L.A. Union Station Needs A Concourse That Puts Passengers First

Does the new upgraded Union Station really need to depend on lots of elevators? Capture from Metro LinkUS above grade concourse video
Does the new upgraded Union Station really need to depend on lots of elevators? Capture from Metro LinkUS above grade concourse video

Last month I was sitting in the air-conditioned Metro boardroom taking notes at the meeting of the Planning and Programming Committee. Staff was presenting on the planned Union Station run-through tracks; a $2.75 billion project called LinkUS. The presentation included a fly-through video swooping through a newly-designed alternative for an above-grade concourse.

As I was watching the video the first time, I admit that I thought it looked pretty cool: all glass, sky and views of the city. I tweeted out that it looked like a new airport.

Metro staff seemed pretty proud of the new idea, but made it clear that in the environmental clearance process they would still be evaluating both the at-grade and the above-grade concourse concepts. Committee chair Jacquelyn Dupont-Walker was vocal in her praise of the “very promising” above-grade concourse concept for its “wonderful views,” reduced construction cost, and reduced construction impacts to existing service.

I quickly shared the new concourse concept at Streetsblog. The video and renderings made the rounds at Urbanize, Curbed, Archinect, and Metro’s The Source.

Glassy and above grade is cheaper and sexier. What’s not to like?

Metro’s own evaluation shows the at-grade concourse would be more convenient for riders. At grade is more expensive to build, but cheaper to maintain. Initial coverage at Urbanize was critical of an above-grade concourse’s station circulation impacts:

Aside from financial considerations, the above-grade option would have significant impacts on transit riders and other visitors to the station. The diagram depicts a massive structure that would hamper movement between the East Plaza and Historic Union Station, requiring passengers to ascend and descend to get from one side to the other. It would also contribute to an already-existing problem of vertical circulation at Union Station.

Today, there are four levels to the hub: the subway, the mezzanine, ground level, and the railyard. To this, the above-grade concourse option would add two more: the elevated railyard for regional rail (the light rail stations would remain at their present level), and the passenger concourse itself on top. Centralizing connections on this top floor would lengthen the transfer time required for almost all patrons.

Commenters at Streetsblog were also very critical, including this response from the author of the excellent Systemic Failure blog:

Wow, that above-grade-concourse concept is really horrible. In the comparison chart, it explicitly states that it would increase walking distance, require more vertical travel, have higher operating costs, and reduce square footage available for station amenities. So why is it even being considered — for the views!?

Then the reality of the design really sunk in for me.

When I am making connections at Union Station, do I want them to be any less direct than they already are? Unlike all those unencumbered pedestrians in the video, when I am in a hurry rushing to get from the Red Line subway up to catch my Amtrak, I often have luggage, a bicycle, and my 4-year-old daughter in tow. I don’t need to wait for an elevator. I don’t need to go up and down extra levels. I need as direct a transfer as possible.

(See also CiclaValley’s recent coverage of Metro’s brand new on-the-fritz North Hollywood elevator and escalator if you think the new Union Station lifts will be working all the time.)

My advice to Metro: The LinkUS project presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make the great Union Station even greater. Run-through tracks will greatly streamline operations, helping connect riders to destinations near and far. Keep the rider experience at the center of plan and designs. To keep and grow ridership, make transit connections as easy and convenient as possible. Skip the above grade concourse.

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  • terryhamilton

    The above grade concourse for Union Station is beautiful. BUT, it is two steps backward for passengers. Currently there are NO steps for passengers – just ramps to get to the trains. This is very convenient for passengers with luggage. It is already a pain to transfer from the Gold Line with the stairs and crowded elevators. Going from Metro Red and Purple lines would require at least four fights of stairs or escalators/elevators. This assumes that the escalators will always be working. Not to be completely negative, I have a solution. RAMPS. Check out the Casino building in Avalon. William Wrigley wanted to get hundreds of patrons to and from the top floor ballroom. His solution? Copy the ramps used at Wrigley Field in Chicago. They work! AND luggage is easily accommodated. Moving ramps would work even better.

  • Joseph E

    Exactly! I submitted my comments at the link.

  • Marcotico

    “My advice to Metro: The LinkUS project presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make the great Union Station even greater. ”

    Actually a once in multiple lifetimes opportunity. It’s hard for us to think about infrastructure as lasting for centuries, but if you go to Europe you see that choices influence the future for hundreds of years.

  • Vooch


    but making passengers spend 5 minutes walking is not how to make rail a success

  • D Man

    Ever been to Europe? Go there, check out their train stations and subway connections and get back to us.

  • Vreg

    I’ve been to Europe, but it’s not clear to me what’s wrong with the ramps suggestion. Do you mind giving a little more detail about what lessons European train and subway stations have for ramps?

  • Jefftown37

    Reminds me a bit of the vertical differences and long walking distances when catching a train at ARTIC, but of a greater magnitude.

    On intercity bus service: I believe Bolt and Megabus both use Union Station (or vicinity), but it’s been over 10 years since I took Greyhound to LA. I think they are still on 7th St.; is Greyhound service expected to be integrated into the new station?

  • Claude

    It reminded me of a transfer I did at Narita airport outside of Tokyo.
    Up two or three levels of escalator, down a level or two, up again, then out to the bus court while I tried to find where I was supposed to go and where I missed my turnoff.
    Short, straight and simple wins it for me.


Metro will study an above-grade concourse as part of its LinkUS project. Image via Metro

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Preliminary rendering of future double-deck light rail tracks at Union Station, with the Gold Line below the future West Santa Ana Branch rail. Image via Metro staff presentation

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