The Downtown Relief Line Proposal

Text by Jonathan English

Phase 1

A map showing the first phase of the Downtown Relief Line. Only Queen East and St. Lawrence (at Sherbourne) are confirmed stops in the original plan.


The Downtown Relief Line (or Downtown Rapid Transit/DRT) was one of the three routes proposed in the Network 2011 plan. Its main purpose was to relieve the forecasted overcrowding on the Yonge line, particularly at Bloor-Yonge station. At the time (1985) Bloor-Yonge station was already operating above design capacity, but opening day was scheduled for 1998. It was Network 2011's second priority, to be built after the Sheppard subway opened from Yonge Street to Victoria Park in 1994.

In its final incarnation, the Downtown Relief Line would have operated in the first phase from Pape station on the Bloor Danforth line, south on Pape Avenue to Eastern Avenue, where it would turn west and operate along the railway right of way until it dove under the rail lines north to Front at Union Station. It was then planned to have continued west to Spadina. Future extensions would have taken the line west via the railway tracks to either King and Roncesvalles, or possibly up the CN Weston sub to a connection with Dundas West station. In the east, the line could have been extended north along Pape and Don Mills to Eglinton. The route would be an extremely quick trip Downtown, with the trip from Pape to Union featuring only three stops compared to ten, including a transfer, on the Bloor-Danforth/Yonge lines.

The Downtown Relief Line disappeared from the transit radar soon after the province delayed approving Metro's Network 2011 plan. As the Liberal and then the NDP governments in Queen's Park hemmed and hawed over the price tag, political support vanished. A drop in ridership, the use of premium express buses and renovations to Bloor-Yonge station reduced the immediate need for the line. The next priorities after the shortened Sheppard line is completed is to extend the Sheppard line east to the Scarborough Town Centre, and the Spadina line north to York University.

The Route

In the first phase, the line would travel south from Pape Station underground to an optional station at Gerrard. The Pape-Gerrard area was designated as the district commerce centre. Further south, a station at Queen Street was planned, to reduce the very heavy traffic on the streetcars into Downtown, particularly the bottleneck between Broadview and King.

A yard was proposed at the southern end of Pape at Eastern Avenue, bordered by the Gardiner Expressway, Heward Avenue, Winnifred Avenue and Eastern Avenue. After turning west, the line would join the Kingston Sub right of way where it would travel on an elevated structure akin to the Scarborough RT. It was planned to descend to grade level roughly at Cherry Street, and the next station would be at Sherbourne Street, and would likely have been named St. Lawrence.

At Church Street, the line would have returned underground, passing underneath the railway tracks at Yonge Street, and stopping at Union Station directly south of the existing station. To the west, a stop was planned at the Convention Centre, and finally at Spadina, both underground along Front Street. These stops would have served the western railway lands developments, especially the Skydome, and would have prevented a bottleneck of terminating trains at Union Station.

Planned Extensions

Phase 2 West

This map shows the possible western extensions. Three options were identified.

To the west, an extension to Roncesvalles and Queen was recommended, as it would have allowed passengers coming in from the Queensway bus and Long Branch streetcars to transfer to the subway for a quick ride downtown. The line would have curved north and connected with the Bloor-Danforth subway at either Dundas West or Keele, providing a relief-structure for western subway commuters as Phase 1 would do for eastern subway commuters. The extension would also have served the Exhibition. The Downtown Relief Line would have pushed west from Spadina underground along Front to Bathurst (where a station would be placed) and then elevated in the median of a Front Street extension to Strachan and a station near the Exhibition grounds.

From Strachan, there were three possible alignments. The cheapest would follow the railway right-of-way past the Exhibition and up to the Galt-Weston railway corridor which it would take to Dundas West station. Although the least useful of the three alternatives, it still provided a quick trip from the Bloor-Danforth subway downtown, and offered up the possibility of a quick extension to Eglinton Avenue and possibly Pearson Airport via the Weston Sub.

Another alternative would push west of Strachan along the Oakville Sub to Roncesvalles, where it would turn north to connect to the Bloor line at Dundas West. Stations along this alignment were planned at Jameson Avenue, the Queen/Roncesvalles intersection, Howard Park, and Bloor Street. It is doubtful the residents and businesses along Roncesvalles would have favoured this extension, however.

Finally, consideration was made to run the line along an elevated guideway on Parkside Drive at the edge of High Park to the Keele Station. This alignment would have been unpopular because of its effect on the park and the surrounding residential neighbourhood, but it remained attractive because of the costs saved from not tunnelling beneath Roncesvalles.

Phase 2 East

The Borough of East York was a strong backer of the Downtown Relief Line plan, and this is why.

At the east end, the line could have extended the route north of Pape station, crossing the Don Valley either beneath Leaside Bridge, or via a new structure. The line would then travel elevated in the median of Overlea Boulevard and Don Mills Road, terminating at Eglinton, giving Thorncliffe Park, Flemingdon Park, and the Ontario Science Centre subway stations. An underground station would also exist at Cosburn and Pape. The relief line could conceivably have continued farther north as far as Sheppard, making a connection with the Sheppard subway, although whether or not it could have done this above the median of Don Mills Road is open to question.

Benefits and Trip Generators Today

Aside from the primary motivation of reducing congestion on the Yonge line, many significant trip generators would be served on the completed line:

The Port Lands: Considering the prominence of the Port Lands in the Olympic Bid and the Waterfront Task Force Report, it would seem reasonable that it should be served by a subway. The Downtown Relief Line passes quite close to the lands, and would provide satisfactory service to the massive crowds. Although no station was planned near the Don River in the original DRL plans, one would not be difficult to add.

St. Lawrence Neighbourhood: A subway station at Sherbourne would introduce rapid transit service to the popular neighbourhood along the Esplanade, as well as being a reasonable walking distance from the St. Lawrence Market.

Union Station: Union station obviously would be the main station, serving the Financial District through the PATH underground walkway system, the GO and VIA station, as well as the Air Canada Centre and developments on the eastern side of the Railway Lands.

Convention Centre Station: This station would be located at John street and would therefore be able to serve the SkyDome, CN Tower, and the Convention Centre itself. Particularly during special events, this could be a very popular station. It would most definitely reduce pressure on Union Station.

Spadina: The station at Spadina would serve the massive railway lands residential development, as well as the Spadina Streetcar.

Exhibition: The Exhibition would have a subway station right at Exhibition Loop. This would serve a multitude of special events, such as the CNE, Symphony of Fire, and the Molson Indy, as well as Ontario Place and the National Trade Centre year round.

Roncesvalles: Subway service here would dramatically improve service along one of the busiest streetcar corridors in the city. Passengers from Long Branch could connect to the subway and no longer need to brave the on-street running of the 501. While service on King and Queen would most certainly remain, there would no longer be the massive congestion problems.


In the Network 2011 report, the cost of the Downtown Relief Line, including a new yard, is listed as $565 million. Considering that the cost of the Sheppard Line to Victoria Park was reported as $500 million dollars, and the current cost is roughly double, it is reasonable to assume that the cost of a full Downtown Rapid Transit would be $1.1 billion. While a large sum, it is a small fraction of the $12 billion earmarked for Waterfront reconstruction. The DRT would lend great support to the plan, with only 10% extra cost.

Future Possibilities (Updated February 6, 2009 by James Bow)

The Downtown Relief Line proposal languished since the early 1990s, as ridership fell and congestion at the Bloor-Yonge transfer station diminished. The situation started to reverse itself in the late 1990s, however, and by 2001, the TTC began to notice that stations on the southern section of the Yonge line were becoming congested.

In 2001, the TTC was commissioned by Toronto city council to draft a Rapid Transit Expansion Study, to identify which subway extensions should have priority should funds become available from the provincial or federal governments. The people who drafted the report recommended a two-station extension of the Sheppard subway east from Don Mills to Victoria Park, and a northerwesterly extension of the Spadina subway to York University and Steeles Avenue. They identified extending the Yonge subway north to Clark Boulevard (one kilometre north of Steeles Avenue) as a strong option that could generate more riders than the other two options, but failed to recommend it, saying:

While the Yonge Subway options rank higher than most options, a northerly extension of the Yonge Subway line has the potential to overload the Yonge line. From an operational perspective, it would be more prudent to better balance idership on the Yonge and Spadina Subway lines by first extending the Spadina Subway north of the current Yonge Subway terminus at Finch Avenue. By extending the Spadina Subway first, approximately 2,000-2,500 AM peak period (6-9 a.m.) riders on the Yonge Subway can be off loaded to the Spadina Subway line thereby providing significant relief to the Yonge line in the medium term.

Activists and politicians noticed the reluctance to extend the Yonge subway, and further plans to increase the capacity of the Yonge subway, and speculated on whether or not the Downtown Relief Line proposal might return. In 2007, as the TTC and the City of Toronto embarked on its Transit City proposal to build LRT lines to the northern, eastern and western ends of the city, it was noted that there was little increase in the capacity of transit services downtown. Finally, in 2008, TTC Chairman Adam Giambrone speculated that a Downtown Relief Line might become a necessity, although he didn't foresee it being built until after 2018.

Speculation increased as Metrolinx, the transit planning agency mandated by the province to draft a long term plan to improve public transit throughout the Greater Toronto region placed the Downtown Relief Line (or a Queen subway) in its most optimistic proposals, with construction to take place in 25 years. Further, they pressed ahead with a proposal to extend subway service on the Yonge line north from Finch station to Richmond Hill at a cost of $2.4 billion.

The TTC and the City of Toronto worried that this extension would significantly increase congestion problems on the southern part of the Yonge line. Even with automatic train control, new trainsets and a seventh car added to trains, even Metrolinx estimated that the Yonge subway would be 40% over capacity by 2031. In late January 2009, Toronto city council approved the extension of the Yonge subway, with preconditions, including expansion of the Bloor-Yonge transfer station, that could inflate the total cost of the Yonge subway extension to over $5 billion. At the same meeting, city councillors approved a motion to encourage Metrolinx to give a higher priority for the Downtown Relief Line, which could solve much of the capacity problems caused by the Yonge extension, while expanding rapid transit service to a wider portion of the Toronto core.

Political manoeuvres over the next few months will determine whether the Downtown Relief Line rises from the dead, or languishes yet again.