With the retirement of the CLRV fleet on December 29, 2019, this is a good time to look back at how service on the streetcar network has evolved during the lifetime of those cars.
When they first entered service on the Long Branch route in September 1979, the new cars marked a real sign that Toronto was keeping its streetcar system.
Although Toronto decided to keep streetcars in late 1972, there was no guarantee that without renewal of the fleet and infrastructure the system could last very long. The last-built cars in the PCC fleet (the 4500s) dated to 1951 and, despite their simplicity compared to what we now call “modern” cars, they would not last forever. Second hand cars from other cities were older than the most recent “Toronto” cars. They were retired over the years even while the TTC undertook major overhauls on its own, younger fleet.
In 1980, the streetcar service was still dominated by PCCs as much of the CLRV order was still to come, and the ALRVs would not arrive until the late 1980s.
Yes, I know. What are all of those acronyms? Not every reader is a die-hard railfan with all of this information at their fingertips.
PCC: The President’s Conference Car was the product of work by a consortium of street railways to update streetcar design in competition with the rise of the private automobile. This was a large research project, especially for its time in the 1930s, and it produced a totally re-thought vehicle. The TTC was working with Hawker Siddeley on an updated PCC design in the mid-1960s, but nothing came of this thanks to a provincial fascination with new, high-tech transit. A license agreement for updated PCC patents held, in the 1960s, by the Czech manufacturer Tatra was never signed, and work on a new PCC for suburban routes stopped.
CLRV: The Canadian Light Rail Vehicle. This car was designed partly by the TTC and partly by a provincial agency, the Ontario Transportation Development Corporation (later renamed as “Urban” to remove the explicit local reference). The design, from the Swiss Industrial Group (SIG), was very different from the car the TTC had worked on, but the UTDC needed a viable product after their magnetic-levitation project ran aground with technical difficulties. As a city streetcar, it was overbuilt in anticipation of high-speed suburban operation, notably in Scarborough. That scheme was supplanted by what we now know as the “RT”.
ALRV: The two section “Articulated” version of the CLRV was designed to run on heavy routes, notably the Queen car. These vehicles were never as reliable as the original CLRVs, and they were the first to be retired. At various times over the years, they ran on Queen, Bathurst and King.
Flexity: This is the generic product name for Bombardier’s low-floor streetcars. It exists in many formats with Toronto’s version being designed to handle tight curves and steep grades. Delivery of the 204-car fleet was almost complete at the end of 2019.
When the TTC decided to keep streetcars in 1972, they were still enjoying a long period of post-war ridership growth with constant expansion into the suburbs of bus and subway lines. Getting new riders was a simple task – just run more service. The downtown streetcar system was still bulging with riders thanks to a stable population and a robust industrial sector.
By 1980, however, the TTC hit something its management had not seen before, a downturn in ridership, thanks to the economic effect of the first Middle Eastern oil war and its effect on energy prices. Although the TTC continued to grow through the 1980s, a mindset of running just enough service to meet demand took over. This would be particularly unfortunate when the ALRVs entered service, and the new schedules merely replaced the capacity of former CLRV/PCC service on wider headways. With cars 50% bigger, the scheduled gap (headway) between cars increased proportionately. This combined with the TTC’s notoriously uneven service to drive away ridership, and the Queen car lost about a third of its demand.
The real blow came in the early 1990s with an extended recession that saw the TTC system lose 20% of its ridership falling from about 450 million to 360 million annual rides over five years. The effect was compounded when Ontario walked away from transit subsidies when the Mike Harris conservatives replaced the Bob Rae NDP at Queen’s Park.
The TTC planned to rebuild and keep a small PCC fleet to supplement the LRVs in anticipation of vehicle needs on the Spadina/Harbourfront line. However, when it opened in 1997 service cuts had reduced peak fleet requirements to the point that the PCCs were not required and the network, including 510 Spadina, operated entirely with CLRVs and ALRVs. This locked the TTC into a fleet with no capacity for growth, a situation that persisted for over two decades and which the new Flexity fleet has not completely relieved.
The combination of rising demand, in turn driven by the unforeseen growth of residential density in the “old” City of Toronto, and of commercial density in and near the core, leaves Toronto with unmet transit needs, latent and growing possibilities for transit to make inroads in the travel market, and a customer attitude that “TTC” means “Take The Car” if possible.
The problem with service inadequacy and unreliability extends well beyond the old city into the suburban bus network, but this article’s focus is the streetcar lines. I have not forgotten those who live and travel in what we used to call “Zone 2”, but the evolution of service on the streetcar system is a tale of what happens when part of the transit network does not get the resources it should to handle demand.
The evolution of service and capacity levels shown here brings us to the standard chicken-and-egg transit question about ridership and service. Without question there have been economic and demographic changes in Toronto over the years including the average population per household in the old city, the conversion of industrial lands (and their jobs) to residential, the shift of some commuting to focus outward rather than on the core, and the shift in preferred travel mode.
Where service has been cut, ridership fell, and it is a hard slog to regain that demand without external forces such as the population growth in the King Street corridor. The lower demand becomes the supposed justification for lower service and what might have been “temporary” becomes an integral part of the system. However, the level of service on any route should not be assumed to be “adequate for demand” because that demand so strongly depends on the amount of service actually provided.
This is a challenge for the TTC and the City of Toronto in coming decades – moving away from just enough service and subsidy to get by to actively improving surface route capacity and service quality.
The following sections describe service and capacity changes over the years by route and corridor. All of the information is consolidated in files linked below.
Where consolidated capacities on routes are shown, these include trippers operating in the peak hour and direction. All capacity charts are formatted with a common maximum of 4,000 passengers/hour so that they can be directly compared route-to-route.
The third file linked below shows service levels on all currently operating routes going back to 1954 to illustrate the effect that the growth of the subway system had on the reduced demand placed on the surface network.
501 Queen and 507 Long Branch
Service on Queen Street and The Queensway has been provided by a Neville-to-Humber service of some kind for many decades, leaving aside periods when portions of the line were under construction and a less-than-successful attempt at splitting the route.
Service levels along Queen vary because of overlays with other services including:
- The Kingston Road services, now known as 502 Downtowner and 503 Kingston Road, between Kingston Road and River (the 503) and to McCaul (the 502, currently suspended), provided extra service in the east end. They were, in effect, an eastern branch of the Queen route for the last few kilometres east of Coxwell to serve the Upper Beach. Many decades ago, the service to Bingham Loop was almost as frequent as the service to Neville.
- The 508 Lake Shore service overlaps the Queen car between Humber and Roncesvalles, but then runs into downtown via King Street. This is a variant on a former Long Branch to downtown service that operated via Queen to Church.
For a long period after the abandonment of the 507 Long Branch route name in 1995, 501 Queen operated with alternate cars running through Humber to Lake Shore and on to Long Branch Loop. This made for an immensely long route, and the blend of services at Humber never worked properly. Moreover, service on Lake Shore was regularly disrupted by problems further east on the line. This scheme was unwound (except for late evening and night service) in 2016, but with service on Lake Shore provided by “501L” cars, not by the “507”. The service west of Humber has been substantially more reliable operating as a separate route.
- In 1980, AM peak service between Neville and Humber ran every 2’27” on the schedule, or 24.5 cars per hour.
- By 1990, with ALRVs on the line, the AM peak headway had widened about 50% to 3’43” or 16.1 cars per hour. Off peak headways were similarly extended with the ALRVs, and the gaps (already a big problem on Queen) became even worse.
- In 1996, across the board budget cuts plus the recession’s effect on ridership brought a further cutback with two overlapped services (Neville-Humber and Neville-Long Branch) providing a combined 5’00” AM peak headway (12 cars/hour) with ALRVs.
- By 2006, things had only improved marginally with ALRVs every 9’45” on each branch for a combined service of 4’52” or 12.3 cars/hour east of Humber.
- By 2016, the Neville-Humber service operated every 5’00” at peak with ALRVs.
- At the start of 2020, the service, now operated with Flexitys runs every 6’30” or 9.2 cars/hour.
The level of service in 2016 was the same as it had been two decades earlier following a major economic downturn. The 2020 service AM Peak design capacity (1,196) is well below the level provided in 1980 (1,813).
The Queen service in the Beach is supplemented by three trips of the 143 Downtown Beach Express, a premium fare service operating every 15 minutes from 7:00 to 7:30 am westbound, and a comparable outbound service in the afternoon peak.
On the Lake Shore, the service to Long Branch operates at a higher capacity than in 1980 because (a) service is now provided by Flexitys at headways comparable to what was once operated with smaller cars, and (b) the restored 508 Lake Shore service adds three Flexitys per hour where there was no comparable 1980 service.
502 and 503 Kingston Road
There are two services on Kingston Road, although one of them is temporarily suspended. Originally, one was called “Kingston Road’ and the other the “Kingston Road Tripper”,with the former operating from Bingham to McCaul Loop weekday daytimes, and the latter operating from Bingham to York & Wellington during peak periods. The main route was renamed in a marketing exercise to “Downtowner” during an unsuccessful trial extension to Bathurst Station as as sort of west side “relief” for the University subway, but the name stuck even after it was returned to McCaul Loop. These two routes became the 502 and 503 respectively.
On Queen Street, these services provide additional peak capacity into the core area between Kingston Road and the Don River where they split with the 503 running via King.
- In 1980, the two routes operated at a combined rate of 15.6 cars/hour.
- By 1996, with the service cuts of that era, the combined rate had fallen to 8.6 cars/hour
- By 2006, the service was back up to 10 cars/hour, but this was cut to 10 buses/hour when the routes changed modes.
- In January 2020 the service on the consolidated 503 route will be 9.2 buses/hour.
The service capacity on Kingston Road is now less than half what it was in 1980 with the biggest drop along the way coming in 1996.
504 King and 514 Cherry
The King route from Broadview & Danforth to Bloor & Dundas was one of the longest-standing routes in Toronto dating back to the origins of the TTC until the comparatively recent route split into a western (504A) and eastern (504B) service.
Overlapping services have supplemented the route over the years including:
- The 503 Kingston Road Tripper between Broadview and York. Five decades ago, this route operated west to Roncesvalles, and there is a proposal to extend it from York to Dufferin in a scenario for expanded streetcar services as and when the TTC expands its fleet. The service is now operated by buses on the consolidated 502/503 route looping at University Avenue.
- The 508 Lake Shore tripper has operated in the peak direction to and from Long Branch via King east of Roncesvalles to various points, notably Parliament Street.
- Due to the streetcar shortage, varying numbers of buses have been used to add peak capacity, although the line is now entirely operated with streetcars.
King Street is a long-standing exception in the level of service and ridership over the decades because it was not subject to cuts as severe on other routes, and the population in this corridor has grown thanks to redevelopment of former industrial districts. The King Street pilot transit corridor was possible in part because this is a very well-served route, and the benefit to thousand of riders was easy to demonstrate. Added capacity from new, larger Flexitys was consumed as fast as it appeared on the street showing what can happen if transit actually becomes more attractive to riders.
- In 1980, the King car ran every 2’23” (25 cars/hour) supplemented by three streetcar trippers between Dundas West and Church Street. At this point, there was no overlapping service from Long Branch. The Kingston Road Tripper at 8’30” added another 7 cars/hour east of York Street.
- By 1990, the core service ran every 3’30” (17 cars/hour) supplemented by a 7’00” service between Dundas West and Church for a combined 25.7 cars/hour on the west side of the route. On the east side, the Kingston Road Tripper at 8’00” added 7.5 cars/hour.
- Budget cuts in 1996 reduced the core service on King to 3’40” (16.4 cars/hour) and removed the Church trippers completely effectively cutting service on the west side by about one third, although this was partly offset by three trips on the 508 Lake Shore running with ALRVs. The Kingston Road Tripper dropped to a 14’00” headway (4.3 cars/hour).
- A decade later, in 2006, the core service on 504 King was back to 2’00”, the best it had been in decades. This was supplemented by three 508 Lake Shore trips in the west, and by a 12’00” service (5 cars/hour) on the 503 Kingston Road Tripper in the east.
- In late 2016, the core service had fallen again to a 4’00” headway (15 cars/hour) some of which were operated by ALRVs as available, but this was overlaid by the new 514 Cherry car between Sumach and Dufferin on an 8’00” headway (7.5 cars/hour) with a mixture of CLRVs and Flexitys. 16 bus trippers interleaved with the streetcars east of Roncesvalles to provide a combined 2’00” headway for the peak hour inbound on 504. Supplementary services included the three 508 Lake Shore trippers in the west and a 12’00” headway on 503 Kingston Road, now operated with buses instead of streetcars.
- By January 2018, the core King service had been improved to every 3’50”, but the number of bus trippers was reduced to 7. The 508 Lake Shore was suspended for lack of vehicles, and 503 Kingston Road continued to operate with buses.
- In October 2018, the 514 Cherry car was consolidated into 504 King with two new services: 504A from Dundas West to Distillery Loop, and 504B from Broadview Station to Dufferin Loop.
- At the beginning of 2020, the 504A and 504B each operated every 5’15” with Flexitys providing 22.6 cars/hour in the common part of the route. The 508 Lake Shore also operates with Flexitys providing a 20 minute headway as before, but with 5 trips rather than 3. The consolidated 502/503 Kingston Road bus service operates every 6’30” (9 buses/hour) on King east of University.
Total capacity between these services varied by segment of the route, and it was hard-hit by the cuts of 1996. However, service today on the central portion of the route has a capacity roughly 50% greater than in 1980. The outer ends are picking up capacity again, although still below 1980 levels, thanks to the new, larger Flexity cars.
The Dundas route has operated between Dundas West and Broadview Stations since 1968 when its western terminal was cut back from Runnymede Loop. Originally, it included a short turn service to City Hall Loop, later replaced by a loop via Church, Queen and Victoria when the Eaton Centre was built. However, all service was scheduled across the entire route for most of the period under discussion here.
The route shares trackage with the King car on Dundas from Bloor to Roncesvalles and on Broadview from Danforth to Dundas, but the combined capacities are not shown in these charts.
Dundas has operated with buses since early 2018 due to both the streetcar shortage and a major project by Toronto Water on the central part of the route. Streetcars are expected to return in April 2020.
- In 1980, with half of the service turning back from Church Street, the capacity of the line west of Yonge was substantially greater than it is today.
- By 1990, all service ran through to Broadview Station improving the capacity east of Yonge, but at the expense of capacity west of Yonge.
- The service cuts of 1996 slashed capacity to about half of the 1980 value.
- Since 1996, service growth has been limited by vehicle availability.
The Carlton car has operated over its present route with few changes for close to a century between High Park and Main & Danforth (originally to Luttrell Loop at the east end of the Danforth line). A companion line, College, disappeared in 1933 and that is why the route survives with the name of a street on which it does not spend much time.
Service on Carlton has declined over the years with a big cut in 1996. More recently, fleet limitations prevented the operation of more service and capacity is growing now only thanks to the introduction of Flexity cars in place of CLRVs. The route has two tripper services overlaying the core service:
- The 508 Lake Shore car, when it exists, runs inbound via King to Parliament in the AM peak, but returns to Roncesvalles Carhouse via Parliament to the Carlton route providing added capacity for the late peak demand to the University of Toronto St. George campus. Their capacity is not included below because their trips fall after the peak hour.
- Recently, in response to the shortage of cars, four bus trippers were added from both ends of the line inbound in the AM peak. Their capacity is included in the January 2020 values shown below.
Service on Bathurst has operated between Bathurst Station and Exhibition Loop since the Bloor subway opened in 1966. Lands around the south end of the route were once industrial, but they are now resoundingly residential. The Fleet Street leg of the route has been shared with the 509 Harbourfront car since 1990.
With the ongoing shortage of streetcars, 511 Bathurst switches back and forth from bus operation depending on the available fleet. In 2018, with buses, a short turn was implemented at Front Street to reduce the number of vehicles required on the route.
Bathurst was the last route with scheduled CLRV operation, and service is now completely provided by Flexitys. The chart below includes the capacity operated by CLRVs (officially) in the period immediately before the formal route conversion. This shows the last step in a long decline in capacity provided which is now, thanks to the Flexitys, being improved although still below the 2016 level.
The chart shows the segment from Bathurst to Exhibition Loop separately with the combined capacities of the 511 Bathurst and 509 Harbourfront routes in this fast-growing area.
512 St. Clair
The St. Clair car has operated on its current route between St. Clair Station and Keele Street for many decades. Originally the route included a branch east and north via Mount Pleasant to Eglinton, and peak period services to Rogers Road via Oakwood, and to Avon Loop on Weston Road. By 1980, this route consisted only of the core service between Yonge and Keele and a peak period short turn at Lansdowne. Since the reconstruction of St. Clair with a transit right-of-way, all service has been scheduled to run through to Keele (Gunn’s Loop).
The route’s capacity dropped from 1980 to 2006, and it has only comparatively recently begin to rise again with the conversion to Flexity operation. Capacity for 2006 is not shown as the route was under construction and published schedules did not necessarily match what riders experienced along the route.
509 Harbourfront & 510 Spadina
The Harbourfront line began as route 604, a number reserved at the time for rapid transit lines, in June 1990. (Then-existing lines 1, 2 and 3 were numbered 601-603 internally, and the Sheppard subway, now line 4, did not yet exist.) Harbourfront later was renumbered into the streetcar range as 509.
Originally the service operated from Union Loop to Queens Quay Loop at Spadina and the track north to King on Spadina was used only for carhouse moves. It was not until July 1997 that the 510 Spadina line would open, followed by the Harbourfront extension west to Bathurst in July 2000.
Service on 510 Spadina was split at King Street looping via Adelaide, Charlotte and King starting in March 1999, but the cutback was been extended south to Queens Quay Loop in recognition of the demand from condos at the south end of Spadina.