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The Lost Station

After stalling for years amid corruption charges, lawsuits and bureaucratic bungling, the overhaul of Union Station is finally happening. But the plan we got funnels GO riders into an underground mall, leaving the iconic building’s Great Hall empty and missing the chance to transform the daily commute into a thing of true beauty. Inside a $640-million mistake

Running on empty: some 65 million people pass through Union Station in a year. The majority never set foot in the Great Hall (Image: Scott Connaroe)

At five o’clock every weeknight, the homeward-bound commuters surge out of the subway station at Union and into GO Transit’s underground domain. Women and men, all wearing a similar expression of pressured anxiety, bolt across the open-air moat and pick up speed as they push through the heavy doors of the GO concourse. As soon as their feet hit the lower concourse’s 1970s tile floor, they begin to move in a stiff-legged rush that doesn’t want to admit to being a run. They look for seats beneath the grooved ceilings that are the undersides of the staircases and access pathways to the trains. The installation of these elevated pathways, to refit the station for commuter transit 30 years ago, has turned the waiting area into a space of rathole aggressiveness. Commuters talk on their cellphones, surrounded by garish logos promising sugar and caffeine. At a signal from the monitors, the passengers move forward in unison to board their trains with a purposeful, glazed-eye enervation, like cult members who retain their devotion to the faith in spite of having lost their enthusiasm for its rituals.

Union Station, once the emblem of an ambitious city, has become a commuter hub, serving 200,000 passengers every weekday. Some 65 million people pass through the station in a year, a figure that is expected to double by 2020. But the decline of long-distance train travel has left the upper level, where VIA Rail is based, underused. Proposals to renovate the station have come and gone with such monotonous regularity that it’s hard to believe a $640-million overhaul, which started in January and is scheduled to be completed in 2015, is actually happening.

The renovation is practical, not visionary, a well-intentioned but ultimately utilitarian scheme to accommodate the coming generations of commuters. It’s a missed opportunity to transform Union Station into a grand, inspiring gateway to the city.

Union Station was once a genuine civic space where organ recitals took place, new immigrants entered the city and soldiers left for war

The current building, a low, dun-coloured bunker besieged by a glittering growth of glass and steel, is the city’s third Union Station, having replaced a block reduced to rubble by the Great Fire of 1904. It was designed in the early 20th-century beaux arts style, which Vincent Scully, one of the most prominent American architectural critics of the second half of the 20th century, described as characterized by “a blessed sense of civic excess.” Inside the Great Hall, the semicircular vaults at the east and west ends illuminate the room’s cathedral-like proportions. The grey and pink Tennessee marble floor, the coffered tiles of the barrel vault ceiling, the plaster curlicues and mouldings high up on the walls, all make a presumption of grandeur that our democratic, utilitarian age finds slightly unnerving. The incorporation of frankly Canadian touches—the beaver in the Toronto coat of arms, the long frieze running around the hall that lists 27 Canadian railway destinations from Prince Rupert to Halifax—reminds us that the station was constructed by a vigorous, self-confident young country.

The station was inaugurated by Edward, Prince of Wales, during his 1927 royal tour. For the first three decades of its existence, it was not only the city’s point of connection with the world, but also its spiritual core as it matured and grew. Even during the hard times of the 1930s, trains were often so packed that extra carriages had to be added. In the 1940s, railway stations became a leitmotif for self-sacrifice, instantly recognizable as the place where families bid farewell to young men going off to war. Uniformed servicemen and women left from the station; the arriving passengers included British evacuees, German prisoners of war being escorted to work camps in northern Ontario, and maimed or wounded soldiers who returned from Europe in wheelchairs or on stretchers.