Looking back: progress made on Union Station’s transformation
The iconic Toronto transit hub prepares for more changes – from food to catching a train.
Jan 8, 2019
During his long career with Canadian Press, journalist Eric Shackleton chronicled important changes in his country’s culture and character.
These days, as he travels in and out of iconic Union Station, in the heart of Toronto, the 75-year-old retired reporter can still spot a shifting narrative.
Updating his iPhone through free WiFi on the Concourse level, as commuters line up for coffee and breakfast in the new food court below, Shackleton recalls jumping on the first generation of GO trains. He also remembers Union Station when it wasn’t so inviting.
“You can buy anything you need here,” he says, checking his watch against the train times on one of the nearby displays.
“It’s now very European. Toronto is catching up.”
Covered by other reporters, and noted by customers on scores of social media posts, Union Station – Metrolinx’s most public project – saw major developments in 2018, with more chapters to come in the story this year.
While the City of Toronto started the revitalization of the station, the partners have always shared the same priorities: to provide passengers with efficient, frequent and comfortable service while transforming one of this country’s busiest transit hubs into a destination.
What makes Union Station one of the most complex construction projects in Canada is a decision to maintain its historic elements after 30 years of under-investment, and still keep trains running every single day.
“We see the challenges passengers face navigating Union Station, with frequently changing fencing and construction walls,” says Pat Hegarty, Senior Manager of Station Operations Central.
His team oversees the day-to-day operations of Metrolinx at Union Station.
One of the largest areas to be renovated is the Bay Concourse. It will increase in size from 40,000 square feet to 61,000 square feet. When complete, and combined with the York Concourse, Union Station’s total GO concourse area will be more than triple its original size to 123,000 sq. ft.
Hegarty says those renovations will make it easier to get to and from the train platforms, adding: “We appreciate how patient everyone is and know the new Bay Concourse will be worth the disruption.”
Not only was the former Bay Concourse too small, it also needed restoration from the inside out. Last year, new electrical and mechanical systems were installed, new stairs poured and elevator shafts constructed and reinforced. The City of Toronto is scheduled to complete its work later this year and then hand the baton over to Metrolinx to customize the space.
“Metrolinx and the City of Toronto made significant progress at Union Station in 2018,” says Metrolinx Chief Capital Officer Peter Zuk. “I’m excited for the next round of amenities we’ll be able to offer this year.”
PRESERVING HISTORY WHILE WE BUILD FOR THE FUTURE
In addition to being Canada’s busiest transit hub, Union Station is also a National Historic Site. When the building opened back in 1927, trains ran on steam and the population of Toronto was a little over half a million people. There are now seven million people residing in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, and roughly 300,000 use the station every day.
Inside the Great Hall, historic stonework in the ceiling has been repaired and updated signage is being installed to help passengers find their way. There is also historically sensitive restoration work happening on the building’s façade. That’s expected to be complete this year.
MAKING UNION STATION A DESTINATION
The Union Food Court – offering 10 vendors and seating for 600 – opened in November 2018. With the unique light fixtures and eye-catching design elements, it’s not your typical food court.
The ability to now grab a meal and coffee checks off a lot of boxes for GO Transit commuters, with the space featuring ample high-top seating, charging stations, ATMs, and even a Toronto Public Library e-book kiosk.
“We’ve worked really hard to have a retail experience that is unique and really represents the best of Toronto,” says Vanessa McDonald, vice-president of Brand Strategy and Partnerships at Osmington Union Station. Osmington manages the retail and cultural experiences at Union Station.
One of the most notable changes inside Union Station is the addition of 30,000 square feet of retail space. The Front Street Promenade, Union’s “Main Street,” features local and independent shops and restaurants.
The next retail spaces to open will be in the lower retail level, which will extend underneath the Bay Concourse and the Bay Promenade.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2019 AND BEYOND
Outside Union Station, even more space is being added this year: 25,000 square feet of outdoor walkways covered with steel and glass skylights around the perimeter of the station. These four canopies, known as moat covers on York, Bay and Front East and West, require more than 26,000 square feet of glass and 437 metric tonnes of steel. Their addition will protect passengers from inclement weather as they enter and exit the station, or when transferring to and from the TTC.
Next year will also see restoration work to the seating areas in the VIA Concourse, which has already been improved with new tiling and higher ceilings.
GO Transit riders will also notice some additional platform work. To ensure people stay farther away from passing trains, Metrolinx is in the process of installing wider yellow tactile tiles along the platform edge. Infrastructure is also being installed to support new digital signs, security cameras, lighting and an improved PA system, along with the wiring needed to ensure these devices work even when the power is out.
When the communications and safety enhancements on the platforms are complete later this year, the focus will shift to building a new, wider platform at the south end of the station with a new concourse underneath it to help move people through the station more easily. This future work is separate and distinct from the current work underway as part of the City of Toronto’s Union Station Revitalization project.
Retired writer Shackleton believes the alterations and updates will continue for the better for the transit hub he’s used since the 1970s.
“We’re going to have more trains,” he reasons, while quickly moving to catch the one he needed.
“So changes are always for the good.”
“Once we’ve finished the upgrades to handle today’s service levels, we’ll be readying Union Station to support quadruple that amount in the future,” says Zuk. “The investment will transform the region, but the complexity and scale of the work takes time. We’re grateful for the patience and loyalty of our customers, and will keep providing updates on our progress.”
by Kate Manicom Communications planning senior advisor, Matt Llewellyn Spokesperson