Improving American rail: Chicago’s Union Station, part 1 – micro-changes for macro-results


Despite the overcast skies, afternoon light pours through the massive skylight that illuminates the echoing marble chamber that is the Great Hall in Chicago’s Union Station. The massive space is devoid of the hustle typically encountered in a major train station. Although a relatively steady stream of people move through the station, few seem comfortable and barely any linger. There is nowhere to do so, except for a few scattered tables and chairs, some vintage wooden benches and the single café-bar.

Union Station, Chicago - Great Hall

The vitality of the great train stations is missing at Chicago’s Union Station. Rather it is a better example of how we’ve failed these great hubs of transportation at the center of our cities. Considering the incredibly important role Union Station plays at a local, regional and national level improving it is also crucial for improving how the entire American rail network functions: it’s a micro scale change with potentially huge macro scale results. At the present time the station faces many problems, some aesthetic, some interior, others exterior, there are problems with multi-modal connections, movement of people and trains and utilization of available space. Each needs to be addressed in order to move Union Station from being dowdy and inefficient place to an attractive, kinetic and efficient transportation hub.

The changes could easily be grouped into categories that could be handled one at a time to make incremental improvements but just as easily implemented simultaneously. From exploring current plans for improvements to Union Station and older plans for improved transit in Chicago as a whole, making comparisons to other plans in places like Frankfurt, Stuttgart and München, Germany and considering real life experiences using the station I’ve grouped improvements into specific groups to consider individually in more detail: 1) exterior beautification and place making, 2) improved utilization of interior spaces in the head house (where the Great Hall is located), 3) intermodal connections and improved access to other transit options and 4) improvements to the tracks, platforms and concourse area and potential construction of a new concourse building.

The implementation of such changes requires that the many parties involved in rehabilitating the station form a united front in their efforts. Ultimately, it is in the City of Chicago’s best interest to make a lasting improvements for the future. It would be better to create a long-term task force that is relatively autonomous from the potential bickering of all these entities (Amtrak, the City, Metra, the RTA etc) and the likelihood of them blocking any real attempts at creating meaningful change. This may be a repetitive remark verging on cliché, but Union Station has the potential to be a transit hub with the capacity of an airport downtown and as I see it change the fortunes of the city. A better Union Station would indeed improve the way rail traffic moves through the entire region and ultimately Midwest. As the hub at the center of any future high-speed rail network, it can’t be held back by past imperfections.



Union Station in Chicago shares a similar story to Penn Station in New York. The forces of time, the introduction of the car, the rise of suburbia and jet travel all contributed to bring the Golden Age of American Rail to an end in the early to late 1960s. As a result stations in city centers were either decommissioned entirely or downsized. In both Chicago and New York, major terminals were buried under skyscrapers and the subterranean maze of platforms, concourses and waiting rooms turned into dark, dreary places that lack the vivacity and welcoming atmosphere of stations like Grand Central in New York or Los Angeles Union Station, which out of great fortune were preserved. It is what those stations have that Union Station in Chicago needs: space, light, beauty, functionality.

The question becomes where to begin and how to do it? What about funding and the will of the city, state and even federal government to do this? The moment is there though to support such a massive overhaul. It seems pretty clear that many parties realize the station needs to be improved for the benefit of transportation connections to Chicago; other recent efforts in Denver, New York and Washington D.C. indicate that investing in our rail stations is again a desirable effort. Chicago has a lot of work to do though. The problems should probably be solved incrementally, because that is practically the easiest way to go, but they shouldn’t be seen as independent of other solutions. What I propose is first looking at the exterior problems at Union Station and improving them as soon as possible. These include improving traffic lanes to perhaps building a plaza outside the station and progressively getting to more serious issues like connectivity to other transit forms and improving the concourse area.

Because each project requires select attention and includes many possible alternatives I will look at each aspect separately and propose various ideas as to how incremental improvements to Union Station could positively change the experience of passengers passing through the station itself and the area surrounding. First, I will look at simple changes that could be made to exterior and some interior areas of the station to improve aesthetic experiences and access to services, then I will discuss connectivity to other transit options, because some of theses have simple and more complex solutions and finally looking at the concourse area itself. In each piece I will discuss how they can fit into other projects. Additionally, I will first look at what has already been proposed, where the faults in these proposals lie and what is good about them in relation to what I think would work well.