Sheppard West (Formerly Downsview)

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Text by James Bow

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Sheppard West subway station was known by a different name for the first twenty-one years of its existence. Originally christened Downsview station, the station was the northern terminus of the Spadina subway line from March 30, 1996 until December 2017, when the subway was extended north to York University and the city of Vaughan (Downsview was renamed "Sheppard West" on May 7, 2017, ahead of the extension). When it opened, Downsview 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 Network 2011 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. This would take far longer than planners anticipated, with the York University extension not receiving funding until 2007, and the Sheppard West extension not occurring at all. The one station extension was 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.

A tour of the station

Sheppard West 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 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). Sheppard West 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.

After it opened as Downsview, the station featured two tailtracks 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. On November 27, 2009, as construction of the extension to York Region began, the TTC held a groundbreaking ceremony for a new connection between Downsview station and Wilson Yard, building a tunnel breaking off from the southbound tracks near the crossover, passing beneath Allen Road and emerging near the north end of Wilson Yards. The tunnel was complete by 2010, but no tracks laid, as the TTC waited for the rest of the York extension project to finish.

The station itself was designed by Adamson Associates Architects (who designed the above-ground buildings and the mezzanine) and The Stevens Group Architects (who designed the concourse level and the platform. The subway platform was designed with a high, curved ceiling, evoking the feel of an aircraft hangar, in concert with the former air base nearby. High ceilings and skylights provided a lot of natural light even down to the subway platform, giving the whole station a very open and airy feel.

Sheppard West boasts two pieces of artwork. Sliding Pi, designed by Calgary artist Arlene Stamp, is a large wall mosaic that can be seen by riders as they take the stairs or the escalator between the bus platform and the mezzanine level. The other art is Boney Bus, by John McKinnon, found in front of the station, using giant aluminum beams and basalt formed in an abstract bus shape.

When Downsview opened in 1996, it was located in the middle of fields, well away from the development of Sheppard Avenue. Most of its ridership were bussed in from a number of routes that had previously ran south on Allen Road to Wilson station's crowded bus terminals. However, development soon sprang up in the area, and the station received a large park'n'ride facility offering over 600 spaces in July 2005. As demand increased, especially with the growth of York University further north, so too did ridership.

What's in a Name?

In the early 1990s, the TTC and Metropolitan Toronto decided against using "Sheppard West" as a station name early in the design and construction process of the extension. As the stop was planned to be an interchange with a western extension of the SHEPPARD subway, it was felt a more descriptive name was required as a destination for westbound Sheppard trains. The TTC embarked on a contest where they invited the public to submit names for the new station and, in 1994, announced "Downsview" as the winner (another alternative considered was "Wilson Heights"). Downsview is the name of the neighbourhoods northwest of the station, dating back to 1844 when landowner John Perkins Bull named one of his farms "Downs View". He came to use the structure as a religious services building and a courthouse (with a jail located in the cellar).

In 2010, however, as design work progressed on the Spadina extension to York University and Vaughan, the TTC raised concerns about the station's name. The next station north in the subway expansion would be located at the northern end of Downsview Park (the park made from the old Canadian Forces Base). The possible names for this station included "Chesswood", which the TTC felt wasn't distinctive or descriptive enough, or "Sheppard West", which the TTC felt would confuse riders since buses on Sheppard Avenue and Dufferin Street would continue to operate through Downsview's bus terminal, and not through the far less used station in Downsview Park.

Eventually, the TTC decided that it would make more sense to name the new station at the north end of Downsview Park, "Downsview Park", while Downsview itself would be renamed "Sheppard West". On April 1st, 2017, as a serious addendum to an April Fools broadcast, TTC officials announced that the formal renaming of Downsview station to Sheppard West would commence on May 1st, 2017, to allow some transition time between then and the opening of the York University/Vaughan extension to allow passengers to get used to the change. Work to change and update the station signs would begin around that time.

Downsview and its place in Toronto's Subway History

Downsview was Toronto's 66th subway station to open, and the only subway station to open between 1980 and 2002. Downsview stands as a symbol of Toronto's disappointing era of inaction on rapid transit construction through the 1980s and the 1990s. It seems appropriate that the name disappeared just as the subway was extended north by several kilometres to York University and the City of Vaughan. However, while it was derided as "an extension from nowhere to nowhere", it has seen use in its own right.

When it opened, Downsview cut travel times for passengers heading to York University, the City of Vaughan and northwestern Toronto, and it added parking spaces to help commuters leave their cars behind as they headed downtown. The station's architecture is distinctive, even against the other stations on the Spadina subway, and it has become a catalyst for further growth around the Sheppard/Dufferin intersection. While, as Sheppard West, the station may lose some passenger traffic from its old bus connections with York University, many buses will continue to pass through the terminal, and traffic will remain respectable.


Service Notes (as of May 7, 2017):

  • Off-site Resources:
  • Line: 1 YONGE-UNIVERSITY-SPADINA
  • Address: 1035 Sheppard Avenue West
  • Opened: March 30, 1996
  • Average Weekday Ridership: 39,900 (2014); 38,100 (2013)
  • Hours of Operation:
    First Train to Finch: 6:03 a.m. weekdays, 6:00 a.m. Saturdays/holidays, 8:02 a.m. Sundays.
    Last Train to Finch: 1:18 a.m. every day.
  • Entrances:
    • Sheppard Avenue, south side, located on the south side of Sheppard Avenue West, 82 metres east of Allen Road and 68 metres south via the walkway located east of the bus driveway (accessible)
    • Sheppard Avenue, north side, located 58 metres east of Allen Road (automatic entrance to station near entrance; accessible via walkway to collector)
    • Passenger Pick-Up and Drop-Off, located on the south side of Sheppard Avenue West, 220 metres east of Allen Road, via a signalized driveway. Entrance is adjacent to the south side accessible station entrance. (accessible)
  • Wheelchair Accessible Since: March 30, 1996
  • Elevators (click here for maintenance schedule):
    • Subway platform to bus level
    • Passenger Pick-Up and Drop-Off to concourse
    • Automatic Entrance, concourse to street Level
  • Escalators (click here for maintenance schedule):
    • South End - Train Platform To Concourse (Up at all times)
    • Centre Train Platform To Concourse (Down at all times)
    • North End Train Platform To Concourse (Up at all times)
    • Collector Concourse To Bus Platform (Up at all times)
    • Bus Platform To Collector Concourse (Down at all times)
    • Passenger Pick-Up To Collector Concourse (Down at all times)
    • Collector Concourse To Passenger Pick-Up (Up at all times)
  • Parking: 632 spaces
  • Washrooms: located on the concourse near the collector booth
  • Token vending machine
  • Pass vending machine
  • One centre platform

Regional Connections:

TTC Surface Route Connections:


Downsview Station Image Archive


Next see the Sheppard Subway.

Thanks to Mark Brader for correcting this web page and offering additional information.

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References

  • 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?.