Streetcars and Subways Are the Same Thing

Now that I have your attention (and at least some of you convulsing in belly laughs), let me explain.

In Toronto’s debate over subways vs. light rail transit, some subway proponents have sought to bolster their argument by denigrating the alternative. That’s an all too common practise in politics these days, and it’s a shame it has to taint the transit debate in Toronto. Among the points brought out by, among others, councillor Doug Ford, is that the surface LRTs proposed for parts of Eglinton, Sheppard East and Finch West are nothing more than “fancy streetcars” or, worse, “trolleys”. Recently, Toronto Sun columnist Christina Blizzard further muddied the waters by likening the Scarborough RT to the LRT currently under construction.

Christina Blizzard is wrong. More on that later. What you might find surprising to hear from me, though, is that Doug Ford is right. The LRTs proposed by city council are the same basic technology currently operating on the streets of downtown Toronto. What Doug Ford does not mention, however, is that it’s also the same basic technology currently operating in the tunnels beneath downtown Toronto.

What is a subway, really? Basically, it’s a bunch of big long boxes coupled together and operating at considerable speed along a set of railway tracks. Subways are highly efficient movers of people. Each car has many doors that open simultaneously, allowing large numbers of people to enter and exit the car at every stop. The fact that the subway is completely grade separated (not necessarily underground — note that the Toronto subway comes to the surface in many spots, as do subways in London, New York City or Chicago) allows the subways to travel at high rates of speed and without interruption from competing traffic.

But in the end, the subway is still a box on wheels running along a railway track, and so is a streetcar. Well, aren’t streetcars slower, you ask? Yes, the ones that operate in mixed traffic are, but they don’t have to be. Separate them from competing traffic, and they can pick up speed. Improve the level crossings, and they won’t be interrupted by competing traffic. Put them underground, and their basically subways. Want them to carry more passengers like a subway train? Couple a bunch of them together and operate them in trains, as they’re doing in Calgary and Edmonton.

What about power issues? Don’t subway trains use a third rail and streetcars a pokey trolley wire? Again, the technologies are interchangeable. A number of subway systems in Europe use pantographs, and Washington DC’s streetcar system used a third rail buried in a grove in the middle of the tracks.

Toronto’s subways and streetcars were so interchangeable that streetcar equipment was put to work in the subway after the subway opened. Both use the same power supply (600 volts DC), and both share the TTC’s unique track gauge (4 ft 10-7/8 in) The only thing that makes a subway a subway is full separation from competing automobile traffic. You don’t even have to go underground to do this. Chicago’s EL operates underground, on elevated tracks, and at grade. On its Pink, Brown and Purple lines, it even crosses city streets using railway cross bucks. Don’t believe me? Have a look at this video:

Yes, that’s a third-rail-powered Chicago EL train crossing a street at grade, meaning that its right-of-way is exposed to the street. You walk across it. Here is another example, and another.

What an LRT has that a subway doesn’t necessarily have is the flexibility to operate under a variety of conditions. It can operate with long trains in a tunnel at subway speeds and approaching subway passenger loads where it needs to. And, where it needs to, it can come to the surface and operate along an at-grade corridor or on the middle of the road, protected by crossing gates or traffic signals. And for this reason, it can be built for much less than a subway. Yes, it’s not as fast as an all-underground rapid transit line, and nor can it carry as many passengers, but it is certainly able to carry more passengers than your average bus line, and at faster speeds. And in situations where the demand isn’t sufficient to justify a full-fledged subway, it can offer you far more bang for your transit buck.

There is plenty of precedent for LRT rapid transit. Those who argue that LRT vehicles can’t handle the cold forget that it’s much colder in Calgary and Edmonton where two of the oldest LRT systems in Canada now operate, mostly on the surface. Have a look at the video below:

Calgary and Edmonton are far closer to the model that the subway-surface Eglinton LRT will follow than, say, St. Clair (though I do not expect we’d use crossing-gates to protect the trains from competing traffic). An older example is the Green Line in Boston, where in the 1950s and the 1960s, the city took a bunch of streetcar lines and buried them through the downtown, for a lot less money than they spent on the Big Dig:

(Correction: Reader David Youngs alerts me to a mistake, here: Boston didn’t bury the streetcar line in the 1950s, they built the Green line as is, back in 1890. In which case, Boston’s model is very similar to what was proposed for Toronto itself in 1912 when they first discussed a subway. The equipment in use on the line would have been similar to the streetcars operating in the streets above. In 1942, the initial subway proposal also called for streetcar-subways operating underground beneath Yonge and Queen, and coming to the surface and fanning out in the suburbs. Thanks to David for setting me to rights)

And for those of you who remember the old Toronto PCC “Red Rockets” and are picturing these whenever Ford talks about “streetcars” on Eglinton, here’s a video that shows that PCCs operate pretty effectively on a subway setting as well, as seen in Newark, New Jersey (Newark has since retired the PCCs and has replaced them with more modern LRT vehicles):

The point is, subways or streetcars, it makes no difference, they’re still trains, and they are able to pull more passengers along faster than a bus in mixed traffic. You can get them to pull more passengers even faster not by spending money on a particular piece of equipment, but by investing money on the track. Anything put in a tunnel will be fast. It will not have to compete with the automobile traffic above. But it will also be excessively expensive — as much as $300 million per kilometre. Bringing the tracks to the surface saves over half that cost, and while surface LRTs will never carry as many passengers as full-fledged subways, they may never need to. If the ridership isn’t sufficient to justify burying transit underground, you might as well be digging a big hole and shovelling in wheelbarrows of loonies and toonies.

Now, to Christina Blizzard’s suggestion that the Scarborough RT is a typical example of an LRT, the answer is most definitely “no”. A Scarborough RT car is officially called an ICTS vehicle, with the initials standing for Intermediate Capacity Transit System. This long and fancy title was coined by Ontario Premier Bill Davis through his new crown corporation, the Urban Transportation Development Corporation in the 1970s. At the time, the TTC was in its second decade of constant subway construction, but TTC planners and Toronto politicians were noting that subways were becoming very expensive to build and, more importantly, the dense areas of the city that were best suited to subway development were, by and large, served.

In the realm of transit, a bus route operating in mixed traffic can typically pull a maximum of 3,000 passengers per peak hour. A streetcar in mixed traffic, with its larger capacity and ability to operate in multiple-unit trains, can push that capacity up to 8,000 passengers per peak hour. A subway has a theoretical maximum capacity of around 40,000 passengers per peak hour, but are not economical to operate if loads don’t exceed 20,000 passengers per peak hour.

You see the problem, here? A streetcar in mixed traffic maxes out at 8,000 passengers per hour, whereas a subway is not economically feasible at 20,000 passengers per hour. Metropolitan Toronto wanted to extend rapid transit into the developing suburbs, but knew that subways were just too expensive an option and far too much for the expected demand. If only there was a cheaper solution that could be rapid, and serve that intermediate capacity between 8,000 passengers per hour and 20,000 passengers per hour.

Actually, there is: you take the buses and the streetcars out of mixed traffic and you operate them on private rights-of-way. Ottawa’s OC Transpo did that with its Transitway and found considerable success for a minimum amount of investment. They also proved that the maximum feasible capacity of a busway is around 10,000 passengers per peak hour. On the other hand, Calgary invested in LRT, which bridged the gap.

In 1975, the TTC proposed that streetcars operating on private rights-of-way could fan out from the end of the subway to multiple destinations in Scarborough. The main trunk of this tree, operating from Kennedy to the Scarborough Town Centre, would be completely grade separated, and streetcars would operate at high rates of speed. It’s for this reason that the CLRV streetcars currently operating on Toronto’s streets have a top speed of 55 miles per hour (basically, highway speed), even though they’ve never had to use it. These vehicles were also going to be operating on the Scarborough RT, at that speed.

This is, incidentally, exactly the same maximum design speed of Toronto’s more modern subway cars.

A CLRV-operated Scarborough RT would have the flexibility to operate streetcars not only on the grade separated trunk route, but on lower volume branches that would follow the centre of the major arterial roads, connecting the Malvern neighbourhood, the Toronto Zoo, the U of T’s Scarborough Campus and other destinations to the end of the Toronto subway with a one-seat ride

Unfortunately, this simple solution didn’t sit well with Ontario Premier Bill Davis who had a vision of making Ontario the world leader in high-tech transportation solutions. His crown corporation, UTDC, worked with German partner Kraus-Maffei to try and build an ICTS vehicle that would do everything the Scarborough RT was setting out to do, but using maglev trains.

You heard me. We were going to have maglevs in Toronto. Now Christina should be chanting “monorail! monorail! monorail!”

A loop was planned around the Canadian National Exhibition, and they got as far as building support pillars when Kraus-Maffei pulled out of the project. UTDC went it alone, and turned the magnetic levitation design into a linear-induction motor. That metal strip you see in the centre of the Scarborough RT’s tracks (and on the Expo and Millennium lines of Vancouver’s Skytrain) is the drive strip. Electromagnets in the linear induction motor between the ICTS vehicle’s wheels grabs at the metal magnetically to propel the car forward. A similar design is in use on some of the more advanced roller-coaster rides. The Ontario government then pressured the TTC to throw out its streetcar design for the Scarborough RT and use the new technology so that the province could have a demonstration project to show the world. The Scarborough RT opened $100 million over budget and a year late. It subsequently required over $27 million to repair design flaws that came clear after the line opened.

Make no mistake, the linear induction motor is an elegant design, and produces fast acceleration. But as Christina Blizzard noted, the new design made the Scarborough RT susceptible to snow (far more susceptible than streetcars or open-air subways are). Worse, it made the Scarborough RT impossible to expand in a variety of situations — there’s no way those vehicles could operate in the middle of city streets. It was also far more expensive, and it unfortunately tainted the image of LRT for decades to come.

Had the Scarborough RT been built the right way from the beginning, Scarborough would have had a lot more rapid transit than it does now. Yes, it would have been streetcars, but we wouldn’t have wasted hundreds of millions of dollars reinventing the wheel, and the lines we would have built would have been fast and effective movers of people.

So, to call an LRT a “fancy streetcar” is not an insult to me. Streetcars can provide fast and reliable transit at lower cost to taxpayers, as long as the lines have been designed properly. Countless cities in Europe and North America have shown it can be done. And cities, including Toronto, have also shown that subways, while fast, can be excessive wastes of money.

I don’t particularly care if we use subways or streetcars to build Toronto’s transit future, as long we build things well, and cost-effectively. And for that, we must be open to all of the options and use the best technology and the best design for the situation. Dogmatic adherence to one design over another does not serve commuters or taxpayers nearly as well as they should be served.


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