They had come to get a glimpse of the famous machine and, at 10 minutes behind schedule, some of the spectators were getting anxious.
“Maybe it broke down,” said Enrique Cerini, who wore a T-shirt bearing an image of the star attraction.
He craned his neck to get a better view. “It’s amazing how long they kept them running.”
Finally, a groaning sound and a flash of red.
“There it is!” cried his wife, Jennifer. “Alright. The lumbering giant.”
Monday was the last ride for the city’s articulated light rail vehicles, or ALRVs – better known locally as bendy streetcars. Introduced in 1988, they were about eight metres longer than their more common rigid kin, with a kind of accordion material in the middle to help with turns.
In the past two years, the city’s ALRVs have been retiring, as the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) brings a new generation of longer, sleeker streetcars into use. But on Labour Day, two of the old guard were pressed into service for a wistful final journey along Queen Street.
Around 2 p.m., dozens of transit enthusiasts swarmed the carhouse at Greenwood Avenue, where the free westbound voyage was set to begin.
“It’s Toronto – we’re sentimental about our streetcars,” said Ms. Cerini, who works in the TTC’s safety department.
Nostalgia is a funny thing, Mr. Cerini observed. “We’ve complained about them for 30 years and now we’re sad to see them go.”
For many of these straphangers, the quirks and imperfections of the machines seemed to be what stirred their sense of loss.
The swivelling disc on the floor that allowed bendy streetcars to bend might have caused some riders to lose their balance, but Mr. Cerini liked them.
“I remember being in high school and surfing on the articulation,” he said.
“If you’re logical about it, the new ones are air-conditioned, they’re more comfortable,” he added. “But they look like streetcars anywhere in the world.”
As their long-awaited ride pulled up, Ms. Cerini noticed that dozens of passengers were on board.
“It’s already full,” she said.
Well, replied Mr. Cerini, “It’ll be authentic.”
As the old beast crawled through Leslieville, it was standing-room only, although seemingly no one had any place to go. Many riders took photos with their phones to commemorate the occasion. The driver, a fellow enthusiast named Stephen Welch, maintained a festive atmosphere over the intercom.
“Welcome to TTC,” he said. “Transit that’s crammed.”
Then, on a more serious note: “It’s good to have them out here again. And I hope you enjoy your ride.” The passengers burst into applause.
Colin Barrett was riding with his wife, Patti Côté, and their dog, a boxer mix named Desmond. He acknowledges indulging in “transit geekery” but as someone who grew up riding Toronto streetcars, his nostalgic triggers are small and personal: the streaks of water that would trickle down leaky windows; “the sound, when they get up to speed,” like a thunderstorm in the distance.
At least one of the ALRVs was “going to be sent up to Halton,” he said.
“Sent up to Halton” might as well be a euphemism for streetcar death. It refers to the Halton County Radial Railway Museum, northwest of Toronto, which is hoping to acquire a defunct bendy streetcar and put it on display.
Jovanie Miller will surely visit. He has been a transit enthusiast from the age of 7, when his grandmother would take him around the city by TTC.
“This kind was always my favourite, the articulated one,” he said. “I used to tell my grandma, ‘I want to go on a big one.’ I used to stick my head out, even though you shouldn’t. The new ones, you can’t open the windows.”
After turning around near Bathurst Street, with a painful-sounding screech, the ALRV paused. A shorter streetcar came up behind. It would serve as an escort, in case the longer vehicle broke down, and push its brother back to the carhouse if necessary.
The bendy streetcars have become unreliable in their old age, particularly in winter, despite a $26-million maintenance push intended to extend their lives. Some of the riders on Monday seemed to recognize that time was up for the aged warhorses, albeit reluctantly.
“Are you happy the ALRVs are retiring?” the conductor asked, on the return leg of the trip.
“Nooooo,” cried the riders.
But one man dissented: “They’ve served their time.”