The History of Movement - Travel By Train

Travel by Train

In Canada, railways were one of the first major transportation innovations that dramatically changed how people lived their lives....

Unionville Station
Photo: Unionville Station. Markham Museum Collection M.2001.21.1

The first true rail line in Canada opened in 1836, between Montreal and Lake Champlain, and was an alternative way to “portage” between Richelieu River and the St. Lawrence River. Railways made communication and transportation of people and goods easier and faster, and encouraged business, industry and travel.

The first railway to pass through Markham was the Toronto & Nipissing Railways (T&N), in 1872. The line extended from Toronto to Coboconk (though originally intended to extend to Lake Nipissing). The T&N was built on a narrow gauge. This means the track was 42 inches wide, as compared to standard gauge that was 56.5 inches wide. A narrow gauge was considered safer, could take sharper turns, and it was much cheaper to build than standard gauge.

The Toronto Grey and Bruce, Toronto and Nipissing, and Lake Simcoe Junction Railways as built in 1877
Photo: The Toronto Grey and Bruce, Toronto and Nipissing, and Lake Simcoe Junction Railways as built, 1877. Adapted from a map of the Province of Ontario by James Campbell & Son of Toronto, 1874, Archives of Ontario.

With a fast and efficient connection between Markham and marketplaces in Toronto and beyond, goods could flow. Industries such as tanneries, carriage works, blacksmith shops and grist mills flourished. Markham’s population grew as a result. Ultimately, demand on the rail line exceeded what the narrow gauge could handle and the track was replaced with standard gauge in 1882.

The Locust Hill train station was located on the CP line which ran east-west through southern Markham. The second historical station building, depicted here, is now located here at Markham Museum.

Locust Hill Station
Photo: Locust Hill Station. Markham Museum Collection M.1985.12.25.4

Railways were very important for economic development through the transportation of goods. This reliance shaped how communities were planned. In Markham, this can be seen in much of the early industrial infrastructure.

Reesor’s Marmill was built right on the Toronto Nipissing rail line for swift and easy access to the transportation that would bring its products to market in Toronto. Similarly, milk cans were transported daily to Toronto on all the rail lines serving the large consumer population in the city.

Locomotive Train Engine at Markham Station, 1909
Photo: CN train in front of Reesor’s Marmill. Gift of Dorothy Reesor M.2014.2.0.8

Locomotive – Converts thermal energy from steam into kinetic energy. High pressure steam is forced through a series of pistons. The engine must be re-filled with water and fuel (like coal) which is burned to heat the water.

Locomotive Train Engine at Markham Station, 1909

Photo: Locomotive Train Engine at Markham Station, 1909. Markham Museum Collection M.2012.0.286


Converts thermal energy from burning fuel into kinetic energy. They are further divided into two types, one that directly converts heat into kinetic, and one that converts heat into electricity, which is then converted into kinetic energy.

Go Train at Lakeshore Blvd.

Photo: Courtesy of Metrolinx/GO Transit


Converts electricity into kinetic energy. The motor is supplied with electricity continuously through a network over the railways.


A diesel engine drives a DC or AC generator which then powers the motor. This is the most common kind of engine today. To address growing concerns about climate change some of these engines are being re-fitted to a rechargeable energy storage system (RESS), essentially a giant battery, which can power the motor. The battery can also be charged through regenerative braking systems that capture the energy given off when the train is stopping to recharge the engine.


It stands for Liquefied Natural Gas. In specialized engines this can be used as fuel instead of diesel. LNG is significantly cheaper than diesel and LNG engines produce as much as 30% less carbon emissions and 70% less nitrogen oxides (both chemicals that contribute to climate change).


A new rail system that many consider to be the future of train transportation technology. A hydrail train uses hydrogen as fuel, which passes through hydrogen fuel cells to generate an electric current which powers the train. This process involves no combustion and therefore produces zero harmful emissions. It’s only by-product is water vapour.

Contemporary Hydrail Train Engine
Photo: Contemporary Hydrail Train Engine. Alstom

Commuter Trains

Despite the growing popularity of cars in the 20th century, trains did not become completely obsolete. The GO Transit train system in the GTHA still utilizes rail corridors from the 19th century, including the Toronto Nipissing Line through Markham. The GO Transit system came about after intense pressure on roads in the area during the post WWII population boom. On May 23, 1967, Ontario’s 1st interregional rail transit system was launched --- single-deck push-pull coaches built by Hawker-Siddeley Canada transported passengers on the Lakeshore line between Pickering-Union-Oakville-Hamilton.

GO Train along Gardiner Expressway, 1967

Contemporary GO Train

Photos: GO Train along Gardiner Expressway. Top: 1967. Bottom: Contemporary GO Train. Photos courtesy of Metrolinx.

Street Cars

Did you know that there were once streetcars in Markham?

A “radial line” operated on Yonge Street in Thornhill from 1896 to 1930. The tracks extended from Toronto all the way north to Jackson’s Point on Lake Simcoe. In 1930 the line was briefly shut down, and then re-opened three months later, running between Toronto and Richmond Hill. The Toronto Transit Commission operated the newly shortened line until 1948.

Reopening of Radial Rail, 1930
Photo: Reopening of Radial Rail, 1930. Gift of Lloyd Gohn M.1975.93.6

Toronto Nipissing Railway Engine and train crossing the rail bridge outside of Unionville
Photo: Toronto Nipissing Railway Engine and train crossing the rail bridge outside of Unionville. Markham Museum Collection M.1986.0.350

Metrolinx: Moving Toward The Future
Year after year, train by train, bus by bus, Metrolinx has committed to constantly improving GO Transit service. Now, that work is taking on a whole new energy.

Thanks to a huge investment in infrastructure, Metrolinx is quadrupling GO Rail train service and transforming the way people travel across our region – allowing customers to use the network in ways that will improve their journey and their day-to-day lives. GO Expansion will make the network better and faster, and make travel within the region that much easier. So, what’s changing?

60% more ridership service: GO Expansion will transform GO Rail to provide two-way, all-day service across the network at faster speeds, allowing ridership to increase by 60% by 2031.

6,000 services: The GO Rail network will transform from a mostly commuter-based system to a true regional rapid transit system, with 6,000 weekly trips that will provide frequent, all-day service throughout vast expanses of the network. Travellers will be able to go where they want, when they want.

Toy Trains

Fascination with trains has been around as long as railways themselves, for young and not so young enthusiasts alike.

Gifts of Mr. Rowland Lee, Albert Hosking and Markham Museum Collection
Gifts of Mr. Rowland Lee, Albert Hosking and Markham Museum Collection
M.1999.271.2, M.1989.7.9.9, M.1989.7.9.7, M.1986.0.1131, M.1989.7.49, M.1989.7.47.1.a, M.1999.0.270.1, M.1986.0.1130.2, M.1999.0.268.3, M.1989.7.53

This three-wheeled velocipede car is similar in design to a tricycle, but was adapted for use in railway maintenance. Operated by one person at a time, this car would be used by track inspectors, signal tenders and oil switchers. The vertical handle in the middle of the platform would be pumped in order to propel the car forward, with further power provided by foot pedals.

The term “velocipede”actually covers any human-powered land vehicle with wheels. which includes bicycles. In fact, boneshaker bicycles are often referred to simply as velocipedes.

Gift of Markham Historical Society c/o Sam Murdock
Gift of Markham Historical Society c/o Sam Murdock M.1984.25.6.a&b


This compound lever can be used by one person to move a loaded rail car. Rail yards and many stations were equipped with rail car movers.

Gift of Bert Tooley M.1984.64.6

Train Signal 

The modern Canadian Rail Operating Rules uses a combination of three stacked lights capable of shining red, green and amber in solid and flashing combinations to convey speed signaling instruction to the crew. The top light indicates the immediate situation and the lowest light indicates how to approach the next signal. This early signal lamp has a cluster of three unique lenses of green, red and amber.

Train Lantern

Before portable radios, train lanterns would permit train, yard and station crew members to communicate over long distances where shouting wasn’t effective. Similar to traffic lights on the road, a red light was a signal to stop or could be used to mark the last car (rear) of a train.

Train lights and lantern
Markham Museum Collection T.2018.0.1083.a&b
Gift of Mr. Bob Ferguson M.1992.34.1

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