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6: Inventing Willowbrook

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Inventing Willowbrook

With acceptance of the commuter train schedules, our next concern, but particularly Bob Withrow's, was where we should have the service depot. Here the trains would be parked, serviced, fueled, cleaned, and maintained. We would have a total of eight trains to dispatch each weekday. In the tradition of heavy transit systems, it would be best if the early morning trains could start their working day at the outer ends of the line. After the evening peak, the same trains would finish their work also at the outer ends, so it would seem preferable to have depots out there, too.

Looking for a site

This is valid on intensively operated subway lines, where they have a lot of trains to store and dispatch. For us to do that, we would need one depot out around Oakville and another around Dunbarton. While we took this into account, it didn't make sense for our small fleet to have two depots, with only four trains in each. So we went up and down the line to examine available lands. We gave only a passing glance at lands available at the outer ends, and concentrated our attention more on places that could function as a single depot, where all our equipment would come home every night. CN had tracks available close to Union Station, at the Don Yard, and at Bathurst Street, where we could have parked our trains, but there was not enough space for us to build any kind of workshop and offices. There was Danforth yard, half way up the Scarborough grade that expected to lose a good proportion of its traffic. That would release some good space there. But, if we chose to put our service depot there, we would need a big enough shop with machinery to do relatively heavy repair, because there was not an adjacent facility easily accessible.

The most logical place would have been in the Spadina coachyard, the service depot for all of the mainline passenger trains. Here we ran into an incompatibility. This coachyard was not set up to service locomotives. Historically, locomotives had been uncoupled at the station and taken to Spadina Roundhouse. That is where the fuel and water facilities were to be found, and the craftsmen to look after them. In designing the new commuter equipment, the intent was that the trains would remain as a unit, so that the locomotives would not be uncoupled and re-coupled every time they were yarded. If a train did not need mechanical work of any kind, it would come into the depot, be inspected, cleaned, fueled, and then left untouched until it would be re-dispatched for the next trip.

This was a departure from tradition. The commuter trains would be serviced, both coaches, self-propelled diesel railcars, and locomotives in a single depot, with a unified staff, with a specific responsibility, to keep the commuter trains running. But a depot for eight trains could not justify a fully equipped shop, able to do any and every kind of maintenance on this mix of equipment. So we needed a location where the light servicing could be done where the trains would be parked, but with easy access to CN's heavier maintenance facilities at the coachyard and the roundhouse.

 The best place was where the main freight yard was just being vacated at Mimico. Some of the heavy freight movements were still going on there, and there would always be transfers and switchers moving in and out, but a great expanse of yard could be released for other uses. It was on the west side of Union Station, so if coaches or locomotives had to be moved from Mimico to either the coachyard, or the round house, for heavier work, the move could be made without conflicting with the Union Station traffic.

So we obtained plans of the yard, and talked with the Yardmaster and his staff. It would be most convenient, if we could take over the freight cars repair tracks, and the office and stores building that was already there.

Moving the Mimico Station 

But there was a complication. The Mimico commuter station was served by the CN Hamilton trains. It was along Judson Street, on the west side of Royal York Road, on the north side of the yard, and on the sharp curve of the diverted main lines. So when commuter trains would be moving in or out of the new depot, they could not serve the Mimico station where it was. Also, we wanted to take over the CN station house to be our crew room and dispatching office for our crews. In any case, we would be building a new station for the new service, so we decided to place it on the east side of Royal York Road, on a length of much straighter track.

By this time, the results of the Transportation Department's study were beginning to come out, so we gave them our decisions on locating the service depot. The old Mimico station west of Royal York Road would not be used, and the new commuter trains would be going in and out of the repair tracks. This opened up a new possibility. If they moved the main line back on to its old alignment down the centre of the yard, this would leave the repair tracks on the north side of the main line, and separate the commuter moves from the remaining freight moves into the remains of the old freight yard on the south side of the line. We liked that, because it gave us a straighter length of main line for the platforms at the new Mimico Station.

The constraint was that the new station platforms would have to be readily accessible for pedestrians from the sidewalk and bus stops at the underpass, so we could not have them too far away. In fact, it proved possible for the ends of the platforms to just touch the underpass, and allowed the ticket window to be close enough to the sidewalk. Then the trains entering the depot would have had to exit from the mainline a little to the east of the station, using a new lead-in track that passed to the north of the commuter platforms. The north platform became an island platform, where trains entering or leaving the depot would make their station stop on the lead track and not on the mainline. This explains why trains stop at the Mimico station on a track different from the track used by the through trains, when they are entering or leaving the depot.

Origin of the name "Willowbrook"

Now that a decision had been made where the depot would be, George Dollis was free to go ahead with finalising the schedules for the operation of the trains, including dispatching them and yarding them, and planning the crew cycles as well. We needed a new name for the old Mimico repair tracks to be able to talk about them and put the name in the working timetables. Having decided to move the main lines to the south, the road access to the repair tracks was from the north side, where the old station would be taken out of passenger service. The new depot would be off Judson Street, almost across from a side street by the name of Willowbrook Road.

I thought that would be a nice name for the commuter depot, but before we could use this name in a CN operating timetable, we had to be sure that there would be no conflict with other place names over the entire CN network. So we passed the request up to CN headquarters in Montreal, and sure enough there was a conflict of names. Up in Northern Ontario, there was a passing track called Willowbrook. CN agreed to release the name to us, but we had to wait until they had changed the name of the passing track, and had put their replacement name into the CN timetables, before we could officially call our depot "Willowbrook". That did not prevent us from talking about it right away, because that was where the entrance was.

Fixing-up the depot

Bob Withrow was thoroughly familiar with the workings and layouts of repair tracks, but now he had to oversee the modifications to make it suitable to service and maintain the new commuter trains when they would be delivered to us. So he called on the assistance of equipment staffs at Area and Region for design input and whatever structural modifications would be needed. There was accommodation already for the supervisors and craftsmen, a tool room, washrooms, and a small stores department. The whole plant had been in operation repairing freight cars for many years, and the intent had been to retire it completely. So it was in run down condition, and we had to do some upgrading work. The understanding with the Government was to consider this as a test operation, and to await results before going into more expenses than absolutely necessary, so we could not do the full rebuilding job that we would have preferred. It would be many years before the Government conceded to a major upgrade and a fully equipped shop at the old site.

One thing we would need that was not there, was an inside shop, where work could be done on components that had to be protected from the weather. It would have been best to have a shop long enough to hold two car-lengths, either cars or locomotives, but prefabricated shops did not come in that length, so we accepted instead a shop long enough for only one car and a half. This was a handicap that we had to live with for quite a long time. Once a shop exists at all, it is not easy to make a case for extending it.

Later during the build up to inauguration, we hired Doug Young, an experienced person from CN's Equipment Department in Montreal, to take charge of the depot, and he tells an interesting story in the chapter on "Build up to inauguration".

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