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The Sheppard Subway

Don Mills Interior

(Above) A TTC plan drawing showing a pedestrian corridor in Don Mills station, including artistic tilework. (Below) A map and trackplan of the current Sheppard subway.

Sheppard subway Sheppard subway

(Above) A map of the Sheppard subway as it would look when all planned extensions are completed.

by Aaron Adel and James Bow

See Also:

A History of Northern Crosstown Subway Proposals

Proposals for an east-west rapid transit line across the northern edge of Metro Toronto (now Toronto) have been floating around since the 1960s. Its first appearance came from the mouth of mayor James Service of North York (one of Mel Lastman’s predecessors). He suggested that the ends of the Bloor-Danforth subway be extended north through the middle of Etobicoke and Scarborough and across the top of North York (likely along the Hydro right-of-way north of Finch Avenue) to form a large belt line. This proposal was not taken seriously. Although a line across the top of Toronto would bring rapid transit access within two kilometres of most residents of Toronto, the densities along the route would make the line unprofitable to run.

Map of the line

(Above) The Sheppard subway and how it was tunnelled. (Below) The Sheppard-Yonge interchange and a photo (by David Cavlovic) showing the wye track)

Yonge/Sheppard interchange Sheppard tunnel

The proposal did not go away, however. The suburban municipalities of Toronto had seen the boost in development brought by the Yonge and Bloor subways, and a subway line of their own became an obvious means to kickstart their own downtowns. Also, as the seventies moved into the eighties, commuting patterns started to change, with more and more people not bound by a suburban home and a downtown workplace. These commutes were not adequately served by a transit network focusing on suburb-to-downtown travel. People living in northern Etobicoke and bound for northern Scarborough faced a long trip out of their way by bus to access the Bloor subway, and another bus at the end of the subway to complete his trip. With Highway 401 running across the top of the city, it’s no surprise that public transit began to fall behind the automobile in terms of modal split outside of Toronto’s downtown core.

Further proposals cropped up to build a northern crosstown rapid transit line, many put forward as a means of handling suburb-to-suburb commutes. A number focused on the Hydro right-of-way north of Finch Avenue, mostly because it would be cheap and easy to build a line there. Even the Government of Ontario got into the act, suggesting that a long-distance commuter based rapid transit line could run along this corridor from Oakville to Pickering. The Sheppard subway proposal materialized because its proponents realized that Sheppard Avenue was becoming a heavily used corridor for suburb-to-suburb commutes. The route was also a line connecting two rapidly developing satellite downtowns in North York and Scarborough and ridership on the Sheppard bus routes was rising, as were the number of buses required to maintain service. In 1982, politicians and planners proposed that a line be built running from the Yonge-Sheppard intersection, east on Sheppard to Brimley, and then south to the Scarborough Town Centre. By 1984, the Sheppard subway proposal included a westward extension to the Spadina subway. It was the centrepiece of Network 2011, Metro Toronto’s official plan for rapid transit over the next twenty-five years.

The fact that Toronto has a Sheppard subway at all is due to the efforts of Mel Lastman. When he was Mayor of North York, he had a grand vision of turning his sleepy suburban borough into a city in its own right, with a downtown to challenge that of the City of Toronto. To his credit, he understood, more than many other people who have tried similar feats, that a downtown can’t be just for cars — pedestrians must be accommodated, as must people who use public transit. So he located his downtown on a major rapid transit line, the Yonge subway, and convinced the TTC to build an additional station, North York Centre, to service it. To further enhance his downtown, he latched onto the proposal to build a subway along Sheppard Avenue between the Spadina subway and the Scarborough Town Centre. By building a rapid-transit crossroads, he believed that development would bloom in his new downtown.

The Network 2011 proposal might have been built had Bill Davis stayed on as premier of Ontario one more year. The fall of the Conservative government of 1985 brought the Liberal Party to power, and they blanched at Network 2011’s $2.1 billion sticker price. The Sheppard line itself was priced at one billion 1985 dollars. The proposal was delayed and deferred, until a scaled-down version was proposed by the Liberals in 1990. Then the Liberals too were defeated, by the NDP and Bob Rae. The Sheppard subway was delayed for another four years.


Shovels in the ground. Construction of the Sheppard-Leslie station. Photos by Aaron Adel.


(Above) Another shot of construction at Leslie station. Photo by Aaron Adel.

By the time the NDP granted enough funding to get the shovels into the ground, 1994, the price tag had ballooned and both Queen’s Park and Metro Toronto were reeling from the effects of a major recession. There wasn’t enough money to build all of the needed subways at once, so to get construction started, and to make sure that all of the players within Metro were satisfied with the spending they received, the first phase of the Sheppard subway was cut back from Victoria Park to Don Mills. A shortened Eglinton West subway started construction from the Spadina line to Black Creek Drive at the same time. This political compromise was all for naught, however. As soon as the Conservatives under Mike Harris won the 1995 election, the Eglinton West subway project was cancelled and the province dropped all capital funding of public transit. Sheppard was itself almost cancelled, but Mel Lastman’s lobbying saved the line. After considerable political jockeying (where, at one point, Metro council agreed to build the Sheppard subway tunnels but not the tracks or the stations), the line’s future was confirmed. Construction continued unabated through to 2002.

The subway stations enroute were built using the traditional “cut-and-cover” method of subway construction and this method was also be used for the western tailtracks. The rest of the line, however, was bored using two huge tunnel boring machines (TBMs) which were placed underground near Leslie station and made to tunnel west to Doris Avenue (just east of Yonge Street). When they reached Doris Avenue, the machines were removed and transported to a second launch site east of Leslie Street, to complete the tunnels to Don Mills. The TBMs (nicknamed “Rock” and “Roll” were designed to dig up to 15 metres a day each, versus the 5 metres per day progress when the Yonge subway extension to Finch was constructed. These machines not only dug through the earth, but installed reinforced concrete liner rings as they passed. The twin tunnels of the Sheppard subway are 13 metres apart and 15 to 18 metres below ground. The TBMs bored through the sites of Bessarion and Bayview stations, and construction commenced on these stations after tunnelling was complete and the tunnel liners dismantled where the station platforms were to be.

The Sheppard subway, as originally proposed, would serve plenty of useful purposes. If it were to run from the Scarborough Centre to Downsview station, it would go a long way to easing those cross-town commutes which do not pass through downtown Toronto. Also, despite being four kilometres away from the City of Markham, the presence of the Sheppard subway might convince some of their residents to leave their cars. As a stub line, however, Sheppard’s usefulness is curtailed. Scarborough residents heading to North York Centre used to have only one transfer to make in order to complete their trip (85 Sheppard East bus to Yonge subway). Now they have two (although a branch of the 85 Sheppard East bus continued to operate to Yonge Street, albeit at reduced frequencies). Reliance on the Bloor-Danforth subway for cross-town commutes is also not reduced. Markham residents, however, may be convinced to leave their cars at the Sheppard stops to take public transit the rest of the way downtown, but that’s about all.

The Stations Enroute

Sheppard-Yonge Station Exterior Harlandale entrance

Interior and exterior design concepts (and reality) of Sheppard-Yonge station

Sheppard station interior

Sheppard-Yonge station is the western terminus of the new line. The new part of the station sits in the narrow gap above the Yonge subway and the street level. It was a considerable engineering challenge, featuring both center and side platforms, to eventually allow for loading and unloading from each side of any train. The center platform has been left unfinished and inaccessible, and won’t be used until increasing ridership justifies the construction of side platforms built into the Yonge line station. The current station was renovated to allow for free transfers to the bus terminal, and new entrances were built on Sheppard Avenue West.

A double tail-track extend to the west of the station, joining together, and also connecting with a switch that will take cars from here onto the southbound Yonge tracks. When the subway was being built, there were suggestions that trains would pull into the north tracks of the station, let off their passengers, pull into this tailtrack and then switch onto the southern tracks for the eastbound run. This has not happened since the line opened, and in-service trains have changed tracks using the crossover to the east of the station. Passengers board and disembark at the southern platform of the Sheppard subway; the northern platforms are open, but used only occasionally, when a train pulls onto the north tracks before going heading west into the tailtracks, out of service. More recently, it has seen use late at night, when the Yonge subway north of Eglinton closed early for tunnel repairs, giving Sheppard subway passengers easier access to Sheppard-Yonge station’s bus terminal.

Sheppard-Yonge also boasts an eight foot high, 12,000 square foot panoramic landscape of Yonge Street. The mural depicts, in compressed form, a trip north from Toronto using one square inch porcelain tiles.

Sheppard-Yonge station was originally named just Sheppard station when it was only served by the Yonge subway. Building the Sheppard line put TTC designers into a small quandary. At other stations where passengers could transfer between two lines, most platforms shared the same name (Spadina, St. George, Kennedy). However, to name the new line’s platforms “Sheppard” would have been confusing to passengers since they were already on the Sheppard line. The new platforms could not be named just “Yonge” either, since the Bloor-Danforth subway had already taken that station, and “Yonge North” did not seem suitable, either. After briefly considering naming the station “Princess” to commemorate the death of Princess Diana in 1997 (The proposal was widely panned; the Spenser family also turned down the request), it was decided to rename the whole station “Sheppard-Yonge”. The Yonge platforms of this station received new signs, laid over the original station signs. It was the first time a subway station in Toronto has been renamed.

As a result of the new subway, Sheppard-Yonge station became a sprawling complex featuring not only a bus terminal and two subway platforms, but no less than four entrances off the street. The main entrance is off the northeast corner of Sheppard and Yonge, while a separate staffed entrance exists off the west side of Sheppard and Yonge (accessible from the north and south sides of Sheppard Avenue). The stairs and passageway from Harlandale and Yonge, which originally led to the main collectors’ area, was modified into an automatic fare entrance. The fourth entrance is the original automatic fare entrance at Poyntz and Yonge at the south end of the complex. After a trial period, it was reported that the staffed entrance on the west side of the Yonge/Sheppard intersection was handling fewer passengers than each of the automatic entrances, and less than a tenth of the passengers at the main entrance on the east side of Sheppard and Yonge. As a result, the TTC decided to remove the collectors in January 2004 and turn the west side entrance into the third automatic fare entrance to the station.

Bayview Station Exterior

Interior and exterior design concepts of Bayview station.

Bayview Station Interior

No station was built at the intersection of Yonge and Willowdale, one kilometre east, due to community opposition and the fact that the densities in the area are not suitable for such a station. Provisions have been made for one to be built in the future, however. The next station east of Yonge is Bayview, located just east of the Sheppard/Bayview intersection, in front of the Bayview Village shopping mall. This station will serve residential communities and commercial properties at the intersection, including several high-rise condominiums that were built as the line was being constructed. Bayview station features a single central platform and three entrances: the main entrance at the northeast corner of the intersection (and the closest to the mall), and secondary entrances at the northwest corner of the intersection and on Sheppard Avenue east of the station. Connections with buses are on-street and passengers have to show a valid transfer to transfer between subway and bus.

Bayview station also features a selection of optical-illusion art. Using paint and tilework on the walls and floors, objects are made to look as though they are floating in air, depending on where the viewer stands to stare. Fortunately, the mezzanine level is wide enough that nobody should be trampled underfoot if they stand around too long.

Bessarion Station Exterior

Design concepts of Bessarion station.

Bessarion Station Interior

East of Bayview, Bessarion station serves the area of Sheppard Avenue mid-way between Bayview and Leslie stations. Centred on the Burbank Drive/Bessarion Road intersection, the station was built primarily to serve the redeveloping Canadian Tire lands. Bessarion has no bus terminal, requiring none since the only surface route nearby is the 85 Sheppard East bus. It has a single centre platform and a mezzanine level. The station features artwork in the form of a photographic frieze of hands, backs of heads and feet, representing the users of the station. The images were created from photographs of people in the surrounding community.

Leslie Station Interior Drawing

Leslie station

Leslie Station Entrance Drawing

Leslie station, served by a single centre platform, was built south of Sheppard Avenue (to avoid the foundations of a bridge) between Leslie Street and the CN tracks with the main entrance off Sheppard Avenue. Oriole GO train station is on the CN line about one kilometre south of Sheppard, and it was proposed to relocate it adjacent to the subway station with a direct passage between them, but this has not yet occurred.

Leslie features three entrances, including an automatic fare entrance from Old Leslie, closest to North York General Hospital and the proposed site of the relocated Oriole GO train station. A bus terminal sits by this entrance, at the west end of the station, with four bus bays. Two exist for the 51 Leslie bus, while the third was supposed to be for a rerouted 115 Silver Hills. That rerouting never materialized, giving the bus terminal two spare bus bays instead of one. Though the bus terminal is underused, the TTC received complaints in its first year of operation about the automatic fare entrance here. With full adult fare required to enter via this entrance, seniors arriving from North York General Hospital have to either pay more than they need to, or walk some distance to access the manned entrance on the south side of Sheppard Avenue between the Old Leslie overbridge and the intersections leading to and from Old Leslie. The TTC considered staffing the automatic entrance as a result of these complaints, but decided against it due to low passenger volumes.

Leslie station featured an interesting artistic concept that was heavily promoted during the line’s construction. About 17,000 unique tiles were mounted throughout the station, each silk-screened with the words Sheppard and Leslie, handwritten by members of the community. The concept for the public art, by Toronto artist Micah Lexier, reinforces the location of the station and involves the community in creating the art and leaving behind their own handwriting.

East of Leslie station, the line passes through a bridge over the Don River East Branch. This bridge, which cost nearly $15 million to build, is a 60 metre long, completely enclosed box of concrete. The structure, located just south of Sheppard Avenue, is watertight and designed to withstand water levels high enough to submerge the bridge entirely. The top of the bridge is open to the public, with part of the roof covered with soil and planted. A sinuous footpath runs along the bridge. With this bridge, the TTC crosses one of the major obstacles to the Sheppard subway, making eastward extensions easier than if the line had been built to Leslie alone.

Don Mills Exterior

The exterior of Don Mills station, according to artist rendition, showing Fairview Mall and bus platforms.

Don Mills station is the eastern terminus of the first phase of the Sheppard subway line. An underground bus station with 14 bays was built south of the parking lot of Fairview Mall, along with an underground parking lot beneath Sheppard Avenue. Don Mills is served by a single centre platform. As with all other stations on the line, Don Mills has elevators, making the whole line wheelchair accessible.

Don Mills has two entrances: a manned entrance on Sheppard Avenue, halfway between Don Mills Road and Parkway Forest Drive, and an automatic entrance leading from the bus terminal to near one of the entrances to Fairview Mall. Since the line has opened, a number of passengers have made use of this entrance and have complained about having to pay full fare to enter the subway here. According to a TTC Report, “There is no clearly-defined walking path across the mall parking lot private property to the main station entrance, which is staffed with a collector, but is located some distance away, on the north side of Sheppard Avenue.” As a result of this, and high traffic volumes (an average of almost 26,000 passengers used Don Mills station each day during the first year of operation), the TTC is considering rebuilding this entrance to install a collector’s booth that would allow the use of discount tickets and cash fares.

Station Structure and Technical Details

Although few liberties have been taken with the basic station structures in order to keep costs low, this hasn’t stopped station designers from working with playing with this basic design to create distinctive subway stations. The floors have more colours and varying patterns. Walls are finished with ceramic tile or architectural concrete and distinctive, informative signage has been installed to direct passengers through the station, including a new signage band on the edge of the station platform.

The platforms are among the widest in the subway network and the stations are brightly lit. All light fixtures throughout the line are modular and interchangeable to cut maintenance costs. Stainless steel fare barriers, collectors’ booths and stair railings complement warm coloured tiles and the patterned terrazzo floor. Because the TTC envisions using only four-car subway trains to provide service for the foreseeable future, portions of each station have been walled off, so that station platforms aren’t longer than they need to be, but can be extended should service levels increase. These partitions have been finished to look like any other station wall, so there is no sense that the line has been left incomplete. It was planned for all stations to have glass platform barriers, like what was built for the Jubilee Line Extension in London, England, but this idea was dropped due to budget constraints.

All subway cars operating on the Sheppard line are stored on the line itself (mostly on the tailtracks). Five trainsets have been assigned to the line, with four providing service every five minutes, thirty seconds, throughout the line’s operating day; the fifth trainset acts as the spare. When they need maintenance, they head to Davisville Yard using the wye tracks connecting the Yonge line with the Sheppard line at Sheppard-Yonge station. The TTC briefly considered building a single-track tunnel to Downsview station as a connection with Wilson carhouse, but this idea was dropped as too expensive. Provisions were made for a wye connection to the north, however, in case the proposal to join the Spadina and Yonge lines along Steeles Avenue bears fruit. Sheppard trains could get to Wilson carhouse more quickly this way.

Tunnel Construction

Tunnel-boring machine used for the Sheppard line, seen below after construction sitting idly by some tunnel lining segments.

Tunnel Boring machine

The First Year of Operation

After opening with much fanfare, the Sheppard subway has operated reliably and with good reviews with riders. However, eleven months after the line opened, the TTC came out with a report on the line’s performance which had some disappointing numbers. Initial projections for the line called for 15 million riders, 1 million of which would be new to the TTC. Ridership figures show that, instead, the line has taken 11 million riders, only 800,000 of which are new to the TTC. The TTC blames SARS and a slightly stale economy for the lower-than-expected ridership figures.

The fact remains that ridership on the Sheppard subway is twice what it was when only buses operated along Sheppard Avenue, and some of the connecting bus services have received a considerable boost as a result of the new service. The 190 Scarborough Centre Rocket, a limited stop service between Don Mills station and the Scarborough Town Centre, carried twice as many riders as expected. This is a good sign for a service which is seen as a precursor to a subway extension to the Scarborough Town Centre. The TTC also noted that ridership on the subway line is growing, and will continue to grow as a number of high rise projects along the line open. With cars operating half full, there the Sheppard subway has plenty of room to grow.

Where does the TTC go from here?

When the Sheppard subway opened in 2002, the top expansion priority for the City of Toronto was officially to complete the subway extensions started in 1994 but cancelled by Mike Harris (the Eglinton West line, and the subway extension to York University). As the required funding was slow to materialize, however, a number of proposals and counterproposals emerged which altered the priority list.

As recently as 2003, the TTC brought forward a report suggesting that the top priority for subway expansion should be a eastward extension to Victoria Park, with an intermediate station at Consumers Road. This would be part of a $2.1 billion extension of the line to the Scarborough Town Centre. In that report, the TTC suggested that the proposed westward extension of the subway from Sheppard-Yonge station to Downsview was no longer a priority, since only one station (the intermediate stop at Bathurst) would add to the network, and the area served didn’t have the densities to justify subway service.

Provincial funding, however, bypassed the Sheppard subway and focused on an extension of the Spadina subway to York University. In 2006, the provincial government of Dalton McGuinty committed funding to the York University extension (running past York University and into the new Vaughan Corporate Centre at Highway 7 and Jane Street) and, in 2007, the federal government committed its share of the funds. The 8.6 kilometre extension was initially expected to open in autumn 2016.

Frustrated by the slow pace of subway construction, city and TTC planners have suggested that money could be better invested in a lower cost LRT network. In March 2007, the City of Toronto issued Transit City, a proposal to build a network of LRT lines throughout the city. These included a Sheppard East LRT, extending east from Don Mills station, running along Sheppard Avenue all the way to Meadowvale. The line would serve Sheppard Avenue more than just provide a link between the Scarborough Town Centre and downtown North York, and the Transit City proposal suggested that a connection with the Scarborough RT could occur at a Sheppard/Markham Road station on an extension of the RT line.

The Network 2011 proposal called for the Sheppard subway to be extended west beyond Downsview station, taking a hop north to Finch Avenue, where it would run along the Hydro right-of-way. The line would enter northern Etobicoke and then travel south on Highways 27 and 427 to connect with the Bloor-Danforth subway line. Back in 1985, this was not listed as a priority for 2011, but Transit City incorporates part of this proposal in LRT form, with a line along Finch Avenue from Finch station into northern Etobicoke.

The Sheppard subway may remain a stub for years to come, forcing passengers to transfer between several different modes in order to travel the length of the street, a monument of unfinished plans, underfunded public transportation and expensive subway technology. Despite this, the need for rapid transit lines across the northern part of the City of Toronto remains. These may eventually be built, albeit as LRT lines rather than full-fledged subways, and in the future, who knows? The Transit City proposal speaks of using LRT lines in order to increase transit use in the car-dependent suburbs, and the hope is that demand will eventually be sufficient that new subways become a necessity.

The Sheppard subway may eventually reach into Scarborough, but likely not in the near future.

4 Sheppard Subway Image Archive


  • Haskill, Scott., ‘Toronto Subway Expansion’, Rail and Transit, March 1993, p3-5, The Upper Canada Railway Society, Toronto (Ontario).
  • Toronto Transit Commission, Leslie Station Open House Media Kit, Toronto Transit Commission, Toronto (Ontario), 2000
  • Toronto Transit Commission, Sheppard subway Project Overview, Toronto Transit Commission, Toronto (Ontario), 2000
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