Text By Daniel Garcia
Service on the Richmond Hill GO train line began on May 1, 1978. That morning, three trains ran south from Richmond Hill station, stopping at Langstaff, Old Cummer and Oriole before ending their runs at Toronto Union Station. That evening, three trains ran back north to Richmond Hill. The line was the first GO Train service to serve the developing communities north of Metropolitan Toronto, though not the first commuting train operating north of the city.
Unlike the Georgetown and Lakeshore lines that had started up before it, the Richmond Hill GO train was the first all-new GO train service. It did not replace a Canadian National, Canadian Pacific or VIA Rail commuter train, although VIA and Ontario Northland did operate along the route, making a stop just north of where the current Oriole station now sits. Also, unlike the Georgetown line then in service at the time — and every line opened since — the trains on the Richmond Hill line were stored at Willowbrook instead of at the suburban terminus, requiring deadhead runs early in the morning and late in the evening.
A Tour of the Line
The line on which the Richmond Hill GO train operates — Canadian National’s Bala sub — is arguably the most scenic of the GO Train system. Boarding the train at Union, passengers are taken along the CN Kingston sub for about 1500 metres to Cherry Street. Here, the Bala sub begins, branching off in a tight curve that heads north. After moving past the branch for CP’s Belleville sub, the train continues to operate in the space between the Bayview Avenue extension and the Don River. The line passes beneath bridges bearing Queen, Dundas and Gerrard streets, and then a pedestrian bridge at Riverdale Park before passing beneath the Prince Edward Viaduct. Soon, on the left side of the train, after passing Pottery Road, passengers can see the Evergreen Brickworks.
After the Prince Edward Viaduct, the Don Valley widens, and the surrounding scenery changes from industrial trackside scrub to urban wilderness. Dirt pathways sometimes parallel or cross the tracks as the train runs alongside the Don River, and the dense foliage can make one forget that one is in the city. The only signs of civilization to be seen from the train are the Leaside Bridge, glimpses of the Don Valley Parkway, and the bridge bearing Eglinton Avenue.
The train follows the meandering Don River past Eglinton, and then starts angling north-northwest, slowly emerging from the valley as it approaches York Mills Road. More and more buildings can be seen in the distance — primarily commercial and industrial, but occasionally the odd residence.
Finally, the train dives beneath Highway 401 and comes to a stop at Oriole station, which the GO Train used to share with Ontario Northland’s Northlander, but no longer. Oriole station boasts a parking lot for 286 cars, located largely between the columns bearing Highway 401 over the station site. Access to the station is from Leslie Street (south of the 401), or from Esther Shiner Boulevard (north of the 401).
As the Sheppard subway was being built, proposals were made to move Oriole station further north, to provide a more convenient connection with the subway at Leslie station, but this did not come to pass. Instead, a walkway from Leslie station’s western entrance connects passengers to the GO walkway at Esther Shiner Boulevard.
After leaving Oriole, the Bala Sub crosses and skirts the Don Valley again, although not as spectacularly as before. The line abuts residential developments between Sheppard and Finch. After crossing Finch Avenue, the train stops at Old Cummer station. A long walking connection is available between the station and buses on Finch Avenue. There is also a parking lot available with 437 spaces, located in the Hydro right-of-way north of Finch Avenue.
From Old Cummer, the GO train heads north, passing over Steeles Avenue before meeting CN’s York sub at Doncaster. The York sub was built in the late 1960s as a rail bypass around the lines heading into Toronto. The traffic it removed from the older subdivisions provided the track space that GO Transit needed to establish and grow its commuter train operations.
The Bala sub crosses the York sub on a diamond, as did the subdivisions housing GO’s Barrie and Stouffville trains. As the York sub is one of CN’s busiest lines, the crossing was the source of some delay for these operations. Recently, these delays have been eliminated on the Barrie and Stouffville lines through the construction of rail underpasses. No such underpass has been built for the Bala sub, and one is not expected to be built in the foreseeable future.
After crossing Bayview Avenue and the Holy Cross Cemetery, the train pulls into Langstaff station, which currently sits beneath the overpasses of Highway 7 and Highway 407, located just east of Yonge Street. Here, parking is available for 1041 cars (621 in the north lot and 420 in the south lot). The close proximity to Highway 407 makes this a popular park ‘n’ ride location. The area has also undergone redevelopment, with big box stores going up on both sides of the tracks.
On the west side of the tracks, north of Highway 7, York Region Transit built Richmond Hill Centre, a bus terminal connecting local buses with regional services like VIVA. When the terminal opened on September 4, 2005, no connection was offered between this centre and Langstaff GO station, even though the two were in sight of each other. Langstaff’s platform was on the east side of the tracks, and a fence along the rail right-of-way made connections between the two facilities hazardous. It would take a couple of years before a bridge was built, allowing a lengthy walking connection between Langstaff GO station and its parking lot with York Region’s buses in the terminal.
Finally, after leaving Langstaff, the line curves north-northeast, passing through newly established residential neighbourhoods and commercial developments like the South Hill Shopping Centre. After passing the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Observatory and crossing Major Mackenzie Drive, the train pulls into its final stop at Richmond Hill.
The Casino Rama Express
GO Trains have operated north of Richmond Hill station. On August 1, 1996, soon after Casino Rama opened on the shores of northern Lake Simcoe, the Casino leased the operation of two GO Trains (operated using CN crews) which used the Bala sub to transport passengers between Union and a temporary station close to the Casino site. Trains initially operated daily, departing Union Monday through Thursday at 9:50 a.m., arriving at Rama at 12:20 p.m. On Fridays, a train departed Union at 6:05 p.m. and got into Rama at 9:45 p.m. On weekends and holidays, trains departed Union at 11:00 a.m. and arrived at Rama at 1:30 p.m. Return trips were at 5:20 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays (arrival at Union at 7:45 p.m.), Saturday morning at 2:00 p.m. (arrival at Union at 4:20 a.m.) and weekends and holidays at 6:45 p.m. (arrival at Union at 9:05 p.m.). The cost of a round trip was $30.
While not officially a part of the GO network, Casino Rama Express trains stopped at all stops on the Richmond Hill GO line before continuing on to Washago (where the Bala Sub met the Newmarket sub). Then the trains would reverse direction and back down the Newmarket sub about two kilometres to the Rama station site.
Despite marketing the train, the service did not prove popular. The last run operated on October 2, 1996.
Although the suburbs north of Toronto have grown considerably in the interim, little has changed on the Richmond Hill Go line since it was established in 1978. A fourth morning southbound and afternoon northbound train was added, as well as train-bus service in the midday. GO bus connections with Oriole and Old Cummer stations didn’t prove popular, however, and the train buses currently serve just Langstaff and Richmond Hill GO stations.
There have been proposals to increase train service throughout the day, possibly as a relief to the Yonge subway, even as the province of Ontario and York region considers extending the subway line to Richmond Hill Centre beside Langstaff GO station. Little has come of these proposals, however. The four trains running between Richmond Hill and Union are packed, but there seems to be little demand for service outside of the rush hour. The Yonge subway and VIVA’s Blue line appear to be too much of a draw.
In 2011, the government of Ontario announced construction of a two station extension north and east of Richmond Hill, following the Bala sub to Bloomington, in the town of Whitchurch-Stouffville. An intermediate station would be placed near the community of Gormley, close to Highway 404. The extension would add 1550 parking spaces. Both stations would offer single platforms, bus loops and kiss ‘n’ ride areas. It is hoped that this extension, opening late in 2013, would help reduce congestion on Highway 404. Assuming that this extension is successful, service could be extended further, towards the communities of Pefferlaw and Beaverton.
Richmond Hill GO Train Image Archive
- Humble, Lance. “Train Trip to Casino Rama”, Online.