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The Union Station Rail Corridor

Text by James Bow

At the heart of GO Transit’s rail network is a 6.4 kilometre stretch of rail corridor serving Union Station and the traccks and switches to the east and west. The Union Station Rail Corridor stretches from Strachan Avenue in the west to the Don River in the east. Over half of Canada’s inter-city rail passengers and more than 90% of Toronto’s commuter train passengers pass through this stretch of track each year. At its widest, the rail corridor has 14 tracks and, if laid end to end, the rails in this corridor could run for over 40 kilometres. In this section are station platforms, over 180 signals and 250 switch machines.

A Brief History of the Toronto Terminals Railway

To maintain control over this complicated section of track, the railways of Canada ensured that it be the responsibility of one company. On July 13, 1906, Canadian Pacific and the Grand Trunk Railway (a precursor to Canadian National) chartered the Toronto Terminals Railway (TTR) to “construct, provide, maintain and operate at the City of Toronto a union passenger station”. The two railways, each owning 50% of the TTR, set to work building Union Station, even though it would take another 21 years before the station saw a passenger.

The TTR was responsible for the operation of trains through the tracks surrounding Union Station, and did so by building and maintaining an extensive track and signalling system. The rail corridor was divided into interlocking sections, with towers at John Street, Scott Street and Cherry Street staffed 24 hours a day to control train movements into and out of Union Station. The company continued to provide service through the Second World War and into the 1950s.

In the 1960s, the Canadian railroads’ interest in passenger train service diminished. Canadian National’s construction of the York subdivision across the north of Toronto allowed through freight traffic to bypass the tracks heading to Union Station. The importance of the TTR could have waned, but in 1967, the Government of Ontario launched GO Transit, operating commuter service through Union Station from Oakville to Pickering.

As GO Train service increased through the 1970s, TTR operations became more focused around the new commuter railway. GO Transit purchased North Bathurst Yard to store and maintain equipment, and the TTR adjusted the tracks to match. Trains operating on the Lakeshore and Georgetown lines increasingly came into conflict, and so, in the early 1980s, GO and the TTR engaged in a major project to build a flyunder west of Union Station to allow Lakeshore trains to cross beneath trains bound for Georgetown and Milton. This flyunder opened for service on November 22, 1983.

Tracks Bought and Services Contracted

The TTR’s ownership of the tracks surrounding Union Station ended in 2000 when GO Transit purchased the railway’s assets. However, GO continued to contract the TTR to operate and maintain the tracks. By now, some of the switching facilities were decades old, and use of the tracks was increasing. Lakeshore GO Train service was operating at intervals of 30 minutes or better by the end of 2013. By June 2015, service had launched on the Union Pearson Express connecting Union Station with Pearson Airport. GO Transit’s operator Metrolinx anticipated that GO’s ridership could potentially increase from 68 million to over 200 million by 2031.

In 2014, GO Transit’s operator Metrolinx announced a $365.5 million upgrade and modernization of the rail corridor’s signalling system. Among the changes will be new tracks to allow for more trains, an expansion of Don Yard at the east end of the corridor, and improvements to increase speed limits. Even so, the construction of the Skydome in 1989 constricted a key part of the rail corridor, creating a bottleneck that will be challenging to overcome. Metrolinx considered a number of options to allow service to increase, including possibly double-decking the rail corridor. A cheaper and more likely option may be the creation of a satellite downtoan GO Train station at the site of North Bathurst Yard to serve GO Trains from Barrie and Kitchener.

The Union Station Rail Corridor is a complicated and extensive system that enables Union Station to serve as many passengers as it does. The fact that few people know of its history, or the work that goes on behind the scenes to keep this rail corridor operational highlights how effective the Toronto Terminals Railway has been in maintaining and operating this critical piece of rail infrastructure.

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