Keep Toronto Moving: Art, Traditions, and Growth of Canada's Largest Subway

Many Torontonians criticize their subway which I think is totally unfair. As someone who lived in Toronto for seven years and regularly used...

Many Torontonians criticize their subway which I think is totally unfair. As someone who lived in Toronto for seven years and regularly used its subway to commute, my opinion is that the Toronto subway is amazing… if the population of the city remained at 1.2 million residents as it was in the early 1950s. The truth is that the subway has simply not kept up with the population growth and demand for public transit. But this is changing and changing fast. In the article, we will also explore subway art, look into some weird names and old-school traditions, find out the reason subway trains are so well-kept, and discuss what sets the Toronto streetcar network apart from other networks in North America. Let's go!
1. Recent Expansion and... Shrinking. 
Toronto started building its subway system pretty early, in 1949. This certainly did upset Montreal which was at the time a financial capital of Canada. The construction of the original Yonge subway line in Toronto began on September 8, 1949, and took about five years to complete. The subway officially opened for service on March 30, 1954.
In comparison, Montreal opened its first subway line only in October 1966, six months before the city hosted its famous Expo 67. Toronto didn’t have anything major to host in the 1950s or 1960s which proves how forward-looking the City of Toronto was.
However, what came after the 1960s was not proactive at all. Years of neglect, lack of vision, inefficient management, poor funding for big infrastructure projects, focus on building car-centric communities, and many other things to blame, meant that in 2024 the largest megapolis In Canada with a population of over 6 million residents is served with only 2.5 subway lines. And if not for the Go Train, the city, which is already infamous for its epic traffic jams, would literally come to a halt.
But luckily it’s changing for the better: Toronto is building one new and extending three of its existing subway lines, building two new LRT lines, and has already introduced a dozen or two new express bus lines.
The Toronto subway system is managed by the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) and comprises three lines. Line 1 (Yonge-University-Spadina) runs north-south from Finch Station to Union and south-north to Vaughan Metropolitan Centre Station.
Line 2 (Bloor-Danforth) stretches east-west from Kipling Station to Kennedy Station. 
Line 4 (Sheppard) operates along Sheppard Avenue from Sheppard-Yonge Station to Don Mills Station. 
Line 3 (Scarborough), also known as the Scarborough Rapid Transit (SRT), officially closed on July 24, 2023, three months before its scheduled permanent shutdown. This decision was made as part of the TTC plan to replace the aging SRT with a subway extension, known as the Scarborough Subway Extension, which will connect Line 2 to the Scarborough Town Centre.
Line 3 trains in the original livery.
In 2017, Toronto broke its own rule by extending Line 1 subway beyond its city limits, to Vaughan. This extension added six new stations to the line, connecting to York University and Seneca College, and stretching it further north into the city of Vaughan.
I really like the new stations: they are spacious, artsy, and pretty deep underground. Definitely, built with future population growth in mind.
Honestly, I don’t know what Vaughan Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua did to bring a subway to his city, but Canadians should definitely put him in charge of big infrastructure projects.

2. Strange Names. 
The naming convention of the Toronto subway system often reflects the location of the station, nearby landmarks, and prominent streets. Many stations are named after the streets they intersect or nearby landmarks, which makes it easier for commuters to identify their destinations. 
For example, stations like St. George, Dundas, and Queen's Park are named after nearby streets or institutions.
Some stations are named after the neighbourhoods they serve. For instance, Union Station, located in the heart of downtown Toronto, gets its name from the historic railway station it is connected to and serves as a major transportation hub for commuters travelling within the city and beyond. 
Similarly, stations like Yorkdale and Scarborough Town Centre are named after big shopping malls.
Renaming stations in the Toronto subway system doesn't happen often, but is not unheard of. A good example is renaming Downsview into Sheppard West to avoid confusion with the newly built station called Downsview Park. 
Another example, that is coming up very soon with the opening of Line 5 (Eglington Crosstown LRT), is renaming Eglinton West into Cedarvale. This change is prompted by the LRT line operating along Eglington West, making it difficult for commuters to associate the station solely with the name "Eglinton West."
Lower Bay Station is the only station not in use today. It is located beneath Bay Station on Line 2 of the Toronto subway system. If you have ever been to St. George Station, this one is inverted: the Line 2 trains would be on the upper floor, and the Line 1 trains would be on the lower floor. 
Lower Bay was only used for six months before it was closed in 1966 as the new route patterns confused people a big deal. Since then, Lower Bay has been occasionally used for various purposes, including as a set for film and television productions, training exercises for emergency services, and as a test facility for new subway technologies. Access to Lower Bay is restricted, and it is only occasionally open to the public during the Doors Open Toronto events. 
I haven’t been there yet and needless to say it’s on my bucket list. It remains a curious and mysterious part of Toronto's subway history.

3. Can We Go a Little Faster? 
The early sections of the Toronto subway system were constructed in densely populated urban areas where the demand for public transportation was high. As a result, stations in these sections were built closer together, sometimes as close as a few hundred metres from one another. 
No doubt, the shorter distances between stations facilitated easier access for commuters, enhancing accessibility and convenience. However, as the subway system expanded into suburban areas with lower population densities, the distance between stations increased. This change reflected the need to accommodate longer travel distances and reduce construction costs by spacing out stations strategically.
One consequence of the close proximity of early subway stations is the challenge for operational efficiency, particularly for Line 1 south of Bloor-Yonge Station. The idea of having a U-shaped line with Union Station at the bottom creates delays and congestion due to the high wvolume of trains converging at this central hub. This configuration leads to complex scheduling issues and increased travel times for passengers.
Additionally, an outdated signalling system contributed to limitations in train frequency and capacity. The older signalling technology, which relied on fixed-block systems, could only accommodate a certain number of trains per hour, resulting in longer wait times between trains and reduced overall efficiency. 
However, in the early 2010s, the Toronto Subway embarked on a modernization effort to upgrade the signalling system to a more advanced, automated system known as Automatic Train Control (ATC). This upgrade significantly improved the subway's capacity and reliability by allowing for shorter headways between trains and smoother operation throughout the network.
Oh, did I mention bad weather that can put the entire line to a halt? Certainly big weather-related events such as snowfalls or ice storms, but often even mild snow or rain, could impact the efficiency and reliability of the subway system leading to service disruptions and delays for commuters. Snow and ice accumulation on outdoor tracks can hinder train movement and pose safety hazards, requiring additional time for maintenance crews to clear and de-ice the tracks before resuming service.
And then there are also frequent fire investigations and passenger health issues that can delay or stop the entire line for half an hour or more. I know it’s not the subway's fault that a fire detector picked up some smoke or a random person fainted, but I think the response protocol is a bit too rigorous and time-consuming. At the end of the day, it just feels like the subway system is not reliable or punctual. 

4. Lovely Art. 
Through art, the Toronto subway system expands its role as a mere transportation network and becomes a dynamic cultural hub that enriches the daily lives of commuters and reflects the vibrant spirit of the city. And Toronto is indeed very vibrant and diverse. 
From murals and mosaics to sculptures and installations, the subway stations showcase a wide array of artistic expressions created by local and international artists.
Art in the Toronto subway system has evolved over the decades, reflecting changing architectural styles and design philosophies while also responding to the needs and character of the surrounding neighbourhoods. 
In the 1950s and 1960s, the utilitarian design of subway stations aimed to blend with the low-rise neighbourhoods they served, prioritizing functionality over aesthetic flair. Simple materials such as concrete and tile were often used, with minimal ornamentation.
Moving into the 1970s and 1980s, the influence of modernist and brutalist architecture became more pronounced in subway station design. Stations featured bold geometric shapes, exposed concrete surfaces, and angular lines, reflecting the architectural trends of the time. While still utilitarian in nature, these stations often conveyed a sense of strength and solidity, distinctively contributing to the urban landscape.
By the 1990s and 2000s, subway station design embraced a more open and airy aesthetic, characterized by the use of glass, steel, and tall ceilings. Stations became brighter and more welcoming, with natural light filtering in through expansive windows and skylights. This design shift aimed to create a sense of spaciousness and connectivity within the subway environment, enhancing the overall passenger experience.
Museum Station (Line 1), stands out not only for its convenient location near the Royal Ontario Museum and the George R. Gardiner Museum but also for its architectural significance. This station has won several awards, including the Governor General's Medal in Architecture and the Ontario Association of Architects Award, for its innovative and visually stunning approach to subway station design. The most striking feature of the station is its columns, five different kinds: (1) Greek Doric Columns, (2) Wuikinuxv First Nation House Post, (3) Osiris Pilaster, (4) Toltec Warrior Column, and (5) Chinese Forbidden City Columns. 
Another favourite station of mine is Dupont. Designed by Dunlop Farrow Architects, it features organic shapes, flowing lines, and warm hues, creating an ambiance similar to an underground cavern. 
James Sutherland's mesmerizing glass tile artwork, "Spadina Summer Under All Seasons," adorns the platform and mezzanine walls, adding a touch of tender beauty to the station. 
This section would not be complete without Yorkdale Station. It’s a lesser-known gem in Toronto's subway system compared to Museum or Duport. It’s located near Yorkdale Shopping Centre, the most expensive mall in the whole country, so I’m sure very few shoppers take the subway to it. The station features a unique blend of modernist architecture and retro design elements including bold geometric shapes, mosaic tile murals, and striking use of colour.

5. Old-School Traditions. 
TTC has kept several unique, weird, or sometimes redundant traditions throughout its history. This certainly adds to its distinct character but raises a few questions. 
One such cute tradition is the practice of wearing historical uniforms and hats by many TTC employees, paying tribute to the organization's heritage. These uniforms, reminiscent of bygone eras, evoke a sense of nostalgia and pride among both employees and passengers, highlighting the TTC's longstanding role as an integral part of Toronto's urban fabric.
Another curious tradition within the TTC is the operation of subway trains with two people: one driving the train while the other opens and closes the doors. This practice, while seemingly antiquated in the age of automated train systems, remains in place on Line 2 which uses older trains. 
The second person's role, often referred to as a "guard," involves manually controlling the doors and ensuring passenger safety, a responsibility that is gradually being phased out with the implementation of automated door systems on newer trains. Additionally, the “guard” has to point their hand to a green triangle on the wall while opening doors. “It’s to focus the guard on the job that they’re doing, which is a safety critical task that they are going to open the doors of the train,” an official from the TTC explained.
Moreover, the TTC has been known for its cryptic language announcements where operators would use numbers to denote stations instead of traditional names. While this method may have been efficient for operators, it could sometimes confuse passengers unfamiliar with the system. 
Another peculiar tradition within the TTC was the employment of three full-time employees solely for recording voice announcements for stations on subways, streetcars, and buses. This tradition persisted until very recently when the TTC began transitioning to robotic voices for announcements, reflecting advancements in technology and cost-saving measures within the organization. 

6. Well-Maintained Trains. 
Toronto maintains its trains and facilities in very good shape. It does not matter how old a train is, its appearance and functioning never raise any concerns. 
This is because the TTC has a very comprehensive maintenance program in place to ensure that its fleet of trains remains in optimal condition, providing safe and reliable service to commuters. Maintenance of TTC trains involves regular inspections, preventive maintenance measures, and timely repairs to address any issues or defects. Highly skilled technicians and engineers work diligently to uphold rigorous safety standards and ensure that all trains meet or exceed regulatory requirements.
I was able to see it with my own eyes when the Greenwood Yard opened its doors to the public in 2015. 
One crucial aspect of the TTC train maintenance is the implementation of routine inspections and checks. Trains undergo regular examinations of key components such as brakes, propulsion systems, doors, and electrical systems to detect any signs of wear, damage, or malfunction. These inspections are conducted according to strict schedules outlined by the manufacturer's recommendations and industry best practices. Any identified issues are promptly addressed to prevent potential failures and minimize service disruptions. Having said that, TTC still uses wooden brake shoes on older subway trains. They tend to be quieter and don't wear out metal wheels as much as traditional ones.
The downside of this is that TTC often closes some sections of the subway system on weekends as opposed to doing it at night when subway trains are not running. This is very annoying as replacement shuttle buses often get stuck in heavy traffic. 
Predictive maintenance techniques, such as vibration analysis and thermography, are utilized to detect early signs of equipment degradation and schedule maintenance activities accordingly. 
In 2011, the TTC explored the possibility of selling its retired but well-maintained trains to Lagos, Nigeria, to give them a second life. The proposed sale did not come through, as logistical challenges and regulatory considerations ultimately hindered the process. In case you’re curious, Lagos finally got its first subway opened in September 2023, and thankfully uses brand-new trains. 

7. Famous Streetcars. 
Toronto operates the oldest continuously operating streetcar (or tram) system in North America. It’s also the most extensive streetcar network in Canada and the United States. 
The first streetcar service in Toronto began on September 11, 1861, with horse-drawn streetcars running along the city's streets. Eventually, electric streetcars replaced the horse-drawn ones, with the first electric streetcar operating in Toronto on August 15, 1892. Since then, the streetcar network has expanded and evolved to become an integral part of Toronto's public transportation system.
Despite all the odds and thanks to great leadership and vision, Toronto was able to preserve its streetcar system in the 1950s and 1960s while most of the big North American cities like Montreal, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Ottawa, Detroit and many others completely wiped their streetcars under huge pressure from corrupt politicians and American car makers. 
The Toronto streetcar network currently consists of 11 routes, covering a total of 83 kilometres (or 51 miles) of track. These routes serve various neighbourhoods throughout Toronto, providing crucial connections to key destinations, including downtown areas, commercial districts, and residential neighbourhoods. 
While not the fastest mode of transportation, streetcars are certainly more convenient and environmentally friendly compared to buses. I used to read books and magazines while taking a streetcar, something I would never do on a city bus as I would quickly get car (bus?) sick. 
Toronto's streetcars are affectionately referred to as "The Red Rocket" by locals due to their vibrant red exterior and swift movement along the city's streets. This nickname has become synonymous with Toronto's streetcar system and reflects the fondness and pride that residents have for this iconic mode of transportation. I even remember this name was used for subway trains. 
Come ride Toronto subway trains and streetcars!

You Might Also Like