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A brief history of TTC tokens

Posted by Chris Bateman / December 1, 2012

ttc tokensWhen the TTC signed an agreement with Metrolinx to bring full-scale Presto facilities to the subway, streetcar, and bus network this week it officially set a funeral date for its humble token. In 2015, when riders will pay fares by electronic card or cash, the token will have no place in the fare box.

The little coins date back to the 1950s when counterfeiters were becoming increasingly adept at forging paper tickets and the TTC was keen to update its fare payment system for the opening of the Yonge subway. It would be a while before crafty crooks would find a way to skip out on fares, but they got there in the end.

ttc tokensGetting the first batch of 10 million tokens made wasn't without controversy. Local stamping businesses cried foul when the TTC awarded the contract to Southam Press Co., a Montreal firm, without properly circulating the specifications locally. Two owners quoted in the Toronto Star said they had bid assuming the coins would be approximately the size and weight of a nickel. Southam Press won because their lowest bid correctly established the roughly dime-sized proportions.

The first fares paid with a dedicated coin were pushed into brand new automatic turnstiles under Yonge street when Canada's first subway opened in 1954. An instructional leaflet circulated at the time told passengers how to purchase a token from an automatic machine (one for 15 cents, four for 60) and proceed into the underground. For nostalgia buffs, two of these original-style turnstiles are still in place at Sherbourne station.

The first generation tokens were made of aluminum with a simple "good for one fare" message stamped on the verso. In case anyone got confused by the concept, special guides were on hand to answer questions and explain the idea of a valueless coin to commuters.

ttc tokensThe TTC introduced a fare zone system - an idea it would tweak over the years - in 1954 that offered five tokens for 50 cents instead of three for a quarter. It was only the second fare hike in the Commission's history and was naturally met with some resistance. The "single-fare zone" encompassed Forest Hill, Leaside, East York, Swansea, and the core of the city; travel to the townships outside required a second coin. Despite the concerns, the Star promised "Toronto will likely still hold the lead for efficient and inexpensive transportation."

The automatic vending machines, which were beset with technical problems from day one, couldn't be recalibrated to dispense more tokens under the new system and the TTC seriously considered ditching the three-month old tokens altogether. The machines were so bad that maintenance crews worked nights just to keep them running.

The automatic dispensers were removed for several months to iron out these kinks while an experimental single token dispenser was tested at King station in 1960.

During this time it was possible to buy tokens in any amount from the ticket booth at subway stations and from guides. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, disgruntled TTC workers occasionally refused to do sell single tokens, prompting reprimands and a note in the newspaper.

toronto ttc tokensAs the value of a token increased with each fare hike, the TTC had to adapt the way it operated to prevent people buying in bulk and hoarding the coins for months, something that continues to be a problem. As their popularity grew, customers complained the dime-sized pieces were too easy to mix up with regular change and so square and even triangular replacements were considered.

Instead, the solution came in the form of a red paper container with the druggy name "Tokestrip" which was capable of holding seven tokens and cost a $1 with all purchases of multiple tokens. This was later replaced with a plastic version sponsored by the Bank of Montreal, much to the annoyance of Peter H. Storm, the lone man making them. "The public simply won't be bothered with these new containers," he confidently declared, assuming the public would rage for his tear-off container's return. They didn't.

toronto ttc tokensA new, significantly heavier brass token with a large version of the TTC crest on the face and a "winged symbol" (what would eventually become the current logo) on the back replaced the original coinage in 1963. Five years later a special commemorative edition was minted to celebrate the opening of the Bloor-Danforth extension to Islington and Warden stations.

The coins made in the 1960s would remain the TTC's token of choice until 2006 when the FBI busted a giant counterfeiting ring specializing in slugs capable of fooling Toronto's automated turnstiles and all but the most diligent of operators. The illegal operation made roughly 5 million fake tokens from its base in the United States, costing the cash-strapped TTC roughly $10 million in lost revenue.toronto ttc tokensThe fakes were sold at steep discounts through a loose network in bars, outside stations, workplaces, and online. The only sure way to spot a fake was tighter than normal spacing on the embossed lettering. In the fallout from the scam, the TTC promised an entirely new transit currency would be in place within a year.

The replacement tokens, stamped by Osborne Coinage, an American company, would be the final metal fares to circulate in Toronto and were designed to be harder to forge - the swirled pattern on the edges makes it harder for bootleggers to cut a fake stamp plate.

When the first batch of 20 million high-security coins were released in late 2006 at a cost of $1.7 million (8.5 cents each) the TTC attempted to coin the nickname the "teeny-tiny toonie." It didn't. Nevertheless, the tokens will no doubt be missed when they are finally dropped for good in the next three years.

Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Images: City of Toronto Archives, public domain, and "TTC Tokens from 1954 & 2012" by Brian.Nguyen in the blogTO Flickr pool.



Sean / December 1, 2012 at 09:24 am
Thank you.

I like informative stories like this one.

Tokens should still stick around -my opinion.
Simon Tarses replying to a comment from Sean / December 1, 2012 at 09:30 am
'Tokens should still stick around -my opinion.'

You and me both.
jer / December 1, 2012 at 09:48 am
Oh, there goes the investment strategy that at one time I read was beating the TSX in terms of return (hoarding tokens).

I mentioned it before, but, the problem with Presto is that the card itself costs like $6! Is the technology the same as Near Field Communication (NFC). The day that people can just store their presto card on their phone will make it a much easier solution. In addition to buying the Presto card for 6 bucks they expire in 5 years. I wonder why they have an expiry on them? Why not let them be used until they stop working.

They should have come up with a lower cost card so that they could give them away to tourists here for 2 or 3 days, etc.

Also, I guess presto would open the way up for a return of a "zone system" of travel where if you cross a zone the rates would be higher.
cheech but not chong / December 1, 2012 at 09:53 am
bring back the tokestrip man!
Suprised / December 1, 2012 at 10:21 am
A smiling TTC employee! So they did exist! The sad part is,
the subway stations are largely unrennovated from that time.
We have fallen behind most every first and second world country in terms of their transit systems.
Makes you wonder to where our tax money was siphoned off.
k386 replying to a comment from Suprised / December 1, 2012 at 11:40 am
Powdered gravy futures.
avas / December 1, 2012 at 12:17 pm
i used to bootleg tokens back in high school 20$ for 20
Julian / December 1, 2012 at 12:59 pm
Bring back the fake tokens!
Simon Tarses replying to a comment from Suprised / December 1, 2012 at 01:00 pm
Anybody with any sense knows that the defunding of the TTC under Harris is to blame, and ONLY that.

As for how the stations look these days-meh on that. People think that the TTC looks like shit, but so does the NYCTA (I'll bet) and many others in the USA. The thing is, even when (and if) the TTC renovates, people at Blog TO will still find time to bitch like babies about how bad the station designs are-hell, just look at how the designs for the stations of the new extension were treated when they were fisrst shown on Blog TO. So, other than some minor reno, I think that the TTC is okay-unlike the rest of you, I just want to get somewhere, and don't really care about the looks of stations.
Marc / December 1, 2012 at 01:05 pm
And tokens should be just that - HISTORY. Join the 21st century and being updated and user-friendly.
Simon Tarses replying to a comment from Marc / December 1, 2012 at 01:52 pm
I would love to see how smug you are, asshole, when (and if) your job was/is replaced by automation. How will you feel then, and what will you do?
KOH / December 1, 2012 at 02:21 pm
It's good to keep the tokens...but please introduce a smart card system that will make passengers' lives much more convenient.
It's the 21st century, personally I don't want to bring many tokens in my wallet just because Im travelling by subway. Almost all metros in the world already have smart card systems installed. Why not Toronto?
Archaic replying to a comment from Simon Tarses / December 1, 2012 at 02:32 pm
First of all Marc didn't say anything about removing the fare collector. The last time I bought tokens from a fare collector it took 20 mins. Please remove this archaic form of payment and join other world-class cities with a card. I'm sure those machines require maintenance and the fare collector would be put to better use than sleeping on the job.
Ling Gu replying to a comment from Archaic / December 1, 2012 at 02:39 pm
So well said. The end of tokens cannot come soon enough. It really is time for he TTC to enter the twenty-first century, no matter how fiercely the union and its apologists cry foul.
Dean / December 1, 2012 at 02:41 pm
The brass token was introduced when the fare increased. When the next fare increase occurred, the aluminum ones came back.
Sean / December 1, 2012 at 04:07 pm
Cash is the other alternative. Tourists won't like using a card that will expire before their next visit. Cards are plastic and are unreliable.
First World Problems / December 1, 2012 at 04:14 pm
"Oh, poor me! I had to wait in line for tokens! I'm so hard done by! Can't everyone please feel sorry for me and my fake problems? Please?!!!"
the lemur / December 1, 2012 at 05:14 pm
Tokens need to go. Other cities have paper or plastic passes that are reliable and don't expire.
MER1978 / December 1, 2012 at 11:11 pm
I agree we should ditch the tokens... they lost millions with counterfeit tokens in the past... having said that... the main reason for not doing Presto years ago was supposed to be about how crazy expensive it would be to install all of those machines and the TTC really doesn't have that kind of money to play with.
UMMM / December 1, 2012 at 11:12 pm
If getting rid of tokens threatens your job, you are a sad sack! Your mother must be proud.
j-rock / December 3, 2012 at 09:24 am
On a personal level, I'll miss tokens because they've been around for my entire life, and most of my parents' lives for that matter, but it's time to move on. Refillable payment cards are definitely the way to go, although the Presto card appears to be aimed at regular users of the system. What about those infrequent riders, or tourists? Are they planning on making another fare option available (disposable card etc.), or is it going to simply be cash or Presto?
Kelly / December 3, 2012 at 09:53 am
It would be great if the Presto cards are setup similar to London's Oyster card, where you pay a refundable deposit when you first buy the card. Bring back the card, get back your cash.
the lemur replying to a comment from j-rock / December 3, 2012 at 10:06 am
I hope they replace tokens and plain-paper tickets with a stored-value paper ticket like the MTA's Metrocard or Boston's Charlie card - it's disposable if you use up the value stored on it (or as much of it as you can), but you can also keep it for another time. Alternatively they could offer such a card for a set period from purchase or a set number of rides.
EC / December 3, 2012 at 12:29 pm
Looks like the TTC was cursed with problems like this from day 1! I thought fare issues, payment systems and counterfeits were headaches of our TTC-generation. I can't wait for the archaic tokens to go. It amazed me that it took so long for an airport link to be built and for tokens to be abolished...but after reading this article, I'm starting to change my mind. The TTC sure lost a lot of money over the years with those problems. An e-system cannot come soon enough now though!!
token toker / February 18, 2013 at 02:25 pm
i remember when i accidently took a cuban penny with my tokens for the day and it worked....after that everytime i went to cuba i made sure i had alot of cuban pennies in my luggage home....
bob / February 25, 2013 at 03:21 pm
bob / February 25, 2013 at 03:22 pm
i love you?
Daniel Wright / April 8, 2013 at 02:27 pm
Toronto old ttc tokens remind me of good old times when neon/led open signs just came in and you could still get by with one job income homes.
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necessary / September 30, 2013 at 09:36 am
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Moaz Ahmad / November 27, 2014 at 11:51 pm
I've always liked the ChipCoin...RFID plastic chip that can be tapped or deposited as needed. It doesn't take up as much space as a card and isn't as small as a token so it's not easily lost.

The Bangkok Metro is one place that uses a Chip Coin.
Moaz Ahmad / November 27, 2014 at 11:56 pm
By the way, it's too bad the big banks never moved forward with their DExIt RFID key tag. It would have been great to use on the TTC and easy enough to have 2 key takes for different transit systems. One of the reasons PRESTO costs so much is the complicated back end software needed to understand the fare & payment structures of 9 different transit agencies.
Porkchop / November 28, 2014 at 07:31 am
When I was a kid there was a Portuguese coin that worked perfectly in the machines. The coin was literally worth 0.1 cents.
scottd / November 28, 2014 at 08:29 am
I died and went to heaven. Oh wait I was in London and using an Oyster card.
unclebuck / November 28, 2014 at 09:51 am
Those T.T.C pictures are from Archives??? That's how they look now.....
toby / February 23, 2015 at 03:32 pm
I was going through my fathers heirlooms and found some interesting TTC tokens. It has an Native Indian on one knee shooting an arrow on one side stating" the corporation of the borough of etobicoke" Does anyone know anything about these tokens? It also has the ttc coat of arms on the other side dated 1954
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