Text by James Bow.
Public Transit on Yonge Street
- 1796 - Yonge Street opens between Lake Ontario and Lake Simcoe
- 1800 - 1880s - Stagecoach operations along Yonge Street
- 1849 - Burt Williams' horse-drawn omnibus service begins between St. Lawrence Hall and Yorkville Town Hall.
- 1861 - Yonge streetcar service within Toronto city limits (and Town of Yorkville) begins
- 1862 - Burt Williams' sells/shuts down omnibus service
- 1885 - The Metropolitan Railway (later Toronto & York) begins service on Yonge north of Toronto's City Limits, eventually reaching Lake Simcoe
- 1930 - North Yonge Railways replaces Lake Simcoe line, operates between Toronto's city limits and Richmond Hill
- 1948 - North Yonge Railways "temporarily" switches to bus operation due to power shortages.
- 1949 - North Yonge's "temporary" switch to buses becomes permanent.
- 1954 - Yonge Subway Opens between Eglinton and Union
- 1954 - DOWNTOWN bus, YONGE NIGHT bus and YONGE trolley bus start operations
- 1973 - Yonge subway extends to York Mills
- 1974 - Yonge subway extends to Finch
- 1977 - GO Transit takes over 59 NORTH YONGE bus
- 1989 - 27 DOWNTOWN and 97 YONGE merged into single route.
- 2003 - York Region Transit takes over GO Transit's Yonge 'C' Bus operations
- 2005 - York Region Transit establishes VIVA Bus Rapid Transit Service Between Finch Station and Newmarket
- 2012 - Bus rapid transit construction begins on Yonge in York Region
- 2021 - Possible opening of Yonge subway extension to Langstaff?
The Subway Pushes North on Yonge
By 1966, the City of Toronto had achieved the goals it had established for itself twenty years earlier when residents approved subway construction. With the opening of the Bloor-Danforth subway from Keele to Woodbine, Toronto had two subways running along two of its major thoroughfares, forming a cross in the centre of the city. As these goals were being realized, however, the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto entered a particularly raucous time in terms of politics, and the Toronto Transit Commission was one of the battlegrounds.
In the 1960s, the Toronto Transit Commission had fallen on hard times. Just ten years earlier, the TTC was paying for its operating costs and capital expenses (including the original Yonge subway) entirely from farebox revenues. However, the costs of serving the rapid low-density growth throughout Metropolitan Toronto and the loss of the TTC’s passenger base to the automobile was putting the commission further and further into deficit. The TTC required provincial and municipal subsidy in order to open the Bloor-Danforth subway in 1966.
As the Metro’s subsidy to the TTC increased, so too did Metro Council’s controls over the TTC’s priorities, and in the 1960s, that council was divided on what the TTC’s next priorities should be. The City of Toronto councillors favoured the construction of a subway under Queen Street, while the suburbs wanted improved bus services and the elimination of the zone fare system that required suburban residents to pay a higher fare when travelling downtown. The debates in council were particularly loud, and the boroughs of North York and Etobicoke once went so far as to seek a court injunction to have Metro’s subsidy of the TTC dropped when Metro Council voted against the two boroughs’ preferences.
In order to “maintain an uninterrupted program of subway construction”, Metro Chairman Frederick Gardiner discovered that it was politically easier to extend the established subway lines into the suburbs than it was to get Metro Council to agree over the construction of a new line. Extending the established lines was cheaper than building from scratch, and it fulfilled some of the suburban municipalities’ demands for improved transit service. For this reason, approval was granted in the early 1960s to extend the Bloor-Danforth subway west to Islington in Etobicoke and east to Warden in Scarborough. As these extensions were being built, attention turned to the northern suburbs.
Although it was politically expedient to extend the Yonge subway into North York, the idea itself had considerable merit. Traffic on Yonge Street north of Eglinton was heavy. Directly to the north of the terminal, the old town of North Toronto surrounded Yonge Street with densities approximating that which surrounded the Yonge line south of Eglinton. And although densities dropped off sharply north of Yonge Boulevard (near the City of Toronto/Borough of North York boundary and old Glen Echo loop), the Borough of North York was growing rapidly, and had hopes of developing its own downtown core near the Yonge/Sheppard intersection.
The first appearance of the North Yonge extension was in the draft Metropolitan Official Plan in 1959 which suggested an extension from Eglinton to Sheppard. The proposal actually took a back seat to plans for a rapid transit line built in conjunction with the Spadina Expressway, but was reenergized by a $20,000 study requested by North York and authorized by Metro Council on March 7, 1961. In 1964, Metro council commissioned a further study by the TTC and the first serious designs started appearing in 1965. On September 16, 1965, the Metro Planning Report recommended that the Yonge extension replace Spadina as the next priority for subway construction. With considerable uncertainty over the alignment of the Spadina Expressway, it would have proven difficult to establish a final route for the corresponding subway early, and keep subway construction going without interruption. Metro Council approved the extension of the Yonge line from Eglinton to Sheppard Avenue on January 25, 1967.
The first serious study of the North Yonge extension proposal, published in June 1961, looked at taking the line from Eglinton Avenue all the way to Steeles. That study recommended an alignment east of Yonge Street and crossing the west branch of the Don River in Hogg’s Hollow via a low-level bridge. It was recommended that construction take place in two phases, first to Sheppard Avenue in 1970 (by which time it was expected that the Spadina Expressway and its associated subway would be operating) with the Sheppard-Steeles section to be started in 1980. The cost estimate for the 6.42 mile line was set at $100,600,000 in 1961 dollars and suggested stations at Glencairn, Lawrence, Yonge Boulevard (Glen Echo), York Mills, Sheppard, Empress, Finch, Cummer and Steeles.
The TTC study, conducted in 1964, bears closer resemblance to what was actually built. Here, the TTC suggested that money could be saved by eliminating the ‘mid-block’ stations at Glencairn, Yonge Boulevard and Empress,and paralleling the subway with a bus service for local travel. The report placed the initial terminus at Sheppard Avenue and suggested an alignment paralleling Yonge Street to the west, with a half-mile long, high-level bridge over the Don Valley west branch at Hogg’s Hollow, including an elevated York Mills station, a “significant and architectural and engineering achievement”. The report did not endorse an extension of the subway to Steeles Avenue, as the sewer and water systems in Markham and Vaughan Townships were inadequate for the development that the subway would stimulate.
At this time, the North Yonge project ran into some controversy. Local ratepayers objected to the loss of as many as 275 homes and to the potential noise disturbance along the route. The proposal for a high level bridge was also attacked by a small group of local residents, fearing damage to their property values (despite the fact that Highway 401 was close by, with multiple bridges over the valley apparently not affecting their property values). As a result of these concerns, a tunnel alignment was chosen directly beneath Yonge Street (with a few exceptions). Although this saved $1.6 million in estimated property acquisition costs, this savings was negated by the challenges of tunnelling under the Don River.
As this was happening, the TTC’s financial problems continued. In 1967, Metro council agreed to abolish municipal taxes on rapid transit property, which saved the TTC an additional $1.7 million per year. This money was applied towards the cost of construction. The final plan was approved by the Ontario Municipal Board in 1967 and construction began on October 3, 1968. The cost of the 4.02-mile route was assessed at $79.6 million, with an opening date tentatively set as sometime in 1972.
On October 17, 1969, Metro Council agreed to a further extension of the Yonge subway, from Sheppard to Finch Avenue. The extension was sparked by the presence of the Ontario Hydro right-of-way lands two blocks to the north of Finch Avenue, and the potential placement of large commuter parking lots on these lands. The Ontario Municipal Board approved this extension in 1970 and construction began in 1971, adding $37.5 million to the project. This extension to the North Yonge extension would feature one station at Finch Avenue, despite lobbying from North York that a second station be constructed at Park Home Avenue (the Empress station referred to before, and the site of the proposed North York Civic Centre). Although a level section was designed into the line at this point, where a station could be added, the TTC would refuse the request to build this station until the mid 1980s, when construction began on North York Centre station. Finch station was set to open in 1973. Of the $140,000,000 cost of the extension, $11,000,000 was paid for by the TTC out of its farebox revenues.
Designing the Extension
The North Yonge extension began at Eglinton station, where cut-and-cover construction was used immediately north of Eglinton station. Here, crossovers lead into a stub-ended tail track installed between the two service tracks for use as train storage and turn-back operation. The tail track itself, and the two running tracks on either side of it, are in tunnels and the tail track is only the second one on the TTC to be dead ended (the other one being immediately south of Osgoode station). The line angles slightly east until it gets beneath Yonge Street and from here, tunnelling was used. Cut-and-cover was used from Limpstone Avenue to Ranleigh to handle the construction of Lawrence station and a scissors crossover to the south of the station.
Lawrence station became the first station in Toronto’s subway network to feature an underground bus transfer facility. The entrances to this bus tunnel were built to the west of Yonge Street, with one of the entrances replacing a side street’s exit onto Lawrence Avenue. Twin tunnels allowed buses to enter both ways at both entrances, eliminating all left turns off Lawrence Avenue. The buses drive on the left in the tunnels, allowing a single central platform to serve all routes. An effective ventilation system prevents the build-up of exhaust fumes and a snow-melting cable prevents icing on the sloped driveways. The entrance to Lawrence Avenue as well as the bus transfer facility are located off the southern end of the subway platform. The northern end of the platform is connected with an unmanned secondary entrance from Bedford Park Avenue.
North of Lawrence station, the line continues in tunnel for almost 4000 feet to Mill Street, at the southern edge of Hogg’s Hollow. Hogg’s Hollow and the presence of the Don River west branch near the Yonge/Wilson/York Mills intersection provided a number of challenges for the subway designers to overcome. Construction proceeded after TTC engineers temporarily redirected the Don River through a ‘box-flume’ and drained the surrounding land. Construction here was through the cut-and-cover technique (after the line has angled east of Yonge Street). The walls of the structure had to be made 1.2 metres thick (four feet) while the floors were made 2.4 metres thick (7.2 feet). By comparison, the standard underground station structure’s walls are 0.5 metres thick while the floors are 0.6 metres thick. The TTC describes York Mills station as “a concrete island that ‘floats’ below the Don River West Branch.” (Specifically, it is actually the exit off the southern end of the platform that extends beneath the river)
In addition to the main entrance off York Mills Road and Wilson Avenue, located off the north end of the platform, a secondary entrance to Old York Mills Road was installed, connected to the southern end of the subway platform. South of the station, a long siding allows trains to cross from the northbound and southbound tracks, and vice versa, instead of a double crossover. North of York Mills, the line proceeds through 5162 feet of twin tunnel to Johnston Avenue, after which 1249 feet of cut-and-cover take in Sheppard station and a double crossover located to the south of the station. Sheppard has a main exit onto Sheppard Avenue, with a secondary entrance onto Poyntz Avenue.
Tunnel construction from Sheppard to Finch was handled in the traditional cut-and-cover technique to save money. The TTC briefly gave consideration to a double-deck structure (one track over the other) but decided instead to go with the conventional structure of tracks side by side. Over 7000 feet of cut-and-cover construction took the subway north from Harlandale Avenue and included Finch station, a double crossover to the south of the station, and a triple tail track located to the north of the station.
Lawrence was the only one of the North Yonge extension’s original four stations designed with a direct transfer between buses and the subway. This was because Lawrence station was the only station of the four to be built within Zone 1 of Metropolitan Toronto’s two-zone fare system. With all of the subway considered to be within Zone 1, passengers transferring from buses at York Mills, Sheppard and Finch would have to pay an additional fare in order to continue their ride on the subway or show a Zone 1 transfer, if they had paid with a combination ticket. The zonal fare system may have been abolished by the time the extension opened, but the influence remained.
Both Finch and Sheppard stations had long corridors connecting the subway platforms to the bus terminals and, in the case of Sheppard, secondary exits to the street ran off both sides of these corridors. While Finch station’s corridor was opened as a fare-paid zone without much difficulty, Sheppard station’s entrances would have to have fare barriers installed should the paid fare area be expanded to cover the bus terminal. So, Sheppard was forced to use paper transfers. During the 1990s its bus terminal was made into a separate fare-paid zone using a manned barrier, but only on weekday afternoons and the evening rush hour. At these busy times passengers from the subway would show their transfers at a booth and not to the bus driver, allowing bus boarding using all doors. Finally, on June 16, 2002, a few months before the Sheppard Line would open, the main fare-paid zone was extended to include the bus terminal, with new automatic turnstiles provided for the Harlandale Avenue entrance.
York Mills also required paper transfers to connect between bus and subway until the mid 1990s, when the bus terminal (located at the northeast corner of the Yonge/York Mills intersection) was rebuilt beneath an office tower complex set up on the site. York Mills station also became the site of a GO Transit/Gray Coach bus terminal, serving bus routes running east and west via the 401 as well as an express bus to Pearson Airport. Gray Coach would eventually become Greyhound, and its service to York Mills station evaporated (with the Airport Express disappearing in the year 2000, with the company upset at the TTC’s competition with the service).
At Finch station, a new regional terminal was built, providing a connection between the subway and transit agencies operating north on Yonge Street. The station also became the site of a huge commuter parking lot, built onto the Hydro right-of-way, which intercepts thousands of car drivers heading into Toronto, moving them onto the subway and the promise of a 28-minute ride to Union station.
The tile patterns for the station departed from the two-tone trim that had been used on most of the previous subway stations. What became the interim and permanent terminal stations (York Mills and Finch respectively) were covered in a green-blue and grey motif, respectively. Green-blue or grey tiles displaying the station names were mixed with patches of larger blue or grey tiles. The intermediate stations of Lawrence and Sheppard were predominantly yellow, and were accented with red and dark blue ceramic tiles respectively.
Strikes Delay Opening.
The North Yonge extension project was plagued with problems, including lengthy labor strikes, quicksand at Teddington Park Avenue and wet soil conditions in Hogg’s Hollow. With the extension months behind schedule, the decision was made to open the line as far as York Mills on March 31, 1973, instead of to Sheppard as had been originally proposed. The remainder of the line would open on March 30, 1974 (the twentieth anniversary of the opening of the original Yonge subway). Even with this measure taken, York Mills and Lawrence had to open with eight planned escalators uninstalled between them, mostly at the proposed secondary entrances. As these stations were the deepest in Toronto’s subway system, the TTC decided not to open these secondary entrances until the escalators were installed, which was as late as June.
The public was invited to opening ceremonies at Lawrence and York Mills station on Friday, March 30, 1973 to celebrate the extension of the subway to York Mills. Elaborate ceremonies had marked the subway’s entry into Scarborough and Etobicoke in 1968 and it would not do, politically, for North York to receive anything less at this opening. Almost 400 invited guests and officials gathered at Eglinton station around 2:00 p.m. to board a train of 6 H-2 cars (5540-45) with a sign saying “Official Opening - Yonge subway Extension” placed on front. Toronto Mayor David Crombie guided the special train through a banner draped across the tracks at Eglinton station reading “Get Ready - North York, Here Comes the subway”. The train proceeded to Lawrence station where it was met by a throng of people, including North York Mayor Mel Lastman, who together with Mayor Crombie activated a symbolic signal to send the train on to York Mills.
Mel Lastman took over the controls at this point and operated the train to York Mills, where speeches were given to another large crowd of people. Among the speakers were Ontario Premier William Davis and the Minister of Transportation and Communications, Gordon Canton. The train departed York Mills with its VIPs at 3:30 p.m. but Lawrence and York Mills stations remained open to the public for the afternoon. The subway opened to normal service at 6:00 a.m. the next day.
Changes Resulting from the Opening
The opening of the Yonge subway to York Mills resulted in the abandonment of trolley coaches on Yonge Street. The 97 Yonge trolley bus line, installed one month before the Yonge subway opened to Eglinton in 1954, had been operating ever since that time, providing local service on Yonge Street from Eglinton to Glen Echo loop. The 59 NORTH YONGE bus, which had replaced the North Yonge Railways interurban line to Richmond Hill in 1948, had run express south of Glen Echo Loop, but now terminated at York Mills. The new Yonge bus route, which maintained the same number as the trolley coach route, was extended north to end at Sheppard Avenue, while a branch opened along Yonge Boulevard, terminating at York Mills station. This replaced the Wilson bus route’s operations on Yonge Boulevard. Until 1973, Wilson buses had used Yonge Boulevard to access the terminal facilities at Glen Echo, but now they ran to York Mills Station.
With the opening of the subway to York Mills, Glen Echo Loop was declared surplus and abandoned. This loop, on the boundary between the City of Toronto and the Borough of North York, had a long history with the TTC, opening in the early 1920s as the northern terminal of the Yonge streetcar line and the southern terminal of interurbans arriving from the communities north of the city. From 1954 until 1973, it acted as the terminal for the 97 Yonge trolley bus route and a number of other suburban routes. With these suburban routes now using the terminals at York Mills station, there was no reason to maintain the loop. Gray Coach used the facility as its North Toronto terminal until the opening of the subway to Finch. When these buses moved out, the facilities were abandoned, demolished, and the land redeveloped.
When the Yonge subway was extended to Finch Avenue, one year later, the 97 Yonge bus was extended to Steeles Avenue, and the North Yonge bus was cut back to Finch station. It would not be long before the North Yonge operations were taken over by GO Transit and operated out of the new regional terminal constructed at Finch station.
Initially, service on the North Yonge extension was lighter than on the remainder of the Yonge line. During rush hours, every second train turned back at Eglinton station, likely through the use of the tail track at the north end of that station. When the Spadina subway opened in 1978, rush hour operation of the Yonge-University-Spadina line was handled as though there were two separate but overlapping subway lines, with one leg operating from Eglinton to Wilson and the other operating from Finch to St. Clair West station. The Eglinton short turn service officially ended in the early 1980s, but in practice, trains were often turned back at Eglinton Avenue in order to maintain service levels. It was only after the retirement of the Gloucesters that service on the North Yonge extension regularly matched that of the original Yonge line.
Changes Since the Opening
As was previously mentioned, when the TTC eliminated its two-zone fare structure, efforts were made to create direct transfers between buses and the subway. This was done quickly at Finch station, but it required the construction of a new office complex to spur changes at York Mills station. In 1986, a mid-block station opened between Finch and Sheppard at the site of the long proposed Empress or Park Home station mentioned before, serving the North York Civic Centre and appropriately named North York Centre.
But by far the biggest change to the North Yonge extension is being brought about through construction of the Sheppard subway. Sheppard station was heavily renovated, with a direct transfer between buses and the subway established, and signage consistent with the Sheppard line installed. Signs now identify the station as “SHEPPARD-YONGE” instead of just “SHEPPARD”. Stairwells connecting the Yonge platform with the two side platforms of the Sheppard line station were also built, along with new exits to serve additional development in the area.
Tunnel Repairs and Asbestos Remediation
By 1999, a design flaw in the north Yonge extension came to light. The linings used on the bored tunnel sections of the line as it was dug in the early 1970s did not prove as durable as expected, and water leakage and subsidence was distorting these tunnel rings and threatening the clearance of passing trains. This problem also affected portions of the Bloor-Danforth subway and the Spadina line, but was particularly noticeable on the section of the Yonge line between Eglinton and Sheppard. That year, a TTC report indicated that many tunnel rings needed urgent rehabilitation. A contract worth $139,400 was awarded on July 12, 1999, to Hatch Mott MacDonald Consultants to undertake a survey to ascertain the scope of the problem. The engineers’ report in 2002 indicated that as many as 3,800 tunnel rings might need to be fixed or replaced throughout the system. The TTC immediately set to work grouting areas to reduce water infiltration while the Engineering & Construction and Track & Structure Departments worked on a plan to finish all the needed repairs.
The work could only be done while the subway was closed for the night, which gave workers a limited window in which to repair or replace tunnel liners. Construction workers braved cramped working conditions in the tunnels, and the work was not without risk. A worker sitting inside tunnel-maintenance scaffold car RT-42 was struck by “something on the tunnel wall” as the train headed back to Davisville, and died. The accident shut down the subway for the day while an investigation took place.
By March 2008, it was clear to the TTC that it was going to take until at least 2013 before the work replacing the concrete linings from Eglinton to Sheppard was complete, and it wasn’t clear that the tunnel would remain safe through that time. Some of the liners had deteriorated to the point that there was concern the subway might need to be shut down for safety reasons north of Eglinton as early as July 2010.
To avoid this risk and to speed up work, the TTC had no choice but to widen the construction window. Starting June 22, 2008, six nights a week (Saturday night service was unaffected), the TTC shut down subway service north of Lawrence at 12:30 a.m. instead of near 2 a.m. On February 16, 2009, this early closure was shifted south to Eglinton. Buses were called in to operate subway replacement service on these nights, operating on Yonge Street and serving the bus terminals at Eglinton, Lawrence, York Mills, Sheppard-Yonge and Finch stations. At some point, permanent-looking signs for the temporary “Yonge subway shuttle” were installed on platforms at the Eglinton bus terminal.
The work was supposed to finish in July 2010, but the TTC discovered that the problem was far more complicated than expected. The acoustic lining on a great number of tunnel liners prevented a large number from being properly inspected. When workers removed this lining, more and more problems kept being found. Complicating things further was the fact that the “acoustic lining” that was covering some of the tunnel linings was, in part, asbestos, and an environmental hazard to disturb. So the TTC’s tunnel-lining repair project became a concurrent asbestos removal project.
In 2012, the TTC estimated the completion date for the project would finally come late December 2013. This deadline proved to be ambitious, as more problems were found than anticipated. While “high priority” repairs were completed by December 2013, including asbestos fibre removal from 4,330 tunnel liners and the replacement or repair of approximately 960tunnel liners, more work needed to be done, including further asbestos removal on 1,660 tunnel liners.
In addition to this, the TTC noticed cracks appearing in the concrete deck at Lawrence station separating the subway tunnel below with the bus platform roadway above. The first cracks appeared in 2008, and the TTC assessed and reassessed the condition of this deck in the years that followed. Repair work to replace this deck was put off as work continued replacing the tunnel liners but, by November 2013, it was clear that work on this deck needed to be done sooner rather than later.
As a result of these additional problems, in November 2013, TTC staff recommended that early subway closings on the North Yonge subway be continued until the end of 2015, with repair work on the Lawrence station concrete tunnel ceiling commencing in January 2014. At the time, the TTC estimated that as many as 1,250 customers were affected by these early closures each night.
The Future of North Yonge
There is no doubting the North Yonge extension’s usefulness to Toronto’s subway network. For as long as anyone can remember, Yonge Street has been a major street not just for Toronto, but to the communities to the north of the city. The Metropolitan interurban took passengers from North Toronto all the way to the shores of Lake Simcoe, and the North Yonge Railways were a major operation serving the townships of North York, Vaughan, Markham and the town of Richmond Hill until 1948. It was only a matter of time before the Yonge subway pushed into this territory. Today, Finch station is the entry point for thousands of commuters daily, driving or riding in from homes in southern York Region. Plans are on the books to extend the line to Steeles Avenue, either as a prelude to a connection with the Spadina subway at York University, or as a prelude to further extensions up Yonge Street, into York Region itself. Recently, York Region and Metrolinx have advanced a proposal for a $3.4 billion six-station extension to Richmond Hill Centre terminal just north of Highway 407. Toronto City Council approved this extension in principle in 2009, on the condition that other subway projects are built that reduce pressure on the Yonge line, including the Downtown Relief subway line.
The North Yonge subway extension to Finch Avenue gave a significant boost to North York’s dreams of building its own downtown core near the Yonge/Sheppard intersection. This allowed a sleepy borough to transform itself into a major urban centre in its own right - a fact the TTC recognized when it agreed to build North York Centre station between Sheppard and Finch, and further enhanced with the opening of the Sheppard subway.
The opening of the Yonge subway from Union station to Eglinton in 1954 was a defining moment for public transportation in the City of Toronto. The extension of the Yonge line to Finch not only doubled the length of the subway up Yonge Street, but reconfirmed the line’s importance in Toronto’s transportation network.
North Yonge Extension Image Archive
Next see the Spadina subway.
Thanks to Mark Brader for his assistance in correcting this article.
- Bromley, John F., and Jack May, Fifty Years of Progressive Transit, Electric Railroaders’ Association, New York (New York), 1978.
- Wickson, Ted, ‘Yonge Subway - Northern Extension’, UCRS Newsletter, March/April 1973, p35, The Upper Canada Railway Society, Toronto (Ontario).
- Yonge Subway Extension Progress Report - York Mills to Finch, Toronto Transit Commission, Toronto (Ontario), 1973.
- Yonge Subway Extension To York Mills - March 31, 1973, Toronto Transit Commission, Toronto (Ontario), 1973.