police of the train network. Modernizing the system improves reliability and allows trains to move faster, while maintaining safety standards.

The new signal system will allow GO to recover faster from train delays or equipment malfunctions and will also let it handle faster train speeds. It will also streamline and consolidate operations into one control centre. When combined with GO’s security and bus operations control centres, the signal centre will provide better, more cost-effective service.

This part of the project includes work on the cable and gas lines, retaining walls, and maintenance access roads that run parallel to the tracks.

  • GO started to design this phase of the project in January, 2008 and started construction started in late 2008.
  • It’s installing switch-clearing devices to control the build-up of ice and snow at the same time as it’s upgrading track switches.
  • It installed 20 devices installed in 2008, and will install 140 more until the end of the project in 2014.

Improving the tracks

GO says it plans to upgrade the tracks to improve the reliability of the service and make riding the train smoother.

When the original designers of the station laid out the tracks, they worried mostly about moving long-distance passenger trains and freight between cities. Since GO has been using the station, it has largely replaced those requirements by its need to move commuters to and from the suburbs and into and out of downtown Toronto.

GO will streamline the tracks, removing some sections. While the number of station tracks will remain the same, it will also add two new approach tracks and align the tracks better. Trains will have more straight runs into and out of the station, rather than switching from one section of track to the next, which is difficult in winter .

The main objective of this part of the project is to build a third main track through the “fly-under” (tunnel) west of Union Station, providing another route from the Georgetown and Lakeshore West corridors through to Union Station. This will give GO more capacity on the west approach to Union Station for train service to grow, provide more routing options and lessen the impact of train delays. Building the new third track require GO to also build new retaining walls leading to the fly-under, along with grading and drainage work.

During this part of the project, GO also improved Bathurst North Yard, the area just west of Union Station where it stores its trains between morning and afternoon rush hours. Improving the yard included: - Extending track lengths to accommodate longer 12-car trains. - Upgrading power systems, signals, tracks and roadways.

Construction on the tracks started in spring 2009. Work on the Bathurst North Yard is now under way and should be finished this winter. GO should finish all track work later this year.

Replacing switches

GO needs to replace about 100 track switches in the Union Station rail corridor. New switches will let trains run faster into and out of Union Station, so that GO can add more service as ridership increases.

Track switches move trains from one track to the next, allowing an approaching train to take either one route or the other. Some of the switches around Union Station have more complicated designs; these are called slip switches (single or double). Replacing switches is a complex process involving advance planning and preparatory work, installation and testing. Installing and testing a single switch is an around-the-clock operation, starting after the Friday-afternoon rush hour and ending just before Monday-morning services begin.

Currently, trains can only travel through the double-slip switches at no more than 25 kilometres per hour. After GO has replaced the switches, trains can operate at speeds of 50 to 70 kilometres per hour.

GO is working on the track switches over a five-year period. Crews are working at night and on weekends to so that their work doesn’t disrupt most GO service.

  • GO replaced nine switches in 2006, 22 in 2007, 18 in 2008 and 23 in 2009. That leaves just 28 more to replace by the time this part of the project ends in November 2010.

Building a new yard to store trains in the middle of the day

For years, GO Transit has stored trains at Bathurst North Yard Mondays to Fridays from about 9:30 a.m. until 3 p.m. The yard, just west of Union Station between Spadina Avenue and Bathurst Street, holds seven trains downtown between the morning and afternoon peak periods. Having the trains nearby helps reduce train congestion because GO can quickly move empty trains moved into and out of Union without interfering with other trains in service.

In September 2007, GO built a similar facility on the east side of the station between the Don River and Cherry Street, which allows it to efficiently stage the trains.

The new Don Yard can accommodate 10 GO trains, including longer trains with12 passenger railcars, and allows GO staff access for light cleaning and maintenance on board the trains during the day.

Holding more trains in the downtown area eliminates 160 kilometres per day or 40,000 kilometres per year of train travel, significantly saving fuel and reducing emissions. Storing them near Union Station also reduces the number of trains that GO has to handle on the busier west end tracks. In the past, all GO Trains had to start afternoon service by coming into the station from the west.

GO finished this part of the project in September, 2007 and the yard is fully operating.

You can find out more about GO’s plans for Union Station here.

You can find out more about the TTC’s plans to build a second passenger platform at Union subway Station here.

You can find out more about the City of Toronto plans for Union Station here.