The City of Toronto is seeing an incredible amount of new rapid transit and regional rail construction with “GO Expansion” as well as three subway extensions, and the Ontario line all in various stages in construction. But, Metrolinx and the Provincial Government have already set their sites ahead to the next round of big projects, starting with planning and consultation work so that when construction of the current big round of projects wraps up in the early 2030s (or perhaps even earlier when tunnelling works end in the late 2020s) there are more projects ready to follow them up.

The biggest of these projects is probably the Sheppard Line 4 Subway Extension project, for which Metrolinx is now in its second round of consultations.

The project is one I personally feel strongly about, because it creates a rapid transit network which is much less radial and downtown focused (although with the Ontario Line 3, Bloor-Danforth Line 2, Yonge Line 1, and enhanced GO, downtown will still be the region's transit centre of gravity), while also making very useful suburb to suburb and crosstown connections that should substantially speed trips and improve connectivity with minimal additional trackage. I covered this in a video here:

While the Sheppard Subway extension had always been pencilled into subway plans that the current Ontario government had touted as a “second stage” project, it's reassuring to see planning work on the project actually advance. For the Line 4 extension there are some major evolutions which are coming to light as part of the latest round of consultations, that show that the concepts have become more mature. There are also results from the first round of consultations which have been included in this PDF released by Metrolinx.

During the first round of consultations, Metrolinx perhaps unsurprisingly heard about a preference for subway technology — for its speed and reliability, as well as weather protection, and all day frequency, as well as integration with walking and cycling. This all makes sense because the Sheppard corridor, as well as nearby parallel corridors like Finch, and York Mills / Ellesmere already receive a large quantity of bus service. However, bus service in suburban Toronto — which has few bus-only lanes — is often slow and unreliable, and obviously does not provide the degree of shelter found on the subway network. Where express routes exist they often run only some of the time, contrasting with “all day express” services like Brampton’s ZUM or Vancouver’s Rapid Bus.

A big element of this round of consultation is Metrolinx’ advancing of four main concepts for the Sheppard subway extension.

image courtesy of Metrolinx

Concept 1 is an extension of the line east along Sheppard to Sheppard and McCowan. Concept 2A, adds a western extension to Sheppard West to meet with the University leg of Line 1, meanwhile Concept 2B shifts the eastern terminus of the line from Sheppard and McCowan to Scarborough centre. Finally, concept 3 is an all eastern extension along Sheppard, but this time to Sheppard and Morningside.

It seems online that most people are favouring concept 2 with 2B being especially popular, which makes sense as these add the most connections, not only linking Line 4 with the Line 2 extension, but also the satisfying and obvious link across the two legs of Line 1 — allowing passengers in North York, Scarborough, and Etobicoke to cross town quickly without going down to Eglinton or Bloor. In the past I have voiced my support for an option akin to 2B for a few reasons: It allows the interchange between Line 2 and 4 to happen at the already much more developed Scarborough Centre, which also plays host to one of the country's largest shopping centres, and also has a lot more room for intensification. It also makes for a more natural connection to the Durham Scarborough BRT, and potential future enhanced service or an extension to Centennial College and the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus as some have pointed out. It could also possibly use the current right of way the Scarborough RT uses to cut across Scarborough Centre. And on top of all of this, option 2B closely resembles the plan for the Sheppard subway from Network 2011.
Image courtesy of City of Toronto

Whatever option is chosen, connections to both the Durham Scarborough BRT, and a potential Eglinton East LRT (being pursued by the city of Toronto) are absolutely critical. If option 2B is chosen, perhaps the Eglinton East plan should extend slightly further west, terminating at Agincourt GO station instead of Sheppard and McCowan - making sure there isn’t an awkward gap in rail service on Sheppard. And for 2A, the Durham Scarborough BRT should also be extended north to Sheppard and McCowan, which would remove a transfer on journeys from North York to UTSC or from Durham to York University.

Another interesting feature of the latest consultation round is mention of “Mixed Grade Subway” which is accompanied by pictures of the Vancouver SkyTrain. It seems good to me that Toronto is embracing talking about elevated rapid transit as part of the planning process for the Sheppard subway extension — especially because substantial parts of the Eglinton Line 5, its western extension, and Ontario Line 3 are elevated. 

Image courtesy of Metrolinx

But, it does feel odd to talk about subway which isn’t solely underground as if it is a separate novel thing. The TTC subway already has underground, at grade (including through south Rosedale of all places!), and even a few above ground sections and this is very normal. Most subway systems are not entirely underground — from London, to Paris, New York, Singapore, Hong Kong, Sao Paulo, and even Moscow.

I recoil a bit when the boards suggest “Mixed Grade Subway” has a speed between 30-50 kph, a maximum frequency of every 2 minutes, and a maximum capacity of 30,000 people per direction per hour. It's okay of course to provide instructive numbers, but using the word “maximum” suggests that somehow by going above ground a subway system is somehow limited in capacity which is amusing because the world's highest capacity subway system in Mecca Saudi Arabia (built for the Hajj pilgrimage) with its massive 12 car trains is above ground!

Mecca Metro, image by Glory20, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

While at the same time Vancouver’s SkyTrain with its 90 second peak frequencies is also often elevated.

Instead, I wish there had been a bit more of a focus on how smart design decisions can make elevated metro fit into the urban environment, whether that be through the design of the guideway, public art, the ability to build a shaded cycletrack underneath, or any number of any other considerations — since I imagine local residents will be less concerned about how many people per direction per hour an elevated extension can move, and more about their neighbourhoods look and feel.

As to where elevated rail makes sense on the Line 4 extension, elevation would likely need to start somewhere west of Highway 404, giving trains enough space to climb from Don Mills station. But, beyond that almost all of Sheppard avenue is wide enough to accommodate an elevated guideway’s rather narrow piers in either the median or to the side of the roadway, and this wouldn’t even require the elevated trains to be particularly close to homes as most large buildings along the street are significantly set back. Elevated stations in places like Vancouver are preferably located to the side of the street corridor to minimise their scale and remove the need for large pedestrian bridges crossing the street… and there are numerous strip malls, car dealerships, and gas stations where stations could be sited along Sheppard. For option 2B, turning south to run elevated along Kennedy Road, West Highland Creek, or the GO Stouffville line seem like workable options, and heading into Scarborough Centre, the south side of the Highway 401 right of way or the Scarborough RT corridor are both enticing.

Beyond choosing a preferred alignment, there are a few pieces that currently still seem to be missing and are probably worth some attention.

For one, the connection at Agincourt GO station is an important one, as the Sheppard extension will connect a number of north south rapid transit lines, and a low quality connection to any of them would seriously hinder its usefulness - imagine having to walk half a kilometre in the rain in the middle of a trip from Markham to Yorkdale on rapid transit. Some have suggested the station at “Agincourt” might be west of Kennedy road, which would probably be a mistake. GO service in the future will be very much subway-like, and forcing riders to walk almost half a kilometre along a street and cross a major intersection is not something we would ever do at a subway “interchange” station. Even if we absolutely must force people to walk, there should be an entrance to the subway on the northeast corner of Sheppard and Kennedy, and an enhanced and perhaps even covered walkway over to the nicely renovated GO station.

The major new development at Downsview Airport is set to be one of the biggest in the GTHA and really ought to figure into the subway plans. Some have suggested that Line 4 be extended all the way to Downsview Park (to provide a connection to the Barrie Line — yet another north-south rapid transit service), while I suggested in my video linked above that the line might interline with the rather quiet York University extension of Line 1 up to the University. But, in any case it really ought to serve such a major development that it comes so close to. If plans for a subway extension were coordinated with development it might even be possible to build a cut and cover extension right through the centre of the development at low cost, digging and covering over a trench before the housing goes in — as seen frequently in new urban developments in Spain and Korea. This might even be the best way to connect Line 4 into a potential yard location adjacent to Line 1’s Wilson yard facility.

The final point worth touching on is the type of tunnelling used, in places where elevated construction is not an option. Ontario (and other parts of Canada and the English speaking world) are having a transit costs crisis, and a big element of that is tunnelling where transit could be elevated or on the surface. But, another element is how the tunnels we do build are actually constructed. Cut and cover construction, used for the original subway segments in Toronto and still used in cities around the world, including in Canada, reduces the price of tunnelling by building shallower tunnels, and critically, shallower stations in the public right of way. With the price of projects like the Ontario Line increasing dramatically we should be using every tool we have to get the price of building down, so we get less expensive transit, and not cancelled transit.

UrbanToronto will continue to follow progress on this plan. If you'd like, you can join in on the conversation in the associated Forum thread or leave a comment in the space provided on this page.

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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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UrbanToronto has a research service, UrbanToronto Pro, that provides comprehensive data on construction projects in the Greater Toronto Area—from proposal through to completion. We also offer Instant Reports, downloadable snapshots based on location, and a daily subscription newsletter, New Development Insider, that tracks projects from initial application.​​​​