The Evolution of a Streetcar Specification

Updated November 9, 2007:  Today’s Globe and Mail contains an article by Jeff Gray describing the objections by one potential bidder, Vossloh Kiepe, to the 100% low floor specification in the soon-to-be-released Request For Proposals for new cars.

My original post and reader comments follow below.

 The TTC has recently notified bidders for a new generation of streetcar/LRV that the Commission has decided to opt for a 100% low floor car.

… a directive we [TTC vehicle engineering] received from our Senior Management about floor configuration of the low floor vehicle.

After having given considerable consideration about the merits and disadvantages of partial and 100% low floor vehicle configurations, the Commission has determined that the new vehicle shall provide 100% low floor area throughout the vehicle, except the operator’s cab. 

No internal steps will be permitted in the passenger compartment of the vehicle.   

This decision came about after a series of recent technical meetings.  We confirm and accept that gradeability and adhesion limit dictate that currently available vehicle designs cannot support an adhesive weight greater than that offered by an unpowered low floor centre truck. We assessed the risks involved in deploying 100% low floor vehicles on a mature surface rail system like that of the TTC.  We believe this decision offers our customers the best balance between passenger accessibility, safety, comfort and wheel-rail interface.

This change will have a significant effect on the models offered by maunfacturers to the TTC.  Those we have seen in Toronto to date are not 100% low floor, and in a way this sends bidders back to the drawing boards.

The reference that “… the Commission has determined …” is intriguing because there has not been a public meeting of the Commission at which such a decision could have been made.  Have the technical and cost implications of this position been explained to the Commissioners?

Meanwhile, we can also expect to see the TTC admit that their long adherence to trolley pole power collection is simply unworkable for the new fleet.  We already know that the ALRVs were de-tuned to have lower acceleration than the CLRVs because they drew too much power for a trolley shoe pickup.  Riders on ALRV-operated routes have suffered a few decades of sluggish operation thanks to that situation.

Any new cars must be capable of operation on new suburban lines and possibly even as a standard for the GTA.  The performance required for these operations cannot be achieved without pantographs.

After years of rebuilding Toronto’s overhead in trolley pole configuration, the TTC will have to revisit its entire network and resume a process that, in part, started with the overhead on Spadina 10 years ago.

22 thoughts on “The Evolution of a Streetcar Specification

  1. Steve,

    Are 100% low-floor streetcars already operating in the world?

    I sure hope this specification is not a TTC (well-intentioned but) unique design feature that will incur a significant cost-penalty as you caution.

    The TTC’s current fleet of “low-floor” buses is an amalgam of mostly low-floor front, high-floor back vehicles, a compromise, as a 100% low-floor design would significantly reduce passenger capacity.


  2. From the perspective of passenger comfort, I must say I hope the vehicles are 100 per cent low floor. The split-level buses in the TTC’s current fleet are dreadful. The seats aren’t big enough for average-sized people and there is no aisle room, which becomes painful when the bus is packed.


  3. 100% low-floor requirements could have an affect on capacity depending on how the bogies work into the design of this. There is a reason the partial low-floor designs of buses are the way they are, it is called mechanical equipment. Like buses have tires and steering axles, streetcars have bogies. The current ALRVs hold upto around 205 people max for a roughly 23m long car. By comparsion, a T1 holds 315 and are almost identical in length, but dramatically different in width. What can the capacity of these new cars, related to length, can we expect and is this even specified? Could we end up with a lower capacity for the same length of vehicle?

    As for trolley poles… do they even make those anymore? Toronto is one of a very, very small handful of places that still this outdated relic, it is largely discontinued in the industry.


  4. The problem here is that “mass transit” does not really lend itself to “accessibility”. As a “bleeding heart” I am firmly of the belief that those who are less mobile deserve “mobility” but I do not believe that converting mass transit to provide that mobility is the answer. The mobility must be provided through alternative delivery such as (subsidised for the differently abled) modified taxis. Pretending that mass transit can provide mobility is a myth that is delivered at considerable cost to the efficiency of mass transit – lousy service for the differently abled and when, such people occasionally use mass transit – major inconvenience to other mass transit users.

    Recently on the Ossington bus – which NEVER has service delays there was a major (20 to 25 minute) delay. It was caused by the fact that a Gentleman in an electric wheelchair was on the bus and the delay associated with getting him on board. Not for a second do I suggest that this Gentleman should not have “mobility” but the current low floor regular route mass transit buses are not the way to do that. In addition, we pay the price every day (compared to a GM Diesel) by having inferior buses as the TTC standard that are consumer unfriendly and lacking in capacity.


  5. 100% low floor looks like an unnecessary expense to me. Not everyone is disabled needing mobility devices. Why doesn’t the TTC save some money and invest the already ready low-floor/high back streetcars already developed. The disabled would be more then accomodated for with these models.


  6. My english is not perfect. When they say “We confirm and accept that gradeability and adhesion limit dictate that currently available vehicle designs cannot support an adhesive weight greater than that offered by an unpowered low floor centre truck.” – what does it mean?

    I’m reading this as saying that the 100% low-floor doesn’t help with the adhesion. Does this mean that the 100% low floor are better or worse for not getting derailed?

    Steve: I read this as saying that they cannot power the centre truck, and so the tractive effort must all be in the outer two trucks with whatever tradeoff that implies for weight distribution. As for derailments, yes that will be a challenge, although recent designs are supposed to be friendlier, so to speak, to track with difficult geometry such as Toronto’s.

    How much is it going to cost to rewire everything?

    Steve: I don’t have anything specific on this yet, but will publish it when it’s available. It will certainly keep the overhead crews busy for a long time. Intersection designs are the biggest challenge for trolley/pantograph co-existence.


  7. 100% low-floor trams are fairly common – look at Bombardier’s Flexity Outlook and Alstom’s Citadis. The trick is that it can be a bit harder to fit in the equipment needed for steep hills, though some of the Outlooks that Bombardier have built for existing systems in Europe have fairly good specifications.

    On the other hand, they still don’t have the major design compromises needed by low-floor buses; unlike a bus’s wheel wells, a tram’s bogies can easily be fit under a low floor, so there’s no space lost compared even to a high-floor tram.


  8. American legislation stipulates that a transit route is accessible if every second vehicle is accessible.

    In Toronto, ACAT put it’s foot down and insisted that EVERY vehicle be accessible for a surface route to be designated accessible (Blue wheelchair icon on route maps).

    I think ACAT’s stance is a mistake as it slows the distribution of accessible vehicles to ALL routes; on many busy accessible routes (eg. 7 Bathurst) equipment failures and maintenance mean the route is often served by inaccessible high-floor GM New Look buses despite being designated accessible; seldom is a ramp deployed for a scooter or wheelchair, vs. frequently lowering the bus for a walker, a senior or a shopper. I have yet to see a high-floor accessible bus wheel chair ramp (eg. on NOVAs) deployed for a senior’s walker.

    With surface routes with FS timetables it MAY provide better accessibility to more Torontonians to have every second vehicle accessible during peak periods. After all, that’s what the current low floor design offers: an awkward compromise bus that’s half low-floor, half high-floor and causes in/out congestion (especially through front doors) than in high-floor designs. They’re the preferred compromise design due to their higher capacity than a totally low-floor bus (the awful early Orion(?) low-floor design with the back exit doors behind the rear wheel wells at very end of the bus.

    I’d willingly live with a less than 100% low-floor streetcar design, if it allowed accessibilty through both front and rear (automatic) doors, reduced the seat width to allow multiple accessibility devices independent ingress/egress (by avoiding the low-floor bus front wheel wells’ pinch point that pretty much limit them to one mobility aid).

    Any combination of two walkers, strollers/prams, scooters, grocery carts or wheelchairs on a low-floor bus often means that both have to exit the bus to allow one off (especially with people stubbornly standing between the wheel wells with their grocery bags resting on top of them). Hardly ideal or accessible—while increasing trip times and further reducing effective capacity per bus.

    I agree with Steve… the issue is very important, especially with an aging population, and deserves a thorough public discussion and debate—not a stealth Commission directive whose capacity/access trade-offs and cost consequences are not well understood and will impact vehicle acquisitions and operating costs for decades into the future.

    Steve: I can look at the part low-floor issue in two ways. On one hand, the TTC’s utter inability to schedule and operate service reliably means that “every second bus” really means four high-floors in a row, then a big gap, then a bunch of low-floors. Problems also arise on routes with branches and scheduled short turns. On the other hand, an all-or-nothing approach means that we don’t see the high-floors restricted to peak period use. We are at or very close to the point where the off-peak bus service, especially on weekends, could be 100% low floor everywhere. However, this would require rescheduling services that now operate from garages where high-floors are the predominant vehicles.

    I suggested this to Adam Giambrone’s office back in the spring of 2007, but it seems to have fallen into a black hole probably due to preoccupation with budget problems.

    As for a Commission directive, I just wish they had done this in public as it would be worthwhile publicity to say “this is where we’re going”. Maybe it was one of the items on that vanished October meeting’s agenda.


  9. Though a 100% low-floor streetcar (or bus) would theoretically be better for all passengers it is surely very unwise for the TTC to insist on a design which, if not unique, is rare. It is all very well being a technology pioneer but it tends to be risky and the last thing Toronto needs is to purchase new streetcars which, once in service, prove unreliable or uncomfortable. This surely needs some discussion at the Commission – if they ever bother to meet. (Though there are certainly (this and other) non-budgetary matters needing their attention their October meeting was cancelled last week.)


  10. I started looking up vehicle specs and spoke to a friend of mine who works at SEPTA to get some information because they’ve been running K cars for decades that have larger traction motors than the ALRVs and have the additional weight and electrical load of airconditioning. Most of the Kawasaki streetcars run on the city division with trolley poles and there haven’t been any problems. They did beef the shoes up with an extra copper braid jumper between the shoe and the pole and that seems to have taken care of any power consumption problems using poles.

    I’d also like to mention that SEPTA does routine heavy maintenance on their streetcars, including replacing electronic control systems with updated equipment. This has addressed the issue of streetcars being unreliable due to ‘old electronics for which replacement parts aren’t available’ that I’ve heard so many times from this place that likes to paint streetcars red and has so far been unable to state what these parts are.

    So, my observations are:

    1) The pole issue can be addressed within reason. If the power consumption of the new vehicles really is that far off the scale, then I guess pantographs will be necessary. As will new substations with greater capacity to handle the traction power demand. As well as a budget designed around the big hydro bills that are going to start coming in every month once a whole fleet of these power intensive streetcars goes in service.

    2) By sending vendors back to the drawing boards, the TTC’s pushed up the costs of developing the new streetcars. This will be paid by the TTC, and ultimately us, in the form of an increased per unit price of each vehicle.

    3) By not completing the rebuild prototype CLRV, the TTC’s basically told their vendors that they won’t be exploring other options, so feel free to raise prices because doing the streetcar equivelent of rebuilding all of those fishbowl buses isn’t on the table this time.

    4) I’ve visited SEPTA’s maintenance shops a couple of times and they’ve really got a much better handle on dealing with aging equipment through scheduled overhauls and the replacement of obsolete equipment than the TTC does. The whole ‘obsolete part’ business is a nonissue with the Kawasaki cars because SEPTA’s taken care to update things like the logic boxes during VOH.


  11. Will 100% low floor cars be able to deal with all the single-point switches? Wasn’t there a post on this at some point?

    Steve: This is one of the challenges for new cars. The truck dynamics for low floor are very different than high floor, and you will note that the TTC’s letter acknowledges that the centre truck won’t be powered. We won’t really know until a prototype car gets here.


  12. This decision regarding 100% low-floor is going to be a complete disaster. The TTC has resigned itself to compromises that will dramatically reduce the performance and reliability of the new cars while increasing noise levels both of the motors and of wheel squeal. It will also completely screw up freedom of movement within the passenger area due to the intrusion of the bogie wells and substantially reduce capacity while forcing more people to stand. I have already stated that low-loading with gently sloping floors would solve much of this problem without the need for interior stairs. I cannot understand at all why the TTC would be insisting upon 100% low-floor with a completely level floor throughout. Do they fear being taken to court by activist lawyers for the disabled if they do anything but this?

    And as for those ALRVs, how is anyone supposed to believe that there is any meaningful difference in amperage-handling capacity between poles and any typical minimal transit pantograph??? The only thing that would affect this is surface area of contact with the wire which is essentially the same for both. There are only two important performance feature differences for a street-transit pantograph – it is bi-directional without risk of snagging, and secondly the wire wanders from side-to-side so that the carbon doesn’t wear out as fast at higher speeds. Both of these features are irrelevant to the needs of our current street-based network and will also be of little benefit on new lines the way we can expect them to be operated.

    It is far more likely that the ALRV performance was altered due to excessive wheel-slip or some other bug in the design. They have always exhibited a number of other problems related to the traction control and braking systems and it all seems to traceable to bad design. I once witnessed an ALRV attempt a completely normal stop for a red light and yet it slid half-way into the intersection of Jarvis and Queen under full emergency braking!!!

    Something fishy is going on at the TTC and the end result is going to be a new vehicle worse than anything in the past hundred years and at substantially inflated cost. We need to investigate this thoroughly before it’s too late, especially if it means we’re going to unnecessarily re-wire the entire network at unthinkable expense! I want the honest truth whether or not it changes the situation.

    Steve: Just one clarification. The TTC’s letter says that there should be no steps in the passenger compartment, but is silent on the subject of sloping floors.


  13. My conspiracy-theory-radar is reading this as a “gift” to Bombardier, altering the specifications to give their products an advantage.


  14. The trams in Croydon, UK (Bombardier Flexity) had a high-floor sections between the last set of doors and the driver’s cab over the end sets of bogies. I would say that this design made for about 80% lowfloor and allowed for at least 8 more seats as opposed to a full-low-floor.

    The trams in Amsterdam were 100% low-floor and had doors on just one side. Had me thinking about Toronto when I was there. Interesting to note is that they have a fare collector booth riding in the back. Get on, doors close and the streetcar gets on its way while the fare collector processes everyone. Exit through the middle doors.

    Both designs were very nice and I’d be happy to see either in Toronto. Still, based on my experience I see it unnecessary for the TTC to limit itself as opposed to stating a preference and letting the companies make their own case for their solutions.


  15. There is a good argument to making transit not only accessible, but universally designed. Mississauga Transit was afraid of persons with disabilities using their accessible services slowing the routes down and causing frequent delays, but to their surprise was that initial scheduling with the new buses saw drivers well ahead of schedule across all the accessible routes at all times of the day. Reason? The accessible design was also a universal design (partially) that allowed all passengers to board more quickly than the traditional raised bus.

    By this same token, with a low-floor streetcar, loading times will be substantially reduced. The current streetcars have 3 steps, with a very poor rise-run relationship – the treads are narrow and the rises are steeper than code (they’re old though, so the code wouldn’t apply at the time and codes are not retro-active). I’d easily wager that loading times will reduce to 1/3rd or 1/4th of what they are now, perhaps more in POP fare policy cases, which is supposed to be a standard for the new lines as well.

    That said though, I still have concerns on capacity per vehicle length. I agree with the idea that transit be universally designed and easily usable by all people, but this has to be done within the realm of the technologically possible. We’re talking about boarding directly off the street – no platform to speak of whatsoever on non-ROW routes, with the odd exception of occasional islands. The bus at least always gets a curb from the sidewalk for a little help. You can’t get that low floor 100% with any vehicle. We’re not going to be seeing mini-platforms like GO Transit has for its accessible car either, so what exactly does the TTC have in mind? How low is low-floor for this?

    I think Steve is right to point out that slopes have not been mentioned. As long as those slopes are within 1/12, they will meet accessibility standards. I think it is extremely likely that sloped interiors will be needed, and even with those slopes, it is going to be a challenging design.

    100% low-floor is a good policy for a raised-platform environment. The subway already has a 100% accessible vehicle running through it with the T1s – and it is universally designed too since all people use the same doors and areas of the train, no segregation (contrasting against GO Transit’s model). However, this degree of universal design may not be as feasable without platforms. I don’t think every streetcar stop is suddenly going to get an island either 😛


  16. I find this specification change rather fishy. It reminds me of a condo corporation I was once involved with that had three suppliers bidding on new carpets, then one board member asked the board to update the specifications for a sample of carpet he had. It turned out that only one of the suppliers had legal rights to that particular carpet (in so far as all others would have to pay a premium price to get it). In other words, this sounds like some sort of filtering that will result in possibly only one predetermined manufacturer being able to win the bid.

    The only example of low floor LRTs that I have had the opportunity to try is the system in Minneapolis that uses Bombardier Flexity Swift cars. These cars have 75% of the seating space all on the same level, and this includes ALL of the doors. Only the section ahead of the front-most doors and behind the rear-most doors are a step up.

    I would really like someone a the TTC responsible for this specification to answer one question: if the floor must be 100% accessible, will ALL the seats be able to be folded out of the way for wheelchairs?!?

    In the case of Minneapolis’ LRT, even if the step up sections had the same height floor, it would be difficult to maneuver a wheel chair or scooter between the seats, and there is no position in that section were it could be parked and safely held in place. So why insist on those sections having the same floor level?


  17. 100% low floors are usually found only in much longer trams than the Flexity Swift-sized vehicles the TTC want, where a partial low-floor design would require some doors opening onto high-floor sections, or two ~separate~ low-floor sections separated by a high-floor ‘island’

    I can’t see any clear reason why 100% low floors would be needed in a vehicle of this length – 70% low-floor vehicles like the Flexity Swift (used by London and Minneapolis, both of which have been mentioned so far) or Siemens Avanto offer a significant amount of wheelchair-accessible space, and the step up to the high-floor area is hardly a major obstruction to the remaining passengers.


  18. Calvin said:

    “if the floor must be 100% accessible, will ALL the seats be able to be folded out of the way for wheelchairs?”

    In European situations a certain amount of space by at least one doorway, usually two, sometimes three, has provision for wheelchairs and/or prams (very common on cars overseas). Generally there are two or three foldup seats there. In no car in Europe are wheelchairs or prams given access to the aisles – that would be insanity.

    You can also expect some seats to face rearwards – every low floor design currently in use has at least some – double end cars 50% of seats – the issue is whether they will be styled for Toronto as currently used on the subway, or facing each other so that passengers will have to play “kneesies” with each other – common throughout Europe since the late 1800s as they like to have conversation areas.

    Steve: What I saw on the Bombardier mockup cannot be described as “kneesies”. The seats are too close together, and they should be changed so that groups of seats face the same way. For single ended cars, the direction is obvious.


  19. Could the 100% low-floor requirement come from the difficulties cramming people in on the Orion VIIs?

    Except in extreme cases, people will not stand at the back of the low-floor buses, though this is for good reason – there’s few (if any) hand-holds, the 2+2 forward seating (where some seats are unusable by anyone taller than 5’0″, but that’s another story) makes it very cramped, and hard to move around. So is this the impetus? Can a low-grade ramp be acceptable, but not steps?

    I also question why would the TTC change the specs mid-way through the RFP. It really makes little sense for such a big change in the required specs, as even the few usable off-the-shelf models don’t provide this. The change may even provoke (the already inevitable) suspicion about the entire process.


  20. I should have mentioned this in my last comment: As an example of what a 70% low floor looks like, I have a photo showing the interior of the Minneapolis cars.

    The photo, about two-thirds down the page, is taken between two of the doors looking towards the far end of the car. Wheel chair (and bike) space is provided next to doors nearest the articulation. If I recall correctly, there are about 12 seats in the step-up sections at each end of the car.


  21. This is getting ridiculous. It sounds like the TTC should be terminating the tender and sitting down with the manufacturers to draw up a realistic spec and going back to tender at that point. Except now we’ll have lost a year of progress and the A/CLRV fleet is one year old and creakier.

    It’s stuff like this that make people say “why not” when CityTV ask them what they think about the Province supposedly taking over TTC and removing it from local control.

    Steve: And Queen’s Park has such a sterling record of supporting and operating good transit, among other things. “People” need to be careful what they ask for. After all, wasn’t Mike Harris supposed to solve all of our problems? Many who voted Tory to teach Bob Rae a lesson got a lot more than they expected.


  22. I am having a hard time understanding why the ttc seems to think that a low floor centre truck can’t be powered. Last time I checked, 100% low-floor vehicles have powered low-floor trucks. Why can’t one of these trucks be used for the centre section of a partial low floor design????

    Steve: The problem appears to be the difficulty of making a powered (and therefore heavier) low floor truck work with Toronto’s tight curves.

    I also don’t believe that a full low floor is a worthwhile trade off in terms of passenger capacity and accessability, the steps up to the end sections are nothing compaired to the current Orion buses, and not having to arrange the seats around the trucks allows for more seating capacity (as seen when comparing the Siemens and Bombardier displays at the EX).


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