Edmonton Streetcar
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  Posted August 4th, 2014 by Zdenko  in Edmonton | 5 comments

Edmonton heritage

By: Zdenko Kahlina

Ride into history this summer!
Do you know that Edmonton has its own street car? Last summer during the Fringe festival, because of the parking problem in Old Strathcona, my wife and I decided to ride the streetcar.

Edmonton’s streetcar – Model “Melbourne #930”

In case you didn’t know, Edmonton streetcar goes from the south of Jasper Avenue and west of 109 Street, over the High Level Bridge, all the way to 85th Avenue and 103 Street (Gateway Blvd) in Old Strathcona. When streetcars ran over Edmonton’s High Level Bridge between 1913 and the closure of the system in 1951, they gave passengers one of the most spectacular streetcar rides on the continent. However, the tracks on the bridge were taken up many years ago, and a famous piece of Edmonton’s history was lost.

Conductor at work

In 1980, the non-profit Edmonton Radial Railway Society was formed with the aim of restoring and operating former Edmonton Streetcars. In the summer of 1997, the Society began operating a vintage streetcar over the top of the High Level Bridge after electrifying the old CPR line from the north side (beside Grandin/Government Centre LRT Station) to Old Strathcona.

This “Ride into History” runs daily from the Friday of May long weekend to Labour Day, and on weekends (including holiday Mondays) from Labour Day to Thanksgiving (between May and October). Stops include 107 Street, 90 Avenue and 97 Avenue. You can board or leave at any of the stops. The vintage streetcar is run by the non-profit Edmonton Radial Railway Society. ETS tickets and passes are not valid for travel on the streetcar.

Friendly staff

Driver view from the train

So, we parked our car close to Jasper Avenue, along the 109 street (free parking on weekends) and pop on the train that was readily waiting for its passengers near by. To our surprise our train was almost full. Some people were even standing in the middle…

This streetcar line is there to keep history alive but it can be a great tourist attraction and transportation link. I think we must pay closer attention to it and make it something that everyone will talk about. My wife and I love the staff who tells all about the street car and the trip. They make it very interesting! We got on the streetcar and took the trip from one end to the other. Return adult ticket was $4.00 per person.

Crossing 97 Avenue going south

High Level Bridge 

Here is what I observed during the ride. Let’s start from best to worst. The track area on the north side of the river from the High Level Bridge to the end of the line looks really nice. The grass is cut; there is a multi-use trail next to the tracks, flowers, etc. A very attractive area.

Next the high level bridge itself, nothing much to say other than a spectacular view of river valley. Train moves very slowly so I was able to take lots of pictures…

North Saskatchewan River – facing west from the train

EPCOR station and Walterdale Bridge

North Saskatchewan River – facing east from the train

Awaiting Baton exchange

Traditional baton exchange between trains on the south side of the bridge is very interesting. Driver who gets the green baton, has free passage over the bridge, as there is only one set of tracks across the bridge. At the same time this is good tourist attraction and kids love it!

The next area unfortunately was not so great. The tunnel on the south side of the river has been left dark, which is probably a good thing as I bet there is all kind of graffiti inside the tunnel.  After you surface from the tunnel this is where I have a problem. From the tunnel to the other end of the line the grass is overgrown, there hasn’t been any attempt to maintain that area. You can tell that area was a former train ROW and it’s been left as it was.

The grass is overgrown on the south side…

I think that the city could do much better and here are some suggestions.

- A multi-use trail should be added to that area (between the tunnel and Old Strathcona) that can include some park benches, trash cans, maybe street lamps, interpretive signage, etc… as well if some flowers, trees and grass was properly planted in that area it would go a long way to improve the area. If this is going to be a tourist attraction lets make sure the tourists think it is an attraction and not detraction.
- The conductor told me that the Radial Society would like to extend the track from it’s location to Whyte Avenue itself. They wanted to bring it to the old train station. I say they could bring the street car just north of 82 Avenue so that it would tie in directly to Whyte. If you’re a visitor to Edmonton and Whyte Avenue you won’t know about the street car unless you come across a sign or if you happen to walk that way. If there were a proper boarding area on Whyte many more people would learn of the streetcar.
- At the other end of the line one of two things must happen. Either the tracks be brought closer to Jasper Avenue or there should be an improvement to the park area to make the streetcar much more noticeable from Jasper Avenue.

You can also charter a streetcar for an office party or a special event. Enjoy your own private tour by streetcar.

Author of this blog with wife by the Osaka #247 streetcar

Returning back to Jasper Avenue on board of Osaka #247

Streetcar Osaka #247

Take a ride into Edmonton’s past. The history of streetcars in Edmonton dates back to the very first streetcar ride in November 1908. The Edmonton Radial Railway (as it was known) became famous throughout North America because of the unique streetcar ride over the North Saskatchewan River, the highest river crossing by streetcar in the world.

History of High Level Bridge Streetcar

Strathcona and the High Level Bridge have a long association with streetcars. In the early hours of the morning of September 2, 1951 Edmonton streetcar #52 made its final trip along 109th Street from 83rd Avenue across the top deck of the High Level Bridge bringing to an end an era that had started with the first streetcar ride on November 8, 1908. The Edmonton Radial Railway (as the system was known) had become famous throughout the continent because of this unique streetcar ride over the North Saskatchewan River, one of the highest river crossings by streetcar in the world. The top deck of the bridge had three sets of tracks, the centre one for the Canadian Pacific Railways (C.P.R.) steam trains, while the outer ones served the E.R.R. streetcars. The passengers’ view was both spectacular and exhilarating.

The bridge (755 m long and 49 m high) opened in 1913. As a concession to passenger nerves, crossovers were introduced a few years later at both approaches to the bridge so that the cars actually adopted left hand running while on the top deck. In the event of a car becoming disabled, this meant that passengers could alight on to the centre of the bridge rather than stepping out into space! In actual fact there were few problems and the High Level Bridge tram service ran accident-free until abandonment in 1951.

That could well have been the end of the matter as far as streetcars on the High Level Bridge were concerned. However, in early 1979 a group of volunteers began to restore Edmonton streetcar #1 (the only one to have survived in the city) to full operating condition. As a contribution to the City’s 75th anniversary celebrations, the old streetcar saw service across the High Level Bridge during the Thanksgiving Weekend 1979 albeit on the surviving railway track and towing a generator car.

Thus, after an absence of 28 years, a streetcar made a brief but triumphant return to the High Level Bridge. Five cent fares were charged and that weekend scores of passengers young and old took in the magnificence of the fall colours in the river valley. Based on this success, the same volunteers formed in 1980 the Edmonton Radial Railway Society (ERRS). Starting with nothing, they built the streetcar line at Fort Edmonton Park, restored a number of additional streetcars and acquired several other Edmonton streetcar bodies for eventual restoration. However, for many ERRS members the ultimate dream was to have once again a streetcar service across the High Level Bridge as a heritage line. The path was cleared when the Canadian Pacific Railway formally abandoned its track west of 103 Street and across the bridge. A first small step was made during the Fringe Festival 1995, when a double ended Japanese streetcar (which had originally been purchased for spare parts) shuttled visitors from 104 Street to Fringe Productions taking place in the former railway tunnel and the Granite Curling Club. Same as in 1979, a generator mounted on a small truck towed by the streetcar had to provide the required electric power (600 volts DC). The generator was noisy and smelly, but the streetcar performed well and thousands of delighted passengers enjoyed a leisurely ride on a seventy year old streetcar as part of their Fringe activities.

An agreement was eventually reached with the City to inaugurate a seasonal service across the bridge and as far as Grandin. The quote received from a contractor to span overhead wire and electrify the line was far beyond the means of the society. Undaunted, in a giant leap of faith it was decided that the electrification could be tackled by the members themselves. And indeed, the dedicated crew came through with flying colours! Poles were set, cantilevers built and overhead wires installed. Through a piece of luck, the original poles across the bridge had never been removed and could be brought back into service after a span of close to 50 years. In the fall of 1996 ex Osaka car #247 operated for the first time under its own power. Service over the entire line from Strathcona to Grandin commenced in August 1997.

For eight full years Osaka #247 was the only available car for operation across the High Level Bridge. At first being stored outside and hidden under tarps during the winter months, the car served the society extremely well and carried between 30,000 and 50,000 passengers per year. Finally, a streetcar barn with three tracks could be established at the north side of the farmers market in Old Strathcona and provide shelter for our faithful Japanese tram.

Further highlights included the construction of the “Ribbon of Steel”, a multi-use corridor north of Grandin, enabling an extension of the streetcar service to a new terminus in between 100 Avenue and Jasper Avenue. The line now measures 3 km in length. The addition of a second car (prototype LRT car #601 from Hannover, Germany) and the construction of a passing loop at the south end of the bridge enabled as from 2005 the occasional operation of 2 cars when required. Finally, the year 2006 saw the inauguration of ex Melbourne (Australia) tram #930, completing the fleet to three operational streetcars.

On the occasion of the Centennial of Edmonton’s Public Transportation a small but fine streetcar museum was established in the Streetcar Barn at Strathcona. The displays include many pictures, the history of Edmonton’s long gone streetcars, uniforms, tickets, streetcar parts and models.

Sometime in the not too distant future, Edmonton streetcar #33 (restored to its original 1912 condition) should see service on the High Level Bridge and make the heritage line even more authentic. Last but not least the society hopes to extend the tracks one day across 103 Street (Gateway Blvd) and serve a new terminus north of Whyte Avenue in the heart of Old Strathcona.

Hans Ryffel, president of the Edmonton Radial Railway Society, at the streetcar workshop at Fort Edmonton Park on July 10, 2010, with the newly completed streetcar No. 33, which operated on Edmonton streets, but was used as an outbuilding on a Willingdon farm between 1951 and 1980.

Read more: http://www.edmonton-radial-railway.ab.ca/highlevelbridge/

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