‘Union station’ has a lengthy history as a critical transportation hub for the city of Toronto, encompassing not just the TTC station but also the grand railway station and regional bus terminal with the same name.

Union station south entrance
Main staircase entrance (left) from Union railway station (right): subject to change

My visit to Union was a physical reminder of how things change over time. This is a dynamic in Toronto that has always intrigued me: the tension between what came before, versus the sometimes rocky evolution to the present.

Union station new and old platforms
Present vs. Past: Union station’s new platform (left), and old platform

For more than a decade, increasing passenger volumes led to serious overcrowding problems at Union’s subway platform level, originally constructed in an ‘island’ format, with tracks on either side. The crowding was particularly evident (and even dangerous) following popular events such as hockey or basketball games at the nearby Air Canada Centre (now called Scotiabank Arena), but even during regular periods of rush hour congestion, the capacity issue was readily apparent.

Eleven years after the first public consultations and initial planning sessions occurred, a second platform was finally opened on August 18, 2014 (the official ceremony was July 2, 2015), essentially doubling the waiting area for subway passengers. The engineering effort involved has been staggering.

Union station original platform
The old centre platform, now exclusively servicing the University line

Union station concourse
The concourse, almost always a frantic rush of travellers and tourists

My gallery of photos from this trip records a Union station that already no longer exists: a turbulent mess of construction, wiring, equipment, and passengers milling about. Think of it as a snapshot of the transition period. I’ll have to return to capture the finished product, as well as to document two features which weren’t accessible or even present at the time of my visit: the 500-foot glass wall of Stuart M. Reid’s zones of immersion art installation, and the underground streetcar loop.

Union station interlocking signal
The interlocking signal at Union: a real beauty

Strangely, during my inspection I preferred the old platform to the new. The old one was dark, and claustrophobic, a real connection to our transit past, worth exploring (check out the interlocking signal light on the platform, shown above. It faces ‘the wrong way’ and signals the crossover east of the platform—a product of Union’s initial role as a terminal station. This allows trains to reverse direction and head up the Yonge line). By contrast the new platform was soulless and immaculate, as yet lacking even that fine layer of brake dust that envelops every station eventually. No matter—time marches on, and in true Toronto fashion the old will soon enough become a palimpsest for the new.

Union station opened as the southern terminus of the Yonge line on March 30, 1954. The connection to the University line began on February 28, 1963. A connection to the Harbourfront LRT was added June 22, 1990.

Update: As promised, I came back to examine the station post-renovations. 

zones of immersion: a glass ribbon of hand-wrought nuance

Part of the changes included the erection in June 2015 of zones of immersion by Stuart M. Reid, along the south side of the centre island platform. The enormous art work involves 160 coloured, & semi-translucent glass panels approximately seven-feet tall, built of over 500 sheets of glass (fabricated in Germany), featuring haunting sketches of people, with various text interspersed throughout. Physically, it is one of the largest public art commissions in the TTC. (The question of which work is truly the largest is more complicated than you might think. Claude Breeze’s Spacing... Aerial Highways at Lawrence West and Rita Letendre’s Joy at Glencairn immediately come to mind. But for sheer square footage you might also consider Micah Lexier’s Ampersand at Leslie, or Stephen Cruise’s before/after at Don Mills.). 

Ghostly figures causing controversy

Some critics reacted negatively, claiming the wraithlike figures and contemplative expressions look depressing. Reid, for his part, claims that it’s about “the everyday having this incredible quality of being alive and fully alive, even in a space as isolating and alienating as the subway.” 

Whether successful or not, zones of immersion was a thoughtful selection for a landmark location. Let us forcefully reject the idea of a subway filled entirely with bland, safe wallpaper imagery; we need a broad diversity of art, that challenges and provokes, that comforts and engages, that amuses and stimulates.  

My qualms lie more with the practical consequences of the installation rather than its ambient psychological effect: curtaining the old platform off from the Yonge side means the platforms are now purely uni-directional, losing operational flexibility whenever issues arise on one of the tracks. 

My favourite part of Union: the streetcar loop!

After what seemed like an inordinate period of time (over two years, from July 2012 to October 2014, during Waterfront Toronto’s rebuild of Queens Quay West), the streetcar loop at Union finally re-opened for service. 

It is surely the loveliest area of the whole station, albeit with a major shortcoming: it was designed (back in 1990) smaller than it should have been. The coming of the Waterfront East LRT extension will require a necessary expansion of the platform, on both sides down the tunnel, with the graceful loop used only for passenger circulation. Why did we fail to schedule this work to occur during the years the loop was closed? It’s a minor civic planning debacle.    

For now, let’s wait on the platform together and contemplate the simple pleasure of watching a Flexity swing round that curve... 

Photo Galleries

Tour the station, and view captioned historical images from its past:

Union station photo gallery

Union Station Streetcar Loop photo gallery

Union station photo gallery

Union station transfer

More about Union

TTC Station info | Map | Wikipedia: Union

My next stop: Coxwell
Previous station: Lansdowne

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