U is for Union Station

Did you know there's much more to Chicago's Union Station than that final shootout in The Untouchables? Thankfully, the super-smart author of today's guest post does! As an urban planner with Metra, Ryan Richter is the perfect person to teach us all about this beautiful Chicago landmark. 

Heeeeeere's Ryan...

Union station is one of four passenger rail terminals in Chicago and is by far the busiest and most iconic. Opened in 1925, designed by Daniel Burnham (yes, that Burnham), it was built for a consortium of railroad companies that wanted to consolidate their terminal operations in one place. The term “union station” in essence is a station where tracks and facilities are shared by more than one railroad. Chicago is one of a number of cities that have union stations.

Union Station - Chicago

The current Union Station is the second station by that name and the third station located on its site in the West Loop. It is the third busiest railroad terminal in the U.S. and it handles approximately 120,000 passengers per weekday on 320 trains. It is a double stub-end station, meaning that trains do not pass through Union Station but rather terminate at Union Station.

There are 10 tracks at the north end and 14 tracks at the south end. Metra, the commuter rail service in Chicago has six lines serving Union Station that fan out across the region (Metra additionally operates the other three passenger rail terminals in Chicago. In total, Metra operates 11 lines). Amtrak, the national passenger rail operator, has 17 lines that serve the east and west coasts and parts in-between.

In terms of passengers, Metra riders comprise over 90% of the daily riders at Union Station (110,000 per weekday!), although Amtrak ridership is high enough to make Union Station one of the busiest stations in its network.

Union Station - Chicago

Union Station is iconic because of its beautiful Beaux Arts Great Hall. The Great Hall occupies an entire city block and is 110 feet tall. It is the headhouse; the actual boarding platforms and track are located one block to the east and are buried entirely by buildings that were developed over the tracks.

The original passenger concourse was demolished in 1968. It was developed into an office complex where the current passenger platforms and tracks are. Much of the leading tracks into Union Station from both the north and south have been redeveloped via air rights. Interestingly enough, at the original headhouse, there is an 8-story office building above the Great Hall. Daniel Burnham designed the headhouse to accommodate a 22-story office building, thus there is the ability to add 14 more stories. Amtrak, the owner of Union Station, has been actively trying to redevelop the station with this in mind.

Untouchables Staircase

Ryan Richter (@transportnexus) is an urban planner at Metra, the commuter railroad operator in the Chicago region. His professional focus is in the realm of land use and transportation planning and he blogs about those topics and more at Transport Nexus.