The SRT As It Might Have Been

John F. Bromley sent me a photo of a new LRT line running through a commercial development.

Look familiar?  Can you say Scarborough Town Centre?

The photo is from June 1972.  The cars were the first in Europe to be air conditioned.

This shows the kind of thing done with LRT in Europe even before the TTC reversed its anti-streetcar policy, about the time Queen’s Park decided that we needed an “intermediate capacity” system midway between buses and subways, and before the TTC collaborated with Queen’s Park in destroying an LRT plan that could have been built 40 years ago.

7 thoughts on “The SRT As It Might Have Been

  1. Oh what could have been.

    Makes me sad to see the mistakes we have come to realize today, and yet in some ways, I can’t help feeling that we still fall down the same path.


  2. I suppose if the Scarborough line was built in the early 70s, that’s what would have been built, but it was the early 80s — hi-tech was all the rage, and the RT was seen as futuristic back then. Even if it were built using streetcars, I doubt it would have been extended in semi ROWs. If they won’t do that now with the extension, what makes you think they’d have done it back then? And if Georgie has his way, it’ll be a subway, although I don’t know how he’ll pull it off.

    Steve: Remember that in the 70s, much of northeast Scarborough was farmland. The study for the Malvern LRT extension (yes LRT!) includes aerial photos showing the alignment going through largely vacant land. The idea was to get a rapid transit connection out to new development, but it never happened because extending the ICTS line was just too expensive.


  3. The existence of the Scarborough RT is not entirely the TTC’s fault. My understanding of the story is that the TTC wanted to build a streetcar line in Scarborough but the Province came along with ICTS technology. They needed a showcase line to advertise and sell their new technology so they offered to pay for the entire project if the TTC went ICTS instead of streetcar.

    This must have put the TTC in a bad position. If they said no, they would alienate the province and anger the public. Many Scarborough residents and councilors have always wanted subways and at the time ICTS technology appeared to be the next best thing.

    The technology used on the Scarborough line used in question is only a small part of the problem. A more profound error was to build the line along the CN line right of way. This takes the rapid transit service off of major arteries such as Kennedy and Ellesmere and places it in the middle of nowhere making it difficult for commuters to get to the train (unless a bus takes you to the station). This created a problem where very few people used the Midland, Ellesmere and McCowan stations because they were not very accessible.

    Metrolinx and the TTC appear to be repeating the same mistake again. They plan on rebuilding the line along the CN right of way off of major roadways. If and when the line is rebuilt Scarborough will have another shiny new LRT line but with some of the same problems. Some may argue that the ITCS technology itself is the problem with the current Scarborough RT line. I disagree since the same technology is used successfully for the Vancouver SkyTrain, JFK AirTrain, and in Kuala Lumpur.

    Steve: The TTC made little effort to counter the Queen’s Park proposal and actually aided in the changeover. Originally, the LRT line would have gone through STC at grade, much like the photo shown here. A story was cooked up by the TTC that only a grade-separated line was suitable because otherwise the land south of the line would be cut off from the north side. The LRT line “ate” the fight over changing to an elevated structure, something Scarboro really didn’t like but accepted as a necessary evil. This meant that an ICTS line was competing against an already-elevated LRT and didn’t have to justify the less-favoured structure.

    Queen’s Park picked up the cost premium for ICTS, originally estimated at a bit under $100m but eventually growing to around $150m, and the TTC has been stuck with the unreliable technology ever since. It does not do well in cold weather, something that is not a problem in Kuala Lumpur, and usually not in Vancouver (although their recent snowy winter was quite another story).

    Your remark about the right-of-way is also interesting. The original LRT scheme was to follow the old Canadian Northern right-of-way on a diagonal path to STC, but this was changed to use the CN line plus the elevated along Highland Creek to avoid noise complaints from houses built close to the abandoned rail line. The SRT has some develoment near stations, but not at the level one would expect to support a rapid transit line. Some of it, such as the condos at STC, is quite recent.


  4. Steve says: “The idea was to get a rapid transit connection out to new development, but it never happened because extending the ICTS line was just too expensive.”

    This sounds very like the “Transit First” idea that the City and Waterfront Toronto kept talking about when waterfront development was at an earlier stage. Of course, the Corus building will be occupied in a month or so, long before the Waterfront East line on Queen’s Quay is built, and I doubt that this line and the link to Union Station will even be built by the time the new George Brown building is finished – despite the fact that the land was transferred to Waterfront Toronto on condition that the line must be up and running by 2012. The Cherry Street line was also supposed to be finished, in 2010 I think, but not much sign of this being built yet, though in this case the residents who are to use it are not there yet either.


  5. I wonder how the future would be changed if an LRT line was built instead of the ICTS…

    Steve: The extension to Malvern would have opened two decades ago, at least, and we would probably have more LRT lines in the city. ICTS “proved” that there was no alternative to subways because “the alternative” cost just as much and delivered far less.


  6. Steve: The extension to Malvern would have opened two decades ago, at least, and we would probably have more LRT lines in the city. ICTS “proved” that there was no alternative to subways because “the alternative” cost just as much and delivered far less.

    It’s just so weird to me, as someone from Vancouver, that ICTS tech is considered such a monumental failure here in Toronto when it’s the backbone of the Lower Mainland’s transit system and most people adore it. Maybe if it hadn’t been so butchered by making it a manual system?

    Steve: I was in Vancouver when Skytrain was brand new, and several friends of mine worked on the system. One of the most important things they did was to take control of the project away from the UTDC, and to concentrate on operating a robust line fulling using the technology. The Expo shuttle service was particularly impressive fitting in, on an already close headway, a separate service linking the two sites.

    From the day the line opened, Skytrain collected detailed operating data and actually analyzed it (they were producing graphs of operations from their system from Day 1 that were the direct inspiration, years later, for the route analyses I have done on the TTC). There was a commitment to making operations work better, not sitting back and watching the trains.

    However, a major problem in Toronto has been reliability of the cars and the computer systems. They are extremely vulnerable to bad weather which causes ice buildup on the power rails and the reaction rail. The power interruptions cause spikes that give the computer systems heart failure. Computer equipment out on the line doesn’t work well in cold weather. When the wind is high, it snows inside the trains because the doors don’t seal properly. A standard procedure in snowstorms, if the trains are moving at all, is to have staff with small hockey sticks (!!) at the terminals to sweep the snow out of the door channels so that the doors won’t jam.

    The manual operation is the only thing that saved the line under those circumstances because someone was on board to switch over to manual, get on the radio to the control centre, and drive the train at least to a station where passengers could get off. If we had Vancouver’s balmy weather, the SRT would have been much more of a success, albeit still vastly more expensive than the LRT line originally proposed for the corridor.


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