The Scarborough Rapid Transit Line

Proposed SRT Route Map in 1975

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

Text by James Bow.

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The SCARBOROUGH RT, from when it opened in March 24, 1984 and throughout its over 30-year existence, is a six-station rapid transit shuttle using linear-induction 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 at the Scarborough Town Centre. Buses departing from the terminal at Scarborough Centre station carry commuters north and east to the edge of Scarborough, serving passengers as far afield as Malvern, Rouge Hill, and Morningside Heights.

The SCARBOROUGH RT is also 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 the debate is 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

When the Scarborough Town Centre was opened in 1973, what was then the Borough of Scarborough hoped that the shopping mall and neighbouring civic buildings would become the core of its new downtown. However, with Metro Council only just voting that the eastern terminus of the BLOOR-DANFORTH subway be extended to Kennedy and Eglinton Avenues, there was still a gap of miles between the end of mass transit and the beginning of Scarborough's downtown dreams. Scarborough officials wanted a further extension of the subway, but the TTC looked at the costs involved and decided that a cheaper project was needed.

At the time, new subway construction was coming out of fashion. The 1.6 mile, single-station extension from Warden to Kennedy was going to cost at least $41 million in late 1970s dollars. Planners cautioned that most of the areas in Metropolitan Toronto dense enough to service a subway had already being served by a subway. However, including the Scarborough Town Centre, there were large areas of Metro which could use rapid transit service -- just not service which had the capacity and the cost of a subway. With the lowest economically feasible passenger load by a subway line being 20000 passengers per peak hour, and the highest feasible passenger load of a streetcar being roughly 5000 passengers per peak hour, Metro planners asked, what vehicle could address the intermediate capacities that the new areas of the city required from possible rapid transit lines?

The Toronto Transit Commission had a good idea of what that vehicle was: a streetcar operating on private right-of-way. Such lines already existed in Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, where suburban streetcars sped through neighbourhoods, quickly connecting passengers to the main subway network. The TTC set to work on a proposal to link the Scarborough Town Centre to the end of the subway using an LRT line. The initial line would follow much of the same route as today's SCARBOROUGH RT operates, however there were plans for stations halfway between Lawrence and Eglinton, halfway between Ellesmere and Lawrence, and possibly over Brimley Road as well. There were possible alternative alignments down the centre of Ellesmere Road and along Progress Avenue. The Scarborough LRT line could easily be extended to serve the community of Malvern, and perhaps even Pickering. the first phase of the 8.2 mile line would cost just $85 million -- roughly 40% of the cost of a full-fledged subway at the time.

The Province Goes High-Tech

This solution, while workable, did not satisfy the provincial government. Ontario premier Bill Davis was looking for something far more marketable and high-tech. Back on November 22, 1972, the provincial government announced the development of its own Intermediate Capacity Transit System (ICTS) concept. On May 1, 1973, it awarded a contract to Krauss Maffei A.G. of West Germany to design and build a demonstration system of magnetically levitated trains around the Canadian National Exhibition by 1975. Streetcars were the past, they argued; maglev technology was clearly the future. The GO URBAN project went as far as building columns to support an elevated track, and there were plans for a connection to Union Station by 1977. However, the West German government withdrew its support and Krauss-Maffei could not continue with the proposal. The beginnings of the 2.5 mile demonstrator line were scrapped.

While the TTC continued to plan and build its streetcar-based Scarborough LRT line (it was planned that out of the initial order of 196 CLRVs, 22 would be used on the Scarborough line, either individually, or coupled together into trains of as many as three vehicles), the Province went it alone in designing the ICTS vehicle. Finally, it came up with a design that offered the following:

  • "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

The trains no longer levitated over their tracks, but the 'linear induction' motors meant that the trains were pulled along using electromagnets inside the trucks. Now that the province had its vehicle, it considered possibilities for building something that could demonstrate the technology. After proposing a loop connecting downtown Hamilton with the communities atop Hamilton Mountain, only to have the proposal rejected by Hamilton City Council on December 15, 1981.

With Hamilton council proving reluctant to embrace ICTS technology, the provincial government's eyes fell upon the Scarborough RT. Throughout 1980, government officials campaigned for the TTC and Metropolitan council to change the design of the Scarborough RT to handle ICTS technology.

Metro council and the TTC had few options to say 'no'. The province of Ontario promised to pay for any and all cost overruns associated with changing the design of the Scarborough LRT in mid-stream. It has been suggested that the province hinted heavily 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 linaer-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 resulted in the line opening in March 1985, with a final price tag of $196 million.

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, to be 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 to 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.

Promotion of the SCARBOROUGH RT and the ICTS cars 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 during the months of July and August 1984. A special run for officials occurred on July 5, 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.


ICTS cars Image Archive

IMG_1374.jpg

The linear induction motor (LIM), seen here resting on a bed of paper on top of a metal stand, is the engine that pulls the Scarborough RT's ICTS cars along the track. I gigantic compound electromagnet, it hangs from the cars' trucks 11 millimetres above a nickel-iron "reaction rail" located in the centre of the tracks. By operating the electromagnets in phases, the cars receive the thrust they need to move forward. Photo by James Bow.

IMG_1383.jpg

A view of the cab of an ICTS car, its seat and control panel. Photo by James Bow.

IMG_1384.jpg

A view out the side window of an ICTS cab. The cab is located on the right-hand side of the front of the train.

IMG_1385.jpg

The rear of an ICTS cab. Photo by James Bow.

IMG_1386.jpg

The seat in the cab of the ICTS vehicle. Note armrest and throttle. Photo by James Bow.

IMG_1390.jpg

A view of the ICTS vehicle cab and its associated controls, as seen from the outside. Photo by James Bow.

IMG_1393.jpg

The cab lights on the front of the ICTS cars provide quick information to supervisors standing outside. The red light indicates whether or not the doors are open. The yellow light (currently off) indicates whether the train is linked up with the automatic train control computer. The blue light indicates whether the car's on board computer (one of four on a two-car train) is registering a fault. In this case, the light is on because the train's ventilation fans have been turned off, for the benefit of a shop tour that was going on when this photograph was taken. Photo by James Bow.

IMG_1405.jpg

A sample of the power rail used to provide the TTC's ICTS cars with 600 volts of direct current (left) and the collector assembly used to pick that power up. The TTC uses two power rails, one providing 300 volts of positive DC and another providing 300 volts of negative DC to produce 600 volts of differential power. Photo by James Bow.

Problems Develop

Although the SCARBOROUGH RT attracted more people than buses could comfortably serve, it soon ran into some 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. Still more were due to poor design, plain and simple. In September 1986, the TTC went to the Province, asking for $27 million to repair these problems. These included:

  • "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

By this time, the SCARBOROUGH RT was facing mounting criticism from nearby residents who complained of noise. Much of this was caused by dime-sized flat spots on the wheels of the trains, created through 'over-efficient braking'. 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 the automatic controls. 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. Most planners and politicians had now backed away from the ICTS technology and had returned to the 'tried-and-true' subways as the vehicles of choice for new rapid transit construction. This caused some to call for the replacement of the SCARBOROUGH RT by streetcar or subway, calling the line 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.

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 constantly communicates 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 proposed 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 line along an abandoned railway to Finch and Morningside never resurfaced, as the right-of-way would take the trains too close to residential houses and the TTC planners did not want a repeat of the problems they had with residents at 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 dogged with 'white elephant' criticisms, and problems raising funding for other lines.

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 and they shut down construction on the Eglinton West line, making further extensions very unlikely indeed.

An Aging Line and the Search for Replacements

As the Scarborough RT entered the new millennium, transit observers started to issue warnings about the future of the line. Ridership was increasing, and the TTC had few options for expanding service. The line was a vestigial appendix to 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 as many as four flights of stairs. Even with this impediment, there weren't enough RT cars to handle rush hour crowds. In September 2000, the TTC adding 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 -- now Bombardier -- had retired the model and was selling a longer Mark II design to cities like Vancouver. Vancouver wasn't interested in selling its remaining Mark I cars, and the Mark II cars were too long to negotiate some of the tight curves of the Scarborough RT.

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 significant portion of this report tackled the question of the SCARBOROUGH RT. The report noted that the significant premiums associated with staying with ICTS technology and further stated 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.

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 converted and extended to the Malvern community for roughly the same cost as upgrading the current line using ICTS technology. Better yet, the LRT line could be integrated into a network of 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 from Weston Road to Kennedy, and convert the SCARBOROUGH RT as an extension of the Eglinton LRT line. This had the advantage of allowing Metrolinx to stick to its schedule for the conversion of the SCARBOROUGH RT to LRT operation, but Ford's critics lashed out at his waste of money, adding billions to the cost of a single line in order to bury it, and reducing the extent the proposed new lines served.

Toronto City Council overruled Mayor Ford during a series of contentious meetings in February 2012, re-establishing 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 decided that, with Eglinton no longer fully underground, 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 Glenn 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 to more current numbers on the conversion of the LRT. When a more recent review of subway construction costs was brought forward, the price difference was significantly higher. 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 was more than enough to convince enough councillors to require that the change in design take place, 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. As of the summer of 2014, the question of the final alignment of the BLOOR-DANFORTH subway has not been decided.

The question of the final fate of the Scarborough RT dominated the 2014 municipal election campaign, with mayoralty candidates coming down strongly on the side of a subway extension, or returning to the original LRT plan. And so, the Scarborough RT ends its days as it began: in controversy and debate, pulled in several directions by conflicting goals and agendas. Never has a single transit line evoked so much discussion for so long.


3 Scarborough RT 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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