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Wayfinding Systems: Uniting Union Station

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Photos courtesy Entro

By Peter Saunders
More than six years in the planning, the installation of new wayfinding signs in Toronto’s iconic Union Station—Canada’s busiest transportation hub, with an average of more than 250,000 people passing through every day—finally began this summer. The sign system is a unifying part of the facility’s major revitalization, which began with preliminary architectural designs in 2007 and should be substantially completed by 2018.

Overdue for expansion
Union Station’s construction was commissioned by Canadian Pacific (CP) Railway and Grand Trunk Railways. The building opened in 1927 and was designated a national historic site in 1975, named a heritage railway station in 1989 and inducted into the North America Railway Hall of Fame in 1999.

Today, under the ownership of Toronto’s municipal government and provincial crown agency Metrolinx’s GO Transit system, named for the Government of Ontario (GO), it is a bustling nexus of three major rail systems: GO’s regional commuter train network, Via Rail Canada’s intercity passenger train services and the Toronto Transit Commission’s (TTC’s) adjoining Yonge-University-Spadina subway line. GO’s passenger numbers are expected to double over the next 20 years as services are expanded; 50 per cent of all Via passengers use the station; and it is the fourth busiest station within the TTC system.

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The station’s expanded York Street Concourse opened earlier this year.

Union Station also facilitates a recently revitalized, dedicated right-of-way TTC streetcar line along Toronto’s Queens Quay (connecting to GO’s Exhibition Station), the Maple Leaf train line to the U.S. (jointly operated by Via and Amtrak) and the new Union-Pearson (UP) Express train, which accelerates trips to Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.

With all of these services and a direct connection to a GO bus terminal, Union Station already handles twice as many passengers annually as Pearson, which is Canada’s largest and busiest airport. Unlike that airport’s terminals, however, Union Station has not grown to accommodate its increasing ridership levels. It has also recently showed signs of its age, including leaky roofs, peeling paint and cracked floors.

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These problems are finally being remedied with the ongoing Union Station revitalization, which is adding new platforms, concourses, staircases, escalators, elevators, bicycle racks and access points, restoring historic lounges, offices and restrooms and, according to Metrolinx, expanding the gross floor area from 76,366 m2 (822,000 sf) to 86,957 m2 (936,000 sf), GO’s concourses from 2,787 m2 (30,000 sf) to 10,219 m2 (110,000 sf) and the station’s commercial retail space from 3,252 m2 (35,000 sf) to 15,329 m2 (165,000 sf). One major challenge has been the need to keep the station open 24-7 during these changes.

A rare opportunity
With the revitalization of Union Station has come a rare chance to rethink signage around and throughout the multi-use facility. Previously, signs were implemented in scattershot fashion by individual parties, rather than with a unified vision.

Perhaps most tellingly, the station was utterly lacking in large-scale identity signage; for regular passengers, it was simply recognizable by its architecture and reached by way of its various tenants’ own logos and directional signs.

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The use of white Clearview text and symbols on a dark background provides a contrast level greater than 70 per cent.

Toronto-based environmental graphic design (EGD) firm Entro was hired in 2009 by Neish, Owen, Rowland & Roy (NORR) Limited Architects & Engineers—which designed the renovated facility—and the Redcliff Realty Group—which will manage its new commercial retail spaces—to develop a comprehensive signage program for the main building, transit concourses, shopping/eating areas and exterior. In the architectural vision for the expanded station, full of open, airy and bright indoor spaces, Entro’s team of designers seized the opportunity to integrate clean lines and uncluttered graphics into the building for clearer navigation and, outside, to finally brand the station with its own identity signage.

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