Chicago Union Station opened in 1925. It replaced the Union Depot that had been built on essentially the same site in 1882. It was necessary to replace that station because it lacked the capacity to handle the number of trains and passengers that had been growing rapidly during this period. The new station was built by the Chicago Union Station Company (CUSCo) which was established in 1913. CUSCo, was owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad (50%), the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad (25%), and the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad (25%). The Chicago and Alton Railroad, the only other user, was always a tenant.
The Station Layout
Several features that were incorporated in the new station’s design have great significance today. The concept for the layout of tracks, platforms, and passenger facilities for Union Station was developed by the Pennsylvania Railroad. The station structure itself was designed by Graham, Burnham & Company, with heavy involvement by Daniel Burnham himself. A major feature was the construction of many viaducts to carry roadways over the tracks, greatly increasing the number of grade separations between rail routes and local streets. While the old Union Depot was basically a through station, it was not used in that way as no trains operated through. Thus, the new Station was created as, essentially two stub-end stations. Only two through tracks were retained alongside the River, and only one of these is on a platform. The other was intended primarily to transfer freight and mail cars between railroads. To maximize space available for tracks the Station’s headhouse, all of the station’s support facilities (including the ticket office, waiting room, restaurants, shops, taxi courts, and offices) were located west of Canal Street. Some of the Station’s increase in capacity was achieved by locating some of its passenger platforms and tracks under a structure supporting Canal Street (the Union Depot had been entirely east of Canal). The headhouse and concourse were, in effect two separate buildings, functioning seamlessly as a single building below street level. From the inside there’s no hint that part of the “building” is under Canal Street. For a time, 22 stories of office space was planned for construction above the headhouse but, in the end, this was reduced to eight stories. The final design of the station was produced by Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White, which succeeded the previous firm after Burnham’s death.
An ‘L’ station was located directly above the south tracks, midway between Jackson and Van Buren, with the concourse connected via a direct walkway. This was removed from service in 1958 when the Metropolitan ‘L’ branch was replaced by the Congress subway; since then the closest rapid transit station has been the subway station at Clinton/Congress.
When Union Station opened, the vast majority of trains were intercity passenger trains. Relatively few people lived in Chicago’s suburbs and commuter train services were a very small proportion of the Station’s activities. Virtually all trains carried U.S. Mail and express packages (express package service, similar to today’s United Parcel Service or Federal Express, was handled by the Railway Express Agency, a nationwide company owned jointly by the railroads). Some trains were operated predominantly or, even, exclusively for this traffic. The Station was designed with features intended to allow this traffic to be handled efficiently. Separate “baggage platforms” were built alternating with the passenger platforms which allowed passengers to board or alight from one side of a train without conflicting with baggage mail and express handling activities, such as food service stocking, on the other side at the same time. The baggage platforms were designed free of column obstructions (which were, instead located on the passenger platforms) with a ramp down to the basement where baggage, express, and mail was sorted and where the commissaries were located. This feature is thought to be unique to Chicago Union Station. The basement of the pre-existing “mail handling building” was connected to the Union Station basement with a new tunnel designed for use by electrically drawn carts.
Construction consisted of many projects, most of which were required to create the space required for the greatly increased amount of station track and platforms: new grade separation viaducts, new railroad freight houses, and utility relocations. Work started in 1915, but the process was painstakingly slow because of the need to maintain ongoing train operations at all times, several labor strikes, shortages of labor and material caused by World War I, the 26 month long period in which operation of the nation’s railroads was taken over by the federal government, and the depression that followed the War. Work on the station buildings re-started in earnest in 1922. When the Station opened it was hailed as a great marvel. Railway Age magazine, the industry’s primary trade journal, devoted an issue with a 22 page article describing its many features.
The first building to be built on air rights in Chicago was the Daily News Building (now the 2 N. Riverside Plaza building) built over the north end of the north platforms in 1929. The new Post Office (now the old Post Office), also built on air rights, was completed in 1932. This building integrated into the previous mail handling building.
Although the growth in automobile usage was starting to affect intercity passenger train ridership, particularly on local trains, usage of Union Station was fairly constant (declining from about 390 to 365 trains per weekday) until the start of the Depression. There were major ridership declines and, in turn, a significant number of trains were discontinued during the 1930’s. A bright spot was the introduction of streamlined trains, starting with the Twin Cities Zephyr in 1935. This began the use of diesel locomotives, to replace steam.
Ridership on intercity trains increased tremendously during World War II, with over 100,000 passengers per day, on about 400 weekday trains. While the number of passengers today is higher (about 118,000 on weekdays) the number of trains is significantly lower (about 320) because of the greater number of passengers per train (many of today’s commuter trains carry over 1500 passengers, using double-deck cars). With the focus now on commuter trains, today’s operations are also much more concentrated in the peak periods.
After the end of the war intercity ridership resumed its decline despite the massive investment in streamlined trains with air conditioning and other former luxuries becoming common. The Burlington introduced dome cars in 1945, a feature quickly adopted by all of the western railroads, which had adequate clearances. The Burlington also developed bi-level commuter cars in 1950. These were designed, specifically, to reduce the number of cars required for its growing suburban service as CUSCo charges were based on the number of cars brought into the Station. Another efficiency in commuter train operation was the introduction of push-pull service, avoiding the need to turn locomotives. The conversion of all Union Station operations from steam to diesel locomotives was completed in the mid 1950’s. The number of Milwaukee Road trains increased temporarily with the 1955 switch of the Union Pacific’s trains to/from the West from the Chicago and Northwestern. You can download a great brochure issued by CUSCo in 1955, promoting the features of the Station, and the trains that served it, at its postwar peak. However, on the Burlington and Milwaukee Road suburban trains, ridership increased markedly with the postwar development of the suburbs despite the construction of the expressway network. Development around Union Station also continued during this period and by the early 1960’s the north side tracks disappeared from view in with the construction of the 10 and 120 South Riverside buildings.
The 1960’s were a hard time for intercity passenger trains with the near-completion of the Interstate Highway System, widespread use of jet aircraft and the wholesale cancellation of mail contracts (a major source of railroad revenue) by the Post Office in 1968. Intercity passenger trains were discontinued at a rapid pace during this decade. The Pennsylvania Railroad sold the air rights above Penn Station in New York City and it was demolished in 1964. Demolition of the Chicago Union Station Concourse Building followed in 1968 (the Penn Central Railroad, product of the 1968 merger of the Pennsylvania and New York Central Railroads, was still the majority owner of Union Station). By that time, neither the Penn Central, nor its partners in the ownership of CUSCo, had a long term interest in continuing passenger train service and they allowed the developers of the air rights building built on the site of the Union Station concourse to provide minimal facilities for the handling of passengers — in what was obviously the basement of their building,. It was quickly apparent that passenger facilities that remained were woefully inadequate.
Amtrak and Metra
In 1970 Congress passed the law that created Amtrak, the quasi-governmental agency that now operates all intercity passenger trains in the United States. The law’s most immediate impact was a moratorium on the discontinuance of passenger trains. The U.S. Department of Transportation issued its map of the “Basic System” to be operated. Amtrak started service May 1, 1971, consolidating almost all of its service in Chicago at Union Station (the final Amtrak service relocation to Union Station was completed in 1972).
In 1976 the freight railroads of the northeastern United States were also consolidated into a government owned railroad called Conrail. The Milwaukee Road entered bankruptcy in 1977. In 1981 Congress passed key legislation resulting in major structural changes to Conrail and, in fact, the entire freight rail industry. One result was that the ownership of CUSCo was turned over to Amtrak in 1984.
Meanwhile, a similar process occurred in the commuter rail field. In the Chicago area, the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) was created in 1974. It took responsibility for funding operations of the services previously provided by the private railroads. Over the next few years it purchased railroad assets used predominantly for commuter operations and in some cases directly hired the operating staff (this approach was utilized in the case of the Milwaukee Road’s commuter lines at Union Station). In other cases, commuter railroad ownership remained with the private railroads but the operations were supported using purchase of service contracts (this applies to the former Burlington commuter service at Union Station, now operated by BNSF). In 1983 there was a major reorganization of the RTA which included the creation of Metra, a semi-autonomous “service board”, with its own Board of Directors. This agency continues to have responsibility for Chicago’s commuter rail network, including the six routes operated from Union Station (BNSF, Milwaukee District North, Milwaukee District West, Southwest Service, North Central Service, and Heritage Corridor).
Metra opened the Madison Street entrance to six north side tracks in 1987. Also in 1987, Amtrak began a major remodeling of Union Station focused on improving the quality and passenger handling capacity of the “basement concourse” that had been created nearly 20 years earlier. This work was completed in 1991. As part of this effort all Amtrak and Metra passenger-handling functions (ticketing, waiting, and other support activities) were moved out of the Great Hall with the intent of redeveloping that side of the station complex separately from the passenger facilities. Since then, three successive developers have attempted to accomplish such a redevelopment. Key to all of them has been the concept of constructing 15 or more additional stories above the Great Hall. Of course, this was as originally planned by Daniel Burnham and the building’s caissons could support this. All of these redevelopment plans for the Great Hall building proposed multi-use facilities, typically combining retail, hotel, office, and condominium elements, but none included transportation facilities. However, none of those redevelopment efforts have been successful, and current plans call for re-integrating transportation functions into the Great Hall building in addition to mixed-use redevelopment.
DeRouin, Edward M., Chicago Union Station, A Look at Its History and Operations Before Amtrak, Pixels Publishing, 2003.
Kitt Chappell, Sally A., Architecture and Planning of Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White, 1912-1936, University of Chicago Press, 1992.