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Light-rail cars for TTC might be the better way

By JEFF GRAY

Monday, March 28, 2005 Page A9

Over the winter months, a delegation of TTC staffers visited two U.S. cities, Minneapolis and Houston, to check out their new, futuristic-looking light-rail vehicles as possible replacements for Toronto’s aging streetcar fleet.

Toronto Transit Commission vice-chairman Joe Mihevc, a light-rail enthusiast, told Dr. Gridlock that a proposal to start buying a new generation of Red Rockets is being drafted for consideration at next week’s commission meeting.

The TTC’s current plan is to refurbish all 196 of its current, regular-sized streetcars, at slightly more than $1-million a pop, to extend their lives to 2020.

But Mr. Mihevc said the old ones are “tanks,” overweight relics that pound the TTC’s decaying tracks too heavily.

He is pushing to scrap the refurbishment plan and instead start buying state-of-the-art light-rail cars, which hold 50-per-cent more passengers — and cost as much as $4-million each.

“If we really want to bring Toronto into the 21st century, to become a transit city, I can’t see us keeping the old ones,” he said. “I just can’t see it.”

While he has not yet seen the staff report, he said TTC staff took a close look at Minneapolis’s new Hiawatha light-rail line, which opened last year and uses Bombardier-made Flexity vehicles similar to those used in Cologne and Stockholm.

TTC staff also visited Houston to look at that city’s new light-rail line, which uses vehicles built by German-based Siemens and also opened in 2004.

Both models of vehicles are dramatically different from the clunky, 1970s-vintage streetcars run by the TTC, and both are faster, quiet, sleeker, substantially bigger and “low-floor accessible.”

You don’t need to climb a narrow set of stairs to board them, which would cut loading times dramatically and allow access for the disabled.

Mr. Mihevc said similar new light-rail vehicles for Toronto could be bought largely “off the shelf.”

They would need modifications, including wider axles set for the TTC’s rail gauge, which is unique in the world and dates back to when horse-drawn carts shared the streetcar tracks.

To replace the current fleet of streetcars, the TTC would need to buy only about 130 of the new, bigger cars, and would for a time run both models, changing the system over gradually, as it did when the current generation replaced the older cars in the 1970s and 1980s.

The price would be spread over five to 10 years, but at $4-million a car, that would cost the cash-strapped TTC $520-million.

Mr. Mihevc said the provincial and federal governments would have to pay for it.

Queen’s Park and Ottawa have started sending cheques that in the next few years should start covering the TTC’s basic maintenance needs. But money for these new streetcars would have to come on top of that funding.

Still, doing nothing means spending $200-million just to keep the current fleet running, Mr. Mihevc pointed out.

He would like to see the first of the new cars arrive within five years, also the timeline for the TTC’s “smart-card” system, which will allow passengers to pay their fares by simply waving cards at a “reader” near the doors.

If Mr. Mihevc’s dreams come true, the TTC could look very different, very soon.

Dr. Gridlock appears every Monday. Send your traffic or transit questions, tips and rants to jgray@globeandmail.ca




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