In Saturday’s Headlines, Monica Warzecha posted a link to a Toronto Star article on the TTC’s problems with its hybrid diesel-electric bus fleet. The cleaner buses, built by Orion and subsidized by the federal government, never realized the promised diesel fuel savings, and now the large batteries required for the hybrids are giving out only 18 months, instead of the expected 5 year date. The TTC will go back to buying standard diesel buses, at least in the short term.
This follows another failed attempt at alternate fuel technology; compressed natural gas, or CNG. The CNG buses, first acquired by the TTC in the early 1990s, had distinctive domes on the roofs (the CNG tanks) and required a special fueling station at Wilson Garage. CNG buses could not enter certain bus terminals due to low overhead or dangers with CNG tanks in enclosed or underground terminals. There were promises that natural gas would be significantly cheaper than the TTC’s bulk diesel rates, and like the hybrids, were specially subsidized by senior governments. Some of the CNG buses, like the high-floor Orions on Dufferin, were converted to diesel; the unpopular 100% low floor Orion VIs (the ones with the door at the far rear) were scrapped.
From 1922 through 1927, and again from 1947 through 1993, Toronto utilized an alternate bus propulsion system with zero at-source pollutants and an excellent record – electric trolley buses. The early 1922 trolleys were an experiment on Merton Avenue and Mount Pleasant Road; they were replaced by an extension of the St. Clair Streetcar (later to be replaced again by trolley buses in 1976). In 1947, as part of its streetcar-replacement program, a network of trolley buses on medium-ridership routes on the west end (Lansdowne, Ossington, Annette, and Weston Road) was established; a separate division at Eglinton supplied buses on Avenue Road, Mount Pleasant and Yonge. After the subway extension to York Mills and then Finch, Yonge buses were re-assigned to Bay Street.
By the 1990s, the buses, which still had original equipment from the 1940s and 1950s, but entirely rebuilt in the early 1970s, needed replacement. As well, the overhead electric infrastructure was not well-maintained, and some of the routes, like Lansdowne, had declining ridership partly due to the deindustrialization of the west end. Like nearby Hamilton, the TTC opted to scrap the trolley buses by 1993 and go with the ill-fated CNGs. Leased Edmonton trolley buses (Edmonton itself just decided to scrap its system) made the last runs in 1993 on the 6 Bay and 4 Annette (now 26 Dupont).
While I doubt the TTC will seriously reconsider restoring its trolley bus network, it is one technology that has proven to work. There is potential though, especially if a new electric transit infrastructure is planned for the city with Transit City, where electric substations and wire can be shared. Dufferin, for example, with few branches and very high ridership, feels like one route where the the technology might make sense. However, with a few exceptions like Vancouver and San Francisco, the trend in North America since the 1950s has been to abandon fully-electric buses.
Top picture: #61 Nortown bus at Eglinton Station; City of Toronto Archives, Series 648, Fond 91, ID 002.
Bottom picture: Trolley buses entering Eglinton Station terminal; City of Toronto Archives, Series 648, Fond 118, ID 001.