Chicago Union Station the hub of the North America's railway network and the continent's fifth busiest railroad station, and more people board trains at Union Station than airplanes at Midway Airport, making it a critical transportation assest.
But, its not up to the task. Growing Amtrak and Metra ridership has made it a crowded and unpleasant place to catch a train.
A bold plan to expand the station is urgently needed.
A group of agencies, including Amtrak and Metra and coordinated by the City of Chicago, published the Union Station Master Plan in 2012.
It identifies a number of quick fixes and suggests some big, bold ideas for dramatic additions to the station.
Some progress has been made on the quick fixes, but progress has been slowed as Amtrak and Metra fight over control of the station.
It is time for Congress to get engaged to ensure that Chicago Union Station grows to meet the increasing demands for train travel.
How Did It Get This Bad?
Chicago Union Station is not a through station (like Penn Station, New York or 30th St. Station, Philadelphia,) but two stub end terminals back-to-back. The lack of through tracks reduces capacity and makes it difficult to schedule the through trains the region needs.
A major change in 1969 really messed the place up.
When the station opened in 1925 there were two connected buildings designed to process large crowds efficiently.
The headhouse, on the west side of Canal Street held the main waiting room, ticket counters, customer service and retail.
The concourse, on the east side of Canal Street, was dedicated to getting people to their trains efficiently. It had an open floor plan so passengers could quickly identify and move to their gate and queue up for their train.
Then in 1969, the Concourse was demolished. A new concourse was constructed in the basement of a new high-rise office building. The supporting columns of the buildings above severely limited space in the concourse. New buildings above the track further constrained operations.
Fixing Union Station will require:
• A New Concourse
• Wider Platforms
• Through Tracks
Plan a dramatic new future for Union Station
Union Station is a critical transportation asset, on par Midway Airport.
Investing in a bold, and efficient, facility will pay dividends to the region just as a bold new airport terminal pays off.
The design of the station, both its appearance and its function, must be fitting of a station used by more than a hundred thousand people every day.
The Master Plan released in 2012 provides a framework for improving and expanding Union Station.
Improvements have been made under the master plan, but stalled in recent years.
A new ticket counter and first-class lounge have been built adjacent to the Great Hall. A new skylight and air conditioning hall have restored the Great Hall's function as the main waiting room. A new train departures board would make it a geat place to wait for a train.
A new western entrance is under construction. It will create a much needed flow along an east-west axis.
A bolder vision, and a greater sense of urgency, are needed to move it forward quickly.
Improve Passenger Flow
In the short term, the existing concourse can be made brighter, more inviting and easier to navigate.
This first step is to remove anything not directly related to boarding a train and open up the space. Amtrak has made some progress by moving the ticket counters, customer service offices and first-class lounge into the Great Hall.
Relocating the main Canal Street stairs and escalators from the center to the edges of the space would then create a large central room. Raising the ceiling and creating an entrance balcony off Canal Street will allow natural light into the concourse, making it much easier for travelers and visitors to find their way.
Ultimately, the buildings above the Concourse should be removed. A new concourse that allows passengers to easily find their trains should be built.
Another, and perhaps complimentary option, would be to create a new concourse above the south platforms.
Expand Tracks and Platforms
More track capacity is needed to add trains during the morning and evening rush hours.
The first step is to reduce the amount of time a train is waiting in the station to unload and load passengers. Today, large crowards build up on the narrow platforms, keeping trains in the station much longer than they should.
Shifting track locations and building wider passenger platforms is the solution. Wider platforms will also allow the addition of stairways directly to the street, improving traffic flows even more.
Add Through Tracks
Through tracks are much more efficiant than the existing stub end tracks.
Through tracks are also needed to allow direct service from downstate Illinois, Indiana and Michigan to O'Hare International Airport.
Unused mail platforms under the old post office can be rebuilt to create four through tracks and additional capacity for Amtrak.
Reconstructing the mail platforms to create through tracks is a great first step. It will not be enough for future high-speed trains. Additionally, the clearances may not be sufficient for the overhead electric wires needed for high-speed trains.
Therefore, new tunnels under Canal Street and/or Clinton Street are needed. Similar tunnels have been dug under many stations around the world.
This new, multi-level tunnel could accommodate high-speed trains, commuter trains, or local transit trains.
The pedestrian level of the tunnel would also connect Union Station to Ogilvie Station, making it possible to operate them as a single station.
Fixing Chicago Union Station should be part of federal program to rapidly expand high-speed and conventional trains nationwide.
Please add your voice to the effort by signing our petition.