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The Rise and Fall of Toronto's Zoo Monorail

by James Bow and Richard White

For children who grew up in Toronto in the seventies and eighties, the Toronto Zoo monorail was often their fondest memory of their trip to the sprawling 710 acre natural complex located in the northeastern corner of the city. Known as the Toronto Zoo Domain Ride, automated trains travelling on rubber tires within a concrete guideway took zoo goers on a five kilometre loop through the zoo’s more inaccessible areas, while tour guides pointed out the enclosures and the various fauna that could be spotted along the way.

The Rise

The monorail opened to the public in 1976, two years after the initial opening of the zoo. There were three stations en route, from the main station near the Zoo entrance at the east side of the property, to a Weston station near the southwestern corner of the property, to finally the Americas station near the north of the property. Fares were collected at the main station, although passengers could board trains at the other two stations for free. Passengers were required to leave the train upon its return to the main station, however, limiting the free ride these alternate stops offered.

The trains were a prototype built by Bendix-Dashaveyor, an American firm. Rubber tires provided the motive power, while electricity was supplied by a “rail” located on one side of the guideway. Passengers entered compartments containing two facing benches. It was not possible to walk the length of the car. Trains operated clockwise along the looping right-of-way, and had secondary controls in the last car to allow trains to be reversed into their storage area located near the north end of the zoo.

Decline and Fall

Despite the popularity of the attraction, funding for its maintenance and repair was limited and the system was allowed to deteriorate. In March 1991, a train crashed into a second train that was stopped between stations, injuring nine people. In December of that year, the Zoo’s board of directors were warned that the cars needed their brakes and propulsion systems repaired in order to prevent future accidents.

Whatever measures that were taken may have been insufficient. On July 11, 1994, a train leaving Weston station lost power while climbing a steep hill and rolled backwards, achieving speeds of 40 km/h before crashing into a second train that was loading at the station. Twenty-seven passengers suffered significant injuries, including broken bones and whiplash. The monorail was taken offline at that time, and never resumed service.

The Zoo was charged under the Occupational Health and Safety Act and fined $43,000. Zoo officials then determined that the cost of rehabilitating the monorail was too expensive. At the time, the Zoo was owned and operated by Metropolitan Toronto, and government funds were limited during what was tough economic times. Over the next few years, the monorail was scrapped and portions of the elevated guideway were removed. The Zoomobile, a tractor-driven “train”, now carries passengers around the zoo grounds.

The Monorail Today

As of late 2008, much of the right-of-way remains, albeit overgrown. All three stations also remain, with the main station open to the public for the Peacock CafĂ©, wheelchair and stroller rentals, and a place to board the Zoomobile. The Weston station still stands; although its platform has been fenced off, the station’s washrooms are still open to the public. Even the Americas station remains, although it has been fully blocked off from the public.

Zoo Monorail Image Archive

Below are some videos taken in 2013 during a Janes walk on the Monorail trackage.

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