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Great American Stations

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Chicago, IL (CHI)

Best known for its majestic Great Hall, often bathed in soft light, Chicago Union Station is the hub for Amtrak western long-distance trains and mid-western corridor services.


Station Facts

Chicago, IL Station Photo

Chicago, Illinois

225 South Canal Street Chicago, IL 60606

Station Hours

Annual Station Revenue (2013)
$215,541,125
Annual Station Ridership (2013)
3,522,388

Ownerships

Facility Ownership Chicago Union Station Company
Parking Lot Ownership Amtrak
Platform Ownership Chicago Union Station Company
Track Ownership Chicago Union Station Company

Features

500 Long Term Parking Spaces 500 Short Term Parking Spaces ATM
Accessible Payphones Accessible Platform Accessible Restrooms
Accessible Ticket Office Accessible Waiting Room Accessible Water Fountain
Bike Boxes Checked Baggage Elevator
Elevator Accessible Enclosed Waiting Area Help With Luggage
Lockers Lounge Parking Attendant
Pay Phones Quik Trak Kiosk Restrooms
Shipping Boxes Ski Bags Ticket Office
Wheelchair Wheelchair Lift WiFi

Routes Served

  • Blue Water
  • California Zephyr
  • Capitol Limited
  • Cardinal
  • Carl Sandburg
  • City of New Orleans
  • Empire Builder
  • Hoosier State
  • Hiawatha
  • Illinois Zephyr
  • Illini
  • Lake Shore Limited
  • Pere Marquette
  • Saluki
  • Southwest Chief
  • Texas Eagle
  • Wolverine Service

Contact

Derrick James
Regional Contact
governmentaffairschi@amtrak.com
312-544-5118 (ph)

Local Community Links:

Station History

Chicago Union Station, begun in 1913 and completed in 1925, was built for a consortium of five railroads, headed by the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR): the Pennsylvania Company (owner of the PRR); the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad; Michigan Central Railroad; Chicago and Alton Railroad and the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway, collectively doing business as the Chicago Union Station Company (CUSCo). They desired a grand station befitting the city’s status as a national railroad hub, and this $75 million station replaced the city’s overcrowded 1881 Grand Passenger Station. Daniel Burnham, Chicago’s famous architect who was also responsible for designing Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, began designing this Beaux Arts station, but died before plans were completed. Graham, Anderson, and Probst, later joined by White, took over his work.

Union Station is the only example in the United States of a “double-stub” station, where the 24 tracks approach from two directions and most do not continue under or through the station. The exterior of the station is clad in Bedford limestone and was quarried in Indiana. Together with the approach and storage tracks, the entire station facility takes up nearly 10 city blocks. The original complex incorporated two different buildings on either side of Canal Street, connected below street level.

The west side building, the headhouse, contains the Great Hall—the waiting room, if such a mundane term may be applied for this soaring, beautiful space in a building that takes up an entire city block. The Great Hall has a 300-foot-long barrel-vaulted skylight that soars 115 feet above the floor. The skylight was blacked-out during World War II in order to make the station less of a target for enemy aircraft, since the station served nearly 100,000 daily passengers and more than 300 daily arrivals and departures. Two figural statues tower over the Great Hall on its east wall, one representing day (holding a rooster) and the other representing night (holding an owl), a recognition of the 24-hour nature of passenger railroading.

While the magnificent, historic Great Hall is used for major events and has been seen on TV and in films such as The Untouchables, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Chain Reaction, "ER" and "Early Edition"—it was always meant to be a working structure and was designed to accommodate large crowds and heavy daily use. The Great Hall is now used for passenger queuing space when the concourse bursts with activity at peak periods. Along with marble floors, long wooden benches, marble walls with large Corinthian columns, and the Great Hall’s grand staircase, the headhouse also has side halls and office space. According to the original plan, the building would have had 26 floors of office space, but only eight were completed.

The companion to the headhouse was the concourse building, on the east side of Canal Street. This glass-vaulted concourse was modeled upon that of the historic Pennsylvania Station in New York City. As with Penn Station, this one is now gone, having been torn down in 1969 and replaced by two office buildings. Today’s passenger concourse is almost entirely beneath the streets and skyscrapers as well as the headhouse.

In 1991, work was completed on a $32 million passenger facilities improvement project that included renewal of the station’s waiting areas, new ticket windows and baggage handling system and the removal of the black-out paint from the Great Hall’s skylight. Lucien Lagrange & Associates handled the design of the project, which dramatically improved the facilities created when the concourse building was razed. On May 1, 2002, the station was finally designated a Chicago Landmark.

For many years, the upper stories of Union Station were vacant since they required extensive rehabilitation to bring them in accordance with modern building and life safety codes. In early 2012, Amtrak completed a $25 million infrastructure improvement project that included work in the sub-basement, Great Hall and the upper office floors. Located below the water-level of the nearby Chicago River, the sub-basement presented logistical challenges that were met by careful planning and advanced technology such as 3D laser scanning. Minneapolis-based Mortenson Construction had to carefully remove old mechanical systems from the space in order to install five industrial boilers and two 600-ton chillers.

A new air conditioning system was installed in the Great Hall to make it more comfortable for passengers during the warm summer months. With this improvement in place, the beautiful space is now available for year-round rental for special events. Refurbished retail storefronts along the perimeter of the Great Hall are also available for lease. In the upper office stories, crews replaced or upgraded mechanical, plumbing, and electrical systems and also installed fire safety equipment such as sprinklers. Amtrak subsequently moved its regional offices back into the station, occupying two floors; the rest will be leased to commercial tenants. The income produced from rent will be dedicated to operating costs and maintenance.

Since 1972, all Amtrak services in Chicago originate and terminate at Chicago Union Station, fulfilling Burnham’s 1909 vision of all intercity trains using the same station without confusing station transfers, complicated railcar movements, difficult baggage forwarding and complex ticketing previously endured by generations of travelers. Union Station is also the largest of the downtown terminals used by Metra, which is formally known as the Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Rail Corporation. Metra operates commuter rail service between downtown Chicago and 240 stations in northeast Illinois, on 11 routes covering approximately 500 miles of service territory. Six of Metra's 11 routes operate into and out of Union Station with nearly 130,000 Metra passengers passing through the station on an average weekday and more than 42,000 each weekend. Metra’s schedule includes 248 weekday arrivals or departures from Union Station. Weekend service is also provided on four of the six lines.

The five railroads that formed CUSCo have since been absorbed by other lines and no longer exist as independent firms. The names of these founding railroads are remembered on windows between the Canal Street entrances to Union Station and the Great Hall. CUSCo has been wholly owned by Amtrak since May 1984, when the remaining ownership shares were purchased from what are now known as the BNSF and the Canadian Pacific railways.

In May 2012, the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT)—in cooperation with Amtrak, Metra, the Chicago Transit Authority, Illinois Department of Transportation and other stakeholders—released the Chicago Union Station Master Plan Study. The product of extensive research and discussion, the document sets out short term plans to improve Union Station, and also explores mid-range (5-10 years) and long-term (10+ years) visions for the facility. The goals of the master plan include: provide sufficient capacity for significant increases in Metra and intercity passenger train ridership; make the terminal more inviting for passengers; provide more direct and convenient intermodal transfers; and create a terminal that is a vibrant civic asset and a catalyst for growth in the West Loop and region.

All of these planned and proposed projects are viewed as a way to prepare this major hub for additional train frequencies and potential high-speed rail services. A 2009 estimate predicts that the total yearly ridership through Chicago Union Station (both Metra and Amtrak) of 31.6 million passengers will grow by 49 percent to 47.3 million in 2025.

Short-term improvements detailed in the master plan include work already completed or planned by Amtrak and CDOT. In addition to the work on the Great Hall and office space, Amtrak is developing plans to install security bollards at major station entrances and expand the canopy at the Canal Street entryway. Inside, the Metropolitan Lounge—reserved for Sleeping Car passengers—will be moved from the concourse level to the historic headhouse. By moving the Metropolitan Lounge, Amtrak can double the size of the general waiting area which is now crowded at peak travel times. On the surrounding streets, CDOT will improve bus lanes adjacent to the station and provide enhanced bus connections between the station and the rest of the downtown Loop. Directly south of the headhouse, on an existing surface parking lot, CDOT has proposed a new bus terminal referred to as the Union Station Transportation Center. Currently in the design phase, construction on these CDOT projects is expected to begin in late 2013.

The name “Chicago” derives from a word in the language spoken by the Miami and Illinois native peoples meaning “striped skunk,” a word they also applied to the wild leek. This became the Indian name for the Chicago River, in recognition of the presence of wild leeks in the watershed. When early French explorers began adopting the word, with a variety of spellings, in the late 17th century, it came to refer to the site at the mouth of the Chicago River.

The short, swampy portage between the Chicago Rivers and the Des Plaines River—between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River watershed—attracted the attention of French explorers in the 17th century. In 1696, French Jesuits built the Mission of the Guardian Angel in the area to Christianize the native peoples. The first permanent non-native settlement after this was Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable, who built the first trading post on the Chicago River in the 1770s. The land was later ceded to the U.S. for a military outpost, used in the War of 1812. The Potawatomi ceded the land entirely in the 1816 Treaty of St. Louis. On August 12, 1833, the town of Chicago was incorporated, enclosing an area about 3/8 of a square mile. The state of Illinois granted the rapidly growing city its charter on March 4, 1837.

Since its inception, Chicago has been a trade nexus. The opening of the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1848 permitted shipping from the Great Lakes through Chicago to the Mississippi River. The same year, the first rail line to Chicago, the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad, was completed; steam-powered grain elevators were introduced; the telegraph arrived; and the Chicago Board of Trade was founded.

In 1871, most of the city burned in the Great Chicago Fire. The damage from the fire was immense: 300 people died, 18,000 buildings were destroyed, and nearly a third of the residents were left homeless. The fire led to the incorporation of stringent fire-safety codes and a preference for masonry construction. However, the soft, swampy ground near the lake was unsuitable for tall masonry buildings, leading directly to the innovation of using steel frames in buildings and the invention of the skyscraper, making Chicago a leader in architecture and setting the model for achieving vertical city densities nationwide.

Between 1870 and 1900, Chicago grew from a city of 300,000 to nearly 1.7 million, the fastest-growing city ever at the time. The flourishing economy drew new residents from rural communities as well as immigrants from Europe. The city’s retail sectors came to dominate the Midwest and greatly influence the nation’s economy. The Chicago Union Stockyards dominated the meat-packing trade, and the city also became the world’s largest rail hub.

Many of the railroads built west of Chicago had corporate headquarters in the city, as well as their yards and shops. Chicago became a center of manufacture of freight cars, passenger cars (Pullman Company), and later, diesel locomotives (Electro-Motive, in suburban LaGrange). Until the 1960s, the Chicago Loop—the popular name for the Chicago business district located south of the main stem of the Chicago River—contained six major railroad terminals for intercity passenger traffic, as lines ended in Chicago, but did not pass through it. Travelers would often take the necessary layover as an opportunity for sightseeing. Chicago Union Station is the busiest passenger terminal in Chicago and is most intact of the four remaining downtown train stations. Hundreds of thousands of area residents still commute to the Loop by train daily, via Metra’s numerous routes and on the Chicago Transit Authority trains that still circle the central business district on elevated tracks and in two subways on the eight route “L” system.

An early cultural high-point in the city’s history was the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which was constructed on former marshland at the present location of Jackson Park, along Lake Michigan. The land was reclaimed according to a plan by architect Frederick Law Olmstead, and the pavilions, which followed a classical theme, were designed by a committee of the city’s architects under the direction of Daniel Burnham. This occasion was also the beginning of the Chicago School of Architecture, which continued to influence the world up through the middle of the 20th century.

Today, Chicago is the largest city in both Illinois and the Midwest, the third most populous city in the country, and a major transportation hub in the United States. The city is an important component of global trade, as it is the third largest intermodal port in the world after Hong Kong and Singapore. Additionally, it is the only city in North America where six Class I railroads meet, and about one-third of the nation’s freight trains move through Chicago.

Amtrak Blue Water and Pere Marquette are financed primarily through funds made available by the Michigan Department of Transportation. Service on the Lincoln Service, Illinois Zephyr, Carl Sandburg, Illini, and Saluki are financed primarily through funds made available through the Illinois Department of Transportation (Illinois DOT). The Hiawatha Service is financed primarily through funds made available by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, in a partnership with the Illinois DOT. The Hoosier State is financed primarily through funds made available by the Indiana Department of Transportation and communities along the route.

Amtrak provides both ticketing and baggage services at Chicago Union Station station, which is served by 58 daily trains.