Big changes are coming to Union Station. In a short interview after Metrolinx’s December 7 board meeting, Phil Verster said that the station’s platforms will need to be substantially rebuilt to accommodate the influx of new passengers that will come with the GO RER program.

It has long been apparent that Union’s century-old platform arrangement—complete with platforms designed for handling mail—is, as Verster said, “not fit” for modern rail operations.

Right now, Union’s platforms are dangerously narrow. They're also unsuitable for people with disabilities, and the need to climb steps into the trains slows loading and unloading, which limits capacity. Even bigger limits on capacity come from the bottleneck presented by the extremely narrow stairs, where people must file up and down single-file. This means that trains must dwell at the platforms while people slowly unload, and only then can the platform be announced to passengers waiting below and then passengers can climb the stairs up to the platform. The whole process takes a number of minutes. Imagine if each subway train at Yonge-Bloor station had to sit for five minutes or more while people loaded and unloaded. The subway would be completely non-functional.

Union Station Platform (Source: Global News)

That's what leads to the counter-intuitive but reasonable change that Verster said will need to happen at Union: the number of tracks will be reduced so that platforms can be widened. Right now, Union can handle only a few trains per hour on each track. The subway, for example, can handle around 24 trains per hour on each track. That means that even with fewer tracks, Union could actually handle far more trains and more people if the platform and staircase bottlenecks were solved.

Metrolinx's GO Expansion Business Case plans for:

  • Ten tracks with wide platforms for twelve car trains. 
  • Additional escalators, elevators, and stairs to platforms. 
  • Provision for additional passengers bridges on the east and west end of the platforms. 
  • Two bay (dead-end) platforms, west-facing, for four-car UP Express and GO trains. 
  • Four bay platforms, east facing, for eight-car VIA trains and GO trains. 

To give an idea of the benefits, Union handles 187,000 passengers per day on 16 tracks. Paris’ Châtelet-Les Halles RER station moves 493,000 on only 6 tracks. Paris' RER Line A moves 300 million passengers per year on only two tracks. GO Transit's ridership on all its trains and buses combined is 68.8 million per year. The bottleneck on GO Transit isn't the number of tracks, it's the antiquated trains and platforms at Union Station, which make loading and unloading take an unreasonable amount of time.

If GO operated like a normal international regional rail system, and loading and unloading times at Union Station were more like the subway, the station can easily handle all foreseeable traffic.

To give an idea of what Union's GO platforms can and should look like, there are countless international models. Berlin's Hauptbahnhof has platforms that are at least 10 metres wide, and they have up and down escalators as well as a wide staircase to easily move arriving and departing passengers. It's enough capacity to allow people to quickly leave the platform after they get off their train. The platforms are also wide enough to allow people to wait on the platform while people are unloading from trains, which drastically reduces dwell times.

S-Bahn Platform at Berlin Hauptbahnhof, an example of modern regional rail platforms (Source: Wikimedia)

The City of Toronto and Metrolinx have undertaken a major renovation to improve the retail and food amenities of Union Station, and to increase the number of platform access points. Now it's time to fix the platform level to finally make Union a modern, functional station.

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Jonathan English (@EnglishRail) is a PhD Candidate in Urban Transportation Planning at Columbia University in New York. He lives in Toronto. His blog is Transit Futures.

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