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A History of City Streetcars on Yonge Street

Text by James Bow
With assistance by Pete Coulman

Public Transit on Yonge Street

The Early Days of Yonge Street

The original settlement for the Town of York, established in 1793, was about a dozen blocks located around what is today King and Frederick. The oldest part of Toronto is thus found at east end of today’s downtown, but John Graves Simcoe — the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada — made a move that would ensure that Toronto’s growth would shift west. Eager to bolster the military capabilities of the loyalist colony from a possible invasion by the United States, he commissioned the construction of a military road (upgrading a trail long used by the Huron Indians) stretching north from the western part of York, linking it with Lake Simcoe, effectively bypassing Lake Erie and the St. Clair River, which were at the time under American threat. He named this road Yonge Street, after his friend and colleague, Sir George Yonge (a former British Secretary of War and an expert on Roman roads).

Military conscripts toiled through heavy brush for the next three years and the first stretch of Yonge Street was completed on February 16, 1796. It was the first road in that part of Upper Canada to stretch away from Lake Ontario, and it achieved immediate importance as a trade route linking the lower Great Lakes to the upper Great Lakes via Lake Simcoe. It ask became the baseline upon which all concessions and side roads in York County would be measured. With trade came people, who settled in villages that were soon established along this road.

On March 6, 1834, the Town of York was reincorporated as the City of Toronto. By 1849, Toronto’s population had increased from 9,254 to over 21,000. The heavy traffic around the city, especially on Yonge Street, prompted a cabinet maker/undertaker named Burt Williams to establish a coach business. Building comfortable four-passenger stagecoaches that he called omnibuses, he ran Toronto’s first public transportation service from St. Lawrence Market, west along King Street and north along Yonge, to the Red Lion Hotel in the village of Yorkville. Omnibuses departed every ten minutes and cost a sixpence to ride. It was immediately popular. Within a year, Williams had added three more four-passenger vehicles and a further four ten-passenger vehicles.

The Rise of the Toronto Street Railway Company

Williams’ omnibus service demonstrated to Toronto city council and various business interests that public transportation in the city was viable. In 1861, Philadelphia native Alex Easton was invited to Toronto to help set up a conglomerate of local business owners that would build a street railway in the city. Easton was an Englishman who had immigrated to America and settled in Philadelphia. In 1858, he had helped establish that city’s first street railway line. At least part of Easton’s interest in setting up a similar service in Toronto was to have the street railway make use of his newly designed horse-drawn ‘Haddon Car’.

On July 22, 1861, Toronto City Council grants this group, now known as the Toronto Street Railway Company (with Easton as its president), a thirty-year franchise to build and operate street railways within Toronto’s city limits. With a crew of around 200 workmen, the TSR started work laying down tracks from St. Lawrence Market and moving west along King and north on Yonge to Yorkville Town Hall (located at today’s Scollard and Yonge). Work progressed quickly, and opening ceremonies were held on September 10. The route opened to the public the next day, as the first street railway line to operate in Canada.

The Globe newspaper was on hand to chronicle the first run on September 10, 1861 (passage courtesy Mike Filey’s book Not a One Horse Town):

Long before one o’clock, the time was set for the starting of the first horsecar, large crowds had made their way to the village, and all were bent on enjoying themselves. Yorkville presented a gay appearance with its flags and banners, and every window had its full quota of spectators. Seldom has the quiet village seen such a bustle and excitement and when the first car came out of the depot and was placed on the track, a grand cheer arose from the assembled multitude.

Some difficulty in clearing the lower part of the line led to a delayed start, and it was four o’clock before the car commenced its moments journey. On board were the Reeve and Council of Yorkville and several members of the Toronto City Council, and on the roof was the Artillery Band playing spirited airs suitable to the occasion. It was planned that only civic dignitaries and other invited guests should participate in the first trip; but a general rush enabled a large number of others to obtain seats in the next three cars, and they held them in spite of every remonstrance.

After proceeding a few hundred feet to Bloor Street, the first car ran off the tracks, but several passengers soon had it back in place. This occurred several times with all the cars, but the passengers treated the delay as a joke, and the crowd were always ready to give a shove or a lift to keep moving.

As the cars passed down Yonge Street, the citizens who lined the thoroughfares cheered the advent of the new system of transport, and the members of the Independent Fire Company turned out en masse in front of Engine House No. 2 At the St. Lawrence Hall, the National Anthem and three cheers for the Queen welcomed the appearance of the cars, which were thereupon started on the return journey, though the rough state of the road prevented their running continuously during the evening as had been intended.

There was no coincidence in the choice of the route. Yonge Street was the busiest street in the city, and Easton probably saw Williams’ omnibus service as a competitor that he had to defeat from the outset. Once the kinks in the TSR’s street railway service was worked out, Williams was undercut on price (the city’s mandated maximum fare for the TSR was five cents), and on the comfort of the TSR’s service (with TSR’s horse cars operating on straight and level tracks, the ride was a lot less bumpy than Williams’ free-wheeling omnibuses). Williams tried to compete, even changing the width of his wheels to make use of the TSR’s tracks, but the street railway had deeper pockets and the support of city council. Williams sold his assets in 1862 and returned to his undertaking business.

The TSR opened more lines, including one along Queen Street, and it initially interlined its Queen route with its Yonge line (streetcars would travel from Yorkville Town Hall via Yonge, King to the St. Lawrence Market, returning via west along King, north on Yonge and then running west on Queen to Dundas Street (now the foot of Ossington Avenue), before returning via Queen to Yonge and then operating north on Yonge to the Yorkville Town Hall and reversing this arrangement). This experiment did not last long, and the Yonge line was soon independent of the Queen line, although transfers were offered and accepted on both cars. The next change to Yonge’s operation in the 1880s, as the freight railroads started to make a greater impact on the city.

Union Station and the Canadian Pacific Railway

As Toronto grew in population, it also grew in size. The villages surrounding Toronto were annexed into the city in a burst in the 1880s. The Village of Yorkville vanished into Toronto in 1883, and by 1888, the City of Toronto stretched as far north as the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks running across the north of the city (near today’s Summerhill station). With these annexations came the expectation that the services enjoyed by City residents would be extended to cover the new arrivals. In 1885, the Yonge streetcar line was extended north from Scollard to wye at the CPR tracks.

North of the CPR, however, other villages were springing up, or consolidating into towns, but the City of Toronto was under no obligation to offer these new towns service. Other companies stepped forward, including the Metropolitan Railway, which by 1885 was serving Yonge Street from the CPR tracks north to the village of Eglinton, and by 1892, York Mills — a length longer than the City’s Yonge street railway service. The northern villages, however, grew frustrated at the Metropolitan’s level of service and high fares, and looked longingly at the frequent and inexpensive service being operated south of the CPR tracks. This difference in the level of service on Yonge Street would be a source of controversy and even conflict in the decades that followed (see an upcoming article about the Metrpolitan Railway on Yonge Street).

Throughout Canada, railways were having an increasing impact on the economic vitality of the nation. The Canadian Pacific finished its transcontinental railway linking British Columbia with the rest of Canada in 1885. It and other railroads were increasing their presence in the core of Toronto. The city had already received a “Union Station” in 1858 when the Grand Trunk Railway cooperated with Great Western and the Northern to build a station at the foot of Simcoe Street. In 1882, with the consolidation of a number of smaller railroads into the Canadian Pacific and the Grand Trunk, most passenger rail service was operated out of a 1873 building opened by Grand Trunk, also at the foot of Simcoe. In response to rising traffic, the Toronto Street Railway extended tracks along Front Street from Yonge to York, and had alternate cars operate to the station instead of along King to Frederick. Thus began a relationship between the Yonge streetcar (and, later, subway) and Union Station that would last to this day. By 1891, in part due to the continued shift of Toronto’s downtown to the west, around Yonge Street, Yonge cars had moved off King Street East and were all serving Union Station.

A New Franchise and Electrification

The Toronto Street Railway’s thirty-year franchise expired in May 1891, and the responsibility for operating Toronto’s streetcar network fell to Toronto City Council. Their attempt to operate service as a city department, or city-owned corporation was unsuccessful; they simply did not have the management experience, nor the wherewithal to accomplish the upgrades they wanted to see completed. One of these improvements was electrification. In 1884, Belgian Charles Van Depoele had successfully designed and built an experimental electric railroad linking the Canadian Industrial Exhibition (today’s CNE) to the end of the King horsecar at Strachan and Wellington. Many Torontonians were eager to see this futuristic electric power applied to city streetcars, getting dozens of horses (and their related pollutants) off city streets (although some resisted; a Toronto Telegram reporter, riding Toronto’s first electric streetcar in September 1892, noted that the electricity had stopped his pocket watch and he called the new electric cars “the creation of the devil). The Metropolitan Railroad north of the CPR tracks had already electrified its operations, Toronto had to move with the times.

Through the summer of 1891, the city negotiated with a new consortium of businessmen and, on September 1, 1891, awarded a new thirty-year franchise to the Toronto Railway Company. The first electric streetcar ran up Church Street on August 16, 1892. One month later, a portion of the Yonge line was electrified, and electric cars temporarily operated via Front, Church, Bloor and Yonge to the CPR tracks. This arrangement allowed the tracks on Yonge south of Bloor to be renewed and, on October 10, 1892, the whole Yonge streetcar line was operating under electric wire (though night cars were not electrified until 1893).

As service increased in the downtown, the Toronto Railroad Company started building loops to turn cars around faster, instead of backing cars through wyes. On December 2, 1895, Station loop opened, turning cars around via west on Front, south on Simcoe, east on Station and north on York to Front. Cars would continue to wye at Price Street (just south of the CPR tracks) until 1916 when service was extended beneath the CPR to Woodlawn Avenue.

The City Heads North, the Yonge Line Doesn’t

The City of Toronto was pushing northward in 1910. Another round of annexations absorbed Rosedale in 1905, Deer Park in 1908 and the village of North Toronto in 1912. However, city streetcar service was not so quick to follow up Yonge Street. The City of Toronto had reached an impasse with the Toronto Railway Company and its owner William Mackenzie. From the 1890s on, Mackenzie had gone on a railroad buying spree. Not only did he own the Toronto Railway Company, he now owned the Metropolitan Railroad (by now christened the Toronto and York) and a number of other radial electric railways running from Toronto’s city limits out into the countryside. In 1900, plans were brought forward to give these suburban radials high speed access to Toronto’s downtown, but negotiations bogged down over issues rights-of-way, ownership of the tracks, the use of freight cars on city streets, and other terms of the railways’ franchises.

Relations between the City of Toronto and William Mackenzie further deteriorated on a host of other issues, including fares, Sunday service, the quality of the tracks on city streets. Early in the 20th century, the Toronto Railway Company flat out refused to extend service to the villages Toronto had annexed after 1894, claiming that their franchise did not cover those areas (a court decision upheld the TRC’s argument). Toronto City Council, looking ahead to the expiration of the TRC’s franchise in 1921, dug in its heels. Where the TRC refused to extend service, the city-owned and managed Toronto Civic Railway would build new tracks and run separate service (on St. Clair, Lansdowne, Bloor West, the Danforth and Gerrard East). To break the TRC’s monopoly on streetcar operation in Toronto’s downtown, the City contemplated proposals to build a subway beneath Yonge or Bay (then Terauley) streets.

Mayor Tommy Church, elected to office in 1915, would lead the charge against Mackenzie. He first scuttled a tentative deal Mackenzie and the city had reached that would have had the city buy out a number of Mackenzie-owned utilities. Church argued that the terms of the deal was too generous. Finally, when the Toronto and York’s franchise on Yonge Street south of Farnham Avenue (to the CPR tracks) expired — at midnight on Friday, June 25, 1915 — Mayor Church himself led a work crew carrying picks, shovels and crowbars to tear up the radial’s tracks between Farnham Avenue and the CPR. Within an hour, the rails had been removed from Yonge Street.

It was a theatrical strike against Mackenzie and the Toronto and York Radial Railway. Mayor Church had the support of the city’s media and the public, though one wonders how the passengers who now had to walk nearly half a kilometre to transfer from the radial to the city’s streetcars felt about the spat. The Toronto Railway Company’s extension of the Yonge streetcar from the CPR tracks to Woodlawn helped ease this transfer, but still left a one block gap.

The TTC Takes Over

Five years later, on September 1, 1921, the Toronto Railway Company’s franchise expired, and the city-owned Toronto Transportation Commission took over operations. The TTC’s Yonge streetcar operated out of a carhouse in Yorkville from the wye at Woodlawn via south on Yonge and west on Front, looping via Simcoe, Station Street and Front. Alternate cars on weekdays short turned via Front, Scott and Wellington streets. Cars operated seven days a week, with night cars turning back by wyeing at Yonge and Wellington.

The first task of the TTC was to rebuild, replace and otherwise upgrade the tracks and other infrastructure that the TRC had let deteriorate during the last years of its franchise. Trackwork on the Yonge streetcar started in October 1921, forcing diversions onto Bay or Victoria or Church streets, depending on which block on Yonge had to be ripped out and rebuilt. The task was finished within two months and, on December 7, 1921, the Yonge line resumed operation on Yonge Street, gliding over brand new tracks. That wasn’t all. A week later, the TTC unveiled the first of its brand new, large, all-metal Peter Witt streetcars, replacing antiquated wooden TRC cars. Two weeks after that, the Peter Witt cars started hauling trailers, effectively doubling the capacity of service on the line.

The Yonge streetcar line was in fine condition for its passengers, at least for the route currently in place. Extending city-style service to the former villages north of the CPR tracks, something said villages had been clamouring for for almost a decade, would take longer. Finally, on November 2, 1922, new double tracks opened for service on Yonge Street between Woodlawn in the south and Glen Echo Road at Toronto’s northern city limits (near today’s Yonge Boulevard; the streetcar destination signs would read “CITY LIMITS”). Glen Echo loop was a modern facility boasting a shelter, multiple tracks and connections between frequent city streetcars, radial electric cars coming in from as far north as Lake Simcoe and buses from even further afield. The Yonge line was now the north-south spine of Toronto’s streetcar network. To service this popular route, the TTC opened Eglinton carhouse on December 15, 1922, replacing the aging Yorkville facility. The remaining old track (Price to Woodlawn) would be replaced in 1928.

Large Witt 2952, by Julian Bernard

Witt 2952 enters Glen Echo Loop. Photo by Julian Bernard, donated by Curt Frey.

Managing Service

By the late 1920s, the Toronto Transportation Commission had upgraded almost all of the city’s streetcar infrastructure. It had incorporated the operations of the Toronto Civic Railways and other street railway operations under the banner of the TTC, and so it entered a period of maintaining and growing the ridership of its network. The Yonge streetcar carried crowds of passengers between Union Station and Glen Echo loop, with additional short turns operated between a new loop at Lawton Avenue (just north of St. Clair) and the corner of Scott and Front. Two-car Peter Witt trains (one powered car and trailer) operated every day of the week except Sunday, or during night hours. Three-door trailers were eventually brought in to replaced two-door trailers and speed up loading.

At the south end of the Yonge streetcar line, the construction of the modern Union Station altered the details of the streetcar’s route, but not its basic intent. Cars continued to turn west onto Front Street and, soon, Station loop was built to handle Witt trailer trains. By the late 1930s, a passenger waiting at a Yonge Street stop could see well over a dozen two-car streetcar trains trundling towards him in either direction. Even as the city struggled with the economic impacts of the depression, ridership on Yonge Street was increasing. On November 2, 1940, newly arrived PCC streetcars started providing night car service on the Yonge route.

Large Witt 3000, by Julian Bernard

Large Witt 3000 leads a trailer train and a lot of Yonge streetcars during a bitter winter day in 1954, illustrating the need for the soon-to-open Yonge subway. Photo by Julian Bernard, donated by Curt Frey.

Calls for a Subway

The onset of the Second World War and the subsequent rationing of rubber and gasoline pushed Toronto’s increase in streetcar traffic still further, and the Yonge streetcar line started to reach its limit. By 1940, it was clear that streetcars could not continue to handle the loads that Toronto expected to see on Yonge Street in the near future. In 1942, the TTC proposed that two streetcar subways be built, one parallel to or beneath Queen and another parallel to or beneath Yonge. Yonge subway streetcars would loop underground at Union Station before heading north in tunnel beneath Bay beyond Bloor, then dodging northeast through Ramsden Park to continue beneath Yonge Street to just north of St. Clair, whereupon the tracks would come to the surface. Southbound Yonge Streetcars departing from Glen Echo loop would dive underground here, and tracks on Yonge south of St. Clair would be removed. The subway would also replace streetcar service on Bay, with surface branches from the subway serving Dupont Street, St. Clair (via Nordheimer Ravine) and the Toronto Belt Line.

Toronto City Council rejected this proposal as too complex but asked the TTC to reconsider and resubmit. In 1946, a simplified plan maintained the Queen streetcar-subway but called for a Chicago-style heavy rail subway running beneath Yonge Street from Eglinton Avenue to Front and beneath Front to Union. This new proposal was put to city voters in a referendum held on January 1, 1946, and approved by a 9:1 ratio. For most Torontonians, it was a common sense solution. The Yonge streetcar was maxing out, carrying as much as 14,000 passengers per hour. The subway was the way of the future.

Even as tenders were called, the TTC launched a major renewal program for the tracks on Yonge street through 1948. The subway may have been expected to open within five years, but streetcar service on Yonge Street was just too important to ignore. Even so, construction on the Yonge subway began with an official groundbreaking ceremony on September 8, 1949 (see the article on the history of the original Yonge subway), and the Yonge streetcar entered into an lengthy period of diversion hell. The diversions actually started a month earlier, on August 17, 1949, when surveyors working on Yonge Street forced service to divert via Wellington and Bay.

Construction Chaos

The TTC struggled to maintain service on Yonge, using temporary tracks atop wooden decking, or diverting streetcars on new tracks built into residential Alexander and Maitland streets. It helped that parallel tracks were available on Mount Pleasant, Avenue Road, Bay, Church and Victoria streets, but riders largely had to grin and bear the inconvenience, comforted in the knowledge that the subway would whisk them away in just a few years. The TTC was also conscientious enough to return the route to its normal operation in time for the Christmas shopping season, for the benefit of the businesses along Yonge Street, who were taking a beating from all the construction.

Carhouse operations were also affected by subway construction, since Eglinton carhouse was to be replaced by a major subway terminal and bus garage when the Yonge subway opened. By 1951, a sizeable portion of the carhouse was unavailable, and the TTC had to store its streetcars elsewhere. A temporary yard was established on Toronto Harbour Commission lands between Bay and York, just north of Queens Quay. Effective the end of the afternoon rush hour on September 5, 1951, ten trains left service on the Yonge line via Front, Bay, Queens Quay and York. The next morning, they ran into service via Bay and Wellington. Within months, the number of trailer trains stored at Harbour Yard increased to 34.

As the route of the Yonge subway veered east to parallel Yonge north of College, disruptions eased as construction progressed north. Yonge streetcar service resumed its regular route in the morning of July 18, 1952, only to be disrupted again as construction reached the portion of the route where the subway tunnelled beneath Yonge just north of St. Clair. After sporadic diversions via Eglinton, Mount Pleasant and St. Clair, the regular route was restored again in the morning of August 22, 1952.

One more subway-related delay took place on September 15, 1953, when the TTC moved two Gloucester subway cars that had been on display at the Canadian National Exhibition back to Davisville Yard via the city’s streetcar tracks. The first of the cars derailed on a temporary track connecting the Yonge streetcar line to the subway tracks at Davisville Yard, forcing streetcars to divert via Mount Pleasant. The second car had to be stored at Lawton Loop through the day until the TTC could chance moving the car into the yard on the morning of September 16, between 2:00 a.m. and 3:22 a.m.

Other changes took place at this time unrelated to subway construction. Station loop at Union closed on September 28, 1953 due to building construction by Canadian National Railways. Yonge cars were forced to loop via Front, York and Wellington for the remainder of the line’s use. The subway wasn’t the only thing disrupting traffic as the city grew and changed.

Witt 2574, by Julian Bernard

Witt Train led by Witt 2574, done up for the ‘Last Car’ run of the Yonge Line, prepares to leave Eglinton Carhouse for service on March 30, 1954, the date of the opening of the Yonge Subway. Photo by Julian Bernard, donated by Curt Frey.

The Last Days of the Yonge Streetcar

The Yonge streetcar would have almost six months of relatively normal operation before its final days occurred. On March 7, 1954, service north of Eglinton carhouse came to a close at 1:30 in the morning. The TTC had given some thought to retaining the tracks north of Eglinton station and operating the rump of the line using PCC streetcars once the subway opened, but decided instead that service should be provided by trolley bus. The end of streetcar operations north of Eglinton allowed construction on the Yonge trolley bus to begin (see article here) and tracks to be removed. Then, just three weeks later, rest of the Yonge streetcar line followed.

On Tuesday, March 30, 1954, at 11:30 a.m., Ontario Premier Leslie Frost stood before a crowd at Davisville station and pushed the switch that turned the signal that allowed the first official Yonge subway train to pull forward. The subway line was opened to the general public at 1:30 that afternoon and, half-an-hour later, the last Yonge streetcars rolled into Harbour Yard to end service forever.

The last northbound train, led by Witt car 2928, departed Front and York for Eglinton at 1:54 p.m. It became the last scheduled Yonge streetcar train, leaving Eglinton Carhouse at 2:30 p.m. Ten minutes later, a special train led by Witt 2574 and trailer 2897, decorated for the occasion and carrying members of the Upper Canada Railway Society and other historical groups, left Eglinton carhouse as the official last trip. The signs proclaiming this to be the last train were so large, most members rode in the trailer, just so they could see out the windows. The train proceeded over the Yonge route to Wellington and then looped via west on Wellington, south on York, east on Front, north on Scott and west again on Wellington to Bay before heading south on Bay into Harbour Yard. Passersby applauded, and many people took pictures as 93 years of streetcar operation came to a close on Yonge Street.

Burying the Evidence

Following the abandoning of streetcar service on Yonge, the City of Toronto and the Toronto Transit Commission set about burying or pulling up the rails on Yonge Street. After six years of construction, the push was on to beautify Yonge Street and bring the shoppers back to beleaguered businesses. A Yonge Street reopening ceremony was scheduled for October 20, 1954, but Hurricane Hazel intervened. This fierce storm caused over $24 million in property damage and killed over 80 Torontonians, and so the reopening ceremony was reorganized into a fund-raising event to assist storm victims. In addition to the repaving and beautification of Yonge Street, the next day, service began on the DOWNTOWN bus, paralleling the Yonge subway from Wellesley station south to Front, Mondays through Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The stores along Yonge, it seemed, missed having the streetcar right outside their door, with passengers looking out, seeing the signs and being enticed to shop.

The opening of the Yonge subway and the ending of streetcar service on Yonge was the the first great reduction to Toronto’s streetcar network. Parallel lines also fell, including service on Avenue Road, a number of trippers and, two months later, the CHURCH streetcar. A large number of streetcars (primarily Peter Witts) were rendered surplus and most of those sitting at Harbour Yard were taken directly to the scrap heap. The ending of streetcar service on Yonge also brought to a close trailer operation in Toronto. These vehicles were also scrapped, with very little surviving for preservation.

Yonge was a street of many firsts. It was the first street to reach north from York into the wilderness, and it was the first to host streetcar service in Canada, and the first in Canada to host a subway. But such a record of firsts can only come with an associated record of lasts. Just as the building of Yonge Street itself inevitably altered the development of the Town of York, the change of Yonge Street from a streetcar route to a subway was inevitable. Standing at Yonge and Front, it is almost impossible to imagine the changes that have taken place in the over 200 years since the street was built, and the nearly sixty years since streetcars stopped on it. Change is a fact of life in any healthy city, and Toronto is no different.

The Yonge streetcar provided Torontonians with the means of accessing their city and, as the city grew, it helped pave the way for the subway which followed. The line may be gone, but its impact remains with us to this day.

Yonge Streetcar Image Archive


  • Bromley, John F., and Jack May. Fifty Years of Progressive Transit: A History of the Toronto Transit Commission. New York: Electric Railroaders’ Association, 1973. Print.
  • Filey, Mike. Not a One-horse Town: 125 Years of Toronto and Its Streetcars. Toronto, Ont., Canada: M. Filey, 1986. Print.
  • Hood, J. William. Street Railways: Toronto: 1861 to 1930. Toronto, Ont.,: Maps Project, 1999. Print.
  • Partridge, Larry. The Witts: An Affectionate Look at Toronto’s Original Red Rockets. Erin, Ont.: Boston Mills, 1982. Print.
  • Stamp, Robert M. Riding the Radials: Toronto’s Suburban Electric Streetcar Lines. Erin, Ont.: Boston Mills, 1989. Print.
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