In light of the ongoing LRT/RER renaissance now underway across North America and beyond, SkryiseCities is proud to present, Once Upon a Tram, a new multi-part series which will profile the light rail legacies of cities around the world, with an eye towards making connections to associated modern-day transit projects either planned, in construction, or undergoing expansion. The first edition of this series will profile London, Ontario, Canada, site of a recently featured SkyriseCities story covering that city's current transit debate.
Outside of Toronto, the once familiar sight of trolleys, trams, and streetcars has been missing from city streets in Ontario for the better part of 60 years. Once found in abundance from Windsor to Cornwall, a long list of cities including Belleville, Brantford, Chatham, Cornwall, Guelph, Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo, London, Niagara Falls, Oshawa, Ottawa, Peterborough, St, Catherines, St. Thomas, Sarnia, Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Welland, and Windsor all experienced the heyday of electric streetcar service during a period which spanned from the 1880s to the 1950s. Joined by a supporting network of interurban radial rail, Ontario's long-lost love affair with streetcars and radial rail has only recently been rekindled as various cities within the province are once again exploring options for LRT, RER, and other light rail solutions for the future.
London has been in the midst of a heated rapid transit debate dating back to 2015, in which City Council must decide between a BRT-only proposal and a BRT/LRT Hybrid option, which would serve the city core. It was thus not without a sense of irony that local London historian Joe O'Neil brought to the attention of London City Hall, and The London Free Press, back in December 2015, an archival map of London's original streetcar network, circa 1914, which was by far more extensive and revolutionary than any of the proposed plans up for debate today.
Like many others of its vintage, London's original streetcar network, begun by the London Street Railway Company in 1873, was first introduced as a horse-drawn system, and switched to electric trolley service in 1895. By comparing the London Street Railway Company's system map of 1914 with the archival City of London map of 1915, one can easily appreciate the considerable reach of the system, a point which cannot be missed by those familiar with the current state of London's public transit, nor the rapid transit debate currently wending its way through City Hall.
Seen via a comparison of the two maps, the original London streetcar network criss-crossed the city centre, with lines zig-zagging north and south through the core via the Old South neighbourhood of Wortley Village, before crossing the Thames River into downtown, and continuing north along Richmond Row into the stately residential neighbourhoods of London's venerable Old North. Moving east and west, riders had their choice of routes, the longest being the Dundas Street route which extended to the city's eastern boundary through Old East London, past the Western Fairgrounds, and terminating at the London Asylum for the Insane, a cheery final destination to be sure. To the west, summertime day-trippers could take the trolley along the scenic Thames River, crossing the city boundary and terminating at the ever-popular Springbank Park, today a crown jewel in London's celebrated Thames Valley Parkway.
Ending service in late November, 1940, London's last streetcars were prematurely knocked out of commission due to the devastation wrought by a particularly harsh winter storm which brought all streetcars to a standstill as the city dug itself out and city crews worked to restore hydro and other essential services. Replaced by buses from that point forward, mirroring similar transitions in all other Ontario municipalities then running electric streetcars, London's 60-plus year history with the technology showcased the possibilities, and in some cases, vulnerabilities, of a dedicated streetcar network.
Contemporary to the operation of the London Street Rail Company's urban streetcar network, a series of interurban radial rail services connecting London to nearby Port Stanley, a popular beach town and summer destination located on the shores of Lake Erie to the south, operated between 1906 and 1957. Beginning with the South Western Traction Company (1906-1909), the service connected London to Port Stanley via St. Thomas, eventually closing due to financial difficulties. This service was immediately replaced by the London and Lake Erie Railway and Transportation Company (1909-1918), which like its predecessor enjoyed only a short lifespan before itself meeting with financial ruin and foreclosure. Last but not least, the well-remembered London and Port Stanley Interurban company picked up where its forebears had left off, providing passengers with high-quality luxury travel between the two cities up until the late 1950s, a time when the automobile had become a fixture of North American life.
Today, while London City Council decides the fate of London’s Rapid Transit Initiative, careful observers, city councillors, and city planners would be wise not to forget the legacy left behind by the history of the London Street Rail Company, whose impressive network constructed more than a century ago remains a high watermark in London’s public transit history.
SkyriseCities will return soon with a new edition of Once Upon a Tram, which will take an in-depth look at the transit legacy of a city near you.
Feel free to join the conversation in the comments section below. Got an idea for our new series? Let us know!