Improving American rail: Chicago’s Union Station, part 3 (delayed posting) – Intermodal connections are essential keys to success

Getting to Union Station by any means other than car or taxi, especially for people unfamiliar with the layout of Downtown Chicago, is by no means easy. Although there are numerous bus routes that terminate at Union Station and the area is certainly within walking distance of the Loop and things like Divvy bike share have made it easier to get around town by bike, unlike in most major Western cities, none of Chicago’s train stations (not one!) have direct access to the city’s subway/metro system—the ‘L’.* An effort to improve Union Station necessitates taking on such a groundbreaking infrastructure project like a subway along Canal Street that would include the addition of ‘L’ stops at Union Station and Ogilvie Transportation Center as well as improvements to surrounding bus stops and terminals. Intermodal connectivity is a cornerstone of good transportation networks and one which Chicago sorely lacks at Union Station (and by extension all its major stations).

Union Station has been conceptually conceived as having the potential to act like a third airport right in the center of Chicago. However, it will not compete with these airports if it doesn’t get up to speed with the intermodal connections offered there. Both are connected directly to the ‘L’ at the very least and both offer some form of dedicated bus facilities. An overall renewal of intermodal connections at Union Station should focus on two major projects: the Clinton Street Subway and a new bus terminal with facilities for both local buses, BRT, coach buses.  These have the potential to hugely and positively impact the efficiency of transportation connections at Union Station, although one would be significantly cheaper than the other, the costs of both are certainly worth the long-term benefits.

In the case of a new ‘L’ route, the shortness of the route would both help to reign in the costs of the project and the overall impact of construction. Although it’s in a densely built up area, the impacts would be significantly outweighed by the potential benefits: direct ‘L’ access to O’Hare from the West Loop, more ‘L’ access for West Loop residents and workers, direct access by train between two major Chicago train stations with the potential to direct access to a third station** and all along less than a 1 mile stretch.

The new segment of subway would also be more than just direct access to Union Station, but the final segment in a secondary Loop that would be formed by the two branches of the Blue Line. This Loop would also be a station Loop facilitating direct connections between LaSalle Street Station, Union Station and Ogilvie Transportation Center with indirect connections to Millennium Station and potentially Van Buren Street Station along the Metra Electric via underground ped-ways. Improvements to service along the Blue Line branches would also be possible, by splitting the line into two new lines, one along each branch. The Forest Park branch has significantly lower use compared to the O’Hare branch and splitting them into two new lines, means the CTA could better customize service on each branch accordingly.

According to Google Maps, the route from the Clinton stop on the CTA Blue Line's Forest Park Branch is a 5 minute walk starting under and highway and going past mostly nondescript or empty buildings.

According to Google Maps, the route from the Clinton stop on the CTA Blue Line’s Forest Park Branch is a 5 minute walk starting under and highway and going past mostly nondescript or empty buildings.

Uninterrupted access from a subway station to the interior of Union Station could be  a way to increase the use of the Great Hall as well. A mezzanine level built below Canal Street could facilitate the construction of street portals along Canal between Van Buren and Adams as well as access portals to a bus terminal and the Great Hall in Union Station. The availability of space inside the west end of the station’s Great Hall means there is ample room for elevators, escalators and stairs to the mezzanine level. This infrastructure need not be in the Great Hall itself either, but rather adjacent to it. A mezzanine level to an underground ‘L’ station also doubles as a covered and heated passageway to the bus terminal, which in Chicago is a huge plus considering how extreme summer and winter weather can get.

The Clinton stop on the Blue Line is far from appealing, even for Chicagoans let alone visitors and is often an impediment to those looking to getting to Union Station late at night.

The Clinton stop on the Blue Line is far from appealing, even for Chicagoans let alone visitors and is often an impediment to those looking to getting to Union Station late at night.

The bus terminal would also facilitate better intermodal and inter-bus transfers. First, it gives passengers transferring from train to bus or arriving at Union Station just for the bus an identifiable landmark towards which they can go knowing they’ll find their buses. As it is now, the curbside bus stops are difficult to find if you don’t know where to look. The different bus companies terminating at Union Station use different blocks of Canal Street too, which leads to confusion as to which block to wait at for a bus. Secondly, the curbside bus terminals don’t facilitate easy transfers between busses and cause overcrowding of the sidewalks. They are uncomfortable places to wait for a bus too and don’t include shelters, awnings or benches for passengers. Additionally, the curbside stops mean coach buses must contend with other traffic to get a spot to load and unload and crowds the streets. They not only get blocked, but they block traffic. Altogether this system is creating a traffic nightmare.

A bus terminal would include that and much more. An indoor waiting room provides an additional level of comfort for waiting customers and also doubles as a space for bathrooms, rental lockers, cafés and food stands as well as ticketing and information kiosks or offices. A staff lounge would also be available for the staff of bus companies. A terminal could also host a small staff to beginning taking tickets or act as baggage handlers to speed up turnover and departure times. Bus operators could also use the more comfortable space to improve transfers between routes. A shuttle bus could ferry passengers to the Greyhound terminal south of Union Station beyond walking distance.

A 0.7 mile stretch of subway connecting the O'Hare Branch and the Forest Park Branch of the CTA Blue Line would effectively connect all but one major Chicago train station (LaSalle, Union, Olgilvie). It would also create a second 'loop' allowing for O'Hare and Forest Park bound trains to be turned into two new routes with more effective schedules. It would also be the first time Union Station had direct access to the CTA 'L' in decades, bringing it up to par with European and other American counterparts.

A 0.7 mile stretch of subway connecting the O’Hare Branch and the Forest Park Branch of the CTA Blue Line would effectively connect all but one major Chicago train station (LaSalle, Union, Olgilvie). It would also create a second ‘loop’ allowing for O’Hare and Forest Park bound trains to be turned into two new routes with more effective schedules. It would also be the first time Union Station had direct access to the CTA ‘L’ in decades, bringing it up to par with European and other American counterparts.

Creating strong, efficient, and user-friendly intermodal connections at Union Station will require a mix of simple and extreme solutions. However, no great train station, especially those in large cities, exists within a transportation vacuum. And considering the proximity to other stations downtown a well-connected Union Station could effectively create a Downtown ‘super station’ split between Union Station, LaSalle Street Station and Ogilvie. Such connections would also facilitate the movement of people to, within and out of Downtown Chicago.

The importance of such connections does not go unnoticed in other cities either and should be a lesson for Chicago to emulate. Although plans exist for improvements to Canal Street and Union Station, a more impressive master plan should consider some helpful projects in other cities. In Berlin for example, the first part of a major extension of the U-5 subway was to first and foremost build a connection to the new Berliner Hauptbahnhof. The U-55 is a mere 0.9 miles long with three stops, but effectively connects the otherwise unconnected subway system to the main train station. The London Underground offers a more dramatic example with the Circle Line, which connects 5 major intercity stations with the larger Tube network. The importance of access to bus terminals doesn’t go unnoticed either. Denver is the best new example of bus and rail intermodal connections being brought together. Even little Kalamazoo offers convenient bus-train connections at its main Amtrak station.

A key, if not one of the most important keys to Union Station’s success is dramatically and wildly improving intermodal connections. This won’t just bring it to the same level as stations around the world, but truly help it become the center of rail in Chicago and the Midwest as well as the Downtown ‘airport’ Chicago is dreaming of.

*To get to Millennium Station from the ‘L’ one has to get off at either the Lake Red Line, Washington Blue Line, or Loop Randolph stops then walk 2-3 blocks further east or through the complex pedestrian passage ways underground. To get to LaSalle Street Station from the LaSalle Blue Line stop one has to walk a block south and find the hidden entrance to the platforms and Olgilvie Transportation Center requires a two block walk from the Clinton Green-Pink Line stop. 

**Olgilvie and Union stations are both along Canal Street, for direct access between the CTA Blue Lines LaSalle stop and LaSalle Street Station reconfiguration of the former would be necessary.