A History of the TTC's Belt Line Streetcars

Compiled by Pete Coulman
Text by James Bow

Belt lines can be found in a number of cities across the continent, although not all of them are in use today. As railway lines stretch out from city cores, sometimes the ends of two lines turn towards each other and join, forming a circle. Chicago has its elevated Loop, although this is too small to be a true Belt line, since most incoming trains use it to turn around through the downtown. Comparable examples in the United Kingdom include the Circle Line of the London Underground and Glasgow's sole tube line. Circle lines are sometimes appreciated because they don't have to stop and change ends. Instead, they keep on cycling around and around.

Sometimes this is done to distribute passengers coming in from the suburbs through the downtown core. This is the case with the Circle Line in London, and was the plan for Detroit's People Mover (although the incoming lines never materialized). This was also the plan in the late 1980s for the Yonge-University-Spadina subway, albeit on a far larger scale. But for Toronto in the late 19th century, and also for the city of Hamilton, the belt line system proved effective in connecting the cities' downtowns to their suburbs. Hamilton had a belt line, and Toronto had two. The key is that both Hamilton and Toronto abutted a lake, meaning that each city grew out in three directions only (two in the case of Hamilton -- south and east -- and west, north and east for Toronto). A belt line was an effective way to join the downtown cores to suburbs in these directions, conserving resources while increasing ridership.

In the late 19th century, real estate speculators hoped to generate a housing boom by building a belt line railway from Union station, up the Don Valley, through North Toronto and Forest Hill and south through Parkdale. They weren't successful, although their legacy remains to this day in the form of the Belt Line trail. The Toronto Railway Company was far more successful with its Belt Line experiment, though its legacies are harder to find. The impact it had on Toronto was still well enough remembered, however, for the line to rematerialize as a tourist operation decades later.

A Chronology of the Original Toronto Belt Line

September 21, 1891

Service begins on a new horse car route operating out of Front Street carhouse, combining the old SHERBOURNE, SPADINA and BLOOR routes into a circle route running in both directions via Spadina, Bloor, Sherbourne and King Streets. Service operates twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

December 15, 1892

Electric streetcars replace horses on this day. Horses continue to pull cars in night service.

March 1893

Operation transferred to Yorkdale carhouse.

July 2, 1894

Electric cars replace horse cars on night runs.

October 27, 1913

Half of the service is now operated out of Lansdowne division. The other half follows soon thereafter.

December 14, 1918

Additional service on Spadina Avenue provided by BLOOR WEST TRIPPERS running from Bloor Street west of Spadina. This is the beginning of the end. Streetcar tracks are being extended west on Bloor Street, and the demand for crosstown service on Bloor is increasing. Toronto is expanding, and suburbs further to the west and to the east require service, making the BELT LINE less relevant.

September 1, 1921

The Toronto Transportation Commission takes over all Toronto Railway Company streetcar service in Toronto. Service on the BELT LINE is maintained. The TTC maintains the TRC policy of referring to the counter-clockwise run as the "Sherbourne Belt Line" (because cars go "up Sherbourne") and the clockwise run as the "Spadina Belt Line" (because cars go "up Spadina").

April 15, 1922

Track rehabilitation on King Street forces service to divert off of King in both directions via York, Wellington and Church.

July 2, 1922

Track rehabilitation on King Street forces service to divert in both directions via York, Adelaide and Church.

July 23, 1922

Regular routing restored

June 30, 1923

Last day of operation. Service is discontinued in favour of crosstown service on the BLOOR streetcar and separate SPADINA and SHERBOURNE streetcar routes.

The Launch of the Belt Line Tour Tram

In 1972, after the Toronto Transit Commission abandoned its streetcar abandonment policy, the commission considered a proposal to use two of its older pieces of equipment in a tourist service. The idea was supported by the City of Toronto and downtown businesses. Two fully reconditioned Peter Witt streetcars were retained, with one used to operate the service, while the other was held back as a standby unit. The proposal called for the historic cars to operate in a loop through downtown Toronto on their own route. Regular TTC fares would apply, and transfers to connecting routes would be offered and accepted. Recalling the BELT LINE operation that had anchored downtown streetcar service for thirty-two years, the new route was designated the BELT LINE TOUR TRAM.

June 24, 1973

Service begins on the BELT LINE TOUR TRAM with a single Peter Witt streetcar operating from Spadina and Queen via east on Queen, south on Church, west on King, north on Spadina to Queen, and continuing the clockwise loop. Service operates every twenty minutes, starting from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays, and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on weekday evenings, as well as 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends and holidays. Transfers are in the TTC style, but with green ink instead of red or black.

September 2, 1973

Service which was supposed to end on Saturday, September 1st is extended through the Labour Day weekend. On Sunday, double-punched August 31st transfers are used, while on Monday, double-punched September 1st transfers are used. At the end of operation on Labour Day, service is supended until next spring.

May 14, 1974

Service resumes on the BELT LINE TOUR TRAM following the same route as the previous years, but adding an additional hour of operation in the evenings. The last cars operate at 10 p.m. Weekday service is suspended on Tuesday, September 3rd, but weekend and holiday service continues to Thanksgiving Monday, October 14, 1974.

Sadly, Monday, October 14 would be the last day of service for the TTC's tour tram. Ridership was not sufficient to maintain this service at regular TTC fares. The tour tram was taken up by a private operator who chartered the cars and charged higher fares, taking passengers on a sight-seeing tour of a greater swath of downtown Toronto, but this service petered out in the mid 1980s as the Peter Witt cars showed their age.


Belt Line Image Archive

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