NCC Blunders

Ottawa Union Station

The closing of Ottawa's central train station was a blunder that was to have far-reaching consequences.

Union Station: Ottawa Union Station

One of North America's first monumental railway stations, Grand Trunk Railway Union Station opened in 1912 and served passengers until 1966. It was closed for the sake of The NCC's monumental (and monumentally short-sighted) plans - after all, it was the sixties, and who needed trains anymore?

The NCC general manager, displaying that trademarked NCC foresight, claimed Ottawa did not need a downtown station as "it was being planned on a decentralized approach and would not have the traffic congestion now experienced by other cities."

So the valuable rail transit corridor through the heart of the city was replaced with the Nicholas Street expressway and Colonel By Drive, and the station moved out to the suburbs against the wishes of the railroads, its future irrelevance guaranteed. Incredibly, the plan called for the former station's demolition, as it would impede traffic flow.

We have the Centennial celebrations and the NCC's own embarrassment to thank for the building's survival: ever concerned with appearances, they felt that a demolished building would appear unsightly just as they were getting ready for the 1967 celebrations.

Union Station interior

Ottawa Railway History Circle history of Union Station
Citizen: Photos of Union Station
Citizen: Meech Ghosts [17 Jun 1996]
Citizen letter: Save our railway heritage [18 May 2001]
Citizen: Putting things back on track for Ottawa's train station [31 May 2012]

When the trains left, the cars, trucks and buses took their place, eight lanes worth. The Nicholas Street expressway is now the main truck route from the Queensway to Hull, an impenetrable barrier between Sandy Hill and the canal, and resulted in a wasteland between Waller and Nicholas that was vacant for decades, while the Nicholas and Laurier intersection is ranked as the most pedestrian unfriendly in the city. And with the planned construction of the Alta Vista "Parkway," things look to only get worse.

Nicholas Expressway: Looking south

The Nicholas Expressway: the trains are long gone

It's no longer 1960, but the NCC continues to plan as though it is: the flow and accommodation of automobile traffic in the city continues to be one of its biggest preoccupations. Unwilling to learn from their mistakes, they continued their road-building plans, including:

  • plowing a grand boulevard through Hull and Gatineau Park (the McConnell-Laramee freeway)
  • plans to build a vast parking garage beneath Sparks Street, demolishing a square block in the process
  • plans for a $355-million ring-road and bridge proposal
  • expanding Champlain Bridge

Meanwhile, Ottawa is getting interested in commuter rail once again. A pilot project for a rail service from the south of the city runs on one of the few remaining rail lines in the city. But instead of a terminus in the heart of downtown Ottawa, the service brings commuters to, ironically, the vacant LeBreton Flats.

Citizen: Alta Vista Parkway [16 Apr 2000]
Citizen: Why it's not safe to cross the road [17 Apr 2000]
Citizen: $355 Million Solution [11 Feb 1999]
Citizen: Deal near to restart Champlain bridge work [24 Jul 1999]
Citizen: Boulevard plan divides Quebec neighbours [1 Mar 2000]
Communities Before Cars case against the Champlain Bridge Expansion

NCC rail heritage plaque

Having removed Ottawa's rail heritage, the NCC put up a plaque

As for the former Ottawa train station, it has languished for decades as an underused Federal conference centre. Plans to renovate it for a Canadian Sports Hall of Fame were bandied about for several years, followed by a plan for a Canadian History Centre - with an exhibit or two on the role of railways in building the nation no doubt. History indeed. The latest opportunity to reintegrate the station into the heart of the city was missed when a new light rail project, intended to remove the busses that now blight the downtown, was routed to bypass the old station.

OBJ: Public opposes scope of Sports Hall of Fame [6 Mar 2000]
Citizen: Scaled-down plan for sports hall of fame [17 Apr 2000]
Citizen: $60M revamp for old train station [15 Jun 2000]
Citizen: Hall of Fame fund-raiser [21 Jun 2000]
Centretown News: Conference centre about to get face lift [26 Jan 2001]
CBC: Chretien announces history museum [26 May 2003]

Wellington street subway: pedestrian subway under 3 lane Wellington Street ramp

Pedestrians must walk under this three-lane slipway next to the former train station