Thirty-Five Years

November 2007 marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of the TTC’s decision to retain streetcar operations in Toronto.  Godfrey Mallion wrote me recently asking if I would reflect on the events of past decades prompting this post.

When the Streetcars for Toronto Committee formed in 1972, our goal was to fight the proposed removal of streetcars from the St. Clair route which, at the time, ran from Keele Loop to Mt. Pleasant & Eglinton.  The TTC had surplus trolley buses from the Yonge 97 route (Eglinton Station to Glen Echo) that was replaced when the subway opened to York Mills Station, and these buses were to operate on St. Clair.  The fact that the TTC didn’t have anywhere near enough trolley buses to replace the streetcars, and a substantial service cut was required to make this work, undermined the proposal from the beginning.

The TTC’s long-range plans foresaw removal of all streetcars by 1980 when the Queen Subway would open.  Pause here for laughter because it was clear, even then, that a Queen line was not going to be built any time soon, if ever.  However, the streetcar fleet was wearing out, and St. Clair’s conversion was to be the beginning of the end.

A few years earlier, the TTC had worked with Hawker-Siddeley (whose Thunder Bay plant is now owned by Bombardier) on the development of a new streetcar for Toronto.  Its cost was quite reasonable for its day, and one big advantage was that it evolved from the existing PCC, a car long-proven on Toronto’s streets.  It did not have to be re-invented.  Work on this car stopped cold when Queen’s Park got into the high tech transit business with Maglev trains and GO Urban.

Toronto’s decision to retain its streetcars came at the beginning of a light rail renaissance in North America, although the real leadership came from cities like Edmonton, San Diego and Calgary.

Over the years, Streetcars for Toronto, and later I as an individual advocate, were involved in many issues:

  • Implementation of trolleybuses on Bay Street as a hoped-for first step in renewal and expansion of the network.
  • Advocacy for LRT technology to build a network of suburban lines at a time when much of the suburbs did not yet exist.
  • A detailed review of operational practices on downtown streetcar lines to address service quality.
  • Advocacy for increased transit funding, not just as capital megaprojects (usually subways), but for day-to-day operations.
  • Advocacy for what became the Harbourfront and Spadina streetcar lines.  This started in the 70s, but only bore fruit two decades later.
  • Advocacy for improved service quality as a TTC goal leading to the Ridership Growth Strategy.
  • Renewed advocacy for LRT leading to the Transit City plan.

What we now know as the Scarborough RT was originally to have been an LRT line.  It started out life that way in the TTC’s 1966 master plan, then morphed to GO Urban, then back to LRT in 1977 after the demise of GO Urban.  Toronto needed new streetcars, and the CLRV was born from as a beefed-up descendent of that 1960s streetcar design.

Queen’s Park’s technology gurus didn’t rest, and the RT technology eventually won out through much arm-twisting and misrepresentation.  The final cost of the RT including the add-on projects was close to $250-million where the LRT line would have been under $100-million. 

This was probably the greatest blow to our transit system of the “golden era” when money was available for system expansion.  Rapid transit expansion was always going to be expensive RT or subway technology, and nobody wanted to hear about LRT.  Transit lost a quarter-century thanks to that.

Meanwhile, the complaints piled up about service on the streetcar routes downtown where service was much, much better than it is today.  Short-turns were the common complaint, and the TTC’s standard excuse then as now was that they couldn’t maintain service due to congestion and traffic accidents.  Streetcars for Toronto organized a survey of route operations and we reported at length on what we found.  Not much has changed in two decades. 

The TTC’s entire response to our report was to put larger fleet numbers on streetcars (so that Inspectors could identify them more easily at a distance) and to add some running time on a few routes.  Line management, then as now, didn’t get the attention it deserved and the introduction of CIS would soon eliminate much of the TTC’s expertise of on-street supervision and familiarity with routes and operators.  Years later, David Gunn would re-introduce Route Supervisors, but the damage had been done.

The loss of our trolley coach system is a long sad story that I won’t detail here.  In brief, TTC management wanted rid of the trolleys but was blocked by their environmentally positive image, the natural gas industry wanted a market for its then-surplus and cheap product, a technology group at Queen’s Park desperately needed a project to justify its existence (doesn’t this sound familiar?), and an Ontario bus company dearly wanted to get an untendered contract for buses in Toronto.  With this cabal, the Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) bus project was born and we lost our trolley coaches.

They would have made a great contribution on suburban routes where service is frequent, but where growth to LRT levels was unlikely either due to route structure or constraints of street width.  This was not going to happen.  Although Toronto saw a brief experience with refurbished Edmonton trolleys, the system was doomed for lack of a political patron.  The CNG fleet lasted until early this year, and the TTC is well rid of that experiment.

By the late 1980s, the TTC had reached a point where then Chief General Manage Alf Savage actually was quoted as saying that Toronto would never build another subway because they were just too expensive.  There were preliminary fluries of interest in alternatives, but then, in 1990, David Peterson decided he wanted another term as Premier.  A massive transit network consisting mainly of subways (Eglinton West, Spadina, Bloor West, Sheppard), RT (extension to Malvern) and LRT (Waterfront West) was announced to show just how committed the Ontario Liberals were to transit.

Peterson lost, and the Bob Rae NDP government embraced the scheme as a gigantic make-work project for a city slipping into the early 90s recession.  Despite repeated attempts to interest the NDP in LRT, their focus was on job creation and construction rather than sound financial planning for transit.  Mike Harris killed most of this five years later, but the truncated Sheppard line survived both because so much had already been spent, and because Harris needed Mel Lastman in his corner to sell the megacity.

A decade later, the need to look at LRT alternatives found a more receptive audience in David Miller and his circle, and Transit City was born.  Now, we are in the midst of a publicly contested battle for supply of a new fleet not just of streetcars for the existing city network, but for a much larger suburban net probably stretching into the 905.  Big money is at stake, and that does not bode well for clear-headed decisions.  I hope that, for once, a procurement will be based on technical merit, not on political manoeuvering.

On the waterfront, there is hope we will see new neighbourhoods built around streetcar lines on Queen’s Quay, in the West Don and the Port Lands.  The Waterfront West studies muddle along in bits and pieces, but we may eventually see a direct, relatively fast service from southern Etobicoke to downtown through a revitalized south Parkdale and Exhibition Park.

Meanwhile, back on St. Clair where this all began, the TTC beavers away on its streetcar right-of-way.  Well, maybe “beaver” is not the right word because a crew of such animals would have finished this project a long time ago.  The right-of-way is less than ideal both in physical appearance and in its impact in some neighbourhoods.  Many of the problems lie with the contentious nature of the “public participation” and conflicting requirements for transit, automotive traffic and pedestrians on the street.  If nothing else, we have learned how not to run such a process in the future.

How do I feel about 35 years of transit advocacy and the future of streetcars?  Optimistic, but sad that it has taken us so long to reach this point where we have decades of catching up, where we have already-built suburbs whose car-oriented design will fight transit improvements at every turn.  Sad too that transit has been a dumping ground for politically motivated schemes like GO Urban, CNG buses and expensive subways to nowhere.

Guarded because the dark days of funding cutbacks could return in the blink of an election gone wrong for reasons having nothing to do with Toronto or the GTA.  Sleaze, real or perceived, killed the Liberals in Ottawa who, for all their problems, at least understood the importance of cities rather than loathing them as the Tories do.  David Miller has three more years in office, but what then?  The GTTA and Queen’s Park seem to be headed in a pro-transit direction, but will this amount to anything more than more commuting capacity into Toronto, will we see a real dedication to making transit attractive for all-day use in the growing suburbs, and will we see existing operations strengthened and improved rather than sinking to a lowest common denominator?

The GTA is choking in congestion and transit has a role to play in reversing this.  It will take decades because some problems will only be solved with redevelopment and redistribution of travel demand.  Whether this is likely or even possible, I’m dubious, but we have to try.

Streetcars, in their modern guise as LRT, have a role to play.  So do buses and even judicious expansion of the subway system.  The challenge is to recognize transit as an essential service that must grow faster than population, faster than travel demand rather than always waiting for better funding and more service “next year”.

7 thoughts on “Thirty-Five Years

  1. “a technology group at Queen’s Park desperately needed a project to justify its existence” – I wondered what had spawned “hydrogen trains!”

    Steve: The interest in hydrogen is fuelled [yes, I couldn’t resist that] by the nuclear industry who would just love to build lots of capacity to power hydrogen generation plants. This is an ideal load for them — no peaks, 24 hour steady demand for an industrial process rather than pesky folk who all insist on eating at 6 pm.

    Of course, if we use nuclear to get hydrogen, it stops being such a green solution. Hydrogen is not viable as a fuel unless you have a source of “free” energy to produce it in the first place. Even then, there are many other issues.


  2. It is interesting to note that even in a country as dense as Japan, there are 16 new tram lines being built. Trams does have a place in Toronto. I just do not understand why the insistence on 100% low floor trams. Low floor trams will not have high rate of acceleration due to space limitations.

    In Japan, trams are used to funnel passengers into heavy rail network and serve local needs. If Transit City wants to use trams for cross town service, it better be fast. Until the public sees how fast a tram can go, it will not win any one over. This is why Toronto must build at least one showcase line where a tram can operate at over 100 km/h between stops. This will even be faster than the Bombardier T1 Metro which tops out at 80 km/h. I also hope that station spacing will be between 1000 m to 1500 m, so that the trams do not stop as often like the Queen line.

    For the suburban Transit City Lines, we should spend the money and build proper infrusture to support it. 100% high floor trams running in a viaduct will be very similar to a metro line. People can board fast since the bogies will not restrict interior space. It can also hold many more passengers.

    As for the stupid metro expansions, we should make the Yonge line and University Line loop together. This way, future expansion will not be possible. If York region wants a metro, at least they can have a choice in technology be it ICTS, monorail or whatever they want. A continous loop line will also solve the capacity on Yonge. Running trains at 90 seconds interval become possible. A Bombardier rep once told me that linear induction motors can accelerate even faster. Maybe 60 seconds headways are possible on the loop line?

    Steve, out of curiousity, why don’t the province purchase a fleet of Shinkasen for the GO Lakeshore line? At least it is a proven technology. It will be a much better improvement than purchasing hydrogen trains.

    Steve: The question of fast acceleration with LIMs is irrelevant to subway operations as rotary motors are capable of acceleration (and deceleration for braking) beyond the limits that standing passengers can tolerate. This is a safety issue, not a technology issue.

    A 60 second headway is possible in theory provided that station dwell times are short, but the really big problem is station capacity. You need to be able to clear “train 1’s” passengers off of the platform before “train 2” arrives. This is a function of station layout, stairway and escalator capacity, and at junctions, the ability of connecting routes (BD) to absorb the much higher arrival rate of passengers at peak times. Also at very close headways, the slightest delay causes a huge backup immediately.


  3. Since it’s been brought up, as far as the Hydrogen powered train locomotive goes, does anybody grasp how much electrical energy is generated and used in a large modern diesel electric locomotive? Upwards of a megawatt. That’s a lot of fuel cell capacity which is going to eat through Hydrogen at a voracious pace. Where on a locomotive chassis is the kind of quantity of Hydrogen necessary for any decent running time going to be stored or do they intend to trail a couple of tanker cars behind the loco with its fuel supply?

    I’d like to see this project be dropped quickly, before large sums of money are wasted and the opportunity cost of forgoing other, more important and realistic projects is incurred. The money should be spent on electrifying the Go train system and on other important transit initiatives that can be accomplished within the realm of proven, available technology.


  4. I’ve performed some web research on hydrogen economy, and arrived to the following opinion. There are two ways of its use on GO train system, one is “smart”, another is “political”.

    “Smart” way: First, we just electrify major GO lines and produce electricity for them using conventional generators. It should be noted that although the thermo-chemical production of hydrogen is attained in experimental reactors, a host of technical problems has to be resolved before the technology becomes economically sound. In future, the technology might mature to the point when it really becomes more economical to use nuclear energy for hydrogen production than to power conventional generators. But in that case, we can convert hydrogen to electricity at stationary fuel cells, and send electricity to locomotives through the same wire.

    “Political” way: First, one creates a captive marked for hydrogen by investing public funds in the design of hydrogen-powered locomotives. Then, one confidently builds a semi-experimental thermo-hydrogen facility at a nuclear plant. Should the hydrogen come cheap as expected – great! Should the technology fail to live up to expectations and the hydrogen come quite a bit more expensive than advertised – too bad, taxpayers will foot the bill. Equipped with those new locomotives, GO will have to buy hydrogen anyway.


  5. Hi Steve,

    Two points from the Rapid Rail history I still wonder about:

    1) How did the Scarborough RT come to cost so much more than an LRT would on the same route (completely segregated from traffic anyway)? Is that just the cost of unique design (SRT and a few lines in other cities) versus mass production (streetcars)?

    2) Given that Mr. Miller campaigned heavily on transit issues during his first election, how come it took him more than a term to just announce “Transit City”? Had he moved earlier, the funding now allocated for Spadina subway extension could have created a few LRT lines already …

    Steve: The original Scarborough LRT line was to be at grade. This is shown in some of the illustrations linked from my post. Going elevated added the structure from the tunnel at Ellesmere to McCowan, and increased the cost of the stations a lot. The SRT vehicles cost far more than the CLRVs originally planned for the line, and of course, being so small, we needed a lot of them. The line is automated, and the ATC system (which has no equivalent in the LRT scheme) added to the cost.

    When Mayor Miller came to office, he spent a lot of time (too much, in my view) on consolidating his position and negotiating with Queen’s Park for the new City of Toronto Act. Much of the momentum and expectation built by his campaign was lost, and by the time of his re-election, a degree of cynicism had built up even among his supporters. I don’t think Miller would ever have opposed the Spadina Subway for political reasons both at Queen’s Park and at Council where, as we know, his majority can be tenuous. This was a battle simply not worth fighting. Remember too that we have yet to show people what LRT can do.

    The SRT is to be extended north, and I still believe that the TTC presented the LRT conversion option in the worst possible light. However, this is another of those political tradeoffs — Scarborough Councillors wanted a subway, but by keeping and extending their RT, the Transit City network (including a Sheppard LRT in place of a full subway) became a palatable scheme.


  6. Having known for many years just when the TTC decided to cancel their streetcar phaseout program, I’m still in the dark as to what year they adopted the phaseout program. I still think it was a shame that the Rogers Road and ultimately the Mount Pleasant lines weren’t spared.

    Steve: The decision was taken in the mid-50s around the time of the subway opening. At that point, the next subway was to be on Queen, and it would replace all of the downtown streetcar lines. The remainder would become bus or trolleybus lines.

    Mt. Pleasant was lost to the bridge project at Merton Street. With the line closed, riding redistributed itself to east-west routes on Eglinton, Davisville and St. Clair, and the trolleybus line never had anywhere near the riding of the streetcar. The long death of service cuts and lost ridership set in, and this line does not even have full service any more.

    Rogers Road died because the then Borough of York refused to pay for the repaving of the streets with streetcar tracks in them. Only the section between Old Weston and Keele was done with concreted track.


  7. Steve: In comment I think that Hydrogen may be able to power GOtrains . The best way to do that however would probably be using them as stationary power plants to feed an over head power supply as extra back up power to regular powerplants during rush hour.

    While hydrogen may be less dense fuel systems required may cause exccesive wearing of the track. An electric locomotive requires no fuel at all on the other hand, thus the fuel weighs nothing. If conventional over head were used using standard GO trains an electric locomotives it would be possible to greatly increase frequency of service during rush hour and the weight of the system would not be as great as a possible fuel cell locomotive of the same power requierment as an electric locos transformer system. I too think that hydrogen trains may come to pass on the other GO services.

    However both GO and Via’s main line should be electrified between at least Toronto and Montreal Ottawa by conventional means but perhaps the same stationary fuel cell plants could serve as fuel stops for hydrogen powered trains for other routes.

    Steve: The problem with this scenario is that there is no large supply of hydrogen just sitting there waiting to be turned into electricity. Hydrogen is commonly produced by using electricity to split water molecules, and in the process about half of the input energy is lost. Sending the power directly to the locomotive via overhead distribution is far preferable. Yes, there are some losses in transmission, but (a) they are tiny compared to losses in hydrogen conversion and (b) your proposal still requires that power be sent via overhead to the trains.


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