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Toronto streetcar named among world's best

20071229-torontostar.jpg

LUCAS OLENIUK/TORONTO STAR

The Queen streetcar loops back onto Queen St. E. at the end of the line.

Top 10 trams

From Journeys of a Lifetime:

“Route 501 boasts one of the longest streetcar routes in North America. Starting on Lake Shore Blvd., it whisks through lively downtown Toronto and into the Beach district with its distinctive red-and-white Articulated Light Rail Vehicles.”

The full list of tram rides, in no particular order:

Toronto’s 501 Queen Street car

Seattle’s George Benson waterfront streetcar

New Orleans’ St. Charles streetcar tour

San Francisco’s Streetcar F

Hong Kong’s trams

Melbourne’s Tram 96

Budapest No. 2 tram

Berlin’s Tram 68

Amsterdam’s No. 2 tram

Lisbon’s No. 28 tram

National Geographic includes the TTC’s Queen streetcar, the 501, one of the top 10 trolley routes

Dec 29, 2007 04:30 AM

Praise from afar is nice, but the Queen car is mired in route delays, flagging rider levels

It’s a crowded ride, but oh, what a view.

The 501 has become emblematic of the stretched service on the TTC. But finally there’s a glint of good news for the much-maligned queen of Toronto’s streetcar routes.

The venerable 501 - known as the Queen car - has made National Geographic’s list of the world’s top 10 trolley rides. It’s a distinction shared with streetcar routes as far-flung as Melbourne, Seattle and Lisbon, part of the contents of the coffee-table book Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Greatest Trips, published in October.

“Throwbacks to an earlier age, the great trolley routes we selected let you jump on and off with the locals while riding through some of the most scenic and historic districts of each city,” wrote National Geographic editor Larry Pogue of the selections.

According to the book, the Queen streetcar made the list because it is one of the longest routes in North America while showcasing “lively downtown Toronto.”

The 48.9-km. line stretches from Long Branch on the Mississauga border to the city’s easternmost streetcar loop at Neville Park.

“It is a wonderful route,” said TTC spokesperson Marilyn Bolton. “What I love about it is the interesting, shops, buildings and architecture you can see.”

Along with being the city’s longest route, the 501 has a reputation for being among the most troubled. The TTC’s estimate of 43,500 riders each weekday in 2006 is down from 63,000 in 1981.

Delays, unannounced route changes, and overcrowding on the route are so unpopular that earlier this month, the Rocket Riders advocacy group held a “Fix the 501” forum at Metro Hall that attracted dozens of disgruntled riders.

Unless the TTC tackles the service issues on the Queen car, it can’t expect Torontonians to buy into the $6 billion Transit City plan that would extend light rail to the key suburban corridors, says transit activist Steve Munro.

“The TTC’s got to make up its mind: Are we going to provide good service here or are they going to condemn the street to having third rate or no transit service? That’s the issue that’s going to face them on the whole suburban expansion,” he said. Much of the 501’s ridership decline coincided with the expansion of the Bloor-Danforth subway and the Scarborough RT in the 1980s, according to the TTC.

“Riders moved up (north) to take advantage of the new subway lines and moved away from the Queen streetcar,” said Bolton.

The sheer length of the route is also a problem. When a car blocks a streetcar by making an illegal left turn or someone parks on the tracks or some other delay occurs on the line, the reverberations travel a long way.

One decision was to put longer articulated vehicles on the route that would carry more people, running every six minutes instead of four. But it hasn’t helped, said Munro.

He actually rates the Carlton 506 car as the city’s best, for its span of interesting neighbourhoods from Little India in the east to High Park in the west.

Still, he says, “the thing about Queen is that you get a cross section of seeing how the central city is coming back to life again.”

And unlike some on the National Geographic list such as the Seattle and New Orleans routes, the 501 isn’t a tourist line, says Munro. It’s integral to the city’s transit system.

- Tess Kalinowski


It’s not too good if you’re in a hurry, but the 501 does give a wonderful look at city’s many faces

Torontonians who ride it daily might not be impressed, but National Geographic has named the Queen streetcar, the 501, one of the top 10 trolley routes in the world. The honour is included in a new book, Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Greatest Trips.

Despite all the hassles - the delays, slow service and overcrowding - it’s not hard to understand why the route is lauded. Running almost 50 kilometres from end to end, the 501 travels through the heart of the city, and beyond. Beginning deep in the east end at Neville Park, within sight of the extraordinary R.C. Harris Filtration Plant, it ends at Long Branch on the brink of the wide open spaces of suburbia.

On a good day, the trip takes 90 minutes, but as driver Patrick Lavallee points out, that’s on a good day. A bad day can mean up to five hours, most of its spent waiting for cars and trucks to get out of the way.

“The problem,” he explains, “is that the route’s too long. It should be divided into three shorter routes.”

But for anyone not hurrying between home and work, the 501 offers a memorable urban experience. It reveals the city in all its layers and variations. It moves through a kind of time warp that starts in the mid-19th century and ends with today.

It passes through low-rise residential blocks and many-towered commercial districts. It goes past two city halls, the old and new, some of our grandest historical structures as well as some of the most banal. It encompasses our past and points to the future.

The 501 sets out at Neville Park, which used to be where the city ended and Scarborough started. Its Queen St. E. stretch in the Beach shows the power of the city to overcome its surroundings. Most buildings here tend to be mean and utilitarian, but that hasn’t stifled the exuberance.

The architecture along Queen St. becomes interesting around Logan and Broadview, with a string of 19th-century buildings that would be impressive in any city.

The apex comes between Bay St. and University Ave. with our city halls and Osgoode Hall. Here the 501 enters the civic heart of Toronto, alive with shoppers and skaters at Nathan Phillips Square, our most significant public space.

Moving west past University, Queen changes yet again into a bustling street of shops, restaurants, bars and art galleries; it’s a thoroughfare that was reinvented by artists in the late 1970s and subsequently taken from them by the gentrifying hordes. The latter have altered Queen West, but not yet managed to kill its wonderful spirit of outlaw entrepreneurialism.

In recent years Queen West has pushed past Spadina, its original boundary, to Bathurst, Strachan and even Dufferin. There are still rough patches but the condos under construction west of the Drake Hotel speak to the huge appeal of the street.

Even in darkest Parkdale west of Dufferin, Queen remains vital and in play. Who knows what this once affluent late 19th-century suburb will be like in 10 or 15 years? Chances are good it will be one of the most desirable neighbourhoods in Toronto, thanks to the impressive stock of Victorian housing.

Past there the streetcar hits Roncesvalles Ave. and everything changes. Suddenly, it is a waterfront route rimming Lake Ontario. The city begins to give way to a different topography, High Park to the north and more and more asphalted highways on the south. Queen widens, turns into The Queensway and becomes one of a number of expressways leading out of the city.

Streetcar tops are no longer on the sidewalk, but on islands in the middle of the road. Here, in the post-war city, the car has acquired a prominence it never enjoyed in the older districts.

The number of passengers drops noticeably and the 501 rumbles undisturbed along the side of what’s really a highway. From there, it’s only moments to south Etobicoke, which may be revitalized one day despite the meagreness of the raw material.

Three- and four-storey apartment boxes from the 1960s and ’70s line the road. After the Humber Portal, as Lavallee calls it, the route curves to join Lake Shore Blvd.

Once past Mimico in New Toronto, the stops are on numbered streets - 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th and up to 37th. It’s back to the ’50s with roadside diagonal parking, strip malls and a convenience store with an ad for the long-defunct Toronto Telegram.

By the time the streetcar rolls into Long Branch, the city seems to have run out of steam. The endless complexity and variety of the urban core has given way to the industrial-scale sameness of suburbia. But none of this matters to Lavallee and the 501; the lumbering articulated vehicle enters the loop, turns slowly around and heads back to the city from which it came.

- Christopher Hume




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