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Toronto's $1.25-billion light-rail gamble

City Hall faces financial, political and technical hurdles before it can get state-of-the-art streetcars out of the station, says Jeff Gray

JEFF GRAY

November 24, 2007

Toronto’s decaying streetcar fleet, once made up of iconic “Red Rockets,” is rarely now described as a beloved historic symbol of the city. Drivers see streetcars as cumbersome obstacles. Riders despair at how crowded and infrequent they are. And residents near the tracks complain about rumbling vibrations and squealing wheels.

Just like the rusting family beater, the city’s streetcars are more than ready for a trade-in. The result - a brand new, state-of-the-art $1.25-billion fleet of what the rest of the world calls “light-rail vehicles” - will not only rekindle our love of the mostly downtown-centred streetcar system, proponents say, but provide the foundation for a radical expansion of rapid transit in the city.

As Mayor David Miller’s planned $6-billion, 120-kilometre light-rail expansion spreads across dedicated lanes in the suburbs, these sleeker, larger streetcars are supposed to coax thousands of commuters out of their cars and once again become a postcard-worthy symbol of the city. But huge financial, political and technical hurdles remain before 21st-century light-rail cars can roll onto Toronto’s 19th-century tracks.

“This is rebranding the streetcar and making it more like what people have experienced in Europe,” says Joe Mihevc, vice-chairman of the Toronto Transit Commission. The councillor for St. Paul’s is the driving force behind the TTC’s streetcar desires.

“… It will set us exponentially on the next level in terms of global cities and environmental sustainability.”

The TTC plans to buy 204 new streetcars at first, but possibly many more later for its suburban expansion lines. The new vehicles, expected to cost as much as $5-million each, will be “low-floor,” free of steps at the doors so the disabled can board, as required by Ontario law. This will also benefit an aging population and parents with strollers.

At about 30 metres in length, the sleek, new vehicles will dwarf the current “articulated” streetcars, and carry more than 260 people when full, compared with 132 passengers on one of the current regular streetcars and 205 on an articulated one. They will have modern amenities such as air conditioning, which are foreign to the current clunkers.

The contract will be the largest streetcar deal in North American history, and one of the largest orders currently up for grabs in the world. And that has massive streetcar makers, and their lobbyists, circling City Hall, even though the province has yet to signal that it will help the city with the bill. A request for proposals is to go out before the end of the year, with the TTC hoping it can award a contract in the spring, and have the cars gradually rolling into service starting in 2011 after two test cars arrive in 2010.

IN THE RUNNING

The two leading companies are Montreal-based Bombardier, which is offering a modified version of its Flexity Outlook, now running in Brussels and elsewhere; and the Canadian arm of Frankfurt-based Siemens, which wants to build a modified version of its Combino Plus, now running in Lisbon and Budapest.

Also expected to bid on the contract are Czech Republic-based Skoda Transportation and Dusseldorf-based Vossloh Kiepe, with local manufacturer Martinrea International. Other bidders could come forward.

The TTC has committed to a fair competition for the deal after being stung by controversy last year, when it awarded a $674-million contract for 234 subway cars to Bombardier without competition in order to protect jobs at its Thunder Bay plant. This time, the TTC will include “Canadian content” provisions in a competitive bidding process. This is common around the world: U.S. rail-transit vehicles, for instance, must have 60-per-cent American content.

When evaluating the bids, sources say, the TTC may award companies as many as 10 points on a 100-point scale, based on how much of the vehicle a company pledges to make in Canada. The companies would not talk publicly in detail about the issue. But sources close to Bombardier have expressed concern that the proposed system may be too lenient, and could allow foreign firms to build much of their product in countries with cheaper labour, and make up the lost points with a lower price. Sources close to other bidders have suggested a fear of the opposite: That the rules may tip the scales in favour of homegrown Bombardier.

Still, Mike Hardt, vice-president of Bombardier Transportation, wouldn’t commit in a recent interview to building the new streetcars in Thunder Bay, saying the firm needed to see the TTC’s request for proposals first. “Is there going to be local content work?” Mr. Hardt said. “That’s a speculation that I can’t make. … We’ve proven that we can compete from Canada.”

Siemens says it will make an effort to use as many Canadian components and do as much of the labour as it can in Canada, but concedes that the car bodies and its trucks will be built at its factories in Austria.

Mario Péloquin, Siemens’s director of business development for Canada, said the TTC or its consultants had approached his firm four separate times with questions about how much domestic content Siemens could guarantee. “We’re trying to do more than just putting in the seats [in Canada],” Mr. Péloquin said. “We’re trying to maximize everything that we will do, including supplying parts from Canadian providers.”

Other controversies are more technical. For example, the TTC says its 11-metre radius curves are the tightest in the world - many European systems have turns twice as wide - and few light-rail systems have to deal with inclines as steep as the Bathurst Street hill, which has an 8-per-cent grade. The TTC also has wider than usual tracks.

THE DARK HORSE

Vossloh Kiepe, a streetcar-components maker that helped to design light-rail vehicles now running in Leipzig, has protested against the TTC’s decision to accept only 100-per-cent low-floor streetcars on its unique tracks.

Vossloh Kiepe argues that these designs are less reliable than its more conventional 70-per-cent partial low-floor design, pointing to trouble Siemens had with its fully low-floor cars in Europe in recent years. (Siemens, which had to recall hundreds of streetcars after their frames started cracking, says it has solved the problem.)

TTC engineers have concluded after exhaustive testing that partial low-floor models would not be able to climb the system’s hills, and may be more likely to derail than 100-per-cent low-floor streetcars, which themselves are hard to adapt to Toronto’s curves. Vossloh Kiepe’s solution resulted in a streetcar with as many as four sets of internal stairs or ramps. The TTC says it has rejected such a design because it would impede passenger flow and possibly increase the number of “slip and fall” injuries on the system.

Vossloh Kiepe’s Canadian representative, Peter Maass, warns that the TTC may be cruising for trouble if it ignores his firm’s advice and goes with a 100-per-cent low-floor car. “I don’t think we’re going to know until that vehicle gets produced as a prototype in 2009 and gets rolling,” said Mr. Maass, whose firm is still in talks with TTC.

There have been other headaches, including making sure the newfangled cars will work with the TTC’s switches. Mr. Maass also said that modifying European designs to meet North American crash-worthiness standards means, in the words of German light-rail engineers, having to take a lighter European car and gepanzert it - literally translated, turn it into a Panzer tank. Many critics, and especially people who live near the tracks, have complained over the years about the weight of the streetcars, at almost 23 tonnes, and the strain - and resulting noise - they produce on the rails. The new ones may actually be heavier, although engineers say the weight will be better distributed.

Once these problems are solved, and the new streetcars begin to arrive, the TTC will face an even bigger challenger, warns Steve Munro, a long-time transit activist who helped to persuade the TTC to reverse its plans to scrap the streetcar system in the 1970s.

The TTC is not replacing all 248 of its streetcars one-to-one, but instead buying just 204 at first, because the new cars are bigger and carry more passengers. Mr. Munro says this means riders currently frustrated at how infrequent streetcar service is should prepare themselves: “My concern is they are going to end up with this lovely new fleet of cars and offer even worse service than they do today.”

Pimp my streetcar

Toronto is shopping for European-style low-floor light-rail vehicles. The TTC says the new fleet will be a quantum leap from the current fleet.

MORE PASSENGERS

At about 30 metres long, with three to five articulated sections and three motorized trucks, the new streetcar will carry, when stuffed to “crush load” capacity, 260 to 270 people. That is more than double the crush load of the current regular-sized streetcars (132) and substantially more than their longer, articulated cousins (205).

BETTER BRAKES

Using new alternating-current motors and state-of-the-art controls, more braking energy will be recovered than on the current cars and converted back into electricity to be fed back into the overhead grid, similar to hybrid automobiles. Sophisticated “spin-slide control” - just like traction control and anti-lock brakes in your car - will help the vehicles stop.

COOL RIDE

Toronto’s first electric streetcars in the 1890s had only a coal-fired heater. When the current vehicles rolled into service in 1979, the mediocrity of their air-conditioning system was compounded by windows that didn’t open, and had to be modified. The new models will spoil riders with both heating and air conditioning.

ON-BOARD GADGETS

Digital display screens will show the next stop, and automated “smart card” fare readers will allow riders to board at any door. The driver will have computerized controls for propulsion, braking and communications.

A global-positioning satellite system will monitor speeds in work zones. Exterior lights will use light-emitting diodes.

LOW FLOOR

Instead of three steep steps, the TTC is calling for car designs with a maximum floor height at the doors of 35 centimetres, although some models have even lower entry heights. A special ramp will be used to help the disabled and those with strollers, as well as create a bridge to the current platforms, which are only 15 centimetres high. Eventually, as the system expands and the old cars are retired, stations and routes with platforms will be altered to match the cars’ height.

THE COMPETITION

Several light-rail-vehicle makers have expressed interest in submitting bids for the TTC’s contract of up to $1.25-billion for 204 new streetcars, including Bombardier, Siemens, Vossloh-Kiepe and Skoda.

COMPILED BY: JEFF GRAY; SOURCE: TORONTO TRANSIT COMMISSION

Transit City

Toronto has banked the future of its public-transit system on a massive expansion of light-rail lines, with its $6-billion, 120-kilometre “Transit City” plan, announced this year. As part of promised transit expansions, Premier Dalton McGuinty has pledged to fund two-thirds of the cost if the federal government comes up with the rest.

With 21st-century light-rail vehicles running in their own separated rights-of-way, the plan aims to bring rapid transit to the underserved corners of the city, Scarborough and Etobicoke. Planning for seven new lines has begun, with the hopes of starting construction on at least one of them by 2009. The TTC has identified three new lines as priorities: the $2.2-billion Eglinton Crosstown line that could eventually cross the city and link to Pearson Airport, and lines on Finch Avenue West and Sheppard Avenue East. Other proposed lines include: a Jane Street line from Bloor to Steeles; a Don Mills Road line from Steeles to Bloor via Pape Avenue; a waterfront west line; and a Scarborough-Malvern line along stretches of Eglinton Avenue East, Kingston Road and Morningside Avenue.




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