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Design Challenge: Reconstruct Canada's Busiest Transit Hub without Stopping Service

Union Station in Toronto is overdue for a renovation. Last updated in the late 1980?s, it is dated; the connections between the three transit systems are inefficient, and the congestion during rush hour – and especially after hockey games – foreshadows the situation in twenty year's time when ridership is expected to double or triple.

Rendering of new retail concourse (PATH) at Union Station, Toronto

The three main goals are to improve the transit capacity and pedestrian flow within the station, to restore and display the historic elements within the building, and to create a new shopping destination for locals and visitors alike. To accomplish this, GO Transit is adding a 300,000 sq ft glass roof above the tracks replete with new access points, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) is building a second subway platform to address the current overcapacity and future needs, and the City of Toronto is making Union Station a destination in itself by adding a new level of retail below the tracks that connects to the underground city PATH system.

Union Station under Renovation in Toronto

Rendering of renovated Union Station in Toronto

Usually if a train station needs major renovations, it is shut down to commuters. But with over 200,000 people using Union Station in Toronto each day, that was not an option for Canada's busiest transportation hub. Instead, two teams of engineersone for the construction above the existing rail lines and one for construction below – had to coordinate the separate but concurrent projects. Additionally, the goal is to have most of the work completed before Toronto hosts the Pan American Games in 2015, with a final completion date of 2016.

What does this mean on the ground?

Construction occurs around the clock. Saturday nights are crucial for track level work because of the later transit opening on Sunday morning compared to all other days of the week. Reinforcement systems need to be built to ensure the safety of pedestrians and construction workers as well as the structural integrity of the continually-operating subway line. For the first phase, between 600 and 900 tonnes of excavated material were removed nightly – about forty-five truckloads. Most major structural elements, like the steel columns for the new atrium and the second subway platform, were built by the end of 2013. The renovated station is expected to be in initial use by the fall of 2014.

Union Station excavation and new supporting columns, Toronto

Within the station, commuters have experienced little disruption due to the station's major renovation. Apart from a few walkways through the construction site and a couple detours because of closed escalators, transit service remains consistent so the one million weekly passengers can reach their destinations as before.

Outside however, the street Union Station faces is closed – as it is merely a hole in the ground – and adds to the very slow vehicular traffic in the area. It also has affected access to the historic Royal York Hotel, although the hotel is doing its best to minimize disruption for its guests.

Overall, this challenging multi-layered renovation has been successfully coordinated among the many parties involved. Now, Torontonians are waiting with high hopes for the new, spacious, well-connected Union Station.

How has your city gone about updating rail stations or other key destinations while maintaining the same service level? Was it successful?

Credits: Photograph by Lindsay Vanstone. Data and renderings linked to sources.