The Spadina Streetcar Turns 20 (Part I)

On Sunday, July 27, 1997, the new 510 Spadina streetcar route replaced the venerable 77 Spadina bus. This conversion was over two decades in the making.

Back in 1973, fresh from the political victory of saving the streetcar system from its planned retirement in 1980 [when the Queen subway would open (!)], the Streetcars for Toronto Committee (SFTC) proposed that the Spadina route be converted back to streetcar operation.

The Spadina streetcar was abandoned in 1948 with the retirement of the small fleet of double-ended cars serving it (there were no loops, only crossovers at Bloor and south of King), although track between Harbord and Dundas remained in use until 1966 by the Harbord car.

It is intriguing to look back at the rationale we of the SFTC had for this conversion at the time:

  1. Provide the basis for future rapid transit needs between Metro Centre and the Bloor and Spadina subways.
  2. Provide more comfortable transit service now with increased interior vehicle space, elimination of lane changing, and reduction of vibration, noise and air pollution within vehicles.
  3. Provide a basis for comparing the light rapid transit mode of intermediate capacity rapid transit with a test “guideway” mode being constructed at the Canadian National Exhibition.
  4. Release needed buses for suburban service by replacing them with currently surplus streetcars.

We were rather optimistic, and hoped that service could be operating by 1974. Of course this assumed that a lot of the existing infrastructure would be recycled, the loop at Bloor would be on the surface, not underground.

At the time, there was a proposal for a large commercial development on the Railway Lands known as “Metro Centre”, although it never came to be in the form originally planned. The area is now full of condos (and the Dome), but they came much later.

As for “intermediate capacity rapid transit”, the guideway under construction at the CNE grounds never amounted to more than a few foundations for support pillars and the loss of some trees. The development project for what would eventually become the Scarborough RT technology was killed off before the test track could be built. Meanwhile, Queen’s Park had mused about using their technology on streets like Spadina, but were careful to provide illustrations showing the guideway from a distance in front of open space, not the massive infrastructure that would be needed at stations for tracks, platforms and vertical access. There was another problem: the province’s recommended design would have stations no closer than about 1 km apart, a huge difference from the bus service with many local stops.

The idea received approval in principle, but quickly ran aground for various reasons including the unsuitability of Clarence Square for the south end loop (SFTC had proposed looping at Adelaide via Charlotte and King with buses continuing to serve the then-industrial port area). The TTC wanted the streetcars to match the existing bus route which looped around the square. At the north end, a surface loop was not practical because of land constraints.

A decade later, the scheme resurfaced as part of the Harbourfront redevelopment, although only the Queens Quay service was built initially opening in 1990. This created the track connection from King to Queens Quay as well as a loop at the foot of Spadina that the original western end of the Harbourfront line. (Track was added on Queens Quay from Spadina to Bathurst in 2000.)

Further north, some merchants objected to the road changes a streetcar would bring including the reduction of parking (changing from angle to parallel parking), and the barrier effect of a streetcar right-of-way that would, it was claimed, prevent garment racks from being moved across the street between businesses. (This was a fictional recreation of New York’s garment district as the City demonstrated by conducting a survey to count this “traffic”. There was none.)

Thanks to the TTC’s presentation of the streetcar as a rapid transit line to the pending development south of King, there were fewer stops on their proposed route than were eventually built. (For the record, the SFTC proposal included all of the stops that were in the final version.) Combined with a curbed right-of-way, this was seen as a move creating a “Berlin Wall” down the middle of the street. As a result the original design had no curbs in some locations leading to many collisions with errant motorists, and the curbs appeared as a retrofit. Today, ironically, the streetcar right-of-way acts as a refuge for jaywalking across Spadina, a dubious and dangerous practice before the streetcar’s return.

This article is a photo gallery of the line’s construction. In a second installment, I will present a gallery of the line in operation.

In these photos, what is so striking is how little many parts of Spadina have changed and the low-rise street character is much the same today as it was in the 1990s, although change is spreading north from the condo district at King.

For more on the history of streetcars on Spadina, see Transit Toronto.

Track Technology

When the original track was laid for Spadina, the TTC had only recently adopted its “Retrac” design for surface tangent (straight) track. This was a huge improvement over previous installations including:

  • A robust concrete base slab.
  • Steel cross ties that would not rot and create voids within the concrete.
  • Permanent attachment points in the ties for Pandrol clips in the top layer of the structure.
  • A rubber sleeve around the rail to limit vibration of the pavement.
  • Continuously welded rail without joints with the familiar (da-dum, da-dum) as each car passed and, thereby, without points of vibration that would prematurely shatter nearby concrete.
  • A structure that allows rail replacement by removing only the top layer while the supporting layers remain in the street.

After over two decades, almost the entire TTC system now uses this type of track.

In the many views of intersections below, the track construction is the “old” way of doing things. Intersections were rebuilt a bit at a time, sometimes with service still operating through parts of them. Ties were laid out on the concrete slab, and the entire intersection was assembled piece-by-piece on site. There was no rubber sleeve around the track, and none of the special work castings were welded together.

It would be another decade before the TTC began building intersections as they do today with rubberized castings, and even longer before intersections would arrive in panels on trailers as they commonly do now. (See recent posts on the Dundas/Victoria and Dundas/Parliament intersections for views of current construction techniques.) The assembly used in the early 1990s caused intersections to fall apart prematurely, and required Spadina junctions to be rebuilt when it had seen only about 15 years of service.

The Spadina project was noteworthy on another account: in a short time the TTC created three “grand unions” at the intersections of King & Bathurst, King & Spadina and Queen & Spadina. These are rare junctions where every move is possible, and Toronto has three in walking distance of each other.

 

The Northern Terminal

 

Spadina Circle

 

College Street

 

Dundas Street

 

Queen Street

 

King Street

 

12 thoughts on “The Spadina Streetcar Turns 20 (Part I)

  1. The 2000 year you mention as the opening of the Harbourfront line was 1990, right? 2000 was when the Bathurst-Spadina QQ connection was made.

    It’s quite something to see the King-Spadina intersection with so few curves, and no through Spadina tracks.

    You don’t have any photos of the Spadina-Adelaide intersection? Would love to see it pre-construction. I’m trying to recall if they already knew they were going to do the Charlotte loop when they constructed the line. I know the loop came in 1999.

    Steve: If I recall, Adelaide was not built with any special work until the loop was added. I don’t have any photos there which suggests nothing special was going on at the time.

    Thanks for the 1990 catch. I will fix the article.

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  2. Happy 20th birthday. The three grand unions are not exactly a positive. Every time a tram crosses those junctions, it has to stop and proceed. This takes up a lot of time or traffic light cycle. This line could be faster without rules.

    The Spadina line is frequent and usually on time. The only issue is that it is very slow. It should be considered a success in Toronto. After all, the trams on King do not come that often to the point where there is always a tram in sight. Since it has its own right of way, the running time is relatively consistent. If there is a way to speed up the service, tram technology would be easier to promote.

    The design of the line is also relatively pleasing. Having tree lined right of away and trees along the street are quite nice. The only issue is the lack of cycle lanes. Using sharrows on a busy street is not exactly safe. Looking at non bus transit built in this century, they all incorporate cycle lanes as a way to reduce private auto usage.

    Steve: There was talk of cycling, but it was a hard enough fight to get the transit corridor and the space freed up from angle parking. Also, given the way Spadina is used by merchants (deliveries, etc), keeping a bike lane clear would have been a challenge.

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  3. My how time flies. Hard to believe it’s been 20 years since streetcar service returned to Spadina. The Shuffle Demons made the #77 famous with what is among my favourite of their songs “Spadina Bus” but I will admit the return of trams was a big improvement.

    Phil (the former “cyclist from Scarborough”)

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  4. Indeed, the Spadina streetcar line is a very pleasing ride, if not a bit slower than it should be. But the way they are handling operations at Spadina Station is ridiculous. Almost every time I ride the line, the streetcar is stuck waiting in the tunnel while the car in front unloads its passengers, and continues waiting while the car in front moves up (not far enough) to load the next set of passengers. A quick, no-cost fix would be to have the first car move slightly past the end of the platform, not open the front doors, and have passengers load on the remaining sets of doors. This would allow space for the trailing car to pull in for disembarking passengers. When you factor in the somewhat slow operating speed along the route, along with the 60-90 seconds (at least) of wasted time in the tunnel, it doesn’t leave a very good impression.

    Steve: The degree to which TTC operations misses basic points like this puts the “greatest transit system in N America” moniker in some doubt.

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  5. There were vary narrow cycling “lanes”, but they weren’t wide enough to be considered safe, so they where replaced with the sharrows. Even with how narrow it was, I felt safer cycling in the lanes over the sharrows.

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  6. Faced with real pressure of a renoviction, (though there’s litigation about who actually should own the building), I dug through my old Spirit of Spadina file drawer. While sure, we could have done a Curitiba-style busway perhaps, the steel wheels are pretty good, though still suffering from how left-turning cars have a priority. The real shame is not providing for safe cycling – oh, they couldn’t find the room…. And we couldn’t think of having some of the wide sidewalk given to a bit of safer cycling in a more European design. We prefer privatizing enough parts of that rather wide sidewalk, including the less-legal usages at Dundas/Spadina, instead of cycling safety, and there have been two true tragedies of cycling deaths on Spadina in those 20 years from a too-narrow curb travel lane. One can’t make a shattered family sue, and money won’t bring back James McMillan, and more recently a younger woman. Having a safe bike ride isn’t good for the bottom line of the TTC however, yet many of us are risking it because…. And all hail the cyclist from Scarborough, where the City has almost completely failed to do very much at all of the 2001 Bike Plan, at least the on-road stuff, which would be peanut$ (c. 6M) to do a good enough painted line network vs. billions for a suspect subway extension. It’s either an aversion to planning or car-first selfishness. Or perhaps both.

    And the sharrows aren’t or weren’t very good, and there are still hazardous pinch points at the entry and exits of the Circle, complete with pavement problems. Putting down the $200 bike symbols is also too much to do it seems, right?

    Steve: The attitude about cycling on Spadina at the time was that cyclists should be on nearby roads notably the Beverley/St. George route. As for Curitiba, the scale of the street holding its busway is much wider than Spadina. I’m really tired of a very site-specific implementation there being touted as if it has broad application.

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  7. I seem to recall the late “Grandstand Jack” Layton organizing meetings objecting to this plan. Notice you said that the crossing of the street was “fiction”. Very interesting.

    Steve: Layton’s objection was to the TTC’s plan to focus the line on getting quickly to the proposed “Metro Centre” development at the railway lands at the expense of existing neighbourhoods and users along the way. He was working on several fronts to attempt to limit downtown’s growth and force new development into the suburbs. The Spadina streetcar was mischaracterized as a larger scale train that would plow down the road and create a barrier to all crossings, not just to garment racks.

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  8. What I’ve always been curious about is why the loop at Spadina was put underground. I know that originally they wanted to put the loop at subway platform level before eventually settling on the mezzanine level. I understand why the Union Station loop is underground but just how necessary a loop is at Spadina is something I’ve never totally understood.

    Steve: One proposal that the TTC drew up was in the vacant lot north of the station where the Spadina line curves to the east to connect in with the upper level tracks at St. George. This would have been a tight and small loop with less platform space than what was built. It would share with Union Loop the problem of being entirely on a curve with the resulting problems of swingout clearance and difficult platform operations. A loop where the existing bus loop is would have very tight curves and would put the turn into the loop just north of the intersection. It was bad enough with buses (have a look any time the streetcars are replaced), and would have made queueing problems at Broadview and Dundas West look trivial, especially with the longer cars.

    Underground gives more platform space although the TTC does not always use it as well as it might.

    I’m not sure why they wanted to go down to subway level originally given that this just adds a vertical level change that is avoided by using the mezzanine, but the problem with a deep loop was that it was dodgy with adjacent buildings to go that deep and they thought better of the idea.

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  9. Is there any talk of extending the platform at Spadina somehow to allow two Flexes in the station at once. Ie One loading and one unloading. It would really speed things up there if they could do that as it is they sometime back up in the tunnel.

    Steve: They don’t need to extend the platform, only change the way that they use the existing one such as by pulling the first door of a loading car past the platform (it is a half-width door anyhow) and boarding through the other three.

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  10. One thing worth noting but I’ve never seen remarked about anywhere is that the return of streetcars on Spadina meant that the Bathurst line lost it’s distinction as the only north-south streetcar line in Toronto. Not that it’s some humongous deal or anything like that but worth noting nonetheless.

    Steve: You forget that the King car is, effectively, also the Broadview car and the Roncesvalles car.

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  11. Well, I was thinking in terms of how predominant the nature of the Bathurst and Spadina lines are. Lol In spite of the King line’s routing on Broadview and Roncesvalles, the King car can’t quite be put in the same category as the Spadina and Bathurst routes. lol

    Steve: Well, there are times when the King car gets to Queen and Broadview nearly full inbound in the am peak. But, yes, it doesn’t have quite the all day demand of Spadina.

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