How about a bottle mister?
Only costs a penny, guaranteed.
Does Pirelli’s stimulate the growth, sir?
You can have my oath sir,
Rub a minute,
Stimulatin’ i’n’ it?
Soon you’ll have to thin it once a week.
From Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, by Stephen Sondheim
A commonly repeated myth in the LRT vs subway debate is that subways “last 100 years” while LRTs last “barely 30”.
If we were standing in a less-than-reputable circus, in a town that had only a passing familiarity with modern technology, and we still had an innocent, childlike faith that everything we are told is true, then I might put down the frequency with which this line is repeated to a bunch of rubes who can’t be expected to know better.
Toronto is not such a town at such a time and place. It has pretensions to greatness. Soon there will even be a train to the airport, although the Ferris Wheel won’t be ready to meet it for the Pan Am Games. We think we are a “world class city”, a phrase that any con artist will recognize as the sign of a mark ripe for the picking. We even have a flock of daily newspapers and local media to shine the light of truth in dark places.
Alas, no. We’re ready to plunk down our money for the miracle of subways that will cure all our ills. If Rob Ford were were a rather large man with a tail coat, a top hat, tights and a short whip, we would expect a certain amount of hyperbole. It’s part of the greatest show on earth, after all. If we faced a sly man, twirling his moustache, with his shop wares displayed in a back alley well out of sight of the constabulary, we might reasonably expect that our money would vanish into thin air for goods of dubious value. But at City Hall, we trust everyone.
Let me tell you something, gentle readers: subways do not last for 100 years. There is more than ample evidence of this right under our noses. Anyone who says otherwise is not merely misinformed, or “poorly advised” to use parliamentary language, they are outright liars. They care only to convince you that spending an extra billion or so is obviously worthwhile because the alternative is simply not worth the money.
Before the subway foamers start scrolling down to the comment box, let me make one very important point: if you want to pay for a subway rather than an LRT (or a BRT, or a horse-and-wagon, or a Swan Boat), and you accept the tradeoff of higher capital cost for the supposed benefit of that technology, then an argument can be made for a subway in some places.
But don’t try to con me with lies about how long it will last for that huge investment.
If a subway were a 100-year proposition:
- We would still be riding in non-air conditioned red “Gloucester” subway cars on the Yonge line. They were bought for the opening in 1954 and would be just coming into a decent middle age of 60 next year. Not even eligible for senior’s fares yet.
- The track on which those trains run would be the original installation ranging in age from 60 (Yonge line, Eglinton to Union) down to
2535 (Spadina south from Wilson), with the Downsview extension a mere 17.
- The signal system would of comparable age to the track over various sections of the line as would be basic systems such as ventillation, pumps, lighting, escalators, station finishes, power supply and last, but not least, tunnels.
- The G-cars lasted until 1990 (36 years, long by subway car standards). They were replaced by the H6 subway cars which are just now being phased out by the TR “Toronto Rocket” cars. The H6s were considered something of a lemon by the TTC. They are being replaced at the tender age of 23 to take advantage of the production run of TRs already in place at Bombardier. The Yonge line is now on its third fleet of subway cars.
- The original H1 subway cars purchased for the Bloor-Danforth subway that opened in 1966 were replaced at about age 30 by the T1 cars. Those cars in turn will be due for retirement in the mid 2020s.
- Subway track has many components including the running rails, special work (switches and frogs) and the support structure on which these rest.
- Rail tends to last about 25 years (less at locations of high wear such as stations and curves). Special work might last 25 years, but high wear pieces will have to be selectively changed out. The most high-profile of the track replacements was at St. George crossover on the BD line which required weekend-long shutdowns and diversions via the wye. Weekday-only subway riders may not remember these events and other more recent weekend shutdowns for track replacement.
- Where track is out in the elements, it is laid on ties and ballast like a mainline railway. The ties may last a few decades, but the wooden ones are commonly changed out as they eventually decay. The TTC has moved to concrete ties in some locations, but not everywhere. The oldest sections of open track (Yonge line from Berwick Portal to Muir Portal, and from Rosehill crossover to Ellis Portal) are in some locations in rough shape. Major reconstruction of the track near Davisville Station is needed because the foundation is in poor condition, and slow orders here are common.
- Where track is in tunnels, it is bolted either directly to the tunnel slab, or to a layer of floating slabs that rest on large rubber discs to provide insulation from vibration (a technique first seen on the Spadina subway). Any location where there is water in the tunnels is bad for the rail mounts which rust out and must be replaced.
- In some locations, the tunnel concrete is delaminating (the surface layer is splitting away from the concrete underneath). This makes for very noisy operation, but also requires repairs so that the integrity of the concrete is preserved.
- The signal system from the original Yonge line has severe problems with reliability as any subway rider knows, although this is not the only area where signal failures occur. Again, wet areas can play havoc with signals by providing a false signal that track is occupied when it is not. (The system is designed to fail “safe” by showing trains that are not there, rather than by having real trains disappear, only to be rear-ended by surprised followers.) The relays controlling the system are obviously critical to safe operations, but they are antiques. Modern signalling uses solid state controls. The entire YUS is receiving a new signal system in a project that will last until the Spadina extension opens in 2016. The BD line is scheduled for resignalling in the 2020s concurrently with the acquisition of new trains that will have automatic train control (ATC) capabilities like the TRs on Yonge.
- Tunnels and stations are kept free of water by numerous drainage and pumping systems. They are ventillated, in cases of emergency, by large fans. This equipment is good for 50 years at best, and a lot has been replaced on the older parts of the system. Think of this the next time you ride under the Don River at York Mills Station.
- Station lighting does not last forever. This is not just a case of swapping out light bulbs, but of replacing fixtures both for age and for improved efficiency. Anyone who has fluorescent lamps in their home or office knows the smell when a ballast wears out. Imagine that you own 69 stations chock full of such lamps. It is more productive to replace all of the fixtures every two or three decades than to have them fail in place one by one.
- Escalators last 25-30 years, and are kept operating by dint of constant maintenance. Eventually they wear out as did the original Peele Motostairs of the Yonge line, and machines from other manufacturers. After considering complete replacement by an external contractor, the TTC decided to undertake reconstruction of most of its escalators as an “in house” project at considerably lower cost. Subway riders whose memory stretches back more than a few years will remember the ongoing, and lengthy, shutdowns of escalators in the older parts of the system.
- Elevators are even more cantakerous. They need constant attention, and users of St. George Station will remember that main elevator was out of service for months last winter. It is nowhere near 100 years old. That may be construed as “maintenance”, but as elevators and escalators are an essential part of “accessibility”, they need to be available as close to 100% of the time as possible.
- Station finishes include the walls, ceilings and floors. Only one of the original twelve Yonge stations (Eglinton) retains its original vitrolite tiles, and these remain thanks only to intensive lobbying to preserve the original material. Stations on the Bloor-Danforth line have started to sport new wall finishes (e.g. Pape and Dufferin). Ceilings, well, the less said about those metal slats the better. Floors and stairs wear out in high traffic areas and have to be replaced notably at Pape Station which will close for 12 days to give unobstructed access to the terrazzo. Many ceilings have had major restoration work to repair disintegration thanks to water penetration, and similar work can be seen (by anyone who takes the trouble to look for it) in many tunnel locations.
- Stations and other buildings last for a very long time with proper maintenance. The subway carhouses are showing no signs of needing replacement, but then neither are the two streetcar barns dating from the 1920s, nor the TTC substations scattered around the city powering the streetcar system.
- The power supply system for subways consists of substations, a network of feeder cables, switchgear to control the circuits and the third rail for power pickup by the trains. There is also a “low voltage” (power like we use at home) distribution system for the many non-traction power requirements in stations and tunnels. The switchgear lasts about 50 years, and much of it is in various stages of a replacement program. Feeder cables don’t last forever, and one particularly memorable failure was an explosion in a Hydro vault near Queen and Bay caused by TTC feeders whose insultation had disintegrated. The low voltage systems also need replacement as they age. Do you own a 60-year old house with its original wiring? Have you talked to your insurance broker lately?
- Tunnels last 100 years if they are lucky enough to be in a stable, dry location, but many of ours are not. A few examples:
- The Yonge line from Eglinton to Sheppard has round, deep bore tunnels lined with segmented rings. A design flaw in these segments showed up some years ago, and its effect is that the tunnels are slowly being flattened by the pressure of the earth above. The work to reinforce the tunnels and arrest this change before the tunnels and the subway trains collide is responsible for the multi-year night-time shutdown of this segment of the line.
- A section of the tunnel between Bay and St. George Stations on the BD line required major repairs a few years ago, but the exterior of the structure could not be accessed (it is now under a hotel). This required weekend-long shutdowns of the BD service with a diversion through the wye. Other concrete repairs are still in progress in this area. There is a lot of underground water in the old Yorkville area of Toronto as a look at old maps will reveal.
LRT shares many subsystems with subways up to and including tunnels and signal systems where these are necessary. The technologies are identical. Only the shape of the vehicle and the simplicity (or not) of the stations is different.
Everyone knows about streetcar track replacement because it is so obvious and invasive a procedure. After decades of laying inferior track structures (the premise that we were keeping streetcars took a long time to percolate to track standards), the TTC is now building streetcar track with foundations that will last at least 60 years, probably more. The track itself will wear out — that’s what happens when you run trains on it — but the foundation should endure for two or more generations of new track.
Surface operations do not require the level of infrastructure with its ongoing operating and maintenance cost of subways. All that extra convenience and capacity come at a price. If they are not really needed, they take operating funds away from other service and maintenance budgets.
Yes, I have been going on at some length here. There are times when gentlemanly debate needs to be replaced with a very large club (with or without a spike, to your taste) and a very simple statement to those who would mislead us: you are wrong, and you know you are wrong.
Politicians lie all the time — it’s part of the show. With luck, their ignorance and mendacity will be posted on YouTube for everyone to see. Reputable journalists should be ashamed especially if they work for newspapers of record. Community advocates can be excused, up to a point, for being confused, but they risk credibility with simple slogans rather than well-considered opinions.
Anyone familiar with the musical Sweeney Todd knows why Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir was a rather foul-smelling, yellow liquid. That would be a polite way to describe claims about the relative lifespans of subways and LRTs.