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The Long Light Rail Story of Toronto’s CLRV Streetcar

CLRV 4005 and another CLRV streetcar at King and Yonge during August 2014 (Photo Credit: Chris Nagy/Toronto Time Machine)



On December 29th of 2019, the final example of one of Toronto’s moving icons since the 1980s was retired from active service. Streetcars assembled under the CLRV (Canadian Light Rail Vehicle) design ended its 40-year career with six examples running on its final day. The CLRV and its longer sister the ALRV (Articulated Light Rail Vehicle) was introduced as a modernization of Toronto’s streetcar network that has not only been preserved through the vehicles but thrived entering the 21st century.


When the Toronto Streetcar Almost Died and Path to Rebirth 


Prior to the development of the CLRV, streetcars were starting to become less vital for the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) as subway links replaced the two very congested route. Toronto’s first subway originally running on Yonge Street was opened on 1954 while the Bloor-Danforth entered operations in 1966. At the same time as the second subway line entered service, there were plans to drastically alter the way Toronto transit operated by phasing out all remaining streetcar routes. Added buses as well as a number of new subway and intermediate rapid rail lines were proposed as a replacement for transit commuters. Toronto was one of only a few major North American cities at the time still utilizing streetcar infrastructure while many have abandoned similar systems since the 1950s. Another drawback to maintaining the streetcar line at the time was the TTC’s aging PCC (Presidents’ Conference Committee) vehicle fleet. However, on November 7 of 1972, the TTC decided to retain the use of streetcars integrating it into the immediate future of transit in the city. 


 PCC 4437 streetcar at Bloor/Bathurst in 1965 in front of Honest Ed's (Photo Credit: R. McMann)



Choosing to preserve Toronto’s streetcar network, matters turned to modernizing their streetcar stable. When introduced in the late 1930s, the PCC design was an evolutionary streetcar design that became a common sight across the transit system for many North American cities. The streetcar was quieter and more comfortable than predecessors while also utilizing many standardized components as well as passenger/operator layouts. The TTC was one of several transit systems that widely adopted the vehicle ordering 540 newly-constructed models from 1938 to 1951. Toronto also acquired 225 more PCC streetcars in the late 1950s from Birmingham, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Kansas and Louisville as those locations would discontinue using streetcars. Though the PCC streetcars proved reliable with a handful still in service by the TTC through the 1990s after undergoing major refits, the vehicles’ decades-old technology and maintenance complexities made a replacement a necessity.   

The decision to modernize Toronto’s streetcar vehicles was followed shortly after by the establishment of UTDC (Urban Transportation Development Corporation Limited) by the Ontario provincial government as a private enterprise. UTDC’s primary focus was the development of the TTC’s new CLRV streetcar. Similar to the PCC streetcar’s creation, the CLRV would be a massive progression over its older counterpart using the latest technologies of the time. 


From Prototype to Production


Mechanically advanced compared to the PCC, the CLRV streetcar was created as a quieter, better performing transit vehicle. Using a twin DC electric motor setup, UTDC’s new streetcar demonstrated impressive efficiency thanks to its employment of a solid state chopper control system. The chopper control unit consumed 30 percent less energy per mile than the electric propulsion system of the PCC streetcar. Another advantage the CLRV had over its predecessor was the ability to regenerate energy when the vehicle decelerates. A new load-weighing airbag suspension combined with a steel/rubber primary assembly provided an improved ride quality and reduced noise rated roughly 10 decibels lower than the PCC design. The CLRV’s cabin area was quieter thanks to the suspension as well as the use of sound-deadening insulation. 


Images found in UTDC brochure showcasing the development of the CLRV



Featuring a cleaner, modular interior than the vehicle it was replacing, the development of the CLRV streetcar also contained upgrades to rider and operator comfort. A more efficient layout inside the streetcar accommodated more passengers than the interior of the PCC in addition to boasting modernized touches for the day. Large windows provided natural light during the daytime while fluorescent lighting provided a brighter, safer cabin ambience at night. Backlit advertisement displays, stop request sign and a pressure-sensitive rear exit door were also touted as highlight features promoted on the vehicle.


UTDC CLRV 4000 Mockup at Scarborough Town Centre (Photo Credit: R. McMann)


Showcasing the essence of the upcoming streetcar, the initial prototype UTDC CLRV 4000 design differed noticeably in appearance compared to what would roam on the tracks in Toronto. The early concept of the CLRV boasted a number of elements that were not transferred to the production models. A front end featuring a quad rectangular headlamp layout as well as small, low-mounted front side safety windows and a rear portion incorporating straighter lines are among design traits of the CLRV 4000 not translating to later iterations of the TTC streetcar. Also, as was a trend in automobiles entering the mid 1970s, the early design of the CLRV included large energy-absorbing bumpers at the front and rear. The bumpers were more streamlined on the TTC streetcars. A later mockup of the CLRV 4000 that was publicly shown at events more closely resembled the model used on Toronto streets but included a dual rectangular headlamp front end. 


Image from UTDC Brochure for the Canadian Light Rail Vehicle



When developing the CLRV project, UTDC envisioned great flexibility in their design. Although the use on Toronto city streets was immediately planned, adaptability to light rail right-of-way transit was engineered into the CLRV. In addition to the basic vehicle design, a longer length articulating vehicle as well as a variant for double-ended operator compartments was pitched as an optional layout. The ALRV (Articulated Light Rail Vehicle) featuring a longer length for greater passenger capacity was ordered and deployed by the TTC. There may have also been more ALRVs in use in Toronto when the city’s transit planning was considering a light rail link to Scarborough. The TTC that ultimately became the Scarborough RT line would use of UTDC’s ICTS (Intermediate Capacity Transit System).


The CLRV's Path Beyond Toronto

While supplying the TTC was the reason for initializing the CLRV project, the vehicle was envisioned as a solution for other transit systems. Perhaps less known to public transit riders in Toronto was how the UTDC-designed vehicle would operate outside of the major Canadian city. 

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) tested three of the vehicles for a brief stint in 1980 on their Green Line light rail system. Identical to the TTC streetcars in appearance, the red and white vehicle’s presence within the Boston area provided rare sight of seeing the design operating in a MU (Multiple Unit) setup. MU control was built into Toronto’s CLRV but was not regularly adopted into its use by the TTC and eventually front skirting would conceal the area where the front hitch coupling was located. The MBTA ultimately elected not to place a purchase order. 


CLRV 4031 and 4027 under evaluation by MBTA in 1980 (Photo Credit: Clark Frazier)



The only customer of the CLRV-based vehicle aside from Toronto was the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (Santa Clara VTA) for their light rail line. Ordering 50 vehicles that entered service in 1987, the Santa Clara VTA’s articulated cars differed greatly in appearance compared to the TTC streetcars. Configured for double-ended operation, both ends featured a distinctively flatter exterior look including an automotive-style dual headlamp setup. Though Santa Clara VTA retired the vehicles in 2003, the CLRV-based cars would be sold to transit services in Salt Lake City and Sacramento. 


Sacramento RT Light Rail UTDC LRV at 47st Street Station on Blue Line on December 2017
(Photo Credit: Peter Ehrlich)



In recent years, Sacramento RT Light Rail reached a deal with Siemens to refurbish their 21 UTDC-derived vehicles allowing the essence of the Canadian-developed transit machines to continue in service for 15 years. The first examples of the Siemens upgraded vehicles were reintroduced to the California city’s light rail network in 2015.


40 Years as Toronto’s Trusty Streetcar 


Back in Toronto, 196 CLRV and 52 ALRV models served as the backbone of a major streetcar system for the better part of four decades. After a little less than two years of testing, the first CLRV streetcars were used for regular customer service on September 30, 1979 on what is now the 501 Queen route. While the majority of the vehicles were manufactured in Thunder Bay by Hawker Siddeley Canada, the initial six CLRVs were assembled in Switzerland by SIG. When the streetcars were introduced to riders, the vehicles wore a red, white and black color combination that the Toronto Transit Commission was in the process of rolling out on their entire surface fleet. The TTC would give their streetcars special paint schemes to honour special moments including Toronto's centennial anniversary and later wrapped advertisements on the vehicle's exterior. 

Adopting several updates over the CLRV, the first ALRVs were not introduced to riders on a daily basis until early 1988. Introduced as the longest individual streetcars to run on Toronto roads, the ALRVs seated 61 passengers and could hold over 100 occupants during rush hour. 


TTC ALRV 4126 Wearing Partial Advertisement in June 2015 (Chris Nagy/Toronto Time Mechine)



Proving relatively dependable on a daily basis thanks to its construction and later maintenance by TTC personnel, the two streetcar variants were responsible for moving 63,315,000 passengers in 2013 alone through the Canadian city. Though familiar and effective, the streetcar design did present some glaring disadvantages that would age the vehicles.


ALRV 4215 streetcar operating at Bathurst Station in April 2015 (Photo Credit: Chris Nagy/Toronto Time Machine)




One of the much maligned characteristics of the CLRV and ALRV streetcars through its operation by the TTC was the lack of air conditioning. The option of air conditioning was planned for the CLRV vehicles but was not included in the assembly of any of the streetcars Toronto ordered. Only one CLRV streetcar would ever feature the use of an air conditioning unit installed on streetcar 4041 in 2006 with the transit commission choosing not to refit any additional models. Though air conditioning was not implemented, the streetcars would receive various fleet-wide improvements including electronic stop announcement and Presto card integration.  

A more critical issue with the streetcars was present since its introduction but became a much greater concern over the years. Due to the design and packaging of the CLRV, the occupant floor needed to be placed somewhat high requiring a sizable loading/unloading steps at the doors. The layout made the streetcars inaccessible to wheelchairs as well as difficult for baby strollers and individuals with mobility issues. In 2005, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act was passed requiring transit services in the province to adopt a fully accessible vehicle fleet by 2025. Although retrofitting of the CLRV design was considered no solution proved viable. 


Interior of CLRV Streetcar in April 2015 (Photo Credit: Chris Nagy/Toronto Time Machine)



Finally, as the streetcars aged, their operations during extreme winter conditions were becoming a liability for the TTC and commuters in Toronto. On December 28th of 2017, The Globe and Mail reported that one-third of the CLRV and ALRV streetcars were unable to operate after a deep freeze hit the city with temperatures dipping into -22 Celsius. The pressurized air system used throughout the streetcar for the doors, suspension and even braking had begun to wear over the course of decades of use.

The three highlighted failings of the CLRV designed streetcar would be remedied when the TTC adopted the vehicle’s replacement.


The End of the Line for TTC’s CLRV-Derived Fleet

On August 31st of 2014, Toronto’s streetcar future officially entered service. The Bombardier Flexity Outlook currently deployed by the transit commission is sleeker, larger and better appointed for 21st century transit. 

Capable of safely accommodating 130 maximum passengers (22 more than the ALRV), the low-floor articulating Flexity Outlook streetcars has four large passenger doors, air conditioning and an onboard terminal for purchasing transit fares. The fleet of 204 Bombardier Flexity Outlook was originally slated to replace the remaining fleet of CLRV and ALRV models for 2018 but major production hiccups for the new vehicles led to a delay in the decommissioning of the older, existing vehicles. The final day of fare operation for the ALRV was September 2nd of 2019 with the smaller CLRV receiving its swan song months later as the Bombardier streetcars were fully deployed on the network. 


CLRV 4013 and Bombardier Flexity Outlook streetcars operating together on Queens Quay West April 2015 (Photo Credit: Chris Nagy/Toronto Time Machine)



As traditional with the Toronto Transit Commission, at least one example of their previous streetcars is maintained in a heritage fleet. Three examples of the CLRV (including vehicle number 4001) and one ALRV will stay with the TTC while a select number of other vehicles will be donated to museums. The remaining stock of the aging streetcars has been committed to strap serving their full operational lifespan (exceeding the original 25-year life expectancy).  


Riding on the Same Track Together 


TTC CLRV 4069 Streetcar serving 511 Exhibition July 2014 (Photo Credit: Chris Nagy/Toronto Time Machine)



The TTC-branded streetcars that conformed to the CLRV design’s travel on Toronto’s tracks are measured by distance but also by time. Though not always clear during day-to-day operations as passengers boarded the TTC streetcars for work, school or shopping, the CLRV and later the ALRV streetcars moved through a city that changed drastically since 1979. These streetcars coasted on tracks as major Toronto retailing icons Eaton’s, Simpson’s, Honest Ed’s, Sam the Record Man and the World’s Biggest Bookstore faded while high-valued condominiums grew along the routes. Eight different Toronto mayors were elected, the Toronto Blue Jays (who came to the city just two years before the first CLRV was pressed into service) won two World Series titles and some of the last examples of the streetcars likely moved basketball fans as the Raptors triumphed in the 2019 NBA championship. 

Streetcars based on the CLRV project now transitions from being the vessel for ongoing Toronto history to a vehicle of nostalgia of the Canadian city’s past.


References:

MET Staff. (September 9, 2015) Siemens' refurbished LRT vehicles to begin operating on Sacramento line. Retrieved from https://www.metro-magazine.com/10036480/siemens-refurbished-lrt-vehicles-to-begin-operating-on-sacramento-line

Oliver Moore. (December 28, 2017) Nearly one-third of old streetcars were unable to leave yard due to frigid weather: TTC. Retrieved from  https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/toronto/nearly-one-third-of-old-streetcars-were-unable-to-leave-yard-due-to-frigid-weather-ttc/article37449557/

Toronto Transit Commission. (June 26, 2009) City Council approves funds for TTC purchase of new streetcars. Retrieved from
http://www.ttc.ca/News/2009/June/City_Council_approves_funds_for_TTC_purchase_of_new_streetca.jsp

Toronto Transit Commission. (June 26, 2020) New Streetcars. Retrieved from https://www.ttc.ca/About_the_TTC/Projects/New_Vehicles/New_Streetcars/index.jsp

Urban Transportation Development Corporation (1975). Urban Transportation Development Corporation Introduces CLRV. [Brochure]. Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Urban Transportation Development Corporation (1976). Light Rail Transit: The Vehicle. [Brochure]. Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Urban Transportation Development Corporation (1976). Light Rail Transit: The System. [Brochure]. Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Wikipedia (June 26, 2020. Toronto Streetcar System. Retrieved from from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toronto_streetcar_system

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