This is the first in a series of CityRail In Depth articles, which explore detailed aspects of the CityRail concept and rail service in the Greater Toronto Area. This article is shared with the blog Transit Futures.
Union Station is the critical point on any regional rail system in Toronto. All corridors funnel through Union, and its location ensures that it will remain by far the busiest station for the foreseeable future. While the beauty of its Great Hall is enduring, if tarnished, the 'business end' of the station—the actual tracks and platforms—was built in 1927 for a very different set of operating practices from modern regional rail.
Union Station is currently undergoing a major renovation project. Passengers will see big changes when it is complete, including the addition of a whole floor of shopping under the station. The main improvement to rail service is the long-overdue addition of many more stairways to the platforms, including a new west side York Street concourse in parallel to the current GO concourse at Bay Street to the east side.
Union Station’s current platform and track arrangement is a relic of the 1920s. It was designed to handle mostly long-distance passenger trains, which carried a great deal of baggage and mail. To make such movements more convenient, it included a separate, very narrow baggage platform facing each track while a normal passenger platform fronted the other side of the track. This arrangement results in two platforms that are much narrower than the international standard, which makes it more difficult for passengers to wait for their train at track level. To cope, GO and VIA currently force passengers to waste time making their way up from the concourse once the train has already arrived. Once additional access points are built, passengers will at least be able to leave the platform quickly enough to prevent overcrowding. The existence of platforms on both sides of the track is actually a major enhancement to capacity. Known as the 'Spanish Solution', it doubles the number of usable doors on a train and therefore greatly speeds loading and unloading if managed properly.
The original station included few platform access points: two staircases from the current VIA departures concourse and another pair from the parallel exit concourses. The GO concourse was added to provide several more stair access points to some tracks. The platforms themselves are low, unlike Montreal Central Station, Penn Station in New York, or virtually all stations in Europe; this means that passengers must climb steps to reach the car level, which dramatically increases the time required to board and unload trains and makes boarding much more difficult for passengers in wheelchairs. The renovation project will solve most of the problems of limited platform access and poor station circulation, but it will do nothing to improve the problems related to platform width and height.
The Union Station rail corridor has also recently been rebuilt, more-or-less to its original 1927 layout, with the addition of a fly-under to the west of the station. Trains are forced to slow down as they go through many switches. Awkward operating practices compound the problem: running the Airport Rail Link to platform 1 will force it to cross many other lines at grade, reducing capacity and reliability on all routes. GO Trains dwell for a very long time at the station compared to most international railways, which is the main limitation on capacity. The major causes are the large size of the trains coupled with the relatively few doors per car, which means trains take a long time to load and unload. This is compounded by the low platforms, narrow platforms, and relatively few access points. Most international regional rail systems run through trains, which means that they don’t occupy valuable space at the busiest station in the system as they carry out the procedures required to turn the train. These procedures are also much more onerous in North America than in Europe, including the requirement for a time consuming brake test every time the train is turned.
Metrolinx explored these capacity issues in the recent Union 2031 study (helpfully provided by Steve Munro’s blog). It examines a number of scenarios and possible changes to the station to enhance its capacity. While it is admirable that Metrolinx is looking to the future, it is unfortunate that the study wasn’t conducted before the current revitalization project began. That would have allowed the project to incorporate more improvements to train operations, in addition to aesthetic and commercial upgrades. While useful, the study includes some very questionable assumptions. Foremost among them is the establishment of five minutes as the absolute minimum dwell time possible, even for a through train (turning trains would require ten minutes). There is no explanation of how this was derived, and it is far higher than standard international practice, where trains dwell at stations far busier than Union for times consistently measured in seconds. This assumption colours the entire study and makes the station appear far more constrained than it is by international standards. As an extreme comparison, it handles about 200,000 passengers per day on 15 tracks, while Tokyo’s Shinjuku JR Station handles over 1.5 million per day on 14 tracks. Paris’ Châtelet-Les Halles station on the RER handles half a million riders per day on only seven tracks.
In the short-to-medium term, the Metrolinx study reasonably deems the current arrangement acceptable once platform access improvements are complete. In the much longer term, it looks at several major capital expenditures that would provide an additional pair of tracks underground, but that’s a costly project when Union is nowhere near international standards of capacity. An even madder scheme would dead-end Georgetown and Milton lines at Bathurst North, destroying the possibility of an interconnected regional rail system once and for all. Other cities, like Paris, Munich, and London, have spent or are spending billions to correct the mistake of separate stations on regional rail routes. It would be a truly baffling step backwards for Toronto to go in the other direction. Fortunately, despite the press that such schemes have received, Metrolinx doesn’t believe that any of these changes will be required any time soon.
There are several options for modifying Union’s platform arrangement to enhance capacity.
The international standard is for platforms that are far wider than those at Union. It could be possible to create reasonably wide platforms by shifting the tracks into the space now occupied by the baggage platform. While a seemingly simple solution, it runs into difficulty as columns currently run from directly beneath the current tracks down to bedrock. The tracks cannot simply be moved without finding new ways to support the weight of trains. Shifting the columns would have been a very good idea, given that builders are already in the process of digging out the entire underside of the station, including completely removing and rebuilding the columns. Unfortunately such a plan was not included in a retail- rather than transportation-focused Union revitalization.
There may be other options for shifting the tracks while keeping the columns in their present position. For example, steel beams could run beneath the tracks, connecting the columns and carrying the weight of trains onto the adjacent two columns. Chicago has recently developed a capacity enhancement strategy for its own Union Station. It has a very similar platform arrangement to Toronto’s Union, and its planners propose widening its passenger platforms by eliminating the baggage platforms. If a new means of supporting the tracks is possible, this is the simplest solution and would produce standard island platforms of reasonable width.
An even bolder option for CityRail would involve the removal of tracks (numbered from the North) 2, 3, 5 and 7. This would provide four tracks and extremely wide platforms in a “Spanish Solution.” Though the number of platform tracks used by CityRail would be reduced, the arrangement would be comparable to stations like Chatelet-Les Halles in Paris, which moves far more passengers than Union in a CityRail-type of system. A new, detailed circulation study of these options would be necessary to determine which would provide the highest passenger throughput and closest headways. It needs to be done on the basis of international standards, without including strange assumptions like the five-minute minimum dwell time. Issues of corridor and track capacity will be examined further in an upcoming CityRail In Depth article.
Any real improvement to the platform and track arrangement at Union would likely require the removal of the Bush trainshed, which is the roof covering the track area. The central portion is currently being removed and replaced with a high glass roof, while the remainder is being preserved as a heritage structure. The Bush design was a fairly common and utilitarian approach to covering tracks that was popular in the pre-war period. It has historic significance, but it is far from the last of its kind. The Bush shed makes it difficult to change the track arrangement, raise platforms to the level of train doors, and accommodate overhead catenary for electrification. It also creates a dank and uncomfortable setting for passengers to wait for their trains. Union Station is a very important piece of transportation infrastructure in the GTA It may be necessary to sacrifice the trainshed, just as it was necessary to sacrifice the architecturally significant Terminal One in order to modernize and expand Pearson Airport. Unlike Terminal One, it should be feasible to dismantle the trainshed and move it to another location in the city, where it could be repurposed into something like the Wychwood Art Barns.
The most ambitious plan of all was developed in the mid-1980s by Morrison Herschfield for Marathon Realty, which was the real estate arm of Canadian Pacific Railway. The study examined the possibility of burying the tracks in their entirety through the downtown core. It determined that the project was feasible and could largely be paid for by the enormous amount of developable land that would be created in the heart of the downtown core. Such a project would both reunify the downtown with the former railway lands and the waterfront beyond, and would also permit the complete redesign of platform and track arrangements to be optimal for the 21st century. Of course, construction costs have risen in the intervening period and underground megaprojects in North America are notorious for cost overruns. The construction of a shopping mall in the area under Union Station where the tracks would have gone is a further hindrance. Nevertheless, such a project is not without international precedent, including Stuttgart 21 in Germany, La Sagrera in Barcelona, and Bologna Centrale in Italy. Its potential benefits are so vast that they could justify the likely high cost and it should be studied before development makes it even more difficult.
Union Station is the linchpin of any regional rail system in the Greater Toronto Area. CityRail requires a reasonable track and platform arrangement at Union in order to function reliably and offer high capacity. There are many options to improve the station without the need for drastic measures like separate underground platforms, so Union should be able to function well as the hub of CityRail for the foreseeable future without a total rebuild.
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