Toronto Railways

Downtown Toronto is built on the legacy of railways. Railways were the main mode of transporting goods and people in and out of the city for a time, and this created Union Station and a vast amount of yards and industry surrounding it. It became a hub of economic activity that anchored an entire region.

While the city is less dominated by railways than it used to be, they are still critical freight corridors and remain a very space and energy efficient mode of transporting people. Below is a brief history and a profile of the main railways in Toronto.

A Brief History

Railways arrived in Toronto in 1853, providing both critical transportation of freight goods and people into, out of, and through the city. With it came patronage of local businesses, new residents and tourists, as well as industry. The Ontario, Simcoe & Huron Railway was the first railway that came to town, but competition soon followed: Great Western Railways, Grand Trunk Railway, and Canadian Pacific Railway.

The multiple railways created the need for a “union station” where they could jointly operate their services, so passengers could conveniently transfer between them. Toronto’s first and second Union Stations were built in 1858 and 1873, respectively, and both were was quickly overloaded by demand. In 1906, the Toronto Terminals Railway (TTR) was incorporated as a joint 50/50 venture between Grand Trunk Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway to build, operate and maintain a third new Union Station and the tracks into and out of it.

The station building was completed in 1920, and is the Union Station that currently stands today . The track system and other key system elements (e.g. the train shed, road underpasses, concourse) weren’t completed for another decade. It was during this time that Grand Trunk Railway fell into financial difficulty and was nationalized by the federal government, becoming part of Canadian National Railway (CN). This industry trend continued, and while several other railway companies used to operate in Toronto, all rail lines were eventually consolidated (through nationalization, mergers or acquisitions) into ownership by either CN or Canadian Pacific Railway (CP). TTR remained as the 50/50 joint owned company between them.

As time went on, the rise of the automobile reduced the importance of railways (a wrong path that many large North American urban centres are still stuck on, in my opinion, but I digress). At the same time, Toronto’s downtown core grew with businesses and residents. These forces pushed land values up, and shifted freight railways, their large yards, and associated industries out. It also increased the number of workers and visitors moving throughout the Greater Toronto Area, raising the importance of transporting people by rail.

Yet railway passenger services were not as profitable as they were before the age of the automobile, or were even losing money, which led to private railways reducing passenger services or abandoning them altogether. This drove governments to intervene, so that some of these critical transportation corridors could be maintained, and urban centres still had an option for efficiently moving people.

After various initiatives to improve CN passenger services, VIA Rail was spun off as its own Crown corporation in 1977 to take care of passenger services entirely. The following year, VIA took over CP passenger services as well, and became the national passenger train service resebling what we know today.

GO Transit was created before this in 1967, as an “experiment” to provide commuter services in and out of Toronto. As the need of running freight rail services into downtown Toronto declined and the need for commuter services increased, GO Transit (and it’s successive parent agency Metrolinx) began obtaining ownership of these lines. This afforded GO more control over operation and maintenance of the lines.


Union Station Rail Corridor

  • Area: 32.2 ha
  • Length: 6.3 km
  • Average Width: 51 m
  • Tracks: 9 – 16
  • Crossings:
    • Roads: 11
    • Trails: 4

The Union Station Rail Corridor (USRC) is the corridor where many railway lines into Toronto merge into a single corridor flanking each side of Union Station. It is technically defined as starting at Strachan Avenue in the west, and ending at the Don River in the east.

The USRC includes two yards for GO Transit to store their trains after the morning weekday rush, so they are ready to go back into service for the evening rush. These yards are beside the Don River (the Don Yard) and between Spadina and Bathurst (North Bathurst Yard).

The USRC used to be part of larger rail yards and roundhouses south of front street. This land was converted as CN and CP abandoned these freight yards in favour of new ones, and the accompanying industrial and shipping businesses left.

These former “Railway Lands” are now home to a number of landmarks, most notably the CN Tower. CN originally stood for “Canadian National”, in reference to the railway that built it to improve communication signals and demonstrate the strength of Canadian industry at the same time. Other places include the Skydome (aka the Rogers Centre), Scotiabank Arena, and numerous condos part of CityPlace and the Southcore District.

This development ate up much of the land formerly used by the freight railroads. What remains is still a very complex and busy area: 9 to 16 tracks totalling 40 km  of rail, 7 diagonal connecting tracks of “ladders”, 80 signals, and 250 switches. This immense piece of infrastructure moves a quarter of a million people in and out of Union Station daily, making it the busiest transportation hub in Canada, and therefore making the USRC the busiest national transportation corridor.


Oakville

  • Area: 40.5 ha
  • Length: 13.3 km
  • Average Width: 31 m
  • Tracks: 3 – 4
  • Crossings:
    • Roads: 15
    • Expressways: 1
    • Watercourses: 3

The Oakville subdivision connects to the USRC at Strachan Avenue, and heads southwest along the lakeshore to the city’s west border by Long Branch Station. The corridor was originally owned by CN, and was purchased by Metrolinx in 2012.

The sub carries GO Transit’s Lakeshore West line to Hamilton / Niagara, and VIA Rail’s Corridor services to London / Windsor (through Brantford) and Niagara. The corridor also handles a lot of GO and VIA traffic going between Union Station and maintenance yards at Islington Avenue (Willowbrook Yard and the Toronto Maintenance Centre, respectively). So it’s fairly busy.


Galt

  • Area: 28.4 ha
  • Length: 9.5 km
  • Average Width: 30 m
  • Tracks: 2 – 3
  • Crossings:
    • Roads: 13
    • Expressways: 2
    • Watercourses: 2

The Galt sub is part of CP’s main east-west route across southern Ontario. The sub enters Toronto where it crosses Etobicoke Creek north of the Queensway. It then makes a large arc until meeting the Weston, MacTier and North Toronto subs at West Toronto Junction.

The Galt sub used to designate the eastern tarcks continuing parallel to the Weston sub to Union Station, but this ‘Lower Galt’ can be considered merged with the Weston sub after upgrades for the Union Pearson Express. The corridor is completely owned by CP, and is around 3 tracks wide to carry CP freight and rush hour Milton GO trains. The Galt also is adjacent to CP’s West Toronto / Lambton Yard, which stretches from West Toronto Junction to Scarlett Road. It also meets the Canpa sub in Etobicoke.


Weston

  • Area: 66.9 ha
  • Length: 18.7 km
  • Average Width: 36 m
  • Tracks: 4 – 8
  • Crossings:
    • Roads: 26
    • Railways: 2
    • Expressways: 2
    • Watercourses: 2

The Weston sub connects to the USRC at Strachan Avenue, immediately north of where it connects to the Oakville sub, and heads northwest to Highway 427 north of Pearson Airport.

The sub is 4 tracks wide to carry GO Transit’s Kitchener line and the Union Pearson Express. It widens to 5 tracks south of Dupont to carry GO Milton line trains, and 6 tracks east of Lansdowne to carry GO Barrie line trains. Future expansions will see these segments widened to 7 and 8 tracks, respectively. VIA Rail Corridor services to London / Windsor (through Guelph and Kitchener) also find space on here.


MacTier

  • Area: 37.7 ha
  • Length: 15.3 km
  • Average Width: 25 m
  • Tracks: 1
  • Crossings:
    • Roads: 18
    • Expressways: 1
    • Watercourses: 3

The MacTier sub is CP’s main route to and from northern Ontario, and eventually western Canada. From West Toronto Junction, it parallels the Weston sub until Weston Road, where it splits and heads due north to the city limits at Steeles. It is a single track, and carries CP’s freight only. It interconnects with the Weston sub at Rogers Road. Like the Weston sub, some at-grade crossings were eliminated as part of upgrades for the Union Pearson Express. Old Weston Road is the one crossing that remains at-grade, as it has to fly over the Weston sub.


North Toronto & Belleville / Havelock

  • Area: 128.4/ 14.9 ha
  • Length: 32.6 / 3.3 km
  • Average Width: 39 / 45 m
  • Tracks: 1 – 2 / 1
  • Crossings:
    • Roads: 41 / 6
    • Railways: 4 / 0
    • Watercourses: 12 / 3

The North Toronto sub (from West Toronto Junction to just east of Bayview Avenue) and the Belleville sub (from Bayview to the east city limit) are basically an extension of the Galt sub, CP’s main east-west route across southern Ontario. This also takes CP trains to and from its Toronto Yard in Agincourt, between McCowan and Markham Roads, south of Finch Avenue. This yard stretches over 2 kilometers long and nearly 1 kilometre wide.

From the yard, the Havelock sub splits off and heads northeast to the city limit, but this line is of relatively low importance as it leads to Havelock (east of Peterborough) and goes no further. There is an interconnecting between the Belleville and Havelock subs northeast of the yard. The North Toronto and Belleville subs are two tracks west of the yard, and the Belleville and Havelock are a single track east of the yard.


Newmarket

  • Area: 30.8 ha
  • Length: 16.0 km
  • Average Width: 19 m
  • Tracks: 1
  • Crossings:
    • Roads: 16
    • Railways: 1
    • Expressways: 1
    • Watercourses: 3

The Newmarket sub is GO Transit’s Barrie Line. It splits off from the Weston sub east of Lansdowne, and heads due north to the city limit. It has long been a single track shot with occasional passing tracks, but is eventually being widened and improved to two dedicated tracks to allow two-way all-day GO service. One major project was a grade separation with CN’s York Sub (formerly known as the Snider Diamond) completed in December 2006. In the future, another grade separation will occur at the CP North Toronto Sub. It crosses 15 roads, one expressway, one bus transitway, a pedestrian overpass, and three lost rivers (Lavender Creek, North Park Creek, Dufferin Creek).

There are big moves to be made in the junction area of Toronto, as this sub will be converted to an elevated guideway to grade-separate it from the North Toronto sub. This will open up a great deal of opportunity for public space under and parallel to it.


Bala

  • Area: 66.2 ha
  • Length: 21.2 km
  • Average Width: 31 m
  • Tracks: 1-2
  • Crossings:
    • Roads: 17
    • Expressways: (1×2) + 1
    • Watercourses: (1×2) + (1×5) + 9

The Bala sub was CN’s main route from downtown Toronto to Northern Ontario until a bypass was built in the 1960s. Within Toronto, the line no longer served CN’s purposes, which paved the way for GO to start service on the line in 1978, and Metrolinx purchasing that segment of the line in 2012. Despite that, the Richmond Hill line has the lowest ridership and fewest stations in the network. One significant factor is that the line winds through the Don Valley between Union and Lawrence Avenue; it makes for a beautiful ride, but poor ability to serve commuters. It’s also the main route for VIA Rail’s The Canadian, the super long tourist train from Toronto north and west to the Prairies and BC, which again is fitting given the valley sights.


Kingston

  • Area: 103.0 ha
  • Length: 26.2 km
  • Average Width: 39 m
  • Tracks: 3
  • Crossings:
    • Roads: 28
    • Expressways: 1
    • Watercourses: 14

The Kingston sub is also steeped in history, acting as CN’s main route from downtown Toronto to, you guessed it, Kingston. From there, lines lead onto Ottawa and Montreal, making it part of the network that stitched the nation together. Like the Bala sub, the portion of the line in Toronto no longer served CN’s purposes after a bypass was built in the 1960s. And like the Oakville sub, it was part of GO’s inaugural service in 1967, and came under formal Metrolinx ownership in 2011.

The odd CN freight run still happens along here, but it is otherwise busy with GO Lakeshore East trains to/from Oshawa, and VIA Corridor trains to/from Ottawa and Montreal. Much like the Oakville subdivision, it is also busy with GO trains deadheading between Union Station and a maintenance facility.


Uxbridge

  • Area: 20.2 ha
  • Length: 13.3 km
  • Average Width: 15 m
  • Tracks: 1
  • Crossings:
    • Roads: 12
    • Expressways: 1
    • Railways: 1
    • Watercourses: (1×3) + 1

The Uxbridge sub branches off of the Kingston sub near Midland Avenue and St Clair Avenue East. After performing an S-bend, it goes straight north to the city limits.

Once part of the Toronto and Nipissing rail line built in the late 1860’s, it became part of Grand Trunk Railway and subsequently Canadian National at the turn of the century. With dwindling freight traffic, northern parts of the original Toronto and Nipissing line were eventually abandoned. GO Transit service along the Stouffville Line started in 1982, and the entire remaining line between Toronto and Uxbridge was purchased by the Ontario government in 2001. The section north of Stouffville is leased to the York-Durham Heritage Railway.

Much of the historical info is courtesy of the York-Durham Heritage Railway.


Canpa

  • Area: 16.5 ha
  • Length: 4.2 km
  • Average Width: 39 m
  • Tracks: 2
  • Crossings:
    • Roads: 4
    • Expressways: 1

The Canpa sub is a small connecting track between CN and CP subs, allowing for interconnections between the two freight companies. For some time, the Canpa was only notable for a) serving local business spurs, b) an intermodal yard north of North Queen Street, and c) deliveries of new GO coaches from Thunder Bay. But in 2012, the intermodal yard was shut down. In 2015, it was purchased by Metrolinx despite not being part of their current or future regular service. Rather, it was used as a detour for Lakeshore West trains for various work on the Oakville sub between Union and Mimico. It may serve this purpose again in the future.


Halton / York

  • Area: 39.8 ha
  • Length: 9.0 km
  • Average Width: 44 m
  • Tracks: 1
  • Crossings:
    • Roads: 8
    • Expressways: 1
    • Railways: 1
    • Watercourses: 2

Strictly within the City of Toronto borders, the Halton and York subs are a small footnote in their physical footprints, sweeping through northwest Etobicoke and Rouge Park. However, as noted in the sections above, they are part of CN’s bypass of downtown Toronto that has allowed for the takeover and expansion of the Oakville, Weston, Bala and Kingston subs for GO service.

Aerial images in this post are courtesy of the City of Toronto, either via interactive map or the historic aerial photo collection. Other historical photos are courtesy of the city archives.

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