Thirty-Nine

Thirty-nine years ago, the TTC made its historic decision to retain streetcars in Toronto.  At the time service on streetcar routes was considerably more frequent than today, and Torontonians generally thought kindly of that mode.

Over the years, it has been an uphill struggle to maintain this.  Service cuts on the TTC led to fleet reductions, and improvements we should have seen go unfilled thanks to the too-small fleet of unreliable cars.

We have been through one generation of “new” streetcars, and it’s hard to believe that these are now due for retirement.  The CLRVs (regular sized cars) are over 30 years old and although they may physically be capable of continued operation and body rebuilds, their ancient electronics are a challenge.  The ALRVs (two-section cars) are a bit younger, but still elderly.

Ongoing debates about the type of car that would replace Toronto’s fleet and, indeed, whether 100 of the CLRVs would receive a major overhaul including new control systems, delayed the replacement process.  This delay would be merely annoying had control of the Mayor’s office and Council stayed with a streetcar and transit friendly administration, but we’re now in an era where the streetcars are tolerated, not celebrated.

A mockup of the next generation of Toronto cars, Bombardier’s Flexity, goes on display next weekend at Hillcrest Shops.  Design delays, not to mention political foot-dragging, have this project running at least a year late.  Meanwhile, construction of the new carhouse and maintenance facility at Ashbridges Bay has not progressed beyond site preparation.

When the Streetcars for Toronto Committee (of which I was a member) advocated for streetcars, this was not just for the nostalgia of seeing rails in Toronto’s streets.  “Light Rapid Transit” (LRT), a then-modern-sounding pseudonym for streetcars on reserved rights-of-way, could have brought an inexpensive network of suburban routes long before the suburbs as we now know them were built.  Not until the Transit City plan, decades later, did we have an administration that took this concept seriously.  Transit City had its flaws, but these pale beside the madness of an all-underground alternative foisted on Toronto by Mayor Ford and Premier McGuinty.

Engineering challenges may force a rethink for Eglinton’s valley crossings at the Don River and other locations, but these will come grudgingly and the original surface alignment is at best “on the back burner” until less hostile forces occupy City Hall.

The rest of Transit City is so far in the background that even the name has been expunged from official use except as a slur against the Miller years.

Day-to-day transit service is under attack from City budget cuts and Provincial underfunding.  Toronto’s recent history of strong ridership may continue only by an accident of high energy prices and traffic congestion, not from an active plan to serve growing demand and population.

This is really not where I had hoped to see our transit system by now.

The 40th anniversary will come in 2012 when transit will still be fighting for its life politically and financially in Toronto.  We should have been celebrating a renaissance.

Readers of Douglas Adams will know that “42” is the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe and Everything”.  What will 2014 bring?