Zombie Streetcars & Transit Bling

Post by Steven Dale

One of San Francisco's Fleet of Classic Streetcars.

I am decidedly against the City of Toronto’s decision to purchase almost 2 billion one-and-a-quarter billion dollars worth of new streetcars/light rail. And my problem with the decision has absolutely nothing to do with my position on CPT. I recognize that CPT is not a technology for all environs and I recognize that streetcar technology has its place.

My position on CPT is that it should be included as one among many transit technologies including bus, streetcar/light rail and subway. So let’s leave it at that. Back to the streetcars . . .

My problem with purchasing new vehicles to replace the old fleet is this: It’s nothing more than wasteful Transit Bling. In times of economic trouble, it seems irresponsible to replace that which could be rebuilt. Are Toronto’s existing streetcars decrepit?  Sure.  Are they falling apart?  Probably. Are they comfortable to ride? Not on your life. But none of those issues are unresolvable.

Havana is well-known for its plethora of 1950’s and 1960’s classic American cars.  These cars are at least a generation older than Toronto’s current aging streetcar fleet, but are in good condition, having been well-maintained and rebuilt several times.  These never-dying  zombie cars, have in fact, become something of a tourist attraction themselves.

Classic American cars crowd the roads of Havana to this day. They have even become an unofficial tourist attraction. Despite their age of 50-60 years, they are in good working condition due to ongoing maintenance and rebuilds.

So why then rush to abandon the current fleet of streetcars in Toronto?  Surely there must be some experienced mechanics, engineers and designers capable of creatively rebuilding the fleet at a fraction of the cost of buying new vehicles (around $5-6 million each). I’m even more certain there’s some inexperienced mechanics, engineers and designers in university who could do it. And if they did, it would be a testament to Toronto’s ingenuity, fiscal prudence, dedication to the environment and history.

San Francisco did just that with a fleet of Zombie Streetcars they purchased on the second/third hand market. The great irony is that many of those streetcars were never part of that city’s historic fleet. Instead, they were vehicles that had once serviced cities as far and wide as Kansas City, Philadelphia, Cleveland and . . . Toronto.

And just to one up those cities further, San Francisco painted these cars in colour schemes that replicated those of their original city of operation. The city positioned them as “Commemorative” streetcars, in effect celebrating that which other cities chose to dispose of. This was brilliant marketing to locals and tourists alike. (The streetcars are not a Toy for Tourists, they are instead an integral part of the San Francisco Muni system.) San Francisco took other cities’ “junk” and put it to good use because they recognized the inherent value these vehicles possessed when others didn’t.

It’s like being savvy enough to spot a Picasso at a yard sale whose owner is selling for $1.

Streetcars in San Francisco are not accessible, but redesigned platform ramps provide the same level of accessibility.

The one argument you could make in support of new purchase over rebuild is the issue of accessibility, which is a 100% legitimate agrument. Sort of.

Are San Francisco’s zombie streetcars accessible? No. But is the system itself accessible? Yes. All streetcar platforms were equipped with simple and cost-effective ramps that, in effect, give the streetcars complete accessibility.

Most amazing is that the San Francisco streetcars date from the early part of the last century. Many of them are 2-3 times older than the streetcars Toronto plans to replace. They’re also stylish to no end with a story that capture people’s attention and imagination.

Ironically, Toronto knows this. The city maintains a couple of these very same Zombie Streetcars for private charter operation and special event rental.

Infrastructure is part of our collective civic imagination and history. Merely replacing this infrastructure every 20 or 30 years robs us of something innate and valuable.

Maybe using Zombie Streetcars doesn’t play as well in the media as spending billions of dollars on brand new Transit Bling. But in the long run, it seems like a far more logical and stylish investment.

At the very least, San Francisco knows where to get a new lot of vintage Toronto streetcars for a very good price.

Creative Commons images by bstoragegj_theWhite and tibchris.

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  1. I'm extremely undecided on this whole question. As far as I can understand, you are talking about wheelchair ramps like this: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pbo31/141244198/ That's all well and good, but less than half of the streetcar routes in Toronto have island stops. Elsewhere the CLRVs just stop in the middle of the road. These would require either a Rube Goldberg contraption on the curb that can make a wheelchair bridge over a full lane, or some kind of automated foldable wheelchair lift inside the streetcar itself. (Arguably this would just need to be a ramp on the low-floor Flexities.) The whole point is sort of moot since wheelchairs need to get down onto the road before they can get up into the streetcar. So I don't know... is this evidence that the TTC could have a completely different culture which could lead to refurbished CLRVs ? Certainly. Is rebuilding the CLRVs with modern amenities a practical option at the moment? Not really. As for the sentimental / aesthetic arguments? One of the important advantages of low-floor cars is not just accessibility but a high ceiling. High ceilings make people happy, and they ride the streetcar more. On the other hand, high-floor cars have the advantage of lifting people above the rest of the traffic. High floors make people feel smug and superior relative to the people in cars, and they ride the streetcar more. As for keeping the CLRV, which is sort of a symbol of Toronto's (onetime) willingness not to take the easy way out on transit, when everyone else was tearing up their street railways? I'm hoping that the Flexities retain visual continuity with the CLRV design, so that they feel more like CLRV 2.0 than some kind of attempt at an iCar.
  2. That's an excellent point regarding the issue of wheelchair accessibility. You're right. Whether using refurbished cars or low flow cars is a moot point as those with accessibility issues will have to navigate at least one lane of traffic and a curb before hand in either scenario. I'm hesitant to agree that high-ceiling cars would result in higher ridership. It seems like a statement that requires some sort of empirical evidence. Similar with the smug factor. At the same time, I'm saying that the SF streetcars are a great marketing initiative without any evidence either. I'm also not certain rebuilding the CLRVs is any more or less practical than just buying new Flexity cars. It's certainly more expensive, that's for sure. And how do the low floors behave in snow? That's not a rhetorical question, I'm seriously asking: Does anyone know how these Flexity cars behave in blizzard conditions? There is one potential way to fuse the rebuild/new purchase option and that's using a trailer system that is common practice in Luzern, Switzerland. There, electric trolley buses (a great technology which receive far too little attention) can be equipped easily with driverless trailers. These passive, engine-less trailers look and behave like a normal bus except they have no driver. These trailers, in effect double the capacity of a bus, without the additional costs of drivers and engine maintenance. They look like this: http://www.flickr.com/photos/71144572@N00/370191656/ Why not rebuild Toronto's current fleet, but equip them with new low-floor trailers? I think the basic point I'm making is this: There are a whole host of potential solutions to our collective transit problems the easiest (which is always the most expensive) is to just buy new vehicles. In Toronto's case, they've chosen to spend more than a billion dollars just to replace their streetcar fleet and have now stalled/cancelled system expansion plans due to a lack of funds. It seems to me that if they'd considered rebuilding for (at least) those lines (Spadina, St. Clair) that do exist within a dedicated right of way (and therefore have island stops), they might have had a little bit of cash left over.
  3. The TTC did try to rebuild a CLRV, and it was expensive enough to justify purchasing new streetcars.The TTC is keeping some of the CLRVs too. The problem with the CLRV/ALRV's is the cost of maintaining them, is very expensive, and their reliability is steadily decreasing. The CLRV was built at a time when there were no North American streetcar manufacturers available, and Toronto was one of a handful of North American cities still running streetcars. The CLRV, and ALRV were custom built, and have not proven to be the most reliable vehicles. Many of the parts are manufactured in-house, or in some cases, jerry-rigged to be used. With the new streetcars you are getting larger capacity, much better reliabilty, better acceleration, and stopping, lower energy consumption, and cheaper, and readily available parts. These vehicles can be rebuilt in the future. It makes sense to invest in new vehicles, rather than try to maintain vehicles that are expensive to maintain in the first place, and are failing. If we were talking about the PCC's. You may have an argument; the CLRV's are simply not worth rebuilding. And for the record, the streetcar funds, and Transit City funds are totally separate items. The province can still fund Transit City even with a deficit, and with citizens, and municipalities protesting the decision, it is likely they will reverse their decision. Have you seen the various pro-transit City groups forming? This is not an attack against streetcars, it is an attack against transit.
  4. I should mention, you really inflated the cost of the streetcars. The total cost is around 1.22, That is not "almost 2 Billion".