Evolving West Toronto Junction
Text by Daniel Garcia and Sean Marshall,
revised by James Bow.
GO Transit operates its Kitchener GO Train between Union Station in downtown Toronto and Kitchener GO station near downtown Kitchener. Until December 19, 2011, the service was known as the Georgetown GO Train. On that day, two trains which previously terminated at Georgetown were extended west to serve stops in Guelph and Kitchener.
As of the time of this writing (June 2013), in addition to two trains departing inbound from Kitchener weekday mornings and returning in the afternoon, three trains depart inbound from Georgetown weekday mornings and returning in the afternoon, three more trains depart inbound from Bramalea weekday mornings while a single later-evening run returns to Mount Pleasant.
The intermediate stations enroute, from east to west, are Bloor (where a connection with the TTC's Dundas West station is possible, if inconvenient), Weston (near Lawrence Avenue), Etobicoke North (near Kipling Avenue), Malton (near the Airport Road/Derry Road intersection), Bramalea (near Steeles AVenue and Highway 410), Brampton (near downtown Brampton), Mount Pleasant (in northwest Brampton), Georgetown, Acton and Guelph. Train-buses provide additional off-peak, weekend and reverse-commuter service between Union and Bramalea, Brampton and Georgetown, with some buses providing service to the University of Guelph and downtown Kitchener.
In 2008, the Georgetown GO line boasted an average weekday ridership of 15,649, although that number has increased with additional service to Guelph and Kitchener.
From Bush to Main Line
Settlement in the towns and townships northwest of Toronto dates back to the early 19th century, as farmers followed the concession roads and the Credit and Humber rivers into the Oak Ridges Moraine and the Niagara Escarpment. Further north and west, the area was a dense forest known as "the Queen's Bush". The population was initially slow to grow, but villages did spring up at crossroads. The initial settlement of Brampton began at the "four corners" of today's Queen and Main Streets in 1822. Further northwest, the village of Stewarttown was set up as the seat of Nassagaweya township. Bolstered by a grist mill, a foundry and a woolen mill, population grew, and in 1837 the village was founded as a town called Georgetown.
Development would pick up in the 1850s. In May 1852, Grand Trunk announced its intentions to build a railroad from Toronto through the villages of Weston and Georgetown. The railway opened for service in 1856, extending past Georgetown through Guelph and Kitchener (then known as Berlin) before reaching Stratford and London. The population of Kitchener, Guelph and Georgetown all increased dramatically as a result of the rail connections for freight and passengers between London and Toronto, although the line itself was soon overshadowed by other main lines operating between London and Toronto (via Cambridge and Brantford). As Grand Trunk well on hard financial times during and after the First World War, it was soon absorbed by Canadian National. As Canadian National owned the tracks operating between London and Toronto via Brantford and Oakville, the route via Kitchener and Georgetown became known as the North Main Line.
An Evolving Commuter Run
Passenger service has been running on the North Main Line since its inception. When Grand Trunk was merged into Canadian National, CN trains plied the tracks between Toronto and London, serving Guelph, Kitchener and Stratford and continuing or linking to Windsor and Sarnia. Connections were also available to Chicago via Port Huron or Detroit. Most of the service was long-distance based, as Kitchener, Stratford and London remained well outside Toronto's commuter watershed.
But the idea of running commuter-style train service took hold early. In the 1950s, CN started service on a train between Guelph and Toronto, with one inbound train in the morning and a returning outbound train in the afternoon. This service was still running on April 29, 1974 when GO Transit started a new service along the route between Union Station and Georgetown.
The Georgetown line was GO Transit's second train line, launched almost seven years after the initial service along the Lakeshore between Pickering and Oakville. On day one, three trains left Georgetown Station in the morning and stopped at Brampton, Bramalea, Malton, Weston and Bloor stations before arriving at Toronto Union Station, and three trains returned in the afternoon. The Etobicoke North stop was added later that fall. Canadian National continued to run its Guelph-Toronto commuter train until November 14th, 1975 before abandoning it, a year and a half after GO started running trains to Georgetown.
Some of the more cynical critics suggested that the Georgetown GO line was a gift to the city of Brampton, which was celebrating its 100th anniversary at the time and which, coincidentally, was also the home of Ontario Premier Bill Davis. The line did not experience much growth early in its run. A fourth train was added to the schedule sometime between 1975 and 1978, but the line remained stable until 1990.
An Aborted Extension to Guelph
On the 29th of October, 1990, as part of a series of promises made by the David Petersen Liberals on the eve of their defeat, one train each day was extended to run from Guelph, with a stop at Acton. No connecting buses were offered from Guelph to Kitchener, which had expressed interest in improved rail service. Perhaps as a result of this oversight, the extended service foundered, with only 60 passengers per day riding the train in from Guelph. The extension became an obvious candidate for cuts when the NDP government was forced to reduce GO Transit's subsidies in 1993. The last run from GO departed Guelph's station on July 2nd, 1993.
But demand for service was increasing. After almost doubling in population in the 1980s (234,445 in 1991 compared to 149,030 in 1981), Brampton continued to see significant growth, especially in its northwest quadrant. By 2001, Brampton's population had reached 325,428, while Halton Hills (containing Georgetown) had reached 48,184. The Georgetown GO train was augmented by hourly bus service between Brampton station and York Mills station on the Yonge subway. On January 29th, 2000, GO Transit added a fifth round trip between Bramalea and Union, with bus connections to Georgetown.
Growth Begins Again
On September 4, 2001, a new afternoon train was added that left Union Station at 14:50 making all stops to Brampton and then dead-heading back to Union Station to make a rush hour trip elsewhere in the system. In April 2002, a major service revision was made, providing partial midday trains to and from Union Station as far as Bramalea, with bus connections to Brampton and Georgetown. The new trains left Bramalea at 5:50, 10:15, 12:15 and 1:45. From Union Station, the new trains left at 9:30, 11:30 and 13:00. Unfortunately, the configuration of the bus loop and parking lots at Bramalea did not facilitate easy bus connections for Brampton and Georgetown, and the bus loop is situated on the otherside of a busy parking lot.
A new pocket track was completed at Bramalea in 2003. The rail was built connecting with the Weston Subdivision east of Halwest, so that trains terminating at Bramalea would not interfere with CN freight trains on the Halton Subdivisions, or with future GO Transit express trains. Bramalea now has a three-track configuration, built to Lakeshore Corridor standards.
In September 2004, more changes were made to the Georgetown rail schedule. One morning train from Georgetown was converted to an express run, stopping only at Brampton, Bramalea and Union Station. A new local train from Bramalea was added to serve Malton, Etobicoke North, Weston and Bloor. The mid afternoon departure from Union to Brampton was adjusted to leave at 15:15 at the same time. Five months later, Mount Pleasant station, located at Highway 7 and Creditview Road in northwestern Brampton opened on February 7, 2005.
In 2011, major work began throughout the Weston sub from Bramalea to Union. The construction included new underpasses for Strachan Avenue, Denison Road, and Carlingview Avenue, a tunnel through the village of Weston, station renovations, and the grade separation of the diamond between the Weston sub and the Canadian Pacific freight tracks near the Toronto Junction. These changes were part of a design to significantly increase the speed, frequency and reliability of the Georgetown Line, along with additional work related to the Union Pearson Express air rail link. The changes did require that the midday trains between Union and Bramalea be switched back to buses, but the expectation is, once construction is complete in time for the Pan Am Games in 2015, midday service on the route will be restored, possibly as two-way hourly off-peak service between Union and Mount Pleasant.
The first of these changes to finish was the relocation of the Weston GO station from the north side of Lawrence to the south side. In the first half of 2013, the old Weston GO station was shuttered and, on July 24, 2013, passengers started to use the new facility. The new station was fully accessible, offered a kiss-'n'-ride passenger drop off area and parking for 144 cars. The old Weston station could not be used as plans called for the tracks to dip down into a trench and then a tunnel through the old village of Weston, digging beneath King and Church streets before rising up to meet a widened bridge over Weston Road and the Humber River. These projects continued through 2013 for a late 2014 completion date.
GO Comes to Kitchener
In June 2006, the provincial government of Dalton McGuinty established Metrolinx, a crown agency whose task was to look at ways to expand public transportation infrastructure in the GTA. In the summer of 2007, based on Metrolinx's recommendations, the McGuinty government launched MoveOntario 2020, which proposed 52 transit expansion projects over the next thirteen years. Included in these proposals were two projects located within Waterloo Region outside the GTA: the Waterloo Regional LRT, and an extension of the Georgetown GO train to Kitchener to meet it.
There were already proposals to take GO Train service to Waterloo Region by extending the Milton line to Cambridge. However, while Metrolinx and GO Transit (which were later merged) were committed to expanding service on the Milton line, extending service past Milton proved costly. The line the Milton train operates on is a major freight route for Canadian Pacific and, west of Milton, the right-of-way narrows to a single track. Laying down additional track and adding stations gave the Cambridge extension higher start-up costs than service to Kitchener.
Early in 2011, Metrolinx announced that service would be extended from Georgetown to Kitchener. Two trains which previously operated out of Georgetown would instead lay over at a new temporary layover facility in Kitchener by the main line railway tracks between King and Park streets. The extension was accomplished for just $18 million, a minimal expenditure that limited the number of trains that could serve this extension. To bring about service on December 19, a temporary accessibility ramp had to be built at Kitchener, while more extensive construction took place in Guelph.
The new service was announced to include stops at Acton, but cost-cutting measures meant that construction did not begin on this station before the extension started operation. Instead, work began in 2012, and trains started serving Acton station on January 7, 2013.
A Question of Ownership
The significant changes that began in 2011 would not have been possible had not Metrolinx purchased the Weston Sub from Canadian National. GO Transit announced its intentions to purchase the line for $160 million on April 8, 2009. The purchase covered the stretch of the line from Strachan Avenue in Toronto to where it joins CN's York Sub near Bramalea station.
Northwest of Bramalea, the ownership question becomes more tricky. Canadian National owns the line and runs freight traffic from Bramalea to Georgetown. West of Georgetown, the line was leased to the Goderich and Exeter Railway in a deal that lasted until around 2020 and covering the tracks all the way to Stratford, London and Goderich. These tracks remain in what is known as "dark territory" where centralized traffic control is not possible, and the short line has not backed attempts to upgrade these tracks so that more train service can run. GO and VIA expressed an interest in expanding train service to Kitchener in 2011, but it will take some hard negotiations between GO, the Goderich and Exeter Railway and Canadian National before progress can be made.
A Tour of the Line
From Union Station, the Kitchener GO Train line enters the Weston sub at Strachan Avenue and follows it all the way to Bramalea. It also parallels Canadian Pacific's former Galt Sub to the Junction (officially known as "West Toronto") and CP's Mactier Sub from the Junction to the old Village of Weston. The line from Union to Bramalea has seen considerable changes since 2011. At one point, there were only a handful of tracks for a right-of-way that was wide enough to handle four different rail companies. By 2015, many of those tracks will have been restored.
From Bathurst Street to Bloor Street, the Kitchener GO train passes through Liberty Village and the old village of Parkdale. The old industrial areas have been completely rebuilt into a well-gentrified residential neighbourhood, with mid-rise and high-rise apartments crowding the right-of-way. North of Dundas Street, the West Toronto Railtrail takes one of the old trackbeds, providing a connection for bikers and walkers through the back streets of this revitalizing area. The bike trail extends north to Cariboo Avenue, and it is proposed that it extend as far south as Strachan.
Bloor station is the first stop along the way. For many years, it was an unmanned station with two open-air platforms linking to two sets of stairs leading down to Bloor Street. Although located close to the Bloor-Danforth subway at Dundas West, connections were inconvenient, requiring a long walk to get around the Crossroads shopping centre development. Proposals to build a second exit to Dundas West connecting directly with Bloor GO station surfaced around 2002, but were blocked by the owners of Crossroads. In 2013, work began upgrading Bloor station to make it accessible and make it a shared stop with the Union Pearson Express air rail link. Once opened in 2015, this stop will feature that direct connection to Dundas West station, and be a fully accessible and sheltered station.
North of Bloor station, the line passes some of the industrial remnants of the West Toronto Junction, before diving into a tunnel beneath the Canadian Pacific tracks. The first GO Train through this tunnel ran through southbound early on the Monday morning of May 26, 2014, ending service across one of the busiest track diamonds in Canada. This complicated junction was the industrial centrepiece of the Junction neighbourhood for over a century, but also a source of potential delays for GO transit, and an obstacle to improved service. Work which started in 2010 created a gigantic trench to take the Weston sub beneath the CP tracks, as well as built an overpass for Old Weston Road and a connecting track to the CP's Mactier sub. Although trains started using the tunnel beneath the CP tracks in May 2014, a fair amount of work remained, completing the Junction Road bridge over the Weston sub tracks, and expanding the number of tracks through the junction. Still, the first GO Trains through the tunnel were a good milestone for area residents, who have had to suffer through daily construction noise, and the pounding of pile-drivers to build the retaining walls.
North of St. Clair, the line parallels Weston Road, passing beneath Rogers Road and then rising above the height of land to cross Black Creek and Black Creek Road over a pair of bridges. These were completely rebuilt in 2013 to allow for four tracks across the gaps. North of Weston station, the trip past the back yards of residential Weston will change to the darkness of a tunnel. On the surface above, the Mactier Sub branches off to the north, and goes on to run through Bolton (a possible destination for its own GO Train in a few years).
After veering northwest, the line rises above Weston Road and continues on to a tall bridge (widened to accommodate additional tracks) over the Humber River. Then it's on to the industrial blocks of northern Etobicoke. Less work was required here to expand service, as the properties have been set back from the rail line, and the bridges over Islington and Kipling were more ready to handle the additional tracks. At Kipling, trains make a stop at Etobicoke North station, nestled into a niche formed by the 401 - 409 junction. There used to be a small industrial yard to the north of the station, one of CN's few ones left after the building of the MacMillian yard, but the factories are giving way to big box stores.
From Etobicoke North to Malton Station, the line runs arrow straight, again paralleled by industrial scenery for most of the way. An exception occurs at Woodbine raceway, which abuts the northern end of the right-of-way. The major work here is to place Carlingview Drive into an underpass beneath the tracks. It was here that some proposed to build a station to serve both Woodbine Racetrack and Pearson Airport (via a connecting people mover). However, after passing beneath Highway 427, the tracks for the UP Express train will instead break off and proceed south over a spur line to a new station built atop Terminal 1.
As the line crosses Derry Road in Malton, the scenery changes from industrial to residential again, as the line passes through the 1940s community built up to serve the area's factories during World War Two. It isn't long before the factories and warehouses return, however, as the Weston Sub meets CN's York sub at Bramalea, where a major parking lot and connecting bus terminal has been built.
The line continues northwest, passing through historic Brampton. It's startling to see the scenery change from modern industrial to small town in an instant. Brampton's station is as different from Bramalea as night is to day. Brampton's parking is squeezed in amongst shops and housing. The original station building predates GO Transit, although a modern and sheltered second platform along the south side of the tracks in 2009. West of the station is an abandoned diamond with tracks that continue on to Orangeville and once extended south to Streetsville. These tracks once belonged to Canadian Pacific, but are now owned by the Credit Valley Explorer tourist train. This train operates excursions between Orangeville and Inglewood, but has no plans, as yet, to bring trains as far south as Brampton.
Northwest of Brampton station, the scenery becomes suburban again. It isn't long before the train pulls into Mount Pleasant station, near Brampton's western boundary. This station, added in 2005, was designed as the eventual terminus of two-way hourly service seven days a week between Brampton and Union Station. There are two sheltered platforms between the three tracks, and ample parking for cars. The station is located close to a high density residential development, giving the area the air of a transit-suburb.
The line finally enters countryside northwest of Mount Pleasant station, passing through fields and an aggregate mine. After making a spectacular crossing over the Credit River, the line enters Georgetown and passes through older industrial and residential neighbourhoods. At Georgetown station, GO Trains switch off the main line and enter into a train yard north of the old station building. Platforms and underpasses connect these yard tracks with the historical station itself, as well as parking, and connecting buses.
The two trains which continue on to Kitchener proceed out the western end of this yard and re-enter the main line. Here, delays can occur as the crew has to radio ahead to the Goderich and Exeter dispatchers to ensure the line is clear. So begins the hour-long run to Kitchener. It has taken these trains an hour to get this far.
Past Georgetown, the scenery is primarily rural, broken up by hamlets and by wooded areas. The next major settlement is Acton, where a stop has once again been built near the Olde Hyde House. West of Acton, it's back to rural scenery, before climbing an embankment and crossing over the Eramosa River into downtown Guelph and a stop at Guelph station. Then, west of Guelph Station, the train slows right down as it passes through a residential neighbourhood where houses face the tracks. Things don't speed up again until the line crosses the Hanlon Expressway, but then it's a fast run through Puslinch and Woolwich townships. After passing through the village of Breslau (where a station may be built to offer park-'n'-ride facilities to Waterloo Region), the line crosses the Grand River to enter the City of Kitchener.
Kitchener's train station is an older building that has seen passenger train service for decades. GO's arrival required a significant extension of the platform east almost to Margaret Avenue, and the closure of Ahrens Street across the tracks. The station building remains open as a waiting area and ticket office, but its days may be numbered. In 2011, Waterloo Region committed to building a new transit terminal at the corner of King and Victoria. This terminal would connect city buses with intercity buses as well as GO and VIA trains. Further work related to Waterloo Region's LRT mean the construction of new underpasses where level crossings had been.
Kitchener's two GO trains are currently stored at a new two-track storage facility immediately west of King Street. This is a temporary solution. As GO train service to Kitchener expands, a larger facility is needed, and the proposed site for such a facility includes a possible Kitchener West station where the tracks cross Ira Needles Boulevard.
As of the time of this writing (May 2014), considerable work is already underway expanding tracks and bridges and eliminating level crossings to ensure that service to Kitchener can be expanded, made faster and more reliable. The changes mean that more service is coming, possibly hourly two-way service between Union and Mount Pleasant and, in the far future, two-way service between Union and Kitchener. Clearly, there are many more GO Trains in Kitchener and Brampton's future.
However, a number of these changes have been controversial, particularly for the village of Weston which objected to having John Street closed to both vehicles and pedestrians. Local residents near the West Toronto Diamond also objected to the amount of noise and vibrations resulting from the construction of the grade separation there. The controversy has focused attention on the possibility of electrifying service on the line. Metrolinx's own study indicate that electric trains could provide even faster service, while eliminating ecologically unhealthy diesel emissions. The drawback is that the cost of converting the route to electric operation could be in the billions. The benefits are enough that Metrolinx plans to electrify service eventually. Weston residents and others en route want the conversion to happen before the UP Express air rail link opens in 2015.
Either way, the former Georgetown GO line has grown to provide essential service to the developing suburbs northwest of Toronto, and to provide a vital link to the cities of Guelph and Kitchener. As the area continues to grow, the line's usefulness will only increase.