[This item has been updated to correct some typos, and to add a concluding paragraph that I forgot to put in before publishing it.]
Yesterday’s Toronto Sun reported that a proposal for 100 of the CLRVs to be refurbished by Bombardier’s Thunder Bay plant is on hold. Some history is needed to put this in context.
For quite some time, the TTC has looked at new or refurbished streetcars. New cars always seemed to have an astronomical price tag, but refurbishing was neither cheap nor a long-term option.
Any price quoted for a new streetcar, commonly $3- to $5-million per vehicle, provoked sticker shock. Oddly, nobody ever mentioned the size of the vehicles in this discussion. Given the TTC’s long anti-streetcar history (now mellowed to grudgingly accept that there is a place for LRT), the suspicious among us might think that this was a deliberate strategy to make streetcars look prohibitively expensive.
Current talk is for a $3-million car that will be larger even than an ALRV or subway car, and that’s not a bad price for a vehicle of that size (more about service impacts later). If we can actually get new cars for that price, the comparison against a $1-million CLRV retrofit doesn’t look so bad (almost twice the car and at least double the lifespan for about three times the money).
The CLRVs have done their job for three decades, but unlike their PCC predecessors, they are unloved. This is no surprise given their troubled history:
- Conceived as a 70 mph suburban LRV, the CLRV was much heavier than needed for urban operation.
- The cars originally had sealed windows and no air conditioning. Then Chief General Manager Michael Warren famously claimed that the effect of cooling when air blows over your face is purely psychological. We now have windows that open, but they are an inferior design to what might have been had this been part of the car from the outset.
- The original Bochum wheels were stiff and unsuited to operation on track laid directly in concrete. Coupled with the inferior track construction standards of the era, the CLRV fleet quickly destroyed its roadbed while rumbling noisily through neighbourhoods. The replacment SAB wheels (similar in design to PCC wheels) eliminated much of the rumble, and new resilient track did the rest of the work.
- The Bochum wheels also proved troublesome on many of Toronto’s single-blade track switches. Because the rubber layer in this wheel forms a ring between the hub and the steel tire (rim), the inner wheel would flex at a switch rather than pulling its mate on the other end of the axle into the curve. The SAB/PCC wheel’s rubber layer is compressed, not extended, under this condition and so it does not have a problem on single-blade switches.
- The electronics in the CLRVs have always been troublesome as they date from the early days of solid state power controls. A design flaw, since repaired, caused road dirt to be sucked into the air filter for the cooling system leading to frequent breakdowns.
- The CLRVs are high-floor cars that cannot be made accessible. Keeping them in operation raises serious problems with our major downtown routes not having low-floor vehicles possibly into the 2020s.
The ALRVs are not much better. One notable problem is their limited acceleration because, with their extra weight, they draw more power. However, the trolley pole power pickup cannot handle that much current, and the cars lack the nimbleness of other streetcars in traffic because their acceleration is restricted. The wider headways on ALRV routes are bad enough without cars that can’t move briskly through traffic.
The CLRV program includes the following (this is a direct quote from a recent report on the subject):
- replacement of the propulsion control system, which has become highly unreliable and difficult to maintain due to obsolescence of electronic and electrical parts;
- installation of a new air-conditioning system to attract new ridership, improve customer and operator comfort, and enhance safety by mitigating windshield fog-up during humid days;
- replacement of the low voltage power supply (LVPS) to improve reliability and add an alternating current output to power the new air-conditioning system;
- changing of the unreliable air brake controller to the ALRV configuration, which has proven to be very reliable;
- provision of couplers and related hardware and software for multiple unit operation to enhance customer service and reduce mixed-traffic congestion due to “bunching up” of streetcars;
- refurbishment of the vehicle body, electrical and mechanical systems. This includes installation of new systems, overhauling electrical and mechanical equipment and components and refurbishing the entire vehicle.
The TTC Commissioners want new cars, but they are thwarted by the City Budget Advisory Committee and, rumour has it, by Queen’s Park and their love affair with Bus Rapid Transit. The current scheme is to do 100 cars first, and decide on the rest later on depending on the success of the program and/or the availability of funding for new cars.
The high cost per car arises from the fact that new subsystems — propulsion control, air conditioning, low voltage power supply, brake control and couplers for MU operation — are being provided for these vehicles even though they are intended to have only a 10-year lifespan. Frankly, I don’t believe that number, and if the CLRVs are refurbished, they will probably stay in service for at least 15 years.
By contrast, when the PCCs were rebuilt, they retained much of their original propulsion and control equipment (which was overhauled, not replaced). Other work consisted primarily of rebuilding the bodies and replacing the wiring.
The inclusion of couplers adds a needless cost to this project. (A detailed evisceration of the proposal deserves its own post.) The TTC is convinced that running King cars in two-car trains will improve service reliability. The fact that the service would be half as frequent has not dawned on the TTC as a significant contributor to making it unattractive. The effect of larger cars/trains will come with any new fleet, and we will have enough problems with perceived service quality at that time. We don’t need it on the CLRVs which, after all, would be replaced first on heavy routes like King.
In October, a proposal to have the first 100 cars rebuilt by Bombardier came to the Commission. The cost/car for this work was about $420,000, leaving roughly $580,000 per car to pay mainly for the new subsystems. The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 opposed this contract on the grounds that the work could be performed in house by their own members at Hillcrest shops where the TTC has been rebuilding streetcars and buses for decades. The TTC’s argument for sending the work to Bombardier is the systems integration and testing expertise at Thunder Bay.
The proposal received conditional approval and staff were directed to meet with representatives of the ATU and the Canadian Auto Workers (the union for the Thunder Bay plant) to determine whether the work could be done at a competitive price in Toronto. I suspect that the ATU hopes that their strong support for the Bombardier subway car order is reciprocated by CAW support for keeping the CLRV program in Toronto.
The municipal election put everything on hold, but one clear bullet in Mayor Miller’s platform is new streetcars. With changes in the political power structure at City Hall, pressure on the TTC for more service and a clear desire to expand the streetcar system with new LRT lines as soon as possible, a new fleet of streetcars is essential. The CLRVs may remain for a time, but only to supplement a growing fleet of new cars.
I do not know whether any of the contracts for the CLRV rebuild have actually been awarded, or if they have all been sitting on hold pending the resolution of the location where the work will be done. The more that are on hold, the less it will cost the TTC to cancel this project.
The real question is who will pay for the new cars and the new maintenance facility they will require. Queen’s Park and Ottawa seem pre-occupied with discussions of the Spadina Subway extension, and we can only hope that this does not blind them to other needs. In addition to the existing streetcar network, we need new cars for lines in the Waterfront and, if Council comes to its senses, an LRT network in Scarborough including replacement for the RT.
Modernizing and expanding the streetcar/LRV fleet in Toronto is not a small project, and there are technical complexities to be worked out, but it must start as soon as possible. The next round in this process will be the TTC’s Capital Budget for 2007 that should appear at the end of January.
The catch-22 in all this is that the CLRV rebuild may be derailed, but the purchase of new cars may also be foiled by lack of funding from Queen’s Park. Will Toronto and Ontario make a real commitment to streetcars for Toronto?