Why Streetcars?

Tom Jurenka sent in the following note, and it raises questions that deserve a debate.

Hello Steve

As a non-native Torontonian (grew up in Winnipeg, but have lived in Toronto for 24 years now) I have always been puzzled — and often infuriated — by streetcars (and the absolutely terrible traffic light timing in Toronto, but that is another story).

My question is an honest one — WHY? All I can see is the negatives of streetcars:

  • they tear up streets (I’ve lived through Queen Street E, Gerrard, now St. Clair, being torn up utterly to undo the damage of streetcars pounding the rails)
  • they are slow as molasses (as a bicyclist, I routinely pass 5 or 6 streetcars on Queen Street heading from AC Harris to downtown)
  • because of their slowness and immobility they delay traffic all the time, causing snarls and the attendant idling pollution
  • they are super expensive (witness the recent funding mess)

So I’m really curious why streetcars are a better alternative to trolley buses or just plain old buses, which move fast, are mobile, and are less expensive per unit to buy. Would you be able to point me at some links/articles/studies/whatever to help me understand this issue?

Thank you for your time.

Best regards,

Tom Jurenka

This is a far more complex question than just the list above, but I will use this as a jumping off point.


Without question, track construction is a major pain in the ass for affected neighbourhoods.  We are now nearing the end of a long program to correct the combined effect of short-sighted TTC practices in track construction and design flaws in the CLRV fleet.  Once that’s done, the frequency of track construction, especially on the grand scale we have seen for the past eight years or so, will diminish and along with it the associated disruption and capital cost.

This is an object lesson in the perils of bad design and the long-range effects of poor choices.

Until the late 1960s, TTC track was built from continuously welded sections of rail, and this was installed in the street in a manner that made it fairly easy to dig up and make repairs.  The welded rail holds together much longer and does not produce vibrations at the joints that lead to breakup of the pavement.  In 1968, after a derailment accident with one of the two crane cars used to perform track installation, this practice stopped.  At that time, the TTC’s policy was that streetcars would be gone by 1980, and there was no point in building track that would last for decades.

This decision, however, was compounded by a change in road paving standards imposed by the city primarily to increase roads’ structural capacity for trucking.  All pavement around streetcar tracks was built of concrete slabs with no mechanical isolation from the track.  The vibration of passing streetcars and the effect of the unwelded joints led to concrete deterioration around the rails.  Salt water seeped into the trackbed, and the common freeze-thaw problem further broke up the pavement.

When the TTC had decided to keep streetcars, track construction standards did not revert back to the old, more robust welded arrangement, and it was claimed that the concrete would hold the rails in place.  This short-sighted stance was compounded when the new streetcars arrived.  They were about 25% heavier than the PCC cars, mainly because they had been designed for high-speed suburban operation that they would never actually see.  Moreover, the wheels on the cars were particularly good at transmitting low frequency vibrations into the ground, and this accelerated the demise of the track.  That problem has since been fixed with the use of new wheels, but we are stuck with the weight.

Fast forward to the early 1990s.  By this time, the track infrastructure was badly deteriorated through inferior construction and vibration from the newer fleet, and the TTC had to roughly double the rate at which it replaced track.  Roadbeds that should have lasted 25 years were wearing out in about 10.  They are now using a construction technique with welded rail and mechanical isolation of the track from the roadbed.  Moreover, the substructure uses steel ties, rather than the untreated wood used since sometime in the 1970s.  This means that the track bed will not disintegrate as the ties rot underneath it.  Finally, all recent construction has gone right down to the base slab, and the lower layers of the structure should last a very long time with future track replacement limited to the upper part of the structure.

Just as we reach that point, the City has begun a program to rebuild its antique watermain system and this has complicated and lengthened the period during which streets are under construction (Roncesvalles and Church as examples).  On St. Clair, leaving aside basic design issues, the decision to rebuild just about everything — water, hydro, streetcar track, roads — sounded like a good idea.  Do it once and get it over with.  However, in practice there were many problems with co-ordination of the projects and arbitrary changes by individual agencies that cascaded through the overall plan.  The design and tendering process was done in such a way that work did not begin as promtly as it might in some areas, and jobs that should have finished in one construction season dragged into two.

The streetcar, as a vehicle, is taking the rap for many atrocious decisions of past TTC management and poor contract co-ordination by the City.  On top of this, the St. Clair project suffered from one major problem:  many competing interests wanted their priorities reflected in the design, but there simply isn’t enough room on St. Clair to fit everything in.  Some design decisions resulted in precious space being lost, and political decisions favoured priorities for motorists over pedestrians.

In brief, the TTC decided to retain streetcars in 1972, but its track construction, if anything, deteriorated over the following decades.  Couple that with heavier cars and a bad initial choice of wheels and you have a recipe for a self-destructing system.  Stir in a decision to perform “co-ordinated” repairs by many agencies and you have never-ending construction projects.

Slow Streetcars on Queen

Some aspects of streetcar operation are going to be inherently slower than road traffic because transit vehicles must stop to load passengers.  However, this is compounded by several TTC operating practices.

  • Queen runs with larger cars, but at most stops all loading is done through the front doors.  This underutilizes the space within the car and substantially increases the time spent at stops.  This problem will not be corrected until the new cars are in operation with all-door loading and self-service fare collection.
  • At all intersections with switches, the TTC now has a stop-and-proceed policy for facing point switches.  This prevents cars from quickly pulling away from stops and, on occasion, even results in cars getting just far enough to trip the sensor for the “transit priority” signal and turn the light red against the streetcar (which is assumed to have crossed the intersection).  Why stop-and-proceed?  When the ALRVs (the long cars on Queen) were delivered, the TTC had to change the way in which electric switches were controlled to a system that would work for any vehicle length.  This new system has never worked properly, and to guard against derailments, operators must approach any switch prepared to stop in case it leaps open in front of them.  This also happens at manual switches where only a transit poltergeist could force the switch to move.  There is a capital project to replace the switching systems, but it has not actually started yet.
  • On Queen, one of the ways that the TTC has attempted to deal with short turns and service reliability is to pad the schedule with recovery time.  However, at some times of the day the running times are grossly excessive and cars must kill time to avoid getting ahead of schedule.  The TTC has a policy of fining operators for running “hot” even when it is impossible to avoid this because the schedule deliberately has extra time.  This is a classic case of conflicting priorities.  Streetcars are quite capable of sprightly operation.  A move from schedule-based line management to headway-based management would help a lot in this area.  Cars would be able to move at whatever the prevailing traffic speed is provided that they maintain a regular spacing from each other.

You mentioned traffic signal timings.  Toronto has a self-image as a world leader in transit priority signalling.  If this is true, then the rest of the world must have little postcards of Toronto intersections sitting on altars for worship by frustrated traffic engineers.  I think not.

There are a number of problems with “transit priority signals” in Toronto including:

  • There is no mechanism for interaction between operators and the signals.  A car can arrive at an intersection where a large crowd is waiting to board, but the traffic light will hold green for the streetcar to speed it away.  There is a good chance that this process will time out, and the signal will turn red against the streetcar just when it needs a green.  This is time that could have been used for the cross-street.  Once an operator signals that departure is imminent (the crowd is nearly all boarded), the signals should clear for the cross-street(s) as far as the next stop (see next point).
  • Many intersections do not work ideally for transit vehicles because detection for an oncoming car is too close to the signal.  This can happen where signalized cross-streets are close together and some of them don’t have transit stops.  The system should control minor streets based on the progression of green time for streetcars from locations where there are stops, not on a block-by-block basis.
  • At farside stops (Spadina, Harbourfront, St. Clair, etc.), streetcars can be forced to stop twice because they arrive at an intersection on a red cycle and must wait for the following left turn phase before finally crossing to the transit island.  On Harbourfront, there is a separate transit cycle and streetcars cannot use the green time for through traffic.  The cycle is only long enough for one streetcar to cross even though pairs of cars are common during heavy service periods.
  • At a few locations, notably crossings of Lake Shore Boulevard, the green time for east-west traffic is exceptionally long even though there are times when no traffic can be seen.  This is an example of a system that is incapable of analysing actual conditions and adjusting priorities accordingly.

All of these problems would be visited on buses were they to replace streetcars.  The problem is with traffic engineering that is not transit focussed, putting it generously.  The priority is for maximising the green time available for cars together with a “trickle down” claim that if cars move faster, so will transit.  The TTC complains about this all of the time, but refuses to publicly advance alternatives during design discussions such as St. Clair.  Effectively, the TTC is complicit by its lack of open advocacy for better signalling practices.

Cost of Vehicles

Vehicle costs need to be compared in light of capacity, lifespan and operating expenses.

The new streetcars have a base price just under $5-million.  For this we get a car that should last at least 30 years and be rebuildable for another 10 to 15.  The vehicle capacity is claimed to be 240 by Bombardier, but I remain skeptical that this can be achieved under normal operating conditions.  By contrast, the design capacity for scheduling purposes of an ALRV is 108 compared with a crush capacity of around 150.  The new cars, with all-door loading will achieve a better use of space, but I suspect their capacity for planning purposes will be around 150.  By contrast, the capacity of a bus is about 50 for scheduling purposes.  For a subway car, the design capacity is about 167 (1,000 per train) although the crush load is about 200.

Diesel buses cost the TTC about $500K each based on an order for delivery in 2010, and hybrids cost about $932K each based on the current order.  I will not comment on the relative merits of propulsion technologies or political choices of one over the other as that is outside of my scope here.  We can hope that hybrids will become relatively cheaper and of course there are some savings, but not as much as expected, in fuel costs to offset the higher capital cost.

As a matter of interest, back when Streetcars For Toronto argued for streetcar retention back in 1972, the relative cost of a new streetcar and a new bus was much lower than it is today, even allowing for the much larger size of the new cars.  Today, a new streetcar represents roughly 3 buses on a planned capacity basis.  The cost per “planning” space on a streetcar is $33,300, on a hybrid bus is $18,600 and on a diesel bus is $10,000.  However, the streetcar will last at least twice as long as a bus and will have lower operating costs per passenger.  The operator driving a bus is one of the most expensive components of that transit service.

The figures above are quite rough and are not corrected for inflationary effects of deliveries in different time frames.  They are meant to give a general indication only, not a definitive answer.

Line Capacity

When the City decided to keep its streetcars in 1972, demand on the streetcar lines was better than today in most cases.  Part of the change can be traced to changes in demographics, land use and travel patterns.  However, much  blame rests with the TTC.

Starting in 1980, “excess” capacity was tuned out of the system — “tailoring service to meet demand” was the catchphrase from a former TTC Planning Manager.  This is the best sort of accounting exercise that ignores the real effect of trimming the so-called fat.

Transit routes encounter all sorts of upheavals, and it is impractical to schedule service based on every bus or streetcar having a full load.  Even within a peak hour, there will be a super-peak which the service tries to accommodate.  The less “excess”, the more likely any overload from traffic congestion or variations in demand (something as simple as whether or not vehicles meet at heavy transfer points) will affect service leading to delays, short turns and overcrowding.

The link between service levels and riding on the streetcar routes is a chicken-and-egg question to some extent, but one thing is clear.  Where service dropped markedly through the combined effect of service cuts and wider headways for ALRVs (Bathurst and Queen routes), riding fell.  Where service stayed roughly the same (King) riding held.

In the future, the downtown lines will have to cope with growing riding if only there is service good enough to attract it.  The population along streetcar routes will rise and, with it, demand on those routes.

I have written previously on the decline in service on major routes both as an update to Transit’s Lost Decade, a review of service and ridership since 1976 and a look at that old TTC slogan Always A Car In Sight taking things right back to the mid-50s when the Yonge Subway opened.

Recent changes in the Service Standards, part of the Ridership Growth Strategy, have lowered the design targets for vehicles resulting in more service.  However, there are two big caveats:  there must be enough vehicles and operators to actually field the service, and the budget must have enough funding to pay for it.  Streetcars are in short supply, and as readers will see when I review the September 2009 service changes, so are buses.  We have riders, we even have the political will to pay for more service, up to a point, but we have no more vehicles.

Taking King as an example, the AM peak headway gets down to 2’00”.  The design capacity is, roughly, 23 CLRVs at 74 plus 7 ALRVs at 108 for a total of 2,464.  Providing this with buses would require almost 50 vehicles per hour, a service frequency low enough that it would add considerably to congestion due to platooning.  This frequency is possible on some suburban routes only because the streets are wider and there is mixed local and express operation.

By comparison, the Dufferin bus operates on an old-style 4-lane city street, and provides under 1,200 passengers per hour of design capacity.  Buses there commonly run in packs and the capacity is not evenly utilized.

New neighbourhoods in the Waterfront are designed with the premise that most commuters will use the TTC, and projected demands are at and above those now seen on the heaviest parts of the streetcar system.  These cannot be met with buses even with a move to articulated vehicles, assuming reliable, long-lived versions of these can be found.

The streetcar routes need more capacity, but operation with buses would limit what the TTC could provide.  As lands along these routes redevelop, transit capacity must also rise or we will have the absurd situation of forcing people to drive cars in the very part of Toronto where it should be easiest for them to use transit.  The absence of good service has a cost too, although it may not appear on the TTC’s balance sheet.


This article is not intended as a definitive argument for streetcars, but an overview of major issues.  In 1972, Toronto saved its streetcar system, but then did little to reinforce that decision with better service and system expansion.  We waited almost two decades just for the Harbourfront shuttle, and a quarter-century for the restoration of service on Spadina.  Suburban expansion was completely off of the table.

Times change.  I won’t really believe that Transit City exists until I can ride the lines and see new cars brimming with happy riders, but it’s a goal the city finally has pursued.

100 thoughts on “Why Streetcars?

  1. Thank you David Arthur, I stand corrected.

    However, the concerns for operating DDs in a very wintry climate still stand. Then again, so does operating low-floor artics.


  2. There is another point in the streetcars’ favour that has nothing to do with economics, the environment, priority signalling, far-side stopping, etc. and that’s passenger comfort. More than 10 minutes on a jerky bus in stop-and-go traffic is enough to make me wanna toss my cookies. A ride on a streetcar is much smoother and a more enjoyable experience. When we’re talking about providing good quality transit service, the quality of the ride itself has to be considered alongside price of fare, headways, etc. There, I’ve said it, I’d rather ride a streetcar over a bus any day — and I don’t think I’m alone.

    Steve: And the seats (almost) all face forward too, although this may change depending on the layout of the new cars.


  3. Steve: Dufferin would make a very nice artic trolley bus route at considerably lower cost.

    I thought, at one time long ago, Dufferin was considered, but the logistics of overhead on Wilson through CFB Downsview was a problem.

    Steve: Yes, just another of those annoyances we have to live with because otherwise this route should have been converted long ago. Instead we got CNG.

    I am sure the a number of north-south routes in the north-west quadrant (Dufferin, Bathurst, Keele) would make cost-efficient trolley-bus routes. To my untrained eye, I would have thought legacy streetcar routes would work better in the “old corridor” of downtown, or at least south of Bloor-Danforth, such as Coxwell, Bay and even Ossington. I can’t understand why the legacy streetcar is looked at as being urban-unfriendly by the powers that be (an attitude that I think also influenced the design of the CLRV). The streetcar is the very definition of urban. Just look at the two components of the word itself. People and urban friendly (so is the word tram, btw.)

    Steve: Bathurst and Keele were two others in the list proposed by Streetcars for Toronto. Coxwell was a heavier line (this has been discussed elsewhere) before the BD subway opened, but the station is not designed in a way that would make streetcar access simple. If we are going to spend on track, etc., we need to concentrate on heavier routes. Bay also used to be quite busy, but its traffic patterns have shifted. Part of this was due to service cuts, and it’s much more heavily used at the north end. Service to the docks is now primarily via streetcar. Ossington is made up of parts of old streetcar routes (Dovercourt and Oakwood), but only runs about 13 buses per hour for a design capacity of 650.


  4. Again, neiter GO or MegaBus seem to be having any difficulty with DDs. They don’t seem like a great idea for local service, but to say they have some inherrent problem in our climate just isn’t true.


  5. James Mallon snarks:
    “Thank you for minimising the safety of 10% of downtown’s population, not to mention people with reduced mobility whose canes or wheelchairs do get caught in them. It’s fine to be a streetcar-zealot – whatever floats your boat – but the fact is their implementation in Toronto is always going to be worse than their absence.”

    James, as someone who has ridden on Queen west plenty of times, I don’t happen to think that replacing streetcars with buses will automatically make the street safer. It may even make it less safe, as the buses move unpredicably between centre and curb lanes, unlike streetcars which generally stay on their tracks.

    As for people with canes or wheelchairs getting “caught” in streetcar tracks, that strikes me as hyperbole. Streetcar tracks are the least issue the mobility-impaired have to deal with on a downtown street.


  6. Steven dS: I’m with you — I think streetcars are a much more comfortable ride (especially after sitting at the back of an Orion express bus on Eastern earlier this week — blech). However, my cousin adores the express bus and hates streetcars — they make her carsick. Go figure.


  7. David Cavlovic: Of course you can dream. Every one of us who has any interest in transit has our dreams of what should be. I must admit that all the ideas of yours that I’ve read are DAMN good ones. But I still see zero chance of trolley busses ever coming back unless someone can get a Streetcars For Toronto-like pressure group going. In view of the present garbage strike, was there by any chance a garbage strike back when the decision to rid Toronto of TBs was made? There must have been because that decision should have gone out with the trash!

    Steve: As I have written here before, TBs were not sexy “new” technology, unlike CNG buses, to which technocrats and selected members of the private sector could hitch their future. TTC management wanted rid of them, and theirs was a marriage of convenience with others who stood to gain from an inside track on this new “green” technology. We know where that got us.


  8. Steve, you answered my question by avoiding it I hate to say.

    First point – streetcars need rails, buses dont.
    Second/Third point – streetcars are slower than buses if not in a right of way.
    Fourth point – this one you’ve addressed.

    The question – as I read it – was why streetcars and not buses. The answer – as I read it – was that toronto does not know how to do streetcars.

    Steve: I don’t agree, but am not going to belabour the point.


  9. I’m not an expert on “modal splits” but, if I recall, bicycles have closer to 1% of the total, rather than 10%. Also, as a percentage of a smaller absolute number, there are far more rude, ignorant and dangerous cyclists than there are car drivers. It is rare to see a cyclist who stops at Red Lights, rarer to see them stop at Stop signs and almost never do I see a cyclist stop for streetcar doors and passengers entering and exiting. Please don’t inundate me with replies about specific ignorant drivers – I know there are many of them. However as a percentage they are less prominent than ignorant cyclists.

    Steve: The Transportation Tomorrow Survey does not subdivide walking and cycling trips in its summary reports, but for the peak period into the core area, the total of both is under 10%. On a 24-hour basis, the number is under 20%. This information could be misleading because it does not deal with the trips on specific corridors that might be more heavily used by cyclists. However, I think that it is fair to say simply by observation of any street that pedestrians outnumber cyclists by a wide margin even within heavy cycling areas such as the University of Toronto.


  10. Can you just imagine a doubledecker on the Yonge night bus? It would be absolutely wild on the top level. They’d likely have to steam clean and sterilize it after the run came back to the garage.


  11. Nick, you missed part of the answer. It’s not ONLY that Toronto doesn’t know how to do streetcars, but that those things are only true BECAUSE Toronto doesn’t know how to do streetcars.

    Except the track thing that is, and you never actually said what is supposed to be so terrible about tracks.


  12. A lot of people believe that streetcars slow down traffic, but I think it’s the other way around. Simply look at what is achieved when a streetcar services a stop. It’s like an advanced green for traffic coming the opposite direction. No oncoming traffic, so left turns can be made, freeing up thru-flowing traffic. Sure, the direction travelling with the streetcar may get held up, but they move at a steady pace as it is, and when they do stop, there’s a good chance it’s at a red light.

    Now look at the stand point if buses were in place instead. Sure, they could pull over and cars could pass. Introduce that one left-turning vehicle and you’ve blocked all traffic, and there’s no streetcar coming the other way to block traffic by loading to provide that previously-mentioned “advanced green effect”. And there is no guarantee with the bus that it will make it entirely into the curb lane around parked cars to free up the left lane. Now you’ve still blocked traffic, all because of some parked cars who don’t want to follow the rules of “no standing” and “no stopping”. With a streetcar, you can offload/load with passengers walking between parked cars fairly safely. Sure you’re blocking traffic, but it would be little difference from a normal situation had those cars been parked properly.

    And let’s not even start with winter. Bus may not even chance getting into a bus stop, and may just settle for the through lane to avoid getting stuck. Now you’re providing a risk to passengers having to deal with a potentially slushy, sometimes traversed “bus bay” to get to a bus which may still get stuck in the snow. Last time I checked, streetcars don’t get stuck easily, and they’re a lot easier to navigate in the snow too (no sliding side-to-side, no dodging poorly parked cars, no guess work in steering). Sure there is the downfall of a parked car fouling the tracks, but that’s minor in comparison I think, especially with one of the newer trials of having a Parking Enforcement officer riding with a TTC supervisor.

    And when it comes to speed, being a bus driver, I think that in any weather, as long as you are dealing with the same conditions whether it be bus or streetcar, the streetcar could go faster. If you’re dealing with a narrow roadway (let’s say Queen with lots of parked cars), all the streetcar operator has to check is how close those cars are to the edge of the concrete rail pad. That is his/her measurement stick, and they can sail along until they notice one obstacle a little too close well in advance. Whereas in bus, your judgement is based between oncoming traffic, the parked cars, and how up-to-date and accurate the city has been with painting lines. Sometimes they can’t be found, and because you are introducing a horizontal variance in your alignment, I would be hard pressed to be tearing across Queen in a bus like I have witnessed some streetcars do with ease! If I only have about 1-2 feet of clearance on either side to work with, I’m going to be taking my time to make sure I don’t make it 0 (or even -1) feet of clearance. So to be honest, I think streetcars will win for speed in congested areas … ROW or not! And even if you make it a ROW, buses still can’t go as fast … we run a risk of taking mirrors out on those closely-spaced centre poles along St Clair!

    When it’s all said and done, and you look back on it, it really does make sense (in a non-direct, “really got to think about it” way) that streetcars can improve traffic flow. It’s just a shame that we lost so many routes through the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s to urban expansion and shifting demographics. One might never know how much better traffic in this city could be flowing on a daily basis!


  13. There is also a social issue. Dublin’s experience after the LUAS light rail system was implemented using new 70%LF LRVs was that some people converted from driving who would not have used the bus under any service circumstances.

    It does help from a service perspective and for integrating with the existing urban fabric that LUAS seems to be able to operate as an near-ROW simply by painting “TRAM LANE” on the road in the city centre rather than erecting a concrete barrier/step along the entire street, or giving up and operating in mixed traffic. In Ireland, private vehicles are only permitted to enter a tram line to pass another, not to use it as a travel lane.



  14. They painted lines on the St. Clair Avenue West tracks several years. As expected, they were ignored by most drivers.

    Raised right-of-ways also have experienced drivers who would ignore the curbs and drive onto them.


  15. Thank you Josh – this is the kind of answer I had expected from Steve. I myself have come to accept that streetcars running in mixed traffic will be a reality in Toronto for at least the next decade or two, but many have yet to come to that acceptance.

    Steve: My impression, Nick, was that you were disagreeing with what I wrote, rather than asking for more. Josh added some good comments about the behaviour of streetcars and buses in traffic.

    Something that people often say is “buses are so much faster”. Well, they usually see buses on streetcar routes during construction when the buses are trying to make whatever time they can rather than dragging their ass to stay on time to padded schedules. Again it’s a “how Toronto does streetcars” problem, but it shows up in the perception by some that if we just got rid of them, things would be so much better.


  16. One technology that has been woefully missed–AGAIN–in this stream of discussion is Swan technology. There is one very major drawback, akin to CNG and hybrid-power: Swan Flu.

    It had to be said….


  17. One problem with the streetcar tracks are with bicycles. They should be crossed at a 90° angle, else you may wipe out with the bicycle tires being deflected by the tracks. See http://sf.streetsblog.org/2009/07/24/eyes-on-the-street-when-bicyclists-get-derailed-by-streetcar-tracks/#more-11951 where Toronto is mentioned:

    “In Toronto, where bicyclists also have to contend with a maze of tracks, several at-grade railroad crossings are equipped with a rubber flange filler that is jammed down into the cracks of trolley tracks. The rubber is firm enough that it doesn’t compress when a bike passes over it, but when a streetcar comes it squishes down and doesn’t cause the train to derail.

    The material is not used for Toronto’s extensive network of streetcar tracks in the city’s core, however, and bikes routinely get caught in the tracks.”

    Steve: An interesting idea, but not one we can retrofit to the system overnight. Does anyone have examples of where this technology is used elsewhere in the world, preferably somewhere with lots of snow, ice and salt.


  18. Getting back to trolley busses I just read something on the internet the other day which almost makes me think that TBs must be getting “sexy” to the Quebec MOT. It seems that not only do they seem to support the Laval TB scheme but want other transit systems in that province to at least look at TBs. By the way, what happened to that fuel cell bus experiment in Vancouver? I remember an ABC news reporter putting a water glass up to the tail pipe and getting it full of water.

    Steve: Fuel cell buses technology just does not scale up to urban buses. The fundamental problem is that the amount of energy to move a bus around all day needs to be obtained from a high-density storage medium (diesel fuel) or from a offboard power source (trolley overhead).

    If you look at Translink’s site, you will see that the fleet plans do not include this technology, although Hybrid Buses are being tested. Indeed, if you root around a bit, you will find reports that talk about converting the fuel cell demonstation vehicles to hybrids.


  19. @David – the move from Quebec to electrification of heavy rail, electric light rail and TBs is coming in part due to heavy support from Hydro-Quebec. If Ontario was running a consistent hydro surplus our hydro companies might be offering similar support.


  20. Trolley buses in Laval??? Really???

    C’est le beau temp pour les sociétés des transports communautaires en Québec.


  21. Steve,

    Re: That comment about an all hybrid bus

    It’s true, a bus powered by a full electric drive (plug in, where bus receives power, then a small diesel engine (if the battery happens to run out) is currently in the research and development phase at Orion.

    Re: Artic Buses being out of service

    In Mississauga this has proven to not be true, our fleet of articulated buses are in service 6-7 days a week (recently, management or dispatch has decided not to use artics on Sundays). MT was actually planning not to buy artics the last time around in 2007, but ended up anyways. We also have 22 more artics on order for 2010, so that says something about how we like artics. It’s too bad NFI and the TTC haven’t been able to work anything out, although, Orion’s proposed artic model (The Citaro brought over from Europe) is also in the testing stage at Orion.


  22. Re: Artics:

    MAYBE, just MAYBE they have an unduly negative reputation. But what do you expect when you have a City Council such as the one in Ottawa (oh PLEASE give us back our Transit Commission) that decided to order artics with a 4-cylinder engine, because they thought it would save money!!! I just found out from a driver recently that they have all been — quietly — upgraded to 6 cylinders.


  23. The rubber flanges are used on the cycle path east of the Don Roadway where the path crosses the train tracks. Even here, where there are VERY few trains and the path is not plowed in winter, the rubber seems to get out of alignment so I seriously doubt it could be used on a real street with frequent streetcars (even if running in packs!) and where the area is also plowed in winter.


  24. Re: double-deck buses and trams… Blackpool (NW England) has double-deck trams. Any takers?

    (Yes, that system does primarily serve tourists, but about 30% of its ridership is from local trips)


  25. I assume that the weekend Globe article “Boulevard of broken dreams”


    contains more-or-less the truth:

    “Apart from numerous other delays, the real time-waster since then has been the squabbles between utility companies and the Toronto Transit Commission over who has first dibs on tearing up our roads, and driving us nuts.”

    but somehow winds up implicating Transit City and not the urban-street-makeover mavens for the quagmire on St. Clair.

    Steve: Yes, but since there is also supposed to be street makovers on parts of the transit city lines, the opportunity for screw-ups on them abounds.


  26. RE: Artics

    – Anyone know how York Region’s fancy blue Belgian artics are holding up? It would be a shame to have their rapid-ways useless if the things started breaking down in a few years.


  27. J,

    The fleet of Van Hool artics has been holding up quite well, given the nature of service that are subjected to. However, the pain with Van Hool artics is getting parts, and for that reason, after 2011 when the contract with Van Hool runs out YRT/VIVA is likely to go to another supplier, very likely a North American Bus Builder.


  28. Thanks Ryan. From your answer, I get the impression they are leased? If N. American bus mfg’s haven’t figured out how to build an artic by now, I am not holding my breath for 2011. Any insider details about Orion’s model?

    I’m quite nostalgic for the days of the old artics that ran along 39 Finch E … unreliable (especially getting up the hills around Don Mills during winter), but quite fun to ride. That being said, Transit City Phase II would look rather impressive with a new artic fleet.


  29. I don’t see your capacity numbers – in terms of capital and cost – being valid. If we look at real world figures:

    1. TTC Buses (based on 4th Quarter 2008 figures from an APTA report)

    Weekday bus trips: 1,250 K
    Bus fleet: 1350

    Gives==> 926 rides/vehicle/day

    2. Transit City (projections)

    Yearly rides: 175 million
    Divide by 300 to get average weekday ridership ==> 583 k / day
    Planned Transit City LRV fleet 364 – ( based on the option being given to Bombardier )

    Gives==> 1602 rider/vehicle/day

    So the Transit City LRV is to provide from 1.73 x the service that the current buses do:

    So let’s look at the capital cost – I’ll just use a flat line depreciation for simplicity’s sake:

    $550 k / 15 years gives = $36.7 k per year

    Scale up by 1.73 ==> $63.5 k / year

    LRV (assuming more standard than the customized version being purchased for the downtown routes) $5 million / 30 years = $167 k / year

    This means that the each LRV incurs $104.5 K per year in capital more than the buses needed for similar service.

    Now let’s look a maintenance costs. I have figures from a few years back showing (2001 I think):

    Total maintenance for streetcars per year: $60 million

    Gives ==> $242 k / year per vehicle (based on 248)

    Total maintenance for buses : $120 million

    Gives ==> $86 k per bus per year (based on 1400)

    Scale up the $86 k by 1.73 ==> $148 k / year

    So – each LRV (based on the experience with the current fleet) costs $92 k more per year than the equivalent buses.

    So extra yearly costs for LRV

    Capital $104.5 k
    Maintenance $92K

    Total (*) $206.5 k

    Which is enough to pay the the bus driver for the 0.73 bus (@ $35 / hour) [ 206,500 / .73 / $35 ] about 8,000 hours a year.

    In reality, the bus is cheaper – giving the commission left over money to run other services.

    Steve: Your methodology is completely out to lunch. First off, you cannot count raw trips and equate them to vehicle usage. Some trips are very long, some very short, and this depends on the route (short routes cannot have long trips, long routes can have “local” as well as “long haul” users). Also, some routes have trips more concentrated in peak periods while others have them spread over the day.

    The comparison I am talking about is vehicle capacity which is affected by peak demand and also by trip length on the affected routes. The more long trips that are taken, the greater likelihood that they will overlap and contribute to peak capacity requirements. You are using a multiplier of 1.73 when the actual ratio of peak capacities is at least 3:1. At that point, using your methodology (with which I don’t agree one bit) much of the differential vanishes. The vehicle will be in service for more than one shift per day, and you have to pay multiple operators for multiple shifts if you break up the LRV capacity into buses. The replacement ratio varies by time of day and relative design loads for service periods.

    Current policies lead us to use something a tad more expensive than $550K diesel buses, but I won’t drag that into the argument.

    Streetcar maintenance costs are overstated because the fleet is unreliable. However, you cannot just scale up based on vehicle size because some systems still only exist once per car (controls and propulsion). Moreover current technology is a lot better than what’s in the CLRV/ALRV fleet which was already cranky by 2001.

    Most importantly, you have also ignored the question of whether it would be physically possible to handle projected TC route demands with buses. As demands on routes go up, so does the requirement for infrastructure of which the subway is the most extreme example. The justification for building LRT in the first place rests on the demands being above the level buses can handle but well below what can justify a subway.


  30. J,

    No, the VIVA buses are not leased. YRT has a contract with Van Hool from 2005 (when VIVA was launched) in which it allows them to buy any vehicles until 2011 at the same price as the 2005 buses. However, when that contract is up, YRT is likely to switch to another supplier to supply them with VIVA buses.


  31. Great analysis, Steve…

    What are your thoughts on expanding the the streetcar network in the downtown area (south of Eglinton)?

    I can think of some busy bus routes (ie, Dufferin) that would seem to make sense to implement, or even some routes that would help improve connectivity and provide other travel route options (ie, having Dundas streetcars continue north from Dundas West station up to the Junction and beyond)…

    I often find it frustrating that there are so many east-west streetcar route choices for riders (King/Queen/Dudnas/College), but very few north-south routes (Bathurst/Spadina)…are there some logical route choices that could help improve the travel options for riders?

    I think there is a real need to “fill in the gaps” in the streetcar network to help improve ridership. Transit City won’t have much impact to the more “downtown” areas where sigificant population growth is also expected.

    Steve: Adding streetcars in place of existing bus routes opens up a number of issues and problems. First, the neighbourhoods through which the lines would travel don’t now (and may never have had) streetcars and their associated infrastructure. If we’re going to make that significant a change, it needs to do more than fill in lines on a map, it must make a real contribution to the transit service.

    The TTC has fallen in love with the idea of restricting auto traffic on streetcar routes as an alternative to simply running better service. In some limited cases, this approach is possible if the street in question has mainly local traffic demand and the neighbourhood can absorb the overall change in capacity. All of the candidate north-south streets are only four lanes wide, and this means they would be streetcar routes, not mini-LRT with reserved lanes.

    The current service level on Dufferin (May 2009, AM peak period) is 2’37”, or about 23 buses/hour. That’s a design capacity of 1,150. Converted to CLRV, that would be 15.5 cars/hour, to ALRV would be 10.6 cars/hour, to new streetcars would be about 8 cars/hour. This is slightly less than the current service on the Queen car (11.6 ALRVs/hour AM peak). By comparison, the peak service on King is about 2,400 per hour. We can expect demand on Queen to pick up with redevelopments along the line if the TTC ever starts running more frequent and reliable service there.

    Ossington was a trolley coach route, parts of which used to be the Dovercourt streetcar (which ran for a time for one very short block on Dufferin Street). It has even less service than Dufferin, and is not blessed with a route that would be easy to convert to streetcar operation.

    Other north-south candidates have problems due to the layout of the road system which is discontinuous at or not far north of Bloor/Danforth. None of them has the demand or existing level of service needed to justify streetcar implementation.

    The next likely “north-south” route will be on Cherry Street south from King as part of the Waterfront East service. At this point, we don’t know where such a route will go — west into downtown via King, east and north to Broadview Station, or even both. Arguments can be made either way. Demand and service on that route will be determined by the buildup of residential development in the East Bayfront and West Don Lands.


  32. On Dufferin, 23 buses per hour gives far better service than 8 new streetcars per hour.

    Better service on Queen can be provided by …. BUSES!

    There would be fewer short-turns and shorter waits. Why can’t you all see that?!

    Steve: The problem on Queen is that there should have been far more streetcars for a far longer time, but the TTC has managed to drive away ridership with poor service. The issue on that route now is to get better service to build confidence and ridership. By the way, when I looked at Dufferin, it had many of the same problems with bunching and irregular headways as Queen. It’s a rare visit to that route when I don’t see the buses running in pairs or triplets.

    The streetcar network has been systematically starved for service for nearly two decades as a way of dealing with the declining reliability of the fleet.


  33. The reason service on Queen sucks is because it’s a streetcar line. Yes, streetcars are better than buses in theory, but that’s irrelevant. It’s the TTC’s implementation of them that counts.

    I can bet my life that if the TTC removed all streetcars from Queen and ran a six-month trial of bus operation (at 1.5 buses per CLRV), service would improve and ridership would increase. This is the way the route should have been operated since 1980. As a bus route, there would have been no equipment shortages on the line.

    Think of all the possibilities … limited-stop express service could be offered from the Beaches and South Etobicoke — something that streetcars simply can’t do. Short turns could occur anywhere. Even with bunching, more buses would mean shorter waits from the rider’s perspective. Gaps would also be shorter.

    Streetcars for Toronto put us in this mess. If the streetcars had been dropped as planned, the routes would have been operated as buses. If the buses could not have handled the loads (as you have suggested in the past), then the planned Queen subway would have followed after Spadina opened in ’78.

    Steve: Thanks for your vote of confidence. Why you bother to read this blog, I don’t know. Maybe you should start your own.

    The Queen Subway was killed off by an alliance between Mel (North York Is The Centre Of Everything) Lastman who wanted an emphasis on subways serving his realm, and Jack Layton who wanted to choke development downtown by stopping all future subway construction there. This didn’t work because GO picked up the slack and happily ferried commuters from the 905 into the core area.

    Meanwhile, had we lost the streetcar system, people on Queen and other routes would, by now, have endured 30 years of noisy, smelly buses stuck in traffic, and we might have such wonders as an ICTS line wrapped around the front of Union Station as proposed in the 1995 study for the DRL.

    As for the TTC implementation of streetcars being the problem, doesn’t that suggest the real issue is with how the TTC runs its system (and the bus routes while we’re at it)?


  34. I invite anyone who would like to convert from streetcars to buses to stand on Parliament St. somewhere between Carlton and Gerrard and watch the 506 and the 65 go by.

    The 506 is quieter and much more pleasant. Hearing it pull away from a stop, compared to the 65, is apples and oranges. Can you imagine the echoing roar of 50 buses per hour going down the concrete canyon downtown? Hybrids or trolleybuses would be better, but then you start losing any cost argument that may have been there.

    If I had to choose, I would pick living right next to a streetcar line (well, I do now!) over living right next to a bus line anytime.

    I also find riding the streetcar more pleasant. The acceleration takes a little getting used to, but not getting thrown around as the bus pulls over to curb is worth it.

    Also, a scientific sample of one: I bike and I have no issues with the tracks. I wiped out exactly once: it was raining, I was going fast, and attempted a left turn with slightly imperfect control of the bike; I can’t blame anyone but myself for that. I was apprehensive of the tracks at first, having heard the stories, but since then I’ve crossed them at angles well under 30* and even done stupid stuff like bike in right lane across a grand union without holding onto the bars with no ill effects. Maybe it’s just my “mountain” tires that are unusually fat, but…


  35. No — if the streetcars had been dropped, east-west service south of Bloor would be better than it is today. It could not be any worse.

    Facts are facts. Other than tradition, what is the operational rationale or justification of operating Bathurst (south of Bloor) as a streetcar line and splitting the route, while Dufferin operates as a continuous bus route? Both serve the Ex and ridership levels on both could be served by buses.

    The abandonment of the streetcar network and the Queen St. subway were invariably linked. Whether you want to admit this or not, although their intentions were good, Streetcars For Toronto unknowingly set in motion a chain of events that led to a worsening of service on Queen and King. Of course they couldn’t have known what was going to happen with the CLRVs and track problems, etc. etc., but regrettably, it’s the truth.

    Steve: And so you are saying that because we have incompetent transit management, we have to settle for that in planning and operating our system? What a wonderful way for a “world class city” to behave. I may be willing to meet you part way in saying that the TTC doesn’t know how to operate streetcars in an environment where there isn’t enough service on the street to support their way of doing things, but that doesn’t justify changing the mode.

    Just ask riders of the Dufferin Bus how much crap they have to put up with. Just look at how much so-called transit signal priority we have that doesn’t work to benefit transit. Just look at how long the TTC persists in tinkering with the Queen car without acknowledging that the amalgamation of the 501 and 507 never worked properly. Just look at how long the vehicle monitoring system operated with an antique method of vehicle location highly prone to error. Just look at how long “traffic congestion” was the catch-all reason behind both irregular service and the supposed inability to do anything about it, and when that argument failed, it became “TTC culture”.

    These are failures of management. David Gunn addressed maintenance, but his operational heart was in modes that have exclusive rights-of-way and he never really addressed surface ops.


  36. If M. Briganti is right that streetcars are a waste of time, how come so many cities want them back? His arguments remind me of Sam Cass–40 years ago!
    And, if he was really paying attention, he would have noticed that overall service levels on all vehicle types, with the possible exception of subways, has dropped considerably.

    “Always a vehicle in sight” was a reality at least until the 1980’s. When I attended Lawrence Park Collegiate in the 70’s and 80’s, I was living at Lawrence and Mt. Pleasant (all right! I was LAZY, and took the bus to school!). In the morning, I had a choice between the 11 BAYVIEW and the 28B DAVISVILLE VIA SUNNYBROOK. Both routes ran a very frequent service. In rarely had to wait more than 4 minutes for a bus (and I could time it by humming in my mind the final Rondo movement from W.A. Mozart’s “Gran Partita” Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments in B-flat Major, K. 361. My “memory” performance was the winds of the Berlin Phil., conducted by Karl Böhm, a great performance issued by DG and still avail…oops, off topic!).

    Steve: Readers of this blog have wide-ranging tastes, although there’s other Mozart I prefer to that Serenade.

    When a bus showed up, it was full, but not unboardable. The reverse journey home from Lawrence & Chatsworth would find a number of 52 LAWRENCE buses on two or more branches heading back to the subway.

    Those levels do not exist today, no way, no how. Only a handful of long cross-town routes come close to these service levels. And the damage was done, to make a long story short, by trying to cram more people onto fewer vehicles with wider headways, and the artics, both streetcar and bus, did not help.

    Even in the 80’s, I can remember ALWAYS seeing a streetcar on Queen. Everywhere on Queen. Hell, I could even attend a a movie at the Fox at night and be home at Lawrence and Mt. Pleasant in a little over 70 minutes! No Joke! Since there was always a streetcar, the speedy journey (man those PCCs could move!) to Yonge was unbelieveable.

    You could not accomplish that today, not because streetcars can’t compete with buses, but because the service levels, no matter what, are crap. AND, I’ve done that trip on a bus! In the 90’s during track replacement, there were buses that replaced streetcars. Since the buses are smaller, AND the number of buses used was already reduced (in an era when there was a severe vehicle shortage), there was no way the bus could make it in the length of time the streetcar could between the Beaches and Yonge St, even late at night.

    Steve, you may have a “bias” for streetcars, but you are not partisan, and neither are most of the readers on this site. We recognize that not every vehicle type of technology is perfect for every single service need (with the exception of Swan Boats, and they are operatic in nature anyhow). But I fail to see what M. Briganti is trying to accomplish with his recent tirade. Now, I don’t have all the statistical knowledge that Steve does, nor can I cite chapter and verse of studies for or against streetcars. Neither can you, Mr. Briganti. Not the way Steve can. If you have the statistical proof, and the factual proof that buses are superior to streetcars in every single way, let’s see it.

    End of rant …

    Steve: To be fair to M. Briganti, the argument is that streetcars don’t work in Toronto because the TTC will always screw them up, not that they are inherently bad. Maybe every TTC user should find some European city that is a transit nirvanna and move there. The TTC would go bankrupt, the motorists would have the streets to themselves, and we would all be blissfully ignorant riding our trams through foreign streets.


  37. Finally my point got through!

    The PCCs in the 1960s worked because we had so many of them. Canada did not quite achieve the same level of economic prosperity the US experienced in the 1950s and 60s, and as a result, car ownership up here was lower. That translated into higher transit usage and streets (such as King and Queen) that were nowhere near as congested with auto traffic as they are today. Also, the opening of the Gardiner in the 60s significantly reduced automobile traffic on King and Queen to the point where the streetcars functioned much better (even though they still blocked two lanes while servicing every stop). Under those conditions, streetcars outperfomed buses.

    But, things changed, and so did the TTC’s attitude. The TTC never ran the PCCs longer than everyone else because they sincerely thought the cars were superior to buses. They did so because they were able to buy them slightly used at bargain basement prices from other “progressive” transit properties that were dumping their streetcar fleets at the time.

    Fast-forward to now, and you’ll see that we haven’t learned from our mistakes. Everyone keeps stating how streetcars are better than buses because they provide a smoother ride. Correction — the CLRVs with their air suspension provide a “floating on air” smooth ride. The PCCs, even on the smoothest track, were always earthquake rattle boxes. And what about the new low-floor cars? They can never be as smooth as the CLRVs. When we lose the current fleet, this advantage will be gone.

    Next problem — reduction in fleet size. I have no problem with the TTC replacing the CLRVs and ALRVs on a 1:1 basis with new cars, but that’s not what they’re doing. This reduction in fleet size can only result in service that is worse, not better, than what we have now. As long as the TTC uses the number of seats that pass a given spot on a route per hour to set service frequencies, larger streetcars will result in poorer service. Longer streetcars are also much more difficult to pass, and so that reduces road capacity as more motorists get “stuck” behind them.


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