TrainTown Toronto

Some of my readers from more distant parts – heck, anywhere in the world really – may have heard of Toronto this year. And given all the attention we’ve received in the news, I’m sure the question on everybody’s mind is, “What were the trains like in Toronto 40 years ago?”

Well, the answer is at hand!

Over the weekend, I had a chance to watch TrainTown Toronto – a relatively new release from Green Frog Productions that documents the area around Toronto’s union station in the early 1970s. Shot by Emery Gulash on 16mm film and running 56 minutes, Green Frog has a five-minute sample from TrainTown Toronto online. Enjoy if you watch it here, or follow this link to watch a larger version on YouTube:

I find the DVD fascinating for two reasons.

First, of course, there’s the trains. This was the era before VIA Rail took over long distance passenger service in Canada. It’s the era before massive cuts to VIA’s service. And it’s the era before passenger carriers rationalized their fleets. So, the area around Toronto Union Station was pretty busy, with an impressive variety of equipment:

Canadian National ran Rapido trains to Montreal, Tempo Trains to southwestern Ontario, commuter trains and long distance trains – including the Super Continental.

CP Rail ran a variety of passenger trains too – from short-haul trains consisting of Budd RDCs to The Canadian.

GO Transit – the provincial government-operated commuter service that’s so essential to the region today – was still relatively new and running pretty short (e.g.: model railroad-sized) commuter trains with cars from Hawker Siddley. They even ran some self-propelled cars that were reminiscent of RDCs – but, different.

Ontario Northland ran long-distance passenger service to the province’s hinterland.

Equipment was a mix of new and second-hand from U.S. railroads that had exited the passenger business. Locomotives were also varied, with examples from ALCo/MLW and EMD – including many oddballs such as CP Rail’s RSD-17 “The Empress of Agincourt”, and the GP40-TC on GO Transit. In addition to the many passenger trains, this DVD also captures freight transfers… local switching assignments… light engine movements… movements between coach yards and the train shed… and more.

The second reason I found this DVD fascinating is as a reminder of how the landscape has changed in the Rail Lands of Canada’s largest city. The skyline from the 1970s is almost unrecognizable when looking at the city today. Key buildings still stand out – notably, the bank towers. And I was pleased to see some shots of the famous (locally, anyway) billboard for Inglis, which still offers up daily inspirational messages to drivers on the Gardiner Expressway. But almost all of the industrial tenants – those who used rail service for freight in the 1970s – have fled the core and have been replaced with condo towers, office complexes, and convention centres. And the rail lands have contracted considerably. Yards have disappeared, and open spaces have been filled in until today’s Toronto Terminal Railway property runs through the base of a canyon between sound barrier walls and high rises.

Compare the footage in the TrainTown Toronto teaser to this video on YouTube. Uploaded in early 2013, it shows the same general area, shot from a pedestrian overpass east of Spadina and looking east towards the station:

It’s very, very different. It’s definitely still railroading – and more exciting than this video might suggest. (I used to work on the 17th floor of an office tower and my window overlooked the Union Station train shed. My colleagues learned very quickly that there was no point in asking me to do anything useful around 5:00 pm, when the station seemingly exploded with green and white commuter trains.) But it’s different.

This post has nothing to do with Port Rowan, except that the 1970s were a formative time for me in my model railway hobby, so it’s great to see this stuff again. Anybody who lived in Toronto in the 1970s – or rail-fanned around the GTA during that period – will enjoy this DVD. I know I did: It reminded me why I became a lifelong railway enthusiast!

2 thoughts on “TrainTown Toronto

  1. Great stuff! So familiar. In the mid-70s I took the train a lot, often loading my bass amp and other gear down the platform, one piece at a time. They weren’t so particular about baggage limits then! Lots of RDCs to Stratford, FPA-4s up to Ottawa or Montreal, splitting the train at Brockville. Also visited the CPR roundhouse with 1201 and 1057 still inside, about ’72.

  2. Terrific video. I just watched the preview. I love this period of Canadian railroading and am looking forward to ordering a copy. Thanks for sharing the video and pointing it out.

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