Back to the future

It’s bemusing, while at the same time rather sad, to know that 55 years ago Winnipeg had a perfectly “modern” transit system that was thought to be antiquated by the people who were blessed by its presence. Today, we cast a wistful gaze back to that bygone era and imagine the benefits that could be derived if only the powers-that-be hadn’t decided fossil-fuel-burning, pollution-spewing buses were the future instead of electric-powered, pollution-free streetcars. 

It’s fitting that the WREN has been running a Heritage Highlights four-part series on the end of streetcars (We’ve Had It, begun on May 28 with part 3 in this issue), especially when Mayor Sam Katz has recently been musing aloud about a light rail transit (LRT) system for the Southwest Rapid Transit Corridor running from the downtown to the University of Manitoba. The corridor is now in its $138-million first phase as a bus rapid transit (BRT) route. The next phase is a $210-million extension, but the city has reallocated these funds to other infrastructure projects to the chagrin of the province.

Katz said the city has been told LRT is more cost-efficient than originally believed due to a scaled-down price tag of $50 per kilometre — a mere 32 per cent more expensive than BRT. While LRT basically uses the same type of infrastructure employed to operate the old streetcars in Winnipeg, such as overhead electric wires and rails, there are some differences. Not surprisingly, technological advancements have expanded the scope of LRT systems. For example, what Katz desires is a “flexible” streetcar which combines the ability to travel on rails embedded in streets and rails on dedicated corridors. A sharper turn radius makes the new streetcars able to better negotiate urban traffic than the old-style streetcars. 

As the champion of LRT, Katz has finally convinced city council to commission a new $100,000 study by city staff to investigate the technologies available. If the mayor gets his way, the BRT corridor will become a LRT corridor. But Katz isn’t without his critics, including the provincial government which wants the city to complete the BRT corridor and forget about LRT.

In a 2008 report, Dillon Consulting concluded converting busways to LRT is possible in Winnipeg as long as the original design features included station platform heights and turning radii that are necessary for LRT. A 2009 report, which was compiled by the consulting firm HDP and included input from other sources such as WinnipegREALTORS®, concluded both BRT and LRT offered clear financial benefits. While BRT was deemed a safer financial alternative, the report said LRT created more transit-oriented development.

Historically, transit reports have been innumerable. Unfortunately, the contents of reports often reflect what is wanted rather than what is actually needed. Although to be fair, there is no real evidence to suspect that the most recent transit reports were intentionally skewed in any specific direction.

In the past, short-term goals rather than the big picture seem to have been the motivating factor. When transit made the changeover from electric streetcars to electric trolleys on rubber wheels and diesel buses in 1955, transit and city authorities had essentially made up their minds that streetcars were passé. In the 1960s, other reports said the same of the trolleys, so they ceased running in 1970. 

Until 1953, Winnipeg transit was owned and operated by the privately-held Winnipeg Electric Company. The city’s only interest in the company was the five-per-cent tax it earned on all  passenger fares and whether the company fulfilled its agreement to provide sufficient routes and schedules (the city had the power to fine the company if there were transgressions). 

But by the late 1940s, transit systems across North America were undergoing a transition from private to public ownership, which companies, such as the WEC willingly accepted due to declining revenues generated. In the autumn of 1951, city council hired Norman D. Wilson, a nationally-renowned consulting engineer, for advice on public ownership of  the transit system. It was Wilson who recommended that the provincial government initiate the process to establish “an intermunicipal commission to take over and operate the transit system.”

According to the Wilson report, a publicly-run transit could pay its way, “given reasonable stabilization of traffic and of costs.” The report contained a number of “big ifs” that assumed declining ridership would  level out and maintain a sustainable level, but it did not.

Wilson outlined a program of “modernization” that would eliminate streetcars from the city’s streets. Wilson reasoned that the high cost of operating streetcars made them a liability to a publicly-owned transit system, and cutting costs by eliminating streetcars and their infrastructure would make city-run transit successful. Buying larger buses to seat more passengers would also be a cost-saving measure, according to the Wilson report.

Following the recommendations in a 1947 report, the process of removing streetcars and their infrastructure “to permit freer traffic flow (for automobiles) and speed up service”was begun, resulting in streetcars only running on Portage Avenue and Main Street.

When streetcars were removed from service, no one really shed a tear. They were extremely old, with many dating back to the early 1900s, and as such rattled and shook as they made their way down the equally old tracks. The streetcars were extremely cold in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer. As the operator of the city’s very last regularly scheduled passenger streetcar told me, the coal stoves were lit before each run, but by the time the cars hit the outside frosty air, they immediately became icy cold due to the many drafts originating from the loose window panes and slats in the wooden frame.

The path to obsolescence was assured, as the WEC, followed by the Greater Winnipeg Transit Commission (today’s Winnipeg Transit), made little effort to modernize the streetcars or upgrade the necessary infrastructure. One Free Press editorial said it was “absurd” to be sentimental about the demise of the city’s streetcars, while another said the cars “can be consigned without remorse or tears or pity to the junk heap.”

Ironically, as shown by today’s renewed interest in streetcars, the so-called “modernization” of transit in 1955 was not so modern an idea after all.