Text by Daniel Garcia and James Bow
As of July 2014, the Barrie GO train offers five Toronto-bound runs during the morning rush-hour, with an additional two runs originating from Maple GO station. These are complemented by seven return runs back to Barrie in the afternoon rush hour. In addition, during the summer months, weekend and holiday trains operate throughout the day, with four round trips between Barrie and Toronto. Barrie GO trains start service at Allendale Waterfront station, near the shores of Lake Simcoe and travel south to stop at Barrie South, Bradford, East Gwillimbury, Newmarket, Aurora, King City, Maple, Rutherford, and York University before running south through Toronto to Union Station.
As of January 2012, the Barrie GO Train serves 7,500 passengers per day.
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 and not commuter-related, 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 the commuter run in 1978.
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 VIA Rail runs to Barrie, Stouffville and Peterborough. As a result of public pressure, and because these commuter-related services matched GO Transit's mandate, the provincial government stepped in. While the Ontario Ministry of Transportation opted not to have GO Transit take over the Toronto-Peterborough train, it did have GO Transit incorporate the Barrie and Stouffville services into the GO Train 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, budget cuts by the New Democratic government forced GO to cut the single train back to Bradford.
For years, the Bradford corridor had the lowest ridership of the GO train network, but development and growth in the Greater Toronto Area caught up with the service, increasing demands for commuter rail 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 Railway 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 a rail bridge over CN's York subdivision at the old Snider diamond, which opened to GO trains in December 2006. Thanks to funding from the federal and provincial governments, rail service extended north of Bradford to Barrie South station, at the south end of the city, on December 17, 2007, although bus connections were still needed to take passengers the rest of the way to downtown Barrie.
Finally, at the end of 2009, Metrolinx announced plans to close the gap, improving tracks, grade crossings and signals and re-laying twenty kilometres of track that had been taken up. The project also involved building a layover facility and 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.
By the summer of 2012, five GO trains operated 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). Although this weekend ridership was initially low (less than 150 passengers per day), the service was resumed for the summer of 2013, with ridership increasing to over 200 passengers per day.
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 Kitchener 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. This area has seen substantial redevelopment over the past few years, turning it from industrial to a more commercial and residential appearance. Work on the Weston subdivision has resulted in changes to the route, including an underpass beneath Strachan Avenue and improved rail through the corridor.
North of the junction, the Barrie GO line follows the Newmarket subdivision as it makes a graceful s-curve before heading due north. This line, the first laid in Toronto in the early 1850s, remarkably well designed, running almost razor straight from St. Clair Avenue north to Highway 7 -- although it was not without 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 Downsview Park. The north end of the park will be the site of a connection with the extended Spadina subway. Downsview Park station, which may replace York University station further north, will allow GO passengers to transfer to the subway for connections to York University and many other places near the subway network. The station is expected to open with the subway extension in the fall of 2016
North of Sheppard, the view returns to one of industries: there is even an oil refinery just north of Finch Avenue. After crossing a bus-only roadway for TTC services to York University station, Barrie GO trains make their first stop a few hundred meters north, at York University station. York University's Keele Campus is a few hundred metres walk to the west, but the University offers shuttle service to connect with arriving and departing GO trains.
On into York Region
From York University station, it is a short trip to Snider crossing, where the Newmarket subdivision used to cross CN's York subdivision. 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.
North of Snider crossing, it's a short trip to the next stop at Rutherford Road. This station, which opened in January 2001, was built to handle increased ridership from the rapidly rising developments of the City of Vaughan, and to provide relief to the overburdened Maple Station parking lot. A single platform on the side of the tracks is connected with a station building and a 9-bay bus terminal. Passengers can also access a parking lot with space for 983 cars.
After a very short trip further north, the Barrie GO Train arrives at Maple station. Once the first stop of the Bradford GO Train north of Toronto, this stop features a station building built in 1903 by the Grand Trunk Railway to replace an earlier station, built in 1853 by the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Union Railroad. Located within walking distance of the old village of Maple, the station still boasts a parking lot with space enough for 1146 cars.
Continuing north, the Barrie GO Train reaches King City, an established village within the Township of King. Also an original stop on the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron railroad, the historic station has long since been moved, leaving GO to build a more modern facility in its place. Although it is well north of the suburban development of Vaughan, its ridership has increased in recent years, from 199 daily boardings in 2005 to 655 daily boardings in 2012.
North of King City, the Newmarket subdivision curves northeast, crossing Yonge Street before entering the Town of Aurora. The station stop here is another historic building, built by the Grand Trunk Railway in 1900. Passengers connect from the single platform on the side of the tracks with a parking lot with space enough for 1,725 cars. A bus loop, opened on August 21, 2012, offers connection with GO bus and York Region Transit services.
Continuing north, the GO Train pulls into the Town of Newmarket. A stop at Davis Street offers connections with York Region Transit, VIVA BRT and GO Bus services. A parking lot has space for 265 cars.
The next stop after Newmarket is East Gwillimbury, located on Green Lane East in a more suburban setting than Newmarket. The station, opened on November 1, 2004, has a seven-bay bus terminal offering connections to GO bus and York Region Transit services. A parking lot offers space for 637 cars.
Beyond East Gwillimbury, the line curves northwest, paralleling Highway 11 before entering the Town of Bradford, 67 kilometres north of Union. The station, located on Holland Street, offers two platforms, and a station building pre-dating GO Train service. A small parking lot offers space for 322 cars.
After Bradford, the line curves north, running past farm fields towards the City of Barrie. At the south end of town, trains stop at Barrie South station. This stop, which opened for the first time on December 17, 2007, has a single platform on the side of the tracks, as well as a five-bay bus terminal and a parking lot for 623 cars. The bus terminal offers connections for a number of GO Bus and Barrie Transit services. Ridership has grown from 350 passengers per day in 2007 to over 700 passengers per day in 2012.
Trains continue north, towards Lake Simcoe and Allandale Waterfront station. Built south of historic Allandale station, Allandale Waterfront is located on Bradford Street in the heart of Barrie. The facility caters more towards walk-in and transit passengers, with a small parking lot offering space for 150 cars. A layover track near the station holds Barrie GO Trains overnight and over the weekend during the non-summer months.
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 where the line crosses Highway 7 near the community of Concord, in the City of Vaughan. This station would provide a connection to York Region's VIVA bus rapid transit service, not far from Vaughan's planned downtown core.
Despite proposals in the early 1990s to extend service to Orillia, extensions north of Barrie are unlikely, as the tracks beyond Allandale Waterfront 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, just a few years previous, been one of GO's lesser used corridors. With seven 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.