TTC’s 100th Birthday

Today, September 1, 2021, marks the anniversary of the day 100 years ago when the Toronto Transportation Commission, as it was then known, began the consolidation of the mostly privately owned street railways that served Toronto into the system we know today.

I will not attempt a mini-history in this article as there is good reading elsewhere in the TTC and Toronto Archives sites, as well as many detailed articles on various aspects of the system’s history on the Transit Toronto site.

At Roncesvalles Carhouse, which is conveniently half-empty thanks to a combination of the never-ending King-Queen-Queensway-Roncesvalles reconstruction (held up by Toronto Hydro) and the reduced level of streetcar service, the yard could be dedicated to a collection of vehicles over the past century. There was plenty of room for a socially distanced gathering of media, a few politicians, TTC management and staff.

The assembled fleet included:

  • Peter Witt 2766, PCC 4549, CLRV 4081, ALRV 4207, Flexity 4601
  • Proterra 3725, BYD 3754, New Flyer 3722, Nova Bus 8850, GM New Look 2252 and Wheel Trans ProMaster W700.

The TTC has produced a commemorative book that will be available at some subway kiosks and through the TTC online shop. There is also a painting which will be issued as a poster, and used as the cover art for the January 2022 Ride Guide. The artist is Robert Croxford.

[Full disclosure: I reviewed an early version of the text for this book on a pro bono basis.]

In his remarks, Mayor Tory emphasized the importance of the TTC to the City of Toronto and to the movement of people particularly during the covid pandemic. He gave thanks for the dedication of TTC staff and the substantial funding from other governments. Although there are many large capital projects now underway, Tory also noted the importance of better funding for day-to-day operations.

Although the reference was veiled, Tory also was happy that the proposed “uploading” of the TTC to Ontario did not occur, and that the TTC was celebrating its centenary as a municipally owned and operated system.

Although Premier Bill Davis brought Queen’s Park’s participation in transit funding, he was also responsible for the failed technology dreams of the Ontario Transportation Development Corporation’s maglev train “GO Urban”. Had Toronto’s suburban network actually developed in the financially balmy days of the 1970s as an LRT network (planned by the TTC in the 1960s), the city might be a very different place.

The TTC began in the post-war excitement of the 1920s, survived the Great Depression and provided key service to Toronto in World War Two. Then came the Metro amalgamation of the 50s, the start of the subway network, and the booming economy that fueled growth of Toronto and the surrounding region. Transit barely kept up and the density of transit service once seen in the old City never came to the suburbs.

Cutbacks began in the 1980s, but hit hard with the mid 1990s recession when the TTC lost 20 per cent of its riders, a loss that was not recovered until the mid 2000s. There has been much emphasis on subway building, but the new lines did not contribute new riders at the same rate as the earlier rapid transit additions on established, well-used corridors.

With the covid pandemic, ridership dropped again and now stands at about 40 percent of the pre-pandemic level growing slowly as more activities resume. The TTC faces a challenge over the coming decade not just to regain its riders but to sustain and improve service as external subsidies fall.

As I have discussed in many articles, there is a crying need to deal with line management and headway reliability. It is not enough to advertise a service, but a transit system must actually operate credibly to be an alternative to other solutions including that classic alternate for the TTC acronym, “take the car”. There are limitations to what can be achieved with red paint and a handful of reserved bus lanes.

As I was leaving the event, I could not help looking at that yard and contemplating what it might have become if not for we merry band of “streetcar enthusiasts” (and that’s the polite term) who convinced the City of Toronto and the TTC back in 1972 to keep the streetcar system. The years have not been kind, and service levels on some routes are a shadow of what operated decades ago.

When cuts settle in as a management response, when “tailoring service to meet demand” means stuffing as many people as possible onto a declining number of streetcars and buses, the result is a “new normal”. Every time there is an economic downturn, and there have been a few since the early 70s, transit falls back and rarely recovers lost ground.

Back in 2019, the TTC had an all time record day with 2.7 million, but that was for a special event – Raptors Victory Day. But in years before, the rate of ridership growth had leveled off, in spite of continued population growth in the City. The political focus was on where new rapid transit lines might be planned (never mind actually built and opened), while daily operations were strangled by a Mayor and Council bent on limiting taxes. The TTC squeezed some savings out of its own organization, but that sort of exercise is limited to short-term austerity, not for long-term growth.

Today’s presentation had brave words about the TTC’s future, its importance in greening our city. Very true, but not possible without acknowledging that owning and running a good transit system costs money, and short term “efficiencies” can work contrary to our goals.

The TTC’s bus network might be electrifying over the coming decade, a noble goal albeit an expensive one that could constrain vehicle purchases more generally. But if all we do is to replace existing buses and offer no more service, the real saving of moving more people by transit will not be achieved.

This might have been a great site for condo towers overlooking the lake at Sunnyside, but it is still a car barn as it has been since 1895 and the early days of the Toronto Railway Company. I look forward to the day when this yard will be full of streetcars again, and there will be good, frequent service across the entire streetcar network including long-awaited extensions in the waterfront.

13 thoughts on “TTC’s 100th Birthday

  1. Steve, thank you for all you do for transit in Toronto, both now and in the past. We wouldn’t be riding the streetcars in Toronto without you. Keep it up.

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  2. Thanks Steve,

    Nice to see all those streetcars of varying vintages! Wonder if the trolley pole cars can operate anywhere outside of that carbarn? You are right that unless traffic trends up, transit will be in a sad way! Son Matthew and I saw the CLRV’s off in Dec., 2020. Glad to see that TTC still has at least 2. But they’ll need pantographs to go anywhere.

    Cheer, Andy

    Steve: The trolley pole cars are fairly limited out in the west end because overhead there has been converted to pans on the 505 and 506. They could actually make a round trip to Dundas West and back without getting into trouble. In the east end, the ability to run east on Queen will disappear some time this fall. I know there has been talk of retrofitting the legacy cars with pans, but so far nothing definite on this.

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  3. The trolley poles are limited to smaller and smaller areas as the overhead is converted for pantos? I had thought (I am ignorant of how things work) the change was just to lower the wires out of a bunch of upsidedown U brackets. I didn’t know the change would reduce or eliminate where the older cars could go.

    The more I learn.

    Steve: It is not the hangers for the overhead on tangent wire that are the problem. The simple direct fixation to the spans has been replaced with an extra level of suspension so that the contact wire cn ride up and down. Even that is not the issue.

    There are two changes to the tangent wire that are problems for trolley poles:

    First, the wire is slewed left to right between spans to even out the wear on the pans. Trolley poles can operate on this, but with care because the overhead is not aligned properly for poles. Second, there are locations where the overhead has breaks for automatic tensioning devices. Pans ride over the breaks, but poles have to be jumped manually.

    At intersections, the current arrangements allow coexistence of poles and pans, but this will disappear as frogs are removed and wires for the main and diverging paths simply pass close to each other at the same level. Pans can just ride through this, but poles will follow the only continuous wire, probably the straight through line. This aspect of the conversion will not be done for a few years until after the main conversion of tangent wire is complete, except possibly for cases of a major repair where there is no need to restore the trolley-friendly hardware.

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  4. Was part of the bus rebuild program when we started rebuilding the GM buses. This was a huge project the TTC took on that was a total success. The technical expertise within the TTC is second to none !!

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  5. The Toronto Civic Railway was created and owned by the city of Toronto (operating under the City’s Department of Works, Railway and Bridge), starting operations in 1912 with the Gerrard streetcar. The privately owned Toronto Railway Company (created in 1892 using horse drawn streetcars, converting them to electric) refused to expand its operation into newly annexed areas of the city. The Toronto Transportation Commission started operation in 1921 as an independent commission, but it had nine years to get ready for the merger (along with other street railway operations).

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  6. Often there is negative history about the refusal of the TRC to extend its lines into new areas. As I understand this the real cause was the pending end of their lease. As a private company they needed a future source of income to pay for these extensions. Was there any attempt by either TRC or the City of Toronto to offer a realistic contract for new routes? I do not recall any such history.

    Steve: The city expanded fairly early in the TRC’s 30-year franchise but they refused to expand to meet the new boundaries. The Toronto Civic Railway was formed in 1912 after the City unsuccessfully tried to force the TRC to expand via a court challenge. That pretty much sealed the TRC’s fate. Remember that it was not a question of a contract with the TRC with the city paying for lines, but a franchise to operate a street railway and make money off of it. As is typical for many businesses even today, investment beyond the startup period is something they don’t want to undertake. In the TRC’s case (as is the fact today with the outer part of any new line) the investment to expand into new territory does not bring as big a return as building a brand new line in an area with established demand.

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  7. Steve, have you had a chance to ride on each of the different e-buses? If yes, which one did you enjoy the most from a rider’s perspective and why? I’m curious to know the passenger perspective, especially since you wrote up the TTC’s analysis of the buses from an operation perspective a few months ago.

    Steve: I have not yet been on a BYD, and have not been on any of them under heavy load conditions (not the sort of thing one would want to do during the pandemic). A rider’s perspective will include things like seat comfort, noise level, ventilation, acceleration and top speed. Now that life is returning to sort-of normal, a few field trips may be in order.

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  8. Thanks Steve for everything you’ve done and continue to do for streetcars and transit in this city.

    Speaking of streetcars fleets and the waterfront extension, I have a few questions. Do you think it was a mistake to go for 100% low floor vs 70% low floor for the Flexity’s?

    For the waterfront east LRT, what do you think about using a new bidirectional vehicle and a track without loops (except of course for Union)? The proposed Poulson loop would presumably be smaller if it was just a dead end track.

    Steve: You’re very welcome!

    The move to 100% low floor cars was based on the then brand-new Flexity design for Berlin. There is a huge difference between “Bombardier” as a builder of cars in Europe with the inherited the experience of established builders they acquired, as opposed to the shambles of the production in North America. If they had not tried to pinch pennies by shipping a large chunk of the work to a plant in Mexico which had no experience in this, and without proper training and quality control, we would not now have 70+ cars cycling through a rebuild program. That said, even Alstom has had its own problems on the Ottawa system.

    I am not sure a 70% low floor would have fared better given the basic manufacturing issues at Bombardier, although high-floor trucks would probably have had less problems with the TTC’s track geometry.

    As for double-ended cars, they add cost (two cabs, doors on both side) and you don’t change the fleet design to avoid one loop. By the way, remember that a terminus would still need room for a double-track, 30m station including platform, plus provision for a nearby crossover, although that would not have to be in the station proper. The loop at Polson Street is the least of our problems, with Union and the complexity of the reconstruction being a much larger issue.

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  9. For Raymond in Etobicoke

    One item, not often mentioned in the story of the brawl between the TRC and the Toronto city government, was the advent of The Great War in 1914. William Mackenzie, the main power behind the TRC was alleged to have stated, upon hearing the news : “I’m ruined!”

    He wasn’t necessarily referring to the TRC, but to a larger, more expensive entity; the Canadian Northern Railway, and he was correct. It was bankrupt within three years. I have no idea how much money was transferred from Mackenzie and Mann’s other assets in an attempt to prop up the CNoR, but it’s easy to think that the TRC quickly became a declining item on their list of prorities.

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  10. I think that there is a day it TTC history that does not get enough recognition and that is the day after Labour Day 1963 because that is the day the TTC put a true grid system into the suburbs. This, I believe, is the reason that riding in the suburbs took off as you could finally take a direct route without needing to go into the old city of Toronto and back out. Here is the map before September 1963 and here is the map from 1964 but essentially the map effective the day after Labour Day, 1963.

    If you look at a lot of US transit system they only run to the downtown. If you want to get from one suburb to another you have to go downtown. I have streetcar maps of some cities from the 20s and modern bus maps and they are almost identical. To change routes in some cities results in a huge blow up because I can’t get to my destination as I did before. They have long drawn out hearings, it becomes election issues like subways do here. Fortunately the TTC can change routes quickly and easily.

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  11. Electric buses can accelerate faster, but reading the comments to another post, apparently streetcar operators are poking along below maximum authorized speed even when they’re late, so I suppose this acceleration won’t be used when available. Management matters.

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