Skip to main content

The scene at Toronto's Bloor-Yonge subway station on Tuesday morning looked like something from a science-fiction movie about an overpopulated Earth. After a series of breakdowns that delayed trains, people on the platform were jammed together so tightly they could barely move.

The foul-up made thousands late for work and put a good number in some danger. What might have happened, many on the scene wondered, if pushing and shoving had broken out and a stampede ensued? TTC authorities say the situation was so grave that they came close to shutting down the station – a key link on the transit network. There were more delays on the subway system Wednesday.

Transit advocates hurried to blame the mess on chronic underfunding of the Toronto Transit Commission. Brad Ross, the TTC's level-headed spokesman, insists that money is not the issue. Instead, a string of operational problems – a frozen track switch, a disabled train that started to smoke, a triggered emergency alarm – made for the "perfect storm."

That may be true. All major subway systems, from London to New York to Tokyo, experience breakdowns that leave commuters fuming. All the same, the snafu drew attention to overcrowding on the subway and underlined the urgent need for a new line – a relief line – to take pressure off the system.

The main north-south subway line, Line 1, is under serious stress. A report to the TTC this month said that ridership during morning rush hour has reached "historical maximums of 28,000 to 30,000 passengers per hour southbound from Bloor Station." The pressure is increasing as more people come to live and work in the city's booming downtown core. Since 2001, employment there has grown by almost 40 per cent. The number of people living along the other end of the line, north of Bloor Street, is growing, too. An extra 50,000 have moved to within a 10-minute walk of Yonge Street stations.

These trends are bound to continue as the city builds more and more tall buildings and density grows along the spine of the city. Authorities say the Yonge line will be overcapacity by 2031. That is the day after tomorrow in transit time, given how long it takes to approve, fund and build subways. Already, strap-hangers often have to let rush-hour trains pass by because there is simply no room to squeeze on. And that is on a normal day, not an extraordinary one like Tuesday.

The TTC says it is doing its best to tackle overcrowding. It has introduced new "Toronto Rocket" train sets with an open design and 10 per cent more capacity. It is installing a new signalling system that allows it to move more trains, closer together, in safety. In 2020, when the system is fully in place, trains will be capable of arriving every two minutes instead every two minutes, 21 seconds.

The TTC hopes the recent opening of the new subway extension to Vaughan will help, too. Projections show that many commuters in the northwest of the city will start taking that route instead of the Yonge line.

All these are stopgaps, though. They just delay the inevitable. The only real fix is a new line that diverts travellers coming into the core from east and west, steering them away from the bottleneck at Bloor and Yonge. Just such a line is already on the drafting table. The relief line would drop down from the east-west running Line 2, taking commuters directly into the core instead of funnelling them onto Line 1 to jostle with north-south riders.

The trouble is getting the cursed thing built. By rights, it should have been up and running years, even decades, ago. But mass-transit expansion comes slowly – no, glacially – in this town. The only wholly new subway line built since 1966 is the abbreviated 5.5-kilometre Sheppard line, often called a "stubway." The Vaughan subway extension was the first expansion of the subway network since 2002, when Sheppard opened.

Endlessly shifting plans, political decision-making and simple failure to plan have put the city in the position where the main artery in its transit system is clogging. Something has to be done.

Governments insist they are on it. The provincial government has devoted money for the design work. Toronto Mayor John Tory says he is fully on board, even though he made his own magic bullet, the SmartTrack "surface subway," his priority when he ran for election in 2014. City council has approved a map that shows where the route will go.

But billions are still needed to build the project. Tuesday's trouble should light a fire under governments. The chaos on the subway was temporary and forgivable (things happen). The problem is lasting, and it can only get worse. With such an obvious solution in front of us, failure to move on it would be inexcusable.