28.2.10

A PROPER HUB FOR A NETWORK. Midwest High Speed Rail have been following a number of proposals to provide a proper Chicago station for the faster, more frequent trains to terminate at or to run through. Amtrak has solicited proposals for improvements to the headhouse building, presumably with the expectation of generating more income from its real estate. The real challenge, however, is in providing additional platform capacity for those trains.

Today, [Union] station, which serves Metra commuter rail trains as well as Amtrak trains, is (or should be) a civic embarrassment. The traveling public must endure a maze of corridors, packed waiting rooms and the stench of train fumes. The grandly scaled waiting room, with its sky-lit, barrel-vaulted ceiling, is empty most of the time—an ironic state of affairs given the congestion elsewhere in the station. The room’s most effective use these days is as a movie set or a camera-ready backdrop for local politicians, who held a press conference on high-speed rail there Friday.

A 1991 renovation by Chicago architect Lucien Lagrange upgraded ticket counters, along with Amtrak waiting areas and baggage handling systems. But Amtrak, which owns the station through a subsidiary, runs far more short-haul trains now than it did then, so its facilities are overwhelmed. Even Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari says the situation is unacceptable. And well it should be. How do you get people to take the train instead of the plane if you’re going to treat them with such disrespect?

Union's shortcomings are the consequence of two decisions. The more recent decision, to provide commercial space above the passenger concourse (at the time it was cash-strapped private passenger train operators, not a cash-strapped quasi-public agency) in an era of declining intercity passenger trains, led to a design in which commuters would rush through the concourse to board their trains. That 1991 redesign provided separate passages for commuters from street level to trackside and a semblance of a waiting area for intercity passengers (although that area is inexplicably chopped up into a public seating area and some train-specific seating areas that are never used.) Those areas, however, are obstacle courses defined by the supporting columns for that commercial space.

We have a concourse area through which columns could be placed because of a previous decision, to build the station as a double-stub station, with ten tracks terminating at the north, thirteen tracks terminating at the south, and one through track on the river side of the station. Consequently, there's little capacity for running trains through Chicago, although Amtrak has on occasion offered such service (it has always come a cropper as late-arriving trains from the south disrupt the generally reliable Hiawatha service to Milwaukee.)

Helmut Jahn has offered a proposal to provide a few platforms for the faster trains, in space under the old Post Office that straddles the Eisenhower Expressway and Union Station's south platforms. In that space, there's room for a few run-through trains, and that station is on the other side of the expressway from the southwest corner of the Loop. The current concourse building, which was designed with the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, now has a health club upstairs. Perhaps now is the time to redevelop the concourse area, with the north and south tracks joined for the first time and the passenger facilities above the tracks, the way it's done at Philadelphia's Thirtieth Street Station.

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