A streetcar named Determination: Along for the ride with the Edmonton Radial Railway Society

The last few seasons have been a rough ride for the High Level Bridge Streetcar Line.

“We haven’t had a lot of people out this year,” said Chris Ashdown, president of the Edmonton Radial Railway Society.

And in 2020, he added, the historic tourist attraction didn’t run at all.

Ashdown estimates revenues are down 80 per cent from pre-pandemic levels, which saw ridership topping 92,000 passengers in 2019, he said.

The volunteer society was established in 1980 to restore streetcars for use both at Fort Edmonton Park and along the High Level Bridge line, which runs from Old Strathcona to the Jasper Plaza terminal at 109th Street between Jasper and 100th avenues.

“We also weren’t able to train any new motormen over the last three years because of construction at Fort Edmonton,” Ashdown said, adding that a recently graduated class of new drivers should help when the streetcars start rolling again next May. 

‘Views you’d never see anywhere else’

2 days ago

Hop aboard the High Level Bridge Streetcar operated by volunteers with the Edmonton Radial Railway Society in Edmonton, Alta. 1:59

You can see more from aboard the High Level Bridge streetcar this week on Our Edmonton, Saturday at 10 a.m., Sunday at noon and 11 a.m. Monday on CBC TV and the CBC GEM. 

Another bright spot of the new season is the opening of a platform on Whyte Avenue.

“A lot of our passengers have said it’s difficult to find us. We’re sort of hidden behind the Arts Barns,” said Ashdown.

But after “fighting for more than 20 years,” the society got the line extended from Gateway Boulevard at 84th Avenue to Whyte Avenue a couple of blocks away.

A view of the new platform, located just north of Whyte Avenue at Gateway Boulevard, for the High Level Bridge Streetcar Line. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC News)

The move will improve visibility for the attraction, according to Hugh McKay.

The volunteer streetcar motorman has spent the last 11 years behind the controls, a task that he says “keeps you on your toes.” 

“As a rail vehicle, we have the right of way but we’re the only ones that know that — so cars and scooters and pedestrians and bicycles are forever flying by,” says McKay. 

Edmonton Radial Railway Society volunteer Hugh McKay steps out of the streetcar to inspect the High Level Bridge line in Old Strathcona. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC News)

But the view from the driver’s seat atop the High Level Bridge — combined with the comradery of the volunteers — is enough to keep him coming back.

“I enjoy the meeting of people and the sharing of stories and things like that. It makes me feel good to be sharing some of Edmonton’s history.”

McKay and the rest of the 125 volunteers are hoping to make the last few weeks of this season count. The High Level Bridge Streetcar Line continues to run Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, with the season winding up Oct. 11 on Thanksgiving Monday. 

“It’s a really nice time of year to come out for a ride because we see the colours changing in the river valley,” said Ashdown. 

The fare for an adult round trip, which takes about 40 minutes, is $7.

The streetcar falls under Alberta’s public health requirements for public transit, meaning masks are required onboard.

Chris Ashdown, president of the Edmonton Radial Railway Society, inspects the inside of the streetcar before it makes a run along the High Level Bridge Streetcar Line. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC News)

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