It's Time to Fix Union Station
Today, Chicago’s Union Station offers direct service to 375 cities and towns in 36 states, providing critical connections throughout the country.
In 2019, more than 15 million passengers boarded Amtrak or Metra trains at the station, making it busier than Midway Airport.
This traffic will grow, because Congress recently funded programs to expand passenger trains nationwide.
Amtrak has completed major improvements to the Headhouse portion of the station. These include a new skylight, new air conditioning, better ticket counters, and a new first-class lounge.
However, much needs to be done to improve the Concourse and dark, congested platforms.
It’s time that local and national stakeholders make upgrading Union Station a priority, to ensure that it can handle the growing interest in rail travel throughout the country.
Fixing Union Station will require:
- A new concourse
- Wider platforms and through tracks
- Integration with Ogilvie Station
The City of Chicago, Amtrak, Metra, and other agencies released a master plan expanding the station in 2012.
Substantial improvements have been made since then, including:
- A new ticket counter and first-class lounge have been built adjacent to the Great Hall.
- A new skylight and air conditioning have restored the Great Hall's function as the main waiting room.
- A new western entrance has been built.
Now, it's time to fix the concourse and platforms.
Ultimately, the buildings above the Concourse should be removed. A new concourse that allows passengers to easily find their trains should be built.
In the short term, the existing concourse can be made brighter, more inviting, and easier to navigate.
Amtrak has taken the first step by moving the ticket counters, offices, and similar functions to the Headhouse. Now, those walls can be removed.
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.
The current configuration of the mezzanine helps overcome a major traffic-control challenge, and it should be retained.
The busiest trains arrive in the southwest corner, but the majority of those passengers are headed towards the northeast exit.
Today, the mezzanine allows these passengers to bypass the main concourse, eliminating a congestion point.
Expand the 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 crowds build up on the narrow platforms, keeping trains in the station much longer.
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.
Wider platforms would make it possible to add new stairs directly to street level.
Another exciting opportuntiy would be to build a new concourse above the south tracks in the 300 S Riverside block.
Reconstructing the mail platforms to create through tracks is a great first step—but it will not be enough for future 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.
The pedestrian level of the tunnel would also connect Union Station to Ogilvie Station, making it possible to operate them as a single station.
Even without the tunnel, Union Station and Ogilvie Station should be integrated to operate almost as a single station.
They are just two blocks away from each other. With an interior walkway, the two stations could function as one.