Smart CityScape Series: Part 3 - Reimagining the Gateway to Chicago

November 30, 2016

Chicago Union Station — the city’s vital rail gateway — is the third busiest train station in the United States, moving an average of nearly 130,000 passengers per day carried on more than 300 trains. To address its current capacity challenges and enhance its ability to serve the public through smarter and more resilient transportation, the station has undertaken an impressive development and improvement plan.

Owned by the Chicago Union Station Company, a wholly-owed Amtrak subsidiary, Union Station opened in 1925 and is the hub for the Metra commuter line and the Amtrak nation system. Fifty-six daily Amtrak regional and long-distance intercity passenger trains serve the station. Metra, who is the largest and most active station tenant, operates more than 270 daily commuter passenger trains.

Since 2003, Amtrak ridership at the station has increased 60 percent, from 2.2 million to 3.37 million annual riders in 2014. Metra traffic also has increased significantly, resulting in more than 30 million combined annual riders, according to Amtrak. The continued growth projected for Amtrak regional and long-distance intercity passenger rail service as well as Metra commuter rail service has been the primary catalyst for station development and improvement.

In 2012, the City of Chicago, in partnership with Amtrak, Metra and other stakeholders, developed a master plan for Chicago Union Station. The plan outlined near-term, mid-term and long-term

improvements to address passenger capacity, service, safety, accessibility and mobility issues that are at and around the station.

“The station is currently operating at or beyond design capacity during the peak periods,” said Jeffrey Sriver, director of transportation panning and programming for the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT). “In addition, Union Station is geographically in the center of an area that has seen a lot of redevelopment and job growth, so there is an opportunity to enhance the station’s ability to serve commuter rail traffic and enhance its ability to serve essentially as a community anchor for the immediate neighborhood by offering services and amenities that appeal to the people who work and live in the area.”

Rendering of proposed lower lobby. Image courtesy of CDOT.

Phase 1 Improvement Projects

As a next step, Amtrak and its partners are advancing work for 13 improvement projects identified in the master plan. These early actions, known as Phase 1, will include facility improvements that will better accommodate the growing demand from both intercity and commuter rail passengers, and according to Amtrak, will address the most immediate passenger safety and comfort issues within the station.

1.    New Canal Street lobby, concourse expansion, HVAC overhaul - Renovate and expand the lobby off of the east side of Canal Street to allow for greater pedestrian flow and increased natural light into the concourse. Expand the concourse to increase waiting and circulation space, removing existing congestion points that are especially problematic during peak travel periods.

2.    New and expanded Adams Street entrance - Expand and better align the Adams Street entrance with the flow of traffic, and install an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant elevator. The project will enhance the entry and egress of passengers into and out of the station, particularly during peak travel periods.

3.    New and expanded Jackson Boulevard entrance - Expand and better align the Jackson Boulevard entrance with the flow of traffic. The project will enhance the entry and egress of passengers into and out of the station, particularly during peak travel periods.

4.    Canal Street Headhouse entrance elevator - Install an ADA-compliant elevator to the Canal Street entrance of the Headhouse, where one does not currently exist, improving accessibility to and from this reactivated space.

5.    Additional vertical access along Canal Street - CDOT is leading planning and design for the reconstruction of the Canal Street viaduct bisecting Union Station from Madison to Taylor streets. Coordination is necessary to ensure that opportunities for additional vertical access along Canal Street may be created as part of the Canal Street viaduct reconstruction project.

6.    Widen platforms 6/8 and 10/12 and add direct access to street level - Widen congested platforms to better accommodate commuter trains that are often at capacity during peak travel periods. Widening these platforms would also provide an opportunity to introduce direct vertical access, such as stairs, escalators and ADA-compliant elevators, between platform and street level, creating an alternative to entering and exiting the station.

7.    Add platform 2/4 direct access to Jackson Street - Create direct platform access to Jackson Street to enhance safety and accessibility for commuter passengers by allowing an alternative to entering and exiting the station through the heavily used and congested concourse, including installation of an ADA-compliant elevator.

8.    Add platform 1/3 direct access (ADA) to Madison Street - Create direct platform access to Madison Street to enhance safety and accessibility for commuter passengers by allowing an alternative to entering and exiting the station through the heavily used and congested concourse.

9.    Convert High-Level Mail Platform to accessible passenger platform - Convert the existing High-Level Mail Platform adjacent to Track 30, also known as the Mail Dock Platform, to an accessible ADA-compliant passenger platform for equipment that is 48 in. a top-of-rail.

10. Interlocking improvements within terminal area limits - Various switch, signal and interlocking improvements are needed on both the south and north approach tracks to the station to enhance operational flexibility and increase capacity for train movements.

11. Pedestrian passageway tunnel to Ogilvie and street access - Create a below-grade, weather protected pedestrian passageway connecting the concourse with the Ogilvie Transportation Center.

12. Pedestrian passageway tunnel to Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) Clinton Blue Line Station - Create a below-grade, weather protected pedestrian passageway connecting the concourse with the CTA Clinton Blue Line Station at the intersection of Clinton Street and Congress Parkway.

13. Renovation and expansion of existing station retail - The location, program and type of existing and future retail space in the station, on both the Concourse and Mezzanine levels, will be evaluated and modified as a part of the improvements listed above to further enhance the customer experience within Union Station.

“It’s a two-pronged effort going on at this time. One is on the transportation side in improving the experience for passengers using the station as a transportation facility, but also expanding the capacity so we can serve more and growing number of passengers at the station.” Sriver said, adding that Amtrak has hired a consultant to lead the preliminary design efforts for a number of capacity expansions.

“In parallel to that, Amtrak is also in the process or procuring a master developer to look at all of the spaces in and around the station that are not needed for transportation purposes but can be redeveloped commercially to serve the travelers and generate revenue. Some of which potentially could help pay for some of the improvements and create more job growth for the area,” he said.

Other Project Goals

Enhancing mobility and transportation options bring many benefits to a city. One of the additional items that Union Station project design studies are hoping to address are the emissions and ventilation issues at the station.

According to Sriver, the station has had a lot of buildings built over the tracks, which has been good from an economic and urban development perspective, but it has also created a number of airflow challenges.

“Even though the diesel locomotives that are being used to pull these trains have been getting more efficient and less polluting, as their numbers have increased due to the intensity of traffic, there are ventilation issues that need to be addressed.  Some of the efforts that are going on right now are meant to address these issues,” Sriver said.

According to him, transit by its very nature concentrates trips, which is an environmentally friendly characteristic that allows people to walk to and from their destination and concentrates activities along the line, promoting more environmentally friendly transportation.

“The more we can increase the capacity [of the station], it lands itself to a more environmentally friendly region that we live in.”

In addition to the structural improvements, Union Station also is looking at advanced informational systems and their integration into the design process.

“Right now we are at the very early stages of planning the physical improvements. As we define what physical improvements are needed, we would integrate the capabilities of having the latest information technology and passenger information systems … we are trying to design all of it together,” Sriver said.

For example, as part of the major capacity enhancements at the station, the project design studies are looking into moving stairs and corridors around to create a more intuitive flow of pedestrian traffic through the station. This will help orientate people more easily and reduce the amount of information that is needed because people would have a more intuitive sense of where they are going. This will ensure that the key, critical information that can only be communicated through technology, such as train arrival and departure information or service disruption announcements, can stand out.

“This kind of synergy between the physical design and being able to use information technology to be able to communicate what is happening at the station will be planned early on in the design,” Sriver explained.

Rendering of proposed Canal Street lobby. Image courtesy of CDOT.

Project Funding

The design work of the preliminary engineering process, including the 13 improvement projects, is assessed at $6 million. Half of that funding will came from Amtrak and the other half will came from partner entities — $1.5 million from the Regional Transpiration Authority of Northeast Illinois, $1 million from Metra, and $500K from CDOT.

“As these projects get defined through the preliminary engineering process, we will have a whole series of discrete projects that can be tackled one by one,” Sriver said. “[This way], if there is a funding opportunity we can say, ‘OK, what can we do for this amount of money, what project can we pull out of that list,’ knowing that we have designed the entire package of projects together so that we know that all of these puzzle pieces would fit together even if we don’t build them all at the same time. There may be projects that need to be sequenced in a certain way, we will know that too. That’s why we are doing all of the design in a unified manner upfront, but the implementation may happen in different phases in the upcoming years as funding becomes available.”

Phase 1 of the project started in June 2016 and is expected to take about 18 months to complete. The design will produce plans for all of the different 13 improvement projects helping to identify cost, dependencies and priority of each project.

“On behalf of the city and CDOT we are thrilled to work in partnership with all these other entities to see these improvements take place. Union Station is owned by Amtrak so everything we do there involves partnership among different agencies all of which have different interests. We all need to come together to agree upon the solutions and so far we have had quite a lot of luck in getting everybody together,” Sriver said. 

“Chicago certainly has a vision about its transportation, and we would not be where we are in the process without the city’s early leadership,” added Spokesman for Amtrak Government Affairs & Corporate Communications Marc Magliari.

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