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A Subway To York University and Beyond

Logo for the Vaughan proposal

A logo of the Vaughan proposal in support of the York University extension.

Text by James Bow

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On Sunday, December 17, 2017, the first revenue train pushed north of Finch Avenue, and kept going. For the first time in the sixty-year history of the subway, the train crossed Steeles Avenue, the old boundary of Metropolitan Toronto, and continued two kilometres north, stopping in the heart of the redeveloping City of Vaughan. Stranger still, this train was not operating on the YONGE subway line, which reached Finch in 1974. Rather, it travelled on the SPADINA line, which opened for the public four years after the last extension to the Yonge line opened. But despite the Spadina subway’s youth,its 8.6 kilometre, six station extension was the culmination of over a quarter-century of planning and preparation, political wrangling and will.

The extension of the Spadina subway to York University and the new commercial centre for the City of Vaughan was originally conceived as an extension that went nowhere near York University or Vaughan. Instead of heading northwest towards the Steeles/Jane intersection, Spadina trains would have travelled north on Dufferin to Finch and then east from there to Yonge.

Arguing Over Subway Plans in the 1980s

The year was 1989, and the province of Ontario and the municipality of Metropolitan Toronto were arguing over where the city’s next subways should be built. Five years earlier, Metropolitan Toronto had approved the Network 2011 Plan. This would have placed subways beneath Sheppard Avenue, Eglinton Avenue and through the east and south sides of Toronto’s downtown core. In 1985, the plan was estimated to cost $2.1 billion over thirty years.

In 1984, Bill Davis was still premier of Ontario. He had previously green-lighted a number of major transportation initiatives, including the Spadina subway and the Scarborough RT. His government was currently working on a proposal to set up a regional LRT system in the form of GO-ALRT. He was seen as sympathetic to Toronto’s transportation plans, and likely to have approved Metro’s Network 2011 proposal.

But Premier Davis retired, and the Conservatives were defeated after the next election. The new Liberal government of David Petersen wasn’t interested in spending the billions required to build Metro’s plan, and they set about looking for alternatives. In 1989, they proposed a Yonge-Spadina Belt Line.

The Province Proposes a Belt Line

One of the components of the Network 2011 proposal was a Downtown Relief Line, running from Pape Station to the Spadina/Front intersection, allowing commuters from Scarborough quick access to Toronto’s downtown while bypassing the overcroweded Bloor-Yonge interchange. In 1985, the proposed line was estimated to cost over a half-a-billion dollars. Support for the line was lukewarm, however, due in part to the cost, but also because it offered subway service to voters who arguably already had it. Politicians — especially those at the provincial level — gravitated towards installing suburbs in the vote-rich suburbs.

However, the issues which had led planners at Metro and the TTC to propose a Downtown Relief subway line hadn’t gone away. The Bloor-Yonge interchange was still operating at unsafe levels of crowding, and there was a limit to how much extra service could be added to the Yonge line. The TTC briefly considered renovating Bloor station to widen the station “box”, move the tracks apart, and install a central platform that would flush passengers out of trains quicker. They considered improving the signal system, to try and run subways through the stations at 90 second intervals — an increase in capacity of more than 33% over the current 120 second limit. These changes could eliminate the need for a Downtown Relief subway line, they argued, but they couldn’t be limited to just Bloor-Yonge station.

Thwarting the TTC’s plans to increase service on the Yonge-University-Spadina subway line were the terminals at Finch and Wilson. Unless turnaround times at these stations could be decreased, service more frequent than 120 seconds was impossible. After studying the issue, it was decided that one way to decrease the amount of time trains spent at the terminals was to eliminate the terminals altogether.

As a result, in 1989, provincial planners proposed extending the Yonge subway, taking it through a sharp left turn north of Finch Avenue and operating it west along the Ontario Hydro right-of-way. The line would continue to the Dufferin/Finch intersection (where a reservoir would have posed challenges to construction) before heading south beneath Dufferin Street to join up with the Spadina subway at Wilson station. The intermediate stops would be at Bathurst, Finch/Dufferin and Sheppard/Dufferin.

The result would have been a gigantic belt-line. Not only would this allow the TTC to run trains closer together, it would separate the northbound and southbound tracks into two continuously operating unidirectional subway lines. Delays on one line would no longer have an affect on the other. Also, by joining the two ends of the line across the hydro right-of-way north of Finch Avenue, passengers boarding the Yonge subway at Finch, Sheppard or York Mills could “go over the top” and access downtown stops via the Spadina line (which had capacity to spare) with travel times that were comparable to taking the subway straight down Yonge. Between this and proposed bus lane improvements, provincial planners argued, the need for both the Downtown Relief and Sheppard subway lines could be eliminated.

The Battle Begins.

The province’s proposal upset backers of the Sheppard subway line, especially North York Mayor Mel Lastman. Critics ridiculed the idea of running trains through deserted Hydro corridors and asked if groundhogs were the intended passengers. Scarborough residents and politicians complained that, unlike the Sheppard subway proposal, the Belt Line plan benefitted North York alone and not them.

Representatives from York University and York Region, however, thought that the proposal had merit — so long as the Belt Line was expanded to run beneath Steeles Avenue and through the suburban university campus before heading southeast to connect to the Spadina subway. While this decreased the likelihood of Yonge patrons going “over the top” to use the Spadina subway for their trips downtown, this proposal offered many of the benefits of the Finch proposal, as well as offering improved access to York University for its students, and a strong incentive for York Region commuters to get out of their cars.

As the debate between the Network 2011 plan and the Belt Line proposal continued, the Petersen government approved construction on the one common element between both plans: a short one-station extension of the Spadina subway from Wilson station to the Sheppard/Dufferin intersection. Despite acknowledging that the extension ran “from nowhere to nowhere”, Metro politicians agreed to the extension, and construction started in 1989. Seven years later, Downsview station opened to the public.

The New Democrats Stall, then Push the Proposal.

In September 1990, the Petersen Liberals fell to Bob Rae and the New Democratic Party, and provincial support for new subway construction was delayed yet again. It would be another four years before the NDP brought forward their “Let’s Move” plan. In their proposal, the Network 2011 plan had been reduced to truncated versions of the Sheppard and Eglinton West subways. In addition to these two lines, the Rae government proposed extending the Scarborough RT east and north to Sheppard and Markham Road, and extending the Spadina line to York University, possibly as the first phase of the belt line along Steeles Avenue.

By this time, support for the York University extension had increased. The City of Vaughan offered to pay for part of the cost of constructing Steeles West station. Despite this, Metropolitan Toronto felt that it could not support the Scarborough RT and York University proposals. The city was caught in the grip of a recession, and the funds weren’t available. In the end, the province and Metro agreed to start construction on the Eglinton West and Sheppard lines and hold back the Scarborough RT and York University extensions to a later date. The defeat of the NDP government and the election of Mike Harris’ Conservatives in June 1995 resulted in the cancellation of the Eglinton West subway, as well as the elimination of all operating and capital subsidy to public transportation (with the exception of the construction costs of the Sheppard subway). As a result, the York University extension proposal entered a phase of dormancy.

Vaughan York University Extension proposal

A representation of Vaughan’s 2002 proposal (above) and the preferred alignment identified by an environmental assessment in 2005 (below). Note the differences.


Vaughan Revives the Proposal

Despite Harris’ elimination of provincial funding for public transportation, as the Sheppard subway continued construction, the City of Toronto started to think about where next the subway extensions should go. On the eve of the 1999 provincial election, Mel Lastman asked TTC planners to consider which projects should have priority, should the Harris Conservatives offer a gift to Toronto voters. An extension of the Sheppard subway from Don Mills to Victoria Park rated highly. The Eglinton West subway and the Scarborough RT extension were hardly mentioned at all. Planners focused strongly on the Spadina extension to York University, however.

By 1999, the York University extension had a number of things in its favour. Proposed redevelopments of the Downsview military base, and the prospect of the 2008 Summer Olympics for Toronto, were strong incentives for the project. Then there was the City of Vaughan which, in the year 2000, brought forward a plan to build a new city core around the Jane/Highway 7 intersection. To anchor this development, they proposed taking the Spadina subway through York University and north of Steeles to this intersection. Vaughan offered to pay for the costs of all construction north of Steeles Avenue, as well as to lobby their local MPPs to commit provincial funding for the whole extension. York University threw its support behind Vaughan’s proposal, not only to get construction going, but because they didn’t want the subway to end at York University, as that could lead to an onslaught of York Region commuters seeking to park on University land.

When Vaughan’s proposal came forward, there was some consideration of joining the Yonge and Spadina subways along Highway 7, but the idea was quickly dropped. Around 2005, York Region and, later, the Province of Ontario put forward a proposal to extend the Yonge subway to Langstaff Avenue, with no thought of taking the line east, west or north from there. There were no serious proposals to bring the northern ends of the Yonge and Spadina lines together after 2002.

Downsview Station

A T-1 train pulls into what will be the northbound platform of Downsview station, after 2017. Photo by David Cavlovic.

Vaughan’s support brought the York University extension out of dormancy and made it a priority in the eyes of Toronto planners. The election of the McGuinty Liberal government, and particularly the election of McGuinty’s finance minister Greg Sorbara to that area’s riding, raised hopes that provincial funding would materialize. Finally the McGuinty Liberals offered funds so that the City of Toronto could embark on a full environmental assessment of the project, including public consultations. These were finished in 2005.

The environmental assessment and public consultation process in 2005 finalized the proposed alignment of the Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension to Steeles West. Further studies in 2007 through 2010 finalized the alignment to Vaughan and the placement and design of the stations. Initially, there was debate over whether the line should cross CN’s Newmarket subdivision (which the Barrie GO Trains use) closer to Finch or Sheppard Avenues. Also, until the City of Vaughan pushed its Corporate Centre plan, there was debate whether the line at Steeles should face northeast for a possible extension towards Yonge Street, or northwest for a possible extension towards Jane and Highway 7.

With the environmental assessment finalized, the provincial government announced its support of the project. On March 23, 2006, the province of Ontario surprised observers by committing $670 million in its budget to extend the Spadina subway not only to Steeles Avenue, but beyond to the proposed Vaughan Corporate Centre (later renamed Vaughan Metropolitan Centre). The funding covered just a third of the anticipated cost of construction at the time. The Region of York and the City of Toronto themselves had to put up an additional third of the share (with Toronto covering 60% and York 40%), with the final share to come from the federal government in Ottawa. Delays in obtaining this funding, as well as further public consultation on the detailed design, kept shovels out of the ground until 2010. Finally, construction began in earnest, building a shaft at the north end of Downsview Park. At around this time, the project’s name was changed, and officially referred to as the Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension (TYSSE).

Tunnelling Begins.

The extension’s design phase came to a close near the end of 2009, and work began in earnest on building the line. The first step was to drill into the route, to gather soil samples to confirm the conditions that construction workers were going to face as they dug deep. The soil samples generally confirmed that the water table along the route was higher than expected — a fact which significantly increased the cost of construction throughout the line.

As work began on the initial shaft near what would become Downsview Park station. The tunnel boring machines arrived at the site on January 17, 2011. Tunnel boring was chosen as the primary means of construction in order to limit disruption on the surface. The four machines — named Holey, Moley, Yorkie and Torkie via a contest — were built by a Toronto-based company called Lovat. and purchased by the TTC for $58 million. The tunnel borers will cover 6.6 kilometres of the extension’s 8.6 kilometre length, with the remainder built using a cut-and-cover technique.

On Friday, June 17, 2011, Toronto mayor Rob Ford joined provincial Minister of Transportation Kathleen Wynne, York Region Chairman Bill Fisch, TTC Chair Karen Stintz and federal Minister of the Environment Peter Kent at a ceremony which launched the first of the four tunnel boring machines that would build the bulk of the route in time for an opening late in 2015.

At what was then Downsview station (later renamed Sheppard West), initial plans called for a pocket track to be built north of the station, but such a construction would have required a number of businesses to be expropriated and demolished. Revised plans called for the pocket track to be moved south of the station, allowing trains to short turn at Wilson. However, no such pocket track was built. Instead, as part of the extension, a new tunnel and track was built connecting Downsview/Sheppard West station with Wilson Yard. Construction started in February 2010 using cut-and-cover as well as decking to get the tunnel beneath Allan Road. The new tunnel diverges from the southbound track just south of the Downsview crossover and heads southwest to access Wilson Yard from the north. With this connection, trains can more easily head northbound from Wilson Yard, starting service earlier in Vaughan and at York University.

From the Sheppard West/Downsview Park station site, the four tunnel boring machines dug twin tunnels, 5.4 metres wide, in opposite directions from the station, with one set heading towards Downsview station, and the other set heading northwest to Finch West. Once their job was done, they were extracted and moved. One set was placed at Steeles West, heading southeast towards Finch West, while the other set started at Highway 407, and heading north and south to complete the line.

A Question of Names

While the tunnel boring machines started chomping out paths towards Vaughan, the TTC tackled the thorny question of what to name the stations en route. Planners noted the potential for confusion between two stations on the route: the stop immediately after Downsview, located on the north end of Downsview Park, was initially to be named Sheppard West, even though Downsview station, with its large bus terminal, was the first station on the Spadina subway to open at Sheppard Avenue. An alternate name for Sheppard West station was Downsview Park, but the TTC feared that such a name would be too easily confused with Downsview station.

At the other end of the line, the City of Vaughan asked for the terminal station to be named Vaughan Metropolitan Centre, something TTC planners initially opposed because the name, they argued, was too long. They suggested Vaughan Centre would be easier to remember and in keeping with other station examples including North York Centre and Scarborough Centre.

The TTC studied what to call every station on the line, and made recommendations as to names on September 30, 2010. They suggested that, when the Spadina extension opened, Downsview station should be renamed “Sheppard West” (proposals to name the station “Allen”, “Dufferin North” and “Sheppard-Allen” were rejected). The next station, initially proposed to be named Sheppard West, would instead be named Downsview Park (rejecting “GO-Sheppard”, “Chesswood”, “Bakersfield” and “Carl Hall”).

Further north, the stop beneath the Finch/Keele intersection would be named “Finch West”, in spite of a local councillor’s campaign to name the stop “University Heights”. The proposed names of “Keele North” and “Keele-Finch” were also rejected, along with “Four Winds” and “Sentinel”.

North of Finch West, the station following would be named “York University”, as it is in the centre of campus. “Ian MacDonald”, “University” and “York” were all rejected.

The next station, located beneath Steeles Avenue, was initially to be named “Steeles West”, in anticipation of the Yonge line’s extension to Steeles Avenue and beyond. However, in September 2012, TTC commissioners voted to alter the station’s name to Black Creek Pioneer Village, after the museum park of heritage buildings located nearly 500 metres to the west. This lengthy name required alterations to the design of the station’s entrance. The station entrance would have bourne the words “Steeles West” along its curving roof line, but the new name was so long, the visible portion along the roof was likely to read “Eek Pio”. Commissioners voted to allow the architect to shorten the display to just “Pioneer Village”.

Further north, planners considered naming the next station “Black Creek” and “Jane North” before finally settling on “Highway 407”. As for the terminal station, the TTC accepted Vaughan’s request to name it “Vaughan Metropolitan Centre”.

Delays and Reorganization

Unfortunately, by early 2015, it was clear that the subway extension project was not proceeding to plan. Weather-related delays played a role due to unexpectedly cold winters, and time was lost to a Ministry of Labour investigation when a fatal accident cost the life of a construction worker, pushing the official opening date to 2016 and putting the project $400 million over budget. There were further concerns over how contractors at some of the stations were not meeting deadlines, and questions over how the TTC managed its contractors. On March 20, 2015, the TTC took a report that highlighted a number of additional costly delays that would push the opening beyond 2016. As a result of these delays, two senior TTC executives tied to the project resigned.

The report laid out four options for continuing. The most expensive option, keeping the current organizational set-up, was expected to cost $185 million, and delay the opening of the extension to 2019. The cheapest, sourcing the remainder of the construction to a third-party project manager (one candidate was already available), would cost only $150 million, and allow the project to be finished by 2017. Opening the project and issuing a request for proposals could push the cost up to $180 million, and delay the opening to 2018.

At its meeting, the TTC Commissioners approved the report, assigning the remaining construction and oversight of the extension to the single bidder. The opening date was officially pushed back to late 2017, although the pace picked up. The TTC completed the tunnelling and trackwork by March 2017, and work equipment started to move along the rails (pulled by a diesel motor) to test the clearance. Finally, the third rail power was turned on and, on April 4, 2017, the first Toronto Rocket train moved slowly north of Downsview (Sheppard West) station and into Downsview Park where it stopped for photographs. That train continued from there and reached the end of the line at Vaughan later that morning.

The TTC also announced that the formal renaming of Downsview station to Sheppard West would commence on May 1st, to allow some transition time between then and the opening of the extension to allow passengers to get used to the change. Work to change and update the station signs began around that time. Finally, at the TTC’s September board meeting on September 5, 2017, TTC CEO Andy Byford announced that revenue service would begin on the subway extension on December 17, 2017. Effective November 26, 2017, the TTC began operating “ghost service” through the extension, with trains operating as if on a full schedule, but with no passenger pickups and northbound passengers obliged to disembark at Sheppard West station.

Opening Ceremonies

At 9:30 a.m. on Friday, December 15, 2017, dignitaries gathered at Vaughan Metropolitan Centre station for the opening ceremonies. Attending politicians included Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, City of Toronto mayor John Tory. After cutting the ribbon, dignitaries boarded a waiting train and headed down to York University station for speeches. The event was also attended by protesting sub-contracted construction workers, as part of a dispute between them, the general contractor and the TTC regarding payment of work.

The opening ceremonies were followed up with an open house at Finch West station the next day. This station had been the only one not to receive a public preview, due to work that still needed to be done. On Sunday, December 17, at the official launch of service, Mayor John Tory and TTC Chairman Mike Colle boarded the first northbound train at Sheppard West station and met with Ontario Transport Minister Steven Del Duca at Pioneer Village station to complete the trip to Vaughan Metropolitan Centre. The TTC also announced that, thanks to contributions from the provincial government, the whole transit system would operate fare-free that Sunday to celebrate the opening of the new extension.

The Alignment and its Stations

The Toronto York Spadina Subway Extension starts at Sheppard West station, heading north of Sheppard Avenue and curving gently west, passing beneath Sheppard Avenue at Chesswood Drive and proceeding west a short distance south of Sheppard Avenue. Here, Downsview Park station is located beneath the Barrie GO Train line. Entrance pavilions on either side of the new GO station give passengers access to pedestrian walkways leading to Sheppard Avenue and towards Downsview Park. The western entrance features a kiss ‘n’ ride drop-off area. Passengers have to walk to Sheppard Avenue to connect with nearby buses, and most passengers on those buses make their connection to the subway at Sheppard West instead. Metrolinx built a GO Train station between the two pavilions, accessed from the eastern pavilion. This station opened to expanded Barrie GO train service on December 30, 2017.

The initial budget for the construction of Downsview Park station was set at $59.2 million. In 2010, the TTC estimated that the final cost of construction, including costs recovered from GO Transit, would be $102 million. The reason for the increase in costs included a higher than expected water table, and building the station to Toronto’s new Green Standard. To save money, the TTC recommended reducing the curve of the line west of the station, switching to tunnelling instead of cut-and-cover for the tracks between Sheppard West and Downsview Park, and eliminating an emergency exit building.

Continuing west, the line passes beneath Sheppard Avenue at Ceramic Road, and then curves gently north, passing beneath Keele Street at St. Regis Crescent, and continuing north under Keele Street. Finch West station is built beneath and just north of the Keele/Finch intersection, featuring a bus terminal connecting with Keele and Finch West buses, commuter parking in the Hydro right-of-way (400 spaces) and a passenger pick-up/drop-off area.

In 2010, the TTC approved a station design which included a connection with a Finch West LRT on Finch Avenue. This plan changed in December of that year when newly elected mayor Rob Ford cancelled Toronto’s support for the project. In February 2012, plans were changed again when Toronto City Council reversed Mayor Ford’s decision to cancel the Finch West LRT. A provision for the LRT has been built into the station, with a knock-out wall provided for the LRT’s planned opening in 2023. The construction of Finch West station was initially budgeted for $109 million, but had increased to $134 million by 2010.

North of Finch

North of Finch West station, the line continues north beneath Keele Street before turning gently northwest. The next station, named York University, is located beneath York University Commons, where a number of transit vehicles used to meet. The main station building is located in the east end of the Commons, with north and south entrances adjacent to the York Lanes Mall and the Accolades East building respectively. The station has no off-street bus terminal and no dedicated parking. Most TTC routes were rerouted to the next station north. Connections with remaining GO, York Region Transit and Brampton Transit buses occur on-street around the Common area.

The station was originally budgeted to cost $86 million. By early in 2010, a high water table, higher than expected inflation, and Toronto’s Green Standard had increased those costs to $115 million, prompting the TTC, the station design consultant and York University to enter into discussions about ways to reduce costs.

Continuing northwest, the line enters Pioneer Village station (formerly known as “Steeles West”), with a platform beneath Steeles Avenue a few hundred metres east of Murray Ross Parkway. There are several pedestrian entrances, and two bus terminals (a 12 bay one for TTC buses and the other for York Region/VIVA and GO Transit buses), with a passenger pick-up/drop-off alongside a large commuter parking lot (19,000 spaces) in the Hydro right-of-way running north of Steeles Avenue.

On Into Vaughan

North of Pioneer Village, the line curves until it runs north, still underground, just to the west of Jane Street. Just south of Highway 407, Highway 407 station offers a commuter parking lot with 600 spaces, and a bus terminal to serve GO Transit and a single York Region Transit route. There is also a corridor covered by a knockout-wall leading from the fare concourse to an as-yet-unbuilt transitway along Highway 407. Construction of this station was initially budgeted for $95 million. Complications to the project increased costs to over $134 million.

Heading north, the line continues underground, paralleling Jane Street before finally reaching Highway 7 and the final station, Vaughan Metropolitan Centre. The actual stop is beneath Millway Avenue and Highway 7, one block west of Jane. Vaughan Metropolitan Centre offers a direct connection with a sheltered stop on the VIVA Rapidway serving VIVA Orange and Brampton Zum buses. North of the station, the Smart Centres Bus terminal provides connections with other York Region Transit routes. There is a passenger pick-up and drop-off area, but no dedicated station parking. Instead, Vaughan Metropolitan Centre station anchors a major redevelopment of the area, with high rises, commercial and residential development designed to be accessed by walking to and from the station. In keeping with Vaughan’s urban design for its Corporate Centre, plans for the station include space for bike storage.

To simplify fare collection, the subway stations north of Steeles Avenue are considered to be within the TTC fare zone, with no transfers offered or accepted from connecting York Region Transit routes. The TTC is entitled to all fare revenue from Vaughan Metropolitan Centre and Highway 407 stations, but is responsible for the stations’ upkeep.


The Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension has had its share of critics during its long history. Some have questioned the merits of stations by Downsview Park or in the middle of a field near Highway 407. Others have complained that the subway was looked upon favourably more for its service to the strategic riding of Vaughan than for its actual merit. However, when it opened in December 2017, the 8.6 kilometre extension was be the longest extension to the Toronto subway network in almost 40 years. It connects with a number of important regional transit services, including York Region’s VIVA and GO Transit services along Highway 407.

The Spadina subway extension also anchors a major redevelopment in the heart of Vaughan that the city hopes will change its suburban nature into something more urban and far less dependent on the automobile. The extension will also carry more than 100,000 passengers per year — far fewer than the Yonge or Bloor-Danforth subways in their first days, but more than what the Sheppard subway currently handles.

Like it or not, the Spadina subway extension is a major addition not just to the Toronto’s subway network, but to the overall transportation picture of the Greater Toronto Area.

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