Chicago Union Station Master Plan Public Meeting December 15 2011

I hadn’t planned on attending the Chicago Union Station Master Plan Public Meeting on December 15 2011. Several days before the meeting I was sent an email from Midwest High Speed Rail Association alerting me to this event. I had completely blanked on the fact that I would be in Chicago with my girlfriend who was attending a conference. She mentioned the public meeting when we arrived. This gathering was scheduled for the day we would be heading back home.

Since we were scheduled for a late Amtrak departure I had some time to take pictures of Union Station and to attend the master plan meeting. I took some photos while hauling my luggage around then headed towards the lockers located in the boarding area. For once these lockers actually took a credit card and worked without much hassle. Although the touch screens are still slow and a source of aggravation. After securing my luggage I headed back out to the Main Hall.

It took a little time to locate the event room. Signs were all over Union Station announcing the meeting. A vendors market for the Christmas holiday made it slightly harder to find Union Gallery. When I found the room I skipped past the sign in process. Wasn’t really in the mood to engage anyone in conversation. I just wanted to get in take some pictures and head back to the Amtrak passenger area. The quality of the pictures sort of shows this. Since the room had low light I chosen a camera setting that normally gives decent results with that. Unfortunately it also seems to introduce a bit of grain to the photos.

Unfortunately the makeup of attendees turned out to be exactly what I figured it would be. When walking in I didn’t see any Amtrak passengers or Chicago commuters. The room was filled with suits and people who all either worked together or knew each other. Seemed everyone who had some interest in the project except those who use the facility were present.

In the middle of taking pictures an older gentleman in a suit did come up to me & let me know all the displays were on the website in a PDF. Within that PDF you will find clear representations of what is pictured above and on the next page. Since I was meeting my girlfriend around 5PM I didn’t have time to stay for the presentation. I took pictures quickly and left to head back to Amtrak’s passenger waiting area.

Chicago Union Station is long overdue for a refurbishment. Even though it is listed within the National Register of Historic Railroad Landmarks – the building looks really worn down in many places. On the plus side at least it isn’t sitting empty rotting and decaying like many old railroad terminals and once grand stations. Taking a trip on an Amtrak cross country route you will see many of these. Since I can’t find a website for the National Register of Historic Railroad Landmarks I’m unsure if any protections come with that “status”.

I’d venture a guess in most cases it’s cheaper to build a new facility than to refurbish / upgrade an older one. With a walk around Chicago Union Station it’s easy to see things that have been neglected. Then again most of the locals never stop long enough to have a look. They are to busy trying to run down Amtrak passengers to get to the Metra or a beer vendor before getting on with their commute. Behavior of the local population during rush hour is a real turn off to this station. Locals are pushy, run you down at any cost, impolite general jerks. Since the areas they are expected to travel are narrow and cluttered it only makes things much worse. Grabbing a bite to eat during these times of day is less than pleasant or even safe. I base my opinion on this from multiple visits – most recent being a week ago.

On my most recent trip I didn’t see or run into the female panhandler that normally works the crowds within Union Station food court. Not sure if she has been moved on, taking a day off or her situation has changed.

The bathroom situation within Union Station Chicago borders on a joke – actually close to criminal. One very small restroom area for 1000’s of Amtrak passengers. There is another very small restroom located within the Metropolitan Lounge for those fortunate enough to be able to afford sleeper arrangements. Upstairs in the food court area also has small public restrooms. Way to small to serve the large number of customers who patronize this station daily. On my recent trip the downstairs bathroom was closed for cleaning. When I headed upstairs I was treated to the smell of something burning. Inside the handicap stall you could clearly see where someone had recently set fire to the large toilet paper dispenser. Although you see cleaning crews for these facilities they always seem really dirty. Or after being cleaned the floors are all wet from the mops. Not in anyway inviting to passengers. These conditions just add to the appearance that no one is taking proper care of the station.

During all my visits to Union Station Chicago I have never sat within the Main Hall to wait for my train. While this location actually offers less cluttered seating it’s to far away from the Amtrak gates. I don’t recall hearing boarding announcements played within that area either. Rarely do I see Amtrak passengers seated in the Main Hall. It’s normally locals and homeless people trying to stay out of the elements. During the Winter months I’ve seen long yellow “plastic” tubes bringing heat to this large open space. Heating and cooling all of Union Station is something that needs improved.

Within the most popular Amtrak passenger waiting area heating & cooling is hit and miss. I’ve seen during Winter months where the priority seating glass doors are left open. This allows all the freezing cold from the train track area to enter into the passenger waiting section. Definitely not taking guest comfort into account. The Metropolitan Lounge was warm during the Winter as long as you didn’t sit close to the passenger exit door. Same can’t be said for the long walk outside by the unused track to head out to the train to your sleeper. I haven’t done this walk during Summer months but is was miserable earlier this year in the Winter. Business class ticket holders not being given access to Chicago Metropolitan Lounge really annoys me. Seating in the Metropolitan Lounge is much more comfortable when you can get it, you have Wi-Fi access and a better chance of finding a power outlet.

Loading and unloading of passengers from trains in a somewhat open area also makes for a fairly miserable trip. If you were lucky enough to ride in a car with proper heating / cooling when you disembark you’re forced right into the elements of heat or cold. Amtrak Lincoln Service business class is notorious for being freezing cold during Winter months. Exiting from this into cold weather just makes the trip even more aggravating. Add to this the smell of diesel & other interesting odors along with passenger congestion and you have a not so nice trip. Common walkways are almost always freezing in Winter miserably hot in Summer.

Depending on the time of day congestion is all around Union Station Chicago. In the main passenger seating you can have lines all the way around to the restrooms at peak departure times. Some of this is caused by priority seating not being used for 65 & older, people with kids and business class. Even though this area exist it is rarely used. If it is – may times it’s only a little bit before departure. Loading procedure seems to vary depending on who is running the show that day. Over my many visits to this terminal there is no consistency in procedure – much like riding an Amtrak train. Depending on the crew the experience can vary greatly from awesome to horrible. Each crew does things differently. Either way the long lines and congestion make for a less than pleasant passenger experience.

Most of Union Station just feels and looks dirty. Cleaning crews are seen but I’m not sure what they are doing. Passenger waiting areas always have a grimy appearance. The cleaner priority seating is hardly ever put to use. Then again if they leave the glass doors open letting weather in – sitting in there would be miserable.

It could just be me – but on your first visit to this station it’s hard to get your bearings. Yes after a visit or two you figure out it’s basically all one big circle. But signage leading you to where you need to go is lacking. Finding the food court on your first visit is a pain – add to that being attacked by locals in a hurry and your trip becomes frustrating. Finding signage pointing you where to pickup a cab isn’t easily found. It’s the basics that make a trip relaxing or absolutely aggravating.

Union Station Chicago is a treasure that should be preserved. But it is definitely in need of some modern updates and greater consideration in regards to passenger comforts. The storage lockers all need revamped / updated – can’t count the number of times I’ve seen customers calling for help in regards to these machines. According to my reading it hasn’t been that long since this historic building got it’s last update. To me it looks long overdue for some serious TLC and upgrading.

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