Categories
Infrastructure Politics Toronto Transit

A “fantastic bonanza:” another transit plan up in smoke?

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On the CBC radio program Metro Morning on March 28, Toronto Mayor John Tory spoke about his concerns regarding Premier Doug Ford’s plans to upload the city’s subway system, as well as Ford’s intentions to build new subway extensions to Richmond Hill and Scarborough Centre, bury the Eglinton West LRT, and start the long-planned Relief Line. Instead of a conventional subway, the Relief Line envisioned by the province would use a “new technology,” despite planning and engineering underway for a subway, using an existing subway yard for Relief Line train storage.

But Tory, who has been passive so far about the province’s plans, was hopeful that the unspecified new technology proposed for the Relief Line would be a “fantastic bonanza” for Toronto, but he added that he didn’t know for sure what would come of the new plan.

It is curious that Tory called this hostile takeover a “fantastic bonanza.” Bonanza was a long-running Western television show, starring Lorne Greene as the patriarch of the Cartwright family, owners of a vast ranch on Lake Tahoe. Bonanza was famous for its theme music and opening credits, which featured a burning map of the Cartwrights’ Ponderosa ranch before introducing the cast.

Opening theme for Bonanza

Bonanza’s burning map is a great metaphor for Toronto’s transit planning. Newly elected mayors and premiers burn the maps left behind by their predecessors, and time is wasted on new feasibility studies and engineering reports, ready just in time for someone else to get elected with yet another idea. Plans come and go, but hardly anything ever gets built.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. After a prolonged spurt of subway construction in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, momentum was lost. In the 1980s, Bill Davis’ Progressive Conservatives insisted on a novel linear-induction rail system for Scarborough, rather than the light rail project already underway. The Liberals, under David Peterson, proposed several subway lines, though it was scaled back under NDP Premier Bob Rae. In 1994, work started on the first phases of the Eglinton and Sheppard subways. When Mike Harris’ government was elected in 1995, they cancelled Eglinton, filling in a hole already dug for the tunnel boring machines.

There was new hope in 2003, when a new Liberal provincial government was elected, and David Miller, an urban progressive, became mayor of Toronto. While the province’s top priority was the extension of the Spadina Subway to York University and Vaughan, it was willing to help fund major improvements to GO Transit, along with new light rail systems in Ottawa, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton, and Mississauga-Brampton. It also committed to Miller’s proposed Transit City LRT network, including a fully grade-separated replacement of the ageing Scarborough RT.

There were valid criticisms of Transit City — there were too many transfers to get around the top of the city, there was no Relief Line, and a few of the proposed lines, like parts of the Jane and Don Mills LRTs, were too difficult to build as surface rail projects. But because of Miller, the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT is well underway, and preliminary work continues on Finch Avenue West.

Work would have also started on the Scarborough RT replacement and expansion and the Sheppard East LRT, had Rob Ford not been elected in 2010, promising “subways, subways, subways” and burning the transit maps for which new projects were planned and being built. Seven funded LRT stops in Scarborough became three unfunded subway stops. Overestimating Rob Ford, and hoping to keep seats in Scarborough, the Liberal government folded to his demands, and work stopped on the LRT replacement.

Rob Ford’s disastrous term was followed by John Tory’s twin obsessions of SmartTrack and an austerity agenda, at a time when the Yonge and Bloor-Danforth subways were overwhelmed by demand caused by a growing population and a booming economy — hardly the conditions that demanded low spending on civic services and infrastructure and yet another half-baked transit plan.

smarttrack_fbSmartTrack map from the 2014 John Tory campaign

Tory promised that it would only take seven years to build SmartTrack, which would mostly use existing railway infrastructure, along with a new section of track in Etobicoke, on land already sold off for development. Tory’s insistence on SmartTrack further delayed momentum on the Relief Line. Though Tory remained committed to the Scarborough subway extension over the approved and funded LRT, it was reduced to a single stop as costs ballooned, while the subway and SmartTrack threatened to cannibalize each other. We don’t hear much about SmartTrack anymore, but at least Tory has come around on the Relief Line.

But Doug Ford’s latest musings make it clear why the planned subway upload is so dangerous.

19817903155_db9d9bb379_o.jpgCanada Line in Richmond, British Columbia

So what now for the Relief Line?

Despite the inevitable Simpsons monorail jokes (Doug Ford did promise a monorail on Toronto’s waterfront when he was a city councillor in 2011), the new technology the province is considering is likely an automated light metro line, similar to the Canada Line in Vancouver. The Canada Line links Vancouver’s city centre with the international airport and the suburb of Richmond. It was built as a private-public partnership (P3) project, in which a private company was contracted to design, build, and operate the line. It’s an attractive option for a conservative government: P3s promise to be cheaper to build and operate than a conventional public project.

But the Canada Line has problems. Though trains are frequent, it was built too small to accommodate growth. The outer terminals at Vancouver airport and Richmond-Brighouse are both single track/single platform. Station platforms are too short — only 40 metres long — to increase train sizes. And as many stations are underground, it’s too expensive to extending platforms to fit larger trains. Some relief is coming, but even then, the maximum capacity of the Canada line is 15,000 persons per direction per hour, far less than Vancouver’s SkyTrain lines or Toronto’s subway. If this is the route Toronto takes, it won’t be long before the Relief Line itself will need relief.

Once again, I fear that Toronto will continue to spin its wheels thanks to the Ford circus. And it’s a shame — though sadly not surprising — that Mayor Tory isn’t fighting back.

Categories
History Toronto Transit

The story of Toronto’s streetcar “bull’s eyes”

7566316174_524a59174e_o.jpgReplica of Toronto Railway Company streetcar #327 operates at the Halton County Radial Railway museum, with the unique glass bulbs visible below the metal “Belt Line” sign. Photo taken June 2012

In 1891, the Toronto Railway Company (TRC) was created, taking over the city’s streetcar system from its predecessor, the Toronto Street Railway. The TRC quickly began electrifying Toronto’s transit network, operating fifteen routes across the city. Electric streetcars were faster than horse-drawn trams, and passengers had difficulties figuring out which streetcar was theirs at night.

This was a problem as many streetcar routes overlapped. For example, Dupont and Avenue Road streetcars operated on Yonge Street south of Bloor, and Belt Line and Yonge streetcars both ran on Front Street. While the TRC had metal signs on the top and sides of each streetcar to denote the route, they weren’t illuminated. With electric light still in its infancy — arc lamps were too intense while early incandescent lamps were too dull to adequately illuminate route signs — the TRC developed an ingenious solution: uniquely coloured glass bulbs mounted on the roof, lit by interior lights. These lights became known as “bull’s eyes.”

Under this scheme, the Yonge Streetcar could be identified by one blue light, while the Broadview Streetcar could be identified with red and green lights. This system required passengers to memorize their route’s colours, and as new routes were introduced, changed, or withdrawn, it became cumbersome. Eventually, lighting technology caught up: while back-lit destination signs were possible by 1910, the TRC became hesitant to spend any capital funds to modernize its fleet or expand the streetcar railway network. The City of Toronto was forced to start its own streetcar system, the Toronto Civic Railway, to serve outlying neighbourhoods.

Though the Ontario Railway Board (predecessor to the Ontario Municipal Board) refused to force the TRC to expand the street railway network beyond the 1891 boundaries, it ordered the TRC to install backlit route signs. These new signs were introduced in February 1913, and those unique coloured bulbs disappeared by 1915. Six years later, the TRC’s franchise was up, and the city-owned Toronto Transportation Commission came into being.

In 1935, the TTC re-introduced “bull’s eyes” to its streetcar fleet. Officially known as an advance light, a single roof-mounted light, which gave off a blue-green hue, was designed to let waiting passengers know a streetcar was on its way. At the same time, the TTC installed dash lights, which both illuminated advertising cards and provided additional lighting, a useful safety feature.

IMG_7929-001.JPGTTC PCC Streetcar #4549 on Queen Street West in September 2018

New PCC streetcars, which began arriving in 1938, were built with the advance lights already installed. By 1940, all streetcars, including the remaining wooden cars acquired from the Toronto Railway Company, were equipped with advance lights. After the Second World War, PCC streetcars purchased from cities such as Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Kansas City, were similarly fitted with the roof-mounted lamps.

IMG_8717-001.JPGCLRV streetcar on Queen Street East, with two blue-green advance lights above the back-lit destination sign. 

By the 1970s, the TTC decided to maintain its street railway fleet after planning for their eventual replacement with buses and subways, and sought a replacement fleet for its ageing PCCs. The new Canadian Light Rail Vehicles (CLRVs) and Articulated Light Rail Vehicles (ALRVs) were designed with dual advance lamps, mounted within the streetcar body, immediately above the destination sign.

Advance lights were introduced to TTC buses starting in the mid-1990s, as new wheelchair-accessible vehicles were added to the fleet, starting with high-floor Orion V and Nova RTS buses, and continuing with newer low-floor vehicles. Blue lights indicated that the bus was accessible. As a bonus, when combined with new digital orange LED destination signs, the bus advance lights served to further improve the visibility of approaching transit vehicles.

11041809023_47fc64e5e7_o.jpgNova articulated bus with orange LED destination sign and blue LED advance lights indicating it is an accessible vehicle

The new Bombardier Flexity streetcars are similarly equipped with new blue LED lights, as they too are fully accessible vehicles. While blue advance lights are unique to TTC buses, the new light rail vehicles for Waterloo Region’s ION LRT, also built by Bombardier, sport similar blue lights.

IMG_8421-002.JPGION LRT vehicle undergoing testing in Kitchener, February 2019

Sources:
John F. Bromley and Jack May: Fifty Years of Progressive Transit (Electric Railroaders’ Association, 1973)
Mike Filey: Not a One-Horse Town: 125 years of Toronto and its Streetcars (Firefly Press, 1990)