Toronto PCC Cars: My first streamliner
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Toronto's PCC Cars:

Il y a 20 ans déjà — My first streamliner

Oct. 25, 1986— Oct. 25, 2006

A decade before I first rode her on Queen Street, Toronto PCC 4528 is seen making the rounds on the MOUNT PLEASANT line on July 22, 1976, two days before streetcar service ended on this route. In the background is Flyer trolleybus 9327 holding down a NORTOWN schedule. Streetcar operation continues elsewhere in Toronto in 2006, albeit using light rail vehicles, most of which are now older than 4528 was when this view was taken. All trolleybus service is a distant memory, however.

Photo by R.D. McMann, collection of Rob Hutchinson.

I can scarcely believe that it's been 20 years since I met her.

Old City Hall New City Hall It was a brisk fall evening; not too warm, not too cold. Thousands of twinkling white lights outlined the the tower of Old City Hall, that Romanesque pile seemingly dwarfed by glass and steel office towers of greater height but lesser character. Across the way, its futuristic 1960s successor loomed haughtily above Nathan Phillips Square.

Fresh from a desultory tour of the Eaton Centre, my mother wanted to stop and take some pictures of these majestic symbols of municipal authority and civic pride, shining like beacons under cloudy Canadian skies.

That's when she rolled into view. There was no time for pictures, I insisted, urgency in my voice. We had to get moving, and fast. Despite some irritation, I believe my mother understood; the bidding of a 13-year-old zealot carried the day.

There could be no question of this. She had arrived. It was time to go.

* * *

How and why I became a transit geek — and a streetcar fan in particular — is a question I've never fully resolved, even to my own satisfaction, and will remain a story to be told another day. Suffice it to say that it was a done deal the by the summer of 1984, when I was not quite 11.

I soon began spending almost every free waking hour devouring every scrap of information I could find about trolley cars — mostly those that once ran in my hometown of Rochester, N.Y. but about their history in plenty of other places as well. I took up the hobby with the passion of the converted. It utterly consumed me.

Remember, though, this was 1984, and with no Internet to guide me, I had to embark on the process the old fashioned way, in the library. When pocket money and generous elders allowed, I began building a collection of books on the subject. And I started writing to transit companies, asking for whatever ephemera they would care to send; I especially sought transfers, and thus was born a collection now 5,000 strong.

Toronto I don't remember exactly when I discovered that Toronto still had working streetcars. It may have been one night in the basement of St. Phillip Neri school, thumbing through a newspaper advertising supplement about Toronto tourism while sitting at bingo with my mother. Either way, Toronto soon became the focus of all my ambitions. If I wanted to ride a real trolley car in the 1980s, this seemed the most likely place to do it.

ALRV at Humber Loop, circa 1999. Author photo. Add to the mix a strong interest in Canada, even then — thanks to childhood trips to Niagara and a French-Canadian heritage — and the die was cast. Toronto was destined to become the centre of my universe, at first for its streetcars, though eventually for so much more.

The Toronto Transit Commission was one of the more generous transit systems I wrote to. They sent me a thick packet full of information, including a booklet about the system's history and a series of pamphlets on the technical specifications and history of major vehicle types. I was enthralled. I still have most of that stuff today.

Thus I learned that TTC had once been the world's preeminent operator of Presidents' Conference Committee streetcars, those streamlined marvels dreamed up by the North American street railway industry in the 1930s as a defence against the inexorable encroachment of rubber-tired transportation. And in 1984, Toronto, unlike many of the systems that once operated PCCs, still had a reasonable number of the cars on its roster, albeit a dwindling contingent. This I needed to see for myself.

With my younger brother in tow, my sympathetic and sainted mother finally drove me to Toronto on Nov. 2, 1985. In the rain and cold, we got our intoduction to Canada's Queen City, and I took my first streetcar ride, albeit aboard an ultra-modern Canadian Light Rail Vehicle, then less than a decade old. The only PCCs I saw that day were idling in Roncesvalles yard as we drove past on the way out of town. The day was a triumph and a landmark, but I felt cheated over the PCCs.

What I didn't know then was that Toronto would continue to operate PCCs for another decade. With withdrawals continuing, the pressure to ride one was great.

It took almost another year before I had my chance.

* * *

Oct. 25, 1986: The Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets are set to face off in Game 6 of the World Series at Shea Stadium. It's a day Bill Buckner and Red Sox fans remember with some chagrin.

For me, the day was much happier. My family and I returned to Toronto by way of Rockwood, Ont., and an afternoon stop to ride the restored streetcars at the Halton County Radial Railway Museum. I thought that was going to be the highlight of the weekend.

We stayed at one of those old motels along Lakeshore Boulevard in Etobicoke, not quite so seedy then as they were later to become, though still downmarket. I could have cared less, as the 507 LONG BRANCH streetcars ran out front. It took a short ride on a 507 car and a transfer to a 501 car to reach downtown Toronto and the Eaton Centre from there. Both cars were modern CLRVs. Foiled again.

It was, as you may have guessed, while we were lingering outside Old City Hall that my first streamliner came into view.

We were in no hurry, really, until I saw the orangy-red PCC approaching, marked by its single green "bull's eye" advance light above the windshield. I had to ride this car. With haste, we ran to the car stop and clambered aboard.

She, of course, was 4528, a TTC Class A-8 PCC built in 1951 and one of the lucky survivors overhauled in the 1970s. And she was beautiful.

Here's how I remember her. PCC 4528 on a 505 run, Dundas and Bay streets, April 29, 1985. Another outstanding Bob McMann photo. Despite somewhat modernized interior fittings, the atmosphere was haute art deco, redolent of the 1940s, when this basic design was created. Unlike the CLRVs with their flourescent lighting, 4528 was still illuminated with yellowish light from incandescent bulbs housed behind period fixtures. The purists may rail against my assessment, but remember, I was 13. As far as I was concerned, I had just stepped into another era, and it was magic.

All in all, the ride was fairly uneventful. We sat near the back, and I was lost in a reverie as the car crawled along crowded Queen Street West. The highlight came when we reached the private right of way past Roncesvalles, and the motorman put his foot down. The car bobbed and swayed as we sped toward Humber Loop, gliding past rubber-tired traffic on the surrounding streets.

Sadly, my photograpic record of the night is pathetic. I owned a little Kodak 126 camera then, and night shots were really out of the question. My mother had brought along her Kodak DISC camera — barely better. I have one grainy interior shot, and a dismal exterior shot.

Thus it was that when we stepped off the PCC at Humber Loop, all I would have to carry with me of the ride were memories, but the transformation was complete. I wasn't just a trolley fan; I was to be a PCC devotee forevermore.

* * *

Car 4528 and I would meet again, though I didn't recognize her when I saw her.

PCC 4606, originally 4528,pulls out of Spadina Loop on the HARBOURFRONT line, Spadina Avenue at Queen's Quay, April 7, 1991. Bob McMann photo. On Sept. 2, 1995, my best friend and I rode up to T.O. from Niagara University for a day of railfanning. It was a beautiful, sunny day. And mostly a CLRV day. But in Roncesvalles yard we discovered a few PCCs awaiting the call to service. One of them was A-15 class 4606, one of the former A-8 cars, renovated for use mostly on the Harbourfront line. I posed for a picture in front of the car, and we moved on.

I think it was some time before I discovered that 4606 was the reincarnated 4528, my first PCC.

She lives in Kenosha today, one of the cars purchased for the Wisconsin city's waterfront streetcar line, and painted in Chicago colours. I hope we'll meet again some day.

I would go on to do quite a bit of riding on such cars — on Toronto's Harbourfront line, and on charters in the city; on Boston's Mattapan line; on charters and on the refurbished Route 15 in Philadelphia; and on the very last revenue PCC to run in Pittsburgh. I even got to step aboard one of Buffalo's ex-Cleveland PCC orphans during a 1992 fan trip.

But nothing, and I mean nothing, ever will compare to that first ride aboard 4528 that fall night 20 years ago. For on that night a boy's dream was fulfilled.