Pyke: Tired of Union Station? Improvements are coming

  • A rendering of how Metra platforms in the south concourse of Union Station would look shows wider spaces and escalators to street level.

    A rendering of how Metra platforms in the south concourse of Union Station would look shows wider spaces and escalators to street level. Courtesy of Amtrak

  • An old Fred Harvey restaurant in Union Station was damaged by a fire in the early 1980s.

    An old Fred Harvey restaurant in Union Station was damaged by a fire in the early 1980s. Courtesy of Amtrak

  • Behind one of the huge black curtains in Union Station's Great Hall is a former Fred Harvey restaurant Amtrak hopes to redevelop.

      Behind one of the huge black curtains in Union Station's Great Hall is a former Fred Harvey restaurant Amtrak hopes to redevelop. Marni Pyke | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 2/22/2016 11:57 AM

While commuters at the Ogilvie Transportation Center enjoy a gleaming station and wide platforms, it's a lemming-eat-lemming existence for Metra riders at Chicago Union Station.

The ironic part is thousands of square feet of space gather dust in the same station where herds of passengers squeeze through crowded concourses and jostle each other on minute platforms.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Take heart, Union Station commuters: Change is headed your way. Here's the latest on plans to modernize the antique terminal, plus a peek at what's behind those giant black curtains in the Great Hall, thanks to a tour of station secrets last week:

By late summer, a new transit center to catch CTA buses will be delivered, located south of Jackson between Canal and Clinton streets and connected to Union Station by a walkway.

In March, officials expect to pick a firm to design improvements that increase capacity and move people faster through the station.

Plans for the south concourse include removing old Amtrak baggage platforms and widening Platforms 6/8 and 10/12 that handle multiple BNSF trains, Metra's busiest line.

"There's no question the south concourse is more congested, it makes sense to start there," Metra CEO Don Orseno said Thursday.

One proposed game-changer is escalators from the platforms up to Jackson Street and possibly Van Buren, so riders could escape walking through Union Station altogether. In the north concourse that serves the Milwaukee District and North Central Service, the plan also calls for adding access to Madison Street on Platform 1/3.

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Other highlights of the first phase of station improvements:

• At peak times in the south concourse, riders face a logjam trying to board three escalators that move up in the morning, down in the afternoon rush. (People who need the reverse direction have to hunt for an obscure non-rush escalator.) The master plan recommends moving the Amtrak ticket area, opening up the north and south corridors and allowing for more escalators or stairs.

• The current entrances at Canal, Jackson and Adams streets are clogged and frumpy. Plans call for them to be renovated and expanded to give commuters more room and improve flow.

• Another proposal calls for pedestrian passageways linking Union Station with the CTA's Blue Line Clinton Station and with Ogilvie Transportation Center. It sounds like a heavy lift, but because of a network of underground passageways, it's not a huge excavation project, Orseno said.

One more thing

What lies behind those immense black curtains in the Great Hall? A Metropolitan Planning Council tour shed light on the mystery last week.

Amtrak hopes to redevelop Union Station's former ladies lounge, which is in disrepair now.
  Amtrak hopes to redevelop Union Station's former ladies lounge, which is in disrepair now. - Marni Pyke | Staff Photographer
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

One locked door leads to the former women's lounge where flappers powdered their noses in the 1920s. Dust and cobwebs fill a lofty room that seems even higher because of imposing columns and wall murals.

But clean it up, and the lounge is a prime location for banquets or events, said Amtrak senior facilities manager Paul Sanders.

A second curtain hides another cavernous space that once housed a Fred Harvey restaurant.

An early 1980s fire gutted the place, but it's got potential, too, planners think.

Station owner Amtrak has spent several years improving the historic facility by removing asbestos, modernizing the HVAC system and renewing the marble staircases featured in "The Untouchables" so it's at the point where it can be developed.

Also in the works are an upscale Amtrak passenger lounge off the corridor leading to the Great Hall and a replacement tenant for the now defunct Metro Deli and Sports Bar, a station fixture.

The railroad is seeking a firm to develop the station's hidden assets and airspace rights.

"Development has finally crossed the river, there's a huge interest in Union Station," Sanders said.

You should know

• The Union Station modernization plan is a collaboration that includes Amtrak, the city of Chicago, Metra, the Illinois Department of Transportation and other agencies.

• The iconic building, which opened in 1925, is the third busiest train station in the U.S. and one of the most dysfunctional. Metra and Amtrak passenger trips total 33.4 million a year, and that's projected to increase to 51.4 million in 2040. Metra trips comprise about 82 percent of the tally.

• Amtrak's Legacy Club, located off the Great Hall, is open for business. Metra riders can buy memberships for $50 a month.

Got an opinion on Union Station or Ogilvie? Drop me an email at mpyke@dailyherald.com.

Gridlock alert

Watch out for overnight lane closures on Roosevelt Road beneath the York Street bridge in Elmhurst. IDOT is improving the bridge; work will wrap up this summer.

The Federal Railway Administration rewarded Illinois a $1.25 million grant to design a grade separation at 95th Street in Chicago and the Union Pacific tracks.
The Federal Railway Administration rewarded Illinois a $1.25 million grant to design a grade separation at 95th Street in Chicago and the Union Pacific tracks. - Daily Herald file photo
Federal windfall

The Federal Railway Administration rewarded Illinois a $1.25 million grant to design a grade separation at 95th Street in Chicago and the Union Pacific tracks. The location is a logjam with freight and Amtrak trains, buses and vehicles. It's not determined if the project will be an underpass or overpass. Illinois competed with other states for the grant aimed at improving safety at crossings where trains carry volatile fuels.

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