Few buildings have as much history as a gathering, and travel point, for Canadians heading in all directions over the festive season. With a sky-high ceiling, polished stone pillars and giant hall melding into a modern train and bus hub, the downtown transit Grande Dame takes on a vibrant new atmosphere this time of year. For GO Transit and UP Express customers, as well as other travellers, it’s a destination, as much as part of the holiday journey. Here’s what’s happening inside, and just outside, Union Station.
Shouldering up next to the constant flow of downtown cabs, delivery trucks and vehicles poised for drop-offs and pick-ups, as well as the looming presence of Canada’s best known train station, the porter stands in Toronto’s December cold.
Decked in his best antiquated train porter outfit, and required formal manner, he’s your first guide to the holidays at Toronto’s Union Station.
The grand transit hub has been a meeting and travel portal for generations of Canadians. And during this time of year, it takes on a new atmosphere as a holiday destination.
The porter, in character as ‘Bruce Caboose’, but whose real name is Daniel Bowen, is perhaps the first festive face you’ll now see at Union Station. He greets visitors as they approach Union Station, right on Front Street, between Bay Street and York Street.
A bit like the conductor from the legendary ‘Polar Express’ book and movie – splendid in his black button-up coat and train conductor hat – he guides visitors toward free Union Station skate rentals and a temporary rink built outside.
“All of the city’s hustle and bustle pauses for a moment on our little frozen pond nestled in between Canada’s oldest train station and the legendary Royal York Hotel,” says Bowen.
When Go and UP Express travellers head inside to warm up, they immediately feel the timelessness of Union Station’s Great Hall while tides of travellers hurry to and from work and home.
There’s the sound of a grand piano playing in the distance and perhaps even the crinkling of wrapping paper as the Union Holiday gift wrapping elves – a TD Bank sponsored free service – work their magic.
Some things have changed in the last century – new concourses, multiple places to get a coffee, and even, this year, a large Christmas tree made entirely out of recycled cardboard. The sculpture, dubbed the ‘Tomorrow Tree’ was made by an artist from Montreal as a way to lift people’s spirits without taking down an actual living tree.
But some things have remained constant over the decades of holidays inside Union Station. It has always played host to travellers clutching bags of holiday gifts. These days, they can be headed across the Golden Horseshoe Region using GO, as well as far, as they board UP Express headed to Pearson International Airport as well as aboard VIA trains.
More than 300,000 people pass through the station every day. Even those who make the journey most days of the week, season after season, likely feel a shift in atmosphere at this time of year.
There’s a temporary market stall, built in the concourse just west of the Great Hall, selling festive panettone cakes fresh from Milan, and a whole line of jams made from local ingredients like wild blueberries and fragrant cedar tips. Shoppers gather around, to sample exotic fare, while picking out potential gifts.
Nearby, a self-playing piano does a rendition of Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’, as travellers stand next to it, taking selfies.
Members of the famed Canadian Opera Company are also scheduled to perform to a lunch hour crowd on December 13.
Nearly a century after opening its doors, people are still boarding trains on the same platforms as Union Station remains Toronto’s heart and soul of travel this side of the North Pole.
Waiting in the cold outside, there’s now a porter on sentry duty, offering travellers an introduction to Union Station’s festive warmth.
While we have you here… Did you see our latest story on the progress at Union Station’s Bay Concourse? If not, it’s worth a visit. See the story here.
Story by Scott Money, Metrolinx media relations advisor.