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?

18 thoughts on “Thirty-Nine

  1. Thanks for posting this, Steve. I share your sadness for what could have been and the constant “two steps forward, one step back (if we’re lucky)” dance.

    I do see encouraging signs in the fracturing of Ford’s support recently, the re-election (though weakened) of McGuinty, and Stintz’s adoption of TTC-defender speech patterns more and more. It’s not great, but I suggest these as life preservers for everyone’s morale.

    For those interested in helping make 2014 more satisfactory, I suggest keeping your eyes and ears peeled for opportunities to be involved. There are plans afoot to target specific wards, for example, with the goal of changing the balance of council. There are new challengers planning already for their 2014 campaigns. And there are always-improving communications channels (both public and private) to respond quickly to attack. See the #codeblueTO story, for example.

    Specifically for transit, do keep your eyes on #CodeRedTO. It’s quiet now, but that will change when needed. …I wonder how much a bat-signal shaped like a streetcar would cost…

    Steve: It was no accident when I noticed that 2014 (the next Toronto election for those who don’t know the significance) and “42” happened to work.


  2. I have been noticing buses showing up on streetcar routes more and more lately even on weekends. In the past year there have been switch “incidents” in a few spots on Spadina and most recently at Queen and Broadview and I have already brought up the disappearance of functioning priority signals previously. I was forced off a CLRV on a Saturday two weeks ago because it had to push the one in front. A few days later I saw another pair doing the shuffle while flanked by those white service trucks. The system is falling apart.


  3. A new municipal administration may not be the only change of government that rolls around in 2014; keep an eye on any by-elections, should any pop up, over the next little while. Interesting times ahead.


  4. Well, at least transit is becoming a priority now in Toronto. There are now more articles concerning transit issues, coming in from all the major newspapers in Toronto. The greatest way for good transit to go forward is for discussion to take place. For example, the Globe and Mail had an article on the Eglinton LRT and it garnered over 300 comments. People can’t petition government for good transit if they don’t know the issues.

    As always, the TTC is its own worst enemy as their lackluster rebuild of St. Clair created an image issue which may take decades to recover from. Had it gone with minor hitches and compromises, it may very well have paved the way for Transit City.

    Steve: One thing that does warm my heart after all these years is that the level of transit literacy in Toronto, including in the media, is much better than a decade or more ago.


  5. Steve said:

    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?


    It was no accident when I noticed that 2014 (the next Toronto election for those who don’t know the significance) and “42″ happened to work.

    Perhaps it really is no accident. After all, the Ultimate Question of Life, Universe and Everything is “how many roads must a man walk down?” … perhaps we could change that to “How many roads must a streetcar run down?” … and “run down” works here, considering the state of our streetcars and our streetcar network.

    I certainly hope that Torontonians will soon come to their senses regarding public transport – especially streetcars and LRT – having tried everything else.

    While that lost decade for public transport will eventually become a lost generation, maybe that will be end.

    Regards, Moaz


  6. 2014? … who knows, but anyone who lived through the 60s/70s will tell you that streetcars were not held in particularly high regard in Toronto back then either. To the general riding public, the PCCs were noisy, bumpy, and crumbling ancient relics, compared to the then new sleek and modern GM fishbowl buses, and the shiny new aluminum cars on the Bloor subway. If anything, in Toronto, streetcars are more favored now than they ever were.

    I actually think Streetcars for Toronto got lucky. When the Bloor line opened, we lost more of the streetcar network than we had to, yet nobody complained. The only complaints I recall were the lack of escalators on BD, the merchants on the Danforth who lost business, and those idiotic forced holdups at the wye, which at times, made the subway seem even slower than the streetcar line it replaced.

    But, I still think the CLRVs are unfairly maligned. Wait till those new suckers that stretch from here to kingdom-come start derailing … then you’ll see “CLRVs For Toronto” form. The CLRVs always gave us a smooth floating-on-air ride, and I will miss them. I doubt the new low-floors can provide as smooth a ride.


  7. Steve said: “One thing that does warm my heart after all these years is that the level of transit literacy in Toronto, including in the media, is much better than a decade or more ago.”

    A great deal of this improvement is due to you, thanks!


  8. On the issue of smoothness of rides, others have ridden other low-floor trams in other parts of the world, claiming their rides aren’t very smooth. I wonder if it’s because those Low-floor trams don’t have axles.


  9. Get a CLRV on some decent track and you’re riding on a cloud.! The ALRV’s aren’t as good. When the LRV car from Minnesota was on dispay in Dundas square a TTC engineer told me there were complaints about the CLRV’s from people getting sea sick. Go figure!


  10. I expect a return to Transit City in 2014.

    The Sheppard Subway will be extended to Victoria Park (a better terminus anyways) and the central section of Eglinton will be dug out. We will see LRT extending outwards from all of these ends.


  11. I think that there are are several reasons that our streetcar network is not held in particularly high regard today compared to the past:

    – Traffic congestion. Congestion in the downtown core has become a serious problem, slowing the streetcar network downtown to a crawl and decreasing reliability. Add in all the construction projects and special events which cause streetcar diversions practically all the time, and it becomes much easier to take the subway and a bus instead of the streetcars (or drive on DVP/Gardiner).

    – Urban sprawl. The GTA has grown enormously, and travel distances have grown but our transit network has not kept up with this. Streetcars (particularly downtown) are a very slow method of transportation compared to subways, the GO train, most suburban bus routes or driving on the highway even in heavy traffic. When Toronto was much smaller this was less of an issue but with the GTA’s growth, slow downtown streetcars are not adequate for long distances.

    Steve: The slowness is primarily caused by traffic conditions and riding demand downtown. I agree that “streetcars” wouldn’t work for long trips, but that’s a separate issue relating to the whole LRT/subway debate and the question of how much road space we will give up for transit priority.

    – Population growth in or near downtown. We have built huge numbers of new condos and office towers in the last 50 years downtown but no new subways downtown since the 1960s. Go to the Liberty Village or Humber River/Gardiner area where dozens and dozens of new condos have been built with no infrastructure improvements which has resulted in jam packed 501/504 streetcars and heavy traffic congestion.

    Steve: The TTC is to blame here for not providing enough service. The “we have no cars” argument might be credible (although it shows terrible planning) for peak service, but off-peak there is no car shortage, only a lack of will to operate the service.

    You also neglect to mention the effect of parking and loading, a growing scourge on major streets even during peak periods.

    We desperately need to transform the main GO routes (Lakeshore, Milton, Georgetown) into a subway-like frequent train service in order to relieve the streetcar system downtown and reduce crowding on the existing subway and Gardiner/DVP congestion. Undoubtedly this will cost billions and require a costly tunnel through downtown but it is urgently needed.

    Also I have doubts about whether surface LRT is adequate for suburban routes like Eglinton and Sheppard. Although much cheaper than tunneling or elevated construction surface LRT is slow, low capacity and stops at red lights. Highway 401 carries huge traffic volumes (through Toronto each section carries about 300000-400000 vehicles a day) and is severely congested, relief is badly needed. Surface LRT is not capable of carrying more than a small fraction of this traffic and the lack of a one seat ride on Sheppard would have deterred ridership. LRT works well for low demand routes like St. Clair and in Kitchener and Hamilton, but not on routes that are supposed to provide an alternative to driving on the busiest highway in North America. (On Eglinton between Don Mills and Kennedy, even though there will probably be not much traffic originating there because it is mostly big box stores, I suspect there will be lots of through traffic from Scarborough and bus transfer traffic and that surface LRT in that section would create a bottleneck).


  12. They really should do an overhaul on ALL of the CLRVs and ALRVs so as to insure that there’s plenty of service to be had while these new LFLRVs go through all the teething that I see them having to go through. I seriously doubt that they’ll be much better than the present cars.


  13. Jacob Louy said, “…others have ridden other low-floor trams in other parts of the world, claiming their rides aren’t very smooth.”

    That can vary by vehicle type. Last time I was in Melbourne, I found that the Combino trams (by Siemens) gave a somewhat smooth ride, while the Citadis trams (by Alstom) seemed to amplify every bump – in both feeling and sound.

    At the same time, I found that the Combinos seemed to have a seating arrangement that made it rather tight and awkward to move in, mainly at the entrance closest to the operator. The Citadis trams seemed to promote easier movement at all entrances.

    Having ridden Bombardier Flexities in both Minneapolis and Croydon (London), I found them not too bad in terms of both smoothness of ride and ease of moving through them.


  14. I’ll never forget my first CLRV trip. I was totally blown away at the smoothness of the ride. After that, I never wanted to step foot inside a PCC rattlebox again. The new cars can’t provide that kind of ride — they’re just too close to the ground — no suspension.

    I’ll also never forget when Peter Gross, a reporter at CityTV, got under a PCC back then and broke off a rusted piece of the car with his bare hands!


  15. On a dedicated right of way, the PCC cars were baby bullets. They spring into high gear from a standing start like nobody’s business. They outperform CLRVs, no contest. As for smoothness of ride, I find this difference to be marginal. PCCs had a little rattling, I don’t dispute this (seen/heard it with my own eyes/ears), but people don’t say “I won’t ride the subway because I can’t distinguish the T1 brakes from the banshee,” they ride it, because it’s convenient and does the job (moving people swiftly) effectively. The PCCs, in their hey day, also did their job effectively, and in a dedicated right of way still outperform a CLRV.


  16. Karl Junkin said:

    people don’t say “I won’t ride the subway because I can’t distinguish the T1 brakes from the banshee,” they ride it, because it’s convenient and does the job (moving people swiftly) effectively.

    It’s not just the T1’s — the noise between Spadina–St.George–Museum and St. Andrew–Union–King on the YUS line can be terrible to hear if you are having a bad day. Imagine, the average passenger is listening to that noise … and riding the TTC even with that noise … day and night, 200 days a year (or more).

    I wonder if we could keep some of the CLRVs for other purposes, and maybe just once close Queensway and the cross-streets and send a CLRV flying through the Queensway LRT segment at top speed. Maybe for a movie shoot? A new version of Speed?

    Cheers, Moaz

    Steve: Many years ago, before the signals and speed restrictions on The Queensway turned an LRT into a crawlway, I rode a Peter Witt car at top speed that managed to get from the top of the hill at the Humber River to Parkside Drive while hitting all the lights and never having to slow down. It was about 4 am.


  17. I am now considering a letter to my Councillor (ward 35 ) ( CC’d to appropriate others on council) to push for the original design for the Eglinton line, especially given the complications and added cost (time & money) putting the entire line underground. It’s unfortunate that the experience with St Clair is continually held as the example of why these lines should be buried. In my mind the Spadina line is a better example (and it’s far from perfect) as that is an example of a new LRT line (even if historically it was really a return of streetcars on that line). Indeed, that stretch of Spadina is comparable in width to the Sheppard east of VP and the sections of Eglinton where the LRT was originally to run at grade, but (even better) without on-street parking.

    Of course in 2014 the TTC would still say it’s 39 (you’re always 39 ). I’d not like to wait until 2014 to see improvements to transit in the GTA.



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