Text by Daniel Garcia and James Bow
For over thirty-five years, now, GO Transit’s double-decker passenger rail coaches have been the iconic mainstays of the fleet. The coaches have been universally popular with riders. Hawker Siddeley and, later, Bombardier, have sold over a thousand of these cars and they can be seen not only in Toronto, but in Vancouver, Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami/Fort Lauderdale, and other centres. These coaches, which premiered in Toronto, can claim much of the credit for GO Transit’s reputation as a well-maintained, efficient and progressive carrier.
A Groundbreaking Design
Barely five years after the launch of GO Transit’s Lakeshore line, GO was becoming a victim of its own success. The single-level coaches that operated on the line did not have the capacity to handle the rush hour crowds GO was taking on. At the same time, GO was limited in making the trains longer, since there was a limit to how long they could make the station platforms. To increase capacity, GO instead thought taller rather than longer. Adding a second level to GO’s passenger cars could theoretically double capacity for the same train lengths.
Double decker rail cars were not a new idea. Chicago and Montreal both operated gallery-style cars. However, after GO transit tested gallery cars loaned from Chicago & North Western and Canadian Pacific, GO Transit found that these cars did not make efficient use of the second level. The seats were cramped, and the second level took a long time to unload. Hawker Siddeley considered the problem and created a revolutionary new design. The result was GO Transit’s first bi-level coaches.
The bi-level design featured a lightweight aluminum superstructure which, when combined with a durable steel underframe, gives each car an empty weight of just 49.5 metric tons. The cars measured 85 feet in length, almost 16 feet in height and 10 feet in width and featured 6’6” high, 4’4” wide, pneumatically operated doors (with two sets per side). By lowering the lower level and staggering the stairs to provide an intermediate level on each end of the cars along with an upper level in between, passengers were able to access full-sized levels for efficient seating and ease of movement. The cars even offered a small washroom on the intermediate level. Despite having the same number of doors as their single-level predecessors, Bombardier states that a full bi-level car can detrain a full load of passengers in as little as 45 seconds. A full car can seat 162 passengers (142 for series IV, and 1 or 2 less in the cabs) and still have room for 276 standees. A packed 10-car train can thus carry over 4000 passengers — a significant load that would otherwise be clogging the Queen Elizabeth Way (or the 401) with almost as many automobiles.
An interesting feature of these cars is the use of pneumatic tread brakes and disk brakes. It’s the disks that allow a speeding train to stop within the length of a platform. The cars are rated to provide braking up to almost 1 m/s2, which is unusually quick for a car of it’s size. The quick deceleration, coupled with quick acceleration, speeds up service and gets commuters to their destinations without a significant delay at intermediate stops.
The Bi-Levels Debut
The first series of bilevel coaches (known as series one) were commissioned from Hawker-Siddeley in 1976 at a cost of $35 million. At the time, it was the largest equipment order the fledgling agency had yet made. Eighty cars (numbered 2000-2079) were built and delivered beginning in March 1977. The first of these were put on static display at the Canadian National Exhibition, where crowds flocked to get on board to try out the fancy new vehicles.
The Series One cars were instantly popular with riders, and they contributed to an increase in service. The single level coaches were gradually phased out (although some stuck around to 1991). The first series cars continue to operate to this day; they received a major refurbishing in 1998 from CAD Railway Services and GEC Alsthom to update seats (to the new leatherette covering) and headrests and (briefly) tables as well as electrical outlets. A second refurbishing program began in 2012, again performed by CAD Railway Services, to replace seat cushions and headrests, and to add LED exterior lights and door chimes.
Adding Cab Cars
As GO Transit grew its network, and as the original single level coaches reached the end of their design life, GO went back to Hawker-Siddeley to purchase another 71 cars, which were delivered from 1983 to 1984. There were differences, however. Fifteen of these cars would feature cabs, located in the space where the washrooms had been in the regular coaches, so that drivers could drive these trains from these cars, controlling the locomotive pushing at the end of the train. These cab cars were numbered 200-214, while the remaining 56 cars were numbered 2100-2155. These cars are also still in operation thirty years later, having been refurbished between 2002 and 2004 by Bombardier in Thunder Bay and Alstom in Montreal.
The Series Two cars would be the last order built by Hawker Siddeley. Due to company restructuring, the order for the third series fell to Can-Car (which also built the TTC’s ALRVs and H-6 subway vehicles). The third series of bilevel cars included nine cab cars and 54 regular coaches and were delivered in 1988 and 1999. The fourth series followed immediately on the third, with Can-Car delivering an additional 18 cab cars (numbered 224-241) and 40 regular coaches (numbered 2300-2341). Both series three and series four cars were refurbished between 2005 and 2011, modified for wheelchair access by removing 20 seats in the lower level to accommodate up to twelve wheelchairs. These were modified back to their regular configurations after 2002 when 22 fully-accessible bi-level coaches (series six) were delivered from Bombardier.
The fifth series of cars was also built by Can-Car and delivered by 1990 and 1991. These would be the last to be built by Can-Car, since the factory and the company were bought out a couple of years later by Bombardier. In this order, 57 coaches (no cabs) were delivered, numbered 2400-2455 and 2499.
Refreshing the Design
Car #2499 was specially numbered because it was a prototype. Although Can-Car and Bombardier knew that the bilevel design had a lot of life left, with the first cars now over twelve years old, it was a time for a refresh. The new vehicle featured body panels that were welded instead of bolted, wheelchair positions on the lower floor, and a modularized braking system. This car was tested in revenue service, and the results were considered when designing the next series of bilevel coaches. Although that proved to take a while.
Of the 331 bi-level cars that GO Transit ordered between 1976 and 1991, GO still owns 315. Service cuts in the early 1990s rendered a number of cars surplus and 16 coaches plus four F59PH locomotives were sold to Fort Worth, Texas in 1997. Other cars were leased to other operations. When Vancouver’s West Coast Express found they weren’t going to get their coaches in time from Bombardier, GO sent them some extra cars to ensure that they had enough for their start-up. Vancouver also borrowed an F59PH as well. In 1994, the Metrolink commuter railroad in Los Angles leased 25 cars to restore service after a major earthquake closed highways. Closer to home, CN used GO equipment for the Casino Rama Express that ran in August and September 1996.
Getting Back into Buying
As the 20th century came to a close, GO’s ridership started to increase dramatically. New trains started operating on the peak-hour lines, and the trains of the Lakeshore line were operating beyond capacity. New coaches were needed. GO saw little reason to depart from the basic bi-level design (although they needed for these cars to be wheelchair accessible) and turned to Bombardier, which by now owned the patents. The initial order was for 16 cars, although an option for a further six was exercised. The series was numbered 2500-2521.
The series six cars were delivered throughout 2002, and featured a number of improvements. There was a large, fully-accessible washroom on the lower levels (instead of the tiny washroom cubicle in the intermediate level), brighter interior lighting, glow-in-the-dark step and walkway edges, and larger side windows. The exterior was made of welded aluminum with HVAC and doorway equipment that was more easily accessible. The series six cars can be distinguished by exterior doorway lights, upholstered seats and power outlets. The cars were also delivered with tables, although these were removed in 2004 as studies indicated they could cause injuries in accidents. Conductors also controlled the doorways at the lower level, rather than up on the second level, which made it easier for the conductors to see passengers rushing for the doors at platform level.
The series six order was followed up by orders for series seven cars which arrived between 2003 and 2008. Twenty accessible coaches (numbered 2522-2541) were delivered in 2003 followed by another three (numbered 2542-2544) between 2006 and 2007. Sixty-three regular coaches (numbered 2600-2661) were delivered between 2004 and 2008, while a further nine cab cars (numbered 242-250) were delivered in 2004 and between 2006 and 2007. Cars built after late 2007 featured a number of small changes, including different light fixtures, taller headrests, and powered end-doors offering easier access between cars.
The eighth and most modern series of bilevel coaches were commissioned from Bombardier and began delivery in 2008. Featuring eight accessible coaches (numbered 2545-2552), 115 regular coaches (numbered 2700-2814) and seven cab cars (numbered 251-257), these featured large accessible washrooms on the lower levels, powered end doors and LED lights. Coaches 2743-2746 were modified to become bicycle coaches, with lower level seating replaced by bicycle racks and special wraps over the windows advertising their availability for bicycles. These cars are used exclusively on the Niagara Falls weekend train service, with two coaches for each trainset, placed between the accessible coach and the cab car.
On May 25, 2012, Metrolinx announced the awarding of another contract to produce 60 more bilevel coaches. In its announcement, it said that Bombardier would design and produce the coaches, but that there would be a bit of an update. The cab cars would be redesigned with a larger cab offering improved visibility and ergonomically improved controls. In addition, the cars would have “crash energy management crumple zones” for improved safety in the event of an accident. Promised improvements for passengers included onboard wireless Internet, and “improved ventilation, door and toilet systems”. Production on these coaches would begin in the second quarter of 2013 with entry into service in spring 2015. This order was followed up with another order, announced in January 2014, for a further 65 coaches, bringing the fleet up to 743 in order to expand service capacity. These coaches are set to arrive from late 2016 to early 2017.
Aside from the changes described above, GO’s bi-level coach design is proof of the old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. GO’s bilevel coach design has evolved over time, but still maintains the basic features established when the first coaches arrived in the late 1970s. It’s a testament to the quality of the design and the build that the overwhelming majority of GO’s bi-level equipment continues to operate, even as some enter their thirty-fifth year of operation and beyond. It’s no surprise that other cities building commuter railways of their own have turned to GO’s bilevel design for their services. With Metrolinx looking to expand GO train service across the GTA, with more runs and more lines, GO will likely purchase new coaches in the near future. It is inconceivable that these will differ in any substantial way from the first bilevels that entered service in 1977.
- 2000-2079 - Series 1 - Hawker Siddeley - Built 1976-8
(Cars 2000, 2001, 2010-2017, 2019-2024 sold to Trinity Rail Express in 1998)
(Cars 2010-2012, 2015, 2019, 2021 returned from Trinity Rail Express in 1999 in exchange for cab cars 223&224)
- 2100-2155 - Series II - Hawker Siddeley - Built 1983-4
- 2200-2253 - Series III - Can-Car - Built 1987-9
- 2300-2341 - Series IV - Can-Car - Built 1989-90
(Originally numbered 2254-2295 but renumbered prior to entering service)
- 2400-2455 (+2499) - Series V - Can-Car - Built 1990-1
- 2500-2521 - Series VI - Bombardier - Built 2002
- 2600-2609 - Series VII - Bombardier - Built 2004
- 2610-2619 - Series VII - Bombardier - Built 2005
- 2620-2629 - Series VII - Bombardier - Built 2006
- 2630-2641 - Series VII - Bombardier - Built 2006-7
- 2642-2661 - Series VII - Bombardier - Built 2007-8
- 2700-2729 - Series VIII - Bombardier - Built 2008-9
- 2730-2754 - Series VIII - Bombardier - Built 2010
(Note: 2743-2746 modified with bicycle racks replacing lower level seats).
- 2755-2770 - Series VIII - Bombardier - Built 2010-11
- 2771-2814 - Series VIII - Bombardier - Built 2011-12
- 2522-2541 - Series VII - Bombardier - Built 2003-4
- 2542-2544 - Series VII - Bombardier - Built 2006-7
- 2545-2546 - Series VIII - Bombardier - Built 2008-9
- 2547-2549 - Series VIII - Bombardier - Built 2010
- 200-214 - Series II - Hawker Siddeley - Built 1984
- 215-223 - Series III - Can-Car - Built 1987-9 (Car 223 traded to Trinity Rail Express in 1999)
- 224-241 - Series IV - Can-Car - Built 1989-90 (Car 224 traded to Trinity Rail Express in 1999)
- 242-245 - Series VII - Bombardier - Built 2006-7
- 251-253 - Series VIII - Bombardier - Built 2008-9
- 254 - Series VIII - Bombardier - Built 2010-11
- 255-257 - Series VIII - Bombardier - Built 2011-12
- Capacity - 136 to 162 (seated), 276 standees
- Car body construction - Riveted or welded aluminum body on a steel frame
- Length - 85 feet (25.91 m)
- Width - 9 feet 10 inches (3.00 m)
- Height - 15 feet 11 inches (4.85 m)
- Weight - 50,000 kg (110,000 lb)
- Power supply - 480 or 575 V HEP
- Braking system(s) - Pneumatic tread brakes and disc brakes
Bilevel Coaches Image Archive
- Canadian Trackside Guide. Ottawa: Bytown Railway Society, 1985. Print.
- “GO Transit.” - CPTDB Wiki. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 June 2013.