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Keeping TTC on track as city sleeps

Unlike New York’s multiple rail system, repairs on Toronto’s underground arteries may only be made once transit service has shut down for the night

Aug 08, 2007 04:30 AM
Tess Kalinowski

The alarm of a reversing truck shatters the late night hush that hangs over a dead-end street.

Its headlights illuminate safety-clad workers descending steep steps that appear to lead nowhere.

By the time the last train has passed through the tunnel between Eglinton West and St. Clair West stations about 2:10 a.m., a silence has again settled over Glenayre Rd., backing the Cedarvale Ravine. It’s home to one of about 20 non-station entry points to the city’s subway. The doors provide access for workers but also an emergency escape for passengers. Below, one of about 20 crews is set to replace a curved section of track, a two-night job. The TTC will replace 1,830 to 2,440 metres of subway track this year, says Warren Bartram, superintendent, track and structure. Heoversees maintenance of subway and streetcar tracks and structures, including 396 switches, 68 stations and 109 bridges and culverts.

Unlike the New York subway system, which has multiple tracks and can divert trains across another line as crews work, TTC tracks can’t be repaired while the system is running. The work is done in concentrated periods in early morning hours, explains Bartram. “We take (the track) apart and put it back together in about 150 minutes.”

Tonight, he has the added pressure of ensuring the safety of visitors, including TTC chair Adam Giambrone. Before descending to the tracks, he delivers a frighteningly effective safety lecture that skims instruction given to all crews before they work below ground.

Bartram reviews precautions for moving around the 600 volts of power that flow through the main track. Even though the power will be cut while the crew is working, the track is treated as live.

He calls the TTC control centre to make sure power has been cut and advise who’s where in the tunnels.

It’s hot at track level. Orange safety vests of the workers glow eerily, and the rumble of work cars in the distance make a visitor wonder if the safety instructions will be needed before the night’s out.

No one touches the rails when crossing to the west side of the tunnel, although the power is off.

The worksite is lit like a movie set, with giant fans circulating the hot air. Maybe it’s the heat, maybe it’s the danger warnings, but within minutes, even observers can feel the sweat begin to trickle south on their backs and brows.

All eyes are focused on a man cutting into the rail with an enormous saw. A metallic burning scent hangs in the air. Once the saw is put aside, the workers kneel over the rail like surgeons peering inside a body.

The concentration is intense. Still, it’s not clear whether the job will get done this evening. It requires lifting an entire section of track into place. The fit has to be precise and this is a curve, particularly tricky. Once the track is laid, it must be welded with the old track. “We’re not committed yet, but if at some point we run out of time, we’ll bolt the old rail back in,” says Jason MacDonald, superintendent of subway/SRT track section.

While the crew works on the track replacement, he and Bartram will take Giambrone to see repairs to the tunnel liner on the Yonge line, near the Sheppard station.

Giambrone has been in the tunnels at night before, but not through the Hogg’s Hollow access just off Yonge St., near the Sheppard ramp to Highway 401. “I get the feeling I’m in Jurassic Park …,” he says, glancing at mature vegetation near the tunnel door.

It turns out this is the thinnest subway tunnel liner in the world and crews have had to stop up leaks with silicone. This expanse was so leaky “it used to be like a rainforest,” says a TTC guide. “If you lose a liner, you’ve lost the subway, not for hours, but for weeks,” says Bartram, who is told 700 liners need replacing. “To meet our (2010) target, we need (to replace) around three liners a night, and we’re averaging about two.

“If we can’t assure ourselves we’re doing this fast enough, service will have to be amended. With only one track you can’t put crews out there fast enough to do the work.”

He means the subway will have to be closed or run on reduced hours, an alarming prospect for those who recall a May 2006 wildcat strike that crippled the city for a day.

Back near Glenayre Rd., just before 5 a.m., the crew is welding track in place, using a thermite welding process. “We’ve got 20 minutes,” says Bartram, watching the crew pouring molten steel into a clay mould to form a joint.

When the weld is done, a worker picks up the glowing mould in work gloves and tosses it to one side of the track like a kid throwing a ball. They have finished the job after all.