The Scarborough Rapid Transit Extension (1990s proposal)

Map of the Scarborough RT

A Map showing the alignment of the Scarborough RT extension in relation with the rest of it.

by Peter Drost and James Bow.

Overview

The Scarborough Rapid Transit Line is technically an unfinished project. Ideally, the system would have supported the "Malvern Gateway" in the growing north-east section of Scarborough.

Historically, a Malvern transit corridor was proposed as early as 1975, when the Scarborough RT project was first announced. The first stage was to take the LRT to the Scarborough Town Centre, but beyond that, the TTC hoped to serve the developing community of Malvern, and perhaps points further east, such as the Zoo, or even Pickering. Malvern was always part of the RT plan, even after its design was changed to accommodate ICTS technology.

But why Malvern?

By the early 1990s, the City of Scarborough had approved $1 billion in development in the Malvern area while predictions indicated that growth around the Town Centre would add approximately 15,000 residents plus 21,000 jobs. The place was booming.

When the Scarborough RT opened to just past the Scarborough Town Centre in 1985, the next phase of the project would have taken the line to the abandoned right-of-way of the Canadian Northern, which proceeded northwest from the McCowan/Ellesmere intersection, past the Sheppard/Markham intersection, to the corner of Finch and Morningside. The teething problems experienced by the new ICTS cars cooled the TTC's enthusiasm for the extension. The TTC noted that the proposed right-of-way northeast of Sheppard and Markham shrank rapidly, and the line through here would be near people's backyards. The TTC was unwilling to have a repeat of the vocal complaints they had received from residents abutting the line north of Kennedy Station. Rather than plan for the cost of mitigating the effects of the line north of Sheppard Avenue, the TTC decided to end the RT extension at Sheppard instead, if indeed they decided to go that far.

Although the TTC was less than enthusiastic about the success of the Scarborough RT, other interests put the extension back on the front burner. Under the NDP government's "Let's Move" program a formal design for the route and stations was carried out in 1992. The extension would have cost an estimated $430 million dollars, almost double what the initial line cost to build.

The route

The proposed 3.2 km route would have taken passengers on an elevated guideway east of McCowan station, then slightly south through the existing (but, by the time of the extension's opening, decommissioned) McCowan Yard then north again across Bellamy Road. A station was proposed for this location, but the drawings of the recommended undertaking indicate it was to be deferred. Continuing east and parallel to Highland Creek trains would have passed the new Bellamy Yard.

If the RT system had expanded, it would have outgrown McCowan Yard, and thus the TTC decided to plan for a new yard instead of expanding the old one. The new yard would have been located east of the future Bellamy Station location, with the two running tracks straddling a third centre track, rising up from ground level and connected to the main line by switches in both directions. The third track would pass under the main line at both its east and west ends and turn north to the carhouse and storage yard, which would have been built at ground level, to the north of the line.

Once past this yard connection, the main line would run north-east to a station at the Markham-Progress intersection. From there the line would head north. Many people assumed that the RT extension had suddenly come to life again in the mid-90's when piers appeared over highway 401 north of Centennial College. However, this construction turned out to be to an extension of Progress Avenue. The RT route across the 401 would have been slightly west of this new bridge, between it and Markham Road.

A station would have been built at Milner Avenue and the route would have terminated at the Sheppard-Markham intersection.

Stations

Under the 1992 plan, there would have been three new stations added to the system, with a possible fourth to be added later. Descriptions of these stations are as follows:

Bellamy Station - This station would most resemble Midland station. It would straddle Bellamy Road and serve a largely industrial area. Plans called for this station to be deferred until a later date, but a provision was made for a centre-platform station. Planners must have thought that this location was sketchy at best, with a limited amount of people willing to walk to the various plants and offices that offered free employee parking.

Markham Station

Engineering plans showing Markham Road Station and the pedestrian connection to Centennial College

Markham Station - Reading the plans, this would have been a challenging location to build a station. Looking at the area today three problems are immediately visible: 1) It's in a valley, 2) It's crowded by development on all sides and 3) Extremely busy with traffic moving on and off the 401 and to and from the college. Plans show that the station would straddle Markham Road at an angle, just north of Progress Avenue. The main part of the station would be located to the west of Markham Road, while the more northerly east side would have a large pedestrian entrance for students at Centennial College. There would also be 250 to 1,000 parking spaces and a small bus terminal at the northwest corner of Markham Road and Progress Avenue.

Model of Milner Station

An architectural model of Milner station, courtesy of the architects' website.

Milner Station - Would have been located just north of Milner Avenue and slightly west of Milner Business Court. Other than crosswalks for pedestrians, the station would have few amenities, as it would only connect with the Milner bus. There would be 500 to 750 parking spaces.

Sheppard East Station

Engineering plans showing Sheppard East Station. Future extensions would be north via Markham Road.

Sheppard East Station - The only RT station comparable to this would be the Town Centre station. As proposed it would have been located in the midst of a large commercial development at the south-east corner of Sheppard Avenue and Markham Road called Palmerston Place. The station would straddle Sheppard Avenue with a tail track jutting out north-west. (If there was another extension it would likely head north along Markham Road.) The station would serve as a hub for at least 10 local and interregional bus routes. Other features would include an underground bus platform with 12 to 16 bus bays. There would have also been 500 to 750 parking spaces.

Vehicles

The extension would use ICTS vehicles like those used on the existing RT line - no real difference. The total number of train cars needed for the entire line would ultimately be 114 ($53 million of the $430 million extension project was earmarked for the purchase of new trains). Rail and Transit magazine said "because of its short length, the Scarborough RT extension would likely be the first to open, if everything goes according to schedule, just before the turn of the century".

Planning and Politics Run Amok

Of course, the extension did not go according to schedule. In the entire history of transit projects in and around Toronto, few (if any) have suffered the politics surrounding the RT line itself. Growing from a relatively simple proposal to run ALRVs on a right-of-way, the plan grew and grew and grew.

In the end, the 3.2-km extension would have cost over $400 million, double the price of the original line and almost five times the original cost of the ALRV proposal. Moreover, the extension's route would have missed some important stops. To the north of McCowan station is a set of offices and an enormous condominium development that would be better served by a station built at Bellamy Road.

Worse, the extension would not have entered the Centennial College campus, but just flanked it leaving hundreds of students with a long walk, crossing busy Progress Avenue every day.

Finally, the travel time downtown would have been long if you were to start at Sheppard East station: Probably 20 minutes to ride the RT, 5 to 10 minutes to interchange at Kennedy, 25 minutes to Yonge Street, 10 to 15 minutes to a downtown station. In total 60 to 70 minutes, assuming that there were no delays. Compare this to, say, the Agincourt GO station with an approximately 25 to 30 minute run to downtown.

In the end, it was the cost of the project, taken alongside the four projects the NDP government was pushing (Sheppard Subway, Eglinton West Subway and the York University extension) that caused the Metro government to hesitate on approving this proposal. Metro councillors weren't willing to raise taxes in order to provide the funds necessary, and so the Province and Metro proceeded with the Eglinton West and Sheppard Subways, leaving the Spadina Subway and Scarborough RT extensions on the back burner.

If you've ever driven on Markham Road north of Highway 401, you may have noticed a large centre median. This median was set aside years ago for the RT project. It wouldn't take much for a streetcar to travel on this stretch, but the RT vehicles would need an elevated guideway that will cost millions to build. And there's the rub. All the elements that have gone in to the Scarborough RT have conspired to rob it of a meaningful future.

The RT Extension Today

With the election of the Conservative government under Mike Harris in June 1995, plans for the eastern extension of the Scarborough RT dropped off of Toronto's transit radar. One of Harris' first acts upon taking office was to cancel construction of the Eglinton West subway. Six months later, the Harris Conservatives pulled out of capital spending for public transportation altogether. In 1999, when another provincial election loomed, Toronto mayor Mel Lastman asked TTC planners to report on what should be the top priorities for rapid transit construction should the Harris Conservatives feel generous enough to promise funding in the hopes of getting votes. The TTC favoured the extension of the Sheppard subway line east towards the Scarborough Town Centre. The extension of the Scarborough RT was hardly mentioned.

The question of extending the RT did come back into play starting in 2005, as the TTC calculated that the Scarborough RT was ten years away from requiring significant renovations in order to keep operating. With the Mark I equipment nearly obsolete and not available for production from transit vehicle maker Bombardier, the TTC considered what would be needed to keep trains operating beyond 2015. An extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway was expensive, and upgrading the line to handle Mark II ICTS vehicles was also costly. When the TTC compared these options to converting the line to conventional LRT operation, they found that they could convert the line and extend it to Sheppard Avenue and Progress, following much the same alignment as the 1990s proposed extension, for less than it would cost to extend the subway to Scarborough Centre alone. In 2007, The City of Toronto paired this idea with the Transit City proposal, which would have created network of LRT lines across the city, including lines on Eglinton and Sheppard avenues, which the Scarborough LRT could connect with.

Unfortunately, while the provincial government approved funding for parts of the plan, including converting the Scarborough RT to LRT operation, politics again intervened. In 2010, the newly elected mayor Rob Ford cancelled construction on the Sheppard East LRT, and ordered that the Eglinton LRT be built fully underground. An agreement was reached with the provincial government through Metrolinx to link the all-underground Eglinton LRT to the Scarborough LRT, producing a single, grade-separate line that could operate from Weston Road to Kennedy, and then along the old Scarborough RT alignment to McCowan station. Two years later, Toronto City Council rebelled against this edict and overruled their mayor, bringing the Eglinton LRT back to grade east of the Don Valley Parkway, and reinstating the Sheppard East project. The Scarborough LRT was now a separate line, with an extension to Sheppard and Progress possible to provide the Eglinton LRT connections to carhouse facilities on Sheppard Avenue and Conlins Road.

Even this compromise couldn't last, as certain politicians tried to gain favour for a new rapid transit expansion plan called One City, which would have replaced the Scarborough RT with an extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway along a different alignment to the Sheppard and McCowan intersection. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was able to secure federal funding for this project, but arguments continue, as Ontario Transport Minister Glen Murray maintained that the province would go it alone with its own funding, and extend the Bloor-Danforth subway along the current alignment to Scarborough Centre station only.

As of the time of this writing (July 2014), the future of the Scarborough RT remains up in the air. The next municipal election has a major candidate for mayor calling for the original Scarborough LRT plan to be reinstated. The newly re-elected provincial government led by premier Kathleen Wynne hasn't yet confirmed how it will proceed, focusing instead on building the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT. The TTC continues to focus on capital projects that leave open the possibility of LRT construction. It's likely this matter won't be fully resolved until early 2015.

Looking back it seems that the politicians, buoyed by dreams of revolutionary new modes of travel, could not countenance a very basic engineering principle: Keep it simple and stupid (KISS). The result is that the RT is frozen in place, which is unfortunate because land for a further extension is ready to be used.


References

  • Haskill, Scott, 'Toronto Subway Expansion', Rail and Transit, March 1993, p3-5, The Upper Canada Railway Society, Toronto (Ontario).