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The right side of the track

When it comes to streetcar work, TTC is on top

Cutting-edge pilot project saves time and money


There was a time the TTC was on the cutting edge of transit in North America.

For the most part, that time has past. But there’s one area — the decidedly unsexy world of streetcar rail/road construction — where the TTC has regained its status as a world leader.

A pilot project last year at the intersection of King and Dufferin Sts. is being expanded this year at two intersections along St. Clair Ave. The work will:

  • Lengthen the life expectancy of the road, rail and infrastructure underneath to 25 years, from about 15.

  • Cut in half the time it takes to reconstruct intersections.

  • Cut the cost of road repairs.

  • Reduce the noise and vibration of streetcars.

“We’re the defining edge in my mind,” says Jim Teeple, the TTC superintendent who oversees streetcar track reconstruction. “We don’t deserve bragging rights, until we actually get it in use.

“(But) what we’re doing with special work from the technology perspective and installation methods is cutting edge. I’m very proud of it. A lot of gray matter went into what we’re trying to do.”

In the bad old days, the TTC would lay streetcar tracks on wooden ties and pour concrete around them.

The problems were many.

The wood ties would rot. The rail connections would be bolted together but inevitably loosen over time. The loose rail would take a pounding, shaking the concrete, creating potholes.

Meanwhile, the rail, which also acts as a current for electricity flowing back to a substation, was suffering from electrolysis.

Essentially, it was rusting quickly because the electricity would take the metal with it as it sought the path of least resistance down into the ground, degrading watermains. Road repairs, watermain repairs and rail repairs were constant.

About nine years ago, the TTC pioneered a way to lengthen the life of the road and rail by using steel ties instead of wooden ties and putting a “rubber boot” around the rail in a process they called RETrack (Resiliency Embedded Track).

The material — a thermaplastic that can be mass produced — kept the electrical current contained in the rail, reducing the effects of electrolysis, and acted as a buffer between rail and concrete, reducing road repairs.

The TTC’s RETrack is now a North American standard.

But there was another problem: what to do at intersections. Each area where streetcars turn from one road to another is unique. The rubber boot couldn’t be manufactured to meet the intricacies of the intersection — the curves, the joinings, etc.

“The geometry changes by the foot,” says Teeple. “It’s not something we can order off the shelf and put it in place. It’s unique. Everything in the intersection is unique.”

Advances in polyurethane technology have finally allowed the TTC to apply the principals of RETrack to intersections. Last summer, the TTC tried it out at King and Dufferin; this summer St. Clair and Oakwood and St. Clair and Rubina are getting it. If it works, it’ll be expanded to all 80 intersections as they come up for refitting.

“The true challenge was to find a material that could be formed and poured and then, when properly cured, would give it the properties we were looking for: electrical isolation, mechanical dampening of vibration and absorption of energy from streetcars above,” says Teeple.

And because the “rubber boot” absorbs the stress of the weight of the streetcar and buffers noise, the streetcars are “quiet as a mouse,” says Teeple.

American transit authorities, increasingly moving toward streetcar- type service, are already copying the TTC’s RETrack procedure for long, straight rail.

Retired engineer Bill Moorhead, whose company supplied the TTC with engineering expertise, says European and Asian cities, as well as places like Houston, San Diego and Philadelphia, are keen to learn if and how the TTC perfects its work on intersections.

“That’s something new; nobody so far is replicating that because the jury is out until we see how well TTC succeeds with it,” says Moorhead, a member of the American Public Transit Association, an influential lobby group in the United States. “This could be considered experimental.

“I’m sure some version of that will be developed and used almost universally.”

Meanwhile, this month at College and Ossington, the TTC will use a pair of European machines called PEMS in an attempt to reconstruct that intersection in two or three days, down from the five to seven it normally takes.

Usually, the TTC assembles an intersection at its Hillcrest yard, then disassembles it into 6- or 9-metre “panels,” transports it to the intersection and puts it back together again.

The PEMS, which speed up the delicate work of positioning track, will allow the TTC to transport much longer panels, requiring less work at the site.

“If you’re the owner of a store on any one of the corners, you can appreciate what this does to you,” says Teeple.

“So the faster we can get in and get out, it benefits everybody. These panel movers are going to allow us to do that now by taking extremely large pieces of trackwork down in one fell swoop.”

That’s all good news for the city’s bottom line. The TTC is in the middle of a 15-year program to rebuild its 280,986 double track feet (84,296 metres) for streetcars. The cost of the repairs has actually come down in the past four years.

In 2000, it cost the city $942.23 per foot of double track. These advances have helped bring the cost down to $688.41.

It’s not a subway to York University or some other glorified project for politicians to cut ribbons at.

But the TTC does quietly look for better ways to handle projects. “Extending life cycle drops costs,” says Teeple. “If we can put some other innovation into them to reduce construction time, we’ll save money.”