Text by Daniel Garcia and James Bow, photos by Daniel Garcia.
Very Early History
Passenger service to the Stouffville dates back to 1868, when the narrow gauge Toronto & Nipissing Railway was chartered and began construction from Scarborough to Coboconk.
The line opened for traffic between Scarborough and Uxbridge in July 1871 and was extended to Cannington in November 1871 and finally to Coboconk in November 1872. The line failed to meet expectations.
Although converted to standard gauge, it was absorbed into the Midland Railway (and is the reason why the road to the east of the Scarborough portion of the route is named “Midland”) and eventually absorbed by the Grand Trunk and then by the Canadian National to become CN’s Uxbridge Subdivision.
Passenger service on this line was not commuter based, and suffered the same fate as many passenger lines as the automobile and the intercity bus drained away passengers through the 1950s. Passenger trains were pulled back from Coboconk to Uxbridge (the tracks would follow three decades later). By 1963, passenger train service to Uxbridge had stopped.
Commuter Traffic Develops
Starting in the 1960s, development in Metropolitan Toronto started to spill outside of its boundaries into the neighbouring villages and townships. Villages and towns such as Thornhill, Richmond Hill, Markham and Unionville started to slip deeper into Toronto’s urban shadow as commuters took up residence. The political reorganization of York County into York Region combined most of the Township of Markham (including the police villages of Unionville and Thornhill) and the Village of Markham into the new Town of Markham. Part of the former Township of Markham was lopped off to expand the boundaries of Richmond Hill, and another part was given to Whitchurch-Stouffville. (The Township of Whitchurch was merged with Stouffville, which had been an incorporated village. The boundary between Whitchurch and Markham Townships had been the Stouffville Road, but it’s now somewhat farther south). The pace of growth in the new Town of Markham accelerated, as did traffic on the roads leading from Markham into Toronto.
By this time, what remained of passenger service on the Uxbridge sub was an inexplicable CN service that ran one train from Toronto Union Station (departing at 5:20 pm) to the town of Markham. There was no revenue service in the other direction, making it useless to commuters. It was clear that CN was not interested in serving the commuter traffic between Markham when it applied to the Canadian Transport Commission to abandon the service. Fortunately, the CTC did more than just refuse; it required CN to extend the service to Stouffville and carry passengers in both directions. This new service began in 1971.
This run was parcelled off to VIA when CN got out of the passenger service altogether in the late 1970s. GO Transit took over the service on September 7th, 1982 when the service (as well as similar services to Barrie and Peterborough) was slated for abandonment during a round of cutbacks at VIA Rail.
GO Transit Takes Over
The initial GO Stouffville service was as modest as the VIA run, with one train running from Stouffville to Union Station in the morning and one train making the return trip in the early evening. Intermediate tops were placed at Markham, Unionville, Milliken and Agincourt. After leaving the Uxbridge sub, the Stouffville line operated along the Kingston sub in order to reach Union Station, passing the Lakeshore GO train stations of Danforth and Scarborough on its way. From 1983 until 1998, the Stouffville train stopped at these stations as well.
GO service has operated consistently on the line ever since. A second train was added on January 29, 1990 and, in May of 1991, Unionville Station was moved to a new site south of Unionville town centre.
Stouffville trains resumed their express runs between Union and Agincourt on June 29, 1998. Although this made things less convenient for a Stouffville passenger bound for points on the Lakeshore line east of Scarborough station, it was necessary because Lakeshore GO passengers were crowding Stouffville passengers off of their own train.
The pace of change is starting to increase for the Stouffville line, however, as the City of Markham and the town of Whitchurch-Stouffville continue to grow. Train-buses, supplementing service on this line, started appearing in the early 1990s and have grown in number. On May 1st, 2000, an additional round trip has been added between Markham Station and Union every weekday, replacing two train-bus runs from Markham. Then, effective April 30, 2004, GO set up a train to serve reverse-commuters with a morning train from Union to Markham and an afternoon train from Markham to Union. These trains were run deadhead before.
In 2004, GO opened Mount Joy station , north of Markham, on the south side of Bur Oak Avenue (halfway between 16th Avenue and Major Mackenzie Drive). Where the line crossed McCowan Avenue, halfway between 16th Avenue and Highway 7, Centennial station opened. These two stations made the line more convenient to more people in the burgeoning City of Markham. GO further enhanced service in 2005 by opening a long-delayed station at Eglinton Avenue named Kennedy, next to Kennedy subway station on June 2nd. Later that year, on September 6, GO relocated Milliken station, from the north side of Steeles Avenue to the south. The change allowed GO to expand the station, make it accessible to wheelchairs, add a ticket booth and a 680 vehicle parking lot.
GO continues to look at ways to improve service on this fast-growing corridor. With additional funding, and added capacity on the Kingston sub from Scarborough GO station to Union, full service on this route may soon be possible.
A Tour of the Line
From Union Station to Scarborough Station, the Stouffville line follows the Kingston sub, sharing tracks with the Lakeshore East GO trains. At Scarborough, the Stouffville trains transfer onto the Uxbridge sub, which turns north in a wide curve and until settling on a straight route halfway between Kennedy and Midland Avenues.
The scenery around the Uxbridge sub up to Eglinton Avenue is mainly residential. The GO train even passes Corvette Elementary School and Corvette Playfield on its way north. Just south of Eglinton, the line has a junction with the Geco Spur and passes beside the parking lots and bus terminal of Kennedy station on the Bloor-Danforth subway line. Here, the train makes its first stop, connecting with the subway and the Scarborough RT, the latter of which heads north parallel to the Uxbridge sub.
North of Lawrence, the scenery around the line becomes industrial in character. Some of these are still served by CN via the Uxbridge sub. After passing beneath Highway 401 and Canadian Pacific’s Belleville sub, the line reaches Sheppard Avenue for its first stop, Agincourt station.
The area around Agincourt station is full of possible future transportation connections. Should the Sheppard subway be extended to the Scarborough Town Centre, it would likely pass beneath the Uxbridge sub south of Agincourt station. A connection is planned between the two lines. Also, with GO’s long-term plan of installing a Midtown GO line along CP’s Belleville sub, a connection between it and the Stouffville line is also in those plans.
North of Sheppard the train passes through another area of residential housing before entering another area of industry north of Finch. Meeting Steeles Avenue at a level crossing (a Steeles Avenue overpass is planned) the trains stop at Milliken. North of here, passing 14th Avenue, Stouffville trains slow to a crawl as it reaches Hagerman. Here the line crosses CN’s York sub over at least one rail diamond. Here there are connecting tracks between the Uxbridge and York Subs, in the southwest and northwest quadrants at Hagerman.
Just past Hagerman, the line ducks under Highway 407 and emerges on the other side at Unionville station. Unionville boasts convenient access to the 407 and has parking to match. However, development has not yet reached this station in a significant way, as scrub fields surround the station on all sides. New housing is creeping closer from the north, however. The train passes these residential neighbourhoods on its way to Markham station.
Markham station is one of only eight original Toronto & Nipissing Railway stations to have survived, and the only one to be used by GO Transit (the platform, not the station itself). There was a plan to rebuild the station building into a modernized ticketing and waiting facility opening in September 2000, but funding does not appear to have materialized. The original building still sits besides the platform, fenced off from the rest of the station.
The Stouffville line opened at around the same time as the Bradford line and the Milton line. Whereas the Milton service was built from scratch by GO Transit, GO inherited the remaining two services from VIA Rail, and has been operating the two lines now in much the same way that it did when service began. The Milton GO Train opened with a connection to the Bloor-Danforth subway at Kipling station. As VIA Rail made no such connection with the Bloor-Danforth subway at Kennedy, no such connection was built by GO.
Similarly, little investment has been made to the tracks the Stouffville trains run on. Despite the increase of use of the line over the past ten years (GO Trains and more industries), the line south of Hagerman hasn’t been upgraded to continuously welded rail and continues to use rail laid down as early as 1933. Maximum speeds are still just 50 mph for passenger trains in most places.
However, as the populations of Markham and Whitchurch-Stouffville increase, the demand for service will follow. GO Transit knows this, and is taking steps to improve the quality of the Stouffville line. GO purchased the tracks from Stouffville to Uxbridge to prevent their abandonment and thus maintain the possibility of GO Train service to Uxbridge. These tracks are being maintained by the York-Durham Heritage Railway Association as a heritage railway.
The announcement of a reverse-commute train illustrates GO Transit’s commitment to this rapidly developing commuter train corner. Although these changes are being made haltingly and only as funds permit, they will hopefully increase as population and traffic increases to the northwest of the City of Toronto.
The Run to Stouffville
Thanks to Tom Box and Calvin Henry-Cotnam for their corrections to this article