Welcome aboard as we journey through Canada’s iconic train stations. These hubs where history, architecture, and modern sustainability initiatives converge, can give one the paradoxical sense of traveling both forward and backward in time. From the beaux-arts elegance of Winnipeg’s Union Station to the rustic charm of Banff’s depot, these stations are cultural landmarks. Additionally, they represent functional transit infrastructure and eco-consciousness. Join us as we take to the tracks and explore Canada’s five most beautiful train stations.
Union Station, Toronto
Over 72 million passengers pass through Union Station in Toronto annually. This make it the second-busiest railway station in North America, trailing only New York’s Penn Station. And like Penn Station, it can sometimes feel like a city-within-a-city.
Ownership and Operation
Owned by the City of Toronto and operated by the Toronto Terminals Railway, a joint venture between Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway, Union Station demonstrates the effectiveness of public-private partnerships. When it officially opened its doors in 1927, this iconic station served as the gateway for countless immigrants. Moreover, it has endured the test of time, including surviving the Great Fire of 1904.
Beaux-Arts Architecture and Design Elements
Designated a national historic site since 1975, Union Station is the finest example of beaux-arts railway design in the country. Its architecture serves as a historic dialogue between form and function. The station’s Great Hall features a magnificent barrel-vaulted ceiling. It often hosts edifying art and history exhibitions.
When you’re there, pay attention to the walls. If you look closely, you’ll notice they feature carvings of city names. Marvel at the massive limestone columns on the exterior. Then there are the Zumbro stone walls sourced from Missouri. And the Tennessee marble floors. Another eye-catching feature is the all-glass corridors on the second and fifth floors, housing the station offices. From the Grand Hall, you may be able to catch a ghostly silhouette of an office worker passing through.
Evolution and Modern Usage
Apart from serving inter-city and regional train services, Union Station is a critical junction for the subway and streetcar systems. Industry officials call it a multimodal transit hub.
Union Pearson Express
For travelers, perhaps the best part of the train station starts at Toronto Pearson International Airport. The Union Pearson Express (UP Express) ferries passengers to and from the airport in about 25 minutes. It’s also less than half the cost of a car service or taxi. This can be much faster than most car rides, depending on traffic. Additionally, the UP Express offers free wi-fi, so no need to fret about losing cell signal when passing through tunnels.
In 2021, the City of Toronto finished their multi-year Union Station Revitalization Project. The $824 million revitalization project aims to breathe new life into this historic landmark. Upgrades include additional floor space, sustainable features, and better accessibility.
Other Reasons That Make Union Station in Toronto Special
Union Station has had its share of Hollywood glamour. Since the 1970s, its grandeur has served as the backdrop for various movies and TV shows. Of the many movies filmed there, some include Suicide Squad, Johnny Mnemonic, Grey Gardens, and The Freshman. So, walk around and soak in the cinematic atmosphere.
Sitting on Front Street West, the station serves as a perfect starting point for exploring downtown Toronto. It’s surrounded by major buildings and attractions, such as Scotiabank Arena and the CN Tower. Additionally, it’s only a hop-skip from the shores of Lake Ontario.
Pacific Central Station, Vancouver
The western terminus of Via Rail’s transcontinental “Canadian” service and the northern terminus for Amtrak’s Cascades service, Pacific Central Station is very much a destination. Constructed in 1919, this Vancouver gem is a designated heritage railway station.
Deeply woven into Vancouver’s social fabric, Pacific Central Station served as an employment hub for Black men from the nearby Hogan’s Alley neighborhood. This was during a time when labor rights underwent great friction. Hogan’s Alley was a vibrant, multi-ethnic neighborhood. It was mainly composed of Black residents. The majority of whom had fled a hostile racial environment in the United States following the California Gold Rush. It was also home to Indigenous, Jewish, Chinese, Italian, and Japanese populations. In the 1970s, viaduct construction destroyed Hogan’s Alley and displaced its residents, a story common to many North American neighborhoods. Recently, Vancouver’s city government has committed to rectifying some of those past wrongs, although projects may take years to even begin.
Echoing the architectural splendor of Toronto’s Union Station, Pacific Central Station too boasts a classic beaux-arts style, replete with amenities like an old-school lunch counter and barbershop.
With its vintage charm, the station has captured the imagination of filmmakers. If you think you recognize its corridors, it’s probably because you’ve seen them on screen before. To be sure, people call Vancouver Hollywood North for reasons that go beyond sharing a time zone with Los Angeles.
Aside from its role as a railway terminus, the station also serves as Vancouver’s main intercity bus terminal, underscoring its importance in the city’s transportation network.
For those venturing south, Amtrak Cascades provides convenient border preclearance facilities right at the station, whereas incoming travelers to Canada complete customs upon arrival.
Seaport to Metropolis
Vancouver’s waterfront and its bustling port and Canadian Pacific Railway have inextricably shaped the city’s history. The station’s location near the water echoes this historical connection and bridges the maritime industries with the rest of the region.
Gare du Palais, Quebec City
If traveling from Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station at the western terminus, then the end of the line is Gare du Palais (“Palace Station”). Quebec City’s railway crown jewel, Gare du Palais serves as the eastern terminus for Via Rail’s Corridor services. Constructed in 1915 and inaugurated a year later, the station’s châteauesque design evokes the historical Château Frontenac hotel. The Canadian Pacific Railway opened the hotel in 1893, and both structures pay homage to the medieval chateaux scattered across France’s Loire Valley. Both are deep nods to the city’s Francophone heritage. Located in the heart of downtown Quebec City, the station remains a central artery of the city’s beating heart.
A Destination in Itself
Given its central location and proximity to many of Quebec City’s attractions, Gare du Palais functions as not just a travel terminal, but also a tourist destination. Furthermore, the station serves as a thriving social space where visitors can admire art installations, dine and drink at sidewalk patios, or just unwind in the nearby park. As travelers enter the Gare, a grand entry hall with vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows greets them, offering a level of opulence typically reserved for cathedrals.
The original name for Gare du Palais was the standard “Union Station.” Like all Union Stations, it served as a pivotal link between the city’s port and railway network, thereby fueling Quebec City’s economic engine. Due to the various railway companies and municipal and city ownership shifts, it’s not clear when and by whom the station received its official designation as Gare du Palais. From the beginning, people likely referred to it by its French moniker, Palais Station, as well as its more utilitarian name, Union Station.
Interestingly, the station was out of operation for nearly a decade. In 1976, the station faced a detour in its journey when highway construction led to its expropriation. But it would rebound, reopening in 1985 after intensive renovations. In 1992, the Canadian government designated the station a protected Heritage Railway Station.
VIA Rail’s Winnipeg Union Station: Where History Meets Modernity
Winnipeg Union Station, a grand beaux-arts structure, serves not just as an important transportation hub for the province of Manitoba, but is also a designated National Historic Site of Canada. Built between 1908 and 1911, the station is a masterpiece by Warren and Wetmore, the architects behind New York City’s iconic Grand Central Terminal.
Adorning Union Station, local Tyndall limestone adds a unique regional touch to its exemplary beaux-arts aesthetic. If you compare the station’s opulent designs with those of New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, Warren and Wetmore’s influence becomes evident. Additionally, its status as a National Historic Site and Heritage Railway Station underscores its architectural and historical significance to the country of Canada as a whole.
Centuries of Service in Canada
Since its inception, Union Station has been a welcoming gateway for thousands of immigrants, shaping the social fabric of Winnipeg. Home to the regional office of the Canadian National Railway, the station continues to be a critical node in Canada’s railway network. Presently, it hosts two active routes: the Toronto-Vancouver Canadian and the Winnipeg-Churchill train, linking the heart of Canada to its distant population centers.
Explore More in Winnipeg
The station’s prime location offers convenient access to several historical sites, including the Dalnavert Museum, the Children’s Museum, and the Ross House Museum.
Towards a Sustainable Transportation Future
Since 2020, Winnipeg’s Union Station, a cornerstone of VIA Rail’s western operations, has been undergoing a $25 million renovation aimed at improving accessibility and sustainability. After completion later this year, the station will feature the company’s first fully accessible platform for long-distance and regional routes. The project, guided by Parks Canada’s heritage standards for the 1911 building, has already upgraded interior platforms and elevators. In 2022, the station earned LEED gold certification, making it the second in VIA Rail’s network to gain this accolade. Overall, VIA Rail plans to invest over $80 million by 2025 in renovating four heritage stations, including Winnipeg’s Union Station.
Banff Train Station: Where Rails Meet the Rockies
Banff Station in Alberta serves as a hub for train tour services such as the Royal Canadian Pacific and VIA train’s “Canadian” route. It has a unique role in history as a designated heritage railway station, formerly exclusively servicing the Canadian Pacific Railway. The station, nestled among the Rocky Mountains, provides easy access to the Banff Springs Hotel and Canada’s crown jewel of national parks.
Architecture in the Wild
Constructed in 1910, the station embraces the arts-and-crafts style, incorporating rustic elements that resonate with the area’s wilderness ethos. From its horizontal character and large wood brackets to its unique grouping of windows, the station presents a unique structure. Further, the station’s caretakers have painstakingly preserved the original glazing patterns and interior finishes that add to its rustic charm.
The Station’s Role in Canadian History
Banff Station catalyzed the growth of Canada’s national park system and the tourist industry. In doing so, it helped shape the nation’s identity. Prominently located in the town of Banff, the station remains a beloved and bustling hub for both locals and tourists alike, as it’s the go-to station for visitors to Banff National Park. A federal heritage railway station designation officially recognizes its significance, further cementing its status as a historical landmark.
A Future Fueled by Hydrogen
The Alberta provincial government and private companies have proposed a hydrogen-powered passenger rail line between Calgary International Airport and Banff. This rail line promises to align with the government’s ambition to make Alberta a leader in hydrogen technology. It’s also consonant with Banff National Park’s aim to be a net-zero emissions destination by 2035. The rail line is expected to promote tourism and reduce vehicle traffic. Further, it will create job opportunities and spur overall economic growth. In July 2023, the provincial government announced a $3 million feasibility study. This thereby inches the proposed rail line a little closer to fruition. Before design and construction begin, consultations with communities along the route, including First Nations, will ensure the project’s inclusivity and cultural sensitivity.
Canada’s most beautiful railway stations are not just stops along a route, but destinations in themselves. Whether it’s Winnipeg’s Union Station standing as a symbol of Canada’s immigrant past and sustainable future, or Banff’s station, where pioneering spirit meets modern eco-ambition, these stations encapsulate the multifaceted identity of an expansive yet connected nation. We come full circle, from the age of steam trains to the hydrogen-fueled future. And this future is also a steam age: hydrogen’s only byproduct is water vapor, but without the particulates of coal. It’s encouraging to know that Canadian rail’s hallmarks are full-steam ahead environmental stewardship and technological innovation. But far from fetishizing new technologies for its own sake, Canada’s historic stations serve as lasting monuments to transformative journeys. They remind us that sometimes the most extraordinary adventures lie not just at the end of the line, but in the places we find along the way.
|Name of Station||City and Province||Year Declared a Heritage Station|
|Union Station||Toronto, Ontario||1975|
|Pacific Central Station||Vancouver, British Columbia||1991|
|Gare du Palais||Quebec City, Quebec||1984|
|VIA Rail Winnipeg Union||Winnipeg, Manitoba||1976|
|Banff Station||Banff, Alberta||1992|
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/vladimir_n
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