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A History of Toronto's Union Station Through the 21st Century

By James Bow

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By the late 1990s, Toronto's Union Station was a downtown and transportation landmark -- a critical part of the work day of hundreds of thousands of commuters, and a major gateway into the city of Toronto.

However, at the time, it was clear that the Union Station needed work. In the 1960s, the railways Canadian National and Canadian Pacific had given up on passenger train service and, in 1968, called for the demolition of the station. Even with GO Transit making increasing use of Union, the result of this neglect by the station's owners meant that none but the most urgent maintenance was done to the station for over forty years. By 2006, an estimated $200 million was needed to bring the station up to a state of good repair.

In addition to increasing maintenance issues, the space was not built to handle the crowds that were passing through (35 million passengers per year), or the crowds that were expected to pass through in the years to come (up to 50 million passengers per year). The GO Concourse, which had been shoehorned into a wing of the station previously occupied by the Canada Post Office, had become a warren of stairs, narrow corridors, and other choke points. If GO Transit was to expand service to a wider swath of the Greater Toronto Area, the concourse level would have to be redesigned and expanded.

Further, the subway station adjacent to the train station was now the fourth most heavily used station on the Toronto subway network. The station platform, which was still the same size it was when the station opened in 1954 (indeed, if anything, additional stairs had cut the amount of platform space), did not have sufficient space for its safe use by rush-hour crowds. Flow through the station itself was complicated by pedestrian traffic with the enlarging Toronto PATH Network, an underground city of shopping malls and other corridors connecting many of the buildings of Toronto's financial district, and taking loads that could not be accommodated by the surface sidewalks.

To preserve the Union Station and enhance its use for the future, someone needed to step forward to renovate the station, upgrade its facilities, and open up its corridors and its platforms to handle more trains and larger crowds. To complicate matters, many players would need to be involved in such an endeavour. Toronto Union Station was owned by Toronto Terminals Railway, a consortium set up by Canada's railways. The provincially owned GO Transit and the federally owned VIA Rail used Union as a major hub. Since 1975, the building had been designated by the federal government as a National Historic Site. The private railroads still had significant interest in the building and real estate holdings around it. It would take almost as much effort to navigate negotiations between the various parties as it would to completely rebuild the station while maintaining it as an operating facility.

Toronto Takes Matters Into Its Own Hands

On November 3, 1999, Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman stood next to Ontario Premier Mike Harris and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien to announce a major new initiative to redevelop Toronto's Waterfront. The initiative would, by November 2001, result in the creation of Waterfront Toronto. With funding promised by all three levels of government, Lastman hoped that the initiative would result in a number of outcomes, including new parks, burying the Gardiner Expressway, a waterfront streetcar line operating from Etobicoke Creek to Rouge River, and a second platform to relieve the pressure on Union subway station. Of these plans, the Union station second platform project would be one of the largest to actually receive funding.

On June 7, 2000, the City of Toronto reached a deal with GO Transit and Toronto Terminal Railways to purchase Union Station. Standing with federal Transport Minister David Collenette, Mayor Lastman announced that the City of Toronto would pay $80 million to the TTR -- an amount covered by $25 million in back rent owed to the city by the TTR, and a $55 million, 99-year lease from GO Transit. The purchase was to be the impetus for a $200 million restoration paid for by the private sector. The redevelopment would make available up to 200,000 square feet of retail and commercial space, the leases of which would pay for all remaining renovation costs.

Among the redevelopment proposals on the table that day was a plan supported by David Collenette to build a high-speed rail link connecting Union Station to Pearson International Airport. The line, along with other redevelopments, was supposed to be open by 2006, in preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympics that Toronto hoped to host. Neither the train nor the Olympics arrived in the time expected, but the high-speed line finally started construction as a provincial project, after going through a number of changes. Now christened the Union Pearson Express, this rail link is expected to open in time for the Pan-Am Games in 2015.

The timelines were ambitious, but the City of Toronto had lined up a number of the principals required to make major changes to Union Station, and it had lined up considerable funding to bring it about.

While this was happening, GO Transit was making changes of its own to Union Station. In 2001, the CP Express building, tucked between Bay and Yonge Streets behind the Dominion Building on Front Street, was torn down to make way for a seven-bay bus terminal for GO Transit. This partially opened to the public on August 31, 2002, and was fully open by April 2003.

Initially, the new bus station was planned to gather the various GO Transit, PMCL and Trentway-Wagar buses which had been stopping on congested Front Street, but GO remained the sole tenant of the property. The bus terminal was also planned to allow for the phasing out and redevelopment of the old Toronto Coach Terminal and the Elizabeth Street bus terminal at Bay and Dundas, but this did not come to pass. GO Bus service grew to such an extent, that both facilities see enough traffic to keep them open. Plans still exist to build an even larger bus terminal connected to Union Station to finally consolidate all of the bus terminals into one, but these plans remain on the shelf.

Controversy Mars the Project

In spite of the funding, the revitalization proposal ran into delays and controversy. Former Toronto mayor John Sewell highlighted concerns regarding the high level of private investment in the project, wondering if the redevelopment would be more focused in turning Union Station into a shopping centre, rather than a passenger hub. He and others were especially critical of plans to build new passenger concourses in Union Station's basement, connecting directly to Toronto's PATH Network and effectively bypassing the station's Great Hall.

Two bids were received for the revitalization of Union Station: one by Union Pearson Group, controlled by the owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Air Canada Centre, and LP Heritage, a Chicago company that had been responsible for the revitalization of New York's Grand Central station. As the bids were evaluated by city staff and representatives of the federal government, questions were raised over the impartiality of the assessment, which favoured the Union Pearson Group, even though other assessments indicated that LP Heritage had the better bid. A Freedom of Information request revealed that the documents recording the way the selection committee had voted had been destroyed by the City of Toronto's lawyer. An initially undeclared conflict of interest (Mayor Lastman's son, a lawyer, was a colleague of a person involved with one of the controlling interests of the Union Pearson Group) further sparked further concerns that the process had been rigged.

This controversy, combined with other scandals, put a pall over the Union Station revitalization project, and became a major issue in the 2003 municipal election that brought Toronto Mayor David Miller into office. In spite of these questions, further negotiations with Union Pearson Group continued and, late in 2004, Toronto City Council voted to go with the Union Pearson Group bid. On February 2, 2006, Toronto City Council voted 33-7 to lease Union Station to the Union Pearson Group for up to 100 years, making them responsible for completing the design of the redevelopment, tendering out the work and obtaining the necessary building permits.

It is possible that Toronto City Council just wanted to move on. It was now six years since the city had purchased Union Station, and $26 million worth of repairs had been deferred in the interim, while the city waited for negotiations to work themselves out. Whatever the motivation, it was all for naught. Amid the controversies, final negotiations broke down, with both sides losing faith in the process. The deal effectively fell through when a deadline on May 31, 2006 passed without an agreement. The redevelopment of Union Station had to start again.

Toronto Takes Matters Into Its Own Hands, Again

Despite the collapse of the deal with Union Pearson Group, the City of Toronto was not back at square one. It still owned the station building, and GO Transit still had control over the tracks. The City of Toronto still had to find partners, and it still had to find funds, and the issue of passenger capacity was even more pressing, but it still had control over the facility.

On May 24, 2006, the City of Toronto announced that nearly $100 million would be made available to address a number of critical short-term issues, including connecting the GO concourse to the Toronto PATH Network and building the second platform to Union subway station (the latter funded through a contribution from Toronto Waterfront Corporation). Construction began late in 2006 to relocate utilities ahead of building the platform itself.

The City of Toronto and GO Transit then lobbied the provincial and federal governments for the funding needed to properly renovate Union Station. Finally, on August 5, 2009, Toronto City Council voted to approve a revamped proposal costing $640 million, with $164 million coming from the federal government, and $172 million from the government of Ontario. In July 2010, the provincial government announced that its new regional transit agency Metrolinx (now controllers of GO Transit), would design, build, own and operate the rail link between Union Station and Pearson International Airport. One of the last components of the 2000 proposal was funded. Starting in 2010, serious reconstruction of Union Station finally began.

How to Rebuild a Transportation Hub

The challenges of the Union Station redevelopment plan are legion. The cooperating parties had to expand the capacity of Union Station to handle hundreds of thousands more commuters per day. They had to upgrade and restore parts of the structure that were showing their age. They had to preserve the building's architecture and its historic components, and they had to elevate the passenger experience to something worthy of a major gateway into the City of Toronto.

The Union Station project was so large that three architectural firms were hired to handle separate major elements. One was NORR Architects, a Toronto architectural firm founded in 1938. They were made responsible for the station building itself, especially the new passenger concourses and retail space located beneath the building.

NORR Architects was called upon to design and build the "dig down" beneath Union Station. The first phase of this major engineering feat would start on the level immediately below the tracks, and dig down one level further, creating a two-storey deep facility, with one level offering a large passenger waiting area connected to the many platforms behind Union Station, and a second level beneath offering hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail space, as well as connections to Toronto's PATH Network and the Toronto subway.

Also signed on: Zeidler Partnership Architects, a Toronto-area firm put in charge of renovating the train shed. The centrepiece of this project was a glass atrium covering the central 5,000 square metres of the train shed. Called a "glass jewel box" that would "float over the tracks", the structure is designed to flood the formerly gloomy train shed area with natural daylight. The glass panels would be overlaid with a pattern of dots, to limit the amount of direct sunlight shining on the passengers below. A computerized ventilation system would open the slatted glass walls to allow diesel fumes to escape. The area would be lit at night by spotlights.

The rest of the train shed would be renovated in such a way as to preserve its historic elements, while offering a green roof to reduce heat island effects and slow rainwater runoff. The train shed roof design was given an award of excellence in 2012 by Canadian Architect magazine.

Finally, FGMDA Architects was brought on board by NORR Architects as a consultant to restore and rehabilitate many of the station's heritage elements. These included the building's interior and exterior masonry, its copper roof, and the stonework of the Great Hall. One of its tasks was relocating VIA Rail's Panorama Lounge to its new location at the northwest corner of the Great Hall. All of this conservation work is subject to approval by the City of Toronto and Parks Canada.

On November 21, 2008, GO Transit and the City of Toronto announced that they had come to an agreement for GO Transit to purchase the upper floors of Union Station, to replace its old headquarters on 20 Bay Street. The facilities offer more than 100,000 square feet of office space that had been previously used by rail employees. After years of sitting mostly empty, these offices will be used by rail employees again.

Construction Finally Begins

At the end of January 2011, construction workers closed the longstanding Harvey's restaurant at the western end of Union Station's Great Hall, so that work would begin on a major stairwell that could connect the Great Hall with the new York Street concourse. This two-level concourse, which would serve GO Transit passengers, would be larger than the current Bay concourse, and would be at the same level as Toronto's PATH network, and the mezzanine level of Union subway station, offering barrier-free access to both. The concourse would also connect with a new PATH tunnel running beneath York Street to an exit at the northern corner of University and York, with future PATH connections with the Royal York hotel and the Toronto Dominion complex at Wellington Street.

It's interesting to note that the original plans for Union Station called for two passageways to connect the concourses to the Great Hall, but were never built. The new design completes a variation of what was intended when the station was designed.

In February 2011, work began in earnest at Union subway station's second platform, resulting in temporary closures of the moat between Front Street and the railway station. Temporary connections between the two stations were opened, but direct connections with Toronto's PATH network at Brookfield Place were cut off, with pedestrians forced to use Bay Street.

The second platform work also closed the TTC's connection between Union subway station and its underground streetcar loop serving 510 SPADINA and 509 HARBOURFRONT streetcars. Once the second subway platform opened, a tunnel from this platform to the underground loop would offer barrier-free access between the two. Wheelchair passengers would then be able to use the new wheelchair-accessible streetcars once they started in service on 510 SPADINA on August 31, 2014. Construction delays have, however, pushed the restoration of streetcar service to the underground loop past this date. The second subway platform and the connection to the underground streetcar loop are expected to open in the fall of 2014.

One critical element of the reconstruction involved the replacement and expansion of the columns holding up the station structure and the railway tracks. Union Station boasts 447 massive concrete columns anchoring the station, 185 of these directly supporting the trains operating through the station. As NORR hoped to dig down to the base of these columns, these columns had to be replaced, and they needed to continue to support the tracks above as excavators dug down. ((This diagram shows how they achieved this)).

While this work was taking place at Union Station itself, Metrolinx and GO Transit were improving passenger access to their trains beneath the tracks of the train shed. Ongoing work had opened up areas on the south side of Union Station, giving passengers access to the station from Union Plaza to the south, and extending Toronto's PATH network to the Air Canada Centre and new developments in the Southcore neighbourhood. On May 11, 2009, GO Transit opened a new platform between tracks 26 and 27, south of the Union Station train shed. This platform featured two small concourses opening onto Bay and York Streets with connections to the VIA departures concourse, as well as direct connections to the Bay and York Street teamways.

Teamway Construction

When the railway viaduct was built in the late 1920s, construction firms added "teamways", or enclosed roadways, on either side of Bay Street and York Street, with stairs and ramps connecting these roadways to the platforms of Union Station. There, carts and trucks could bring mail and freight to trains at Union Station without blocking traffic on the public streets. The teamways' performance diminished as freight and mail traffic waned, and these facilities were blocked off and largely forgotten. Starting in 1997, GO Transit set about incorporating these teamways into the public areas of Union Station, improving passenger flow into and out of the station.

The first of these was the Bay West teamway, along the west side of Bay Street, which had been partially opened to the public in the late 1980s, as the City of Toronto sought to improve connections between the downtown and the city's waterfront. GO Transit opened more stairways connecting this teamway to the station platforms above, and partially glassed in the path to reduce the noise of nearby traffic.

The East Bay teamway was opened later, partly in conjunction with the opening of the GO Bus terminal in 2002. This project involved opening up the Bay Street East Teamway as a public thoroughfare and adding nine new stairways to the platform level. The teamways included display screens to show the status of trains loading in the station.

At York Street, the west teamway opened up by 2008, connecting to the Skywalk and the PATH network south of Union Station. This teamway was fully glassed in to reduce noise from nearby traffic, and the interior was designed with art installations recalling the teamway's use as a conduit of goods. The York West teamway also boasted a bicycle station, which opened in May 2009, offering secure indoor bicycle parking for up to 180 bicycles in 2,000 square feet of space.

The teamways have significantly enhanced the mobility of GO Transit customers, giving them more ways to access trains at Union Station, and helping to disperse crowds faster. The last of these tramways, York East, opened for use early in 2015.

Construction Chaos

With three architectural firms, several construction contractors and three levels of government struggling to coordinate the renovation process, it is perhaps not surprising that mistakes, delays and bad communication occurred, delaying progress and pushing the project over budget. By 2013, there were reports of work needing to be undone and redone due to conflicts in contractors' scheduling.

An example of such infighting was highlighted by the Globe and Mail in a 2014 article that reported, among other things, on a $32,000 cost overrun that took place in a dispute over elevator buttons. GO Transit had asked that new elevators under construction have extra-large buttons for accessibility reasons, as it does on its elevators at its other stations. Although the City of Toronto agreed with the request, a supplier noted that they could supply smaller buttons more cheaply, leading city officials to accept this bid in the hopes of saving money, while failing to consult GO Transit on this purchase. When GO Transit officials found out, they demanded that the City of Toronto live up to its obligations as listed in the original agreement. The larger buttons were purchased, costing an additional $32,932.82 and delaying work by as much as two weeks per elevator.

Throughout the station, passengers navigated blocked off tunnels, temporary stairs, unsightly renovations and construction dust. Progress appeared slow, with planned reopenings of the streetcar tunnel, Union Station's second platform, the York Concourse, and the PATH tunnel beneath York Street pushed back by several months.

Signs of Progress

Amongst all of the ongoing construction, there were still signs of progress. On May 25, 2012, VIA Rail held a dedication ceremony to celebrate the reopening of the VIA Panorama Lounge after a $4.2-million renovation. This restored space offers VIA Rail business and sleeper class passengers comfortable seating, free wi-fi, workstations and meeting areas while passengers wait to board their trains. The spot for the relocated Panorama Lounge used to be a lunchroom, and was most recently the Front Street Bar 'n Grill restaurant.

It also wasn't long before progress significantly altered the look and feel of the train shed. Simply removing the rotting roof slats allowed natural light to flow into what was formerly a gloomy space. The rising glass atrium, several storeys tall, was immediately impressive. Work was also soon finished on a glass wall between tracks 24 and 25 at the south end of the train shed. Passengers boarding trains at this end of the station could see improvements were taking place.

In the subway station, the southern wall gradually fell away to briefly show the platform under construction before hoardings blocked sight of the work. Union subway station became an obstacle course, but passengers could sense that things were moving. The new second platform and revamped mezzanine area opened to the public at the beginning of service on August 18, 2014, and passengers spoke highly of the bright new space. Work on revamping the University line platform continued before itself being officially unveiled eleven months later.

Finally, on April 27, 2015, Metrolinx opened the York Concourse to the public. The modern facility, accessed from the York East tramway, stairs from the former Harveys restaurant in the west side of the Great Hall, or from the southern part of the station, boasted improved access to the various platforms, giving passengers easy accesses to the full length of a 10 or 12 car GO Train (previously, the stairs from the Bay concourse provided easy access to the first four east-end cars of a train), on most of GO's platforms from the north end to the south end of the station. Elevators and escalators led down to a new retail level, which wasn't finished when the York Concourse opened, but promised a large food court and lots of shopping space.

Metrolinx staff were on hand to greet passengers at the newly opened concourse, with banners extolling the work done. Initial reviews from passengers were positive, as floor space at Union had more than doubled overnight. It wouldn't last, however. The opening of the York Concourse now allowed for the closure of the Bay Concourse for similar renovations, although Metrolinx held off until after the end of the Pan Am Games to accommodate crowds before closing the old concourse after the end of service on Sunday, August 16, 2015. Construction was continuing on the Bay Concourse in December 2018, but York Concourse passengers were able to finally enjoy the opening of the York Concourse food court on Monday, November 26, 2018. This was the first phase of the retail level that would extend below the concourse levels of the station.

Once the Bay Concourse re-opens, having been expanded in a similar fashion to the York Concourse, the total concourse area for Union station will have tripled in size. Connections with Toronto's PATH network and the subway at Union station will be dramatically improved. After lengthy renovations and delays, new space has opened up for GO and TTC passengers, freeing up space for construction elsewhere to accelerate.

Although Union Station's renovations are behind schedule, they are continuing, and soon they will transform the station into something remarkable. In 2004, Union Station was handling more than 30 million passengers per year. The renovations underway now, due to finish in 2019, will allow the station to handle twice that number. The atrium and the Great Hall will give these passengers a taste of grandeur as they arrive in the city to carry on with their day.

The Future of Union Station

Despite these changes, in some ways the work needed on Union Station will not be finished once current renovations end in 2019. In addition to being a commuter rail hub and a gateway into Toronto, Union Station has become a focal point for the redevelopment of Toronto's Waterfront and its old Port Lands. The Port Lands development called for by Waterfront Toronto envisions a number of new streetcar lines serving the eastern Waterfront and connecting with the subway at Union Station. To handle this increase of traffic, the underground streetcar loop will have to be redesigned. Unfortunately, the opportunity to make these changes in conjunction with the construction of the second subway platform has come and gone, with no money being made available for such a project. However, it should be possible to expand the loop and the loading platform by digging out the foundation beneath the current east and west teamways along Bay Street.

And even with all of the improvements that will double the capacity of Union Station itself, Metrolinx anticipates that this may not be enough. Passenger use at Union Station is threatened by a choke point west of the station. The narrowing of the railway right-of-way at John Street limits the number of trains that can use the facility, and Metrolinx fears that by 2031 commuter demand will exceed the capacity of those trains.

Late in 2011, Metrolinx commissioned a report to look at ways of dealing with this capacity problem. Possible solutions included building a long and wide tunnel beneath the current railway tracks, effectively double-decking the tracks through Union Station and along much of the rail right-of-way in downtown Toronto.

A more feasible solution might be to divert a number of GO Trains (such as the Kitchener and Barrie runs) to a satellite station on Front Street between Spadina Avenue and Bathurst Street (a space currently occupied by North Bathurst Yard. To connect this station to Union, as well as other points in the downtown core, the station would have to be served by a new subway line, likely a version of the Downtown Relief Line that Metrolinx already expects will be needed within the next twenty-five years in any case.

Toronto's current Union Station is the longest-lived incarnation of the three Union Stations that have graced Toronto since June 21, 1858. It is an important and well-loved Toronto landmark. The planners looking into Toronto's future have made sure that they incorporate Union Station into their plans, and the facility looks set to serve Torontonians well into the 21st century.

Union Station Reconstruction Trivia

  • At the height of the renovation project, between 600 and 900 tonnes of fill (equivalent to 45 truck loads) were removed from the construction site every night.
  • The firing range that occupied the seventh floor of Union Station (used by the railway police to train their officers) was taken over by the City of Toronto when it purchased the station in 2000. It was turned over to the Canadian National Recreation Association Gun Club and served the club until August 29, 2008. At the time, Toronto City Council voted not to renew the lease in support of Mayor David Miller's campaign to end gun violence in Toronto.
  • A glycol-based floor heating system has been built into the platform between tracks 26 and 27. This system will melt snow and ice in the winter, eliminating the need to spread rock salt, which can potentially get into the workings of train cars and jam doors, delaying service.
  • Despite selling Union Station and its tracks to the City of Toronto and GO Transit in 2000, the Toronto Terminals Railway continues to function as a corporation. The City of Toronto and GO Transit brought the TTR under contract to maintain Union Station and the surrounding railway tracks, as well as overseeing various construction projects. The TTR relinquished responsibility for maintaining Union Station in 2009, but continues to maintain the rails around Union Station, and to be responsible for coordinating and signalling all train movements in and out of the station.
  • While GO Transit service ramped up, the service offered by other railway agencies waxed and waned. On June 11, 2001, federal Minister of Transport David Collenette announced plans to increase VIA service out of Union Station. By extending existing Toronto-Montreal and Toronto-Windsor trains east and west of Union Station, new commuter-based trains started running in from as far afield as Kitchener, Hamilton (Aldershot) and Oshawa. As well as extending existing VIA trains east and west from Union Station, the services enhanced the GO Transit service on the Kitchener and Lakeshore lines. Collenette also called for new rail service to Barrie and Peterborough. GO Transit extended trains to Barrie in 2007, but plans to extend service to Peterborough never materialized. The Conservative government announced plans for a privately run passenger train service to Peterborough in 2007, but this has not yet gotten off the ground.
  • In 2000, Ontario Northland was the third rail tenant at Union Station, providing a passenger train called the Northlander between Toronto and Cochrane, via Muskoka and North Bay, with connections at Cochrane to Moosonee. The service was not heavily advertised, and not integrated with either GO Transit or VIA Rail. In 2011, the Ontario government announced plans to divest itself of the railway and, on September 28, 2012, ended service on the Northlander train.

Union Station 2001-Date Image Archive

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Special thanks to Mark Brader, Tom Box, Derek Boles and Patricia Bow for their kind assistance in editing and correcting this article.

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