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Frequently Asked Questions about Toronto's Trolley Buses

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Why did the trolley buses disappear from Toronto's streets?

Bad timing, mostly. Electric vehicles have longer lifespans than their diesel counterparts (at least 30 years versus 12-18 for the average bus), but even these vehicles have to be rebuilt or replaced sometime. The most recent fleet of Toronto's trolley coaches started operating in the year 1947. In the late 1960s, the TTC had the entire fleet rebuilt by Western Flyer, and that added another twenty or so years to the trolley buses' lifespan. That brought the fleet to 1992.

By 1992, the fleet was showing its age again, and the infrastructure was also on its last legs. To retain trolley coach service, the TTC was looking at either rebuilding or replacing its fleet, and spending millions to upgrade aging infrastructure. The price of oil was also very low at this time, and the electric trolley buses had become the most expensive surface vehicles of the fleet to operate. Add to this a budget crunch and shrinking ridership from the recession, and the TTC decided that the trolley buses weren't worth it, anymore.

The final straw was the natural gas buses. At the time, this new technology promised quiet, smooth operation and reduced pollution, and the builders marketed these buses as ideal replacements for trolley bus service. The TTC did not stop to think that these improvements only appeared when natural gas buses replaced diesels; instead, it pushed for a change of technology from electric trolleys to natural gas. The natural gas design has shown its flaws, since then, and the TTC are no longer as interested in the technology.

By the 1980s, the trolley buses were in some ways the poor siblings of transit agencies' streetcar and bus fleets. While theoreticially combining the advantages of streetcars and diesel buses (lower emissions, greater flexibility, less likely to be blocked by traffic), practically they also combined the disadvantages of both technologies (less capacity, more infrastructure required). In Toronto, trolley coach routes were launched in the late 1940s and early 1950s as major routes serving newly developed suburban commercial and residential areas (Yonge Street and Avenue Road and Mount Pleasant with the 97 YONGE and 61 NORTOWN routes), or corridors serving busy post-war industries (such as with 4 ANNETTE, 89 WESTON and 63 OSSINGTON). Trolley coaches were operating at intervals of every 75 seconds at their peak on 97 YONGE, ferrying passengers into the subway terminal at Eglinton.

In the 1970s, demographics and travel patterns changed. The subways were extended further into the suburbs, replacing the 97 YONGE trolley coach route with a diesel bus version. Post-war factories got old and shut down, moving jobs further out into the suburbs and robbing routes like 89 WESTON and 4 ANNETTE of their ridership. A similar pattern can be seen in Hamilton with factory closures and job losses pushing ridership on its main trolley bus routes down. In the late 1980s, the TTC established an "urban clearway" with reserved transit-and-taxi lanes on Bay Street, and operated frequent 6 BAY trolley bus service as an alternative to the overcrowded YONGE SUBWAY line, but in the early 1990s, a major recession hit Toronto, reducing subway ridership to such an extent, that 6 BAY was no longer needed as an alternative.

So, when the trolley bus network came up for renewal in the late 1980s, the trolley buses were now seen as plying lower-demand ex-streetcar routtes. While they maintained their adept handling of steep hills, this was never really displayed in flat Toronto, and so the network was not seen as a critical part of the TTC network that needed maintaining, especially as government funds for transit maintenance dwindled.

Why did trolley buses use two trolley poles and streetcars only use one?

Electrons are charged particles and are repelled from negatively charged surfaces and are attracted to positively charged surfaces. For electrical components to work, they must stand between this flow from negative to positive. If anything prevents electrons from running to the positive surface (e.g. the positive outlet of a battery or plug) from the negative surface (e.g. the ground or the negative outlet of the battery or plug), then there is no current, and electrical motors won't operate.

Streetcars take power from a charged trolley wire. The electricity travels through the trolley pole and the inner workings of the streetcar and is channelled out of the wheels and into the rails and the ground. Trolley buses have rubber-tired wheels, however, and rubber is an effective insulator against electrical current. To have a current, the trolley bus must either string a metal chain from the motor to the ground, or return the power to a differently charged wire. Guess which is safer and more practical.

There are streetcars which operate using two trolley poles. The old Cincinnati Street Railway is one example. This is done when the transit agency wants a more controlled circuit, rather than routing the electricity into the ground via the rails.

Why were there two separate divisions of trolley bus routes in Toronto?

Eglinton Division and Lansdowne Division remained separate because the route that was to connect them together was never converted to trolley bus operation. The TTC had serious plans to convert the 32 Eglinton West bus to trolley coach operation (going as far as to construct a rollsign for it), but never followed through. It is possible that this was due to opposition by Forest Hill residents to the stringing of overhead wires along Eglinton Avenue.

So, how did trolley buses get transferred from one division to the other?

They were towed.

Seriously, that's probably how the TTC did it. Fortunately, they didn't have to do this very often, as both the Eglinton and Lansdowne Garages had the facilities necessary to perform all of the necessary maintenance. Without the trolley wires, there was no other option in moving the trolley bus around. Well, you could try batteries, but at the time batteries were so heavy, they were the reason why Toronto's Last Trolley Bus rotted for so long in a parking lot instead of running on city streets.

So, how do you know this stuff?

We look it up. Here are the sources we've consulted in building these web pages. You may be able to find these publications in your local library...

  • Bromley, John F., and Jack May Fifty Years of Progressive Transit, Electric Railroaders' Association, New York (New York), 1978.
  • Filey, Mike, Not a One-Horse Town: 125 Years of Toronto and its Streetcars, Gagne Printing, Louiseville (Quebec), 1986.
  • Filey, Mike, The TTC Story: The First Seventy-Five Years, Dundurn Press, Toronto (Ontario) 1996.
  • Roschlau, M.W., 'Adieu, Mt Pleasant' Rail and Transit, Sept-Oct 1976, The Upper Canada Railway Society, Toronto (Ontario), 1976.
  • Scrimgeour, Pat and Scott Haskill., 'Toronto Trolley Coaches Stored', Rail and Transit, January 1992, p3-4, The Upper Canada Railway Society, Toronto (Ontario).
  • Toronto Transit Commission, Trolley Coach CC&F and Flyer Coaches, The Toronto Transit Commission, Toronto (Ontario), January 1987.
  • Wickson, Ted, 'TTC leases 30 Edmonton trolley coaches', UCRS Newsletter, July 1990, p19, The Upper Canada Railway Society, Toronto (Ontario).

We are also heavily indebted to a number of people whose authority over TTC history was gained through personal experience. This includes, but is not limited to Curt Frey, George Davidson, Malcolm MacPherson, Ying Tang, William E. Miller and others too numerous to mention. We would like to thank them for helping to make this website what it is...

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Welcome to Transit Toronto! This is an information site dedicated to public transportation in Toronto, maintained by transit enthusiasts for transit enthuasiasts. This is NOT the official website of the Toronto Transit Commission, Metrolinx or any other transit provider or government agency. To access the official websites of these agencies, consult this page here.