Where have our streetcars gone?

It has been a bit of a mystery to me why the TTC (and Toronto for that matter) doesn’t take its transit history as seriously as it should. London, New York and Philadelphia operate transit museums and gift shops, and San Francisco practically operates a rolling museum of cable cars and a fleet of 1940s-era Presidents’ Conference Committee (PCC) and antique streetcars. Meanwhile Toronto can’t even muster a merchandise selection that pay our system justice, but many are delighted by the weekend diversions through Lower Bay.

The two PCCs the TTC maintains are conspicuously absent from our streets. Usually, they sit at the car barns on Queen Street East, used only for the occasional charter or special event. Toronto ran the cars in regular service until the Mike Harris era of the late 1990s, when 16 of the 18 PCCs left were sold for fire sale prices. The cars were deemed surplus after major service cuts when the province stopped directly subsidizing the TTC’s operations.

Five of those cars ended up in the small industrial city of Kenosha, Wisconsin, about half way between Chicago and Milwaukee. Like San Francisco, they decided to paint the cars differently, representing Midwest American systems (Chicago, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Johnstown, Pennsylvania), but kept one in Toronto’s colours. The TTC legacy was prominent in the one car running the day I was in Kenosha — the former TTC number (4617) was still used, and on the inside there were visible reminders of a time when transit fares were cheaper (according to the sign inside, a Metropass would set you back $76 or you could buy 12 tokens for $16.00) and the Ontario Government still in the business of subsidizing transit operations. Kenosha is hoping the streetcars will help revitalize its Lake Michigan waterfront, and connect new condos and townhouses by the water to its small downtown and the Metra station, where commuters can transfer to trains headed for Chicago.

Even though fares were only 25 cents – I felt weird paying so little – ridership this Friday afternoon was light. If you find yourself in Chicago, Kenosha might be worth a side trip. I combined this stopover with a visit to nearby Racine, where SC Johnson Wax offers free Friday tours of its famous Frank Lloyd Wright-designed office building.

By the way, San Francisco bought another set of PCCs from New Jersey — one has just been delivered in the TTC colour scheme. And why not? Toronto once had the the largest PCC fleet in the world. We still have an extensive and interesting network of street railways, an idea that Kenosha and almost every other city on this continent disposed of by the 1950s.

20 comments

  1. The last I heard TTC PCC charters were restricted to the non-winter months. Not sure if this policy was based on unpredictable winter (automobile) driving, which could endanger an historic streetcar on a charter or simply exposure to the harsh elements. If the latter is the reason it doesn’t make much sense to keep the PCCs in an outdoor yard all winter. Keep them active, I say.

  2. I believe the PCC streetcars were taken off the Harbourfront line because waterfront residents complained of the noise they made rounding the corners in addition to the fact that they were surplus as a result of service cuts.

  3. It was pretty neat to see Toronto’s PCC’s running in San Francisco. You look up and in giant letters it says “TORONTO”, almost as if you haven’t left! Except for the palm trees.

  4. there is grass in the rail bed of the streetcar right-of-way in the last photo of this posting. this technique seems to be widespread around the world. it certainly makes streetcar dedicated rights-of-way aesthetically attractive, and is consistent with the environmental protection agenda of public transit developments.

    i understand that toronto paves streetcar rights-of-way so that emergency vehicles can use them. i sometimes wonder whether grumpy torontonians would like the streetcar rights-of-way better if they had plant life in the railbeds instead of concrete. i know i would, but i like streetcars in any event.

    as for the old streetcars, you can normally visit them at the connaught yards between eastern avenue and queen street east, on the western-most rails. i miss them and wish they’d press them back in service too. they are pretty hefty beasts though; i rode one of toronto’s pcc cars in alexandria, egypt a few years ago and had to admit that they are a little clunky (though i find that quality endearing). for an image of alexandria’s colour sheme, check out:
    http://www.sporvej.dk/images/ega_51.jpg

  5. TTC should turn the ghost bay station into a TTC museum. It would be a cool attraction.

  6. The real Red Rockets, not the Red Rumbles or the Red Rackets though wheel squeal with curves is always a challenge, and for one I think the WWLRT will only make worse since it’s a bit too loopy for really making it as a big commuter substitute for those Etobicarians wishing to curb their driving. These old PCCs were also friendlier to older buildings too as they were lighter and didn’t shake the softer lime mortar quite as much. But I guess we can go to the mall to buy some newer heritage streetscapes eh?

  7. “TTC should turn the ghost bay station into a TTC museum. It would be a cool attraction.”

    Wow! That’s one of the best ideas I’ve heard in a long time!

    What can we do to make this happen?

  8. marta writes: “TTC should turn the ghost bay station into a TTC museum. It would be a cool attraction.”

    sue writes: “Wow! That’s one of the best ideas I’ve heard in a long time! What can we do to make this happen?”

    Nothing. The TTC doesn’t give a shit. Take a look at their “Transit Stuff” store: they renewed the contract of a bunch of incompetent boobs because Moscoe said it wouldn’t be “fair” not to.

  9. I second the recommendation to check out the Halton Radial Line Railroad. Great place – and some really nice rolling stock (including TTC PCCs).

    Most of them in far better condition then the photos linked to above would indicate 🙂

  10. If I recall correctly, there was an actually justifiable reason to retire the PCCs: It was difficult to couple them with another streetcar if the PCC died en route. You will probably have seen one streetcar pushing another (with a giant truck equipped with a battering ram following the two) back to the yard – certainly a common sight in Leslieville, with many streetcar lines always terminating at the Russell yard at Queen and Connaught. Apparently it was difficult to couple a new streetcar with an old one, causing even longer delays.

    All this is of course an argument for multi-fuel accessible articulated trolley buses that can drive around obstacles, but Torontonians refuse to entertain that entirely workable option.

  11. Why not open and underground transit museum at the abandoned Queen Street Station, open an annex at the St. Clair barns, and run restored streetcars between the two for the tourists? Your admission would include the ride between the two locations.

  12. “All this is of course an argument for multi-fuel accessible articulated trolley buses that can drive around obstacles, but Torontonians refuse to entertain that entirely workable option.”
    Yes, but that would mean riding busses instead of the rails. More pullution, less pleasure.

  13. Why not open and underground transit museum at the abandoned Queen Street Station, open an annex at the St. Clair barns, and run restored streetcars between the two for the tourists? Your admission would include the ride between the two locations.

    The abandoned Queen street station, or what’s left of it, it too small, the St. Clair barns are already going to be used, and the admission would have to be too high — even assuming that the TTC, which can’t even run a transit system — wanted to do it.

  14. Funny, I recall writing to the TTC at the time that Newark was retiring their fleet and begged them to secure cars for Toronto, to make up for the Kenosha mistake. They ignored my letters, of course, and now I see they ended up in SF. Shame.

  15. There is a place where Toronto’s old streetcars still flurish in private service. The places is the Halton County Radial Railway on the Guelph line (exit 312), north of Hwy 401.
    I am a volunteer member there and drive TTC cars, #327 (1893 open air car). TTC Peter Witts #2894 & 2424. TTC PCC’s #4000 (air/electric) & 4600 & 4611 (all electric).
    We have a 2 1/2 mile looped track and are open to the public on weekends starting in May and ending the end of October, also during the months of July and August we are open 7 days a week form 11:00am to 4:30pm.
    We have 3 car barns full of old streetcars to board and explore, great picnic areas for the family and you can ride the various streetcars all day if you so desire with your admission fee.
    Our web site is http://www.hcry.org/ and my badge number is 1094. If you read this blog and decide to come out, please ask for me (John 1094) and I’ll make a point of being your personal tour guide that day, providing I’m there of course.
    Hope to see you!!!

  16. There is a place where Toronto’s old streetcars still flurish in private service. The place is the Halton County Radial Railway on the Guelph line (exit 312), north of Hwy 401.
    I am a volunteer member there and drive TTC cars, #327 (1893 open air car). TTC Peter Witts #2894 & 2424. TTC PCC’s #4000 (air/electric) & 4600 & 4611 (all electric).
    We have a 2 1/2 mile looped track and are open to the public on weekends starting in May and ending the end of October, also during the months of July and August we are open 7 days a week fronm 11:00am to 4:30pm.
    We have 3 car barns full of old streetcars to board and explore, great picnic areas for the family and you can ride the various streetcars all day if you so desire with your admission fee.
    Our web site is http://www.hcry.org/ and my badge number is 1094. If you read this blog and decide to come out, please ask for me (John 1094) and I’ll make a point of being your personal tour guide that day, providing I’m there of course.
    Hope to see you!!!

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