The nearly century-old Union Station in Toronto is a stunning statement of beaux arts architecture—but it needed an upgrade to truly meet the needs of modern travelers. Yet government leaders also knew they couldn’t just shut down Canada’s busiest transportation hub, cutting off its 200,000 daily users. The station not only serves as the main terminus for Toronto’s regional rail system, but also connects to the city’s streetcar and subway network, and links to its system of pedestrian tunnels.
With that kind of volume, the project came with an extremely high profile, not only from commuters, but from the sponsors: the City of Toronto as well as the federal and provincial governments, and Canadian passenger transport company Via Rail.
And the goals for the CA$824 million project were as massive as its budget: Leaders envisioned a transit destination akin to New York City’s Grand Central Station, with space and amenities to accommodate an estimated 90 million passengers annually by 2036—a 30 percent jump.
“The Union Station revitalization project was one of the most complex construction projects undertaken by the city,” says Frank Molinari, project director, major initiatives/strategic projects, corporate real estate management, City of Toronto. “Despite the complexity, the station never stopped operating, and train service continued on its regular schedule.”
To keep those train lines running, the team broke work out over more than 40 distinct phases.
And then it went underground—literally.
After performing a feasibility study to explore design options, local architecture and engineering firm NORR opted to use a “dig-down” method. The team would create a second basement level under the station that would be transformed into an upgraded passenger concourse and new retail space.
Because the project marked the first time the method would be implemented in Canada at such a scale, NORR enlisted WSP as a geotechnical consultant during the dig-down and construction. Soil-structure analysis and monitoring of rock movement helped the team address concerns like “rock squeeze”—a common phenomenon on downtown Toronto projects that could put extreme lateral pressure on tunnel walls. To mitigate the risk of excavating near the existing foundations, the team once again leaned into innovation: improvising an ingenious approach to drill holes roughly 3 meters (9.8 feet) apart to the desired excavation depth and running steel wires to saw cut the shale.
Molinari credits strong communication with stakeholders—from the public to the head lessee—for helping the team stay agile and avoid major bottlenecks. “We learned to work in tandem so that milestones could be reached faster.”
More than a decade in the making, the revamped Union Station made its grand debut in late July. Like many a megaproject, the renovation had its setbacks, including lengthy construction delays prompted by contractor disputes, and pandemic-related labor shortages and distancing measures. Yet despite its late arrival, the revitalization of Union Station is already delivering serious ROI.
Along with creating thousands of local jobs, the project delivered more than 10,000 square meters (108,000 square feet) of additional space, while adding new retail and other amenities. One particularly eye-catching upgrade: an expansive atrium of steel and glass constructed over the renovated train shed.
The Union Station revitalization project may be complete, but the station remains a work in progress. Next up: a project to transform the platform space.