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High Level Streetcar back on track

Edmonton's streetcar history is on display for the public to enjoy, thanks to the seasonal re-opening of streetcar rides in Old Strathcona and at Fort Edmonton Park.

On the wall of the Edmonton Radial Railway Society’s Museum there’s an old black and white photograph taken the day streetcars stopped running on city streets. 

Hundreds of people showed up then, some hoping to get on the new trolley bus. Others crammed on to the old wooden streetcar. The day was September 1, 1951, a date often described as the day of “streetcar abandonment.” The phasing out of streetcars was happening all over North America, as cities sprawled and it became more efficient to use bus and trolley. 

Here, streetcar tracks were eventually pulled up along Jasper Ave, 97th St., Whyte Ave. and 118th Ave. Most streetcars were sold off, became grain storage bins, roadside diners or were left to rot in farmers' fields.

A mere 11 years later in 1962, however, planning began on a new public transit system using electric cars on tracks. The first phase of the LRT, as we know it today, was finished in 1978.

“I see the irony every day,” said Ward Baskett, a board member and motorman with the Edmonton Radial Railway Society (ERRS).

“We tend to abandon one type of technology when a shiny new one comes along. We went from streetcars, to trolley buses, then diesel buses and then back to the LRT."

Streetcars of the first half of the 20th century have similar features to today’s Edmonton LRT. The old streetcars use the same gauge rail lines as today and both are electric, running on the same 600-volt power system.  And the latest rolling stock for the new Valley Line is part of a family of low-floor light rail vehicles built by Bombardier that includes trams or streetcars. 

Streetcar work for years to come

Baskett, 63, understands the inclination to adopt new technologies, spending much of his work life in broadcasting and managing a corporate audio-visual company. When he first asked ERRS about volunteering, and whether there was any work to do, he was told there was "300 years' worth of work." In fact, the society's website says it all: "Work for ERRS volunteers is guaranteed for decades to come!"

“I went from having to deal with complicated IT stuff to having to decide whether to use a five-pound or ten-pound sledgehammer,” said Baskett. “I went from high tech to no tech.”

The streetcar featured in that black and white 1951 photograph on the museum wall is of Edmonton #1, or Old Faithful as it was nicknamed. Built in 1908, it was the second streetcar to arrive in Edmonton and on the day of abandonment, it carried a group of dignitaries across the High Level Bridge for the last time. After that it was stored outside where is suffered from weather and vandalism. 

ERRS has accomplished a lot since it first operated the restored Edmonton #1 in 1980. It has grown to operate two rail lines, one in Fort Edmonton Park and the other in Old Strathcona and across the High Level Bridge. With the largest fleet of heritage streetcars in Western Canada, ERRS currently has eight operational streetcars and 17 others in various states of storage and restoration.

Post-pandemic re-openings

For society president Chris Ashdown, much time and energy of late has been spent preparing for re-opening both streetcar lines as COVID-19 restrictions ease. Sitting inside the immaculately-restored Edmonton 33 streetcar, Ashdown recalled the steps needed to get rolling again after the pandemic.

Some 15 months after volunteers put away their tools and closed up the maintenance and storage barns in Old Strathcona and Fort Edmonton in March 2020, streetcars and tracks have once again been dusted off, inspected and tuned up. Volunteers are re-certified. And a completely new streetcar track has been built at the revamped Fort Edmonton Park and about 250 metres-worth between the Old Strathcona Farmers' Market and Whyte Avenue.

“People are often surprised to learn Edmonton had a streetcar system starting in 1908 until 1951,” said Ashdown, adding that one of his biggest challenges is reminding people of the city's streetcar history while navigating the system into the future. He says even though today's streetcars cross the highly visible High Level Bridge every 20 minutes between May and October, many people are still unaware of the service.

There's also the lack of public awareness of how to move around the streetcar. Basket says that when operating the streetcar through Old Strathcona, he's come upon people walking on the tracks more than a few times, unaware a streetcar is coming up behind them. Motorists seem surprised and even reckless when the streetcar crosses in front of them too, he says.

“I don’t think the public understands how complicated the system is,” Ashdown said. “We have to maintain track, a museum and archives, the electrical power systems, restore and maintain antique streetcars, train volunteers and much more. It’s a huge undertaking.”

Huge undertaking or not, Ashdown says he, Baskett and all ERRS volunteers remain dedicated to guiding the society and its fleet of heritage streetcars into the future.