GO Transit's Richmond Hill Line

Text By Daniel Garcia
Revised by James Bow

Service Today

GO Transit operates its Richmond Hill GO Train station between downtown Toronto and Richmond Hill GO station at Major Mackenzie Road with intermediate stops at Oriole (near Highway 401), Old Cummer (north of Finch Avenue) and Langstaff (near Highway 407). As of the time of this writing (July 2013), GO offers five trains departing inbound from Richmond Hill weekday mornings and six trains returning in the afternoon. Additional train-bus service is provided to Richmond Hill and Langstaff stations, also weekdays only.

In 2014, the Richmond GO line boasted an average weekday ridership of 10,000, up from 7,950 in 2008.

A Short Run to Richmond Hill

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 or duplicate 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, their trains did not stop at Richmond Hill or Langstaff. 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.

Slow to Grow Service

Service on the Richmond Hill GO Train was slow to grow. Initially, four trains provided service, departing inbound in the morning, and outbound in the afternoon. This service was cut back in 1996 to just three trains due to low ridership. However, a TTC strike in April 1999 made GO rearrange its schedules to provide four inbound departures using a reduced number of trainsets. Discovering that they could provide four daily trips at reduced cost, GO Transit decided to make this restored fourth train permanent on April 26, 1999. This was followed up by a fifth northbound departure added on May 1, 2000.

We can only speculate on why ridership on the Richmond Hill GO line was so slow to grow compared with other corridors like Stouffville or Barrie, which were slow to grow. It has been noted that Richmond Hill has been served in other ways, including rapid bus service in the form of VIVA, and GO bus connections along Highway 407. Arguably, however, the line also suffered from neglect, as proposals to improve connections either fell through, or were late in coming.

At the turn of the millennium, when the Sheppard subway was under construction, proposals were made to move Oriole GO station north 500 metres from its place beneath Highway 401 to a spot closer to Leslie station. The proposal was never acted upon, and the connection between the two stations is now via a long walkway. Similarly, when York Region Transit opened its Richmond Hill Centre terminal, no connection was provided with Langstaff GO station, even though both sites were adjacent to each other. Eventually, a pedestrian bridge (featuring two accessible elevators) was built to take passengers over the tracks from one transit hub to the other.

Whatever the case, the Richmond Hill service continued to operate and slowly grow. After a decade of stable operation, a new afternoon train was added on January 7, 2013, departing Union Station at 3:10 p.m. and arriving at Richmond Hill at 3:52. A fifth morning trip was added on April 8, 2013, departing Richmond Hill at 9:20 a.m. and replacing a number of mid-morning train-buses.

North to Gormley and Bloomingdale

In 2009, the provincial government's Metrolinx agency brought forward a number of proposals to improve public transit throughout the Greater Toronto Area. In one proposal, it suggested extending the Richmond Hill GO train north from Richmond Hill, following the Bala subdivision to Bloomington, in the town of Whitchurch-Stouffville. The first phase of this extension was to begin in 2011, with the construction of a new 6-track layover yard near the community of Gormley, close to Highway 404, on the north side of Stouffville Road. This development would have included a station with parking for 850 cars to be open in the fall of 2013. Unfortunately, delays intervened. Instead, construction of the station itself was announced in November 2014, with a new opening date before the end of 2016. In addition to this construction, Richmond Hill station would be expanded, with its platforms lengthened over the bridge over Major Mackenzie to allow the use of 12 car trains. Richmond Hill is one of the last stations where short platforms remain in service. The new layover yard, once it opens, will allow GO Transit to stop deadheading trains from Richmond Hill to Willowbrook at the end of the service day, improving reliability on the line, and allowing for further expansion.

Once Gormley opens to the public, work would begin on Bloomington station, located on the south side of Bloomington Road, just west of Highway 404. The stop would have parking space for 700 cars and be open after 2016.

The Casino Rama Express

GO Trains have operated north of Richmond Hill station before, however. 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.

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).

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 Future

In spite of proposals to expand Richmond Hill GO Train service, ridership has been slow to grow. It has been suggested that a frequent Richmond Hill GO Train may provide relief for the Yonge subway, but the province's focus has been on expanding the Yonge subway north to Langstaff station, where it may bleed more riders away from the Richmond Hill line. The Richmond Hill GO Train, in many ways, serves primarily Richmond Hill itself, and is overshadowed by the Barrie and Stouffville GO lines which extend further north, and capture a greater swath of commuters.

The Richmond Hill GO Train is getting some attention, however. Work currently underway should see service extended to Gormley before the end of 2016. Once Gormley opens, work begins on extending the line further north to Bloomington. Metrolinx also proposes building an underpass, eliminating the rail-to-rail diamond crossing between the Richmond Hill GO Trains on the Bala sub, with the many freight trains plying CN's York sub. This will make more frequent service possible. Long term plans call for two more stations northeast of Bloomington: one at Vandorf Road at Woodbine Avenue and another at Aurora Road. In theory, further extensions may be possible to Mount Albert and Pefferlaw.

It is likely that once the extension to Bloomington opens, Richmond Hill will see an increase of traffic. The little sapling will have grown out of the shadow of its surrounding trees.


Richmond Hill GO Train Image Archive


References

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