Where heroically toiling GO trains retreat to – Old document tells origins story of Toronto’s Willowbrook Maintenance Facility

As part of our HistoricGO series, we continue to dig through boxes and archives to uncover old relics. We recently discovered a brochure detailing an overhaul of our Willowbrook Maintenance Facility in the 80s. And even now, the complex plays an important part in the journeys of countless customers – many of whom don’t even know it exists to keep them safe and moving to where they need to be.

As fast as a locomotive and strong enough to carry the human weight of a small village on its back.

Fine, GO trains – or even their crews – are not superheroes. But in the transit community, the big machines are among the strongest and most-trusted of champions – working night and day in tough Canadian conditions.

But even the super-powerful need a secure and trusted retreat, to be looked after and rest before the next outing.

For four decades, and generations of GO trains, that sanctuary has been the Willowbrook Maintenance Facility – a maintenance and storage location for a vast part of GO’s rail fleet.

We were reminded of the origins of the complex when we recently found an original brochure, bragging about what Willowbrook would mean to the growth of GO Transit.

Image shows the brochure, with trains depicted on the front.

The coffee-stained brochure, found in an old box, that brought back memories of the history of Metrolinx workhorse Willowbrook Maintenance Depot. (Metrolinx photo)

It was in September 1978 that work started on the then one-of-a-kind Willowbrook Maintenance Facility. The $17-million depot was considered the most modern rolling stock – that means rail – maintenance facility in North America. It boasted the largest indoor work space of any rail depot on the continent.

Willowbrook was originally an old CN freight car yard that the Province of Ontario turned into a repair facility for what was considered an experimental commuter rail service at the time. The move was meant to minimize spending for a system that had yet to be proven effective.

Historical image shows trains sitting in the rail yard.

Not the best shot, but within the brochure, this is how the Willowbrook yard looked in 1967. Note the two-car-capacity maintenance building in the background. (Metrolinx photo)

GO surpassed all expectations by 1967 and in three short years became the comprehensive rail and bus service that is well-known today, making it an integral part of the Greater Golden Horseshoe Region.

A map outlines the area, from the diesel shop to coach shop to wash bay.

A handy map of the renovated facility included within the brochure. (Metrolinx photo)

The facility took nearly two years to complete and included a:

  • Massive 130,000-square-foot service and maintenance building.
  • Diesel shop for maintaining four to six locomotives at once.
  • Coach shop with a drop pit to lower vehicles for maintenance purposes.
  • Semi-automatic wash bay designed to get our taller-than-other-trains squeaky clean.
  • Maintenance bay used specifically for regulatory inspections and preventative upkeep, which took place on an eight-day cycle.
  • Control centre.
  • General office for admin purposes.
  • Storage yard that promoted noise reduction and fuel conservation.
  • Fuelling station that could handle four locos at the same time at a rate of 200 gallons a minute.

The facility had energy-saving features built in for lighting and heat reclamation. Units were able to recover up to 65 per cent of locomotive exhaust in the diesel shop and waste heat trapped below the facility’s ceilings.

The 40-acre facility officially opened on November 7, 1980.

Image shows crews working on trains inside Willowbrook Maintenance Depot.

The Willowbrook Maintenance Depot, seen here in a file photo, has been a quiet champion of GO trains – and customers – for decades. More recently, the massive 500,000 square foot facility known as the Whitby Rail Maintenance Facility was added in 2018. (Metrolinx photo)

Not to be outdone, Willowbrook’s sister location in Whitby was completed in 2018. The massive 500,000 square foot facility known as the Whitby Rail Maintenance Facility was needed to keep up with the rapid expansion of GO service across the region.

For decades, these rail facilities have played an important, but still largely unheralded, part in keeping GO’s mighty fleet heroically on track.

Story by Suniya Kukaswadia, Metrolinx senior advisor, Media Relations and Issues