Now that we’re on the verge of acquiring, or at least issuing a proposal call for a fleet of new streetcars, it’s worth looking back at the origins of the Canadian Light Rail Vehicle and its travails on the Toronto system.
This is not intended to be a comprehensive history, and some comments here are strongly coloured by my own experiences with the fights to keep a streetcar system alive in Toronto and transit technology debates in general. Bear with me. My thesis will be revealed in time.
Back in the mid 1960s, the TTC had a plan to build a network of suburban streetcar lines (what we would now call “LRT” or “Light Rapid Transit”) including, notably, a circumferential line made up of:
- A route from Warden Station (then the planned eastern terminus of the BD subway) northeast through Scarborough to Malvern, connecting to
- A Finch hydro corridor route west to roughly the Humber River, connecting to
- A diagonal route following the hydro corridors in Etobicoke and eventually coming south to connect with the BD subway.
- In addition, there would be a spur to the airport, and another north-south link between the Finch line and the Spadina Subway.
That was 1966. The proposed vehicle for this network was an updated version of the PCC, the streetcar which served as the backbone of the transit system until the arrival of the CLRV fleet 40 years later. Plans existed, even a brochure describing the car. And then everything stopped.
Queen’s Park, never one to use an existing technology when they could fleece the public with a development project, latched onto the Krauss-Maffei magnetic levitation train technology and the GO Urban scheme was born. Never mind that it wasn’t very well thought out, the main point is that all work on conventional technology stopped and along with it plans for a new generation of PCCs.
The next version of the TTC’s master plan hinted at this change referring to an unspecified new technology for the suburban lines rather than an updated streetcar.
Eventually, Bill Davis killed the Spadina Expressway and announced funding for transit. Alas, along for the ride came the technology boffins who were going to remake Toronto’s transit system. Over a number of years, this scheme received a rather frosty reception in many quarters, and those of us who fought against it knew things were coming unglued at one memorable public meeting in Scarborough.
The locals were restless and objected to elevated guideways that would thread through their neighbourhoods. The Minister of Transportation himself, the Hon. Gordon Carton, was present and tried to calm the multitude. He sought in vain for a way to describe the guideways as light and airy, but the word he came up with was “flimsy”. An object lesson for bureaucrats: never invite the Minister to a public meeting. Find a dinner on the other side of the country for him to attend instead.
In any event, the GO Urban scheme ran aground, and Queen’s Park was desperate to have something to show for their great leap into transit technology. At this point, they embraced streetcars and dusted off the plans for the new PCC. Indeed, the original plans for the Scarborough line were based on CLRV operation.
However, the engineers working on this had only a vague grasp of transit basics, and they determined that the new cars had to travel at up to 70mph (roughly 110kph) for suburban operations. Never mind that any line we would build in what is now the GTA wouldn’t have stops far enough apart to warrant such speed, that’s what the car was designed for. In place of a lightweight updated PCC, we got the rumbling hulks of CLRVs.
Further problems ensued because the wheels chosen for these vehicles were incompatible with our track, notably at switches where cars tended to derail. This problem was fixed, eventually, along with the worst of the noise and vibration issues by a change to the type of wheel we now see on the CLRVs, itself a descendent of the PCC design. However, the combination of heavy cars and poorly built track quickly demolished the roadbeds, and we are only now close to finishing the complete system reconstruction that this triggered.
The CLRV (and its sister car, the ALRV) never became a world beater technology, and only one small sale ever was made to another city. One wonders just how well lubricated that sale was given that other established manufacturers were already shipping cars to cities around North America, and the Toronto car was never a player despite its “Canadian” moniker.
This brings us to today and the pending order for new streetcars. We can be thankful, I suppose, that Queen’s Park isn’t in the technology business now and at least the TTC will entertain bids from existing, established manufacturers. There’s even a claim that the process will be open, that all vendors will be on an even footing, unlike the situation with Bombardier and the new “Toronto Rocket” subway car order that will keep Thunder Bay busy for a decade or so when the inevitable add-on orders are booked.
In this context, I can’t help wondering about the recent directive by TTC to potential bidders that “The Commission” has decided to go with 100% low floor cars. Considering that the Commission, per se, has not met this month, I can’t help wonder just where this directive comes from. Are other technical changes about to jump out of the woodwork? Will any of these have the effect of excluding designs that were possibly in the running? Why has this change not been discussed in a public Commission meeting?
With the importance of moving to better transit services throughout not just Toronto, but the GTA, we only have one chance to “get it right” and show that transit really is a viable option. We do not need, as former TTC Chief General Manager Al Leach described the CLRV, another “Edsel of the streetcar”. Let’s be sure that the proposal and selection process for a new car really is open and that every reasonable design and vendor has a chance.
I have no brief for any supplier. My concern is that we not construct a streetcar spec that gives us something less than the ideal car for our system in the interest of some other political or economic agenda.
Toronto has suffered through three decades of bad, expensive streetcar operations thanks to noise and poor reliability, and streetcars have gone from much-loved vehicles to something many people reject out of hand as viable options for a suburban transit network. The CLRVs came from an era when politics took precedence over good design and foisted on Toronto an inferior vehicle. They have served their time, but they must remind us not to repeat past mistakes.