Text by James Bow, photos by David Cavlovic, unless otherwise noted.
The Spadina subway is probably the only subway in Toronto to be fathered by an expressway. The William R. Allen Road whose median the line traverses is so closely married to the subway line that one could almost consider them two pieces of the same project.
From the 1940s onward, city planners made a number of proposals for a new arterial road connecting downtown Toronto with the city’s northwestern suburbs. Originally envisioned as an extension of Spadina Road to the north and west, all the way up to the 401, the project was upgraded by the 1950s to a full-fledged expressway. Frederick Gardiner, the first Chairman of Metropolitan Toronto, had a vision of a city crisscrossed by subway lines and expressways. If his vision had borne fruit, the Gardiner Expressway would have continued east, paralleling Kingston Road, to the 401 in eastern Scarborough. The Spadina Expressway would cut through the Nordheimer Ravine and beneath Casa Loma to deposit suburban commuters downtown. A Crosstown Expressway would run from an extended Highway 400, along the CP railway tracks to the Don Valley Parkway, and another expressway would connect the Crosstown and the Gardiner along Christie and Grace streets.
Metropolitan Toronto planners pursued this car-oriented plan for development despite opposition from local citizens. The Gardiner Expressway and the Spadina Expressway inched forward in stages as nearby residents protested that their neighbourhoods were being adversely affected so that suburban residents could breeze past in their cars. Then, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in the age of civic action that prompted the TTC to abandon its streetcar abandonment policy, the local groups got more organized and their representatives took control of Toronto City Council. The Spadina Expressway became a flashpoint, the final battle over whose vision would dominate city planning for the next few decades. Downtown residents and politicians fiercely fought for their quality of life over suburban residents and politicians who wanted quick car access to the centre city. The Spadina Expressway had reached south to Lawrence Avenue (starting at the 401) when the Province of Ontario sided with the downtown residents. The Spadina Expressway was killed (although the section between Lawrence and Eglinton, which had already seen heavy construction, would be finished), and a more transit-oriented policy was established within Metro.
The Spadina Expressway has since undergone a couple of name changes, the first renaming it the William R. Allen Expressway, after the Metro Chairman of the time. It would later be renamed to the current William R. Allen Road, despite its obvious expressway appearance. Extensions north of Wilson were done as an ordinary road, however.
The First Proposals
In the 1960s, proposals to build a subway line along the median of the Spadina Expressway surfaced. Chicago had experimented with a similar setup in the 1950s, with a subway built up the median of its Eisenhower Expressway. Some suggest that this was an attempt by suburban politicians to make the Expressway project more palatable to opponents. Instead, it was ridiculed as a Trojan horse, with critics noting that the Spadina line would not attract nearly the ridership of the Yonge line. The suburban councils, however, got behind the project as it improved subway service to the underserved northwestern sector of Metro. Although it didn’t move as far west as would be desired from a northwestern line, constructing the line up the median of an expressway would reduce costs. The TTC also felt that the Spadina Subway would help provide relief to the overused Yonge Subway line.
On the other hand the City of Toronto was adamant that if there was to be any new subway construction, that it should be under Queen Street, especially given the low ridership figures projected for the Spadina project. When the City of Toronto held half the seats in Metro, their vision held sway. Then, in 1967, the province reorganized Metropolitan Toronto, merging the thirteen member municipalities into six and giving the remaining suburban municipalities a majority on council. The Spadina subway was quickly made Metro’s next priority after the North Yonge extensions, with the Queen line to follow soon thereafter. The Queen line was never built.
The setup of the Spadina line took some debating. The proposed alignment started near Wilson Avenue in the middle of the Spadina Expressway and followed this expressway south to Eglinton. There, the expressway stopped, but the subway continued, following the Nordheimer Ravine at grade along the Expressway’s proposed alignment. After tunneling under Casa Loma and Spadina Road, the line would connect with the underused University subway at St. George. However, the City of Toronto and the Borough of York had concerns about the use of the ravine for the subway line, and campaigned to have the subway built under Bathurst Street, either all the way to Wilson, or just up to St. Clair Avenue. Others pointed out that Bathurst Street, or even Dufferin Street, had higher densities that could support the subway line better than the thinned-out development surrounding the Expressway would. The mayor of North York, James Service, even suggested that the Spadina line be run down Davenport Road to join the Yonge line south of Rosedale, with alternate trains taking a loop created by the Yonge and University lines (via Lower Bay Station) clockwise and counter-clockwise. In the end, the cheaper alignment was chosen (although it was decided that the subway tunnel underneath Nordheimer Ravine in order to save the greenspace) and the Province approved the project on January 18, 1973. Construction began soon thereafter.
When design work began on the Spadina Subway, a conscious effort was made to get away from the ‘functional but Spartan’ look of previous stations and emulate the artistic atmosphere of Montréal’s Métro. The results varied, with some stations now appearing quite dated in appearance, but all featuring a distinct look from each other. There is more artwork, primarily of the abstract 1970s variety, on this line than there is in the rest of the system.
The Spadina subway started where the University subway ended, at St. George Station. There, track switches pulled inside the tracks connecting the University line to the Bloor-Danforth subway west of Bloor Street. Once able to pass over the connecting tracks, the line turned sharply north and burrowed under Spadina Road to a new station just below Lowther Avenue.
Originally, this station was to be called Lowther and exist separately from Bloor-Danforth’s Spadina station, but the decision was made to add another connection to the Bloor-Danforth subway line. This gave Lowther access to the Spadina subway entrances closer to Bloor and to the Spadina bus platforms and saved the TTC money on personnel by eliminating the need for a staffed entrance at Lowther.
To make this connection feasible for the average patron, the TTC built a moving walkway to ease the long trip between the Spadina line platforms and the rest of Spadina station. This moving walkway arguably became the most popular feature of the station for children of all ages.
The northern end of the Spadina station Spadina line platform exited onto Spadina Road at Kendal. Entrances on both sides of Spadina Road led to a mezzanine-level fare control area accessible only to passengers with tokens or Metropasses. The entrance on the west side of Spadina Road was a simple stairwell dug into the sidewalk but the entrance on the east side of Spadina Road was built into a restored old house. The house had to be put onto tracks and pulled back from its foundation so that work could go on below ground connecting the entrance to the station. Two pieces of art were commissioned for this station, one “Morning Glory” by Louise de Neverville and “Barren Ground Caribou” by Joyce Weiland.
The work done to connect the Spadina subway’s Spadina station with its Bloor-Danforth counterpart may not have been the only reason why this station was renamed Spadina from Lowther. Some reports indicate that the name was change in case the University subway still did not prove financially viable. From 1969 to 1978, the University subway was closed Mondays to Saturdays at 9:45 p.m. and all day Sundays and holidays. If this arrangement had to continue, Spadina Station would have to be used as the southern terminal station of the Spadina line (although it would have been far more convenient for passengers to transfer to the Bloor-Danforth subway at St. George). This is why a crossover was installed just to the north of the station and “Spadina” installed on the subway rollsigns. Thus by naming the station ‘Spadina’ people would be able to connect the station in their minds with the Bloor-Danforth subway far more readily than a ‘Lowther’ terminal. However, the opening of the Spadina line and increasing overcrowding on the Yonge line increased ridership on the University line, so these precautions proved unnecessary.
From Spadina, the line travelled beneath Spadina Road to Dupont Station. This station was designed to look as though it was cut from the earth, with a large cavern opening up in the middle, connecting the platforms with the mezzanine. Here, a mural of tilework entitled “Spadina Summer Under”, by James Sutherland, was placed on the walls. The entrances (all at the Dupont-Spadina intersection), providing on-street connections with 26 Dupont and 127 Davenport buses, were described as “glass bubbles”.
North of Dupont, the line tunnelled beneath Casa Loma and Nordheimer Ravine to St. Clair West station. This complex station included an underground connection with St. Clair streetcars and a number of bus routes, as well as exits onto St. Clair Avenue, Nordheimer Ravine itself, and a separate entrance from the north end of the subway platform to Heath Street. Excavation of this underground loop forced the St. Clair streetcar to be diverted onto the south side of St. Clair Avenue, but streetcar service was maintained throughout construction.
As with the other stations on the line, St. Clair West had its own art installation, although one portion was often ignored. On the stairway leading between the subway platform and the streetcar/bus terminal, the TTC mounted photographs of vintage TTC and Grey Coach vehicles. These have since been allowed to fade, but they still represent an era of Toronto now long gone, and are worth seeing. One photo showed a GCL-Grey Line GMC New Look, with Sightseeing ceiling windows, northbound on Queen’s Park at College. St. Clair West station also boasted an abstract enamel mural entitled “Tempo”, designed by Gordon Rayner. Visitors can still find it at on the mezzanine of the station.
Immediately north of the station, the TTC built a pocket track between the two service tracks. This allowed trains short-turning at the station to drop their passengers off on the northbound platform, pull into this track, and reverse into the southbound platform, picking up passengers for the ride downtown. The short-turn service, with every second train turning back at St. Clair West instead of proceeding to Wilson, continued throughout the Spadina line’s existence, although it has been reduced to a morning-only service, and may soon be eliminated altogether.
North from the pocket track, the line proceeded through a long segment of tunnel underneath the Nordheimer Ravine, emerging at Eglinton West Station. Here, the line changed from an underground tunnel to an at-grade construction built within the median of the Allen Expressway. Eglinton West station reflected this transition in its structure, with half of it built underground, and the other half above ground. At the middle of this station, Gerald Zeldin’s “Summertime Streetcar” artwork, featuring images of a PCC streetcar, graced both walls. Bus platforms were built at the south end of the station, and had the Eglinton West subway been built, the transfer point to that line would likely have been placed at the south end of the station as well.
North of Eglinton West Station, the line continued to Glencairn, serving the residential neighbourhood of northwest Forest Hill. This simple station was built primarily out of concrete but originally featured a stained glass skylight called “Joy”, designed by Rita Le Tendre. Sadly, since opening this station has been allowed to deteriorate badly. The concrete walls keep the station underlit, and water damage is obvious. The glass skylight, faded from years of exposure to sunlight, was removed at the artist’s request.
From Glencairn, the line passed a pocket track between the service tracks (this has been used to turn back trains as well) and then entered Lawrence West Station. Also primarily done in concrete, this station contained a larger number of windows, particularly at the bus shelter area, which kept this station fairly well lit. At Lawrence West, “Spacing … Aerial Highways” greeted passengers at the Lawrence Avenue entrance.
Further north, Yorkdale Station, serving the shopping centre of the same name, was done primarily in glass and metal. The arched glass roof of Yorkdale contained 158 multicoloured neon lights of various colours that lit up from one end of the station to the other in a flowing motion designed to match the coming and going of trains. This piece of artwork, entitled “Arc en Ciel” (French for “rainbow”) and designed by Michael Hayden, was controlled by a computer system that was state of the art in 1978, and even made a cameo appearance in a movie entitled Overdrawn at the Memory Bank starring Raul Julia. The system became too difficult to maintain, however, and the art installation was removed in the early 1990s.
Finally, departing Yorkdale, the Spadina Subway crossed over Highway 401 on twin single-track bridges. From there, it entered Wilson Station, located directly over Wilson Avenue. This station featured large parking lots, a “Kiss ‘n’ Ride” facility and a two-level bus terminal. With such a stretch of pavement surrounding this station, Wilson appeared as though it is located in the middle of nowhere. Wilson was the hub of a large network of bus routes serving the western and northern suburbs of the city, however. Indeed, the number of buses terminating at this facility increased so dramatically since 1978 that the TTC had to build a third, ‘north’ terminal to the north of the original bus terminal, to handle the overflow. At the mezzanine level, visitors were greeted by Wilson Station’s art centrepiece, a sculpture entitled “Canyons” designed by Ted Beiler.
At the top of the Spadina line, a new subway yard was constructed, alongside a new bus garage. Wilson Yard started accepting trains as early as August 1977, as the new H-5 trains delivered to the system found little room at the Vincent, Greenwood and Davisville yards. The H-5s remained at Greenwood, where they could be tested and put into service, while older trains were towed using the TTC’s diesel-electric locomotive, RT-18, up the unpowered Spadina Subway tracks into the new yard. This yard remained out of sight for subway patrons until the Spadina line was extended to Downsview Station in 1996.
Strikes caused similar problems to the Spadina Subway as they did the North Yonge extension, with an electricians’ strike holding up vital signalling work and pushing back the opening date from October 15, 1977. These were eventually resolved and opening ceremonies for the line took place on Friday, January 27, 1978. At that time, two trains loaded with dignitaries departed from Wilson and St. Andrew Stations at 2 p.m., bound for St. Clair West. At St. Clair West, dignitaries and media representatives listened to speeches and toured the facilities. A newly delivered CLRV (4002) was on display for the occasion along with PCC 4527 and Witt 2766. The public got to ride for free the next day, provided that they entered via one of the stations on the Spadina line.
Service in the first few weeks was disrupted by switch problems, particularly in the open sections of the line. Initial ridership was low at first, but rose to the predicted 8000 passengers per day by the end of the year. The low ridership was defended by suggesting the line was “a long term investment”, designed to increase development in North York, and provide an alternative to northern commuters heading downtown. Initially proposed with a $80 million price tag in 1968, the final cost of the 6.17 mile long line was assessed at $212 million.
Changes Since Opening
The Spadina subway is, with the exception of the Scarborough RT and the Sheppard subway, the youngest line on Toronto’s rapid transit network. Despite this, it celebrated its silver anniversary in 2003, and so enough time has passed for significant changes to occur.
One of the stations that has undergone the most change was Wilson. When the Spadina line opened, the TTC routed a number of suburban routes into this station. As Toronto grew towards the north, Wilson’s two-level bus platform found itself handling more buses than it was designed to handle. The creation of bus-only lanes on Allen Road and Dufferin Street, and the desire to reduce pressure on the Yonge subway caused further buses to br routed into Wilson, exacerbating the problem. The TTC responded by building a third terminal, called the North Terminal, north of the current two-level terminal. This terminal replaced a pedestrian exit onto Transit Road, and operated until March 30, 1996 when the Spadina subway’s Downsview extension was opened. With a number of bus routes now rerouted to the new station, Wilson’s North Terminal was declared surplus and closed to the public. The site has occasionally been used for film shoots.
Another station that has changed extensively since opening is Spadina station. Already a melange of styles when opening in the Spadina subway opened in 1978, the addition of the underground terminal for the Spadina streetcar line has turned Spadina station into an extremely busy transportation hub, and this is not to mention the new exit to Walmer Road, added to the Bloor-Danforth platforms of the station.
In 2004, Spadina station lost its popular moving walkway between the Bloor-Danforth and Spadina platforms. Time had taken its toll on the long sidewalk, and it was spending more and more time shut down for maintenance. In February of the year, a TTC report recommended that the walkway be removed. It was too expensive to maintain or rebuild, and no company made walkways that long anymore. The TTC’s tight capital budget spelled the end for the popular feature, and the walkway was removed over the summer.
Eglinton West station was almost significantly changed. In 1994, the NDP government of Bob Rae approved construction of an Eglinton West subway running west from Eglinton West station to Black Creek Drive. Construction was halted a year later when the Mike Harris Conservative government took power. The hole in the ground was filled in. No work had been done to Eglinton West station itself, other than to install elevators ten years later.
Yorkdale station used to be far removed from the shopping mall for which it was named. Patrons arriving via the TTC had to cross a large parking lot to get to the mall. The Mall owners responded to customer demands and set to work expanding the mall out to the station entrance. Now TTC passengers have a completely climate controlled walkway to Yorkdale’s shops and services.
Other than an additional entrance added or, in one case, taken away (St. Clair West’s exit onto Nordheimer ravine was locked and roped off due to lack of use and safety concerns), the Spadina subway from Wilson to Spadina has not otherwise been changed significantly, a fact that has been somewhat to its detrement. Built in the late 1970s in a significant departure from the previous subway’s utilitarian design, many of the stations now look dated and, in some cases, are in need of renovation.
The Spadina Expressway issue was not resolved until the early 1980s. A number of suburban politicians and citizens clamoured for the project. The current location of the SkyDome was supported by these same politicians and citizens because of the possibility that it might drag the Spadina Expressway down to service it. The matter festered until, in one of his last acts as Premier of Ontario, Bill Davis transferred a small strip of provincially owned land at the base of the Expressway from York to the City of Toronto, ensuring that the expressway would never be extended south without the city’s consent. Now that there is a greater understanding of the folly of building new roadways to solve traffic problems, the issue is considered a political non-starter.
The Spadina subway remains underused compared to the Yonge subway. This fact gave some life to the proposal to link the Spadina and Yonge subway lines together, either along the Hydro right-of-way north of Finch or via Steeles and York University, so that passengers that had been bound towards the overused Yonge subway could have the alternative of taking Spadina instead. However, its usefulness has grown in the years since its opening. When this portion of the subway was taken offline, thanks to the fatal subway accident between Dupont and St. Clair West stations in 1995, dozens of buses were required to move the passengers between Wilson and St. George stations. West-end buses and streetcars that terminate at Yonge line stations tend to pull into Spadina line stations as well, and many passengers already go out of their way to take the Spadina line so as to avoid the crowds on Yonge. Should the Sheppard Subway ever be extended to Downsview Station, Spadina could become an even greater relief line for Yonge.
Ironically, Spadina, which has always played second fiddle to Yonge, will end up getting extended further north than Yonge’s northern terminus, starting in the fall of 2015. After a long build-up of support, approval was finally given to the extension of the Spadina subway line from Downsview to York University and beyond to the Jane/Highway 7 intersecton in Vaughan. Although Spadina never replaced a heavily used streetcar route, and although it doesn’t travel down Toronto’s main street, it finds itself well suited to offering a transit alternative to the burgeoning communities in northwest Toronto and to the north of Toronto. In that respect, the investment that Spadina represents may yet pay off.
Spadina Subway Image Archive
Next see the Scarborough RT.
Thanks to Mark Brader for correcting this web page and offering additional information.
- Bromley, John F., and Jack May, Fifty Years of Progressive Transit, Electric Railroaders’ Association, New York (New York), 1978.
- Roschlau, Mike, ‘Spadina Subway News’, Rail and Transit, Nov-Dec 1977, p26-9, The Upper Canada Railway Society, Toronto (Ontario).
- Semple, Rod and Pat Semple, ‘In Transit’, Rail and Transit, Jan-Feb 1978, p27-9, The Upper Canada Railway Society, Toronto (Ontario).
- Semple, Rod and Pat Semple, ‘Spadina subway opens’, Rail and Transit, Mar-Apr 1978, p42-5, The Upper Canada Railway Society, Toronto (Ontario).