Architecture Canada History Intercity Rail

You can’t get there from here: Union Station’s lost cities

Union Station’s Great Hall, looking east

Union Station’s Great Hall is one of Toronto’s great indoor spaces. The station was constructed during Toronto’s first great building boom, in an era that began with E.J. Lennox’s Old City Hall (completed in 1899), and concluded with the completion of the Bank of Commerce Building, opened in 1931.

Work on Union Station, built for the Grand Trunk Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway, began in 1914, with the grand headhouse completed in 1920, construction delayed by the First World War.

Foreshadowing the long-delayed station renovations that are still ongoing, work on the elevated tracks and platforms connecting to the new station took nine more years, though a lavish official opening took place on August 6, 1927. By then, the Grand Trunk Railway was fully absorbed by Canadian National Railways (now CN).

Toronto’s Union Station became Canada’s busiest and most important railway hub, with direct trains to cities throughout six provinces and six American states, with through sleeper cars to even more US destinations via Buffalo. Though Montreal was Canada’s largest city until the early 1970s, CN and CP operated out of separate terminals.

Up high, the names of 27 Canadian cities are carved into the walls. On the north side are the names of cities that were served primarily by the Canadian National Railway (the former Grand Trunk, Grand Trunk Pacific, National Transcontinental, Canadian Northern, and Intercolonial Railways, as existed in 1914-1918); on the south, were the names of cities served primarily by the Canadian Pacific Railway.

On the north side, from west to east, the cities read:

Prince Rupert – Edmonton – Saskatoon – Winnipeg – Port Arthur – North Bay – Sarnia – London – Toronto – Ottawa – Sherbrooke – Levis – Moncton – Halifax

Ottawa – Sherbrooke – Levis – Moncton – Halifax, on the northeast corner of Union Station’s Great Hall

On the south side, from east to west, the city names read:

St. John [NB] – Fredericton – Quebec – Montreal – Hamilton – Windsor – Sault St. Marie [sic] – Sudbury – Fort William – Regina – Moose Jaw – Calgary – Vancouver

Montreal – Hamilton – Windsor – Sault St.-Marie – Sudbury – Fort William — names of cities over the entrance to the train concourse

Many, but not all, cities had direct train service from Union Station; the rest required a change of train at Montreal for points east, Sudbury for Sault Ste. Marie, or Jasper, Alberta, for Prince Rupert.

As rail passenger services declined after the Second World War, the number of destinations reachable from Union Station declined. Fredericton lost its rail service in the 1960s, with buses connecting it with the CPR Montreal-Saint John train. (A VIA-operated RDC restored service between Fredericton and Saint John for a few years in the 1980s.) Sault Ste. Marie lost its RDC service to Sudbury in early 1977, though an intrepid traveler could technically still get to Sault Ste. Marie by rail until 2014, by taking a VIA train to Franz or Oba, and then waiting for many hours in remote Northern Ontario for a southbound Algoma Central Train.

But it wasn’t until 1990, due to severe cuts made by Brian Mulroney’s PC government, that daily passenger service across the country came to an end. No longer could a rail passenger reach Calgary, Moose Jaw, Regina, or Thunder Bay (Fort William) by train. In 1994, with the rerouting of all Montreal-Halifax trains to the CN route though Lévis and Campbellton, stations in Sherbrooke and Saint John lost their remaining service. In 1998, CN abandoned its tracks through central Lévis, requiring the Ocean to be rerouted away from the ferry connection to Québec City. And in 2012, the Ontario government ordered the end to the Northlander, which ran through North Bay to Cochrane.

Today, just 14 of the 26 destinations proclaimed on the walls of Toronto’s Union Station can be reached by train. In Fredericton, there are not even any rails remaining.

Despite the decline in medium and long-distance passenger rail services in North America, Toronto’s Union Station is more relevant than ever. GO Transit began operating in 1967, and expanded throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Now, thanks to its role as hub for commuter and regional rail, regional and intercity buses, local transit, and the rail link to Canada’s busiest airport, Union Station became busier than ever. Today, most passengers are headed to places like Aurora, Mississauga, Pickering, or Burlington, despite the promises of far-flung destinations etched on the Great Hall’s walls.

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