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What if the HSR had kept its Streetcars?

Hamilton Transit History

What if the HSR had kept its Streetcars?

At the end of the Second World War, the infrastructure of the Hamilton Street Railway was a mess. Deferred maintenance during the great depression followed by the heavy traffic of the war years had worn out both tracks and cars. In early 1946 the owners of the HSR, Ontario Hydro, wished to get rid of their final transit property and attempted to sell the HSR to the City of Hamilton. A raucous debate in the council chambers followed, as the city decided whether or not to buy the HSR, and if so, to spend millions to upgrade and rebuild the streetcar infrastructure. With the postwar boom in full swing, the city decided to answer yes to both questions, and the HSR was purchased by the city on July 12, 1946 for the sum of $1.4 Million.

In 1946 the HSR had 70 streetcars of several different types. The largest and most modern of these were 48 cars built by the National Steel Car Company in the late 1920’s. The HSR decided to retire all 22 of the older small double-ended cars, and keep the NSC cars in service as rush hour extras until they wore out. Most of the track and routes in existence at the end of WWII were kept, but there were a couple that were removed due to track condition and the need to free up streetcars for other routes. The YORK & ABERDEEN route had already been abandoned once, and was abandoned for the second and final time on January 31, 1948. It was replaced by buses, but the route was later converted to trolley bus service on York and Aberdeen streets. On the same date that the YORK & ABERDEEN route was abandoned the CROSSTOWN route was eliminated, replaced by bus service on Sherman Ave. However the tracks paralleling Birch Street were kept in place to allow for streetcar movements in and out of Sanford yard. The tracks on James Street south were also kept, and later rebuilt and extended south to a new loop to provide service to St. Joseph's Hospital. Several emergency track repairs were made in late 1946 and 1947, with widespread track reconstruction beginning in the spring of 1948. Two new streetcar loops were also built on Kenilworth, one at Barton and one at Main.

In January 1948, the HSR placed an order for 75 new PCC cars, numbered #700-774. The cars were very similar to the Toronto Transit Commission’s A6 class PCC cars, and began arriving in April 1950. The streetcars were painted in the same Maroon and Cream paint scheme as the HSR's new fleet of trolley buses. With the NSC cars still operating for the time being, 75 PCC streetcars were actually more than were needed, and so over the next several years PCCs would be alternated between a few months of active duty and a few months of storage.

In order to limit further damage to worn tracks, the heavier PCCs were restricted to routes which had had their track replaced. As a result, On August 4, 1950 the BELT LINE and BURLINGTON-WESTDALE routes were broken into the KING (Westdale to Kenilworth via King, Sherman and Main), BARTON (St Joseph’s Hospital to Kenilworth & Barton via James and Barton) and BURLINGTON (St Joseph’s Hospital to Kenilworth & Main, via James, Burlington, and Kenilworth) routes, with BARTON and BURLINGTON routes taking the new PCCs, while the KING route held on to the double-ended and NSC cars, until the track work was completed on December 10, 1950. With the finishing of the track rebuilding, all of the old double-ended cars were retired and scrapped, and the NSC cars were assigned to rush-hour service only. While it was intended to return the streetcar routes to their previous configuration, public reaction was favourable to the new routes, and they were ultimately kept.

HSR 736 in its original paint scheme

HSR 736 in its original paint scheme

As the 1950’s progressed, so did congestion in the downtown core. A proposal was put forward to create a large network of one-way streets to handle the increasing number of cars. This idea was quickly shot down when the HSR determined that the cost of ripping up and re-routing the track network in the downtown would be enormous, especially considering that it consisted of newly laid track. Instead of spending this money on unnecessary re-routing of streetcar tracks, the HSR proposed to expand the streetcar network. The city agreed, and construction began on new track, extending the KING route to the Queenston Traffic circle, the BARTON route to Parkdale Avenue, and the BURLINGTON route down to the Kenilworth Traffic circle. These new extensions opened in Oct 1958.

By this time, the NSC cars were reaching the end of their life spans, even after being on reduced duty for a decade. To supplement the fleet the HSR purchased 16 cheap second hand PCCs from Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1960, and numbered them #775-790. The last NSC cars were retired in April 1961, in a ceremony in downtown Hamilton. Most of the cars were stored on the Birch ROW before being sold to Dofasco for scrapping. Seven of the streetcar bodies were sold to private owners for use as buildings, while HSR #521 was donated to the Halton County Radial Railway Museum, where it remains in operation to this day.

During the 1960’s, Hamilton continued to grow on top of the mountain and east towards Stoney Creek. Expansions to the HSR in these suburbs were handled by new bus service. Only one addition was made to the streetcar network when service to McMaster University was started. New track was constructed along King Street from Westdale loop west onto the campus, with the new McMaster Loop placed in front of the engineering building. This extension opened in September 1962, to celebrate the University’s 75th birthday.

In the early 1970s,the HSR joined the TTC and the province of Ontario in their new streetcar project, the CLRV. The HSR ordered 100 CLRVs, to be delivered starting in 1982 after the completion of the TTC's order. However, the HSR's PCC fleet began to show their age before the CLRV's would be ready, and so a rebuilding program was started at the Sanford shops in the mid 1970s. Starting with the slightly older secondhand cars, 60 of the PCC’s were rebuilt electrically, mechanically, and structurally. In order to keep as many PCCs on the rails, the HSR purchased retired cars from Boston. Most of these cars were for parts only, but five of the Boston PCCs were in such good shape that, after some alterations, they were put into service as HSR #791-796. The rebuilt cars were painted in the HSR’s new yellow & black scheme, and soon Hamiltonians bestowed on them the nickname that lasts to this day, the 'Ticat Trolleys'

HSR 724 in the Ticat Trolley paint scheme

HSR 724 in the Ticat Trolley paint scheme

Numbered #800-899, the new CLRVs were delivered in a new yellow, blue, and white paint scheme, and placed into service on the busy KING route. As the new cars arrived, the unrebuilt PCCs were gradually retired. The HSR contemplated painting the remaining PCCs into the new scheme, but changed their minds due to public pressure.

HSR 821 heading south on James at Main, on an April Fools Day charter.

HSR 821 heading south on James at Main, on an April Fools Day charter. As part of the mischief, someone has installed a TTC rollsign, and even slapped on a new number! (Photo courtesy of Raymond Dartsch and Richard Young, used with permission)

Following Hamilton's decision in 1981 not to build an ICTS line between the downtown core and Limeridge Mall on Hamilton Mountain, the HSR underwent some of the largest track expansions in its history, with extensions to both east and west. In east Hamilton and Stoney Creek, streetcar service was extended east along Queenston Rd to Eastgate mall at Centennial Parkway, and east along Barton and down Centennial, also to Eastgate mall. These extensions to the KING and BARTON routes were opened on September 2, 1986.

Expansion to the west of McMaster University occurred after CP Rail's branch line into Dundas lost it's last customer in 1985. Originally built as the Hamilton & Dundas Street Railway, then taken over by the Toronto, Hamilton & Buffalo Railway in 1927, this line was seen by residents of Dundas as an opportunity to improve transit in the town, running a block south and parallel to Dundas' downtown. The region of Hamilton-Wentworth purchased the right of way in 1987, and the line was double tracked and overhead lines were strung. This new line opened on September 4, 1989, just shy of 110 years after the opening of the Hamilton & Dundas Street Railway, becoming the western half of the new DUNDAS streetcar route, which ran along the same route as the KING line west from the MacNab Terminal to McMaster. Running west from McMaster University, the line crossed Cootes Drive, and then followed a private right of way parallel to Cootes Drive to Dundas Street. It then followed Dundas Street to Hatt St, and then up Hatt Street to a loop at Bond Street.

All of this expansion did not require any new streetcars however. In 1986, two new routes were spun off of the BURLINGTON route. The new JAMES route ran from St. Joseph’s Hospital north to Burlington Street, then east along Burlington to a new loop at Eastwood Park. The KENILWORTH route ran from the Kenilworth traffic circle north to a new loop at Dofasco Rd & Kenilworth, just south of the private right of way that runs parallel to Burlington St. The BURLINGTON route was reduced in frequency to handle the traffic to and from the section between Kenilworth and Eastwood Park. This readjustment of service freed up several additional streetcars for use in Stoney Creek and Dundas.

During the 1990’s plans for additions to the streetcar network called for the reintroduction of streetcars on Aberdeen, and onto Longwood to Princess Point. As well, extending the tracks east on Queenston farther into Stoney Creek to Fiesta Mall. In anticipation of these extensions, the HSR purchased several of the TTC’s recently retired PCCs, to be used as parts in the second PCC rebuild. However, the Provincial Government cut off funding for the extensions in 1995, before construction had begun. Regardless of the loss of new routes, the HSR rebuilt some of its PCC fleet for the second time starting in 1996.

As the 21st Century begins, the HSR currently runs 6 streetcar routes in the amalgamated city of Hamilton. The network is healthy and stable, serving a large number of people living and working within the downtown core. The HSR streetcar fleet is currently comprised of 20 Ticat Trolleys and 100 CLRV’s, and plans are to keep the Ticat Trolleys until 2010.

Streetcar routes in the City of Hamilton as of 2006

Route Map (black dots are loops/terminals)

  • KING: From McMaster loop, east on King, Sherman, Main, and Queenston to Eastgate loop at Centennial Parkway. Future plans include expansion along Queenston to Fiesta Mall at Gray (waiting for funding), followed by the possible creation of QUEENSTON streetcar from Fiesta mall to MacNab terminal, with KING cut back to Queenston traffic circle
  • BARTON: From St. Joseph’s loop, north on James, east on Barton, south on Centennial to Eastgate loop.
  • JAMES: From St. Joseph’s loop, north on James, and east on Burlington to Eastwood loop.
  • BURLINGTON: From St. Joseph’s loop, north on James, east on Burlington, and south on Kenilworth to Kenilworth Traffic Circle.
  • KENILWORTH: From Dofasco loop, south on Kenilworth to Kenilworth Traffic Circle.
  • DUNDAS: From Bond loop, east on Hatt, Dundas, Cootes Drive ROW, King to MacNab terminal.
  • (Aberdeen: planned route from MacNab terminal, south on James, west on Charlton, south on Bay, west on Aberdeen, north on Longwood to Princess Point Loop. Still waiting for funding, but unlikely to be built)

Thoughts and comments by the author

The inspiration for this article came from James Bow’s article on an alternate history of how Toronto would have changed if the TTC had built the Queen Subway instead of the Bloor-Danforth Subway. Along those lines, I thought, what would the city of Hamilton been like had it kept its streetcar network.

First was the need for new vehicles after WWII. This was simple to decide, as the only streetcar available was the PCC, both brand new and second-hand. However, deciding on which second hand PCCs the HSR could get was more difficult than I originally thought. Most of the good second-hand PCCs were bought by Toronto, and so aside from the Johnstown fleet, there weren’t many leftover PCCs that were in decent shape. Ironically, it was easier to get spare parts for the 1970s rebuild, as Boston scrapped several cars in very good shape.

The next major change would have been Hamilton’s major one-way street policy in the Downtown core. With kilometres of perfectly good track that would have had to be torn up and then re-laid on new streets, the cost would have been huge, making the entire plan too expensive to implement. Without the one-way street system that drove away residents by making the downtown core pedestrian unfriendly, Hamilton’s downtown would not have declined as fast, or at all. The lack of a decline would have kept transit use stable.

The expansions to the network in the late 50s/early 60s were simply extensions of the existing tracks towards areas of new development and high traffic generators, like McMaster University. Demand for these extensions would probably have resulted in their installation sooner, if not for the huge amount of money that the city had spent on upgrading the existing infrastructure in the late 1940s/early 1950s.

The pause in track construction in the 1970s would have been the result of a lack of new vehicles available to extend service on the new routes, and the city’s study, debate, and eventual rejection of the province’s ICTS technology.

The purchasing of the CLRVs in the late 1970s is a reasonable assumption, since even with the rebuilding of old PCCs there would be a need for new streetcars, especially if new expansion plans had been created. The provincial government would probably have used all its influence to get the only city in Ontario with streetcars other than Toronto to buy its new vehicle.

The extensions in the 1980s would be, as during the 1960s, continuations of the existing routes along busy streets. In fact, the HSR originally had plans to build towards Dundas after the extension to Westdale in the 1920s. The abandonment of CP Rail’s (ex TH&B, ex H&D) line into Dundas in the 1980s would have meant that there was a ROW that followed an excellent route passing McMaster University and through Dundas near the town centre. All it would need was doubletracking, and the placement of overhead wires to run the streetcars through.

With the early 1990s recession, and the election of the Conservatives to the provincial government, the plans of Hamilton for future transit expansion would, like Toronto, be placed on hold. The 2nd PCC rebuild would have had to happen, as the cars were running out of time.

Images provided by the Railroad Paint Shop