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The Rise and Fall of the Scarborough RT

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(Above) A schematic of the Scarborough RT's Mark I ICTS equipment, courtesy Josh Anderchek and Nathan Lewis.

(Below) Possible alignments initially proposed for Scarborough RT line. Map by Frank P. Teskey; originally appeared in the Toronto Star, Wednesday, January 29, 1975

Proposed SRT Route Map in 1975

Text by James Bow.
Reviewed by Steve Munro

See also:

The SCARBOROUGH RT, from when it opened in March 24, 1985 and throughout its nearly forty-year existence, was a six-station 6.4 kilometre-long rapid transit shuttle using linear-induction propulsion technology on fully grade-separated right-of-way, connecting the eastern end of the BLOOR-DANFORTH subway to industries and apartments in the Kennedy-Midland corridor, and shoppers and office-workers in and around the Scarborough Town Centre. Buses departing from the terminal at Scarborough Centre station carried commuters north and east to the edge of Scarborough, serving passengers as far afield as the newly developing neighbourhoods of Malvern, Rouge Hill, and Morningside Heights.

The SCARBOROUGH RT will also be remembered as the biggest political controversy to afflict the debate over public transit in Toronto since the 1970s. Throughout its existence, there have been questions over its cost effectiveness, its technology, and whether it should exist at all. Many politicians, both municipal and provincial, have come and gone, but debate over the merits and the fate of this short rapid transit line have continued throughout its existence.

Why should this be so? What is so different and controversial about the SCARBOROUGH RT?

At the heart of this debate are questions on how to design and serve cities in the late twentieth century, of who is best served by public transit, and the ongoing tendency of politicians to favour splashy infrastructure projects over tried-and-tested solutions which actually serve the public.

Bridging Gaps in More Ways than One

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The map above, taken from a 1968 Metropolitan Toronto planning report, indicates a potential route the BLOOR-DANFORTH subway could follow if it was extended northeast from Warden Station via the old Canadian Northern Railway right-of-way.

The proposal to extend rapid transit service to the Scarborough Town Centre emerged soon after the proposal to build the Scarborough Town Centre in its current location. In 1968, as work on the BLOOR-DANFORTH subway extensions to Islington and Warden wrapped up, a Metropolitan Toronto planning report looked into continuing the extension of the subway along the old Canadian Northern Railway mainline northeast from Warden Station, through developing neighbourhoods and fields, past the proposed site of the Town Centre, all the way to Sheppard Avenue, east of Markham Road. The map identified fourteen potential stop locations, including the current site of Kennedy subway station, and numerous mid-block stations between Midland Avenue and Ellesmere Road. It's clear not all of these station sites would be used, but boarding estimates at each potential site along major arterial roads ranged between 1,080 to 3,500 passengers per day.

For Metropolitan Toronto planners, this level of ridership was insufficient to justify full subway construction, but rapid transit was desirable given how far these stops were from downtown Toronto. Bus service to these areas presented lengthy commutes for anyone taking up residence there. And, indeed, in places along this line, expected ridership was such that buses could not easily handle the volume.

This problem has been identified as the Intermediate Capacity gap. There is a practical limit to how many passengers buses and streetcars operating in mixed traffic can handle in day-to-day operation. For buses, the upper limit is typically around 3,000 passengers per hour. The larger capacity of streetcars and their ability to operate in trains increases a streetcar line's capacity to above 5,000 passengers per hour (it should be noted that the BLOOR streetcar and its DANFORTH tripper were carrying as many as 8,000 passengers per hour before they were replaced by the BLOOR-DANFORTH subway, and the YONGE streetcar was carrying as many as 14,000 passengers per hour, although these were in conditions with less competing traffic).

By the same token, subways could carry lots of people - as many as 40,000 passengers per hour. However, they were expensive to build, as they required heavy infrastructure to fully separate the trains from competing traffic. According to Metro and TTC planners that were considering this issue in the 1970s, the costs associated with subway construction meant that the lowest peak-hour ridership could justify building a subway was around 20,000 passengers per hour. This left a gap of between 5,000 passengers per hour where buses and streetcars in mixed traffic could no longer reliably handle passenger loads, and 20,000 passengers per hour where the replacement subway system only started to make economic sense. What could fill that gap?

The TTC knew that removing competing traffic from bus and streetcar lines could make those lines operate more efficiently and increase their capacity. The abandoned Canadian Northern Railroad right-of-way could provide a corridor where streetcars could inexpensively operate - at least compared to a full-fledged subway - and handle the loads expected while bringing rapid transit deep into northeastern Scarborough. The TTC proposed such a line, as part of a larger network, in 1969. Subsequent versions of this proposal backed off the idea of explicitly using streetcars - which the TTC still planned to abandon by 1980 - and opened the possibility of turning to some new technology for an "intermediate capacity" system.

It's important to note that this discussion wasn't unique to Toronto. The matter of creating mass transit to serve low-density urban sprawl neighbourhoods was being addressed in many engineering departments at universities and companies around the world. The U.S. government, among others, saw a future where computers controlled driverless transit pods that could provide point-to-point service across multiple and spread-out destinations, serving individual needs with every trip. Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) test tracks sprang up around the continent with some, notably the People Mover at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia, operating to this day.

But it's also worth noting that the proposed solution the TTC initially offered, of streetcars operating on private rights-of-way fanning out into suburbs, already had precedent as it had been successfully utilized by such cities as Boston, Philadelphia, and Newark. Indeed, in Europe and, increasingly in America, a new generation of streetcars were being built to serve new lines in more cities. This next generation of streetcars was rebranded as Light Rail Transit.

For some at the time, however, streetcars were yesterday's solution to what they saw as tomorrow's problem, ignoring the fact that it was still a solution. Soon, one such player entered the discussion over the Scarborough rapid transit proposal and tilted the debate away from tried-and-true technology to something untested and new.

The Province Enters the Fray

While the TTC and Metropolitan Toronto wrestled with the Scarborough rapid transit question, there was a shift in the winds at Queen's Park. In 1971, Bill Davis won the governing Ontario Progressive Conservative Party's leadership race and took over the premiership of Ontario from John Robarts. On June 3, 1971, Davis announced that he was cancelling provincial support for the Spadina Expressway plan (while maintaining support for the SPADINA SUBWAY line) signalling his government's intention to address the transportation needs of the future through mass transit, rather than focusing on automobiles. As he told the legislature, "Cities were built for people and not cars. If we are building a transportation system to serve the automobile, the Spadina Expressway would be a good place to start. But if we are building a transportation system to serve people, the Spadina Expressway is a good place to stop."

As part of his vision, Bill Davis increased funding for public transit agencies throughout Ontario. The TTC, which had covered its capital and operating expenses exclusively from the farebox as late as 1954, was increasingly dependent on municipal subsidy to stay afloat amidst rising service costs and competition for ridership from private automobiles. Ontario government subsidies increased to cover fifty percent of every transit agency's operating deficits, and 75% of their entire capital budget. In many cases, this allowed municipalities around Toronto to launch public transit agencies within their borders. In Metropolitan Toronto, it enabled the TTC to maintain and expand its services and increase ridership.

Bill Davis also had the provincial government launch the Ontario Transportation Development Corporation and charged them with tackling the Intermediate Capacity gap, finding a technology that could provide rapid transit for lower density neighbourhoods for less than the cost of a full-fledged subway. However, whereas the TTC had already proposed streetcars on private rights-of-way, Bill Davis was not interested in using old technology. Like automobiles, he felt that streetcars were the way of the past. The way of the future required a high-tech approach. On November 22, 1972, the newly formed Ministry of Transportation and Communications announced a proposal it called GO-URBAN, to create Intermediate Capacity Transit System (ICTS) routes within Toronto. The proposal considered a range of designs and technologies, including Personal Rapid Transit installations and mini-subways, as well as trains operating on rubber tires, air cushions, and even magnetic levitation.

Magnetic levitation won the interest of the Davis government and, on May 1, 1973, it announced that it was working with the West German company Krauss-Maffei to build a maglev transit test system that would operate within the Canadian National Exhibition, with another line possibly connecting the CNE to Union Station.

Streetcars vs. Maglevs

Meanwhile, Metropolitan Toronto and the TTC had given new life to the city's streetcar network. Thanks to grassroots efforts like the Streetcars for Toronto Committee, the TTC abandoned its streetcar abandonment policy at the November 1972 meeting of the Board. Plans moved forward on rebuilding the current fleet of PCC streetcars and designing and building a new fleet of streetcars to replace them. Plans also firmed up for new streetcar lines, including one along Spadina Avenue, and the Scarborough rapid transit line linking the Scarborough Town Centre with the eastern end of the Toronto subway.

The Scarborough Town Centre opened to the public on May 2, 1973. The Borough of Scarborough hoped that the shopping mall and the civic buildings beside it would become the core of the borough's new downtown. Although Scarborough was eager to link their downtown to rapid transit, Metro Council had voted only to extend the eastern terminus of the BLOOR-DANFORTH subway from Warden Station to near the Kennedy/Eglinton intersection, miles from the Town Centre site. The Scarborough rapid transit line proposal was revised to close the gap, again using streetcars on private right-of-way. With Scarborough developing the lands on and around the old Canadian Northern Railway line into residential housing, the Metropolitan Toronto Transit Plan review, under advice from advocates and experts like Bob Wightman and Steve Munro, recommended that streetcars operate out of Kennedy Station and turn north, following Canadian National's Uxbridge Subdivision to Ellesmere Road, and then operating east either at grade along the middle of Ellesmere, or along an elevated guideway, to the town centre.

At the time, TTC and Metro planners declared that the subway extensions to Kennedy and Kipling stations would be the last to be built for some time, citing the rising costs of subway construction (the 1.6 mile, single-station extension from Warden to Kennedy was planned to cost at least $41 million in late 1970s dollars) and the fact that the densest areas which were economical for subways to serve were now largely served by subways.

The Scarborough LRT line, as proposed in 1975, was seen as just the first phase and a trunk of a new rapid transit tree that would branch out into northeastern Scarborough, providing inexpensive transit to newly developing neighbourhoods, while giving them a fast single-seat ride to the subway. The stations did not have to be as large as subway stations, and small stations were planned for the line halfway between Lawrence and Eglinton and over Brimley Road. There were serious plans to extend the Scarborough LRT line as far as the intersection of Finch and Morningside. There were long-term proposals to take the line to the Toronto Zoo, and perhaps even into Pickering. The first phase of the 13.2 kilometre line, from Kennedy to Scarborough Centre, would cost just $85 million -- roughly 40% of the cost of a full-fledged subway at the time. The line would make use of the planned new CLRV streetcars - of the 196 contracted to be built, 22 were to be used on the Scarborough Line, operating in trains of up to three cars.

Meanwhile, the provincial plan to build a maglev demonstration line at the Canadian National Exhibition ran into trouble. There were issues over the fact that Krauss-Maffei's "Transrapid" system had been conceived as an inter-city high-speed express train and was impractical for inner-city service featuring closely-spaced stations. The West German government also decided to consolidate its options for maglev technology to other companies and cut back its support for Krauss-Maffei's initiative. This forced Krauss-Maffei to back out of its deal with the Ontario government. Work on the GO-URBAN test line was abandoned, having felled some trees and built foundations for a few support columns that would never rise.

With the GO-URBAN ICTS project dead, the Davis government shifted tactics. In June 1975, it rebranded the Ontario Transportation Development Corporation into the Urban Transportation Development Corporation (UTDC) to make it less insular. It took on the task of designing and building the next generation of Toronto's streetcars - the CLRVs - to keep the crown corporation active and producing while it continued to work on the Intermediate Capacity gap issue. UTDC soon announced it had established a consortium to develop the maglev technology. Working with SPAR Aerospace, Standard Elektrik Lorenz, Dofasco, Alcan and Canadair, it created a design that used linear induction technology to pull computer-controlled railcars operating with steel wheels on steel rail. Work began on a prototype vehicle that was soon moving on a test track at UTDC's Millhaven plant.

What is Linear Induction Propulsion?

All electric motors use electricity and magnets in order to generate the force required to move the vehicle. With conventional rotary electric motors, alternating current is used to change the polarity of magnets placed on the outside of the spinning part of the motor, which alternately attracts and repels the magnets on the part of the motor that spins. This forces the motor to spin, which provides the force that turns the wheels that propels the vehicle forward.

With linear induction, the magnets with the alternating current is placed in a line (known as a motor face) in between the wheels at the bottom of each wheelset. This pad of magnets is suspended above but close to a continuous metal strip, known as the reaction rail. By alternating the current to the magnets between the wheels, this has the effect of making the electromagnetic field it generates travel down the length of the motor face. This field causes a magnetic attraction within the reaction rail which allows the vehicle to pull itself forward. This is similar to how maglevs propel themselves forward, while also using magnets to levitate the vehicle slightly above the track to eliminate friction while the vehicle moves forward. This technology is commonly used in roller coasters and certain elevators.

The track has a continuous strip between the running rails, but this is completely inert. The motor winding on the train is running with multiphase AC, and because the polarity of each phase is always changing, this has the effect of making the electromagnetic field it generates travel down the length of the motor face (hanging horizontally under the truck). In turn, this field induces a magnetic field in the reaction rail and the car "pulls itself" along because of the movement of the field. That's what "linear induction" is all about. (An ironic bit of nomenclature: in a rotary induction motor, the coil is a cylinder, the outer part of the motor, and the AC current flowing through the coils creates a rotating field within the motor. In turn this induces a field in the central part of the motor and causes it to spin. The coil part is called the "stator" while the part that turns is, rather obviously, called the "rotor". In a LIM, the stator is the part on the train, and the rotor is the reaction rail in the trackbed. The train (and it's "stator") move while the reaction rail "rotor" necessarily stays put, although it does move relative to the train.)

At the time, it was felt that linear induction motors promised faster, smoother acceleration. With no need for gearboxes or the other moving parts of a motor, the wear and tear on that part of the vehicle could be eliminated. With magnets providing the entire propulsion and most of the braking energy, the wear and tear on the wheels themselves would be eliminated, since they were just rolling along, and not forcing the vehicle to accelerate or stop. Proponents at UTDC claimed that their design featured the following benefits:

  • "Steerable-axle trucks for quiet, smooth rides and reduced maintenance
  • "Linear induction motors for improved, all-weather-performance without pollution;
  • "Computerized train operation for safety, reliability and efficiency."

Source: UTDC promotional literature

UTDC would soon find that linear induction motors did not provide the efficiency boost it had promised, nor were the wheels of linear induction vehicles immune to wear and tear. While wheels were not pushing against rails for acceleration and deceleration, they were rubbing against them constantly, especially around curves, and they often bounced, which produced corrugations in the wheels and track, which substantially increased noise. These were only some of the problems UTDC would later encounter with their ICTS trains.

A Prototype Looking for a Solution

Still, the Ontario government had its test vehicle, and it just needed lines to showcase what it could do. It garnered interest from the government of British Columbia who were looking for a high-tech driverless rapid transit line to be built in Vancouver before the 1986 World Exposition, but the BC government were not about to make themselves guinea pigs. Before they bought into the technology, they required that the Ontario government prove that the new technology worked. That required more than a test track; the Ontario government needed a working line.

The Davis government proposed building an ICTS transit loop connecting downtown Hamilton with the communities atop Hamilton Mountain. The proposal ran into stiff resistance, however, from residents and businesses along the proposed line who would have to deal with an elevated rail line suddenly operating in the middle of their street. Hamilton City Council formally rejected the project on December 15, 1981.

At the same time, the provincial government looked at the Scarborough LRT proposal as a possible alternate pilot project. As the Scarborough line had far fewer residential housing and commercial businesses next to its tracks, it had faced a far easier ride in getting approval. Throughout 1980, the Ontario government strongly encouraged the TTC and Metropolitan Toronto to change the design of the Scarborough LRT line to handle ICTS technology instead of streetcars. This push got stronger as Hamilton's resistance to its proposed line increased.

Metro council and the TTC were given many incentives to say 'yes', and few chances to say 'no'. The province of Ontario promised to pay for all cost overruns associated with changing the design of the Scarborough LRT in mid-stream. It has been suggested that the province heavily hinted that, since it was paying for three-quarters of the TTC's capital costs and half of the TTC's operating costs, Metro council had little reason to object and every reason to agree. Finally, in June 1981, Metro council agreed, and the Scarborough LRT changed from having streetcars operating on private right-of-way, into the Scarborough RT, offering linear-induction trains operating as a mini-subway.

The changing of the design mid-stream did result in significant cost overruns. The line was budgeted to cost $103 million in 1981 and open late in 1983. The changes in design resulted in the line opening in March 1985, with a final price tag of $228 million. Further, this inflated price tag was only achieved after the TTC was forced to make a number of budget cuts to the project. The mid-block station between Kennedy and Lawrence East had already been cut when the LRT design was changed to ICTS. To further save money, platforms at McCowan and Midland stations were shortened (the concrete of those platforms are visible, but the station housing around them is missing) so that the stations could only accommodate four rather than six-car ICTS trains. Ellesmere Station lost a planned bus transfer facility and with it an easy means to transfer between the RT and the 95 YORK MILLS bus (plans to correct this, including building stairs up from the station to access the Ellesmere Road bridge, never panned out, and the result was Ellesmere Station became one of the least-used stations on Toronto's rapid transit network).

The TTC agreed to purchase 24 ICTS vehicles on November 5, 1981 (contract signed May 10, 1982). By this time, the system had been successfully marketed to Vancouver (contract on May 29, 1981) and Detroit (approved August 5, 1981). With three systems under their belt, UTDC commissioned a full-scale mock-up of the car, constructed by Disney Display of Toronto. This was installed on a section of guideway track on tracks 7 and 8 of the TTC's St. Clair Carhouse. Other promotional events included a naming contest for the vehicle, announced in October 1981, resulting in the name "RT" being adopted for the Scarborough line.

'The Most Advanced Urban Transit Technology in the World.'

UTDC rolled out TTC's RT car #3000 at its Millhaven plant on October 31, 1983. It and car 3001 were operated as a two-car train on UTDC's test track on December 20, 1983. After further tests, cars 3002 and 3003 arrived at the site of Ellesmere station on April 16, 1984. They were officially unloaded onto the rails at 11:30 a.m., after much ceremony, and made a short run under their own power the next day. Further tests were made on the system as more cars arrived at the Ellesmere station site. Finally, on September 28, vehicle deliveries were made to the newly built McCowan Yard instead of the temporary unloading facilities at Ellesmere station. The last pair of cars to be delivered from the first order were 3000 and 3001 themselves, arriving on December 21, 1984. The TTC bought a further four vehicles in January 1984 (3024-3027), which were delivered on June 23 and 25, 1986 and placed into service the following month. This was partly done at an inflated price in order for the provincial government to transfer money into the cash-strapped UTDC and put it on the books as a subsidy to the Scarborough RT project.

Promotion of the SCARBOROUGH RT and the ICTS technology continued. Car 3014 was delivered directly by UTDC to the Canadian National Exhibition on August 9, 1983, for public viewing. It was returned to UTDC on September 5 for further testing. Free rides were offered on the northbound track of the operational test section between Kennedy and Lawrence East stations, starting a special run for officials on July 5, 1984 followed by public rides from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends from July 8 to August 12, 1984 (on July 7, rides were given for TTC employees and their families). The SCARBOROUGH RT opened to considerable fanfare on March 22, 1985. Over 30000 people mobbed the line for free rides.

Problems Develop

Although the SCARBOROUGH RT attracted more people than buses could comfortably serve, it soon ran into criticism and controversy. Some of the problems which cropped up were due to the design changes that occurred halfway through construction. Others were due to teething pains with the equipment and technology. Still more were due to poor design. In September 1986, the TTC went to the provincial government and asked for $27 million to repair these problems, including:

  • "Between $6 million and $15 million to rebuild the turning loop at Kennedy station, which has been blamed for one 'minor derailment in normal operation' and for extensive wear and tear on wheel and rails.
  • "$1.5 million to buy a machine to re-grind worn wheels. So-called 'flat wheels' have been blamed for much of the noise caused by the RT.
  • "$500,000 to eliminate wear on the rails that supply power to the RT cars.
  • "$840,000 to heat the rails so ice won't form on them during the winter, shutting down the cars.
  • "$450,000 to put covers on the power rails, again to prevent icing.
  • "$1 million to solve a flaw in the computer system that guides the trains. Trains travelling too slowly or stopped in certain spots on the line lose contact with the computer unless complicated 'reentry' procedures are started.
  • "Another $1.5 million to repair other communication problems between the cars and the central computer.
  • "$5.9 million for land costs."

Source: Toronto Star - September 24, 1986

ICTS train at old Kennedy

Kennedy Station before (above) and after (below) renovations. Photos by Brad O'Brien.

ICTS train at new Kennedy

It's important to note how these claims ran counter to the benefits ICTS vehicles had promised, according to UTDC promotional claims. In particular, the SCARBOROUGH RT was facing mounting criticism from residents around the right-of-way north of Kennedy Station, complaining that the line was too noisy. Much of this was caused by dime-sized flat spots on the wheels of the trains, created through 'over-efficient braking'. The SCARBOROUGH RT also highlighted that the linear induction reaction rails and the power rails were more prone to icing compared to conventional subway or light rail transit tracks, resulting in many service disruptions during winter.

However, it was the turning loop at Kennedy Station which was the greatest concern for the TTC. Originally designed for streetcars, the tight curves of the loop proved too hard for the ICTS vehicles to handle. Within a year of operation, four-car trains had been replaced by two-car trains and 10 km/h speeds through the loop replaced by 5 km/h speeds, but the problems continued.

The problems were only ever solved when the TTC rebuilt the RT platforms Kennedy Station, adding a switch and thus eliminating the need for the turning loop altogether. To bring about these changes (which, to their credit, the province did pay for), the SCARBOROUGH RT had to be shut down for three months during the summer of 1988. The TTC was also not using the full benefits of the ICTS vehicles, particularly its ability to operate without drivers. For safety reasons, drivers remained on these vehicles, increasing the cost to operate the line.

By the end of 1986, the TTC had concluded that the RT was too costly to extend to Malvern using ICTS technology. This caused some to call for the replacement of the SCARBOROUGH RT by streetcar or subway, labelling the line and its technology a 'white elephant' and a 'transit orphan'. The TTC responded, however, that the costs for converting the line to either technology was excessive (although it noted at the time that the cost of replacing the line with a streetcar-based LRT to Malvern would cost only as much as extending the RT to Malvern using ICTS technology). The city was stuck with the RT, for now. Some politicians suggested that the TTC's reluctance to part with the line was also due to the provincial government relying on the line as a showcase for future sales of the technology to Bangkok, Ankara, and other cities worldwide.

The problems caused by the ICTS technology used on the SCARBOROUGH RT soured many politicians on the concept of addressing the intermediate capacity gap between buses, streetcars and subways. For them, the SCARBOROUGH RT's failure was the failure of all attempts to provide rapid transit for less than the cost of subway infrastructure. Even conventional light rail transit, in their eyes, was insufficient and suspect, and they advocated returning to the 'tried-and-true' subways as the vehicles of choice for new rapid transit construction, even in situations where the ridership was nowhere near justifying the capacity being built. The initial proposals for the rapid transit lines of the Network 2011 rapid transit expansion plan called for Intermediate Capacity lines to be built on or beneath Sheppard and Eglinton Avenues. Now these would have to be full-fledged subways.

Stable Operation and Expansion Proposals

After the initial teething problems, the SCARBOROUGH RT settled down to relatively smooth operation. Although human drivers continued to drive each train, each train's on-board computer communicated with a central computer at Kennedy Station and a terminal set up at Transit Control at Hillcrest (Davenport and Bathurst). All this ensured a safe following distance in relation to the vehicle ahead.

In the early 1990s, proposals to extend the line into the Malvern community resurfaced. In 1994, the New Democratic government moved forward on proposals for a series of rapid transit extensions, including taking the SCARBOROUGH RT line east to Centennial College and north to Sheppard Avenue. The proposal to extend the SCARBOROUGH RT line along the abandoned Canadian Northern Railway right-of-way to Finch and Morningside never resurfaced, as the right-of-way would take the trains too close to people's back yards and the TTC planners did not want a repeat of the noise complaints they'd received with residents near the southern end of the line. As it stood, though, the extension offered improved transit for the Malvern community and the students of Centennial College. However, the proposal was again criticized as a 'white elephant' and throwing good money after bad.

In the end, Metropolitan Toronto and the Province of Ontario could only agree to fund two of the provincial government's four expansion proposals: the Sheppard and Eglinton West subways. The York University subway extension and the Scarborough RT extension would have to wait for more funding. Then the Conservatives were elected in the 1995 election, and Premier Mike Harris shut down construction on the Eglinton West line and pulled the provincial government out of public transportation funding altogether, making further extensions very unlikely indeed.

An Aging Line and the Search for Replacements

As the SCARBOROUGH RT entered the new millennium, transit observers grew increasingly concerned about the future of the line. Ridership was building, but the TTC had few options for expanding service. The line was an appendage of the BLOOR-DANFORTH subway; the TTC bus network had been designed to funnel most buses from northeastern Scarborough into Scarborough Centre station, and most of those passengers used the RT as a shuttle to connect with subway trains at Kennedy, coping with an aggravating transfer that required traversing as many as three flights of stairs. Even with this impediment, there weren't enough RT cars to handle rush hour crowds. In September 2000, the TTC added express buses between Scarborough Centre and Kennedy stations in order to allow passengers to bypass the line.

Moreover, the SCARBOROUGH RT's vehicles were outdated and nearing the end of their service life. The aging computer system required fully-manual operation of the RT on more and more days. It was expected that the cars themselves could not last far beyond 2015 without an extensive and expensive rebuild. By this time, the owners of the ICTS vehicle design - Bombardier, which had acquired UTDC - had retired the model and was instead selling longer Mark II and Mark III designs to cities like Vancouver and New York (for their JFK Airtrain). Vancouver wasn't interested in selling its remaining Mark I cars for anything less than the full price to replace them with Mark II cars, and the Mark II cars Bombardier had to offer were too long to negotiate some of the tight curves of the Scarborough RT, or fit through the tunnel north of Ellesmere station. It was expected that creating a new ICTS vehicle to adapt to the Scarborough RT's unique features, or relaunching production of the Mark I design, would prove expensive, especially for the limited number of vehicles the TTC could be expected to buy.

In 2003, the TTC unveiled its Ridership Growth Strategy, offering suggestions on how to improve public transit in Toronto in incremental steps to increase ridership on the system to over half a billion riders per year. A section of this report tackled the question of the SCARBOROUGH RT, noting the significant premiums associated with staying with ICTS technology and further stating that the constraints to the RT's capacity were costing the system riders. Fixing this could add as many as six million riders per year.

Considering that the costs for maintaining the current system or upgrading it to handle Mark II ICTS equipment were so high, the TTC commissioned an engineering study in October 2005 to assess its full range of options. One possibility was to scrap the SCARBOROUGH RT altogether and replace it with an extension of the BLOOR-DANFORTH subway, a possibility that Scarborough politicians applauded. The following month, Scarborough politicians campaigned to have the proposal given priority ahead of the SPADINA subway extension to York University and Vaughan. This proved fruitless, as the provincial government of Dalton McGuinty, courting votes in Vaughan, committed funds to the construction of the SPADINA subway extension instead.

However, another possibility for replacing the SCARBOROUGH RT was the LRT technology that was supposed to ply the line in the first place. Not only could LRT vehicles handle the crowds using the RT, the line could be converted and extended to the Malvern community for roughly the same cost as upgrading the current line using ICTS technology (as had been noted in the TTC's study back in 1986). Better yet, the LRT line and the equipment that ran on it could be integrated into a network of new LRT routes extending across the city, as proposed in 2006 when the City of Toronto launched its Transit City plan.

Transit City called for new LRT lines to be built on Eglinton Avenue from Kennedy to Pearson Airport, on Finch Avenue from Yonge to Humber College, and on Sheppard from Don Mills station to Meadowvale. A Scarborough LRT, running from Kennedy station, over the RT alignment and beyond to Centennial College and the Sheppard/Markham Road intersection, could provide a vital link within the network, allowing for equipment moves and the sharing of carhouse space. Rolling in the SCARBOROUGH RT upgrade also allowed the new line's vehicles to be produced as part of the larger Transit City LRT purchase, saving even more money. The province, through its agency Metrolinx, accepted the TTC's proposal and committed to pay for the full costs of the project. Unfortunately, it delayed the conversion of the Scarborough RT until after 2015 in order to ease cash flow problems.

A Political Football Once Again

In November 2010, the election of Rob Ford as Mayor of Toronto in 2010 threw the Transit City plan into doubt. Ford had campaigned on a promise to scrap the Sheppard East LRT (then under construction) and to replace the SCARBOROUGH RT with an extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway. He ran into criticism that such an act would increase costs too much and rob Toronto of rapid transit projects elsewhere (such as the LRT beneath Eglinton), but he stuck to his guns. Eventually, he struck a deal with Metrolinx to cancel construction on the Sheppard East and Finch West LRTs, channelling their budget to bury the Eglinton LRT much of the way from Black Creek Drive to Kennedy Station. In response to this, Metrolinx planned to continue with the conversion of the SCARBOROUGH RT into an LRT, extending it to Sheppard Avenue, and merging it into the rest of the Eglinton LRT line. While this had the advantage of allowing Metrolinx to stick to its schedule for the conversion of the SCARBOROUGH RT to LRT operation, Ford's critics lashed out at his waste of money, adding billions to the cost of the Eglinton line to fully bury it, and eliminating improved transit service elsewhere.

The debate simmered throughout Rob Ford's tumultuous mayoralty, until Toronto City Council overruled Mayor Ford during a series of contentious meetings in February 2012. The decisions re-established the older Eglinton LRT plan and restoring funding to the Finch West and Sheppard East LRTs (albeit with considerable delays to their opening dates). The Scarborough LRT would continue, but Metrolinx and the TTC decided that, with Eglinton no longer mostly underground, and with substantially higher capacity neeed north of Kennedy Station, the two lines should be operated separately.

Then, in July 2012, the political winds changed again. TTC Commissioner Karen Stintz along with Scarborough Centre ward councillor Glen De Baeremaeker brought forward an ambitious subway development plan they called One City. A critical part of it called for the SCARBOROUGH RT to be replaced not by an LRT, but by an extension of the BLOOR-DANFORTH subway on a new alignment, operating east on Eglinton and north on Danforth Road and McCowan to Sheppard Avenue, with intermediate stops at Lawrence and Ellesmere.

Glen De Baeremaeker's argument was that, according to TTC documents, the cost of building an extension of the BLOOR-DANFORTH subway was just $500 million more than the cost of converting (and extending) the SCARBOROUGH RT into an LRT line, so why not spend the extra money, eliminate a transfer, and give Scarborough the subway extension its politicians had long called for? Unfortunately, the plan did not take into account the disruption the subway extension represented to the planned LRT network. It also compared faulty older data relating to subway construction to more current numbers on the conversion of the Scarborough RT to LRT. When a more recent review of subway construction costs was brought forward, the subway option became significantly more expensive. Critics were also upset that councillors proposed scrapping a cheaper, longer line serving seven stations with a subway extension serving just three. Moreover, the earliest a subway extension could open was 2023, compared to 2018 for the Scarborough LRT.

But the political allure of subways, with some elements playing off Scarborough's sense of resentment with such catchphrases as, "Scarborough Deserves a Subway", was enough to convince a majority of councillors to support to the Scarborough subway extension over the Scarborough LRT, much to Metrolinx's chagrin. The Ontario Minister of Transportation, Glen Murray, accepted the decision, but noted that the City of Toronto would be on the hook for the costs resulting from cancelled contracts and the changes in design -- close to $85 million. He also threw a complication into the mix, suggesting that the province could go it alone on the subway extension, following the current RT alignment from Kennedy, with stops at Lawrence East station and the Scarborough Town Centre only.

The debate over the final alignment of the Scarborough subway extension was not resolved until April 2019 - two municipal elections and one provincial election were held until the final decision was made: the BLOOR-DANFORTH subway would be extended east from Kennedy station, entirely underground via Eglinton, Danforth Road and McCowan, to Sheppard Avenue, with intermediate stops at Lawrence Avenue and the Scarborough Town Centre. Premier Doug Ford committed the provincial government to fully fund the $5.5 billion cost of the extension, which was now planned to open in 2030.

End of Life Planning

The political debates surrounding the fate of the Scarborough RT had resulted in the line being left to its own devices, with work crews at McCowan Yards maintaining the system as best they could. By 2015, the most of the ICTS vehicles were over 30 years old, well past their designed life-expectancy of 25 years. The TTC embarked on a rebuilding program to extend the vehicles' lifespans, freshen up their interior, and give their exterior a bold new look with the use of blue vinyl wrap, but there was only so much maintenance crews could do. The line was becoming increasingly unreliable and expensive to maintain.

Finally, in February 2021, after learning that a third overhaul of the ICTS equipment could cost $522.4 million and might not actually be effective, TTC staff bowed to the inevitable. When the Scarborough Subway Extension was initially planned to open in 2023, then 2026, it might have been possible to keep the RT operating until then, but now that the opening date had been pushed back to 2030, this simply wasn't possible. Staff recommended shutting down the SCARBOROUGH RT permanently in 2023. The service would initially be replaced by express buses running from Kennedy Station to the Scarborough Town Centre over local roads (likely via Kennedy Road, Midland Avenue, and Ellesmere Road). It was noted that this was an unpleasant, but likely only feasible solution for the seven years it would take before the BLOOR-DANFORTH extension opened.

However, transit experts such as Steve Munro noted that the SCARBOROUGH RT right-of-way between Kennedy and Ellesmere stations (especially between Kennedy and Lawrence East) was wide enough to accommodate a bus-only roadway that could channel the TTC's express buses directly into Kennedy subway station without being tied up in local traffic. Further investigations by TTC staff led to a report released in April 2022 where staff recommended that the TTC spend $49.5 million to adapt the right-of-way south of Ellesmere Station to Kennedy into a bus rapid transit line with stops at Ellesmere, Lawrence East, and at Tara Avenue (halfway between Lawrence Avenue and Eglinton). North from Ellesmere Station, buses would use Ellesmere Road and Brimley Road to access the Scarborough Town Centre. An additional $60 million would be needed to modify the bus platforms at Kennedy and Scarborough Centre stations to accommodate the many express buses required to handle the SCARBOROUGH RT's old ridership. Thus, a trip between Scarborough Centre and Kennedy stations, which would have taken 25 minutes using express buses on all-local roads could be shortened to 15 minutes (by comparison, this trip on the SCARBOROUGH RT took ten minutes).

TTC Commissioners accepted the TTC staff report and voted to make this change. Once the budget is confirmed by the City of Toronto, construction could have the busway open by 2025, making the best out of a bad situation.

At the time, questions still remained over the fate of the right-of-way north of Ellesmere Station, including the tunnel beneath GO Transit's Stouffville line, and the elevated guideway from McCowan to Midland stations. Calls have been made to convert this guideway into parkland, mimicking the Manhattan High Line project which converted an elevated freight railway into a linear park full of walking trails, but serious proposals for such a conversion have yet to materialize.

An Orphaned Legacy

In Autumn 2023, the SCARBOROUGH RT will depart, leaving behind a complicated legacy in the history of Toronto transportation. It will be the largest abandonment of rail transportation in Toronto since the reduction of the streetcar network on February 26, 1966, and the first time that rapid transit stations have been shut down in Toronto since that same year. It may be remembered fondly by public transit fans, and people who grew up in Scarborough, for whom the SCARBOROUGH RT was a unique ride, and a distinctive feature of their childhood. It will also represent one of the biggest what-ifs in Toronto's public transit history.

The SCARBOROUGH RT can be blamed for muddying the debate between light rail transit and heavy rail subways in how best to meet real suburban demands for rapid transit that were too heavy for transit vehicles in mixed traffic, but too light for grade-separated subway lines. It interrupted the construction of an LRT line that could have showcased how effectively streetcars on private right-of-way branches fanning out from subway terminals could have effectively served the suburbs of Toronto. It ensured that, from the early 1980s onward, that too many politicians would see costly, resource-hogging fully-underground subway development as the only transit worth investing in.

Throughout North America, cities such as Denver, Portland, Edmonton, even Los Angeles, have discovered that light rail can be a cost-effective means of improving public transit throughout their region. But because Ontario Premier Bill Davis wanted to reinvent the wheel and invest in an expensive and high-tech transit solution over tried-and-true technology, Toronto never had a chance to see what was possible. It still won't, and the legacy of the SCARBOROUGH RT as it fades away are the billions that are being spent ignoring the more cost-effective solution.

Document Archive


3 Scarborough RT Image Archive


ICTS cars Image Archive


Next see North York Centre Station.

Thanks to Mark Brader and Ray Corley for correcting this web page and offering additional information.


References

  • Corley, Ray F., The Scarborough Intermediate Capacity Transit System Vehicle, The Toronto Transit Commission, Toronto (Ontario), July 1996.
  • Haskill, Scott., 'Toronto Subway Expansion', Rail and Transit, March 1993, p3-5, The Upper Canada Railway Society, Toronto (Ontario).
  • Howell, Peter. "Why Scarborough RT is likely here to stay." The Toronto Star 4 Nov 1989: D5.
  • James, Royson. "Scarborough transit line extension approved." The Toronto Star 27 Sep 1990: A7.
  • "Link proposed from subway into Scarborough Centre." The Toronto Star 29 Jan 1975.
  • Smith, Michael. "TTC seeking $27 million to repair Scarborough line." The Toronto Star 24 Sep 1986: A6.
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