Text by Godfrey Mallion,
Revised by James Bow
Located at the edge of the former Downsview Canadian Forces Base, the 60 acre Wilson Bus and Subway Complex is perhaps the most important single property on the Toronto Transit Commission. The subway yards marshall the bulk of the service on the Yonge-University-Subway line, and the attached bus garage stores over 250 vehicles. And yet, for twenty years after its opening, it was largely unseen by TTC patrons. Today, Wilson's importance continues to grow, as more tracks and space for more buses are added to the site.
Plans for the Wilson bus garage and subway yard began when serious proposals came forward to build the Spadina subway. Proposals to run subway service up the median of the old Spadina Expressway (today's Allen Road) were made in the 1960s, and the final alignment was approved by the Province of Ontario on January 18, 1973. Construction began soon after.
A new yard was needed not only to handle the anticipated trains required to service Spadina, but because ridership on the Yonge subway was increasing to the point that Davisville and Greenwood yards were reaching capacity. Davisville was also aging as the original yard for the Toronto subway network. In addition, the TTC's growing suburban bus network required a new garage, and one better placed to serve the routes operating through the City of North York.
Given this and expected future growth, the TTC knew that a lot of space would be required for the complex. The alignment of the Spadina subway opened up an intriguing possibility of using largely vacant land beside Downsview Airport. Sixty acres were chosen north of Wilson Avenue and west of Wilson Heights Boulevard. After successful negotiations with the federal Ministry of Defence, construction began on the Wilson complex in October 1975.
The Wilson bus garage opened first, on March 14, 1976. The 230,000 square foot garage offered two wash racks, two diesel fuelling stations and 4 inspection pit stations. Over the course of its life, a compressed natural gas fuelling station was installed (in the early 1990s) and later abandoned. There was also a Eurovac system, 11 forty-foot hoists and 3 sixty-foot hoists. The garage opened with capacity for 276 vehicles, and initially operated service on 1 ARMOUR HEIGHTS, 36 FINCH WEST, 53 STEELES EAST, 60 STEELES WEST, 98 WILLOWDALE, 95 SENLAC, 84 SHEPPARD WEST, 35 JANE, 96 JANE, 99 NORFINCH, 18 CALEDONIA and 29 DUFFERIN. A bus-only road (that may have been added later) connects the Wilson Station bus terminal complex with the garage, with a bridge over Transit Road.
The subway complex took longer to build, as the opening of the Spadina subway was still over 18 months away. However, by the mid-summer of 1977, Wilson Yard was taking the delivery of new subway cars. By the time the Spadina subway opened in January 1978, Wilson Yards offered a storage building with seven through-tracks for indoor maintenance, a plant building and a substation at the northwest corner of the carhouse building. There was also an overhead walkway from Wilson Garage leading to an operators' and service personnel platform by two of the tracks. The Wilson subway yard offered space for 262 subway cars, making it the largest yard on the Toronto subway network.
Wilson Garage and Yard served the northern portion of the TTC bus network as well as the bulk of the Yonge-University-Spadina subway straight from day one. Trains dispatched from the yards proceeded south, diving beneath Allen Road to access Wilson subway station from the north. Until March 30, 1996, when the Spadina subway was extended to Downsview station, the only way TTC passengers could see the operations was out the windows of buses heading north from Wilson Station up Transit Road and onto Allen Road and Wilson Heights Boulevard.
Even with its extensive operations, there remains considerable space to grow at Wilson Yards. As the original Gloucester subway cars were retired, those that weren't retained for conversion as work vehicles were scrapped at Wilson Yard. Additional non-powered tracks were added for the storage and eventual scrapping of these cars. In July 1993, when Davisville Yard was closed as an active carhouse (until November 2002), Wilson became the sole source for the subway trains operating on the Yonge-University Spadina subway.
Questions of Access
The amount of space available at Wilson Garage and Yard, and the expense of building any other rail yard space has resulted in much of Toronto's subway operation being consolidated at Wilson. This has presented operational challenges as ridership on the Yonge-University-Spadina subway increased, as travel time to get trains from Wilson to Finch station narrows the window when maintenance can be performed on the Yonge subway during the overnight closure. Questions of how to service cars on the Sheppard subway led to proposals that a single-track tunnel be built beneath Sheppard Avenue from Sheppard-Yonge station to Downsview to provide quicker access to Wilson. The expense of this proposal led to the TTC reopening Davisville Yards instead. Other proposals included extending the tail track tunnel north of Finch station to the site of a future Cummer station, allowing for additional storage tracks and cutting deadhead time from Wilson; this may yet be built as part of the Yonge subway's proposed extension to Richmond Hill.
The concerns remain over the length of time it takes to distribute trains stored at Wilson across the Yonge-University subway, however, and they've grown more acute as the TTC finishes construction on the extension of the Spadina subway to Vaughan Centre. Part of the northern extension project included a new tunnel connecting Wilson Yards with Downsview station. This tunnel, built using cut-and-cover techniques, branched off south of the crossover south of Downsview station and headed southwest beneath Allen Road to emerge at the north end of Wilson Yards.
A Lasting Legacy
Even though additional subway yards may be built in the future (such as at Richmond Hill), and even though additional bus garages have opened since Wilson launched operations in 1976, Wilson remains and will likely remain a critical part of the TTC's bus and subway network. It is well placed to maintain a key part of Toronto's suburban bus network, and it has been blessed with a lot of space in which to operate as a subway yard. Davisville could close (and it has), but it is almost inconceivable that Wilson could suffer the same fate.
Wilson Yards Image Archive
- Boutilier, Robert, Bus Maintenance and Shop booklet, T.T.C., 1999.
- The Coupler, TTC Employee Magazine, various issues
- T.T.C. History Cards, City of Toronto Archives.
- T.T.C. Photo Collection, City of Toronto Archives.