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TTC aims for the future with Red Rockets

Commuter Corner
Joseph Hall

With the opening of its latest streetcar line last week, the Toronto Transit Commission is going back to its future.

The Harbourfront 509 line, running between Union Station and Exhibition Place, is the newest in a history of Toronto streetcar routes that dates back to 1861. The new line is not likely to be the last.

While other North American cities abandoned their lines in droves over the last half-century, Toronto has held tight to its streetcars, building the largest fleet on the continent (248 cars) and creating a lively, clanking and colourful symbol for this city.

TTC chief general manager Rick Ducharme says more lines are likely on the way.

“To be frank, if we get a million more people in this city like (Toronto planning chief) Paul Bedford says, we’re going to eventually need more subways,” he says. “But until we get there, and that could be years down the road, streetcars are going to be a major component.”

The place they’ll likely have the quickest impact is right in the vicinity of the new Harbourfront line.

With an eastern line proposed in the Fung waterfront report that would run from Union Station to the port lands and another route reaching west past Ontario Place now in the planning stages, the lakeshore may well be a bustling streetcar corridor within the decade.

Built like the existing Harbourfront line on an exclusive right of way, a waterfront service would be the quickest and cleanest of all the TTC’s 144 bus and streetcar routes.

Having an extended and speedy lakeshore line would become even more important should the Gardiner Expressway come down.

But building streetcar lines on exclusive rights of way - the only viable option in light of the city’s ever-increasing traffic volume - makes them as expensive as they are attractive.

The section of track that opened last week along Queens Quay to complete the Harbourfront route was only 850 metres long but cost $13.3 million to build.

The huge capital cost of installing these exclusive corridors makes streetcar lines much more expensive to establish than new bus routes.

However, standard buses carry a maximum of 60 passengers while a normal-sized streetcar can easily haul 75 at a time. When a route reaches a volume of 3,600 people an hour during peak periods, then streetcars become the more economical operating option.

Should Toronto experience the sort of population boom envisioned by Bedford, new streetcar lines could become commonplace along such busy thoroughfares as Finch Ave. E., Coxwell Ave. and Dufferin St.

Aside from building new, exclusive lines, there are ways to improve the frequency and quality of the streetcar services already up and running.

Commission staff propose a number of inexpensive measures, for example, to improve the King St. 504 line’s slow and often erratic service.

While hugely popular - the 504 carries 50,000 passengers a day between the Dundas West and Broadview subway stations - the streetcars frequently slow to a crawl in their daily battles with downtown traffic.

Some of the remedial measures being proposed are extremely simple and could be implemented by the TTC itself.

Posting more supervisors along the route would help space vehicles properly and allow passengers to enter via rear doors to reduce the stop times.

Other measures, however, would need city approval.

These include allowing streetcars the exclusive use of the centre lanes during rush hours and instigating towing blitzes against motorists who stop or park illegally along the curb lanes, squeezing traffic into the streetcars’ path.

Both suggestions would require beefed-up police enforcement along a route. Because the streetcars typically carry far more people than do the cars they share the road with, the TTC vehicles should be given priority, the commission argues.

Readers can contact Joseph Hall by phone at (416) 869-4390 or e-mail at