Text by James Bow

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On March 30, 2014, the TTC’s Union subway station celebrated its 60th anniversary with little fanfare. It wasn’t alone: eleven other stations on the Toronto subway network have the same opening date. The TTC did not go out of its way to celebrate the diamond jubilee, however, citing limited resources in its budget. Union was about to celebrate in another way, however. At the time of the anniversary, extensive renovations were underway to change the nature of the station into something it had not been for its first sixty years of existence.

In spite of Union subway station’s connection to Toronto’s iconic Union train station immediately to the south, Union subway station had humbler beginnings, and was built with the expectation of far fewer riders than currently use it. Work underway in 2014 will transform Union subway station into a major part of perhaps the biggest transportation hub in the region, serving millions of commuters in the Greater Toronto Area.

Construction Begins

Work on Union subway station began on September 8, 1949 with a ceremony emceed by Monty Hall (later of Let’s Make a Deal fame) and carried live by all local radio stations. At the height of the ceremony, the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, Ray Lawson, climbed inside a pile-driver and pulled the lever which pounded the first soldier beam into place. Workers then took over to continue the job while the official party moved to Royal York Hotel.

Union’s segment of the Yonge subway was built by a cut-and-cover method (illustrated here, where Front Street was dug down several feet before wood decking was placed on top (to allow traffic, including YONGE streetcars, to return while work continued beneath. The station’s concrete box frame was built out in the space between Union Station and the Royal York Hotel. Once the roof was in place, the road above could be filled in and repaved, and workers left to lay down tracks and put the finishing touches ahead of opening.

Cut-and-cover was used in Toronto’s subway construction rather than tunnel boring because it was cheaper, but it limited where stations and tracks could be placed. With downtown properties toe expensive to expropriate, the Toronto Transportation Commission was limited to building beneath Yonge Street and Front Street. This limited the size of the stations, as they either had to fit between the buildings beneath the street allowance, or would have required expensive work to shore up structures while undercutting buildings. The TTC and the City of Toronto would pay for this design decision, although the placement of Union station relative to the train station would make expansion more feasible.

Opening Day

The YONGE SUBWAY opened to great fanfare at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, March 30, 1954. Ontario Premier Leslie Frost addressed crowds at Davisville station, and he and Toronto mayor Allan Lamport pushed the switch that changed the signal that allowed the official first train to pull into the station and pick up the more than 600 invited guests. This train departed Davisville station at 11:50 a.m. and arrived at Union at exactly 12:10 p.m. The guests, along with others from a second overflow train arriving soon after, departed Union for the Royal York Hotel, and Union subway station officially opened to the public at 1:30 p.m. Throughout the afternoon rush hour, crowds of people who had arrived by streetcar came down the stairs to the platform, and took the subway home.

Union station opened as the southern terminus of the YONGE SUBWAY line, and it shared many of the design features of the other eleven stations on the line. The station walls were covered in the same glossy Vitrolite tiles of the other stations, using yellow background tiles (just like the ones at St. Clair, Bloor and Dundas stations), and red lettering and trim (just like the trim at Summerhill and College stations). The station name of UNION was sandblasted into the walls and trim in the TTC’s unique Gill Sans-inspired station font.

Like the other terminal station, Eglinton, Union station had a single centre platform, with tracks on either side. Trains arriving at the station used a crossover east of the station to access one or the other platforms for layover and reversal. Due to the sharp curve that existed between King station and Union, the crossover tracks had to be built at a gentler angle, which meant that normal frogs wouldn’t work at the centre of the crossover diamond. In response, the TTC installed a switch diamond, which could be set for one track or the other, depending on the alignment of the entry switches.

Stairs and an escalator led from the platform to a mezzanine level, where a single fare-collection area greeted patrons. A single stairwell led up to an entrance area with two sets of stairs leading up to the south side of Front Street, just east of the front doors of Union train station.

Union also boasted a direct connection with Union train station immediately to the south. The two stations were linked by a tunnel that began as a ramp near the landing at the bottom of the stairways leading between the station and the south side of Front Street. Passengers would walk down this ramp, and then turn south, proceeding beneath Union Station’s moat, and coming up by a set of stairs and an escalator in what is today’s VIA Rail Arrivals Concourse.

The Needs of the Time

Although the original twelve stations of the Yonge subway have been praised for their functional Modernist sensibilities, there is no doubt that Union station, like the rest of the original Yonge subway, was modestly built. At the time, almost the full cost of the subway’s construction was paid for out of the TTC’s farebox revenues, as opposed to government subsidy. Although $67 million was spent on the construction of the line, the TTC’s resources were limited, and so no money was spent on such ‘frills’ as express tracks or wider platforms.

Further, the needs of Union station at the time were not deemed to be that great. Yes, Union Station was a major destination, serving passenger trains arriving from Montreal, Vancouver, New York and Chicago, but it was not the commuter hub that it became in the 1970s, much less regional transportation node that it is today. Further, Union’s location at Bay and Front put it at the southernmost part of Toronto’s downtown, away from the office buildings of King Street where most commuters needed to go. Front Street was more of a warehouse district, with a single streetcar route linking the station with the Ferry Docks and Toronto’s port lands. Union station was no Eglinton, where the TTC expected most passengers to transfer to suburban buses and trolley buses to continue their journeys home. Union was an appendage of a downtown subway, where most passengers had already gotten off to get to work.

The University Extension

In the years that followed, this assessment seemed to play out accurately, as ridership on Canada’s railways dropped, due to competition from the airplane and the private automobile. Even Union’s status of a terminal station started to be challenged. In the late 1950s, proposals surfaced to extend the YONGE SUBWAY from Union via north on University Avenue to meet a crosstown subway operating along Bloor Street. On November 16, 1959, Ontario Premier Leslie Frost again pulled the lever to officially start construction on the UNIVERSITY SUBWAY, which opened to the public on February 28, 1963.

The opening of the UNIVERSITY SUBWAY meant that the new terminus was St. George station. This station was also approached via a sharp curve, which led the TTC to take up the specialized crossover tracks at Union and re-lay them east of the new terminal. A single crossover was put in its place, however, entered by reversing trains on the north-side (St. George-bound) tracks and exiting onto the south side (Eglinton-bound tracks). This crossover would still be used for occasional short turns. These short turns became much more frequent starting June 23, 1969, when the TTC ended service after 9:45 p.m., Mondays to Saturdays, and all day Sundays and holidays, due to low ridership on the UNIVERSITY line. This arrangement continued until the opening of the SPADINA SUBWAY on January 28, 1978.

The UNIVERSITY line also featured a pocket track between St. Andrew and Union stations, accessible from both service tracks from both stations, and useful both as a crossover, and to store a train out of service until it is needed on the line. The TTC would make use of this track especially during the 1980s, to close gaps during rush hours, and to stage trains ahead of crowds leaving the Skydome after major events.

Connections with Union and the Underground City

In the late 1960s, the growth Toronto’s downtown core and its redevelopment of its industrial areas for commercial use increased ridership at Union subway station. This was bolstered by the arrival of GO Transit, and the increasing importance of regional commuter rail service at the train station. Ironically, it was at this time that Union subway station’s very existence came into doubt. Proposed redevelopments of the railway lands south of Front Street, including a massive office and residential tower development called “Metro Centre” called for the replacement of the iconic Union train station with a modest modern structure located beneath a shopping mall. The Metro Centre proposal also called for the extension of the YONGE and UNIVERSITY subways south, to meet at a station located beneath Queen’s Quay. Union subway station would be replaced by two stops, one on Yonge and the other on York, where the two streets intersected with Front.

The Metro Centre development was renounced following grassroots opposition electing a new city council in 1972, leading to the declaration of Union train station as a national historic site. However, the downtown core of Toronto was changing, with office buildings replacing older warehouses south of Wellington, and Union subway station was bound to change along with it. In 1977, the TTC and the developers of the Royal Bank tower revised Union Station to provide an underground link to the towering office building. The entrance connected to the burgeoning network city of tunnels connecting the buildings of Toronto’s financial district (originally bearing the unofficial name of “the Underground City”, this was officially renamed the PATH Network in 1990).

It was at this time that an improved connection was built between Union subway station and the train station further south, providing a more convenient access to the new GO Train concourse. This required the fare-collection area in the mezzanine of Union station to be revised and split in two, to allow pedestrian traffic to pass through the station from the new GO Transit concourse to the office towers to the north.

At this time, the original tunnel connecting the two stations was blocked off from use, and largely forgotten. The tunnel remained in place, accessible through locked doors by authorized personnel and the occasional urban explorer. It wouldn’t be until the reconstruction of Union Station in 2010 that this tunnel was dug out and built over, vanishing it into history.

Eighties Renovations and Increased Traffic

In the early 1980s, proposals surfaced to handle the increased traffic on Toronto’s subway network that could have had a significant impact on Union subway station. As the YONGE SUBWAY reached its operating capacity (especially at the Bloor-Yonge interchange), planners for the TTC and Metropolitan Toronto proposed the construction of a Downtown Relief subway line, from Pape station south to Eastern Avenue and west along Front to Spadina, providing additional service downtown, and allowing Scarborough commuters to bypass the busy Bloor-Yonge interchange.

No actual designs have surfaced showing how such an interchange would work (although one report suggested the line could use ICTS technology, as on the Scarborough RT, and operate as an elevated line overtop Front Street), the TTC acknowledged that such an interchange was a massive undertaking, leading the proposal writers to suggest taking the Downtown Relief Line beneath Wellington Street instead, building connecting tunnels from the new stations not only to Union, but to King and St. Andrew stations.

While this was happening, Union itself needed renovations. The station was now over thirty years old. The original Vitrolite tiles were cracking, and the product itself had been discontinued. As it had with other stations on the YONGE SUBWAY line (save for Eglinton), the TTC renovated Union Station to replace the yellow vitrolite tiles with brown ceramic tiles and vinyl siding (reminiscent of the renovations that took place at St. Andrew and Osgoode stations). The unique TTC subway station font was replaced with Univers, as was fashion with the TTC at the time.

Throughout the 1980s, Metropolitan Toronto continued to work on ways to redevelop the railway lands, and to reconnect Toronto to its lakefront. In 1985, Metropolitan council approved construction of what it called the HARBOURFRONT LRT (really an adaptation of Toronto’s streetcars to operate on private right-of-way) running between Union Station to Queens Quay and Spadina. The centrepiece of this project was a tunnel beneath Bay Street, bringing streetcars from Queen’s Quay to a loading platform connected to Union subway station. After some delay, partly associated with concerns over the locations of emergency exits at Union station, the line opened to the public on June 24, 1990.

The Union streetcar platform was accessed from the eastern fare collection area at Union’s mezzanine level, via a flight of stairs leading to a tunnel running immediately south of the south-side subway tracks before turning south to meet the streetcar platform, built between support columns in the bottom level of Union’s train station. The tight turning curve made for an awkwardly designed platform, with much of the floor space blocked off from passengers to account for the wide swing of turning streetcars. The tile work on this platform bears no resemblance to the architectural style of the subway station, featuring a blue-green colour scheme, although Univers is used on the station name font.

The streetcar platform underwent further changes to address design concerns, and also the changing nature of the HARBOURFRONT streetcar. Fences were erected along the pedestrian tunnel and the platform divided in two, to separate incoming passengers from departing passengers. Fareboxes were set up at the base of the stairs to allow fare inspectors to take TTC fares during those months when the TTC operated free service along the Harbourfront line. On June 22, 1996, when the rest of Union subway station was rendered wheelchair accessible through the construction of elevators between the mezzanine level and the subway platform, a similar elevator was installed in the stairwell between the mezzanine and the streetcar platform, even though it would be nearly twenty years before accessible streetcars would arrive.

Growing Capacity Concerns

By the 1990s, Union subway station’s capacity issues were becoming clear and pressing. With the expansion of Toronto’s downtown, the revitalization of Toronto’s railway lands, and increasing ridership on GO Transit, the station was the fourth-busiest on the network (behind Bloor-Yonge, St. George and Finch — it would later pass Finch), and it was using the same basic layout as when it opened in 1954. The TTC noted that this was a potentially hazardous crowding situation. The use of gap trains, or rerouting Skydome crowds to St. Andrew station could only go so far. The fact was that Union subway station was just too small to handle the demands that were being placed on it, and were likely to be placed on it in the future.

It was at this time that proposals surfaced to expand the capacity of Union station by expanding platform space. As Union had a centre platform, this meant building platforms from scratch on the opposite sides of the subway tracks. The TTC briefly considered adding two platforms, one each on the north and south sides of Union subway station (which would allow for passengers getting off at the station to detrain onto a different platform than those passengers getting on), at a cost of $100 million. The cost of building a single platform south of the south side track was more feasible and less expensive (budgeted at $40 million at the time), as it could be done by digging down from the moat that existed between the south sidewalk of Front Street and Union train station itself (the north side platform would have required shoring up the Royal York Hotel). This arrangement would allow YONGE and UNIVERSITY-bound trains their own separate platforms, effectively doubling the capacity of the station.

The Mammoth Renovation Begins.

In the late 1990s, Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman took up the cause of funding improvements for Union Station. On November 3, 1999, he stood next to Ontario Premier Mike Harris and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien to announce funding for a major initiative to redevelop Toronto’s waterfront. In November 2001, this initiative gave birth to Waterfront Toronto, a public entity charged with guiding and jumpstarting development on Queen’s Quay East and Toronto Port Lands. Funded by all three levels of government, Waterfront Toronto was able to provide funding to the TTC to pay for the construction of a second platform at Union subway station.

Building a major new piece of infrastructure in between a busy subway station and a busy commuter rail station while maintaining access to both proved to be a major engineering challenge. Coordinating work with the renovations and upgrades to Union train station next door proved an even bigger hurdle. Work on the second platform began in 2006, but was largely confined to relocating utilities in and around the moat between Union train station and Front Street. It wasn’t until February 2011 that construction began in earnest, blocking access to stairs and portions of the moat between the railway station and Front Street.

In July 2012, streetcar service into Union Station was suspended, replaced by bus service linking Union Station to the Canadian National Exhibition, due to track reconstruction on Queen’s Quay. Delays, plus work on Union station ensured that streetcar service was not restored as planned in the Spring of 2013. By the summer of 2013, the area from the Front Street median to much of Union Station’s moat had been excavated down several levels. The train station’s connection to Brookfield Place was closed, as was the subway station’s automatic entrance; passengers coming to Union Station from Brookfield Place now had to use the tunnel to the Royal Bank Plaza.

However, once the dig down was complete, work proceeded quickly. The wall on the south side of Union subway station was removed, replaced by a temporary structure to protect workers laying down the floors and the stairwells. The station would shut down on a number of weekends through 2013 and 2014 to help speed work along. Union station became a chaotic construction site, but at least passengers could see that progress was being made.

Relief at Last!

At 2 a.m. on Saturday, August 16, the last YONGE-bound train closed its doors on the centre platform of Union. Crews worked overnight to install fencing to block access from the centre platform to the YONGE line tracks. For the rest of the weekend, subway service was suspended between St. Andrew and Union stations, with YONGE trains turning around on the University platform, while work crews dismantled the barriers, cleaned up the construction hoarding, and generally prepared the new platform for its grand opening in the early morning hours of Monday, August 18. Overnight, platform capacity at the station doubled, significantly easing crowding problems, in spite of the fact that construction wasn’t over.

The second platform boasted not just space, but extra wide stairwells, dual escalators, and elevators to help facilitate the movement of large numbers of people. Grey tiles and high-powered LEDs brightened the platform area considerably. Station signage was set up, conforming to the new signage standards established by the TTC months before and put up at Bloor-Yonge station, but the UNION station name returned to its original subway font.

The new platform won positive reviews, according to on-camera interviews conducted by the local media, but there was still work to be done. The next phase of the project — the revitalizing of the old centre (now UNIVERSITY line) platform, was still to take place. The UNIVERSITY line platform would have its stairwells expanded, or moved back, to expand platform space. The temporary barrier blocking access to YONGE trains would be replaced by a 500 foot long glass art installation called Zones of Immersion by artist Stuart Reid. Work to finish the connection to the streetcar platform, along with additional work on the streetcar tracks at Queen’s Quay, meant that the connection (now a level tunnel opening directly onto the YONGE line platform) would not open until October 2014.

The Future of Union Subway Station

As Union subway station turned sixty years old, work was well underway on a multi-million dollar revitalization project designed to significantly expand its carrying capacity, allowing it to serve its needs for decades to come. It has taken several years of planning and at least three years of construction chaos to achieve this. Once construction is complete, and everything cleaned up, many riders may hope that this will be all the work that Union will need for the foreseeable future. That may not be the case.

The area south of Union Station is continuing to redevelop. The City of Toronto is also pursuing significant growth and redevelopment of its Port Lands and the rest of its waterfront. To serve this, the city plans to add a number of transit improvements, including streetcar lines along Queen’s Quay East and possibly Bremner Boulevard, all converging on Union Station. Due to a lack of funding and insufficient coordination, proposed work to expand the streetcar platform to handle multiple routes was not undertaken while the second subway platform was built. If such a project were to go forward now, it would certainly close the streetcar platform once again.

The PATH Network is also expanding, with the city building a tunnel beneath York Street from Front to Wellington, and Brookfield adding a pedestrian bridge connecting Union Station to a new development at the corner of Bay and Queen’s Quay. These will increase the pressure on Union Station, to the point that further changes may occur.

But the station has received a considerable boost and has grown far from its humble beginnings at the southern end of Toronto’s lone subway line. It has become a major gateway into the city, and its architecture has been upgraded to match.

Service Notes (as of January 3, 2016):

  • See also the official TTC Page
  • Address: 55 Front Street West
  • Opened: March 30, 1954
  • Average Weekday Ridership: 125,220 (2014); 99,960 (2013)
  • Hours of Operation:
    First Train to Finch: 5:59 a.m. weekdays, 6:01 a.m. Saturdays/holidays, 8:09 a.m. Sundays.
    Last Train to Finch: 1:43 a.m. every day.
    First Train to Downsview: 6:03 a.m. weekdays, 6:11 a.m. Saturdays/holidays, 8:13 a.m. Sundays.
    Last Train to Downsview: 1:42 a.m. every day.
  • Entrances:
    • From PATH Network, Royal Bank Plaza (accessible)
    • From Path Network, Brookfield Place (automatic entrance, non accessible)
    • From concourse level to GO Train level of Union Train Station (non accessible)
    • Pedestrian Moat Entrance (accessible)
    • Sidewalk entrance from Front Street West south side, just west of Bay Street (non accessible)
  • Wheelchair Accessible: Since June 22, 1996
  • Elevators (click here for maintenance schedule):
    • Yonge platform to Concourse
    • University platform to Concourse
    • Street (Union Train Station/GO Transit) - to Brookfield Place. (Non-TTC elevator)
  • Escalators (click here for maintenance schedule):
    • Centre - University Platform To Concourse (Up at all times)
    • East End - University Platform To Concourse (Up at all times)
    • Yonge Platform to Concourse (2)
  • Parking: None
  • No in-station washrooms
  • Token vending machine
  • Pass vending machine
  • Two side platforms (as of August 18, 2014)

Regional Connections:

  • GO Transit
  • Porter Airlines shuttle to Toronto Island Airport
  • VIA Rail

TTC Surface Route Connections:

Union Station Image Archive

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About this Page

This page contains a chronological history of the Union bus route.

McCowan was the previous history in this collection.

Museum is the next history in this collection.

To see a list of all available bus route histories, you can return to this page or you can return to this page for an overview of all available TTC bus related articles, or the main page for news and other articles in Transit Toronto.