Skip to main content

Hollering "subways, subways, subways" during this mayoral race is about as logical as "jetpacks, jetpacks, jetpacks." Subways, the most expensive form of public transit, only work in areas where there are enough people to fill the trains – it's that simple.

That's why the Sheppard "stubway" still struggles to reach capacity almost a dozen years after opening, carrying under 50,000 passengers a day (compare that to the Yonge-University-Spadina line, with well over 700,000), and the Scarborough RT line boasts the least-used stop of the entire system, with just over 1,000 passengers "travelling to and from" that station "on an average weekday" (source: TTC Subway Ridership 2012-2013).

However, even the overcapacity Yonge line, surprisingly, has a bum location: Summerhill sits in fourth-last place of least used stations.

All of this tells me a steel-wheels trip to each of the four line's biggest losers is in order: Who lives around these dogs, anyway, and why aren't they using them?

Ellesmere station, Scarborough RT. Opened 1985. 1,140 daily


Changing over from the "real" subway at Kennedy station to the little toy trains of the RT is easy enough, but nothing can prepare you for how different they feel. So 1980s they belong in a Spoons video, these narrow cars thump, creak and cough so many death-rattles, TTC staff wear earplugs.

The almost-full train sways first through stands of evergreens and hydro fields – this bucolic area needs "rapid" transit? – and then a smattering of single-family homes. Nine minutes later, after passing alarmingly large industrial complexes, it deposits me, and three others, at Ellesmere.

Outside, confronted by the grassy lump that supports Ellesmere Road above, I spy a couple of condo towers in the far distance and, closer, one of those shingled pyramids that houses road salt; to my left is the long, blank brick wall of a warehouse.

Further exploration provides an answer as to who might use this station: the cinder block-and-stucco "Leisureworld" retirement residence is, literally, a stone's throw away. One woman, sitting under a freestanding lean-to in a barren fenced-in area, waves wildly to me as I pass … I must be the first person she's seen all day.

Soon, she'll be alone permanently, as a June 2011 Metrolinx report suggests that Ellesmere be shuttered when the Eglinton-Scarborough Crosstown line opens.

Bessarion station, Sheppard subway. Opened 2002. 2,550 daily passengers.

Even though I've watched the short YouTube film Finding Bessarion, I am still thrown when the train's PA pronounces it "Buh-zarry-in."

Like at Ellesmere, I exit with three other souls. I am struck by how clean and pristine this place is – like the pure, Platonic form of a subway station – and how the rich, red wall-tile excites my senses.

As I walk, I recall Derek Welsman, a radio colleague, was moved to write a song about Bessarion. Clearly, Bessarion is the artist's muse of the TTC.

"It was contemplated as a place of reflection in this hard-scrabble world of ours," confirms TTC communications guru Brad Ross. "The 'artists' now see it as a canvas, but its tranquility should never be diminished by high-minded art."

Well, that puts the kibosh on my idea of converting the cavernous upstairs space into artists' studios, which would've squeezed more revenue from this little-used station.

So few people visit Bessarion, as a matter of fact, station designers found it necessary to place instructional photographs of how to use the handrails on the stairwell walls (they've also put photos of the backs of heads and the bottoms of legs on the station walls so TTC employees won't get lonely).

Since I'm a veteran TTC-er, I grab the handrail willy-nilly and hoist myself up and out … to wind up in a strip mall parking lot. The only people I see out here are inside their cars – six lanes of traffic on Sheppard and, not far away, the jam-packed 401.

Fortunately, there is a condo under construction directly across the street, which could help passenger volumes.

Old Mill station, Bloor-Danforth subway. Opened 1968. 5,790

daily passengers.

It's a long walk from the back of the train to the one lonely exit at Old Mill. Luckily, there is a panoramic view of the Humber River valley to enjoy (the two other people to get off are more interested in texting), as this station is a long, glassy bridge rather than an underground bunker.

Straight past the tiny bus-loading area (only one bus route departs from here), I find myself in some sort of medieval village, since half-timbering is everywhere: on apartment houses, single-family homes and the massive Old Mill hotel complex. Speaking of which, there are so many cupolas, weather vanes and jiggity-jaggity roof lines competing for attention at the hotel, it's easy to miss the few remaining short, stone walls of the original seven-storey flour mill that once stood here (built 1848); it's also a relief to glance over at the unadorned surfaces of architect Ray Mandel's 23-storey Brutalist tower, built in 1967.

My guess is the few pioneers who use this station come from Mr. Mandel's tower or the low-rise apartments nearby; the Escalades, Bimmers and Cayennes in the massive hotel parking lot suggest it isn't the brunching and wedding set.

To find any density at all, I walk 11 minutes east along Bloor Street West. By the South Kingsway, blessed retail graces both sides of the street, as well as professional offices, restaurants and cafés. That's why Jane station hosts 18,150 passengers a day.

Summerhill station, Yonge-University-Spadina subway. Opened 1954. 5,880 daily passengers.

Summerhill's biggest problem might be that no one can find it: It's actually located on Shaftesbury Avenue.

Another theory, Mr. Ross of the TTC offers, is that regular folk "are intimidated by Summerhill, seeing it as a private station – perhaps – for the special few, much like those private elevators one hears about (but never experiences) in ritzy condo towers."

While Summerhill is indeed located in a "ritzy" neighbourhood, my guess is that on rare occasions when the homeowners of Chestnut Park, Cluny Drive, Woodlawn, Walker and Farnham avenues leave the car at home, they skip Summerhill just like the unwashed masses, and window-shop their way up to the bright lights of Yonge and St. Clair.

While the TTC has parodied its underachieving stations (Google its 2014 April Fool's video, where it proposes building condos inside), it's serious business building a subway line. Each new stop requires cool consideration that's better left outside the heated world of politics.