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Andy Byford, CEO of the Toronto Transit Commission, poses for a photograph while seated in the driver's seat in TTC's new low-floor, articulated streetcar.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Toronto has unveiled the first of its new fleet of streetcars, articulated behemoths that will be tested on the streets early next year and should be operational by 2014.

At a Toronto Transit Commission facility, where the new streetcar was flanked by three predecessor vehicles dating back decades, politicians hailed the purchase as the future of transit.

"These new streetcars will benefit the environment and everyone who lives, works or visits in Toronto," said federal government House Leader and Toronto-area MP Peter Van Loan.

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Transit chair and councillor Karen Stintz noted that the billion-dollar-plus project was being funded by all three levels of government. The 204 streetcars – which are being built by Bombardier in Thunder Bay – will be modified for Toronto's specific needs. And they will have other features geared toward passenger comfort.

Each car can seat 70 and carry as many as 181 standing. They are 30 metres long and about 2.5 metres wide, with rear-facing cameras taking the place of bulky side mirrors. They are low-floor, can deploy ramps for wheelchair users and have what are being called "bicycle friendly areas."

"They have air-conditioning," Ms. Stintz noted. She added later: "The long-awaited smart-card technology will appear in Toronto, shortly, and for that we are all grateful."

The use of the Presto-card technology means that passengers will be able to board and disembark from all doors simultaneously, speeding the process. The operator will be able to focus on driving and will be secluded from passengers behind a security barrier.

The streetcars will undergo testing in Thunder Bay and at the TTC's test track in Toronto. By next spring the streetcars should be visible on public streets in the city as their bugs are worked out. They are scheduled to be in service the following year.

Transit CEO Andy Byford said that similar streetcars are in use in Poland, Sweden and Finland, proving that they can handle rigorous winter weather. But the design on the ones coming to Toronto will be tweaked to reflect the city's tight corners at some intersections and its sharp hills.

Mr. Byford noted that the current streetcars – which rolled out in the mid 1980s – have been on the road so long that they it is often impossible to get parts. As a result, the TTC has a blacksmith on staff who can manufacture repair supplies when needed.

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"We're getting a glimpse of the future of transit in Toronto," said Metrolinx CEO Bruce McCuaig.

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