Plan to rebuild Chicago Union Station finally starts to roll



After years of studies and collective hand-wringing, a coalition of local government units and Amtrak today is announcing the first real steps to finally rebuild the crowded and outmoded Union Station.

On tap immediately are a new passenger lounge and repairs to the stately but leaky 219-foot-long skylight that covers the building’s Great Hall.

But more much more expansive work, especially widening train platforms, providing better street-level access and opening a direct connection to the Chicago Transit Authority’s Blue Line, aren’t yet funded, though Amtrak is moving to lease potentially lucrative air rights for high-rise office development.

“Chicago Union Station is an enormous asset to Amtrak as well as the city of Chicago,” Amtrak Vice President and Chief of Business Development Stephen Gardner said in a statement in advance of today’s announcement. “Amtrak is committed to working in partnership with our stakeholders to . . . deliver value for the company and help realize the full vision of a vibrant transportation hub interwoven within an integrated mixed urban district.”


Photo by clarkmaxwell/

Union Station is the third-busiest rail terminal in the country, home to not only Amtrak’s mid-continent operations but dozens of Metra trains each day, noted Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “Modernizing Union Station is a positive development for residents, travelers and businesses across the city.”

The new activity—which seems to have the city, Amtrak, Metra, CTA and Regional Transportation Authority all on the same page—will come in phases, some fast and some slow.

The quickest is the announcement today that Amtrak will use $14 million of its own money to build a new lounge that will double the space for sleeping-car and business-class passengers at concourse levels, restore the skylight, upgrade heating and create banquet and event space. Those projects are to be completed by the next year.

Officials including U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., also will officially unveil the restored grand staircase, of “Untouchables” movie fame.

Second, Amtrak et al. will issue a request for proposals for a firm to plan and do preliminary engineering on 13 high-priority improvements.

Included on that list are 13 fixes identified in a prior master plan, including expanding the lobby and giving it much improved direct access to Canal Street, new entrances at Adams, Madison and Jackson, widening two platforms with the addition of elevators and escalators, construction of a tunnel to the nearby Ogilvie station, renovation and expansion of retail space and opening of a tunnel to the Clinton Blue Line station.

The agencies have agreed to share about $5 million in costs for the preliminary engineering, but no source yet has been identified of needed funds, which easily could pass $100 million. The preliminary design work is scheduled to be done in 2017.

Finally, Amtrak also is announcing it’s issuing a request for information for a master developer who could design, build and finance “expansion opportunities”—including air rights over Union Station, use of vacant space in the facility, and construction in nearby property on the Near West Side.

Amtrak says it will use the same process to try to cash in on the value of its real estate holdings in other cities.

Officials also are seeking federal loan funds. As previously reported, Emanuel recently was in Washington in search of such money, and Sens. Kirk and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., are pushing to tap a federal low-interest loan pot of more than $30 billion.