The plan for Union Station


Accessing Union Station is done by many modes, but each has its own challenges and annoyances. 

Over 50 people attended the 4:30 PM presentation of the Union Station master plan in the Union Gallery on Thursday. The Chicago Department of Transportation is the lead agency on this project even though it may have less at stake in the plan. It’s more likely to lead a fair planning process than if Amtrak, the station’s owner, or Metra, the station’s busiest user, led the master plan. After the presentation, visitors were able to speak directly with staff from the stakeholders and partners (see full list at end).

The plan divides goals and objectives into short, medium, and long term ideas.

Two short term projects are already in the works and each has received funding. They are the “Central Area East-West Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project” and “Union Station Transportation Center”, which I’ll also call an intermodal center, as it gets people from buses onto trains and vice versa. The BRT project includes bus priority lanes and intersection priority (buses can go before other traffic) on Canal, Clinton, Madison, and Washington (see embedded map). The BRT application also indicates a Madison Street bike lane will be installed (which already happened) and an eastbound bike lane will be “considered”. The intermodal center will include stair, elevator, and escalator access to an existing underground walkway into Union Station.

View Central Area BRT and Union Station intermodal center in a larger map

The medium and long-term ideas are based on the plan’s goals which were developed around the current station issues and progress on improved intercity passenger rail (and some high-speed rail). Station issues discussed were:

  • Conflicts on the street in accessing the station; taxis, buses, private automobiles, bus shuttles for corporate offices and schools (Megabus was kind of thrown into this category), and people walking and biking. Also, not everyone is trying to access the station but uses Canal Street to travel north.
  • The concourse, mezzanine, and platforms are congested
  • Track layout and many baggage platforms limit increases in capacity or changes in operations

Economic development in the area was also considered (“create a terminal that is a catalyst for growth”), with the prospect of increased ridership going through the station. The West Loop continues to be a good place to do business, especially for companies with many suburban employees. It was mentioned that Sara Lee will move from Downers Grove to 400 S Jefferson Street (about 500-650 employees by 2013, according to the Chicago Tribune).

Medium term ideas comprised of the following projects, none of which are in a funding or construction pipeline as they need further study and modeling:

1. Convert some unused baggage platforms; the low concrete platforms between tracks are for loading baggage onto intercity/long-distance trains. But now a majority of traffic consists of commuter traffic and the passenger platforms are very narrow. Jeff Sriver, the plan’s project manager, said it can take up to 6 minutes to unload a train because of crowded conditions. By removing the baggage platforms, passenger platforms can be widened, which could even include direct street access.

2. Convert unused mail platforms; there is a large unused mail platform against the river between Jackson Boulevard and Harrison Street (the easternmost tracks). Portions of it could be used as passenger platforms, increasing the number of trains that could reach the southern concourse. It could also create “bypass” tracks on the two existing through tracks. For example, while one high-speed train is loading on this platform, a second train could bypass it and continue on, or access the same platform further down (in other words there would be four tracks at two platforms, but only two “through tracks” leading into the station at either end). This was demonstrated on two display boards but the “bypass” configuration was communicated via a discussion with staff.


One of the display boards at the meeting shows the location of the unused mail platforms. 

3. Canal Street viaduct reconstruction; the City of Chicago solicited proposals to reconstruct the Canal Street viaduct between Madison and Taylor Streets. During this reconstruction, a new street design could be built. It could widen sidewalks, created dedicated and separated bus and taxi drop off zones, and reconfigure the bike lane (which is nearly useless because of all the traffic crossing over it). See an idea in the photo above.

Canal Street configuration

Canal Street reconfiguration idea. The green stripe is a center bike lane. I think with the experience the Chicago Bicycle Program, something that’s protected could be designed – maybe our first raised bike lane. 

The long term and “visionary” ideas were also described. Little priority is being placed on these, but the planning process will ensure that planning for the West Loop Transportation Center (which includes new subways) will not be inhibited. Read more on the Union Station Master Plan website.

About Megabus

I talked to two CDOT staff about including Megabus in this planning process. Their operator, Coach USA, is a member of the “transportation advisory committee” and is being included in all conversations about station access. The Municipal Code of Chicago is very loose in defining where intercity bus operators can load and unload passengers (see 9-48-050), but the code was changed in 2008 to bar them from loading or unloading passengers on Canal Street between Adams Street and Jackson Boulevard, which is the east side access to Union Station (the newer building) – the rule doesn’t apply to any CTA, Pace or Amtrak bus.

I asked if these companies could use the intermodal center. This is still under discussion as the primary use will be for Chicago Transit Authority buses and its nine or so routes that stop at Union Station. But the CTA may still want to use the contraflow lane on Canal Street between Adams Street and Jackson Boulevard. I’ll try to keep you updated on this issue. The editor of Chicago Architecture Blog has their own thoughts on this topic.

Public input

Aside from being able to speak directly with staff involved in this project, people can fill out a survey (here’s a scanned version) or email their comments.

Partners and stakeholders

  • Amtrak
  • Metra
  • United States Department of Transportation, Federal Railroad Administration (U.S. DOT FRA, grantor)
  • Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT, project lead)
  • Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT, grant mediary)
  • Chicago Transit Authority (CTA)
  • Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC)
  • Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (vets grant applications)
  • Department of Housing and Economic Development (DHED)

Documents mentioned in this article

7 thoughts on “The plan for Union Station”

  1. This is quite an ambitious package of changes.  The idea of reconfiguring platforms sounds like a good one.  I like the idea of a separated bus and taxi zone.  Having a protected bike lane would be FABULOUS here.  Canal is a very useful route, and, under current conditions, I find the Union Station area to be the most dangerous section due to conflicting traffic of many types.  Separating different types of traffic has the potential to create safer conditions for all users.

    Was there any mention of a new bike station?  I’ve heard that idea several times in recent years in connection with a Union Station reconfiguration.

    I’d love to see better use made of the Great Hall, which has become a relative dead zone in the current station configuration.

    1. There was no talk about a bike station. I did email Jeff Friday asking about an indoor bike storage facility that Amtrak, the station’s owner, approached CDOT about while I still worked there. 

      There’s an area that used to be an indoor kiss and ride, where people drove their cars into a driveway and into the building. It’s no longer used as such and there’s an empty corner Amtrak thought about using for indoor bike parking (hopefully secure in some way as well). 

      Better use of the Great Hall was implied by some of the ideas in the presentation (“more convenience for passengers”) and by some questions in the survey (about dining and retail). 

      Here’s the survey:

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