A Beautiful But Confused Trolley Ride

The Trolley, directed by Stephen Low, Canada, 2017.

World Premiere at HotDocs, Cinesphere (Ontario Place), Saturday, May 5, 2018 at 3:00 pm. Free tickets available at the HotDocs Box Office while they last. A possible extended run has not yet been announced.

An IMAX film about streetcars! A railfan’s dream movie! No longer need we catch glimpses of streetcars in exotic locales making ever so brief cameo appearances. Here is a whole documentary about streetcars and how they were, almost, the lost solution to many transit problems.

If only it were that straightforward.

We open on a sad streetcar boneyard, aged cars piled up for scrap and almost certainly beyond recall even by dedicated restorers. They are relics of an era when the streetcar ruled transit systems, when they were the backbone of transit throughout North America and Europe. A time when some cities would even have fake streetcar lines in souvenir postcards showing what modern, up-to-date towns they hoped to be.

This film seeks to be both educational and a piece of transit advocacy showing how streetcars, or Light Rapid Transit as they are now called to disguise their plebeian past, could be the foundation for a transit renaissance. But The Trolley runs aground, so to speak, by jumping around in time and space without pursuing a single thread to its end.

The first problem is that it is Toronto-centric, and a bit out of date at that. There is lots of footage of our older cars, but almost none of the new Flexitys thanks to the age of the filming. I kept waiting for an elegant shot of Spadina or Queens Quay filled with new cars, but instead saw only a few of the prototypes, including one inexplicably in a distinctly non-Toronto colour scheme.

On the historical side, the film touches the expected high points of the rise and fall of streetcars from early electrification, the development of larger cars like the Peter Witts, the apex (at least for North America) of the PCC, and the decline as streetcars faced competition from subways, but far worse from the automobile which served growing suburbs beyond the reach of worn out systems. The change was helped along by the automotive industry, the subject of a Senate investigation back in the 1970s, but the damage had been done decades earlier.

Certainly, subways have been promoted as a way to get streetcars out of the way of motorists, notably in Toronto, but major networks such as in London and New York co-existed with streetcars for decades. The first subway in North America, in Boston, was for streetcars, and it remains in use as part of the “Green Line”.

Streetcars were central to the economies of cities moving people around in vast numbers before autos were widely affordable and especially in wartime when fuel was scarce. But so were subways in the cities that had them, and it is transit as a whole that deserves the credit. Some systems fared worse than others thanks to warfare, a common problem for all infrastructure. In a particularly tasteless voice-over, there is a picture of a Hiroshima car that is described as “paying the ultimate price”. (With luck or good sense, this may have been edited out since the version I saw at an early April press screening.)

As a long-time documentary viewer at cinemas and on television, there are certain basics I expect from this type of film, notably accuracy. One can advocate, but at least get the facts right, keep the timelines straight, and don’t claim causality where it does not exist.

The film’s bouncing time sequence does not help, and we do not trace the streetcar through one arc from birth, through rise, to near disappearance and then renaissance. That, plus the Toronto focus, sets up a fundamental factual error.

The Trolley implies that the streetcar renaissance began in North America and cites the Flexity as a recent example. In fact, Europe never completely lost its streetcars, despite widespread wartime damage and competition from automobiles. Surviving systems there modernized and showed what could be done both with vehicle design and the evolution of surface transit to provide higher capacity on protected rights-of-way without the cost of subways.

Toronto’s first renaissance began in 1972 with the City’s decision, one in which I was deeply involved as a young transit advocate, to keep its streetcars. At the time, the opposition came from still-strong auto-oriented thinking and the unexpected appearance of a new technology touted by Queens Park as the “missing link” between subways and buses. The politicians and the boffins didn’t want to hear about streetcars or LRT or any suggestion that their pet project was, politely speaking, misguided.

Indeed, the CLRV owes its existence to the demise of the provincial high-tech project and the desperate need of the then-government to produce something transit could actually use. A TTC design for new streetcars from the mid 1960s was dusted off and became, much changed, the CLRV.

This episode is completely absent from The Trolley, and yet it shows the depth of official ignorance of what LRT could do.

In fact, Toronto’s newest cars descend from European designs that have evolved over the decades independently of North American systems, and the LRT renaissance in North America owes its existence to off-the-shelf European cars.

An articulated Flexity tram in Marseille, France.

A few systems both in North America and in Europe kept some of their old cars (New Orleans and San Francisco are the best known on our side of the pond), but vintage cars can be found on systems like Lisbon’s and Milan’s. The latter’s Peter Witts date from the 1920s and about 100 (of the original 500) have, with much rebuilding, been kept alive and in regular service. But they are not the only cars in the fleet, contrary to the impression The Trolley might give.

Classic yellow Peter Witt trolleys designed in the 1920s still serve in Milan.

The strongest argument for LRT is the variety of uses this mode can see all the way from complete right-of-way segregation, including underground operation, to mixed traffic like a traditional streetcar. The fight is always over taking road space away from cars, a battle that is more successful in cities where public transit has an established presence.

There certainly was a streetcar renaissance in North America, and Toronto’s 1972 decision started the process which saw new systems in Edmonton and Calgary, as well as San Diego. Other lines followed, although an attitude that “only streetcars mean your city is up-to-date” from a century before led to rather odd decisions about where some new lines were built.

The Trolley ends with footage from the Easter Parade in The Beach a few years back, and plays the event as a celebration of the streetcar rather than the local parade it has always been. This, rather than a view of modern Toronto streetcars, is an odd place to end the story.

Is The Trolley worth seeing? Yes, if only for the glory of views from many cities splashed in high-definition across an IMAX screen. However, as advocacy and education, The Trolley falls short thanks to bad research and a confused story line.

Illustrations courtesy of The Trolley.

10 thoughts on “A Beautiful But Confused Trolley Ride

  1. In 2013 I rode the Milano Witts. They had about 200 running in base service out of 1 car house. They had PAs and turn signals but no heating, except for the motorman. A lot had been freshly outshopped for a major fair the following year. The looked, rode and sounded like our witts.

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  2. In Milan there are actually four carhouses in use by Witts (Leoncavello in the northeast, Lodovica in the south-central, Messina in the northwest and Baggio in the southwest, although the latter may now be just for storage. Perhaps 125 Witts are left, a few still in orange paint, mainly stored. The fleet provides service on five lines, all cars on four, the 1, 5, 10 and 33 and until about a year ago the 19 and 23 as well. The latter two have now been combined as a single route 19, and now every other car is a Witt on the long crosstown service, sharing the route with the 6-axle articulated 4600-4700 class. Low floor cars of various 7000-series operate on several routes and 100 of the high-floor 4900 series on several more (and 50 of these are being thoroughly modernized with a new orange paint scheme with striping). Milan has ordered additional low floor cars, not to replace the Witts but instead the 4600-4700 series of cars from the early 1950s and others to replace the equipment on the two surviving interurban routes north of the city.

    The Witts are easy to maintain, make good speed and will carry on for at least another 10 years and perhaps longer. Milan is known for the Witts in the same way that San Francisco is famous for cable cars.

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  3. I met the director and sent him the report I did for the TTC as part of the St. Clair project. I’ve written and worked on many documentaries and one major Hollywood film. I would say this director simply took short cuts, such as not reading the available documentation provided to him.

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  4. Too bad. There are so many people who believe in their heart of hearts that cities in North America today would be streetcar paradises were it not for the evil General Motors and their henchmen, Standard Oil and Firestone Tire and Rubber. No understanding of how (in the US) street railway passenger-miles and revenue peaked in the early 1920s (which is why, in 1929, the presidents of those roads formed a committee to come up with a new car design to compete) or how most surviving lines barely made it through the Depression into WW2. Or how those that did make it that far were worn out from war-time traffic and needed complete overhaul from ballast to span wire and were grateful when GM showed up with brand new rolling stock that needed NO electric distribution system and NO tracks and, oh-by-the-way, could be had on easy financing terms.

    Canada’s industry peaked later and lasted longer, or so it seems. Montreal’s lines were in pretty good shape for WW2 having re-equipped in the late 20s when US roads were struggling (in fact, they bought trainloads of used cars from the US at the beginning of the war because they could and because they were drowning in passengers) and didn’t get put under public ownership until ’51. I know less about Toronto’s lines. They were put into public ownership much earlier? They managed to keep streetcars despite not having any rapid-transit lines — Boston, Philly, and SF with subways and tunnels, Cleveland with separate rights of way, and even New Orleans with their Neutral Ground running on several lines — How’d they do that?

    And where did the producers of this film do their research, exactly? None of this is a secret!

    Steve: Toronto did not have a subway until 1954, and then it was quite short. The streetcar system was large and under public ownership since 1921. Replacing it all with subways wasn’t going to happen, and the TTC bought up used PCCs from US cities to replace their older cars. By 1966 when the east-west subway opened, the TTC was set on a path of gradually replacing streetcars pending the opening of another line by 1980 (it has still not been built), but they were simultaneously looking at suburban LRT expansion. That didn’t happen thanks to the provincial fantasy of high tech transit as the “missing link” between buses and subways. Toronto has been lucky on two counts. First, we were several decades behind major US cities in the evolution of our urban and suburban areas, and second there was a strong history of public ownership.

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  5. How nice it will be the return to Los Angeles after an absence of 27 years to see all those new LRT lines, some of which are on Pacific Electric routes that remained mothballed or still handling Southern Pacific freight traffic in my time down there, which was 1975 to 1990. I have fond memories of an SP switcher rattling the windows of the M-G-M Music Department a couple of times weekly as it trundled lumber through Culver Junction and along the Culver Boulevard private right-of-way to a customer on Sawtelle Boulevard.

    Next time King Dougie gets on his anti-LRT high horse, someone should cart him off to Los Angeles to see what that technology has done for that former transit desert. A few drinks or a spliff should get him into a mood for travel. LAX, anyone?

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  6. I haven’t seen the documentary yet, but the focus on streetcars in Toronto is probably for the best because there’s a lot of baggage surrounding the adoption of streetcars and light rail south of the border. Unlike in Canada, where streetcars are primarily built as a practical means of transportation, streetcars in the US are primarily built to encourage real estate development. There’s also been some whispered grumbling that the US uses it as a way to cut funding for buses that are used by the poor and minority communities and transfer the funding to infrastructure used by richer, majority communities.

    For example, the LA LRT system has been partially funded by reducing bus service, so the total ridership of the LA transit system has actually been going down as a result. I found that Portland’s LRT is only good in downtown and actually provides pretty poor, infrequent service in the suburbs, and there’s been grumblings about exactly which communities Portland actually serves with its transit service. The route of the Cincinnati streetcar is designed to avoid causing problems for car traffic, resulting in a less than ideal route. Ditto for the San Jose streetcar. Buffalo is too auto-centric and lacks enough density for their LRT to be useful. The Detroit streetcar is too short and too infrequent to provide a useful transportation option but was built solely as a centrepiece to encourage more development. The Atlanta streetcar is unique in that it was built to right a historical wrong against an African-American neighbourhood, but it’s too short and too infrequent to actually serve as a useful means of public transit. The route of the new Milwaukee street car has so many strange turns and branches in it that I don’t even understand how anyone is supposed to know where they’re going. I’m sure there are many more examples than this.

    I think the real streetcar renaissance in North America is primarily about Toronto for using street-level streetcars in downtown, then Alberta as an example of medium-sized cities successfully using them, then maybe a look into the future with Ontario. Maybe Texas could also be referenced as an example of auto-centric cities that have built them, but I’m less familiar with their systems and whether they’re actually used by anyone or not.

    Steve: While there are certainly some “vanity” projects that have given streetcars/LRT a bad name, I can think of a few transit projects close to home that fit in the same category. It’s ironic that “The Trolley” shows cars running on a private right-of-way through the woods at Rockwood, but shows less right-of-way operation either on streets or cross-country, the sort of thing we could have had in Scarborough.

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  7. “This film seeks to be both educational and a piece of transit advocacy showing how streetcars, or Light Rapid Transit as they are now called to disguise their plebeian past, could be the foundation for a transit renaissance.”

    You expose the LIE that many of the lefties have used to advocate for LRTs, namely that “LRTs aren’t streetcars”

    That is a bald faced LIE.

    Steve: It is not a question of whether the vehicle is a “streetcar” or not, but how the vehicle is used. If the SRT had been built as LRT as originally planned, it would have operated with cars we would recognize as today’s streetcars, but on a totally separate right-of-way at the same (or better) speed than the RT cars.

    The “lie” lies in subway advocates who seek to portray LRT as no better than streetcars.

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  8. Not having seen the film, it would have been interesting to see some discussion of Philadelphia, which kept some of its streetcar lines, because of the creation of a “subway” for them in Downtown, which was so superior for how it enhanced service that even when the system was purchased by the GM combine, it made no sense to shut it down and convert it to buses. Note that SEPTA has a new station guidebook people might find interesting. [38 MB pdf]

    Thank you for citing the Streetcar Renaissance report.

    WRT LRT vs. streetcars and yes the Europeans call them both trams, I think it confuses things to mix them up. Nothing wrong with transit sparking real estate development. That’s what mobility technologies do.

    Anyway, I’ve written about streetcars as “intra-district” transit, which is perhaps more relevant outside of Toronto. If we would think this way in the US, it would help deal with the opposition.

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  9. After watching the IMAX screening yesterday at Ontario Place, I entirely agree with your review.

    Although beautifully filmed, I think that it does a disservice to transit advocacy in that it is so poorly researched that anyone, especially those against transit, can pick it apart so easily. I did not find it educational in the slightest and hesitate to identify it as a documentary.

    I found the “Hiroshima narrative” disgusting. It was way beyond a step too far in the application of personification.

    And, really in the league of just plain weird, effectively lying to the audience that Toronto has an annual celebration of streetcars parade. I imagine that we will see some mighty disappointed trolley tourists in Toronto next Easter! Hopefully they will feel better after receiving free chocolate eggs though.

    Finally, remember to tell everyone you know:

    Never ride the subway because it is the trolley’s worst nightmare!

    What a childish effort.

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