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A brief history of the Scarborough RT

Posted by Chris Bateman / July 20, 2013

toronto scarborough rtThe SRT, the monorail-like spur from the Bloor-Danforth line to the heart of Scarborough Centre, has always felt orphaned from the rest of Toronto's rapid transit network. Conceived in the early 70s as a way of tying the new heart of Metro's eastern borough to downtown Toronto, the LRT line never truly realized its potential.

When it was completed in 1985, the driverless, centrally-controlled trains were part of the most advanced urban transit line in North America, one that the province hoped would be purchased and installed in cities around the world.

Now, less than 30 years from its opening day, city council has decided (for now) to replace the line with a subway extension. Here's how Scarborough got light rail, rode it for decades, then decided it wanted a subway instead.

toronto scarborough rtScarborough's light rail line started life as a planned streetcar route that would connect the under-construction Kennedy station at the end of the Bloor-Danforth line to Scarborough Town Centre via a dedicated right of way, short tunnel, and concrete section of elevated track.

As approved by Metro Toronto and the Ontario Municipal Board in 1977, the $108.7 million capital cost of the line would be split 75-25 between the province and Metro. Ontario also agreed to kick in an additional subsidy toward the operating costs in exchange for transit-friendly promotions to be organized by the city. The opening date was tentatively set for 1982.

toronto scarborough rtThe 7-kilometre route borrowed space from an existing CN corridor from Eglinton Avenue E north to Ellesmere Road before making a sharp turn under the tracks to Midland Avenue then rising on to a concrete bridge to the yard at McCowan Road. A pamphlet issued at the time said this alignment would leave the line best placed for extension to Malvern.

At one time there was a proposal to build a similar streetcar line at the Kipling end of the subway, too. As these things often go, the dormant track bed opposite the bus bays on the upper level of the station is the only portion of the project that was ever realized. Had it been completed, it would likely have served an area east of Pearson airport and used streetcars as well.toronto scarborough rt

"The RT will change the image of Scarborough," local Mayor Gus Harris declared in 1985. "This will be Scarborough's yellow brick road," said Alderman Brian Ashton, Harris' former assistant.

toronto scarborough rtAs originally conceived and partially built the line would use chains of six CLRV streetcars, the ones currently in service Toronto today, in a setup similar the Boston Green Line. The streetcars were one of the latest creations of the Urban Transportation Development Corporation (UTDC), a crown corporation formed to build vehicles for an anticipated worldwide light rail boom.

As it happened, the CLRVs only ran in a six-car train once during a test circuit of the St. Clair Carhouse on 21 March, 1982. Luckily for us, TTC worker Ray Corley was on hand to capture the occasion for posterity.

toronto clrv trainUnlike the ICTS vehicles the RT eventually adopted, the streetcars were unable to reverse and had to turn around in a large semi-circular curve. Although it's now out of use, the loop was built out the west end of Kennedy station above the kiss-and-rise area but it was only used for a short time due to problems getting the ICTS vehicles to make the tight curve.

toronto scarborough rtWork began on the line in October 1981 and the first of the 24 linear induction cars were delivered from Kingston, Ontario on April 17, 1984. The boxy white trains were the pride of the province's light rail program and, in the hope of attracting orders from other cities, the UTDC had convinced the TTC to switch out the streetcars.

It worked too, Vancouver and Detroit all bought in to the magnetic propulsion system and established their own rapid transit lines to mixed success. The welded aluminum cars cost $1.5 million each and could hold 100 people, 30 seated and 70 standing.

The motors, related to modern mag-lev and roller coaster technology, were capable of propelling the cars to a top speed of 72 km/h but with station stops the train typically averaged 32.5 km/h. A set of steering axles helped reduce rail grinding noise (the squealing heard when a subway train rounds a corner) and climate-controlled interiors promised a comfortable ride year round.

Interestingly (well, interesting for people like me,) the ubiquitous subway door chimes were first introduced to Toronto with the Scarborough RT. Toronto Sun writer Peter Howell called the brief computerized melody a "welcome change from the two piercing whistle blasts that signal a subway ride."toronto scarborough rtIt's hard to argue against the manufacturer's claim the trains were technologically advanced. Though there's an operator on every train to close the doors, monitor the track ahead, and ensure the safety of passengers, computers - 1980s computers, no lessĀ - do the rest.

Each vehicle has two on-board processors that accept commands from the central control station. Acceleration and braking points are calculated using speed and location data broadcast from antenna beneath the train to receivers along the route and relayed back to the remote driver.

Controllers in the central office also have control over de-icing systems and escalators via the SELTRAC software, a system developed in West Germany by Standard Elektrik Lorenz AG, now Alcatel-Lucent.

toronto scarborough rtThe $196 million RT opened on a crisp 23 March, 1985 with a day of free rides for passengers starting their journey on the line. In celebration, mayor Gus Harris proclaimed "City of the Future" week in Scarborough.

It was good timing. The first town of Scarborough in Yorkshire, England was celebrating the 500th anniversary of its town charter being issued by King Richard III in 1485 and their mayor was on hand to mark the arrival of the new transit line. More than 600 other dignitaries turned up to pose for the cameras.

toronto scarborough rtIt wasn't all photo ops and sound bites, however. Several protestors, many in wheelchairs, protested the line's lack of elevators or access ramps on the RT. The ceremonial first train left Scarborough Centre for Kennedy and a champagne reception to the sound of music specially composed for the occasion, leaving the demonstrators behind.

"Can you imagine a wheelchair in the rush hour at Bloor and Yonge? That's why we have a parallel system for disabled with WheelTrans," said TTC GM Alf Savage, defending the lack of accessible stations. Former TTC chief Michael Warren was forced to deny calling disabled access "distasteful and inconvenient" as a protestor claimed on a placard.

toronto scarborough rtOne planned expansion of the RT in 1993 called for 3.2 kms of new track and stations at Bellamy Road, Markham Road, Milner Avenue, and Sheppard East - a path similar to the cancelled LRT extension but with two extra stops. A new yard would have been built just north of the Bellamy station at a total cost of $430 million in 1992 money.

At the same time, the province pitched the Spadina line extension (similar to what's currently under-construction), the Sheppard subway, the Eglinton West subway, a westward stretch of Bloor-Danforth line to Sherway Gardens, and a Waterfront West LRT. All were to be finished by 2003.

toronto scarborough rtThe Scarborough RT would struggle to achieve ridership projections. The promotional material claimed the line could handle up to 20,000 passengers an hour in trains of six tethered cars but the first estimates predicted about 3,000 passengers an hour in each direction. Today an average of 1,800 board every hour at Kennedy, the busiest station on the line.

The most recent figures available from the TTC estimate 40,000 people use the line each day, almost none of them boarding or alighting at Ellesmere, the quietest station on Toronto's subway map. For comparison, Bessarion, famously the quietest stop on the subway, sees double the number of riders.

Had it been approved, the LRT conversion of the would have kept the current alignment and largely followed the proposed expansion plan first proposed back in 1993. The subway, if it survives, will forge a new path up McCowan Road to Sheppard Avenue with fewer stops.

It's not clear whether light rail will remain in the east end beyond 2015 but, lacklustre ridership aside, Toronto should be reasonably pleased with its first taste of surface rapid transit.


Diagram showing the motors under the ICTS carstoronto scarborough rt

Introducing the RT logotoronto scarborough rt

Map of the RTtoronto scarborough rt

An early map labeling Kennedy and the RT as under-constructiontoronto scarborough rt

The cover of the first public progress report showing streetcars as the vehicle of choicetoronto scarborough rt

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

Image: Ray Corley, TTC Archives, Ontario Archives.



Andf then Ford screwed EVERYTHING up / July 20, 2013 at 02:57 pm
Figures. And now Hudak is going to try to get his beak wet with this whole subway/RT fiasco.

Looks like any buddies of the Provincial Conservative Party are about to become even richer than they are at our expense. AGAIN.
YonishGo / July 20, 2013 at 03:16 pm
Ah the Scarboro LRT - the Chevette of urban Transportation - to the recycle bin with you, delicate little thing - the Boss is waiting to replace you.
Torontonian / July 20, 2013 at 04:23 pm
In the early '80s, the Urban Transportation
Development Corporation had an open house and
invitation to a ride on the prototype RTs
at the UTDC's test track. It was located out
on the Bath Road--the old Highway 33.

I was living in Kingston at the time and my
landlord and I went out to see what this was
all about.

In those days, it was quite the cat's pyjamas--
air conditioned, driverless and all that.
Sam / July 20, 2013 at 06:43 pm
Never liked it. Too delicate in ice and snow and it would seize up.

Worst, you travel by subway then had to transfer to that TTC toy. Come on, check out cities like New York and Montreal - they kept their heels to the ground and stuck with subways 100%.
Steve Munro / July 20, 2013 at 06:47 pm
Call it what they might, the SRT is not "LRT", but rather a downsized subway line. The fundamental characteristic of "LRT" is that it does not require a completely segregated right-of-way and can, where this is suitable, cross streets, and pedestrians can walk across the tracks. Automated operation, third rail power pickup, and linear induction propulsion all require complete right-of-way separation. This costs a lot and places constraints on expansion of a network. Although this was supposed to be the "missing link" between buses and subways, it failed miserably to achieve that aim.
Adam Sobolak / July 20, 2013 at 08:14 pm
Yeah, I'm aware of the "chimes" having begun here (back then, I'd mentally sing "BRAVE...NEW...WORLD" to them)
Jacob / July 21, 2013 at 12:33 am
When I look at that promotional material, I fondly recall the '80s ideal of "the future".

Sad the SRT didn't quite work out as planned. But then again, "the future" didn't quite work out as planned, either. ("Where is my flying car?")
Jesus Christ / July 21, 2013 at 06:53 am
Fuck, Scarborough is simply an absolute wasteland.
John / July 21, 2013 at 08:02 am
Ridiculous, If transit planning were left in the hands of actual transit planners. Instead of self serving politicians looking to only further their own careers by pandering to local interests while ignoring the good of the city as a whole. We would be in a far better place with transit. the RT has never even reached ridership predictions and this is after almost 30 years. And we have these jackass politicians screaming subway. Meanwhile these dolts who keep saying they want a subway or nothing neglect to take into account that a subway will serve a fraction of what the LRT would serve in the way of distance. and that the subway option would have only 3 stops. and also that although it is relatively simple and cost effective to extend an LRT and connect it with other LRT lines, the same cannot be said for subways. If we let real transit planners build our system we would have a well integrated and large network of transit lines all over the city. Eglinton would have a subway by now, Queen street as well. with LRT serving finch, jane, the waterfront and so on. instead what do we have? some stupid pet project to build a subway extension into another damn city. attached to a line which is already at capacity. I mean sure it would have made sense to deal with the fact that the Yonge line had reached its capacity limits by building a relief line to help reduce congestion on the line. But no instead we decide that extending the line into Vaughn is a good idea. forget the rapid growth in the downtown core with all that development. And then there is the shepherd line, We desperately needed a line on Eglinton and one started construction but we cancelled it, filled in the hole and spent billions on a line to Ikea which would be underused for decades to come. We rock!
HolyDumfuck replying to a comment from Jesus Christ / July 21, 2013 at 09:09 am
Wasted Land.
Di / July 21, 2013 at 09:18 am
I hope a sharknado destroys every last inch of Scarborough.
Steven / July 21, 2013 at 10:10 am
Why not an LRT line to Toronto Island?
W. K. Lis / July 21, 2013 at 03:12 pm
But, I want a pony!!!
Ben Smith replying to a comment from Sam / July 21, 2013 at 07:16 pm
The New York metro area not only has light rail, it has an ICTS line operating to JFK Airport.

That out of the way, I was a little disappointed with this write up. It does a great job chronicling its history, but I was hoping to hear about its near abandonment. People seemed so excited and enthusiastic about it when it first opened, how did it become the orphan of the system? Why didn't Scarborough look to change the zoning around stations to make them more transit friendly? Why did the enthusiasm drop off so rapidly that even the idea of a multi-year shut down today is politically acceptable, and that a whole new alignment is being sought?
Jacob replying to a comment from Ben Smith / July 21, 2013 at 09:54 pm
Jumping on a hype bandwagon is the easy part. Keeping it up for the long run is the hard part.

I dropped someone off at Ellesmere Station yesterday, and thought about how much more used it would be if they had put a bus loop into it like Lawrence East Station. At least there's townhouses being developed right next to it, now. But how the land on the other side of it got developed into a seniors residence baffles me, since the station isn't even accessible.
Iain / July 21, 2013 at 10:11 pm
Thanks for the fantastic article. I really wish Torontonians had more respect for what it is. I don't get why it's ignored whenever transit options come up in Scarborough. They already have transit - the rt! Yes, it's showing its age - but why hasn't the option of buying new vehicles (like Vancouver) and extending the line using ICTS/ALRT technology been explored further? I remember it came up many years ago but I don't remember why it was dismissed. It's frustrating. It's a wonderful home-grown technology that works and I don't think the rest of the Province (I live in Kitchener) should have to pay for a subway (which will serve fewer people at a higher cost) simply because they feel they "deserve it". We'd kill for something like the rt in Kitchener...
Steve / July 22, 2013 at 10:07 am
Look at all the elitist cheapshots at Scarborough. Class prejudice is alive and well here in North America. So many hipster haters who've never spent any time in Scarborough.
When the Scarborough Subway is completed, smart people will see that it has a lot to offer. 15 years nobody in Manhattan had anything nice to say about Brooklyn, now all the hipster wanna-be's are desperate to live out there.
the lemur replying to a comment from Steve / July 22, 2013 at 10:25 am
The rise in Brooklyn's popularity had nothing to do with the subway. Try again.
Steve / July 22, 2013 at 10:48 am

I was just pointing out that things can change quite a lot in a short space of time.

Scarborough won't have an opportunity to grow if there isn't a subway extension. It's ludicrous to suggest that 625,000 people should have to make do with just two subway stations.

Last summer many Torontonians were saddened by the Danzig street murders. You want to help areas like Danzig? Cut the commute time to get downtown via TTC from 85 minutes to 60 minutes. You do that by building a subway lines that stops at Lawrence Avenue and the Scarborough Town Centre.
Alex / July 22, 2013 at 10:59 am
The frickin' RT from the 1980s has de-icing systems and yet GO in the 2000's still can't figure it out?!

I think the problem with the RT was they thought Scarborough would get denser to support it, but they didn't. Scarborough tried to construct a downtown at the STC, but nobody wanted to work or live there. I don't know what Scarborough needs to do, but if they actually build the subway they better get some density along the line, otherwise it will be another money pit for the TTC operations budget, just like Sheppard.
Justin Bernard / July 22, 2013 at 11:03 am
This article would have some merit, if they actually looked at the pictures in the article, and realize the SRT is NOT LRT. It's a automated light metro technology. Light Rail doesn't require a completely enclosed ROW, or linear induction motors. BlogTo failed on this article.
Steve / July 22, 2013 at 11:06 am
Fact. There are 625,000 people in Scarborough. Fact. It's 30% of the landmass of Toronto.
Fact. It was just 2 subway stations (Vic Park is on the Scarborough border) both located in the SW corner of Scarborough.

The reason that the Scarborough Town Centre didn't get denser was because it was serviced by a crappy, slow, unreliable LRT. If the subway went to STC, there would thousands of more people living in the area.
Tommy replying to a comment from Steve / July 22, 2013 at 07:30 pm
Just like the Sheppard line brought density and prosperity to Sheppard and North York!? The entire line is nothing but condos filled with car-drivers. And the jobs people said would come never materialized. Now I can get a seat on the 8-dollar subsidy-per-ride Sheppard Subway in the middle of rush hour because NO ONE rides it.

The reason STC didn't get dense was because it's in a crap location that no one wants to go to. It's a suburban hellhole and no amount of transit is going to help.
Steve replying to a comment from Tommy / July 23, 2013 at 10:14 am
Suburban hellhole?
Snob. Utter snob.
Tommy, you should move to the UK, where your form of classism is more accepted.
Comparing the Sheppard line to the Scarborough subway extension is a joke. / October 25, 2013 at 01:38 pm
A number of riverrs allow only fly fish 200 years
old fishing all up and down during a bite. Steve Bellion, 23, caught the 80-year-old reptile at Earlswood Lakes in the West - New Orleans.
It didn't feel right, didn't feel like I needed to get out
this fall, make sure it doesn't break free and cause additional damage to other boats or property.
Mr.bob replying to a comment from Tommy / December 3, 2013 at 04:46 pm
SCS is not crap at all,it has more bus connections than ANY station,a mall, and a bus terminal( Megabus,GO,and Greyhound serve it)Look at McCowan,2 buses(that stop at SCS),only condos,and it is LITERALLY across from SCS.
Mr.bob replying to a comment from sprzet wedkarski dragon / December 8, 2013 at 09:17 am
Why r you speaking about fishing
Mr.bob / December 8, 2013 at 09:19 am
The M line in New York is partly elevated when it hits brooklyn
Mr.M / February 20, 2015 at 03:30 pm
Here's the real story.
The Province invented a new technology and was willing to spend a lot of money to get gullible Scarborough officials to change the under construction LRT to a linear induction powered line. The line turned out to offer relatively low capacity at a high price, which resulted in cancelling the planned extension to Malvern along with the rest of the proposed suburban LRT network.
Bombardier later purchased the proprietary technology and invented the Mark 2, which can't run on the SRT or Detroit's system. When the TTC tried to order Mark 1 cars, it was informed by Bombardier that they were discontinued and could not be produced for an affordable price. Bombardier was more interested in profiting from its linear induction monopoly, by lobbying the Province & city to pay it to rebuild the line for its new vehicles - at a hefty price.
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