Seems strange, but clunky old PCC trains set a high streetcar standard. Photo By Brett Lamb
You might have noticed the lone vintage Red Rocket streetcar rented for Nuit Blanche rolling along Queen West during the dusk-to-dawn fest.
This symbol of the bygone glory days of public transit was a subtle reminder that we have no idea yet what the new generation of T.O. streetcars will look like.
TTC officials still haven't told us which of three companies - Canada's Bombardier or Europe's Alstom or Siemens - has the contract following the collapse of a deal with Bombardier over its design and whether it would be safe on Toronto's tracks.
Sure, the decision is four weeks overdue, but don't be too hard on our transit pros for the temporarily derailed process. We should be thrilled we even have an electric street transit system, 555 kilometres of rail, where 200 streetcars carry over 340,000 riders per day, in a network that has survived against all odds since 1891.
The reality is that Toronto's flourishing streetcar system is the envy of transit operators all over North America. Our Red Rocket has endured because, for over a century, public transit in the city has been treated as an essential public service, along with public health, clean water and electric power generation.
Factor in as well substantial transit activism, like the citizen uprising in the 70s that nixed the idea of tearing up streetcar tracks and replacing Red Rockets with diesel buses.
So why did the streetcar disappear from almost every other place on the continent? Mostly because of the private car - but that isn't the whole story. In 1929, presidents of U.S. electric street transit companies formed the Presidents' Conference Committee to create one standard design for North American streetcars.
A technically superb design resulted, unusual for a committee project: the PCC streetcar, the same model that proudly toured our downtown during Nuit Blanche. Nearly 5,000 were built in the U.S. for use in North America and Europe.
The TTC adopted the new car with a passion, becoming the largest operator of PCC vehicles, with a total of 745. What's important to note is that an industry-standard streetcar design allowed Toronto to benefit from lower production costs, ongoing improvements, economical maintenance, standard driver training, rider familiarity and easily available parts and replacement units. The cars remained in service for almost five decades, through the 70s.
In the U.S., however, streetcar companies faced hard times. By 1948, the total number of electric streetcars in service in American cities had dropped to 17,900 from 72,900 three decades earlier.
Conspiracy theorists blame a 1936 joint venture of General Motors, Firestone and Standard Oil into National City Lines, which bought up dozens of streetcar operations and replaced them with diesel bus lines. But the truth is that the vigorous car culture had left small private streetcar companies vulnerable and starved for riders and revenue.
The Toronto network endured and went on to inspire Mayor David Miller's Transit City initiative, a plan that would see a network of light rail transit lines criss-cross vast areas of T.O. that currently make do with bus routes.
This LRT grid will be connected to the province's Metrolinx network for the GTA. Four city reps, including the mayor, are on the Metrolinx board.
The really comforting news is, as TTC chair and Metrolinx rep Adam Giambrone hinted to me last month, there's a move toward choosing one next-generation streetcar/LRT model for all of Ontario. This could mean a bulk order for the creation of a standard electric vehicle to run on the existing network (with modifications to fit the old tracks) and the new GTA Metrolinx routes.
Now we can hope that, just as the PCC committee did seven decades ago, Ontario's electric transit planners will convince government to support the best transit solution in the world, for decades to come.
The only beneficiaries of messing up Ontario's public transit just when it appears to be gearing up for a bright future would be the ghosts of National City Lines.