Text by James Bow, photos by David Cavlovic.
Downsview subway station has, since March 30, 1996, been the northern terminus of the Spadina subway line, and so it will remain until the fall of 2016, when the subway is extended north from Downsview to York University and the city of Vaughan. When it opened, it extended the Yonge-University-Spadina subway one stop north from Wilson station to the intersection of Sheppard Avenue West and Allen Road. It was the first extension of the Toronto subway network since 1980, and wasn't on the political radar ten years before. So, how did this short, one-station extension come to pass? The answer is that it's existence is evidence of, not one, but two competing subway expansion plans, neither of which had the Downsview extension listed as its first phase.
A Short History of a Short Extension
The Network 2011 plan for subway expansion established Metro Toronto's subway construction priorities from the mid 1980s onward. The plan called for the construction of a Sheppard Subway from Yonge to Victoria Park by 1994, a Downtown relief line by 1998, a busway along Eglinton Avenue soon thereafter, and an extension of the Sheppard Subway west to an extension of the Spadina Subway and east to the Scarborough Town Centre soon after that. This was the plan Metro took to the province in 1985 and in 1988, after much hemming and hawing from the newly elected David Peterson Liberals at Queen's Park, the province approved plans to extend the Spadina Subway one station north from Wilson Avenue to Sheppard.
Why did the province approve such a small first-step to the plan, and a step that was to be taken late in the subway construction process, no less? Part of the reason was the Liberals' reluctance to commit to the expensive plan, and throwing a small bone to Metro in the form of this short extension of an established subway line was seen as buying time. Also, by this time, there was a debate over whether the Sheppard Subway should be the first priority, or if the Spadina subway should be extended to York University. Toronto was campaigning to host the 1996 summer Olympics at this time and it was felt that York University was an obvious venue and one that needed a strong rapid transit connection with the rest of the city.
The Spadina extension to Sheppard was the common part of both plans, so it made sense for the province to commit to this project first and get shovels in the ground while planners and politicians debated over the next priority. Ironically, neither the Sheppard West extension nor the extension to York University seem likely to appear in the near future. The one station extension has been criticized as 'a subway from nowhere to nowhere'. Scarborough politicians were particularly upset, fearing that the planned first phase of the Network 2011 plan, the Sheppard Subway from Yonge to Victoria Park, would end up delayed. However, as this was the only subway construction the Liberal adminsitration was offering immediately, Metro Council decided to support the $160 million project and voted in favour of it on April 26, 1989. It was the first subway extension to be commissioned in over ten years.
Construction Finally Begins
The extension underwent a surprisingly long process of environmental assessment. The project was complicated by its proximity to the Canadian Forces' base at Downsview airport, despite the fact that this army base was due to be closed. Two proposed alignments were vetoed by the base because they approached too close to a munitions storage and disposal building. The TTC had hoped to build the line so that it would take a wide curve and swing east, giving the station at Sheppard an east-west alignment in anticipation for a link (and perhaps interlining) with the Sheppard Subway. Eventually, a strict north-south alignment was chosen, likely with a transfer between two lines planned instead of interlining, and the line pulled away from the Canadian Forces' base. The project cleared the Ministry of Environment in September 1991.
Groundbreaking for the project took place on June 22, 1992. Tunnel construction was primarily cut and cover, with a long section of the line located in open cut. Tracks were extended north of Wilson Station and run alongside Wilson Carhouse for much of the way. After four years of work, the line opened to passengers on March 30, 1996. The total cost of the project was $117 million. The name Downsview was chosen over Sheppard West in a naming contest that took place amongst neighbourhood residents and featured 2500 entries. The name was officially announced in 1994.
A tour of the station
Downsview Station offers a wide centre platform and a sloping, curved roof that's not unlike an airport hangar in design. Blue and grey tiles are mounted on the walls, and drop-down lights illuminate the station and provide signs to inform patrons. A long walkway running the length of the station, one level up, takes passengers to the north side of Sheppard Avenue, and to a bus terminal at the south end of the station. The connection with the future Downsview Station on the Sheppard line may take place here. The bus terminal is large and airy, thanks to high ceilings and extensive use of glass. Most of the buses that connect with the subway here used to connect using the north bus terminal at Wilson Station (used when one of the station's other bus terminals is offline for maintenance). Downsview Station may have been a 'subway from nowhere to nowhere', but it cut short a number of bus trips to Wilson Station and may have improved some commuters' travel times.
Two tailtracks are offered to the north of the station platform. In the tunnel on the south side of the platform is the usual crossover track. There are no hints of plans to connect the Spadina and future Sheppard subway lines with a wye, although this will likely happen once the Sheppard West extension is built, to give Sheppard trains easier access to the Wilson Yards.
Downsview is located in the middle of fields, well away even from the development of Sheppard Avenue. Plans are afoot for higher density development to be built here, but most traffic has to be bussed in. Except for a Kiss 'n' Ride facility east of the station, no parking facilities exist. The TTC hopes to add 500 parking spaces to this station in the near future, however.
Downsview and its place in Toronto's Subway History
Downsview was Toronto's 66th subway station to open. It is unfortunate that Downsview is significant in Toronto's subway history for being the first subway extension to be built in over 15 years. Indeed, with the exception of the Scarborough RT (which hardly rates as a subway), the City of Toronto and the TTC have not been able to build anything more than single-station extensions of established lines since the opening of the Spadina Subway in 1978. This streak persisted until 2002 when the five-station Sheppard Subway opened to the public.
Downsview Station was not a bad addition to Toronto's subway network. It is well designed, and cuts travel times to passengers heading to York University, the City of Vaughan and northwestern Toronto. The construction of 500 parking spaces will make Downsview even more useful for getting commuters out of their cars. However, Downsview still stands as a symbol of Toronto's disappointing roster of rapid transit improvements throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Its construction was an optimistic presage of two potential major subway extensions, and yet it is not likely that we will see these extensions for years. We should have had so much more.
Downsview Station Image Archive
Next see the Sheppard Subway.
Thanks to Mark Brader for correcting this web page and offering additional information.
- Bolton, Marilyn. "Metro's Newest TTC Subway Extension and Station Officially Open" Canadian Newswire 1996 Mar 27
- Byers, Jim. "Transit plans for Spadina clear hurdle at ministry." Toronto Star 1991 Sept 24: pA?.
- Howell, Peter. "Forces base vetoes 'risky' subway routes." Toronto Star 1989 Dec 21: pA?.
- James, Royson and Michael Smith. "Subway plans spark furor in Scarborough." Toronto Star 1988 Nov 2: pA8.
- Smith, Michael. "Spadina subway extension okayed." Toronto Star 1989 Apr 27: pA?.