Replica 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 This system required passengers to memorize their route’s colours, and as new routes were introduced, changed, or withdrawn, it became cumbersome.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.
TTC 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.
CLRV 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.
Nova 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.
ION LRT vehicle undergoing testing in Kitchener, February 2019
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)