Text by James Bow
The idea of powering buses using electricity from trolley wires emerged from the United Kingdom and the United States during the early part of the 1910s. Trolley buses did not require steel tracks; constrained only by wires, they were more flexible to operate and cheaper to build than streetcars. At the same time, they had the streetcar's advantage of using electricity instead of expensive gasoline for power. The idea was fine in principle, but it would take a few years before workable prototypes started to operate on viable lines. Windsor became the first such city to install experimental lines in 1921, and then Toronto followed suit the following year.
Toronto's first trolley bus route was on Mount Pleasant Road. The route operation on June 19, 1922, using four 30-seat vehicles. The experiment was successful -- so successful, the trolley buses ran themselves out of service, as the ridership grew to a point where the TTC felt that streetcars were required. On November 3, 1925, an extension of the St. Clair streetcar entered service, bringing an end to the short-lived Mount Pleasant route. It would be another twenty-two years before trolley buses ran again.
The Second Wave
On October 16, 1947, the TTC launched the first of its next generation of trolley bus routes, using vehicles designed at the Canadian Car and Foundry's Fort William plant. The years following the Second World War saw a boom in the development of trolley bus systems. Montreal, Edmonton and Winnipeg already had trolley coaches and Calgary and Kitchener were about to follow suit. In 1946, CC&F built a demonstrator T-44 unit which it delivered to TTC's Lansdowne carhouse on November 16 of that year. The TTC shipped it back in December, only to call it back on January 15, 1947 where it operated on south Lansdowne Avenue into February. It was shipped back to CC&F on February 17 and eventually sold to Cornwall.
The TTC had been hooked, as were many other cities. The trolley buses offered potential for replacing Canada's overworked and under-maintained streetcar networks with comparable service and lower infrastructure costs. Many streetcar systems in Canada fell in whole or in part to trolley bus conversion, including Montreal, Saskatoon, Halifax and Vancouver.
Toronto, however, had an extremely large streetcar system that was well maintained enough that a complete conversion to trolley buses could not be justified. So the first trolley bus routes replaced lighter-used residential streetcar lines at the edge of the system. By 1954, the TTC boasted 125 trolley buses operating on six routes (compared to over 700 streetcars). In the mid to late 1950s, the TTC made additional purchases of secondhand coaches from such systems as Cleveland, Cincinnati and Ottawa.
A Need to Rebuild
This second generation of trolley buses operated for over 40 years, although you wouldn't have known by the look of them. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was another expansion of the trolley bus network, and at the same time, the cars in the fleet were nearing the end of their natural lifespans. With the TTC committed at the time to trolley bus operation, rather than purchase new vehicles (which were hard to come by, then), the TTC looked for companies which could rebuild the vehicles.
The TTC sent off coach 9020 to Western Flyer in Winnipeg and coach 9144 to Robin-Nodwell in England for test rebuilding. Western Flyer Coach in Winnipeg completed the project and were given the order to completely rebuild the buses, putting on a new chassis and body, plus remanufactured components. The first of these new look trolley buses were in operation by 1969, and the rebuilding program was completed on April 26, 1972. This extended the operating lifespan of Toronto's trolley coaches for another 20 years. The 1970s were good years for Toronto's trolley buses, with the energy crisis cementing their place on the Toronto transit scene. Proposals came forward to convert some diesel routes to trolley bus operation, but unfortunately, nothing came of these.
The Budget Crunch that Ended the Trolley Buses
In the early 1990s, Toronto's trolley buses were nearing the second end of their useful lives and some of them had to be retired. As a short-term measure to keep an adequate number of vehicles in the fleet, the TTC decided to lease 30 surplus trolley buses from the Edmonton Transit System (ETS) in 1990, and another 10 in 1991.
But this time the approaching demise of the trolley bus fleet coincided with a serious budget crisis; ridership was down because of the recession, and so too was government funding. In addition, Toronto's trolley buses had now become the most expensive surface vehicles to operate. The TTC was looking at a multi-million dollar capital investment in order to bring the vehicles, and the trolley bus infrastructure, back up to suitable quality. The economics were against the trolley buses, and the TTC ordered that the routes be converted to diesel operation. The last trolley buses ran on the Eglinton Division routes on December 28, 1991, and from Lansdowne Division, on January 14, 1992.
Or so it was thought. The ETS refused to release the TTC from its leases, which still had a year and a half to run. Since it had to keep paying for the 40 trolley buses anyway, the TTC decided to put them back on the road: the 4 Annette and 6 Bay routes were again served by trolley buses from September 1992 until July 1993. But after that, there were no financial incentives for the TTC to keep trolley buses operating; their last day of service, on the 6 Bay route, was July 16.
Although the trolley buses were gone, their overhead wires remained for some time in case of some eventuality meaning that they might be needed again. But in 1996 the final decision was made, and work crews began traveling along the old trolley bus routes. In a matter of weeks all the wires had been taken down and scrapped.
Toronto's trolley buses were, frankly, poor siblings to the other service vehicles. This is a pity, because this hybrid of streetcar and diesel bus technology was never really given a chance on Toronto's streets. In some ways, the trolley buses featured the best of both worlds; they emitted a lot less pollution than their diesel counterparts, were quieter and could climb hills better. At the same time, they were more flexible than streetcars, with simple accidents rarely backing up service as they would on streetcar tracks. Unfortunately, they also offered the worst of both worlds; they didn't have the streetcar's capacity, they couldn't be operated in trains, and their infrastructure requirements meant that they were not as flexible as diesel buses. Today the last relics of trolley bus operation on Toronto's streets are a few unused poles.
Other Trolley Bus Web Sites:
- Transport 2000's BC Wing has a lot of information about trolley buses in Vancouver.
- William Miller's excellent page on the history of the Toronto Transportation Commission talks a lot about trolley buses, including pictures and an all-time roster.
- Other cities to operate trolley buses (history pages): ...Hamilton... ...Kitchener...
- Filey, Mike, The TTC Story: The First Seventy-Five Years, Dundurn Press, Toronto (Ontario) 1996.
- Toronto Transit Commission, Trolley Coach CC&F and Flyer Coaches, The Toronto Transit Commission, Toronto (Ontario), January 1987.
Special thanks to Ray Corley for his corrections to this web page.