UrbanToronto is celebrating 20 YEARS throughout October with stories and images looking back over the last two decades. Today we continue our looks back at transit over the period, the second of three deep dives, this time focusing on the lynchpin of the whole GTHA transit network: Union Station.

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Union Station is one of Toronto’s most important and most iconic buildings. A hub for subways, streetcars, regional trains, intercity trains, and intercity buses, it is America’s second-busiest transport hub, only behind New York Penn Station. With so much activity in and around the station, the only constant at Union is change, and the all-too-familiar construction delays and broken dreams. 

In 1914, ground was broken for Toronto’s Third Union Station, on land set aside after the Great Toronto Fire of 1904. The new station, built by the Canadian Pacific and Grand Trunk Railway, would take another 16 years to fully open. The First World War, the bankruptcy of the Grand Trunk, and the slow construction of an elevated viaduct would all contribute to the slow pace of completion – though the headhouse – the main station building containing the Great Hall, waiting rooms, post office and dining rooms – was officially opened by the Prince of Wales on August 6, 1927 – it wasn’t until 1930 that the viaduct and trainshed were finally ready for full passenger service. 

Throughout the years, Union Station has seen plenty of change. On March 30, 1954, a direct connection to the Yonge Subway opened. GO Transit began rail operations on the Lakeshore Line on May 23, 1967. Various proposals for development in and around the station were made in the 1970s, including the ambitious Metro Centre plan that would have seen the station and adjoining rail yards partially or wholly knocked down to make way for new office, commercial, and residential development, along with a new communications tower and domed stadium. Though the Metro Centre plan never made it past a new reform-minded City Council, the communications tower part of the proposal was built, forever changing the city’s skyline. A domed stadium also came to be, over a decade later. In 1990, a new underground streetcar loop was built at Union to serve Toronto’s first new streetcar line in 50 years. The 604 Harbourfront line, later incorporated into a revived Spadina Streetcar, helped to support the burgeoning waterfront neighbourhood. 

In 1997, the Toronto Maple Leafs proposed building a new arena on top of the train shed, just as the Raptors were beginning to build their own arena immediately to the south, on the site of the Art Deco Postal Sorting Station. (The Leafs bought the Raptors, called the new organization Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, or MLSE), and wisely joined in on the new Air Canada Centre which opened in 1999. 

But focusing on the last twenty years, coinciding with Urban Toronto’s celebrations, has seen a re-imaging of Union Station as not just a place to pass through, but as a destination in its own right. In 2012, it lost a connection to Northern Ontario. In 2015, a new airport rail link opened. There were new bus connections, new shops, restaurants, and more space to accommodate GO and TTC passengers. Nearly left for dead in the early 1970s, Union Station has come a long way. 

At the beginning of 2003, only GO Transit’s Lakeshore Line trains were operating evenings and weekends, with GO Transit “train-buses” serving other corridors loading and unloading passengers on Front Street. Beneath Front Street, TTC passengers crowded onto a narrow centre subway platform. Ontario Northland’s Northlander train departed six days a week for North Bay and Cochrane, using former GO Transit single-level coaches. Though the Great Hall was always a spectacular grand entranceway, GO and VIA passengers boarded their trains in cramped departure halls. 

Revitalizing Union Station was always going to be a challenge. The station is a National Historic Site, with portions of the building and infrastructure owned by separate agencies. The building is North America’s second-busiest transport hub, only behind New York Penn Station. Any major construction would have to work around the 72 million annual passengers. 

Though the City of Toronto purchased most of the station in 2000, including The Great Hall, the tracks and platforms belong to Metrolinx. Additionally, VIA Rail Canada leases the central passenger concourse. There were dozens of retail tenants, including an arcade, a tiny LCBO outlet, Laura Secord, one of the last mmmmarvellous muffins locations, a bar, aptly named Commuters, and of course, the unmistakable smell of Cinnabon in the GO concourse. 

In 2002, the City inked a deal with Union Pearson Group, which was led by Larry Tanenbaum, long-time chairman of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE). The idea was to transform Union Station into a destination in its own right, with new retail and dining, while restoring the station to its original splendor. However, this deal, controversial because of Tanenbaum’s ties to the Lastman family, fell through three years later due to contractual disagreements. 

Despite the first failed contract, the City was eager to get on with the station renovations. A new deal worth $640 million, signed on August 5, 2009, saw Vanbots win the bid for Phase One construction, while the Osmington Group was signed separately to lead the retail program. The Vanbots deal was necessary to support Toronto’s successful bid for the 2015 PanAm/Parapan Games. 

Unfortunately, like the initial Union Station construction, there were many setbacks. Vanbots was acquired by British firm Carillion. Carillion completed most Phase One work before going insolvent in 2017. Bondfield won the bid for the Phase Two construction contract, but they then collapsed in 2019. EllisDon was then brought on to carry the project to completion. Despite the issues, progress on the revitalized station was evident, with 2015 being especially notable. 

The new York Concourse, photo by Jack Landau

In April 2015, the new GO Transit York Concourse opened, featuring a modern, more intuitive layout and a direct connection to the Great Hall above. Additional stairs and elevators made for easier access to GO train platforms, while below, construction of a new food court was well under way. Starbucks and McCafe eventually opened up in the York Concourse – providing commuters with their much-needed caffeine, they were followed by new sit-down restaurants Union Chicken and WVRST in 2018.

On June 6, the new Union Pearson Express rail line began operating from a new station in the Skywalk just to the west of Union Station proper. With trains running every 15 minutes, Pearson Terminal 1 was now just 25 minutes away. The warm and bright UP Express terminal included a Balzac’s café, a Drake General Store, airport check-in kiosks and a customer service centre. Upstairs, a licensed lounge provided a new place for weary travelers to chill. Though the Drake General Store and the Upstairs lounge have since closed, Balzac’s continues to do brisk business. 

UP Express Station, image by Craig White

On July 2, 2015, the TTC’s Union Subway Station had its official grand re-opening. After four years of construction, the station got a new second platform for Finch-bound trains, along with a direct connection to the streetcar loop. Additional stairs and escalators improved passenger circulation. A new glass partition between the old centre platform and the Finch-bound track features art by Toronto artist Stuart Reid called Zones of Immersion

The new south Yonge Line platform in July, 2015, image by Craig White

Above ground, the plaza in front of Union Station was completed in time for the PanAm/Parapan Games, with a restored clock and summer markets and beer gardens out front during the warmer months. The plaza itself was renamed for Sir John A. Macdonald at a ceremony that August, a compromise made when conservative councillor and deputy mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong proposed renaming the entire station for Canada’s controversial first prime minister. 

Front Street got a makeover as well, with new paving stones and wider sidewalks replacing a four-lane section between Union Station and the Royal York Hotel. Curbs gave way to attractive metal bollards, intended to make Front Street a more forgiving place to cross mid-block. Sadly, after the April 2018 Yonge Street van attack, the city quickly – and haphazardly – placed concrete Jersey barriers along Front Street to prevent copycat incidents. Though new bollards have been promised several times since, they will not be installed until at least 2024. 

Newly completed Front Street and Union Station Plaza in July, 2015, image by Camil Rosiak

With the York Concourse in use, and the 2015 Games concluded, the old Bay Concourse – opened by GO Transit in 1978 – closed in September for complete reconstruction. It would not re-open until July 2021. 

In the meantime, a new two-level GO Transit bus terminal opened in the base of CIBC Square, connected to Union Station by a new pedestrian overpass above Bay Street. The new terminal now serves intercity coach operators as well as GO buses, with Megabus, Flixbus, Ontario Northland, Rider Express, Trailways, and Red Arrow all operating from the new space. 

The old Bay Concourse in August, 2015, by Vik Pahwa

Looking towards the soon-to-open Bay Concourse in Spring, 2021, by UT Forum contributor mburrrrr

New and returning retailers set up shop inside the Bay Concourse, including TD Bank, LCBO, % Arabica, Sephora, and Decathlon, spurred by increased activity with the waning of the COVID-19 pandemic, an uptick in visitors, and the slow return to on-site office work. Below the York Concourse, the food court opened, with new and familiar offerings like McDonald’s, Sansotei Ramen, Pizza Pizza, and Tim Hortons. Connecting the York and Bay Concourses is Union Market, offering specialty food and retail options. However, some UrbanToronto Forum members still miss Harvey’s located in the Great Hall, as well as the Cinnabon and Dairy Queen in the old Bay Concourse.  

Though the passenger concourses are complete (the VIA Concourse looks not too different than before), and the new retail spaces are set up – with a few new restaurants, like Blue Bovine steakhouse, yet to open – there is still a lot of work yet to come. 

Union Station’s trainshed, like the headhouse, is a protected heritage structure. The Bush trainshed – designed to allow steam locomotives to vent their smoke upwards, away from passengers and train crews – has not been especially popular in the diesel age because of the low overhead creating a dark, moody atmosphere. Though most of the existing trainshed was repaired, with better lighting and a brighter atmosphere, the central section was demolished and replaced by a new glass atrium, beautifully illuminated at night. 

Union Station train shed at night, image by Forum contributor Sikandar

Work on the Union Station train shed in 2016, image by rodneygaviola via Flickr

As Metrolinx continues to work towards the expansion of the GO rail network to support frequent, electric train service on many of its corridors, even more work will be necessary. A third passenger concourse at the south end of the station, connected to the existing York and Bay concourses, will allow Metrolinx to add additional platforms. Under the existing trainshed, platforms will be widened, and tracks adjusted. Along with new signalization, this new work will allow for quicker loading and unloading of trains, faster speeds through the Union Station Rail Corridor, and more frequent service. 

Work on Toronto’s Union Station began in 1914, taking 16 years to be fully completed. As intercity rail services declined with the rise of automobile and air travel, new commuter rail services and a booming downtown core helped to keep the station vital. With the ongoing transformation of that commuter rail service into a full regional rail network, Union Station has continued to evolve. Like Toronto’s skyline, the only constant is change. 

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Sean Marshall is a one of UrbanToronto's earliest members and a moderator on the site, along with being a geographer, an urban issues advocate, and blogger with a particular speciality in transportation. You can read him at www.seanmarshall.ca

UrbanToronto will return tomorrow with another story celebrating 20 YEARS. In the meantime, check back often to our front page and Forum to keep an eye on all the current and emerging trends, and you can always leave your comments in the space below.

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