Streetcars and LRT: Toronto’s next steps

The Spadina Streetcar: not quite LRT

Yesterday, I posted an article on Spacing Toronto briefly explaining the history and context for North America’s light rail renaissance and what the different approaches were. While a select few cities retained their streetcar systems mainly due to tunnels prohibiting dieselization, only to later incorporate them into rapid-transit-type services, other cities started from scratch years after abandoning their street railways.

Today I will talk about Toronto’s experience and how recent developments, such as Transit City relate to the experience south of the border.

Toronto was unique amongst North American transit operators. Until the 1960s, the TTC rejected the prevailing wisdom that streetcars were an obsolete technology and needed to be replaced by buses. It also did not have any of the special circumstances that saw the retention of streetcar systems in places like Boston or San Francisco. There are several potential reasons; in 1921, the TTC was one of the first large municipally-owned transit operators (along with Detroit and San Francisco), and invested heavily in its system before increasing auto ownership and declining ridership made a large dent in the profits of private operators.

Despite a slow pruning of the streetcar network through the 1930s and 1940s, most of it survived until the Yonge Subway opened in 1953 1954, and remained crucially important until the Bloor-Danforth subway was opened in 1966. By then, most American cities already abandoned their street railways (Los Angeles and Baltimore were amongst the last, in 1963). And by then, citizens’ groups, such as the Committee to Save Union Station committee and Streetcars for Toronto, had considerable influence in preserving Toronto’s historic landmarks.

By the 1980s, after acquiring a new streetcar fleet, Toronto was ready to expand its street railway again. The first new streetcar route, opened in 1990, was a short stub along Queen’s Quay between Union Station and Spadina, and used vintage PCC cars, similar to San Francisco’s F-Market line and closer to the role of the American downtown streetcar circulators. The next lines grew out of this short stub – the 510 Spadina route, also in its own private right-of-way in the middle of bustling Spadina Avenue, and the 509 Harbourfront extension to the Exhibition.

But the 509 and 510 cars, while given their own rights-of-way, are still streetcar routes and not modern LRT, as they have frequent stop spacing and still deal with traffic at the intersections (where the signal priority system has not been activated by the city’s transportation department). Spadina is now much more reliable and carries a many more people than the old 77 Spadina bus, but it isn’t a true LRT line either, closer to the local streetcar service that Torontonians are familiar with.

The reconstruction of the St. Clair line, still underway, will be the seed for Transit City. Held up by a local NIMBY group for two years, St. Clair will provide a bridge of sorts between the downtown streetcar system and the suburban Transit City system, and in a way, a trial for future routes. So far, it remains similar to Spadina, with frequent stops and a signal priority system that so far does not work. But it still promises more reliable, and slightly faster service than before.

Transit City plan

Transit City has not yet evolved much beyond the vision stage, as detailed planning, environmental assessments, and consultations have not yet begun, but the corridors have been set. Transit City aims to be closer to a light-rail system than a streetcar, relying exclusively on dedicated rights-of-way, and in several cases – Eglinton being the most prominent – in underground sections. But as planned, it is somewhere between a modern light rail system and the new streetcar systems proposed in the United States.

Transit City is not perfect – perhaps the biggest flaw in the plan is how the Sheppard Corridor will be served by separate modes of transport with no single clear east-west route through North York, affecting crosstown commutes in the northern part of the city. There is also the concern that some routes, such as Don Mills, may overburden the subway in the central city without new downtown connections. But it does represent a serious attempt to address gaps in Toronto’s transit network and a means to strengthen neighbourhoods (more on this later).

The Eglinton-Crosstown route comes closest to modern light rail, with a long underground section that will completely liberate it from traffic lights and motor traffic. It will traverse the entire city, making it an effective, through crosstown route. The types of trips that will be best served by the plan will be neighbourhood-to-neighbourhood and cross-suburban trips that are not well served by the subway, and Eglinton comes out on top for suiting this purpose.

While stop spacing has not yet been determined, there should be a happy medium between spacing of TTC bus stops, which can often be 100-200 metres apart in places, and subway stations, often 1-2 kilometres apart (and similar to those of LRT systems in the US and Alberta). Stops too close together slow down service and increase the cost of building platforms, shelters and the means (signals or crosswalks) for passengers to cross to the centre of the street, and even more for underground sections, where stairs and elevators will be required. Passengers will walk farther to higher-order stops, but if they are too far apart, local accessibility is lost. This most evident on subways built after 1966, where stations on North Yonge and elsewhere are not within a short walking distance for most of the corridor, and supplementary local bus service is infrequent. Stop spacing of 500-600 metres or so would fit the hybrid nature of Transit City. Other LRT-like features will likely include pre-payment before boarding (either with a pass, transfer, or a ticket paid at a machine, with roving inspectors or constables) and possibly next-train information. And transit signal priority is a must.

Finally, there is a role for a downtown circulator service, like those in operating or proposed in US. During the 1970s, the TTC offered a summer Tour Tram route, accepting regular fares, and looped via Queen, King, Spadina and Church, passing by many of the tourist and shopping districts. But the best part was the use of old Peter Witt streetcars, removed from revenue service in 1963. As I have mentioned before, the TTC and the city has a golden opportunity to resurrect such a service using the two retained PCCs, and even the Witt still on TTC property. Riders got a taste of this last Simcoe Day, where both PCCs were put into revenue service on Queen’s Quay, to the delight of tourists and transit fans alike.

Toronto has a very good plan to bring reliable, higher-order transit to places across the city. Like earlier milestones in Toronto’s transit history, Transit City forges a different path.

Note: Yesterday, I neglected to mention some serious proposals for streetcars in Montreal, including a local streetcar route connecting Downtown, Griffintown, Old Montreal and the Latin Quarter. Modern LRT is also proposed for the “Ice Bridge” connecting Montreal and the south shore, and there are preliminary plans for a modern streetcar on Park Avenue.

Next: Transit City, the Avenues, and streetcar-oriented development.


  1. The Spadina line – it was a separate and viable line unto itself and cannot be considered an add-on to the Harbourfront line. Gunn realized the need for service over idealistic hopes and the Charlotte loop was put in to support the urban service.
    Spadina is the classic case of Why We Need Good EAs.
    We had a great opportunity for installing good bikeways to and from the lake – but it wasn’t enough of a “true” priority – so it’s still roadkill roulette that helps prop up transit.
    Is that a mal-a-prop? Why? is because for many of us, the truly better way to get around the core is by bike and the cynic in me thinks that the TTC and the City are content enough to have biking risky and “unsafe” is to make sure there are enough captive riders in the core to keep the TTC coffers fuller.
    While transit is more energy efficient than the cars, bikes are even better and they’re more flexible. No, they don’t work for everyone, in all circumstances.
    But increasingly, as the transick seems to devolve to trans*it & as building keep being added with yet more yupscale road hogs, biking is still attractive.

  2. Great series – looking forward to the next one.

    It’s amazing how much the world outside the TTC has changed in the last twenty five years. When the current vehicles were acquired, there were no light rail manufacturers either in North Amercia or successfully selling to North America, leaving the Ontario government to actually form a light rail manufacturer – UTDC. (Don’t let the throwback PCC-esque headlight fool you – those ALRC and CLRV vehicles are true light-rail machines, heavy and built for speed. They just ended up being utilized as such more in San Jose than Toronto.)

    Now, there are literally dozens of example cities and a good half dozen manufacturers. It is vital that Toronto look outside its borders this time to learn from the best practices of others. What is the cost-benefit analysis for single track opeation for downtown circulators? What is the best location for stations? Trolley or pantograph? How is fare control and wheelchair access handled? Does pedestrianization help or hurt streetcar routes? What signals are used to handle traffic? What kind of urban development has been shown to follow LRT vs streetcar implementation? Where could green medians be used? Etc.

  3. uSkyscraper said: “When the current vehicles were acquired, there were no light rail manufacturers either in North Amercia [sic] or successfully selling to North America, leaving the Ontario government to actually form a light rail manufacturer – UTDC.”

    When the CLRVs were being delivered in 1977, Edmonton was receiving its own LRT cars at the same time. Those cars were built by Siemens-Duewag of Germany. A few years later, Siemens successfully sold to Calgary Transit as well.

  4. I stand corrected… What I perhaps should have said was that Toronto operated in a vacuum during the last cycle of vehicle replacement and assessment and there is simply no good reason for doing so today.

    PS – Sorry for the constant misspellings. Something about quick commenting leaves typos all over the place…

  5. It’s too bad that a LRT couldn’t have been built on Yonge Street between Eglinton Station and Steeles Avenue. It might have used platforms like the old Bloor streetcar platform to transfer in the middle of the road. Of course, it might have even went into a tunnel at Eglinton, but that would be only wishful thinking.
    The current wide spacing on Yonge above Eglinton requires that the current bus have the same headways as the subway at least.

  6. One thing that doesn’t get emphasized is what the Red Rumbles do to the buildings they run past. I haven’t made the time and effort to truly explore this, but my sense is that the shaking that can occur is kinda bad for the mortar joints of the older lime mortars of the streetscapes some of us like. So: with the new vehicles that will be longer and still “light” rail, how much subtle and insidious damage will be done by them? Will they be heavier? Combined with the reduced frequency of service as capacity will be the “same”, why does it make me think of a line “in order to serve the village we had to destroy it”?
    And yes, too bad the current streetcars couldn’t really be let go to better speed – they could be excellent for LRT lines along the Weston corridor, or Front St., or lots of other places that aren’t the urban core.

  7. W.K. Lis, if I understand your comment correctly I think you’re mistaken. North of Davisville, the 97 Yonge bus runs every 15-20 minutes (much less frequent than the subway) and is very lightly used. However, most of the density is clustered around the subway stations and thins out between them — closer stop spacing might have changed this pattern.

    Hamish, my impression was that the new, insulated way of laying track was supposed to help with this.

  8. “Transit City aims to be closer to a light-rail system than a streetcar….” Alas, not close enough.

    A city with the size and projected growth of Toronto doesn’t need more stubways which will swamp already overburdened subways. It needs entire new lines, be they LRT and/or subway, which will act independently in moving large numbers of people medium-to-long distances while complementing and relieving the existing subways.

  9. Sean,

    Are you sure this comment……..?

    Spadina is now much more reliable and carries a many more people than the old 77 Spadina bus, but it isn’t a true LRT line either, closer to the local streetcar service that Torontonians are familiar with.

    The old 77 route was always packed and there were buses nearly every minute. By comparison the Spadina LRT looks empty whenever I see it. Not just the trains but the stops also. IIRC correctly the old 77 route was one of only two surface routes that generated positive cash flow. I have a suspicion that perhaps the TTC has cherry picked some numbers to justify it existence.

    And for the Spadina LRT lovers…….

  10. Glen: Yes, the 510 enjoys better ridership than the old 77 bus, and much of this can be attributed to the revitalization of the King-Spadina area and the new condo construction, along with the system-wide ridership increase. As for claims that the Spadina streetcar is empty, I would challenge you to try it for yourself any weekend or weekday midday or afternoon rush.

    But there seems to be a problem with line management that slows down service on Spadina – something else the TTC will have to address. An overloaded car is often at the head of a convoy of half-empty cars behind, yet often the front car will still stop and take on passengers, with those “please move back” canned announcements. As with signal priority, the TTC has some work to do to convince people that Transit City will be different.

  11. I’d like to know when the 510 is empty. Tired of being squished, which is often my experience.

    Glen, let me know exact times, so I can arrange my travel schedule.

  12. I will be posting detailed reviews of the 510’s operation on my blog in the next few days. Answering all the comments on other posts has interfered with writing new ones .

    The 510 is very busy and has the singular characteristic of having better service on weekends than in the morning rush hour. Its capacity is constrained today by the inability to run longer cars on this line (this is related to retrieving a dead ALRV from the Bay Street tunnel), and the line will benefit enormously from the new fleet.

    The gigantic lineup of cars shown in the photo linked above is very rare on this line. If we want to talk about problems with snow, can you name all of the bus routes that stopped running because the buses couldn’t get up the hills?

    Finally, Hamish’s comment about vibration is out of date and relates to the old trackbed which acts as a resonator for passing cars. The new trackbed is much better, and most of the system has been rebuilt with it. The last remaining part of King (Roncesvalles Ave and King east to near Jameson) will be finished in 2009. Harbourfront is due up in 2010 or 11, I think.


  13. Sean,

    Now I remember why I am questioning the figures. It was the result of a Globe and Mail report that found……..

    We found that:

    • Instead of living up to pre-construction reports that streetcars on dedicated lanes would cut travel time from Bloor Street to Queen’s Quay by 5½ minutes — the environmental assessment boasted of up to 10 minutes in savings — the 510 appears to take longer than the buses that plied the route from 1948 to 1997. A TTC document obtained last month says the trip takes one minute longer in the afternoon rush hour than in 1990. Data on historical and current transfers indicate a 17-minute bus trip in 1993 now takes 19 minutes by streetcar.

    • The 510 may be the slowest of all routes between the Bloor-Danforth and Queen Street. Travel times on TTC transfers put Bloor-to-Queen trips at 12 minutes on Spadina, 8 minutes on Bathurst and 10 minutes on other routes.

    • The TTC says ridership on Spadina is up 30 per cent since 1997, the year the line opened. But when compared with 1992, the last year before construction tore up the street and cut into ridership, Spadina appears to be down 1.5 per cent, while overall TTC ridership is up about 3.4 per cent.

    • TTC cost-to-revenue ratio lists show the Spadina and Harbourfront lines (now considered one for accounting purposes) have plunged to 35th-best among the TTC’s 132 surface routes. In 1997, they were No. 1 and No. 9, respectively, with the Spadina bus one of only seven routes turning a profit.

    reproduced here…..

    PS. I will keep an eye on some evening rush hour trains.

  14. Just as a side note the original section of the Yonge subway opened in March of 1954.

    I read some of the comments of this article and it is my opinion that action should be taken to address the overcrowding on the inner sections of Toronto’s rapid transit system. Having ridden the Yonge and Bloor Danforth subways during rush hour it is very clear that some major work will have to be done in the coming years. Of course in 1993 the work to expand Bloor station on the Yonge line was completed and now passengers can flow through the station reasonably well. However as for Yonge station on the Bloor Danforth line and St George station on both subway platform levels, the considerably limited platform width of these stations is of cause for concern. Already I have read in the Metro Toronto newspaper that a recent service disruption resulted in dangerous overcrowding at St. George Station. Along with the evident signs of wear and tear at at this station it is of my opinion that if possible the two station levels of St George and the one platform of Yonge station have their narrow centre platforms replaced with substantially wider and preferably longer (for longer trains to allow for higher capacity service) *side* platforms. I am sorry if this comment is a little unrelated to the discussion concerning the Transit City proposal but I feel that I must share these thoughts with the transit activists of this city somehow. Anyways if these larger side platforms could be built then that could permit the decommission of the older platforms or accomodation could be made to make it so that they could be used for unloading perhaps. In a way I can see why Bloor station was the first station to see platform widening, with side platforms all the Commission needed to do was bore the side walls further back, whereas with a centre platform it is very difficult to widen it without causing service disruption or incurring major expenses for the necessary work. Again sorry if the comment seems a little irrelevant and thanks for reading if you’ve read this far.

    Jordan Kerim

  15. As a further add on to the comments I’m reading concerning vibration due to the streetcars, what Steve meant by new trackbed is a new method of laying streetcar track called the floating track technique. By using this method designed in the early 1990s there are three layers of concrete with crushed gravel under that and flattened earth under that as well. The first layer is a basic cement bed. Then the tracks are assembled above that and are temporarily supported with pegs. Then another layer of cement is poured up to the treated steel ties. Finally a third layer is poured on top of that with the top being the exposed surface. A key feature used to muffle the noise is a rubber lining attached around the rails on the sides and bottom. Because of the multiple layers used, for future track replacement only part of the trackbed would be replaced. As a bit of trivia the first section of floating track was laid in front of new City Hall (100 Queen W) back in 1994. The original section of the Harbourfront LRT was built in the late 1980s and opened in 1990 and did not use the new technique. I saw some photos of the track being laid for the line and it looked like the Commission was trying to use some sort of foam bedding to try and muffle the noise. Of course shortly after the line opened the residents living along the line complained about hearing squealing wheels from the then newly rebuilt A-15 PCCs and were pulled from the line shortly thereafter.

    As for the CLRV’s being rumblers, I do recall Steve Munro telling me that the cars were fitted with Interurban bogies to allow for high speed service. Whatever new LRVs the commission receives they will definately not be as heavy as the new LRVs coming in the 2010s.

    ~Jordan Kerim

  16. What a great series – thanks!
    It probably isn’t fair to comment on service levels on the 512 St-Clair line until construction is complete on the full length – but the “promise” of better service has yet to materialize. I’m a frequent user of that line and board daily at Dunvegan. My “unscientific” study over the past 2 months shows that 1 out of 2 rides shows some form of irregular operation (at peak and non-peak times). Most frequent irritant is bunching (not as bad as King or Queen… but unacceptable for ROW operation). Long waits are sadly common and I often end up walking the 10 minutes to either St-Clair or St-Clair West subway stations – with cars arriving at the stations just as I approach on foot. There’s also the strange phenomena of long waits at St-Clair subway (10 minutes is not out of the ordinary off-peak) only to wait another 5 minutes at the station (usually with the car parked out of range and customers shivering in the cold waiting to board)… whenever I’ve asked the driver what’s up, I just get the standard shrug and “schedule” excuse mumbled in my general direction. I DO think that the streetscape along St-Clair is far far better now – and once you get onto the car they generally scoot along at a fair clip (although this morning’s usual 3 minute ride was lengthened by stops at every light along the way). How sad that the city won’t activate priority signaling – I’m sure that would solve a lot of the speed / frequency issues on both 510 and 512. Are these systems actually built-in and awaiting activation?

  17. Jordan… I seem to remember a recent-ish Globe article on the new rolling stock program stating that the new cars will actually be heavier than current rolling stock. I may be mistaken…

  18. No no. The new cars will be lighter, not heavier. Now, if the TTC is able to double-up the new cars to make pseudo-ARLVs that may cause some weight problems.

  19. I think we’re getting distracted by the familiar complaints about route location and efficiency when the point of the series is to open our eyes to what is outside Toronto. What experiences do people have with streetcars/LRT/trolleys in other cities?

    I for one have certainly been impressed by the F line in San Francisco, which makes me furious at the TTC every time I ride it for their lack of vision to create a similar service. The Hudson-Bergen LRT in NJ does a good job of street-running and separate right-of-way with their station design, fare collection (POP) and huge vehicles. More attention should be paid to Boston’s efforts to speed up the Green Line, including off-vehicle fare collection, since that system is so similar to many TTC routes (subway section excepted).

  20. uSkyscraper, you’re right… there are so many “best practices” out there that we could easily adopt here. LRT and ROW are great… but there is a lot we could do to enhance service on the street-running routes. Zurich, Frankfurt, Munich, etc., achieve near-LRT speeds with their street-running systems mostly by employing:
    – low floor rolling stock (so much faster to load)
    – POP fare collection or electronic fare boxes located far to the back of the streetcar
    – multiple entry points (with passenger operated doors)
    – no left-turns for autos driving on streets with streetcar operations
    – snowy Helsinki is lightening quick in removing snow from loading islands / curbs… ensuring ice isn’t dragged into the streetcar… which in turn makes the stairs easier to navigate especially for the elderly therefore speeding things up
    – I can’t recall what European city has skip-stop service… but I know this is VERY successful in helping eliminate bunching on high-frequency routes (IE: the 501A car would stop at A stops, 501B at B stops, transfer stops would be A-B stops).

    The argument against eliminating auto left-turns in Toronto has always driven me bananas… namely that motorists would take right-hand turns onto residential streets to “circle around” and make their turns, thus affecting quality of life on Toronto residential streets. One city that has managed to maintain an excellent quality of life (at higher densities) while restricting left turns is Montreal. Traffic density on residential streets is probably heavier as a consequence – but somehow, most Plateau and NDG streets are enviably more livable than their Toronto equivalents.

  21. This Eglinton Crosstown LRT line is interesting, not because it is mostly underground but because it travel crosstown. Currently their are two bus routes that service this route-the #32 Eglinton West that has a terminus at Eglinton Station on the Yonge St. Subway line and its western terminus for some of its routes near the Mississauga border. The Eastern portion starts at Eglinton Station as well but travels eastward along Eglinton to Kennedy Station and some routes beyond.

    I haven’t done a statistcal check on the transit rides but from what I observe are most rides on both the #32 and th #34 get off their respective buses and don’t get on the other Eglinton bus but rather get on the subway. I imagine the LRT line will be the same where most riders will get off the Eglinton LRT and get on the subway.

    I think the Eglinton crosstown should be divided into two routes. The eastern portion would travel from Eglinton Station, travel east on Eglinton, mostly underneath though, and terminate at Kennedy Station. The other Eglinton LRT would also start at the Eglinton/Yonge Station, travel westward along Eglinton, mostly underneath as well, then either terminate at the airport or continue westward into Mississauga.

    I think if this line is divided up we can avoid the pitfalls that the #501 Queen Streetcar has taught us about spacing headways and bunching up on the line and overcrowding…

  22. It is quite possible that the new LRVs *will* be heavier in gross weight. After all, they will be longer than the existing CLRV and perhaps the ALRV also. However, being longer, they will have more axles and thus that weight will likely be better distributed.

  23. Have fun riding an LRT only doing 20km/hour. That alone makes me want to keep on driving!

  24. Highly oppose the depot for the Light Rail Transit on Eastern Avenue.

    Out of 6 locations (5 south of Lakeshore), the Eastern Avenue depot is the only one that is within 100 metres of residential housing. The options being considered have now (in the 4 days since I received the notice in the mail) been narrowed to 3. One of these options continues to be the Eastern Avenue location. The TTC is looking to rush this decision to the City Council meeting in July.

    Please go to the June 18 meeting (630pm) at the EMS training center 895 Eastern Ave (East of Leslie at Knox) to get educated and hopefully you’ll agree to oppose the Eastern Avenue location!

  25. The TTC two existing depots are both within 5 meters of residential housing. The neighborhoods that they are in are among the most successful in the city.

    The other location may not be close to residential housing now, but they will be in the coming decades.

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