Monorail! Monorail! Monorail!

Originally published on Torontoist on September 1, 2011.

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A photo montage showing what a monorail might have looked like at Bay and Bloor. The Telegram, April 29, 1958.

You’ve heard all the jokes and Simpsons references related to Doug Ford’s vision of a Toronto monorail, his grandiose derailment of Waterfront Toronto’s development plans. But Ford is not the first Etobicoke-based politician to be mesmerized by the possibilities of single-rail travel. From the 1950s onwards, civic officials from the former township have participated in schemes ranging from a monorail system within Etobicoke General Hospital to an above-ground link between Union Station and the airport. One flirtation with single-rail technology that Etobicoke civic officials helped promote with their suburban peers, though, had it ever become reality, would have resulted in a monorail being installed along Bloor Street, instead of a subway line.

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Vernon Singer, Reeve of North York 1957–1958. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 217, Series 249, File 251, Item 1.

For an idea that ultimately stunk to City of Toronto officials, it’s appropriate that the inspiration came at a sewer convention. North York Reeve Vernon Singer was attending a sewage conference in Dallas in early 1958 when he wandered off to the local fairgrounds. He was mesmerized by the short monorail line that had attracted visitors to the site for the past two years. Back at the convention, Singer told fellow Metro Toronto councillors Chris Tonks (the reeve of York Township) and Charles R. Bush (an Etobicoke representative) about his discovery. The politicians met a publicist for the system’s manufacturer, Monorail Inc., who dazzled them as Lyle Lanley wowed the citizens of Springfield. Especially impressive was the construction cost: $1 million per mile. Given the trio’s reservations about the estimated $200 million cost for an east-west subway along Bloor Street, a monorail that could be built for peanuts was highly appealing.

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Globe and Mail, April 29, 1958.

Once they returned to Canada, Singer and Tonks demanded that Metro Toronto council conduct a full investigation into the benefits of monorail before giving final approval for a Bloor subway. While Tonks believed it would be “deplorable” if his demand wasn’t met, TTC Chairman Allan Lamport wasn’t so sure. “Lampy” told the Star that he thought “a couple of high-priced salesmen have been advising some amateurs.” He believed any monorail on Bloor would be “an ugly roller coaster,” that it didn’t make sense for Toronto to build an elevated rail line when cities like Chicago and New York were tearing portions of theirs down, and that estimates that 60,000 passengers would be transported each hour were only possible if multiple lines were built. Metro Toronto Chairman Frederick Gardiner shared Lamport’s reservations, as transit consultants advised him to stay away from monorails—cars swayed in the wind, switching cars off line was time consuming, and promises of high speeds had never been realised. It also became clear that the $1 million per mile estimate only applied to building the tracks, not to costs like securing rights-of-way, demolitions, and building supporting structures like pillars.

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Editorial, the Telegram, May 1, 1958.

Singer and Tonks pushed ahead. They arranged to meet with Monorail Inc. president Murel Goodell at Singer’s downtown law office on May 3, 1958. This move outraged Gardiner and other councillors who felt the reeves lacked the authority to hold a meeting that seemed designed to stall the subway. As Singer and Tonks had “got us into a mess,” Gardiner insisted that the meeting be opened to other local bureaucrats. Tonks consulted his “respect for taxpayers” playbook and told the press that if Lamport didn’t show up, “it will be a slight on the endeavours of those trying to save the taxpayers from a huge expenditure.”

Around noon on May 2, Singer talked to Goodell on the phone and warned the Texas businessman to be ready for a fight. Goodell claimed he was a fighter. Four hours later, a telegram arrived from Goodell indicating that he wasn’t coming to Toronto. “We agreed to meet you in a small, informal session,” the wire read. “We are not ready for any official meeting without first a thorough investigation plus conferences with our experts and your local authorities on what Monorail can do in Toronto.”

So much for being a fighter.

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The Telegram, May 3, 1958.

Gardiner was furious. He called the cancelled meeting “the biggest municipal flop in years.” All of the daily newspapers had editorialized against monorails, with the severest attacks appearing in the Star. The paper believed Goodell chickened out when he was “unprepared to face a stiff quizzing by men who know their business” and regretted not seeing Gardiner and TTC officials tear into him.

The fiasco didn’t deter Singer, Tonks, and Etobicoke reeve H.O. Waffle from introducing a motion at the next Metro council meeting to “make immediate arrangements” for a study. As the Telegram put it, they seemed to have “one-track minds” which “refused to be thrown off the track.” To the reeves’ amazement, Metro council voted 9 to 8 on May 6, 1958 in favour of further study. Over the next month, pro- and anti-monorail supporters gathered their evidence for a June 17 meeting.

But the pro-monorail forces underestimated Frederick Gardiner. Unbeknownst to the rest of Metro council, Gardiner commissioned A.V. Roe’s Avro Aircraft division to study the use of monorails within Metro Toronto. Like the TTC, Avro felt monorails had no place in heavily built-up areas. Where they might work was in the suburbs, especially along CN’s rail line from Union Station to Malton Airport. Besides offering speedy service to passengers heading between the landmarks, such a line could also have provided commuter service between downtown, Weston, and Rexdale, and hooked into the subway system at Union and the proposed Dundas West stations. That such a line would also service Avro’s aircraft and engine plants in Malton could have only been coincidental. The report estimated construction would cost $76 million.

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Weston Times and Guide, May 8, 1958.

Several councillors were outraged, as Gardiner refused to let them see Avro’s report in the name of confidentiality. Despite censure for his actions, Gardiner emerged victorious when a motion for further study into monorail as public transit, which would have delayed a final subway approval vote by 60 days, was defeated 15 to 8. The Avro report was eventually released to council and the Bloor subway line got its go-ahead. While consideration was given to a Union-Malton monorail for a couple of months, the plan was rejected by the Metropolitan Toronto Planning Board that September. A direct rail link from downtown to the airport would remain at the dream stage for years to come. Monorails were envisioned for sites like Exhibition Place and the Toronto Islands, but the line that operated at the Toronto Zoo from 1976 to 1994 was the only one that made it off the drawing board.

Will Doug Ford’s dream of a waterfront monorail come true? The city’s history says don’t bet on it.

Additional material from the Avro Aircraft Limited Report on Monorail (Toronto: A.V. Roe, 1958) and the following newspapers: the April 29, 1958, April 30, 1958, May 3, 1958, May 6, 1958, and June 18, 1958 editions of the Globe and Mail; the April 29, 1958, April 30, 1958, May 1, 1958, and May 3, 1958 editions of the Toronto Star; and the May 3, 1958 edition of the Telegram.

UPDATE

Like other hare-brained ideas which emerged from either Ford brother, no waterfront monorail is on the horizon as of early 2018. Re-reading this piece, it’s interesting the note how Avro’s vision of a monorail service between Union Station and Malton sounds a little like the UP Express train (though they’re still working on a proper connection with Dundas West subway station).