A Brand New Electric Bus for the TTC: 9020 on Charter April 20, 1969

In spite of the TTC’s self-congratulatory publicity about its largest-in-North-America electric fleet, elecric buses have been around a long time and in greater numbers in the form of trolley coaches.

Toronto had a very small fleet in the 1920s, but the mode came into its own in the 1940s when the TTC replaced streetcars on some routes with trolley coaches to retire aging rail equipment. These vehicles served Toronto for two decades, and in the late 1960s, the TTC experimented with reconditioned electrical gear in a new bus body.

Western Flyer (as it then was) 9020 was the result, with the fleet number taken from the coach whose equipment was recycled. During its experimental period, a group of transit enthusiasts (we were not yet respectable enough to be called “advocates” or any haughtier term) took the prototype out for a spin on the network of routes based at Lansdowne Garage.

The robust nature of 1940s electrical gear allowed it to be reused in new buses, and the “new” fleet ran for over two decades. Using old electrics saved on the cost of new buses, but brought the downside that the buses had no off-wire capability.

Now, with batteries and a mixture of charging schemes, the electric bus has been rediscovered. In a few cities like Vancouver, it was never forgotten.

The TTC could still have a trolley coach network, probably much bigger than the one it dumped in 1992 for the then-latest “green” fad: “clean” natural gas buses that did not last ten years.

For more about the history of trolley coaches in Toronto, see Transit Toronto’s site.

21 thoughts on “A Brand New Electric Bus for the TTC: 9020 on Charter April 20, 1969

  1. Are trolleybuses able to maneuver around obstacles or would their poles fall off the wire?
    Pretty cool that Toronto used to have these.

    Steve: With the poles still up they can move one lane either way from the wire location. Modern TBs have batteries and can run off wire for a few kilometres.

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  2. I think you know my absolute disgust at losing this system.

    Steve: It was an unsavoury cabal of TTC managament’s anti-trolley stance, years of lacklustre maintenance, the natural gas industry with a surplus of product, a bus builder hungry for an untendered contract, the technology boffins at MTO trying to justify their existence, and a TTC Board whose Chair was perfectly happy to embrace natural gas and wrap himself in a green flag.

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  3. I think Hamilton added small electric generators to some of their buses to provide off wire capability then drank the LNG Koolaide and scrapped then shortly after.

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  4. Was there by any chance a garbage strike when the proposal to get rid of TBs was put together. the reason I asked is because it should have gone out with the trash.

    Steve: No. It was people looking to justify getting rid of TBs with the false promise of natural gas buses.

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  5. As much as I like streetcars I think the ETB is way, way underused. Less infrastructure on the ground though at the expense of (usually) less passenger capacity in an ETB and higher complexity (steering, tires, suspension components unneeded in a railcar).

    Everyone always brings up “but if the wires go dead it can’t move” … yeah, that’s a problem but that’s a maintenance problem. If you maintain your infrastructure well, this should be a rare occurrence (and no, I have no list of transit companies that do maintenance “well”!). “But what if there is a road crash!? We should over-complicate a simple vehicle with a second energy supply Just In Case!” What if you work to minimize disruptions to street-based transit services? Clear crashes quicker.

    ETBs are usually considered obsolete so I doubt there’s any active research but I’d sure like to read any papers on the number of times an average ETB+B has to go off wire in an unscheduled manner. I don’t mean “oh, yes, the route 47 bus runs on batteries between 5th and 9th every day because we took the wires down”, I mean “the 47 bus had to detour around a building fire today”. I bet it’s one of those things that everyone “knows” is desperately needed … that really isn’t.

    TTC’s ETBs are within living memory of a LOT of people. How often was the lack of off-wire capability that big of a problem back in ETB days?

    Steve: It was an annoyance, but it was a problem that was solved with batteries and small generators decades ago.

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  6. My first experience with an ETB….

    I was in Vancouver in 1969. I had just got off the train from Toronto and went looking for a room near UBC. I got on a trolley-bus heading west, and the road turned to sidle up the hill toward the campus. Suddenly there was a car blocking the lane. It seemed to have some half-in, half-out parking problem. Fender-bender? Stalled? The bus could not go around – it would have lost the trolleys. So we sat there for a half-hour or so, till things were fixed up and the bus proceeded. But my hoped-for room-rental was gone, and I had to try again, and find another place less convenient. And my soul has ever since harboured an enmity for the short leash these buses were built with. In later years I did appreciate the quiet and cleanliness of the ETBs in Toronto, and was even part of a group protesting their departure. But the old injury still stings.

    Steve: And the irony is that if you were making this trip today in Vancouver, the trolleybus would easily go around the obstacle on battery power. Their buses have had off-wire capability since the early 1980s.

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  7. Hi Steve. I remember these fine buses and riding on them. My dad drove the Brill buses out of Lansdowne. Sad to say Lansdowne would still be here. Look at Vancouver BC: they are still using this type of bus. What a shame they could uses these buses in parts of downtown Toronto and the old network. O well, what a shame.

    Merry Christmas Steve

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  8. Trolleybuses are still big in Europe. Because they have 3 phase electric motors that can be installed in the wheel hub, they don’t power the rear axle but the rear axle of the first section and this helps to keep them from jackknifing when going up hills in the snow. They can also be three sections instead of two and reach lengths of 40 m (~80 ft). You can see them here.

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  9. I was always waiting for the day that we’d get hybrid artics which would be configured in a similar pull configuration but I guess none of the designs could be modified to fit this sort of arrangement. It seems like the logical design for such a bus.

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  10. No photos of Bay, Mount Pleasant or Nortown? Though I guess Bay and Mount Pleasant got trolleys later than this.

    Steve: In 1969, Mt. Pleasant still operated with streetcars, and Bay was a bus route. There was no physical link between the Lansdowne and Eglinton division networks, and so the 9020 charter could not run on the Nortown or Yonge routes.

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  11. Some interesting locations. I was unaware of the service on Mount Royal/Alberta.

    For more information, one can consult Transit-Toronto’s trolley coach route histories.

    Steve: The service on Mount Royal was the original loop of the Ossington trolleybus before it was extended north of St. Clair, and it continued to be used as a short turn after the route went north to Eglinton. Today, any short-turn at St. Clair uses Oakwood Loop.

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  12. I used to ride both the 61B and 74 bus on regular basis. It was a clean, quiet ride – superior in every way to any diesel bus. i still miss their quiet efficiency.

    Obviously the trolley bus technology has matured (see Robert Wightman’s link) since one last ran in Toronto. And the TTC still has an overhead department.

    Which begs the question, why not go with new, improved, state of the art 2 or 3 section articulated Trolley coaches (preferably with some off-wire capability) here.

    The advantages are obvious. A smaller fleet requirement than E-buses that require plug in charging, no limitation on route length, or terrain difficulties. Easily match or exceed rider capacity of diesel buses. Electricity (at this time) is cheaper than diesel fuel, and TTC already has the shops and experience (streetcar and subway) of electric motor maintenance. And something tells me that maintenance work on a trolley bus would be easier and simpler than on a battery style E-bus.

    I am not sure what the cost comparison (trolley bus fleet + overhead vs. e-bus fleet + charging infrastructure) would be, but suspect the Trolley option would win out.

    And the key point is the comparison of the two technologies – mature trolley vs. embryonic battery bus. You would think that after getting burned with the SRT and natural gas buses the TTC would be leery of embracing immature technology.

    I have no idea if the TTC has even looked at Trolley vs. E-bus in the rush to an electric fleet.

    Or if the subsidy the federal/provincial government is offering is for battery only tech fleets.

    But the TTC should at the least do a comparative study, if only to see the full range of options.

    Steve: You have to remember that the whole exercise began with BYD lobbying the Deputy Mayor who sits on the TTC Board. I suspect that they hoped for a fairly large untendered contract, but in the end only got a 10-bus order because they were so late on deliveries. It was clear that the TTC people doing the study of eBuses didn’t know a lot about other major systems like Vancouver, and were unaware of the detailed study Vancouver had done until I pointed them to it. The manager who was responsible for the TTC study has been promoted to a new senior post in charge of “innovation”, whatever that means, although it will likely include both the eBus project and autonomous vehicles. If only they had a competent manager in charge of reliable service they would really be onto something.

    Trolley buses were never on the table. There have been remarks about looking at alternatives to depot charging, but no details. Even then I expect that it would involve stationary charging stations along routes, not operation under wire.

    Vancouver decided to keep its TB system (which is in good shape with new buses), but not to expand it, although they have built diversions around Sky Train construction and so are not using this as a convenient excuse to get rid of the TBs. You can read their February 2020 full report here (select item 4.1 Low Carbon Fleet Transition Plan).

    See also their February 2020 blog entry on a call for funding, and a September 2019 piece on their experimental work.

    It’s worth noting that because the TBs are already on major routes, and there will be a SkyTrain line on Broadway, a lot of routes that might otherwise be candidates for eBus under wire are already taken.

    Vancouver was well advanced on their project, and the TTC didn’t even know about it. When Toronto convened an industry group on eBuses, they did not include Vancouver. But TTC will tell anyone who listens (and doesn’t know better) that they have the largest zero emission fleet in North America. Sometimes they remember to qualify the statement with “battery electric”, but often then just claim largest forgetting three much larger trolleybus systems on the west coast.

    I despair that we will spend a lot of money, every government will crow about its commitment to zero-emission buses, and there will be not one whit more service on the street because we “can’t afford it”.

    By the way, the entire bus fleet contributes 3% of Toronto’s total emissions. But it’s an easy target because of the captive market, as opposed to getting people to buy new electric cars or retrofit their houses. I plan to write about the City’s Net Zero plan in the new year when I get some feedback from them on various questions.

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  13. Steve, many thanks for posting this gallery of “Brand New” TTC trolley bus #9020. Brand new, except that, it was “The robust nature of 1940s electrical gear allowed it to be reused in new buses.” Are you the photographer? Was this an “enthusiast’s” trip, or just a trial run all over the place? Do you have the date of this trip?

    Steve: Yes, I am the photographer, and it was a fantrip. The date of the trip is in the title of the article!

    One thing that impresses me is the many small streets that were available to #9020, such as Beresford, Lincoln, Church Street in Weston, Lanark, Prince Arthur, Bedford. No doubt there are many more examples. Of course, some of these were for looping.

    So, is it difficult to set up the trolley lines? Can you explain to us, Steve, for the umpteenth time, what is involved in providing the power?

    Steve: If you’re starting from scratch, you need substations here and there, plus a pair of feeder cables (positive and negative) running alongside the route. Typically steel poles are used to hold the weight of the overhead (four wires). Or you might see steel (TTC) on one side of the street and wood (hydro) on the other. New installations would use steel poles on both sides. In some of the shots no feeders are visible but this is on loops that draw their power in from feeders on the nearby main street. Some feeders are underground, especially if they were tapping into existing negative returns that used to be connected to streetcar rails.

    Remember that the TB network lay in old streetcar territory, and so took over spare capacity in the existing power distribution system.

    Steve, you said previously regarding your lecture: “I hope that we will get far enough and sensible enough with the technology to understand that there will probably be a mix of trolley/battery and all battery buses with the latter for use on minor routes that are not suited to having overhead.”

    I was in Riga, Latvia eight years ago and I was surprised to see new Škoda articulated trolley buses running off-wire. (They had Flexity-style streetcars a decade before Toronto.) Obviously, this technology is tried, tested, and true.

    Steve: Vancouver had TBs with off-wire capability decades ago in the generation of TBs prior to the ones they operate now. The TTC and advocates for natural gas buses were happy to trot out stories of buses “tethered to the wires”, and they were outright lies.

    Steve said: “The TTC could still have a trolley coach network …”

    Hopefully, that is for the near future, not the recent past!

    Steve: The extra capital needed to buy battery buses will soak up lots of money, and the extra needed for overhead and power distribution would be a hard sell. I am waiting to see what comes of detailed design on alternatives such as stationary charging stations on route, or limited under-wire operation. I am not hopeful.

    BTW I think that the word “lie” should be used far more often when tearing apart arguments advanced by various “professionals” and others hocking technologies. Over many years, I have become impatient with the idea that we are always being told the truth about options, or even being shown all that are available. TTC and Metrolinx are both guilty on that score.

    One of my favourites was a public consultation session where a Metrolinx/GO facilitator was concerned that electric trains would not work in snow. This was just after the Trans-Siberian railway had been electrified end-to-end, and other examples abounded. When this happens during “consultation”, it is clear that the bullshit artists are running the show.

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  14. I guess you didn’t get it that I was joking about the garbage strike. I WAS serious about the proposal to get rid of the TBs should’ve gone out with the trash. You mentioned how bullshit artists are running the show. Well, bullshit artists have been running the show when it comes to both transit planning and policy as well as transportation planning and policy in general all over North America for the past one hundred years or so.

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  15. For John who asked about trolley coach manoeuverability:

    The shoes on the trolley poles could rotate horizontally so that they would follow the wires at almost any angle of the poles. The bus could move almost the pole’s length away from the wires. To pass a stopped bus, the stopped bus’s poles would be pulled down and the other unit driven past.

    There could be problems if the street was filled with other obstructions.

    It was interesting to watch the operator try to align the shoe with the wire when the angle was wrong.

    Steve: In more general terms, a trolley bus has a range of one traffic lane either side of the one over which the overhead wires are strung, and modern buses have been able to run off-wire to get around obstacles or make short diversions for decades.

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  16. Modern trolley buses can typically travel off-wire 150-200m, while extended range models can be off-wire up to 20km or so. Cities like Minsk and St. Petersburg have been using extended range models to extend their trolley network into new subdivisions without the need to also build new substations and string up overhead wires.

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  17. Steve wrote: One of my favourites was a public consultation session where a Metrolinx/GO facilitator was concerned that electric trains would not work in snow. This was just after the Trans-Siberian railway had been electrified end-to-end, and other examples abounded.

    I suspect that for most people in Toronto their only experience with electric trains in snow is the Scarborough RT. Which is notorious for not performing well in snow. But the electric GO trains will use a totally different technology which is in use in many snowy parts of the world without problem. Some of the “other examples” mentioned by Steve include high-speed rail in France and high-speed rail in Japan.

    Did I mention that this was high-speed rail?

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  18. My biggest fear with BEBs is that we don’t know how long they will last. An average diesel bus can last up to 18 years, ETB can go even longer.

    How long will BEBs last? And will we see the same level of enthusiasm for them, if they end up lasting only a decade and replacements need to be purchased?

    Steve: There are really two parts to this question. First, how well will they be built. Second, will battery technology including control systems evolve fast enough over the next decade that keeping an old bus is more work than just buying a new one? It would be nice to get back to buses that lasted a long time and, because they are not shaken to bits by a diesel engine, could actually last longer. I am not holding my breath. Capital dollars to buy new buses are always easier to come by than money to rebuild those already in the fleet.

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  19. One thing that I don’t think anybody should be surprised if it happens is for battery technology puts TBs out of existence all over the world. Look at the places where these new streetcar operations have stretches where batteries are being used rather than overhead wires. It’s only a matter of time before battery technology or some other way of making electricity improves to the point where overhead wires are consider completely unnecessary for electrical distribution.

    Steve: The reason for wires is not to build a TB system per se, but to provide for on-route charging. This improves range and reduces the size of the battery pack a vehicle must haul around. I think that the actual implementation will vary from city to city depending on the existing infrastructure.

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