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The story of the last new streetcar launch in Toronto

Posted by Chris Bateman / August 20, 2014

toronto clrv streetcarAt the end of this month, the TTC will debut a new design of streetcar for the first time in 32 years. The new low-floor LRVs (sorry, no catchy name like the Toronto Rocket) will enter service on Spadina Aug. 31. It's not clear whether there will be one or two new streetcars available--the TTC is guaranteeing just one, for now--but that there are any new surface rail vehicles at all is due to the efforts of activists. The result of their labours: the current fleet of streetcars.

In the early 1970s, the TTC, like transit providers in Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Montreal, Vancouver, and numerous other cities, was preparing to do away with its streetcar network. With each new underground extension, the TTC planned to shut down its surface rail in favour of buses. After opening the Yonge, University, Spadina, and Bloor-Danforth subways, streetcar routes on Dupont, Bay, and Coxwell were taken out of service. By 1980--the planned opening year of the Queen St. subway--the last Toronto streetcars were supposed to have vanished.

Enter Streetcars for Toronto, a group of activists determined to preserve the city's higher-capacity rail vehicles for future generations. In Nov. 1972, the group succeeded in their aim, when council voted to keep the city's streetcar network, albeit in a scaled-down form.

"Streetcar services were much more frequent in 1972 than they are today," transit advocate and former Streetcars for Toronto member Steve Munro wrote at Torontoist in 2012. "St. Clair had cars leaving Yonge Street every 90 seconds during rush hour. Of the downtown routes, only King has service now that is even close to 1972 levels: the system's overall capacity has declined due to a shrinking fleet of vehicles."

toronto clrv streetcarThe decision to keep the city's streetcars wasn't a simple one. The TTC's Presidents' Conference Committee streetcars were in urgent need of replacement, but no successor was in development. As a result, the province established the Ontario Transportation Development Corporation (later re-named Urban Transportation Development Corporation, UTDC for short) to design a new light rail vehicle it could sell to Toronto and, it hoped, other cities.

The result was the Canadian Light Rail Vehicle (CLRV,) which began arriving in Toronto in 1977. The first six cars were built in Switzerland and shipped to Canada with inward-facing bucket seats at the front and bright red interior trim. At the CNE in 1978, The Star cooed over the "space age" new streetcars with their large front windows and streamlined shape.

"The CLRV is a handsome creature, more efficient, more durable, more attractive, and more comfortable than any of its predecessors. It requires less energy to operate--33 percent less than a PCC car, for instance--[and] makes less noise. It's lifetime is at least 25 years. By that time, Toronto's romance with the streetcar should look like a marriage made in heaven."

Though the TTC chose to operate them as individual cars, the red, white, and black CLRVs were designed firmly with light rail applications in mind. They could, before the removal of their couplers in the 1980s, be joined together and operated as a train at speeds of up to 80 km/h. The Scarborough RT--the city's first light rail line--was going to use CLRVs before the UTDC successfully convinced the TTC to buy its new linear-induction vehicles. (The disused turning loop at Kennedy station was built before the change).

toronto clrv streetcarThe remaining 190 CLRVs were built in Thunder Bay with the faux wood interior and rows of seating we know today, but there were still odd quirks. At first, the windows of the new streetcars were sealed in anticipation of air conditioning (only one CLRV, #4041, has AC, a relic of an abandoned retrofitting scheme.) The Swiss-built streetcars were retrofitted to match the updated seating arrangement, but the red interior trim still remains on the ceiling, seat backs, interior dividers.

Intensive street testing took place through the winter of 1978. The new streetcars were thrashed: brakes slammed and accelerators stamped. Worn track presented a problem for fresh wheels and there were several derailments, many of them near the Roncesvalles carhouse. Despite the issues, the praise was near universal from drivers. TTC inspector John Robinson said boarding a CLRV was like upgrading from a Volkswagen to a Cadillac.

The new streetcars were launched Sept. 30, 1979 on the now defunct Long Branch line. Bathurst, St. Clair, Kingston Rd., and the Downtowner routes got theirs in 1980. Queen, King, Dundas, and Carlton were the last routes to be populated in 1981.

toronto alrv streetcarThe articulated streetcars--the longer vehicles used on Queen and occasionally Bathurst--weren't delivered with the original fleet, though they were conceived around the same time. The original TTC order for 200 regular CRLV streetcars was revised to 196 so that the remaining four could be used as a base for two extra long prototypes.

Blog Transit Toronto says the first ALRV, which was painted orange, had an electronic roll sign, and a pantograph for drawing electricity from the overhead wires, entered test service on Queen in 1982. The remaining 52, all of which are still operating on Toronto's streets (to date only one CLRV, #4063, has been scrapped) arrived between 1987 and 1989.

When the two new low-floor streetcars leave Spadina station next week, it will signal the beginning of the end of the articulated streetcars. The TTC says the longer, higher-capacity streetcars will be first to the scrapheap, though there's no fixed timeline for their departure.

Catch them while you still can.

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

Images: John Bromley, City of Toronto Archives

Discussion

27 Comments

justaguy / August 19, 2014 at 11:56 pm
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Forgive the stupid question but was there not a time when the front and rear "couplers" were covered with the same sort of apron that runs along the side of the cars? I seem to recall a time when the front and or rear, seen fully head-on, reminded me a bit of a Dalek.

PS Thx for the informative article.
iSkyscraper / August 20, 2014 at 12:01 am
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Don't forget how UTDC tried to sell the CLRV as a PCC-replacement to other cities, with mixed success:

Boston - (tested, never bought)
http://stevemunro.ca/?p=6601

San Jose - (yes, that's essentially an ALRV in disguise, which comprised their original LRT fleet.)
http://world.nycsubway.org/perl/show?52715

wistful / August 20, 2014 at 12:04 am
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I like the old cars.
Jacob / August 20, 2014 at 12:35 am
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"TTC will debut a new design of streetcar for the first time in 26 years."

2014 - 26 = 1988.

"The new streetcars were launched Sept. 30, 1979"

Wat.

"Bathurst, St. Clair, Kingston Rd., and the Downtowner routes got theirs in 1989. Queen, King, Dundas, and Carlton were the last routes to be populated in 1981."

Wat again.
WAT replying to a comment from Jacob / August 20, 2014 at 12:48 am
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WAT!
Jacob replying to a comment from WAT / August 20, 2014 at 12:59 am
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Internet slang. Learn it.
Wesley / August 20, 2014 at 07:44 am
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We can use slang on here Jacob? So cool, glad I joined the internet its kinda like being in a gang.
Give Him A Break replying to a comment from Jacob / August 20, 2014 at 08:57 am
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Jacob, according to this (already linked in the the article), the first Articulated LRV was put in service on July 17, 1988:

http://transit.toronto.on.ca/streetcar/4504.shtml

Martin / August 20, 2014 at 08:59 am
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Seems counterintuitive to scrap the longer, higher-capacity cars first when there are routes that could use them.
Jeff replying to a comment from Martin / August 20, 2014 at 09:22 am
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I think that's because, in spite of being newer, they're less reliable than the smaller ones.
Chris Bateman / August 20, 2014 at 09:24 am
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Hello commenters. I made a mistake on some of the dates. It should have been 32 years since the last new design of streetcar—the ALRV—in 1982. Also, 1989 should have been 1980 in the CLRV rollout schedule. Whoops! Chris
Martin replying to a comment from Jeff / August 20, 2014 at 10:07 am
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@Jeff Thanks
Not Len Bardsley / August 20, 2014 at 11:07 am
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It wasn't in the 1970s that L.A., Vancouver and other cities did away with their streetcars, they were all gone in the mid-1960s. By the early 1970s, only San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Toronto still had major streetcar systems. Smaller systems in New Orleans, Newark and suburban Cleveland also hung on.

Major U.S. systems in L.A. and Baltimore were the last to be abandoned in 1963. The rest were gone in the 1950s.
Chester / August 20, 2014 at 12:04 pm
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Where are these streetcar jaggoff advocates now. Would love to give them a piece of my mind now. It's funny how nimbyism has been controlling this city since back in those days.
@Not Len Bardsley / August 20, 2014 at 12:28 pm
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Pittsburgh, Philly and Boston retained mere remnants of their former streetcar systems whereas Toronto maintained a sizable chunk downtown. They remained a much more important part of our public transportation system here than those other cities. San Francisco kept a few museum type toys for tourists to line up and jump on and off of. Toronto never gets credit for the fact it resisted scrapping its streetcar system.
willeh replying to a comment from Martin / August 20, 2014 at 01:59 pm
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That would require common sense. Common sense is in extremely short supply in Toronto infrastructure and politics. .
Lioness / August 20, 2014 at 03:01 pm
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You forgot to mention how much heavier the "new" streetcars were. They generated a lot of complaints by people who lived by the tracks and had items shaken off tables& shelves on a regular basis.
And those CLRVs were never popularly called the Rocket. Their predecessors were called the Red Rocket by the passengers. The TTC co-opted the name and applied it to everything.
W. K. Lis / August 20, 2014 at 04:31 pm
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The model name of the new low-floor streetcars is the Bombardier Flexity Outlook. The model name of the new now-floor light rail vehicles for Transit City is the Bombardier Flexity Freedom.
Gus / August 20, 2014 at 05:12 pm
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So - the first old cars to go will be the ALRVs? Even though the new extra-long vehicles will go into service on Spadina, a route that never uses ALRVs? Am I missing something here?
john z / August 20, 2014 at 05:49 pm
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Those dumb activists ruined this city's transit for years to come.
Spike replying to a comment from john z / August 20, 2014 at 06:46 pm
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Big fucking whoop, go live someplace else. As somebody else has said, streetcars are a part of life in North American cities now, with more cities on the way.
Meatballs replying to a comment from Gus / August 20, 2014 at 07:27 pm
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I'd wager that it's because Spadina is fairly short, on a dedicated right of way and fairly close to Hillcrest. That way, when it breaks down, it doesn't cause complete chaos across the network like if it broke down on Queen. It also lets them test it going through an underground tunnel and station, the only other of which (Harbourfront) is currently out of action.
Bob / August 21, 2014 at 02:59 am
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Spadina was chosen cause it has the highest demand, short and runs on it's own lane.

They didn't want to start off running these new car with people boarding in traffic.

The ALRVs (the longer old ones) are less reliable than the older shorter cars. That's why they want to get rid of them first.
Godfrey Mallion / August 21, 2014 at 04:55 am
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Add PARLIAMENT to the routes ended with the opening of the Bloor-Danforth subway.
Steve Munro / August 21, 2014 at 05:54 am
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In a recent presentation on the launch of the new cars, the TTC noted that it is rethinking the retirement plans for the ALRVs, but provided no details.
bob replying to a comment from justaguy / August 23, 2014 at 09:46 am
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yes there were covers in the beginning, they did not last that long.

as for a name of the new car, I have heard folks calling it the
"RED DRAGON"
The Real Not Len Bardsley replying to a comment from @Not Len Bardsley / September 2, 2014 at 03:48 pm
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San Francisco has six streetcar lines OTHER than the historic F line on Market St. So it's not just the historic toys. They are run with Breda LRVs from the late 1990s.

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