Imagine this: you wake up, get dressed, have breakfast and walk out the front door of your apartment building in Oakville over to a sleek modern station. You head straight to the platform, walking past a packed bike parking area, and a sleek electric train pulls up after just a few minutes, no schedule required. You head downtown, and the train is busy as it flies past mile after mile of dense new housing, even passing into “tunnels” formed by sections of line that have been built over. When you get off at East Harbour station just half an hour later, you are surrounded by throngs of people headed to York Region, downtown, Durham, Scarborough, and to the giant new Port Lands district; trains are coming and going with such frequency that there is always something moving in your visual field — the space feels alive. The entire region suddenly feels as if it's within reach of a quick transit ride, and as a result Toronto and its suburbs are essentially your oyster for 20 hours a day, 7 days a week. This is just one of the many potential journeys that will become fast, convenient, and seamless, as Toronto’s RER network develops in the coming years and completely transforms the way we see Toronto.

Berlin Hauptbahnhof, image by Reece Martin

In today's article, I want to take a look at what will be Toronto’s first “RER” line — today's Lakeshore GO train line, and talk about the enormous transformation afoot unbeknownst to most people living around and riding the trains today, and how it will completely change a strip of land running 100 kilometres from Burlington to Oshawa along Lake Ontario.

Why Lakeshore?

There has been substantial discussion and debate in the transit world and on UrbanToronto about which GO corridor will receive “RER” service first. Would it be the Metrolinx-owned and more lightly-used Stouffville Line? The already equipped with an electric train-capable depot Lakeshore line? Or some combination of the two? I think it’s clear that the core Lakeshore corridor will be the first to see truly rapid transit-like levels of service, and that’s for a few reasons. 

GO Train System Map, September 2023, image courtesy of GO Transit

For one, Lakeshore does already have a yard (the East Rail Maintenance Facility in Whitby) that can handle electric trains (as well as GO’s Willowbrook yard in Etobicoke), meaning that wiring up part of the route is probably non-negotiable as a first phase. There’s also the fact that Lakeshore already has far and away the highest ridership numbers of any GO corridor (something that is probably even more the case as ridership shifts to event traffic on weekends at locations like Exhibition Place). There’s also the fact that the Lakeshore corridor already sees (and has long seen) the highest service levels of any GO line — the line even received the much hyped bidirectional 15-minute service long promised briefly before the pandemic, and of course most trains already through run between the Lakeshore West line and the Lakeshore East line at Union Station. Already today, the Lakeshore Line feels distinct from any other on the GO network: show up at most stations at any time of day and there will be people waiting for the next train — just like with the subway in Toronto, and trains are well-used at all times in basically all directions.

And all of this is backed up by the works Metrolinx is undertaking on the line today. While projects are occurring on basically every GO corridor, there are more happening on Lakeshore than anywhere else, with station upgrades (with electrification provisions of course), the Burloak grade separation, extra tracks through east Toronto, and the massive station builds at East Harbour and Exhibition that are really unlike anything the network has seen before. There’s even the work going on to construct new southern platforms at Union Station that have typically been used by Lakeshore services that skirt the southern end of the Union Station rail corridor.

Southern concourse and platform construction at Union Station, image by UrbanToronto Forum contributor mburrrrr

All of the momentum in construction, service expansion, ridership, and urgent infrastructure upgrades makes Lakeshore the obvious choice as the first RER corridor in the region, as well a good first step to build on since the electrification of the southern Kitchener and Stouffville corridors is less substantial and overlaps to a degree with the work on the Lakeshore Line. You can just sort of see today how across tens of different projects the pieces are falling into place to make the Lakeshore line something greater than anything we have ever seen on the mainline train network in Canada.


One of the biggest transformations we are seeing across the GO network is the upgrading and sometimes wholesale reconstruction of stations. While most GO train stations used to be little more than a curb with some bus shelters on it, GO stations are becoming much more substantial facilities, with bike parking (the one type of parking GO clearly needs much more of), full canopies protecting waiting passengers from rain and snow, better accessibility features, and nice next train arrival screens. New GO train stations we are building today have similar features and amenities to subway stations of old, like Rosedale.

Rosedale subway station, image by UrbanToronto Forum contributor DavidCapizzano

And naturally, a lot of rebuilds are coming to the Lakeshore Line. Eglinton station in Scarborough has recently been going through an overhaul, and similar plans are moving through the pipes for Long Branch and Mimico in Etobicoke; slightly further off in the future, Danforth and Scarborough stations will probably get total rethinks as track expansion work requires additional platform faces and reconfigurations. There are also some new stations like Park Lawn and East Harbour that will bring fast transit to the centre of what will be some of Canada’s densest communities (and most desirable places to visit for their lovely waterfront access); these new stations take things a step further than GO has before, with multiple entrances and large concourses suitable for passenger demands of the rapid transit of the future as opposed to the heavy commuter trains of today. The biggest station rebuild of all at Exhibition is going to create what will probably be North America's most impressive modern train station, with an elevated overhead concourse with shops, washrooms and waiting areas, and high-capacity escalator connections between GO trains and the Ontario Line.

Connectivity to Transit

And all of these new stations and train services are going to need more passengers. Fortunately, people are finally being given options. GO is steadily adding new bike storage to stations as municipalities slowly add new cycle tracks and better pedestrian connections, but the really huge impacts will come from better connecting transit. Head to almost any TTC subway station in the suburbs, and you’ll see a stream of buses pulling in and out of bus terminals dropping off loads of people who immediately go and fill up subway trains, but even with the fairly decent GO train service of today you don’t really see the same happening at Mimico, Scarborough, or Eglinton. This will likely change in a big way now that the province’s imperfect but much needed “one fare” fare integration scheme is in play. Imagine someone living along Royal York Road in Etobicoke: historically, they could have hopped on a bus going north to Line 2, and caught a train all for about $3 dollars and been downtown in half an hour, while heading to Mimico station would possibly mean waiting on a barren platform for half an hour before a train shows up and paying twice as much for the privilege. Now that passengers can transfer from the TTC to the GO train for free and the GO trains will be running with frequencies approaching a subway, the calculus will inevitably shift. GO goes from being quite possibly slower and twice as expensive, to only marginally more expensive and certainly faster. 

The rebuilt Exhibition Station, now under construction, image courtesy of Metrolinx

And on top of those local transit connections, there will also be more higher-order links. The Hurontario LRT will make a whole crowd of people and Mississauga and Brampton — especially for those living in the remarkable density around Square One mall — consider taking the tram down to Port Credit to get into town. Meanwhile, the Ontario Line has the potential to both feed the Lakeshore Line with riders from dense housing in areas around King and Bathurst, Moss Park and Corktown, and to be the last mile for people headed to the Eaton Centre, OCAD, various offices near Queen Street, and more. All of these new connections will not only draw more people to the train, but also open up new trips that wouldn’t make as much sense on transit today. 

New Density

Of course, far more people will also be living near the Lakeshore Lines stations, which are seeing the lions share of high-density development on the GO network today. Already, there are shoots of growth at Burlington, and Pickering, and there are huge plans for Port Credit, Oakville, and Scarborough. That’s not to mention all of Liberty Village on the doorstep of Exhibition, and Humber Bay Shores at Park Lawn. And these dense precedents will set the stage for future growth at stations that currently have very little in the way of high density development near them, such as Appleby, Bronte, Clarkson, Eglinton, Guildwood, Rouge Hill, Ajax, and Whitby.

New Park Lawn station amidst the street of the planned 2150 Lake Shore community in Humber Bay Shores, image courtesy of First Capital

All in all, the amount of homes and amenities to serve them that we will see along the Lakeshore Line will be immense, and we are just starting to see the beginnings of the virtuous cycle of density and then service and then density that has made the subway in Toronto so successful. The timing is perhaps even better as well, as high housing prices have created fertile ground for new dense developments blossoming from each of the stations, not unlike the enormous new towns seen around stations on the original RER in Paris like Val d’Europe and Cergy that now house a huge quantity of the population in the Ile-de-France. We’ll likely even see decked over railway tracks with developments on top of stations like you often see in the suburbs of London and other European cities.

Riding The Trains

Now, where things really changed for my perception of the Lakeshore Line was when I fully recognized just how much service it will likely have within a decade, as infrastructure works are wrapped, electrification is installed, and new trains hit the rails. By the 2030s, we will likely see express trains running at similar frequency to regular Lakeshore service today, with rapid transit connecting Hamilton all the way to Bowmanville every half hour or so at a blistering pace (something that should be possible with just a few sections of overtaking tracks where expresses can be scheduled to roar past locals), while at the same time new electric trains arrive every few minutes filling out local runs at speeds that rival the express services of today and connecting to far more. In the future, aerial shots of Toronto will be just as saturated with snaking regional trains on the Lakeshore corridor as shots of the Tokyo or London regions are today. GO stations, currently mostly seen as the stop for the suburban shuttle trains, will be seen like subway stations, but possibly with even more transit service and density surrounding them. And of course, people will use the trains just as they use the subway today, allowing people to be spontaneous, heading for a trip from Liberty Village to Kariya Park in Mississauga, McMaster to Rouge Hill for a walk along the lake, or Pickering to Humber Bay Shores for a dinner with friends, all without pulling up a bus schedule PDF or sitting in a station watching a flickering TV screen telling you to “Wait…” for your platform.

East Harbour Station proposal, image courtesy of Metrolinx

This changing perception of the GO system as a larger — and in many ways better — version of a subway-type system will completely obliterate the existing Overton window with regards to GO. A 300-metre pedestrian connection between Main Street subway and Danforth GO stations will seem as obvious as connecting two subway lines, Twitter commenters will lament the creation of GO stations without high-rise towers atop them, and local communities once staunchly opposed to more trains will be lining up for their own station.

More Than a Subway

I say that GO will function as more than a subway, because like the suburban train systems already doing the heavy lifting in cities from Seoul, to Paris, Berlin, and Sydney, much more is possible with larger, largely-above-ground trains and rail corridors. Today, people in Toronto cherish having a subway station in the neighbourhood more so than having a streetcar down the street, and in the future being near a GO station will be an even bigger bonus than being near the subway is today. With a mix of local and express trains at major stations, larger, more comfortable trains, and way more destinations connected up to the network with enormous mixed-use developments sprouting on former parking lots, it will not only be more luxurious and speedy than the subway as it is today, but also possibly even more convenient.

Scarborough Junction masterplanned community, with upgraded GO station in the foreground, image courtesy of Republic Developments

In many ways, with an upgraded and electrified Lakeshore line starting to emerge, we are getting the first glimpses of a truly world-class suburban train service, and the city shaping power that has. I can only imagine that electric Lakeshore will cement the absolute need for more electric GO lines and more GO lines in the public mind, and lead to service, infrastructure, and connectivity that we can’t even imagine yet; it will be the tipping point to something greater. And this isn’t off in the distant future, as GO is already planning to run bidirectional 15-minute service for some periods of the week starting in April, 2024, something that will surely only increase as construction for the Ontario Line and Lakeshore Line quad tracking progresses.

To Fix

But this isn’t all to say things are going perfectly. On one hand, Metrolinx still seems committed to its plan of continuing to run only bilevel based trains on the GO network. This is a mistake, as I’ve talked about previously on UrbanToronto, as the bilevels are already stretched to handle the passenger loads induced by the modest rail service today, with their small doors and cramped internal layout. With trains coming every 7 and a half minutes, they will suddenly become the weakest link in the whole system.

Passengers wait to board a bilevel GO Train at Union Station, image by Reece Martin

We also desperately need to consider whether the infrastructure and stations we are building will best take advantage of the network we are building. While I’ve long been an advocate for a large-scale Spadina GO station serving multiple lines, at the very least we should contemplate building Spadina for the Lakeshore Line as opposed to Barrie, as with its electric trains, the impact of a station stop close to Union (close by Toronto standards) will be minimized. At the same time, it's worth considering just how much more service and how many more passengers a Spadina GO station would get with trains on Lakeshore operating at subway frequencies, as opposed to the Barrie line — which might have half hourly train service by the time Spadina opens, similar to Lakeshore today. I can already imagine the complaints: “sitting at Spadina waiting for a GO train and three have already gone past on the other tracks!”

Metrolinx also really should start thinking about how to change the perception of the Lakeshore GO line in the public’s mind. A helpful first step would be accurately branding it as a single line, instead of two as today, highlighting the reality of through running operation that already exists, and modifying wayfinding in the suburbs to highlight the terminus station as the true terminus — be it Oshawa, Bowmanville, Hamilton, or Burlington, as opposed to Union Station — which GO simultaneously talks about getting away from as the centre of the universe, and also treating as the only destination riders would reasonably ever head to.

GO System Map, September 2023, image courtesy of GO Transit

We also need to think carefully about further evolving the region's transit fare system. While one fare has fixed some major issues with the way people pay for transit in Toronto, the treatment of GO as a premium commuter service across the entire region is not aligned with best practice seen in cities from Paris to Berlin. At least in core areas, GO should be priced like the subway, given its enormous capacity advantage and the relative affordability of expanding it further. It should not be less expensive for someone to ride a crowded Ontario Line train from Exhibition to East Harbour than a comparatively roomy GO train travelling between the exact same stations. Reducing GO fares would also create positive pressure on reducing the rather high staffing levels seen on GO today: while S-Bahn trains in Berlin or 11-car suburban trains in Tokyo have just one staff member operating them, GO trains currently all have three, and with the eventual reduction in that number with GO’s implementation of ETCS (which will have many other benefits) a big part of the operating cost rationale for high fares on upgraded routes will be gone.

Nonetheless, despite these issues, the Toronto region is rocketing towards a better future built on top of modern regional rail. I believe nothing more strongly than the fact that nobody can yet anticipate just how different our future looks.

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Reece Martin is the creator and host of RMTransit, a YouTube channel focused on transit, infrastructure, and development around the world, with extensive knowledge and professional experience as a transportation planner.


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