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Sheppard subway sees light at end of tunnel

Joseph Hall


TAKING SHAPE: A new tunnel near the Yonge-Sheppard subway station awaits the installation of rails.

Step down from a tunnel platform on to the new Sheppard subway line’s third rail and you’re in for a bit of a shock.

No, not of the electrical variety.

That should come sometime in November when the Toronto Transit Commission pulls a switch that will send 600 volts through the rail along the 6.4-kilometre line.

For now, the jolt comes from seeing how much work has been completed here, nearly a year and a half before the five-station line opens for business.

“We have about 80 per cent of the track work done and a large portion of the power line is in complete,” says Andy Bertolo, Sheppard’s chief project manager. “And the stations are taking shape very nicely.”

Two stations, the Leslie and Don Mills stops, are, for all intents and purposes, complete.

The remaining three, Bayview, Bessarion and Yonge-Sheppard - a $140-million engineering marvel - are nearly 80 per cent finished.

In November, TTC engineers will start running empty subway cars along the line, exhaustively testing every signal, trip bar, rail and switch before paying customers pass though the gates, some time between June 30 and Aug. 2, 2002.

While development at street level - on which the Sheppard line was predicated - has failed to materialize, the truncated and much maligned subway below is an undeniably impressive piece of architecture and engineering.

‘There’s nothing wrong with Sheppard. Over time it will grow and mature, but don’t expect in the year 2002 that I’m going to come in with a nice rosy picture that it made money because it isn’t going to happen.’

— TTC chief general manager Rick Ducharme

“Any time you have a billion-dollar job, there are going to be problems and we’ve had our share,” says Bertolo, who’s been three years at the helm of the oft-interrupted project, which first broke ground in 1995.

“But the tunnel segment will be an improvement on every other line in the system and, despite what people might have feared, I think the stations themselves look pretty good.”

If the nearly completed Don Mills and Leslie stations are any indication, most passengers will likely share Bertolo’s opinion.

In a fit of largely symbolic cost-cutting, TTC commissioners voted three years ago to scrimp on station decor along the line.

Ordering designers to forgo tiles on tunnel walls opposite the platforms and to drop the conventional aluminum stripping from large swatches of station ceiling, commissioners created the potential for an architectural Alcatraz.

Despite the restrictions, however, the two completed stations are far from spartan.

They are colourful, spacious and roomy, with an airy sense that is so sorely missing from the claustrophobic, public-washroom atmosphere of most stops on the Bloor/Danforth and Yonge/University lines.

While not quite as opulent as Spadina line stations, the Sheppard stops will not lack for imaginative artistry.


The $88 million Don Mills stop, for example, adds huge murals of area geology and fossil life to its salmon-coloured backdrop.

“The whole theme of the tile is based on the soil investigation that was done for the station. It’s a reflection of the soils and it’s accurate,” says Don Frank, resident superintendent of the Don Mills and Leslie station projects.

“The different colours in the tile represent the soil stratigraphy, the various layers of clays and sands and silts and water table.”

Embedded into the geological mural are brass outlines of fossils found while digging up the station, which drops 22 metres below the surface at platform level.

Sheppard’s second most expensive station, Don Mills, sits at the eastern end of the line and boasts several features that set it apart from its four counterparts, including the city’s biggest bus bay.

There’s also a 1,000-space parking facility, built by the TTC in a swap for land with the adjacent Fairview Mall, which provides 400 spots for commuters, who enter through a pay booth and have direct elevator access to the station.

The station also shares many innovative characteristics with the rest of the Sheppard stops, including elevators for the disabled and raised tiles on platform floors that can lead the blind to stairwells and exits.

Each of the five station platforms will also be shorter than others in the subway system.

Normally, TTC trains string six subway cars together for a combined length of about 135 metres. But Sheppard trains will only be four cars long and the line’s platforms have been truncated accordingly.

At the opposite end of the line from Don Mills, structural work on Sheppard’s most impressive station is just now being completed.

At $140 million, the Yonge St. station and its surrounding track work represents the single most expensive element on the Sheppard line, including the six-kilometre tunnel.

Most of this expense has been tied up in the engineering complexity of building a new subway station directly over a working stop.

“We actually had to remove a portion of the roof on the existing station to build this one over it,” says Paul Nolan, who was in charge of the Yonge St. project.

The roof, Bertolo says, likely represented the Sheppard project’s most exacting piece of engineering.

Because the new east-west station platform will have as little as a metre of cover between its ceiling and the road above, it actually had to be built below the roof level of the north-south station that sits underneath it.

Thus a 20-metre-wide section of the lower roof, made of reinforced concrete, had to be sawed out - while the subway continued operations below.

Once the roof was removed, the new floor of the east-west station had to be bridged over the opened ceiling of the Yonge line station below.

But the new Yonge station, which includes an above-ground concourse, is only the visible part of an elaborate web of connected structures being completed below.

With no repair shops or train yards along the Sheppard line, the Yonge station must serve as a transfer point for subway cars to access the north-south line below.

To do this, subway planners included two so-called Y-lines at either end of Sheppard’s Yonge Station.

Located about 180 metres to either side of the station, the lines take trains in a gently curving tunnel, up and down the seven-metre grade between the two sets of tracks.

At track level, the Sheppard line represents a major departure from its older counterparts across the system.

At 5.2 metres, the tunnel is 30 centimetres wider than its cousins, giving workers some breathing room as trains pass by.

Riders will notice the Sheppard tunnel is also brighter than they are used to, with lights built in to aid track workers.

Sheppard should also provide a smoother than normal ride, with a series of rubber buffers separating every piece of steel and concrete along the entire track structure.

Sheppard should also provide a smoother than normal ride, with a series of rubber buffers separating every piece of steel and concrete along the entire track structure.

In a nod to the wired age, Sheppard will also provide high-powered fibre-optic connections, which can be accessed for a fee by businesses above.

It’s the paucity of new businesses and housing above, however, that concerns city and TTC officials.

When Sheppard was saved from a provincial Tory onslaught that killed the Eglinton line in 1996, then North York mayor Mel Lastman promised the surviving subway would pay for itself through fees from the development it would attract.

Yet only two lonely cranes currently dot the skyline along the route, and they both belong to the subway project itself.

Still, TTC chief general manager Rick Ducharme counsels patience.

“It’s going to be slow, but it’s coming,” he says of the promised development.

Ducharme recalls similar concerns being aired about the Spadina line, when it was being built in the early 1970s by then Tory premier William Davis.

“Now we’re 22 years later and quite frankly, I don’t know how we’d be operating without Spadina,” he says.

Yet Ducharme admits the line, in its shortened configuration, is likely to be a financial strain on the penurious commission for the foreseeable future.

“There’s nothing wrong with Sheppard. Over time it will grow and mature, but don’t expect in the year 2002 that I’m going to come in with a nice rosy picture that it made money because it isn’t going to happen,” Ducharme says.

“The reality is that I’m going to be coming back once this thing opens and ask for more operating money because for the first few years the reality is it’s going to lose money.”

To thrive, Ducharme says, Sheppard must be pushed out incrementally over the years and kilometres to the Scarborough City Centre, where it was originally supposed to terminate.

“We know that we built half a subway; that’s my biggest criticism of it. But let’s get on with life,” he says.

From an engineering perspective, however, Bertolo says life is already good.

With some 1,700 people having worked on it under 70 separate contracts, the $930 million project is right on time and budget, despite losing 13 weeks to various strikes over the past three years.