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Transportation Fri May 25 2012

Union Station Master Plan Study Provides a Good Step Forward

unionstationdoor.jpgThe Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) released the Chicago Union Station Master Plan Study [PDF] on Wednesday, giving much needed suggestions on how to improve Union Station.

According to the study, the goals were to find ways to improve capacity for a predicted increase in Metra and Amtrak riders, improve transfers and make the terminal more inviting.

As someone who uses Union Station on occasion, I think that all of these are much needed improvements.

One of the key issues addressed is the fact that the structure of Union Station was created before the creation of both Metra and Amtrak. When the tracks were built for Union Station, luggage platforms were built for putting luggage on the trains. These platforms still exist and are used by Amtrak.

According to Marc Magliari, Amtrak media relations manager, the luggage platforms, which are connected to tunnels, are used for loading checked luggage onto trains that have a luggage car, as well as replenishing the food and beverage supply on trains and disposing of garbage.

According to the study and Magliari, the luggage platforms that would be removed to create wider passenger platforms would be for Metra trains.

However, Union Station also has a now unused mail platform. Several years ago, the United States Postal Service used passenger trains to transport mail. The USPS then switched to trucks, and according to the study, Amtrak stopped using mail platforms about a decade ago. The study proposes transforming this platform, which is about 100 feet wide and 1300 feet long, to be turned into a passenger platform.

The study also looks at ways to improve the terminal. One of the concerns discussed in the master plan study is the crowding in Amtrak's waiting rooms. According to the study, Amtrak has planned to double the number of seats in the waiting rooms as well as constructing a new Metropolitan Lounge for sleeping car passengers. This would in turn allow to the current Metropolitan Lounge to be turned into additional waiting room space in Union Station.

During a recent trip on Amtrak's Hiawatha service, which runs between Milwaukee and Chicago, I noticed that almost every seat in the waiting area was filled a little less than an hour before the train was supposed to leave. This resulted in the illusion that it would be a very full train, although the train ended up not being that full. If Amtrak continues to gain riders -- in the 2010 fiscal year Amtrak had its largest amount of riders ever -- then accommodations for more riders needs to be put into place.

One of the key problems that doesn't seem to be fully addressed in the study is the lack of a connection to the Chicago Transit Authority. One of the difficulties I have found is that the signs for connecting CTA buses aren't very helpful when directing a passenger to where they should go for specific buses. However, some people might take the L instead, and the problem there is that the Clinton station is two blocks south and the Quincy stop is three blocks east. With both of those, a passenger has to carry their suitcase up and down stairs, which might not be very helpful for travelers who aren't very strong or have a disability.

Furthermore, the study says that at a public meeting regarding the master plan held back in December, a questionnaire asked those in attendance various questions. One of the questions regarded the directional signs in Union Station and 74 percent disagreed and strongly disagreed with a statement that the signs are sufficient for needs. According to a graph in the study, a little more than 70 percent of respondents who disagreed are Amtrak riders.

Unfortunately Union Station is not very inviting for passengers. While the headhouse is still a marvelous structure, there's something dispiriting about being in a facility that is usually very empty. The rest of Union Station, particularly the concourses where there's food, is dim and maze-like. The study also found that 58 percent of passengers felt the dining options were sufficient, and a majority of those feeling that way were Amtrak passengers. The long-term plans offered in the study seem promising, but due to cost it would be nice if a short-term solution had been offered up to make Union Station better for passengers who maybe have a layover.

The problem with Union Station was best summed up by my little sister, who frequently goes through Union Station when traveling between Milwaukee and Lansing, MI: "Dude, Union Station sucks."

The plans for the improvements are promising, mostly because the current station is a very dated piece of transportation infrastructure for both Chicago and the nation.

 

Melody Parker / May 25, 2012 11:44 AM

I find it extremely important that they fix the signs. They are vague and you can get lost extremely easily. Just when you think you're headed to the North Terminal, you wind up in an alley.
One of the most astounding things is the amount of unused space in the station. For example, aside from the one (1) tower with departure and arrival information, there is nothing in the Grand Hall, which is a tragic misuse of that beautiful space.

Monica Reida / May 25, 2012 12:17 PM

I think one of the most promising things about the study is the suggestion of using the current Metropolitan Lounge to increase waiting room space for Amtrak and then move the Metropolitan Lounge to the headhouse, which is where the Grand Hall is located.

That the study authors looked at utilizing unused space, such as the baggage platforms where Metra tracks are located and also the mail platform, shows a good step forward. I would love it if maybe they looked at putting more dining options in the headhouse or maybe a waiting area for people meeting people.

Roland S / May 28, 2012 3:22 AM

Grand Central Station is a good model for the headhouse... all sorts of restaurants, retail, and waiting rooms are cleverly tucked in the spaces around the Grand Hall, while the hall itself remains open and unobstructed. They just opened an Apple Store. DC 's Union Station has an Uno's tucked in the upper levels with great views, but our headhouse only has a ratty bar and a Chuck E. Cheese arcade (seriously, it's there).

Monica Reida / May 28, 2012 2:56 PM

Roland, I might have to find the Chuck E. Cheese arcade next time I take the train. The study did mention DC's Union Station and have images of the area with a spiral staircase—I'm sorry for having a vague description, but I've never been to DC.

And Grand Central has a nice selection of stores and dining options, but unfortunately Amtrak goes to Penn Station, which has a food selection that's similar to what is available at Union Station here.

niki / November 27, 2012 2:54 PM

I have been using Amtrack and getting off at the Chicago station. I found the customer service is lacking. The employees at the Union Station in Chicago are very rude and uninformed. Either they dont care or they have been working there so long that they have not recived any updated customer service skills. The information desk is usually empty and the bathrooms are too small and too few. Thank you.Posted nov 27 2012

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