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Scarborough RT's Quiet 30th Anniversary Amidst Loud Future Transit Planning

Photo Credit: Robert McMann

In the past several years in Toronto, one of the most contentious issues has revolved around a new transit extension into the Scarborough region of the city. With debates turning surprisingly passionate over transit planning, both teams plan to replace the Scarborough Rapid Transit system (Scarborough RT) or most recently called Line 3 by the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). This weekend marks 30 years of moving commuters between the Kennedy TTC station to McCowan.

For March 22nd, 2015, the Scarborough RT's 30th anniversary of public operations will not celebrated with the same appreciation as Toronto's subway. Last year's 60th anniversary of the Yonge subway line recognized the liberating sense of movement it brought to a vital piece of the city. Admiration for the challenging of the subway in Toronto has ultimately led to favouritism of the Scarborough RT's over 3-billion dollar replacement extension of the Bloor-Danforth Line. On the other hand, the elevated trains of the 6-station, 6.4-kilometer Scarborough RT has apparently gone less appreciated over the course of time.

The creation of the Scarborough RT was a long and winding track that led back to the 1969. Shortly after Ontario's formation of GO Transit, the province explored the development of an elevated, small vehicle rail system began. In the 1970s, the idea turned into potential reality for an Intermediate Capacity Transit System (ICTS). Under the premiership of Progressive Conservative Party's Bill Davis, the Government of Ontario through the Ministry of Transportation and Communications wanted to observe how an elevated rail system in the province may function. Ultimately, German manufacturer Kraus-Maffel was offered a contract to create a demonstration of a transit vehicle for the 1975 Canadian National Exhibition. Originally called "Transurban" but later named "GO-Urban", the electric-powered transit vehicle employed the use of magnetic levitation (commonly acknowledged as a Maglev train today). Ambitiously intending to operate the GO-Urban transit solution in a city by 1977, this would have made Ontario one of the first places in the world to operate a Maglev train in revenue service. A little too forward-looking for what was a limited timespan, Kraus-Maffel ultimately withdrew their development of the GO-Urban technology and the project was cancelled in 1975. 

Despite derailing the GO-Urban Maglev plan, the province of Ontario was still focused creating a transit train meeting the initial criteria for an elevated train for city environments. Started in 1976, a project started that ultimately led to the Scarborough RT as well as the first-generation Vancouver SkyTrain. Working with a consortium of Canadian companies, the Urban Transportation Development Corporation (UTDC) would eventually begin testing a prototype 40-foot aluminum-framed vehicle in Millhaven, Ontario in 1978. Through extensive testing, UTDC transit vehicle was honed. The transit-ready UTDC vehicles were first constructed by VentureTrans Manufacturing; a company that has since changed hands to become part of Bombardier Transportation that builds successors to the original vehicles (called Mark Is or Innovia ART 100s).

Photo Credit: Robert McMann

Brought online in 1985, the Scarborough RT's opening ceremony was held at Scarborough Centre on March 22nd at 10 am. Providing a connection to the Borough of Scarborough (part of the Metro Toronto area but not the City of Toronto at the time), the Scarborough RT was an amendment to a plan that was to initially use the Canadian Light Rail Vehicle streetcars on the line. Opened as a sophisticated system, the new UTDC vehicles were articulated cars with seating for 30 passengers and a crush capacity for 109 passengers. In total, 28 vehicles were purchased for use on the new transit line. Capable of operating autonomously, this unique ability was immediately hindered. Due to uproar from the transit union and distrust of automated technology in the mid-1980s, the vehicles were retrofitted to include an operator. Initially opening running on fully-manual emergency mode, the Scarborough RT's automated drive system was first used on June 3rd of the 1985. To this day, the Scarborough RT vehicles regularly drive automatically but an operator in each train supervises its travel and operates the passenger doors.

One innovation that was fully retained on the UTDC vehicles for Scarborough RT use was the automated announcement system that informed passengers of the next stop on the route. Provided as a great tool to the sight-impaired as well as occupants less familiar to the area, it would take 23 years before the technology of the Scarborough RT would be applied throughout the TTC system.

One of the earlier options presented was to upgrade the Scarborough RT line for accommodate larger, newer trains similar to the ones used on the SkyTrain network in British Columbia. A plan that was proposed to cost $360-million in 2006, refurbishing the line was ultimately not acted upon leaving alternative transit solutions. After a fierce batter between LRT and subway extension, the latter, more expensive plan supported by then-Toronto mayor Rob Ford was favoured.

Either near or excepting its so-called useful life, the Scarborough RT line with its original UTDC vehicles continue to run on a daily basis. There was one plan in 2011 that would have shut down the line this year but that time line appears to have changed. According to a TTC report reviewing ridership, 39,990 people on an average day continue to use the Scarborough RT (about 9,000 fewer than the Sheppard subway line).

As the Scarborough RT appears to be in the twilight of its operations, 30 years of moving Scarborough and Toronto residents should not go without some tribute.


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