Text by Daniel Garcia and James Bow
Rails first extended north from Toronto towards Barrie in 1852, when construction began on the Ontario, Simcoe & Northern Railway. Passenger train operation between Toronto and Aurora (then known as Machell's Corners) started on May 16, 1853. On October 11, 1853, service extended north to Barrie. The line would continue north to Collingwood.
Grand Trunk Railway took over operations of the line in 1888 and was itself absorbed by Canadian National in 1923. Passenger service on the line was primarily long distance, with Barrie a stop on the way between Toronto and points north, like Collingwood, North Bay and Sudbury. It was only on April 1, 1972 that Canadian National introduced a dedicated commuter service between Barrie and Toronto -- at the orders of the Canadian Transportation Commission. When the federal government transferred the nation's rail passenger operations to VIA Rail, VIA trains took over in 1978.
So, along with the Stouffville line, the Barrie line is one of two train services GO Transit inherited from VIA Rail. When a recession hit Canada in 1981, the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau looked at cutting VIA Rail's subsidy. The Pepin cuts eliminated 20% of VIA's network, including the complete abandonment of the Barrie, Stouffville and Peterborough runs. Public pressure encouraged the Ontario government to step in, since these services seemed to match GO's mandate. While they opted not to take over the Toronto-Peterborough train, the government of Ontario did incorporate the Barrie and Stouffville services into the GO Transit network. On September 7th, 1982, GO trains rolled for the first time, connecting Union Station to Bradford. Connecting buses took passengers the rest of the way to Barrie.
The Slow Expansion North
At first, GO Transit ran one round trip on weekdays (morning inbound, afternoon outbound), stopping at Maple, King City, Aurora, Newmarket and Bradford. On September 17, 1990, the Liberal provincial government of David Petersen announced an extension of train service north to Barrie, with a possible further extension to Orillia. Unfortunately, the new service was not popular enough to survive the coming recession and, on July 5, 1993, the New Democratic government of Bob Rae forced GO to cut back the train to Bradford again as part of a system-wide set of service cuts.
For years, the Bradford corridor had the lowest ridership of the GO network, but eventually development and growth in the Greater Toronto Area caught up, increasing demands for commuter service north of the City of Toronto. A second Bradford train was added on September 8, 1998, which resulted in a 45% increase in ridership within a few months. GO also added stations on the route, starting with Rutherford Road on January 7, 2001, York University on September 6, 2002, and East Gwillimbury on November 1, 2004.
The dream of extending rail service back to Barrie continued, with the likelihood increasing as the city experienced explosive growth in the late 1990s. Complicating the plan, however, was CN's decision to abandon the Newmarket sub north of Barrie, ripping up the tracks between Barrie and Washago. As a result, Barrie and Orillia lost what passenger train service they had to Toronto, as the Ontario Northland had to be rerouted along the Bala sub, on the east side of Lake Simcoe.
Arrival in Barrie, Finally!
Metrolinx bought CN's Newmarket sub north of CN's York subdivision on December 15, 2009 for $68 million, ensuring there would be no further abandonments. Before that, they had committed to improving service by installing bridge over the York subdivision at the old Snider diamond, which opened in December 2006. Thanks to funding from the federal and provincial governments, rail service extended north of Bradford to Barrie South station, located at the south end of the city. Trains started rolling to the new station on December 17, 2007, although bus connections were still needed to take passengers the rest of the way to downtown Barrie.
Finally, in 2009, Metrolinx announced plans to close the gap, reopening the historic Allendale station in downtown Barrie, at the shores of Lake Simcoe. After delays, a ceremonial first train rolled into the station (rechristened Allendale Waterfront) on January 29, 2012, with regular service starting the day after.
As of the summer of 2012, five GO trains now operate weekdays between Barrie and Toronto (five inbound in the morning, five outbound in the afternoon). In addition, in late May GO Transit announced that weekend and holiday train service would operate for the summer, with two trains running to and from Barrie, and four trains operating to and from East Gwillimbury (with bus connections taking passengers the rest of the way to Barrie). If this service is successful, Barrie residents will enjoy every-day-of-the-week train service, at least in the summer months, for the years to come.
Tour of the Line
From Union Station to Queen and Dufferin (the site of the old Parkdale station), the line runs on CN's Weston Sub, which also carries the Georgetown line. It also parallels CP's former Galt Sub, which carries the Milton line. At Parkdale, the Bradford line branches off onto the Newmarket Sub, which runs parallel to the Weston sub as far as Lansdowne, before rounding the former Knob Hill Farms store at Lansdowne and Dundas. Although the area here is mainly industrial and commercial, there are still pockets of houses here and there, particularly north of Bloor and south of CP's North Toronto Sub. At the south-east corner of the junction of the Newmarket and North Toronto Subs, a rather old (and in my opinion, graceful) factory building sits. It was built with one large curved side facing both lines, and a curve of track around it. This track used to be used for the industries south of Dupont, but has had its switch to the North Toronto Sub removed, and will probably lose its Newmarket Sub switch before long.
North of the junction, the line makes a graceful s-curve before heading due north. This line, the first laid in Toronto (early 1850's) was remarkably well designed: from St. Clair Avenue to Highway 7, the line is almost razor straight, although there are quite a few vertical curves. At St. Clair, in the middle of an industrial area best known for its wine-making supplies, lies a station (just a platform) last used by the VIA transcontinental trains in 1985.
From St. Clair to Wilson, the scenery is predominantly industrial. North of Wilson however, the line runs straight through the former CFB Downsview. Now, if anywhere near the amount of construction that is anticipated here actually ends up being built, this will be a prime location for a station. For the time being, though, it remains nothing more than endless fields and runways.
North of Sheppard, the view returns to one of industries: there is even an oil refinery just north of Finch! Although the potential for ridership here is low, GO Transit would still like to build a station at Finch, to connect to the subway on its way to York University. This is assuming, of course, that the subway is ever built.
From Finch, it is a short trip to Snider, where the Newmarket Sub used to cross the York Sub. If you look to the west, you can actually see the eastern yard throat to the MacMillian yard as it branches off to the north, underneath Keele Street. As late as 2002, the Barrie line north of the Snider diamond wasn't protected by signals, meaning that the second southbound train departing Bradford in the morning could not move until the first train radioed CN Control that it had reached Maple station (north of Snider). Nor could the second afternoon train move north of the diamond until the first arrived in Bradford. Fixing this bottleneck became a priority as GO added trains and extended service north to Barrie.
In 2011, the Ontario government announced that GO's Barrie trains were carrying as many as 11,000 passengers per weekday, up from 8,700 in 2007. With Metrolinx owning the tracks north of CN's York subdivision, the future of this service is assured, and more trains are likely as passenger loads increase. Plans are underway to add a second track to the line, which could enable all-day two-way service between Toronto and Barrie by 2020. Additional stations are possible as well, including one near Sheppard Avenue, connecting the line to the TTC's new station at Downsview Park as part of the TTC's subway extension to York University. This station, which could open concurrent with the subway extension, would likely replace GO's York University station, further north.
Another station is possible where the line crosses Highway 7 near the community of Concord, in Vaughan. This station would provide a connection to York Region's VIVA bus rapid transit service, not far from Vaughan's planned downtown core.
Further extensions north are unlikely, as the tracks between Barrie and Orillia no longer exist. There have been proposals to extend the service to Collingwood, but the rail connections have to be upgraded for this to happen.
Even so, the arrival of GO Trains at Barrie has signalled a significant increase in the importance of what had, ten years ago, been one of GO's lesser used corridors. With five trains per weekday and summer weekend service, GO's Barrie line is rivalling the Milton line in importance and use, and it may be that it will be the first to receive all-day two-way service after the Lakeshore line.