Route 501 - The Queen Streetcar

Queen Night Shot

ALRV 4213 rockets into Parkside station on the Queensway right-of-way. Located on a bridge over Parkside road, stairs take pedestrians down to street level. Shades of a streetcar subway!

Text by James Bow, photos by Rob Hutch, except where noted.

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The Route

Toronto’s centerpiece streetcar route, 501 Queen, starts from Long Branch loop on Lake Shore Boulevard near the border with Mississauga. Running east, it serves the main commercial street for the old towns and villages of Long Branch, New Toronto and Mimico before ducking into private right-of-way beneath the Gardiner Expressway and emerging into the Humber Loop Interchange.

Exiting the interchange, the line runs along private right-of-way along the middle of the Queensway, before changing to on-street running east of Parkside Drive. After passing Roncesvalles Carhouse, the car follows Queen Street through the village of Parkdale, the Fashion District, Downtown Toronto, Riverdale, East Toronto and finally into the Beach district, where it loops at Neville Park, on the border between the old City of Toronto and the old City of Scarborough.

At 15.4 miles of double track, Route 501 is the longest route on the TTC, and one of the longest streetcar routes in North America.

The Queen Streetcar runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, between Long Branch and Neville Park. During the night, the route number changes, from 501 to 301, although streetcars continue to operate along the same route. During the day, every second car operates between Neville Park and Humber Loop only, and there are a number of other short turns during the course of the day. The 501 Queen streetcar is the only route on the TTC where ALRVs operate in base service (ALRVs also operate during certain periods on 511 Bathurst and 504 King).

Queen Street’s Interurban History

As with the Kingston Road Streetcars, the Queen Streetcar has its origins in suburban operations. Horse-drawn trams started running on June 9, 1875 along the Kingston Road Tramway (Queen Street east of the Don River was called Kingston Road at this time) from the Don River to gravel pits west of what is today the Kingston Road-Main Street intersection. The passengers were revenue gravy for this railroad, as the operation was set up originally to haul supplies for the Toronto Gravel Road and Concrete Company. The Kingston Road Tramway turned back at the Benlamond Hotel. In 1878, this line was extended east towards Victoria Park.

This horse-drawn service was abandoned following Toronto’s annexation of Riverdale (1884) and the area south of Queen Street to Maclean Avenue (1887). At that time, the Toronto Street Railway pushed its services east of the Don River to the Woodbine (now Greenwood) Racetrack and Lee Avenue. When William Mackenzie took over the TSR in 1891 and renamed it the Toronto Railway Company, the service along Queen was remade into the King route, operating between Lee Avenue and Dufferin Street via Queen and King. Electric service arrived in 1893, along with an extension to Balsam Avenue in 1894.

At this time, the Beach district was considered ‘cottage country’. Winter service was sparse because it was felt that there were too few year-round residents to justify full service beyond Lee Avenue. Starting in late 1895, though, every second streetcar operated all the way to Balsam Avenue.

Kingston Road and Queen In Conflict

In 1896, the TRC sought to extend streetcar service along Queen to the southern part of the Munro estate, which had been remade into the new Munro Park, which the TRC leased. They also wanted to cross the Neville Park ravine to reach Victoria Park. Already, the TRC owned the Kingston Road suburban service, which operated down Blantyre Avenue to neighbouring Victoria Park. This shouldn’t have caused difficulties, but it did, as the Kingston Road suburban service also held the franchise for Queen Street east of Maclean Avenue. The Village of East Toronto, which had a number of grievances with the Toronto Railway Company (mostly due to fares), decided to make trouble. On July 20, 1897, when the TRC started moving supplies onto Queen Street east of Maclean Avenue, the village organized a ‘posse’ which tossed the rails and ties into a nearby ravine. Cooler heads prevailed, however, and one year later improved service was operating during the summer to a loop in Munro Park.

The TRC wasn’t satisfied with Munro Park, however, and in 1906, General Manager R. Fleming entered into an arrangement with Dominion Parks Company to obtain property between Maclean and Leuty Avenues. Here was set up the Scarboro Beach Park, an ‘electric’ park served exclusively by streetcar. This became a very popular attraction, and it was one of the few properties the TRC retained after the Toronto Transportation Commission took over. The park lasted until 1925, and has since been filled in with housing. Likewise, Munro Park and Victoria Park shut down in 1906-07, and were subdivided for housing.

As the city entered the 1910s, service on Queen Street was split in two. Downtown cars operated to Woodbine, and the single track along Queen Street to Munro Park handled stub service. The City eventually stepped in and built a set of double tracks to a wye at Neville Park, allowing night service to begin on December 24, 1914, with every second car turning back at Scarboro Beach.

Neville Park Loop

At the boundary between the old City of Toronto and the old City of Scarborough, ALRV 4237 rests at Neville Park Loop

The wye at Neville Park, incidentally, is the reason why there is an isolated section of streetcar track running down Neville Park Boulevard. After the construction of the loop, the tailtrack from the wye remained, to regulate service. The connection with the Queen trackage was taken away in May 1989, but the track remains to this day.

The Toronto Transportation Commission Takes Over

On September 1, 1921, the Toronto Transportation Commission acquired responsibility for all TRC operations and set to work improving the streetcar system. By 1923, all service along Queen went to the new loop at Neville Park. Service then was renamed Beach, and operated along a route similar to today’s 501 from Humber (via Lake Shore Boulevard) to Neville Park. In 1928, concurrent with improvements to the Mimico Route, Beach cars and the Kingston Road-bound Queen cars were cut back to a new loop at McCaul Street, overlapping a new Lake Shore route west from Mutual Street.

This arrangement continued into the 1930s when the Lake Shore service began to fade from existence. It started on October 28, 1935 when the Lake Shore route was split into two near Roncesvalles Avenue, and the Long Branch route, serving the old line from Roncesvalles to Long Branch came into being. The remainder of the Lake Shore service continued to operate between Parkside Loop, just west of the Sunnyside Amusement Park, to Mutual Loop. Then, on November 1, 1936, Sunday and holiday service on the Lake Shore route was discontinued, replaced by a westward extension of the Beach line to Parkside loop.

Finally, on August 2, 1937, the remainder of the truncated Lake Shore cars merged into the Beach route, producing a line running from Neville Park to Parkside Loop. This route was renamed Queen. The old Queen car became known as the Kingston Road Streetcar the following day. The Beach name lingered until 1948 on a rush-hour tripper service along Queen and King to loop via Church, Wellington and York; after 1948, this service was handed to the Kingston Road tripper, along with the remains of the old Dovercourt tripper route.

In 1957, when road improvements around Sunnyside (and possibly in preparation for the building of the Gardiner Expressway) connected the Queensway with Queen Street, the Queen Streetcar was moved off Lake Shore Boulevard and onto a high-quality stretch of private right-of-way running to a rebuilt Humber Interchange. Queen and Long Branch streetcars met at the Humber Interchange until 1995, when the Long Branch streetcar was replaced by an extension of the Queen route, bringing the 501 streetcar to its current alignment.

By 1923, Peter Witt cars were operating along the line, with steel trailers hauled behind them during rush hours. PCC cars replaced the Witts in base service by 1941, while the Witts continued to augment service during rush-hours until their final abandonment in 1963. After the opening of the Bloor-Danforth subway and the abandonment of the Coxwell Streetcar, the TTC experimented with using every second Queen car to maintain streetcar service on Kingston Road during evenings and weekends. Night service on Kingston Road was basically eliminated, but one streetcar would depart from Bingham Loop for Long Branch every Sunday morning at 1:02 AM. As night services went, this was probably the most infrequent with one car appearing every 168 hours. The experiment was not successful, failing to meet the travel patterns of Kingston Road residents and contributing to the instability of Queen car scheduling. The Queen car returned to its normal route on May 22, 1966. During that time, the Bingham-Long Branch service was the longest single streetcar trip in Toronto, at 15.8 miles.

Starting in 1967, and for ten years after, two-car MU PCC trains operated as they had along the Bloor Streetcar, but this practice stopped on February 6, 1977 due to increasing congestion. From 1970 and into the 1980s, Queen suffered from frequent short turns, which upset Beach residents, but modifications to the schedules addressed most of these problems, albeit by slowing service down. A proof-of-payment fare policy instituted on July 1, 1990 sped up streetcar loadings and improved service, but loses due to dishonest people resulted in the TTC recommending that POP service be dropped. Appeals from groups such as the Rocket Riders resulted in POP being maintained, with increased enforcement.

It is interesting to note that the Queen family of streetcars are the only streetcar routes where a proof-of-payment system is feasible, as they are the only routes which do not enter a fare-paid area within a subway station.

Problems With Reliability and a Grassroots Response

The Queen streetcar has long had problems maintaining reliable service. As early as the late 1980s, residents of the Beaches complained that the Queen streetcar was being short turned excessively. Quoted one resident in an article for the Toronto Star, “they can get a man to the moon, so why can’t they get a streetcar to Lee Avenue?” Various measures were taken, including adding running to Queen cars, but problems remained and, as service was reduced during the mid 1990s as a result of a system-wide ridership drop, gaps became more noticeable. Residents of the Beaches complained about waiting as long as a half hour or forty minutes for a streetcar to show up at their stop.

Contrary to popular belief, this is not due to any inherent flaws of streetcars being caught in automobile traffic, as similar problems exist on comparable bus routes. The problem has been the length of the Queen streetcar route and how service has been managed. The situation worsened dramatically beginning on March 26, 1995 when the Queen streetcar absorbed the 507 Long Branch streetcar, creating one of the longest surface routes in the system. Any service disruption that occurred over any part of the route now had lots of time to be magnified into truly terrible service. Residents along Lake Shore Boulevard began complaining about how unreliable their service had become since losing their local car, and ridership along that portion of the route has dropped.

As a result of citizen complaints, a grassroots campaign began, bringing together the Rocket Riders and officials from the City of Toronto together in a series of meetings to discuss ways of improving the reliability of the service. As a result of these meetings, the TTC has hired more route supervisors, to ensure cars leave on time. Service disruptions are handled with holdbacks, like on the subways, rather than short turns, to try to prevent gaps from appearing in the service. A step back operation at Russell carhouse ensures that streetcar drivers can be spelled off for a break, while their streetcars continue running. Riders have reported that service along the line has improved as a result, although gaps in service are still a common occurance.

A number of proposals have been made to split the Queen streetcar into smaller, overlapping routes so that service disruptions aren’t magnified across the entire line. Transit activist Steve Munro suggested that the Long Branch streetcar could be restored, operating between Long Branch Loop and Dundas West station via Lake Shore Boulevard, the Queensway and Roncesvalles outside of rush hours, and down King Street to loop near Church (essentially operating as 508 Lake Shore cars) during peaks. TTC staff are studying this and various other proposals for route splitting, and expect to deliver their report later in 2009.

The Rocket Riders group and other activists promise to keep pushing the TTC into making changes and improving service.

The Future

According to the TTC’s 2005 Service Plan (PDF file), the Queen streetcar carried 41,200 customers per weekday in 2004, tying it with 506 Carlton as the third most travelled streetcar route in the system (behind King and Spadina) and placing it among the ten most well-travelled surface routes. This does not include the ridership figures for the 502 and 503 Kingston Road Streetcars which offer parallel service. However, this is still far below the crowds the Queen streetcar used to be able to carry in its heyday, and transit activists fear that ridership has dropped because problems with service reliability have been allowed to fester.

Proposals for a Queen subway or something similar continue to surface from time to time. Most recently, in 2008, the regional transit planning agency Metrolinx placed a line under Queen Street as part of its “most ambitious” regional transportation proposal. The City of Toronto, however, worried that Metrolinx’s proposal to extend the Yonge subway to Richmond Hill could put the line over capacity, passed a resolution asking that the Downtown Relief Line be placed on Metrolinx’s list of priority projects to be built within the next fifteen years. This line might not necessarily go beneath Queen Street, or even replace the Queen streetcar, but it would enable commuters from the Beach to get downtown more quickly. So far, Metrolinx has not responded to the City’s resolution.

The residents of Long Branch might also benefit from a more reliable connection to the downtown as the City of Toronto and the TTC proceed with plans for the West Waterfront LRT. As part of this project, in June 2009, the TTC hopes to start construction on a new loop at the southwest corner of Lake Shore Drive and Park Lawn, allowing the TTC to extend its scheduled short turn service west from Humber Loop to Park Lawn, along a private right-of-way. This will double the level service for a number of new condominiums that have gone up in east Mimico, and the TTC hopes to extend the private right-of-way west along Lake Shore Boulevard to Long Branch loop. Residents of southern Etobicoke might not be heading downtown via Queen Street for much longer, however.

Consultation meetings have already been held to select the best route from Exhibition Loop to the Queen/Roncesvalles intersection, and consultations are taking place about the possibility that the streetcar tracks on Lake Shore Boulevard might be put on their own right-of-way. Even without a private right-of-way on Lake Shore Boulevard, the West Waterfront LRT would take southern Etobicoke residents downtown via a faster, more reliable route via private rights-of-way along the Queensway, beneath the Gardiner, past the Exhibition and along Bremner Boulevard into Union Station. This would shave several minutes off their trip, and ensure that streetcars come more frequently to their stops.

Things look like they may change for the Queen streetcar in the near future. But whether or not its various extremities are lopped off to find new and more reliable ways downtown, it is expected that streetcars will continue to ply the length of Queen Street. Service along this street is, to some, the soul of streetcar operations in Toronto.


501 Queen Image Archive


References

  • Bromley, John F., and Jack May Fifty Years of Progressive Transit, Electric Railroaders’ Association, New York (New York), 1978.
  • Corley, Raymond F., ‘Beach Car Lines Reach Back 120 Years’, Rail and Transit, September 1995, p4-5, The Upper Canada Railway Society, Toronto (Ontario).
  • Stamp, Robert M., Riding the Radials: Toronto’s Suburban Electric Streetcar Lines, The Boston Mills Press, Erin (Ontario), 1989.

Thanks to Ray Corley for his corrections to this web page.

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