High Level Bridge Streetcar plans to get back on the rails this summer

· The Pulse
By Jackson Spring

After a year-long hiatus, passengers will be able to ride the historic High Level Bridge Streetcar across the river valley this summer — as long as enough Albertans are vaccinated.

Chris Ashdown, president of the Edmonton Radial Railway Society, which operates the streetcar, said the organization is preparing to have it up and running in conjunction with Stage 3 of the province's re-opening plan.

"We want to be in a position to be able to start as soon as we can once the stage starts," Ashdown said.

Stage 3, which includes lifting the capacity limit on entertainment facilities, is scheduled for two weeks after 70% of Albertans receive their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

In previous years, the streetcar's season began during the May long weekend. In 2020, the season was delayed until July, when the society announced it would not be operating for the year due to high numbers of COVID-19 cases. The start of this year's season was delayed once again, due to safety concerns related to COVID-19 and provincial health restrictions.

Ashdown said that current restrictions would allow the streetcar to operate at one-third capacity, but that being able to take so few passengers is not feasible for the all-volunteer society.

"We would be leaving a lot of people behind on the platform every time we do a trip," he said. "You still have the need for sanitizing and screening. It's just not economical for us."

The society has been busy conducting all of its preparations for the season, including technical tests of cars and tracks, and re-qualifying drivers in accordance with provincial laws. Ashdown said the process typically takes about a month, and the society is almost done with those requirements.

The High Level Bridge Streetcar takes passengers between Old Strathcona and downtown. (Jackson Spring)

The High Level Bridge Streetcar takes passengers between Old Strathcona and downtown. (Jackson Spring)

In addition to the regular preparations, the society is also finishing an 800-metre track extension on the southern end of the line, from the current terminal outside the ATB Financial Arts Barn, to just north of Whyte Avenue along Gateway Boulevard.

Ashdown said the added tracks themselves are finished, but the signaling system needs to be installed. He expects work to start on the signals June 14, and hopes it will be finished in time for the streetcar to open.

"If we can't run down to Whyte Avenue by the time Stage 3 begins, we'll just continue running from our old stop to downtown and back," he added.

The Edmonton Radial Railway Society is excited to get the streetcar running again, not only to be able to be able to provide the service, but because the society lost out on crucial revenue last year, Ashdown said. The society relies on fares from the streetcar to maintain the rail infrastructure, and support its other operation restoring vintage streetcars to add to its fleet.

Ashdown said the track extension cost just over $1 million, though the municipal and provincial governments provided some of that funding.

"We are anxious to get back to operating, and hopefully we will be able to replenish some of the lost income we didn't get from last year," he said.

"It's quite expensive to maintain a rail line."