Text by Robert Mackenzie
Friday, July 14, 2006 was an overcast but sultry day in downtown Toronto with temperatures in the high 30s. By the afternoon rush hour, most suburban commuters were looking forward to leaving work and taking the GO Train to head home and head into another summer weekend.
When they arrived at Union Station to board their train for home, an announcement from GO Transit likely dismayed them. GO was cancelling or delaying most train service because a freight train had derailed at “Willowbrook Yard” on the Lakeshore West line.
Most GO commuters probably had never heard of Willowbrook, or else confused it with Willowdale, a neighbourhood in North York. And those that knew it was on the Lakeshore West line couldn’t understand why an accident there was tying up all GO train lines.
What is Willowbrook?
Thousands of commuters pass by Willowbrook every day, but probably few know the name of the facility they’re passing. It’s the maintenance and storage depot for most of GO Transit’s operating rail equipment. You’ll find it in Toronto’s west end, in the former City of Etobicoke, north of the Canadian National Railway’s “Oakville Subdivision” - the main line from Toronto to Oakville and beyond. It lies just west of GO’s Mimico Station, roughly between Kipling Avenue and Royal York Road.
GO maintains storage yards at the end of most of its lines, so that trains are available for early-morning commuters. During the middle of the day, however, it stores most trains at Willowbrook, so it can quickly move them to Union in time for the afternoon commute. That’s why a delay at Willowbrook can delay all GO trains on all lines.
The history of Willowbrook
Railways and railway yards have featured prominently in the local history of the area around Willowbrook and of the two former towns that grew up beside its future location — New Toronto and Mimico.
As early as 1853, railway entrepreneurs built and operated the Great Western Railway to connect passengers and freight from Hamilton and Western Ontario across the northern edge of what would eventually become New Toronto with a stop at Mimico. Eventually, the Grand Trunk Railway bought out the Great Western, but the trains continued to serve the same lines north of Mimico and New Toronto.
By 1923, when the Government of Canada created Canadian National Railways to to take over several bankrupt railways, including the Grand Trunk, it also took over the maintenance and yard west of the Mimico Station. Grand Trunk established the yard around 1910.
The CNR Mimico Terminal was the home to three separate railway departments until 1965. The motive power department operated the roundhouse and serviced steam locomotives. The car department inspected and repaired the innumerable freight cars that moved in and out of Mimico Yard to and from points throughout North America. Finally, the yard and traffic department scheduled and made up each individual train and its “consists” - the various cars and locomotives that form each train.
In 1965, CN decided to move most of its operations to a larger site in the distant suburbs and opened its huge Toronto Yards south of the village of Maple. But CN’s departure proved timely.
During the mid-1960’s the Ontario government was starting to plan what would become today’s GO Transit. GO staff were looking for a place to park, service, fuel, clean and maintain their commuter trains.
Wilfred Sergeant who was Superintendent of Commuter Services for CN from 1965 until 1971 remembers that time. Under his leadership, CN worked with the Ontario Government to build GO Transit. Sergeant brought his expertise from working with the London Underground in his native England and his career experience with CN to the project of setting up GO. He’s web-published an e-book recalling his experiences, which you can read in more detail here.
Originally, Sergeant recalls, GO only had a total of eight trains to dispatch each weekday. Heavy transit systems work best if the early-morning trains could start their working day at the outer ends of the line. After the evening peak, the same trains would finish their work also at the outer ends, so having depots out there, too would
“This is valid on intensively operated subway lines with a lot of trains. For us to do that, we would need one depot out around Oakville and another around Dunbarton. While we took this into account, it didn’t make sense for our small fleet to have two depots, with only four trains in each,” Sergeant writes.
In designing the new commuter equipment, GO intended for the trains to remain as a unit, so that crews would not have to uncouple and recouple the locomotives every time they yarded the trains. If a train did not need mechanical work of any kind, it would come into the depot, yard crews would inspect, clean, and fuel it and then leave it alone until its next trip.
A unified staff, each with specific responsibilities would service coaches, self-propelled diesel railcars and locomotives in a single depot to keep the commuter trains running. But eight daily trains could not justify a fully equipped shop with craftspeople who could to do any and every kind of maintenance on this mix of equipment. So GO needed a site where it could perform the light servicing, park the trains, but also have easy access to CN’s heavier maintenance facilities at the Spadina coachyard and the John Street roundhouse, just west of Union Station.
The best place turned out to be the very place that CN was vacating: the main freight yard at Mimico. Some of CN’s heavy freight movements would still take place there, but a great expanse of yard was soon going to be available after CN shifted its operation to Maple. The site was on the west side of Union Station, so, if GO crews had to move coaches or locomotives from Mimico to either the coachyard or the round house, for heavier work, they could do so without conflicting with the Union Station traffic.
An unexpected complication emerged from choosing Mimico as the site for the yard. The Mimico Station then stood along Judson Street, west of Royal York Road, on the north side of the yard and on a sharp curve of the diverted main lines. So, when commuter trains would be moving in or out of the new depot, they could not serve the Mimico station where it was. Sergeant recalls, “Also, we wanted to take over the CN station house to be our crew room and dispatching office. In any case, we would be building a new station for the new service, so we decided to place it on the east side of Royal York Road, on a length of much straighter track.”
So GO moved the station to its current location. Since the main entrance to GO’s new depot would be off Judson Street, almost across from a side street, Willowbrook Road, the new depot became the “Willowbrook Yard.”
You can’t really see what goes on at Willowbrook. Electrified fences surround it and the yard is a dangerous place if you’re not working there. But, if you walk across the Islington Avenue bridge between Judson and New Toronto Streets, you’ll get a good view of the yard in action.
(Ironically, the bridge and this part of Islington Avenue weren’t around when GO opened Willowbrook. Metro Toronto extended Islington south across the yard and along former Seventh Street to Lake Shore Boulevard West in the late 1970s.)
If you look over the bridge, you’ll see three distinct facilities. Willowbrook Yard is on the north side of the mainline. VIA Rail’s Toronto Maintenance Center (“TMC”) is on the south side. VIA frequently wyes its “consists” — the cars and locomotives that make up a train — on an industrial track running southwards across New Toronto Street. CN still has a small freight yard further west on the south side; CN engines sometimes still tie up at the west end of this yard near Kipling Avenue and New Toronto Street.
The former CN Mimico Station lies in ruins, behind an ugly green fence, on the north west quadrant of the underpass at Royal York Road. A couple of old shop buildings remain on New Toronto Street and Dwight Avenue on the south side of the property.
Before GO moved in, Willowbrook already had accommodation for the supervisors and craftspeople, a tool room, washrooms and a small stores department. The whole plant had been repairing freight cars for many years, and, since CN intended had to retire it completely, it was in run-down condition, GO staff had to upgrade the site before they could set up their operations. “The Government considered GO as a test operation, and wanted to await results before going into more expenses than absolutely necessary”, so, as Sergeant tells it, “we could not do the full rebuilding job that we would have preferred. It would be many years before the Government conceded to a major upgrade and a fully equipped shop at the old site.” The upgrades would not occur for another 10 years.
What goes on at Willowbrook?
So let’s take a tour of Willowbrook and see what goes on there.
Willowbrook contains a repair shop, cleaning, maintenance and storage tracks for locomotives and coaches. It includes three separate operating yards: the north south, and storage yards.
- North Yard: Four tracks, numbers 5 to 8, make up the north yard. Track 5 leads through the maintenance building and has space for 14 cars. GO uses Track 6 to store cars and the track dead-ends at both ends of the maintenance building (9 cars).GO crews use Tracks 7 and 8 to service the self-propelled rail cars, #’s D700 to D708) (10 and 7 cars respectively).
- South Yard: This yard consists of 4 tracks, numbered 1 to 4 from south to north. GO uses these tracks for servicing locomotives and coaches. Track 1 holds 9 cars; Track 2 holds11 cars; Track 3, 11 cars; and Track 4, 12 cars.
- Storage Yard: This yard consists of 2 tracks, numbered 9 and 10 from south to north. Tracks 9 and 10 accommodate the overflow of on-rail equipment when the South Yard is filled to capacity. Track 9 holds 15 cars; Track 10 15 cars.
Because of the tremendous success of GO Transit’s performance, routes,and supportive programs, the Toronto Area Transit Operating Authority (TATOA) — the group that then managed GO — realized that it needed to retire some of the original structures at Willowbrook and modernize.
In 1978, it consulted with CN, the City of Etobicoke and residents of the area considerable consultation with Canadian National Railways, the City of Etobicoke and its residents in the area and upgraded the site to include employee parking, moving CN and a modern maintenance and service building with better machine and repair shops.
In 1980, TATOA constructed the facility that GO staff now call the “Bubble”, the heart of GO’s commuter operations.
The ‘bubble’ is designed to handle the increased commuter traffic with CNR personnel covering the area 24 hours a day with double coverage during rush hour traffic.
This new facility provides a direct communication link between TATOA, the CNR and CPR railway police, GO Transit security, and Toronto Terminals Railway (TTR).
There are five commuter service supervisors who make immediate decisions about train operations and GO facilities and structure.
The Commuter Services Supervisor reports directly to the Superintendent of GO Operations. This supervisor is responsible for monitoring all phases of GO operations for CNand CPRail and supervises the train crews.
Instructions are issued to train crews from the ‘bubble’ under constant radio and cell phone communication
By 2002, GO had included a modern consist coach and locomotive wash in both the east and west yards and a run-around track on the north and south sides of the yard.
You can find a detailed look at Willowbrook operations, including a roster of equipment here.
- The Mimico Story: Harvey Currell, The Town of Mimico and Library Board, 1967
- New Toronto Historical Society
- GO Transit Motive Power (Webmaster: R. G. Burnett)
- Building GO-Transit: The Rail Commuter Initiative of The Government of Ontario & Canadian National Railways, People in the project 1965-1969 by Wilfred Sergeant (Historical Text Archive e-book here.)
Inside the Diesel Shops
Contributor Chris Lewis was kind enough to donate these six photographs taken inside the diesel maintenance shop at Willowbrook. In his words: “There are a lot of people that have never seen what it takes to maintain these machines but you will see a pic of the drop table and also of the whole consist in the P.M. (preventative maintenance) this is just a small piece of the willowbrook facility.”