Scarborough’s Road To Nowhere

This abandoned transit loop at Kennedy station has never served its original purpose. Built as part of a proposed Scarborough LRT route, it was cancelled in favour of the current RT system. Photo by Mathieu Yuill.

At Kennedy Road and Eglinton Avenue, nestled in a hub of buses, trains and transfer points, there’s a 28-year-old abandoned transit loop that has never had a chance to realize its potential – much like the TTC’s service in Scarborough.

In many ways, the unfinished project perfectly exemplifies the TTC and the Ontario government’s failed dream to provide a cohesive, all-encompassing public transit system in the east end of the city.

TTC consultant Richard Soberman says the hastily built loop at Kennedy station, now a dead-end tail track, was constructed in the early ’80s to serve as part of a proposed GO Light Rail Transit (LRT) system. However, the government of Ontario scrapped the idea in favour of today’s current technology, the Rapid Transit (RT) system.

The primary difference between RT and LRT is that the latter does not require a dedicated right-of-way. LRT receives power from overhead, and is more akin to a streetcar, whereas the current RT receives power from the rails and requires a more dedicated (and expensive) infrastructure.

Fast-forward almost 30 years later, and the TTC is planning a complete overhaul of the Scarborough RT to replace it with its originally intended LRT system as part of the larger Transit City plan announced in 2007.

The Scarborough RT, loathed by some and loved by, well, no one, is synonymous with the image of a loud, screeching, overcrowded and overall uncomfortable transit experience.

Just ask any Scarborough rider their thoughts on the RT, and you’re likely to hear a predictable range of responses.

“It causes a lot of havoc,” said Carlos Cadenas, a Centennial College graduate who lives in Toronto but frequently commutes to Scarborough. “Because it’s a smaller-sized train that runs less frequently than the Bloor lines, it can get hectic. The part I dread most is the screeching of the tracks.”

Other Scarborough transit riders, like Yousuf Riyadh, say frequent technical issues can result in service delays. “They don’t maintain it properly, so often something goes wrong and you have to take alternatives, which can be very difficult when you’re going to work,” he said. “I take the RT because I have to. If I had a choice, I wouldn’t.”

Soberman, the transit consultant who oversaw the construction of the current RT and took part in the 2006 study on how to replace the current line, says the answer to the current RT’s lacklustre performance is simple.

“The line is over capacity right now because they don’t have enough equipment, and the vehicles are 25 to 30 years old,” he said. “There will come a point where you can’t operate those vehicles.”

With only four trains and 28 cars serving an estimated 39,320 riders on an average day, residents relying on the RT are severely under-serviced. So why did the TTC build the RT instead of LRT, which would have provided a more efficient and sustainable transit system for years to come?

Soberman says he proposed an LRT system for Scarborough as early as 1975. The project was approved and announced in 1982. Construction started, but the LRT was cancelled under pressure from the Ontario government to switch to RT, which was being produced by the Urban Transportation Development Corporation, then an Ontario Crown corporation (owned by the government).

According to Soberman, the government agreed to pay a large portion of the RT costs so they could test out and market their new technology prior to its implementation in Vancouver for the 1986 Expo World Fair, where it is now known as the Skytrain.

In hindsight, Soberman says he feels the construction of the RT was a mistake, and the real reason for its construction was to develop and promote their crown-owned technology. “I think it was the wrong decision then, taken for the wrong reasons,” he said. “It was not the right technology for that application mainly.”

With a squeaky, overcrowded fossil as the flagship of their transit system, it’s no surprise that a large percentage of Scarborough transit riders also takes the bus. However, Scarborough-Centre councillor Michael Thompson has been telling city council for years that Scarborough has played “second fiddle” in terms of funding for transit, despite being one of the largest Toronto municipalities in terms of area.

“Scarborough is a very big place, and there are areas and pockets where it’s very challenging to get access to the TTC and to get downtown in a convenient manner,” he said.

And while bus service attempts to provide transit to those not close to a major transit station, buses have not been without their share of criticism. Stephen Miaone, who used to regularly take the Kennedy 43 to get to work downtown, compared the line to “the worst route in the world.”

“I just found it terrible. Buses were always late, then multiple buses would arrive at the same time – they didn’t keep their schedules at all,” Miaone says. “And then when you would get on, people would be packed in like sardines.”

Others, such as Masfique Selim, express frustration at the frequency of bus service in Scarborough.

“If you miss a bus downtown, there will be another in a few minutes. But if you miss the bus in Scarborough, you’re basically screwed,” he said.

Adam Giambrone, chair of the TTC and city councillor for Davenport, sympathizes with the complaints of Scarborough riders. He says one of the reasons Scarborough residents are more likely to complain about TTC service is because a higher percentage of Scarborough riders takes the bus.

“With bus transport, people are facing very long trips on the bus, much of it standing,” Giambrone said. “Buses are subject to a lot more variability based on traffic issues, so it means that the likelihood of people experiencing more negative circumstances compared to subway riders is much higher.”

But are these issues unique to Scarborough, or something that goes hand-in-hand with TTC ridership in all Toronto municipalities?

Thompson argues that over time, Scarborough has been given the short end of the stick. “I just feel that over the years, in terms of the decisions that had been made, transit-wise, Scarborough really wasn’t so factored in.”

To add insult to injury, last March the provincial government announced they would postpone the delivery of $4 billion in funding for Transit City.

As a result, the construction of various priority projects including the Scarborough-Malvern LRT and the replacement of the Scarborough RT were postponed from 2012 to 2015. This happened even after U of T Scarborough students voted ‘yes’ in a referendum to build a new aquatic centre for the 2015 Pan Am Games under the assumption that the LRT would be extended to the campus in time for the games.

Giambrone says over the last 20 years, Scarborough has grown disproportionately, and there was no investment going on when the area needed it most. Indeed, between 1996 and 2001, Scarborough had the highest growth rate in Toronto at six per cent. So the question is: what now?

According to Giambrone, the current Transit City plan, announced in 2007, focuses heavily on Scarborough. If all goes ahead as expected, Scarborough will have a drastically improved subway system, but not for roughly 10 years. The construction of the Sheppard East LRT started in October 2009, and the replacement of the Scarborough RT will start in 2015.

The plan is to extend the existing RT line east from McCowan Station so that it links with Sheppard East Station and riders can transfer seamlessly.

“I think the Sheppard LRT is going to have a dramatic effect on Scarborough because it’s going to take a rapid transit line and stretch it deep into the heart of Scarborough,” Giambrone said. “It’s going to go a long way in terms of improving service.”

The chair of the TTC says he personally knows what Scarborough residents are concerned about – he takes the TTC to the east end every week or two himself. And while another five years before construction seems a long way off, Giambrone is generally optimistic about the future of TTC in Scarborough.

“I understand it’s a long haul, it’s frustrating,” he said. “The ability to generate the capital dollars is a big issue, but we’re moving ahead.

We have to spend a lot of time catching up.”

The Scarborough LRT is scheduled to be completed by 2020. Residents can look forward to higher capacity, more frequent service, and most importantly for some, a quiet, screech-free ride.

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