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Route 509 - The New Harbourfront Streetcar

Harbourfront LRT Transfer

A transfer from the original 604 Harbourfront line which opened ten years before 509 Harbourfront

by James Bow.

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The Route

The 509 Harbourfront Streetcar runs from an underground platform at Union Station, south through a tunnel beneath Bay Street, west along an at-grade private right-of-way on Queens Quay, north for a block along Bathurst Street, west through a private right-of-way on what used to be Fleet Street and into Exhibition Loop, returning via the reverse route. Service is frequent and operates seven days a week, whenever the subway is open. Partial night service is provided by streetcars under the 317 SPADINA banner, operating from Union station to Queen's Quay and Spadina and then north on Spadina to Spadina station. Union station and Queen's Quay station stay open overnight to allow access to the streetcar platforms.

The line came about after the construction of 850 metres of double track on Queens Quay between Spadina Avenue and Bathurst Street in the year 2000. It used tracks from Union Station to Spadina Avenue that were laid down in 1989. The loading platform at Union may have been a little small to handle streetcars serving two routes, but expanding that loop wasn't feasible without a significant commitment of funding. At Spadina Avenue, a full T-intersection was built, with west-to-north and east-to-north switches. Here, the line continues west, running along a boulevard in the middle of Queens Quay to Bathurst Street and along Bathurst Street to the Bathurst/Fleet/Lake Shore intersection.

The Bathurst/Fleet/Lake Shore intersection has a number of interesting design features. On the north side, southbound Bathurst cars run into the second lane from the right, avoiding a new left-turn lane. From the south, cars pass through a track switch before entering the intersection and travel a number of meters north along interlaced tracks before turning west onto Fleet Street. This way, cars don't dewire or otherwise run into trouble while in the middle of the wide intersection.

From this point, the 509 Harbourfront Streetcar uses established track along Fleet Street. Initially, portions of this track have been made off limits to automobiles, using temporary bollards similar to the ones placed around the Spadina line between College and Front. Road and track reconstruction eventually closed Fleet Street to through traffic east of Fort York Boulevard. Private right-of-way was also added in the middle of the road between Fort York Boulevard and Strachan Avenue, completing the private right-of-way to the LRT-worthy Exhibition Loop. There, 509 streetcars take up the bay that used to be used by the 521 King Exhibition cars. Crossovers will allow a 509 or a 511 car to pass through while the other lays over in the loop.

The private right-of-way along Queens Quay between Spadina and Bathurst matches the style of the raised right-of-way to the east, rather than the pseudo-cobblestone tracks on Spadina. This is either an attempt to match the character of the rest of the Harbourfront line, or the acknowledgement of the initial problems experienced by the Spadina streetcar, caused by its private right-of-way being not private enough.

A History of the Harbourfront LRT Line

The City of Toronto has long had an ambivalent relationship with its waterfront. As most of its use was given over to industry, the city found itself cut off from Lake Ontario by massive railway developments and, following the 1950s, the Gardiner Expressway. Starting in 1960, the Toronto City Council looked for ways to reconnect the city to its waterfront. This became an important issue as the area started to de-industrialize, and the city felt that commercial and residential redevelopment could not happen without a push. Bold plans included Harbour City, or Metro Centre, that called for the wholesale bulldozing and redeveloping of the area (including building new islands in the harbour). In the 1970s, however, more modest plans were made, and a Waterfront LRT was part of that.

The first proposals for a Waterfront LRT called for a long line, operating on private right-of-way from a redeveloped Mimico motel strip, along the lakeshore (some proposals suggested making use of the Queensway tracks, which are also on private right-of-way) and then along the CN railway tracks and through the north end of the Exhibition. The line would continue down the middle of a reworked Lake Shore Boulevard and Fleet Street, south on Portland, and along Queens Quay to Union Station. Plans also called for the line to extend east, through a redeveloped Port Lands, terminating around Queen Street and Coxwell Avenue.

Given that the Waterfront LRT was designed to spark development and not respond to it, it was not expected that the line would see many passengers initially (although some could have used it to bypass the congested Queen Streetcar downtown). The proposal was sheer speculation, fuelled by dreams of industrial redevelopment, and a possible 1996 Summer Olympics. The cost of the proposal proved to be Toronto's reality check. The LRT's proponents were only able to get the City to support construction of the Harbourfront LRT as a first stage. Harbourfront was also envisaged as a leg of the Spadina LRT, and the Spadina line had the necessary development that could generate the passengers required to make it a success. Ironically, although the Harbourfront LRT was approved, the Spadina LRT was delayed, as community concerns forced the city and the TTC to redesign the project.

When is a Streetcar not a Streetcar?

When the 604 Harbourfront line opened as an LRT on June 22, 1990, (Click here to see the opening ceremonies) it was criticized as a 'toy train'. It was a short line, providing little in the way of commuter value, save for a connection from Union Station to the Ferry Docks and the antique market. It would have made more sense as part of a longer line running along the waterfront, but that proposal died as soon as the announcement came that the 1996 Summer Olympics would be held in Atlanta. With the Spadina LRT still eight years away from opening, the Harbourfront LRT risked a reputation of a white elephant.

The line did not open without incident, either. The fire department insisted at the last moment that an emergency exit be added at Union Station. At the same time, a dispute erupted with the hotels around the Queen's Quay and Bay intersection regarding a direct connection between this station and the hotel properties. This dispute kept the Queen's Quay station closed for several months after the line opened, and eventually the idea of a direct connection was dropped. While Queen's Quay station remained closed, streetcars used a temporary stop at the end of the tunnel ramp on Queen's Quay in order to connect with the Ferry Docks.

The TTC made the most of the service, however. It proved useful in ferrying passengers to the SkyDome, and merchants appreciated the pull it provided bringing tourists to the area. During the off-season, streetcars operated at 7.5 minute intervals, with vehicles entering service via non-revenue trackage laid down Spadina from King (laid to LRT standards in anticipation of the Spadina Streetcar).

During the summer season, service was more frequent, with free rides being offered during the weekends and holidays. Fares were free for travel along Queen's Quay, but *not* to and from Union station. Drivers would not collect fares at all, leaving passengers to pay at Union Station at a fare barrier placed in the tunnel between the streetcar platform and the subway mezzanine. This system continued even after streetcar service launched on Spadina, for eastbound streetcars along Queen's Quay (and, once the line was extended to the Exhibition, east from there as well). The free fares finally ended in 2013 when the service was temporarily replaced by buses due to the reconstruction of Union station's subway platform. The new Flexity streetcars in operation after the line reopened made both Spadina and Harbourfront streetcars proof-of-payment and, although fare barriers have been removed at Union, inspectors periodically check for proof of fare payment on incoming passengers.

The PCCs were removed from the route around 1994, thanks to complaints from local residents about squealing wheels. CLRVs operated with a blank rollsign for a few years, until new rollsigns were added, and the line was suddenly renumbered '510' on February 18, 1996

604 Becomes 510 and then 509

The route's renumbering was in acknowledgement of the fact that the Harbourfront line was a streetcar route, and that 'LRT' was a political monicker that was actually more frightening to local residents. When the Harbourfront line opened, the TTC attempted to market it as a rapid transit route, displaying it on their maps as if it were a subway route (the orange line) and giving it a rapid transit route number (604 -- the TTC formerly used 601 to officially designate the Yonge-University-Spadina subway, 602 for the Bloor-Danforth subway and 603 for the Scarborough RT). This resulted in the line getting included on early online rapid transit trip planners, such as the Subway Navigator website (

Then the TTC discovered that the residents around Spadina Avenue reacted more positively to the phrase "Spadina streetcar" than "Spadina LRT". Local residents were concerned that their local street was going to become a pedestrian unfriendly rapid-transit corridor. Streetcars were something they were more used to. As a result, the TTC chose a streetcar series route number when numbering its Spadina line 510. The Harbourfront stretch was going to be incorporated into the Spadina line on July 27, 1997, so it received the renumbering as well (although 604 continued to exist as a route number on some rollsigns a couple of years after the Spadina streetcar line's opening).

The Conversion to Streetcars Report Bears Fruit

It was during 1997 that the rest of the Harbourfront line received its most successful push. Ironically, it had nothing to do with grandiose plans to reconnect Toronto with the waterfront, but pragmatic plans to close a short gap and make use of surplus streetcars.

Proposals had been made before to extend the Harbourfront streetcar to the Canadian National Exhibition (the nearest major passenger generator). One route option would have had the line jog north from Queens Quay, following an extended Esplanade (now known as Bremner Boulevard) and along private right-of-way north of Fort York. Stalled development in the railway lands between Bathurst and Spadina killed that proposal. However, in 1996, the TTC commissioned the Conversion to Streetcars Report. This report looked at ways the TTC could convert bus routes into streetcar routes with minimal expansion of Toronto's streetcar network. Of the choices examined, the only construction the report recommended was bridging the gap on Queens Quay between Bathurst and Spadina. A decade earlier, the Waterfront LRT proposal had foundered because there was insufficient development along the route to make the line useful as anything other than a development generator, but by 1996 the area around Queens Quay west of Spadina was experiencing a development boom. The TTC anticipated that, within a decade opening, a line through the area could expect to carry as many as 11000 passengers per day. Current transit arrangements were clearly insufficient for this demand.

Construction Begins Again

In 1995, the old Exhibition loop was abandoned, due to the construction of a trade centre on the site of the old loop. The new loop, opened June 16, 1996 beneath the Gardiner Expressway at the north end of the Exhibition Grounds, was built to Waterfront LRT standards and was only in use by the 511 BATHURST streetcar (and 521 KING-EXHIBITION during special events). With the new Exhibition loop already in place, all the TTC had to build was 850 metres of track and two intersections of specialwork. The TTC got the necessary approvals from the City of Toronto and the Province of Ontario, and began building.

The section on Queens Quay from Spadina to Lower Portland was built first, as this section conformed to what was already approved under the Waterfront LRT's environmental assessment. The remainder of the construction had to wait until the Province approved the deviation from the plan. The original proposal had the line turning north on Portland and then west on Lake Shore Boulevard, wholly on private right-of-way, down the middle of a combined Lake Shore-Fleet Street. Such an arrangement would have added millions of dollars to the cost of the project. A 1989 study had concluded that extending the Harbourfront LRT by this route was "physically feasible" at a cost of $67 million. By following a simpler route, and using the tracks already in place on Fleet Street, the cost of the extension was brought down to just $13.25 million.

The new Union-Exhibition route was named 509 HARBOURFRONT -- the TTC picking a streetcar-series route number rather than the original 604 HARBOURFRONT monicker. It opened with ceremony on July 21, 2000 (see the ceremonies here) and, on July 23, 2000, greatly simplified the route network in the developing west Harbourfront neighbourhood. Previously, the 121 FRONT-ESPLANADE bus operated from Union Station via Front, Spadina and Queens Quay to loop through the Bathurst Quay area (with seasonal extensions to Ontario Place). Following the Harbourfront line's opening, this portion of 121 FRONT-ESPLANADE was replaced. The service also ended the existence of the 521 KING-EXHIBITION. With 509 HARBOURFRONT providing a mostly private right-of-way run from Union station, there was no need for the special service operating in mixed traffic along Bathurst and King.

Growing into its Own

Initially, 509 HARBOURFRONT operated only limited service. With 510 SPADINA covering the built-up portion of Harbourfront east of Spadina, 509 did not have the ridership to justify evening service, especially outside of summer. Sunday morning service was typically cut back from Exhibition to Fleet loop, to save on the number of streetcars used, and to limit duplication with the 511 BATHURST streetcar. However, the line was an instant hit, especially during the 2000 iteration of the Canadian National Exhibition. The private right-of-way operation promised a reliable connection to Union Station. Also, the neighbourhoods around the line were redeveloping. As new condominiums opened around Bathurst Key and near Fort York, ridership increased, as did hours of service. On November 23, 2008, system-wide service improvements resulting from the TTC's Ridership Growth Plan increased 509 HARBOURFRONT's hours of operation to 7 days a week, whenever the subway is open. Even as some services were cut back in 2011, 509 HARBOURFRONT retained its expanded hours of operation.

Questions About the Future

In October 2014, streetcars returned to the 509 HARBROUFRONT route after operating with buses for months previous. Starting on July 26, 2012, streetcars were taken off the route as the TTC closed the Union loop to work on the second platform for the subway station. In conjunction with this work, and at the behest of Waterfront Toronto, the TTC set about rebuilding the tracks (which were, by then, 24 years old and built to poorer standards leading to deterioration). This was more than a simple track rehabilitation, however, as Waterfront Toronto sought to realign Queen's Quay to make the whole area more pedestrian friendly. The street was revised so that roadway to the south of the tracks on Queen's Quay between Spadina and the tunnel portal was closed down, and two-way traffic installed on the roadway to the north of the tracks instead.

In doing this, the streetcar tracks would run on the south side of Queen's Quay instead of the middle of it. This change was to give over more space for pedestrians, and reduce the number of conflicts between cars and streetcars. Although the road and track work was supposed to take a year, unexpected construction conflicts and a hard winter delayed the restoration of streetcar service until Sunday, October 12, 2014. During this shutdown, the TTC made modifications to the Union station streetcar platform, removing the yellow fence and other fare control measures. The tunnel between streetcar and subway was shortened, and the stairs to the mezzanine level eliminated. Passengers could now exit directly on the Yonge line platform instead.

These changes ensured the future of the 509 Harbourfront route. Less certain is whether the Harbourfront streetcar will be expanded. Development in Harbourfront east of Bay Street has been continuing rapidly, with developers expecting that streetcar tracks will follow. The first phase would have tracks emerge from the Bay Street tunnel via a new portal on Queen's Quay east of Yonge (with an underground station at Yonge), continuing east to a new loop at Parliament. Further construction and a road realignment would connect the Queen's Quay tracks with streetcar tracks already being built on Cherry Street south of Queen, and further extensions east and south along Cherry Street and Commissioners Road into the Port Lands.

Should these extensions be built, they may dramatically alter the structure of streetcar service along Harbourfront. As many as four different routes could call Union Station home (510 SPADINA, 509 HARBOURFRONT WEST, a service along Queen's Quay East and Commissioners, and a new service from Broadview station operating via Broadview, King, Cherry and Queen's Quay). However, none of these extensions can occur without substantial funding, and the current mayoral administration has been hostile to expansion of streetcar service. To be fair, the budget for these extensions has risen dramatically, largely due to the challenges of building an underground tunnel so close to the Lake, and a need to completely revamp Union Station's loop after missing the opportunity to roll in such construction with the project to build a second subway platform for the station.

There is strong local support for expanded streetcar service, with various agencies and developers believing improved transportation being critical to the success of the redevelopment of the eastern waterfront. While no progress has been made towards construction, it should only be a matter of time and renewed political will.

To the west, plans to extend the Harbourfront streetcar beyond the CNE grounds have risen and fallen. Early in the millennium, there was a proposal to build a connection bridging Exhibition loop with Dufferin loop. Initially, this proposal was fueled by the prospect that TTC might replace its Roncesvalles and Connaught carhouses with a single carbarn located at the old Molson's Brewery site on Fleet Street. If such a move was made, it would only be prudent that this carhouse have more than one access to the rest of the streetcar network. However, the Molson Brewery site was redeveloped into condominiums, and a site for a new carbarn was chosen near Leslie Street.

But by connecting Exhibition loop with Dufferin loop, a Harbourfront streetcar could continue west, following mixed traffic on Dufferin and King and private right-of-way on the Queensway, and serve the neighbourhoods of Mimico, New Toronto and Long Branch, possibly along a re-established private right-of-way, such as was done on St. Clair. This proposal was boosted by the City of Toronto's Transit City proposal, which called for the Waterfront LRT to be built as a "legacy" streetcar line (as opposed to the built-from-scratch LRT lines on Eglinton, Finch West and Sheppard East). The proposal looked for ways to extend the line via private right-of-way from Dufferin to Roncesvalles, following the railway tracks and the Gardiner Expressway. However, funding cuts to Transit City have delayed construction, such that Metrolinx sees this project as not taking place until after 2021.

In spite of these frustrations, the fact remains that 509 HARBOURFRONT has seen considerable growth in its first decade of existence. Paired with 510 SPADINA in the TTC's ridership statistics, the two lines together boast the second highest ridership of all surface lines or line combinations on the system. The route has proven to be the backbone of new development in the western Harbourfront, and this is proof enough of the need for further construction as other areas around Toronto's harbour redevelop.

Document Archive

509 Harbourfront Image Archive


  • Kerr, Tom. "Peterson may be forced to settle transit line row." The Toronto Star 8 Feb. 1988: A6.
  • Smith, Michael. "Streetcar line to have European Touch." The Sunday Star 12 Mar. 1989: B6.

Thanks to John Bromley and Ray Corley for their corrections to this web page.

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