Reflections on Nearly Three Decades at Union Station
Union Station, in the heart of downtown Toronto, is Canada’s busiest transit terminal and acts as a mobility hub and access point to the city for commuters of all types – subway commuters, GO Transit riders, and those travelling on VIA Rail to and from destinations further abroad.
Entuitive and many of our senior staff members have been involved in numerous repair, improvement, and expansion projects at Union Station over the past three decades. We sat down with Principals Brian Stonehouse, Michael Meschino and Mike Hillcoat, Senior Associate Louis Tilatti, Associates Jonathan Ho and Matthew Smith, and Designer Irwan Poerba to learn about their collective experience working on projects at what is arguably Toronto’s most complex transportation station.
Thanks for sitting down with us today. We often hear that work at Union Station never seems to be finished. Yet, reviewing all the projects you guys have worked on over the last few decades, it seems that there are many different projects with different aims being started and completed all the time. So, I guess my question is how do we dispel the myth that the construction project at Union Station never ends?
Mike Hillcoat: There is always construction going on at Union Station and based on what we know of the future plans to improve station capacity, there will continue to be construction at Union Station for many decades to come.
To keep the trains and passengers moving, it was decided long ago that the work at Union Station would be completed in stages in a series of staged discrete projects. Each of these projects have had challenges so it is important to celebrate those the work that has been completed.
The construction of the glass atrium, which is one of the most recognizable projects was completed in 2014. The restoration of the roof structure and replacement of the roofing across the entire train shed was also completed in 2014.
The construction of the Bay and York concourses that are now both open to the public were not Entuitive projects, but Entuitive’s work had to be coordinated very closely with the work going on at those concourses. For example, our work on stairs, escalators, and elevators travelling up and down from the concourses and that work has now been completed and both of those areas are now open.
And then of course the Heritage Restoration and Enabling Project (sometimes called DBB), this is where we replaced all of the electrical systems, communications, power, and lighting throughout the entire train shed, as well as restoring the Bay Street Bridge north façade, which were both completed in 2021. The installation of a new emergency generator to provide back-up power for the existing station including capacity for future expansion was recently completed in 2022.
The staged nature of how projects are done at the Station does make it seem like a perpetual construction project. I think that passengers should brace for the reality that it will continue to seem like a perpetual restoration project because the plan for the next twenty to thirty years is to continue to upgrade the station to increase capacity. It will gradually get better and better, but all of the planned work will not be complete for a long time.
Michael Meschino: On a personal note, my family’s history of working at Union Station goes all the way back to 1914 when my grandfather, Pasquale Meschino, arrived in Toronto from Italy. His first job was digging the foundations for what is now the historic Union Station headhouse building.
Louis Tilatti: Similarly, my father arrived in Canada by train from New York at Union Station in 1949 and my grandfather did the same thing in 1907.
I wanted to further speak about the nature of the Station – it’s the busiest transportation hub in Canada and has a large footprint. There are many people travelling through it from different directions each day – approximately 300,000 a day, in fact. The latest iteration of the Station is almost 100 years old, having opened to the public in August 1927. Like Mike said, it’s all a bunch of different projects. It’s like how historic cathedrals in Europe are always being restored. There’s always going to be work on such a busy and important station with many heritage components.
What is either your most memorable moment working at Union or your favourite part of working on the station?
Brian Stonehouse: My most memorable Union Station moment was as a Junior Engineer when I was working out of the Yolles office. I was asked to attend a mandatory pre-bid meeting for consultants who intended to bid on work at Union Station. This was around 2005 and as part of the bidder’s meeting there was a roster that you had to pre-register for. Once signed in, they’d take you on a tour of Union Station and explain the key aspects of the project. I arrived at the Station with a Senior Partner, at which point the Metrolinx supervisor asked about our PPE.
Metrolinx is very stringent about PPE (hard hat, vest, etc.) and even though we were touring Union Station which is a public facility and every area we visited was accessible to the public, PPE was mandatory. I could see panic on my colleague’s face because we didn’t bring any PPE with us.
If you don’t have PPE with you, you can’t attend the pre-bid meeting and if you don’t attend that meeting, you’re disqualified from bidding on the job. We frantically called someone at the office to deliver the PPE to us. It was a stressful few minutes waiting for someone to arrive! We made it in there within a minute of the meeting starting and within a few months we had won the project, which at that time was one of the largest projects in the history of the firm.
From my professional experience, the Union Pearson (UP) Express Station was a very memorable project. I was the overall team lead on that project, and we were awarded the job as prime consultant when I was at WSP (previously MMM Group). We assembled a full design team including Zeidler Architects to design the station in the area known as the SkyWalk. The deadline was real and a big pressure point for us – it had to be up and operational in time for the Pan Am Games. I’m proud of that station and I think it stood the test of time.
Irwan Poerba: I have a soft spot for Union Station because it was the first project I worked on. I was bidding on a project at Union Station, and my task was to coordinate the bid design. I had never done anything like that before. Having that as my first project was an important steppingstone for my career, and I learned so much working on such a high-packed, high-density train station.
Matt Smith: On a personal note, when I attended the University of Toronto, I would commute from Caledon, so I was in Union twice a day. I was on the receiving end of having the train doors close just as I ran to platform level and needing to wait another hour, so I can appreciate the increase in service delivery to every fifteen minutes that Metrolinx now offers.
On a professional note, probably the most satisfying moment was on the pedestrian modelling side when we were looking at the input for the models. At first, we were trying to construct the model input manually. If we look at the trains, we had to model ten tracks with twelve cars each and something like 20 entrances and exits to the station to capture, so the origin/destination matrix was borderline impossible to building manually in Excel. Our solution was to move the input process to Grasshopper which used Python and also gave a visual representation of the origin/destination matrix, which Maciek Kaciak was a huge help with. Once we realized this would give us what we needed and be quick to update for new train schedules or studies we felt an immense amount of gratification. We couldn’t have modelled the station the way we did without a way to handle the immense amount of input data parametrically. We were modelling 115,000 people at peak hours and without our advanced approach it wouldn’t have been possible.
What is the biggest challenge that you might have faced at any of the projects you worked on at Union and how did you overcome it?
Michael Meschino: As part of our work on USEP, Metrolinx asked us if it was possible to increase the speed of the trains as they entered the station and to provide enough clearance for future electrification of the vehicles. The increased train speed generated higher loading on the supporting track slab than those currently imposed by the trains. The restricted clearance to allow for future electrification limited ballast treatments that could be used to “soften” the impact from the higher speed trains. Complicating the matter further was the unique diagonal reinforcing arrangement used for the original track slab construction and the multiple openings for stairs and elevators that had been cut through the slab over the years.
Finding a solution was critical to the entire Regional Express Rail program since increased train speeds were necessary to achieve Metrolinx capacity enhancement objectives. Finally, after months of work we had a solution that cushioned the train impact load effects sufficiently to fall within the slab capacity limits while maintaining minimum ballast depths to achieve the required train clearances. Metrolinx seemed quite relieved when we finally presented our proposed solution to them. This assignment was very challenging and required innovative thinking together with sophisticated engineering analysis, making it a rewarding experience.
Mike Hillcoat: For me the biggest challenge was the restoration of the Bay Street Bridge on the North side. It was something that Yolles had recommended back in 2006. The work kept getting de-scoped because of challenges to access over Bay Street and interfacing projects. The biggest challenge in terms of access was how could the bridge be restored while keeping Bay Street open and also not impeding the City of Toronto concourse (Bay Concourse) project.
Finally, we were able to come up with a solution for how to restore it in 2018 and it was completed in 2021. It was extremely complicated. The bridge was badly deteriorating and had become a safety risk. Even though the Bay West teamway into the Financial District is one of the most heavily traveled pedestrian areas in the city, and even though there were pieces of steel and concrete at risk of falling off the bridge, it was hard to convince the many impacted stakeholders to put scaffolding there because of the volume of pedestrians. It was something we were able to pull off, with about 12 years of persistence, and the bridge is now complete, safe, and looks great.
Brian Stonehouse: For me it was all about understanding the importance of the station operations. The more you learn about train operations (GO, VIA, UP, CN), available time windows, and different ownership strata across that entire site, the more you appreciate the importance of sequencing. Designing the finished product was only one aspect, the real challenge was how to demolish, rebuild, upgrade while maintaining continuous operation.
It reminded me a bit of working within high end retail space, for example on Bloor Street, where you just can’t shut the store down. The value of that lost revenue is so great that it has a major influence on the design and sequence of construction. It’s the same with Union Station – a critical piece of infrastructure in the core of the city. We don’t have several main train stations like say in London, UK. We simply cannot shut Union Station down for a period to renew it like you could with one of the main stations in London.
So, the more involved I got into designing at the station the more I realized that train operations, amongst many other things, are so critical and you have to approach design and construction differently. You have to take the design ideas and run them through the construction process, resolving each interim stage as well as the final design stage for any implications to passenger flow, train movements, you name it. It’s a constant challenge with a fixed boundary in terms of real estate. You always need to think about what the design implications are on the station operations.
Jonathan Ho: The biggest struggle with the new stairs and openings project I worked on was to figure out what had been done over the years. I had to keep track of what was done and whether the information I had was accurate or not. It took a lot of going to site and trying to find access points to figure out if the opening they said was cut was there or not. I remember in one instance, there was a location where an opening had been cut and then filled back in and that change had never been shown on the drawings, so we found it by chance later. We had to be very cautious with this because the structure is so old and there’s been so many modifications to it.
Matt Smith: The success I shared regarding the massive amount of input on the pedestrian modelling side was also my biggest challenge. The pedestrian modelling work we’ve done requires an immense amount of input data and creates even more output data, so one of our challenges and where we provide value is taking that output and making it mean something, whether its confirming something during design like if a slight change impacts station users in any way, or more broadly confirming Level of Service requirements have been met. I also agree with Jonathan on existing conditions being a challenge to navigate. Union Station has some narrow stairs throughout that serve platforms and are being maintained for a number of reasons. In the original design of the station these stairs were not required to support two-way passenger flow, so we had to incorporate architectural, signage, and operational strategies to get these elements to perform as required.
Irwan Poerba: Dealing with the logistics of the site was challenging. You need to figure out a solution for the project that accommodates the ongoing station operations, and the critical infrastructure in and around the site. I love seeing people working on projects at Union Station to this day because I can really appreciate how difficult it is to come up with solutions to the challenges presented by the site.
Work continues at Union Station and we hope to continue our long history of working on complex and rewarding projects there for years to come. If you’d like to learn more about this project, reach out to Brian, Michael, Mike, Louis, Matt, Jonathan, or Irwan.