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”.