Text by James Bow
On November 22, 2015, the Leslie Barns opened at the southeast corner of Lake Shore Boulevard and Leslie Street. Soon after, Toronto's newest streetcars would leave the barns and glide up Leslie to Queen to serve the streetcar network. The opening culminated an eight-year-long process that, while controversial, helped to ensure that Toronto's streetcars continued well into the 21st century.
The Leslie Barns was the first new streetcar storage facility in Toronto to be built in ninety-three years. Previously, Eglinton carhouse took in its first Peter Witt cars on December 16, 1922. In the 1930s, the TTC boasted six storage yards (Roncesvalles, Russell, Lansdowne, St. Clair, Danforth and Eglinton). The Toronto Railway Company built three of these (Roncesvalles, Russell, Lansdowne) around the turn of the 20th century. The Toronto Civic Railway built two more (Danforth and St. Clair) in the 1910s. Over time, as the TTC's streetcar fleet contracted, it shut down many of these divisions or converted them to bus operation.
On April 15, 1978, the TTC closed St. Clair Carhouse on Wychwood Avenue. Roncesvalles and Russell divisions were sufficient to handle the streetcar network through the 1980s and the 1990s, even as the TTC reversed its history of reducing the streetcar network and added new routes in the form of 510 SPADINA and 509 HARBOURFRONT. However, as the current fleet of CLRVs and ALRVs reached the end of their design life, changes were afoot which required the TTC to build a new state-of-the-art storage facility. As the TTC searched for its next generation of streetcars, it also set to work looking for a place to store and maintain them. The lengthy process would result in the construction of the Leslie Barns.
The Need Arises
Although the TTC had committed to maintaining and expanding its streetcar network after ending its policy of abandoning streetcars in 1972, the streetcar fleet had contracted to its smallest size in the TTC's history around 1996. At that time, the TTC retired the last of its rebuilt PCC cars. The Commission's precipitous drop in ridership through the recession of the early 1990s had rendered the cars surplus, leaving the TTC with just 196 CLRVs and 52 ALRVs. Service had been cut to such an extent that some of these cars were surplus as well, and the TTC was able to open the 510 SPADINA and 509 HARBOURFRONT routes without adding vehicles.
However, as the City entered the 21st century, the TTC had a reversal of fortunes. The City of Toronto's Ridership Growth Strategy sought to increase ridership through improved service and, by 2010, the commission was carrying as many riders as it had in 1988, but using more than 300 fewer buses and streetcars than it had during that earlier record-breaking year.
A sympathetic civic administration increased the TTC's subsidy, allowing it to buy more buses to improve capacity. But the TTC needed more lead time to purchase new streetcars, even though it was running out of surplus vehicles to improve streetcar service. The CLRVs and ALRVs that made up the TTC's fleet did not conform to current accessibility regulations, as the buses did. As the TTC committed to create a network of LRT lines throughout Toronto's suburbs, it also looked at ways to bolster its "legacy" streetcar system.
Vehicle technology had moved forward considerably since the TTC had purchased the ALRVs. Most cars on the market were built to serve state-of-the-art LRT networks in American or European cities, with wide curves. Building to the TTC's legacy system, with its non-standard track gauge and its sharp (36' minimum radius) curves dating back over 100 years proved a challenge, although Bombardier and Siemens stepped forward to bid on the tender. As the next generation of streetcars had to be fully accessible (and the commissioners required them to be 100% low-floor), the maintenance facilities at Roncesvalles, Russell and at the shops at Hillcrest were no longer sufficient. The streetcar maintenance pits were now obsolete, as the low-floor streetcars had their electrical components on the roof. The TTC also proposed that the new cars be 30 metres long, longer than an ALRV and twice as long as the CLRVs. With 204 on order, there would not be enough space to store them all at Russell and Roncesvalles. A new storage yard with state-of-the-art maintenance facilities was required.
The Hunt for a Site
On April 18, 2007, the TTC awarded a $350,000 contract to Parker & Associates, Inc., to develop a master plan for a new streetcar maintenance facility. The report was tabled in May 2008. Parker & Associates focused much of their attention on Toronto's Port Lands. This redeveloping old industrial area had a lot of space available for a large, industrial-style facility, and many of these sites were close to the legacy streetcar network. In May 2009, the TTC narrowed the site selection to 14, of which six matched their selection criteria. The other sites were either too small, or too far removed from the streetcar network. The six remaining sites were all in Toronto's Port Lands, although four of those sites were also clearly too far from the streetcar network to justify construction.
The six sites were:
- Ashbridges Bay: South-east corner of Leslie Street and Lake Shore Boulevard East, using surplus land from the Ashbridges Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant.
- Eastern Avenue: Between Eastern Avenue and Lake Shore Boulevard East, east of Heward Avenue.
- TEDCO: North side of Unwin Avenue, east of Regatta Road.
- Cascade: South side of Commissioner's Street, east of Bouchette Street.
- Concrete Plant: South-west corner of Leslie Street and Commissioner's Street.
- Hearn Generating Plant: North side of Unwin Avenue, east of Site 3.
The TTC selected the first three sites for a more detailed design process, although clearly the TTC was favouring the Ashbridges Bay site. Sites 3 through 6 were too remote relative to the existing system, and the Eastern Avenue site was located too close to the Film Studio district and would have required the connecting track to run through a residential neighbourhood. The TTC went ahead and approved a property acquisition report for the Ashbridges' site, even though public consultation on the top three sites hadn't yet taken place, and wouldn't until June 2009.
But the clock was ticking. By now, the new streetcars were due to arrive in three years, before the new carhouse would open. The TTC selected the Ashbridges' site before a full EA Report on utility reconstruction was performed. The site was big enough, close enough to the streetcar network, and TTC staff felt that the connecting track (running up Leslie Street) would not disrupt local residents, as the area was still largely commercial or industrial.
Site Controversy and Construction Surprises
Selecting a site nearer to Ashbridges Bay proved to be controversial. Local residents complained that the proposed site was on green space they wanted preserved. They worried that its location would interfere with a number of significant local bicycle paths. Most of all, they were concerned about the potential disruption from streetcars moving up and down the connecting track, which the TTC proposed would follow Leslie Street from Lake Shore Road north to Queen Street.
In June 2010, the TTC considered a report evaluating a number of alternate routes connecting the Ashbridge's Bay facility to the streetcar network. Ten options were considered, including from Eastern and Connaught via Eastern and Leslie to the site, from Queen and Coxwell via Coxwell and Lake Shore Boulevard to the site, from Queen and Carlaw via Carlaw and Commissioners to the site, and Sumach and King via Cherry and Commissioners to the site. Some of the options had the advantage of being planned future streetcar routes through the Port Lands, but were ultimately rejected as being too long and beyond the budget of the current project. Leslie Street was the shortest option at 800 metres, although an option from Connaught via Eastern and Knox came close at 820 metres. Missing from the report was an alternative suggested by local councillors and transit activist Steve Munro, which would have followed the Eastern and Knox route, but originated through Russell Yard rather than Connaught. The Eastern/Knox alignment, however, was opposed by Canada Post, as potentially disrupting the operations of their sorting facility in the area.
In spite of concerns from area residents, Toronto City Council approved the Ashbridges Bay site and the connecting tracks up Leslie Street at its meeting on June 9, 2010. The TTC met with local residents on July 14 and 15, 2010 to discuss ways to mitigate the impacts of construction and operation. The TTC promised to measure the noise and vibration levels of the new streetcars and to make changes to keep noise levels down, as necessary. The Ontario Ministry of the Environment issued a "Notice to Proceed" in December 2010. Once soil remediation took place, construction on the site itself began and was well underway by July 2012.
As if the site selection controversy wasn't enough, the TTC encountered a number of unexpected issues that significantly increased the cost of the project. The Ashbridges Bay site, as part of the industrial Port Lands and being surplus land for a wastewater treatment site, proved to have contaminated soil, which had to be removed. A bigger surprise were the utilities under Leslie Street, where the TTC discovered a nearly century-old wooden water main that had been three-quarters silted up. The watermain was too close to the surface for the tracks to run above it, and needed to be replaced. Even though the watermain likely would have to have been replaced within a few years in any event, the cost of doing so was laid directly onto the TTC's budget, rather than Toronto Water.
The Naming of Leslie Barns
In late 2013, the TTC looked at other ways to engage and engender the support of the local community, and considered a request by residents to rename the Ashbridges' Bay streetcar storage facility. The Ashbridge name was less than popular, as it was also the name of the sewage treatment facility that used to be in the area and contributed to a lot of local pollution. Local councillors Mary-Margaret McMahon and Paula Fletcher cited this in their request for a name change. TTC staff, In consultation with residents, suggested naming the facility "Leslie", as "doing so would continue a tradition of naming TTC 'Carhouses' after streets", or so suggested Rahul Gupta of the Beach Mirror. This was, actually, not true, but likely due to the confusion over the unofficial nicknames of Connaught carhouse located next to Connaught Avenue (whose official name is 'Russell') and Wychwood carhouse on Wychwood Avenue (whose official name was St. Clair, though it was renamed Wychwood Barns after it was repurposed as a community centre). However, Leslie stuck, and "Barns" was added, reflecting the name of the Wychwood Barns community space.
The utility work replacing the century-old watermain beneath Leslie Street finally finished in late May 2014, allowing work on the Leslie Street connecting tracks to begin. A trench was dug in the middle of the street, a concrete roadbed laid, and tracks started appearing by June 10, 2014. Queen Street was closed to streetcars between Broadview and Connaught for most of June as TTC crews worked on installing a full T-intersection at Queen and Leslie, allowing streetcars to enter and exit Leslie Barns in both directions on Queen Street. Work on the intersection finished and 501 QUEEN cars resumed their regular routing by June 22, 2014.
Leslie Barns covers 4.33 acres [1.75 hectares), including a carhouse with space to store 30 LRVs indoors and a yard for 100 more LRVs. The TTC is transferring all streetcar maintenance work that it used to perform at Hillcrest Shops to the new facility. It also contains a wash track, space to perform regular inspections and a 250-metre long braking test track. While the facility was under construction, the TTC stored the newly arrived streetcars were at Roncesvalles. It also made provisions to store as many as 22 CLRVs in Exhibition loop if it needed, extra space.
The TTC also undertook a number of eco-friendly and pedestrian-friendly initiatives in designing this facility. Leslie Barns is built to current Green Development Standards, features a green roof, bird-friendly windows and improved stormwater management. Hundreds of native trees and other plants were planted on the parts of the property facing Lake Shore Boulevard and Leslie Street. The TTC also worked with the local business improvement association to improve the streetscape on Leslie and on Queen, with wider sidewalks where possible, more trees and plenty of benches.
Still, the construction did not continue without incident. In late May 2015, as the project neared completion, the TTC discovered that Pomerlau Construction, a private contractor responsible for building some of the rails on Leslie Street, had laid the roadbed too high, such that the tracks were eight centimeters above their correct elevation. While this may sound like a small discrepency, it was enough to potentially alter the drainage pattern of the street, as well as access to an adjacent condo. The private contractor was obliged to take up the rails and re-lay them at the correct elevation, and repair the damage incurred on the condominium's parking ramp. Although this was done, it still delayed the opening of Leslie Barns by another several weeks.
Leslie Barns At Last!
Finally, on November 22, 2015, Leslie Barns opened to the new streetcars, over a year late and significantly over budget. Much of the budget overrun was due to unforeseen circumstances including soil remediation and the replacement of aging city infrastructure, but TTC officials were still pleased to have most of the work done and the facility ready to accept new streetcars. Construction happening at the same time at Russell and Roncesvalles carhouse had put pressure on the TTC's streetcar storage capacity, with many CLRVs temporarily stored at Exhibition Loop during the space crunch.
Still, now that Leslie Barns is open, the TTC has a modern facility to house and maintain its modern streetcars. Roncesvalles and Russell carhouses will stay open, but serve primarily to store equipment. Hillcrest will remain to help with maintenance and accept deliveries of new streetcars, but most of the work on the new streetcars will be done at the new facility. In total, the TTC will have space enough for 264 LRVs, sixty more than are due to arrive by 2019. The extra space may be used up if the TTC decides to expand its current order of new streetcars to accommodate ridership growth on its streetcar network.