HomeNews & LifestyleA (Brief) History of Toronto Streetcars

A (Brief) History of Toronto Streetcars

Like it or not, Toronto is a transit city, and it simply wouldn’t be the place it is without its trusty streetcars. We’ve dug into archives and put together a (brief) history of the streetcars that have made this city what it is for more than a century and a half.

1861-91: Toronto Street Railway


Toronto’s earliest streetcars were pulled by horses. Created in 1861 after the city issued a 30-year transit franchise for a horse-drawn street railway that could relieve the overloaded Williams Omnibus Bus Line, a system of horse-drawn, six-passenger omnibuses, the Toronto Street Railway (TSR) originally operated exclusively from Yorkville Town Hall to the St. Lawrence Market, eventually adding a second line on Queen Street while the TSR served other areas in the city with omnibuses absorbed from Williams in 1862. Operating under various owners over the course of its operation, the TSR’s franchise expired in 1891, when the City of Toronto passed its resources and facilities onto the Toronto Railway Company (TRC) with another 30-year franchise.

1891-1921: Toronto Railway Company (TRC)


The TRC was rewarded the City of Toronto’s new franchise under the condition that it modernize transit operations, and on Aug. 15, 1892, it facilitated the first electric, horseless streetcars in Toronto. The TRC also committed itself to implementing a handful of safety features: while early “open” car designs allowed customers to enter the car from either side, as of 1894, customers could only enter from the curb “near” side of the car; some models included fishnet lifeguard plows at the front of the cars; and car bodies were offset by four inches to the right while roofs were tapered on the passing side to allow for wider load distribution and safer passing. Eventually the TRC developed a removable door that could be fitted to the open car entrances to account for passenger comfort in the colder months.

1912-1921: Toronto Civic Railways (TCR)


From 1908-12, a series of annexations extended Toronto city limits beyond the areas listed in the Toronto Railway Company’s franchise terms, and despite its efforts, the municipality was unable to budge the TRC into serving the new areas. As a response, the City of Toronto created a new franchise called the Toronto Civic Railways (TCR) – an agency it owned and operated until the TRC’s franchise expired in 1921. In its first year, the TCR only owned a fleet of four streetcars, but it gained 20 more the next year, and by 1920 was operating a fleet of 70 cars made up of five different models. It operated all wooden cars until it began acquiring steel models from Preston Car Company in 1917 (it acquired additional steel models from J.G. Brill and Company in 1920). All TCR models were “closed” streetcars with permanent doors.

1921: TTC founded as the Toronto Transportation Commission


When the TRC’s franchise expired in 1921 and its services combined with the TCR’s, that ushered in the age of the Toronto Transportation Commission (TTC) (“Transportation” was changed to “Transit” in 1954). The longest operating streetcar system in Toronto’s history, its tracks have sent a number of different models up, down, across, and around the city, and the commission now caters to a streetcar ridership that is celebrated as the largest in the Americas.


1921-65: Peter Witt


In addition to the fleets it acquired from the TRC, in its earliest years of service, the TTC used two models of Peter Witt streetcars to service the city’s busiest streetcar routes. Seating consisted of two parallel benches spanning the length of the cars, and payment was collected upon passenger exit. They were eventually phased out upon the wake of the Yonge and University subway lines.


1938-95: The Red Rocket is Born


Toronto’s OG red rockets, Presidents’ Conference Committee (PCC) trams – popular around the world following World War II – made their Toronto debut on Sept. 22, 1938. PCC trams emphasized passenger experience and comfort as well as practicality, applying research to design considerations for standing passengers and sitting passengers alike, scrutinizing features like seat spacing, cushion height, space for arms and legs, the correlation between different weight capacities and maintenance frequency, and utilizing parts like rubber springs and angled gears to reduce noises and wiring issues caused by rattles and vibrations.


1977: Canadian Light Rail Vehicle (CLRV)


Originally created out of necessity when Toronto citizens and a group known as “Streetcars for Toronto” successfully protested the TTC’s plans to replace its decaying fleet of PCC trams with buses in the late ’70s, the CLRV is now the most common streetcar operating on TTC streetcar rails (the TTC currently owns a fleet of 195 operating CLRVs). Depending on the manufacture date, these streetcars seat 42-46 seated customers, with a crush load capacity of 132 passengers.

1987: Articulated Light Rail Vehicle (ALRV)


Double carhouse versions of the CLRV, ALRV streetcars are more than 23 feet long and seat 61 customers, with a crush load capacity of 205 passengers. For customer convenience, please move back.

2014 and Beyond: The Flexity Outlook Era


Despite numerous delays, the TTC has been introducing a fleet of 204 low-floored Flexity Outlook model streetcars as they’ve slowly trickled in from Bombardier Transportation since 2013.


At 28 metres long and consisting of five carhouse sections, the new streetcars boast a dream list of improvements that include proof-of-payment boarding at all four doors, a bicycle storage area in the fourth section of the car, and physically accessible features like curb level access (including ramps that allow wheelchair and better stroller access). Intended to eventually replace the city’s CLRV and ALRV streetcars in 2019, because the Flexity Outlook streetcars employ electronic braking and door operations, they are also being promised as vehicles that will avoid the winter operational issues the current generation of TTC streetcars experience when extreme cold temperatures cause pneumatic lines in CLRV and ALRV doors and brakes to freeze.


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