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Streetcars of future seen at CNE

Bigger, sleeker; TTC hopes next generation of cars on road in 2010

Natalie Alcoba, National Post

A glimpse into the possible future of streetcar transit in this city can be seen at the Canadian National Exhibition as the Toronto Transit Commission continues its drive to replace its fleet of ageing vehicles.

The $1.4-billion contract to replace all of the TTC’s 248 cars with 204 longer, greater capacity vehicles is said to be North America’s largest light rail deal, and will set the stage for Toronto Transit City, an ambitious proposal to add 120 kilometres of streetcar routes by 2021.

The “TTC Streetcars of Tomorrow” exhibit at the CNE is one way to familiarize Torontonians with the next generation of streetcars, which are slated to be on the road by 2010.

There is barely a need to “watch your step” on Siemens Canada Ltd.’s Combino Plus model, a sleek three-section train that boasts a “100% low floor” and a roomy interior. The company introduced the vehicle to the public last week with wraparound ads in commuter papers.

“Technology has come a long way. They’ve done their job. They’ve been around for 30 or 40 years but there are some advantages to new technology, and that’s something people should be able to get a sense of,” said David Slack, director of communications and public relations at Montreal-based Bombardier Transportation, which is showcasing an LRV model at the CNE. The car on display, which is operating in Minneapolis, is a little bigger than the version the company may propose for Toronto.

Seven companies initially expressed interest in the lucrative TTC undertaking this year, but three eventually backed out, said Stephen Lam, the commission’s superintendant of streetcar engineering who is steering the mammoth project. Those were Kinki-Sharyo, a Japanese company that provides light rail vehicles to San Jose; Mytram, a small Toronto firm with strong ties to a Ukrainian company; and AnsaldoBreda, the Italian company behind the beleaguered Boston models that had all sorts of derailment problems.

That leaves four strong contenders — Siemens, Bombardier, Czech-based Skoda and Vossloh-Kiepe, a German company — which are poring over a 600-page draft speculation document just released by the TTC that details the engineering peculiarities of the Toronto system and outlines what the city needs from its LRVs.

“We’ve got a very unique environment compared with typical light rail operations, even for streetcar operations, because our system is very mature and very old and it goes around in very tight areas and neighbourhoods,” Mr. Lam explained yesterday.

Spots such as the McCaul Street loop downtown and Neville Park loop on Queen Street East are typically in the 40-to 45-foot radius curve range, he said, significantly more narrow than the 80-foot radius curve that LRVs are used to wrapping around.

Also, the city has relatively steep grades, which may be a challenge for typical LRVs.

“It is possible to do, just at a cost, I suppose,” Mr. Lam said of the required modifications. “But our project is large enough now that they are showing interest. If you had a 20-or 30-vehicle order, people would say the front-end cost is not enough to warrant it.”

He said the commission plans to release its “request for proposals” this fall and close the competition by February. The contract could be awarded by the spring.