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Great, if you could hop a track home

Letter from Queen street: TTC network has expanded but it has 52 fewer streetcars

Peter Kuitenbrouwer, National Post
Published: Thursday, January 04, 2007

The other day the kids and I caught the Dundas streetcar for an afternoon skate on Nathan Phillips Square. What a nightmare! When we left the crowded rink, we headed down to Queen Street to catch the 501 car westbound, and at 4 p.m. joined a crowd of about 100 people waiting at the stop. A sign on the post says the car comes every six minutes, but in the clear afternoon air I could see very far east on Queen Street. There was no streetcar in sight.

An inspector in a wine-coloured jacket and black-brimmed hat arrived, radio squawking. “Where is the streetcar?” I asked him.

“I just don’t have enough streetcars to put on this line,” he said. “Twenty years ago I had 55 streetcars operating on Queen Street. Today I have 31. It’s just nuts.”

It seemed hard to believe, so a few days later I called young Adam Giambrone, the new chair of the Toronto Transit Commission. Mr. Giambrone, who was at TTC headquarters for a “briefing,” passed the phone to Mitch Stamler, manager of surface planning, whom he called “our secret weapon.”

Indeed, Mr. Stamler spun the numbers so thoroughly that my head is still spinning.

Yes, the TTC has fewer streetcars, but that is not the problem, says Mr. Stamler. Let’s take this slow and try to sort it out.

First, it is true that Toronto today has way more streetcar track, and fewer streetcars to run on it, than 20 years ago. In 1989 the TTC operated 300 streetcars: 196 Canadian Light Rail Vehicles, 52 Articulated Light Rail Vehicles, and 52 of the old Presidents Conference Committee Cars.

In 1990 Toronto added a new streetcar line on Queen’s Quay, and in 1997, the city replaced the Spadina bus with a streetcar line, running from Queen’s Quay to Bloor Street. During that time the city retired the 52 PCCS. Today, then, we have a much larger streetcar network and 52 fewer streetcars.

But the TTC argues that this balances out, because ridership has declined.

Mr. Stamler says the 31 articulated streetcars now operating on Queen at peak hours are equal to 45 of the shorter streetcars that formerly plied that route.

“That’s a reduction of 18% in capacity [since 1989],” he said. “Ridership on that route has declined a staggering 41% since then.”

He blames the drop in riders on all the factories that have closed in the west end of Toronto. (What about those who have ditched it because it never comes?)

Adding more streetcars won’t solve the problems on Queen. He says that on King Street, the TTC has added nine streetcars during peak times in the past few years to deal with new condo growth, but hasn’t increased ridership.

“More streetcars just get lost in the congestion of mixed traffic,” he says.

I checked with others who ride the TTC every day. Most agreed with my general observation that the King, Dundas and College streetcars are all more reliable than the Queen car — though still not great.

Gord Perks, new councillor for Parkdale- High Park, who does not own a car, rides the 505 Dundas West streetcar from his home, near Dundas Street and Dovercourt Road, to City Hall every day.

“I call the Dundas streetcar the morning mosh pit,” he says. “On a good day it’s a 15-minute ride, and on a bad day it’s a 45-minute ride.”

So what’s the solution? More dedicated streetcar lanes, a la St. Clair, says Mr. Stamler.

Even so, to achieve this, we’ll need more streetcars.

“The commission is working with the city and the province on a streetcar procurement strategy,” assures Mr. Giambrone, “in order to get new streetcars on the streets of Toronto as early as 2010.”

After the kids and I waited 20 minutes, three streetcars arrived together. The driver ordered us off the first one, because it was too full. We got on the second one, but it short-turned at Shaw Street, so we got on the third one, which finally brought us home. There must be a better way.

I travel next week to Amsterdam to check out, among other things, that city’s streetcar network, so stay tuned.