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Union Station

  Toronto Union Station is the largest railway station ever built in Canada and occupies the entire block south of Front St. Between York and Bay Streets. The station was built during World War I to replace an older facility located west of York Street, sections of which dated back to 1873. The site for a new station became available following the Great Toronto Fire of 1904. The architects of the new station were the firm of Ross & Macdonald, Hugh G. Jones of Montreal and John M. Lyle of Toronto.

The station consists of two distinct segments built several years apart by the Toronto Terminals Railway. The headhouse encloses the Great Hall and is fronted by a façade of 22 Doric limestone columns flanked by two office wings. This was built between 1915 and 1920, when the east and west office wings were occupied by the Post Office and the railway companies. The centre block containing the actual railway station remained empty for the next seven years since there were no train tracks entering the station.

The railways and various government agencies spent several years arguing about how the tracks should be built and construction began in 1925 on an elevated viaduct that would raise the railway corridor eighteen feet above the roads and sidewalks that intersected it and bring the tracks into Union Station. In August 1927, the still incomplete station was officially opened during the royal tour of HRH Edward, Prince of Wales, who was visiting Canada to help commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Confederation.

Construction on the train shed, the ten tracks underneath it and the passenger concourse was finally completed in 1930, just in time for the Great Depression. With declining passenger volume during the 1930s, Union Station was underused until World War 2 when wartime traffic taxed the facility to its limit. In an era when almost all intercity travel was by train, some of the most famous people in the world passed through Union Station, including King George VI, General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Winston Churchill.

The number of passenger trains using the station declined in the decades following the war until 1967, when GO Transit began operating a new commuter service along the Lakeshore. In 1968, the railways announced the massive Metro Centre project, which would have required the demolition of Union Station. Despite an almost universal effort on the part of big business, government and local newspapers to replace the facility, Union Station was rescued by a coalition of heritage advocates and concerned citizens who deplored the loss of one of Toronto’s most distinguished architectural treasures.

In 1975, Union Station was declared a National Historic Site because “It is the finest example in Canada of stations erected in the classical Beaux-Arts style during an era of expanding national rail networks and vigorous urban growth.” In the years since, a constant challenge for Union Station has been its conversion from primarily an intercity train terminal to a commuter rail station. In 2000, the railways sold the headhouse to the City of Toronto and the rail corridor and trainshed were acquired by GO Transit.

Today Union Station is Canada’s busiest transportation hub, handling more passengers than Pearson Airport. Every weekday, 186 GO trains carry 165,000 passengers through the station. As well, 50 VIA Rail trains transport approximately 5,000 passengers a day into and out of Toronto. Add to that the many thousands who use the Union subway and streetcar stations to attend events at the Air Canada Centre, Harbourfront, the Rogers Centre and the Convention Centre.

In 1990, the Canadian Pacific Railway John Street Roundhouse, built in 1929 to service passenger trains at Union Station, was also made a National Historic Site. The Roundhouse is now part of the Toronto Railway Museum, opened in 2010. The two sites form bookends of a historic Toronto railway heritage pedestrian corridor and the TRHA has big plans to interpret this path in an exciting and contemporary format.

The City of Toronto, GO Transit and the TTC are currently embarking on a $1.5 billion restoration, renovation and revitalization of Union Station that will unfold over the next several years. The goal is to transform the facility into one of the most efficient transportation terminals in the world while enhancing its value as a heritage destination and tourist attraction.

The Toronto Railway Historical Association was actively involved in the Union Station Revitalization Public Advisory Group and looks forward to playing a major role in the heritage interpretation of the station once the revitalization is completed.
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