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A streetcar named perspire

A streetcar named perspire

Traffic, construction challenge drivers on the Queen run

Katherine Harding


An occasional series about getting from Point A to Point B

“Mr. Breakfast” bounds on to the Queen streetcar near Broadview Ave. at 7:25 a.m.

Steven Misko, a veteran streetcar driver, gives the 20-something, scruffy workman the nickname after eyeing the heaped plate of pork chops and penne in his left hand and the fork in his right.

“Going home from work?” Misko asks politely.

“Nope. Heading,” mumbles the man as he digs into his crumpled black pants to find his $2.25 fare.

“This run is full of characters. That’s why I like it so much,” Misko says after the rider takes his seat. “It keeps things interesting.”

More than 42,000 characters ride the 501 Queen every day, making it the busiest in Toronto as it rumbles back and forth from Neville Park in the east to Long Branch in the west.

That’s just 7,000 fewer passengers than the GO Transit Lakeshore West train carries daily between Hamilton and Union Station.

Even though the 40-tonne, articulated light-rail vehicles (a.k.a. streetcars) can reach a top speed of 80 km/h, Misko says the average speed on Queen St. is more like 10.

“The traffic, construction, all the stopping and starting - it’s hard to get going,” he says.

“To drive this line you have be calm. If you’ve got high blood pressure, you can’t be working Queen. It can be great one minute, and then at the next stop you have a wino spitting in your face,” explains the 46-year-old father of two, who grew up on Queen St.

He’s been working for the Toronto Transit Commission for 25 years, long enough to have clocked a round-the-world trip: the Queen St. streetcars travel 8,000 kilometres per day.

“But the weird thing is that I’ve never really gone anywhere,” he quips.

His job is dictated by noises. Car horns, the “clink-clink” of change sliding down the fare box and, most importantly, the “cha-cha” of volcanic sand being automatically poured on the streetcar’s brakes. There are “sandboxes” underneath the first two seats in the streetcar that he must keep full.

“If I hear `coke-coke,’ that means I’ve run out of sand and my brakes will start sticking,” Misko says.

A one-way trip on the 501 is about 25 kilometres and is scheduled to take 90 minutes during the day. But “scheduled” is the operative word.

“It’s very easy to lose 15 minutes - it’s a big city. Everybody loves their cars,” he says. “Queen St. is hard because there are so many places to get trapped.”

A tiny computer on his dashboard tells him exactly how many minutes he’s late or early. In his world, 10 minutes is considered late.

“I live my life in minutes. I don’t take my break at 10:30. It’s 10:47,” Misko says.

At the start of his shift at 6:17 a.m., passengers quietly drift in and out. But as the morning grows older, the fashion statements and tempers become bolder and louder.

“Of all the runs, it takes Queen the longest to wake up,” Misko remarks.

By 11 a.m., the potent, squeaky-clean smell from the morning commuters has disappeared. Toronto is officially wide awake.

“You’re 25 minutes late, sir. I better buy you a watch for Christmas,” steams a pudgy, middle-aged man with Kim Mitchell hair as he flashes his TTC pass at Misko and marches to a seat.

The gray-haired driver quickly looks down at his computer. “It’s actually 10 minutes,” he replies.

The delay: A gas leak near Dufferin St. meant Misko’s streetcar had to be diverted down to King St. to avoid the fire trucks and work crews fixing the problem.

Even though there are 42 streetcars on Queen St. during rush hour (28 to 30 at other times), headways - the distance between streetcars - are unpredictable on this route.

“It’s easier to have gaps - sometimes 20 to 30 minutes - and boy, do people get mad,” he says. “That throws a lot of guys off, but I’m used to it. People just want to get where they have to get. They don’t care why I’m late.”

Misko says drivers get really frustrated when he has to manually get out and change a switch on the track.

“Most are automatic, but I have to change a switch once or twice a day. Everybody just starts honking at me.”

If he ran the city, he’d eliminate left turns on most streets.

“They just kill my time. Here’s me carrying more than 80 people sometimes, and there’s this Honda Civic ahead of me with just one person inside holding everyone up.”

Misko also thinks business deliveries and parking between Bathurst St. and Jarvis St. create a traffic bottleneck during peak hours.

“I understand businesses’ perspective, but when everyone is stuck in traffic, what good is that?”

Despite his complaints, he doesn’t think gridlock in Toronto is that bad.

“Traffic hasn’t changed that much down here. Queen was always congested. Now it just seems worse because people are in such a hurry all the time.

“People actually take the streetcar from the Beaches into the city now,” he says, with an expression of disbelief. “It’s just too bad more don’t do it at night and the weekends. The congestion can be horrible down there.”

But he suggests it’s Queen’s non-stop hustle-bustle that draws thousands of people here every day.

“This is where the action is. There are thousands of things to see. Queen is the city.”

Readers can reach Katherine Harding by phone at 416-869-4301 or e-mail at