Updated June 28, 2015: Additional historical information from TTC Budgets has been added to the end of this article.
Ever since the introduction of the articulated streetcars back when the earth was still cooling, automatic track switches have been plagued with less-than-ideal reliability of the new system that was installed to operate them. This was triggered by the different lengths of ALRVs and, hence, the different distance from the front of the car to the point where the trolley pole sits on the overhead. A system based on a contactor on the overhead simply would not work with the ALRVs. The new system uses antennae at the front and rear of each car together with antennae in the pavement. This system allows the “front” of the car (rather than the rear) to signal the direction it wants to turn, and also provides a lock-unlock logic based on the rear end antenna passing the switch.
A project to replace this system has been on the books for years, but with little progress. Meanwhile, many switches that should be automatic (and through that automation interface with traffic signals) are manual. At the newly opened Queens Quay and Spadina, a pointman operates the switches.
I wrote to the TTC about this situation. Here are my questions and their replies.
Q: With the Queens Quay project finishing, an issue has shown up (again) that the switches at Queens Quay and Spadina are still being manually operated usually by a point duty operator, sometimes by the streetcar ops themself.
A: We are in the process of prioritizing restoration of a number of out-of-service switches in the network. Resources will be made available to restore the four (4) switches on Spadina and Queens Quay as a top priority.
Q: This delays service and also means that the transit priority signals cannot work as intended because they don’t “know” where a car intends to go. Two points:
For years there has been a budgeted project to update the switch electronics because the old equipment has never been reliable.
A: We would not characterize the equipment in those terms. We are short of replacement parts due to the OEM changing ownership, losing interest in supplying parts, and that the original design files were lost in a major fire.
Q: If I remember correctly, this was one of the projects sloughed off to 2016 due to budget cuts. Is this correct?
A: We are still working on a new equivalent design and taking steps to secure its safety certification. Our objective is to create a controller with identical functionalities and a design that we own and take control.
Q: A commenter on my blog claims that there are long delays because Hydro must to an inspection when a switch is activated. Switches that are ready to be energized sit for months in manual mode. Is this correct?
A: New installation of wiring and controller must be performed in accordance with Hydro’s electrical safety code. Safety inspection by Hydro can indeed be a lengthy process. We would normally submit our application for inspection partway through the Work to reduce wait time gap.
There really is only one obvious question left here: if this were a subway signal system, would the problem have been left outstanding this long?
Updated June 28, 2015:
On the afternoon of June 27, an eastbound streetcar on Queens Quay at the entrance to Queens Quay Loop took an open switch and turned into the side of a westbound car. As luck would have it, this was one of the new LRVs, 4404. The story was covered in brief by CBC and several photos appeared on Twitter including this overhead view. The Star also has an article.
In their response to my series of questions, the TTC took issue with my statement about reliability of electric switches. For the record, here is the TTC’s own description of this project from the 2015 Capital Budget.
This description is notable on a few counts. First, it is quite clear that the TTC acknowledges that the existing technology needs to be improved for reliability. This is not a question of reproducing an existing system.
Second, it is noteworthy that the existing system is described as having been in service “for approximately 20 years”. The need to shift from a system based on trolley poles and overhead contactors to one using radio signals and loops buried in pavement arose with the introduction of the articulated streetcars over 30 years ago. This project has been on the books for some time, and like many projects in the budget, some of the text may get copied from year to year without careful editing. Back in the 2011 budget, the corresponding project description stated that the TTC was still working on design alternatives for the new LRVs and Transit City, text that appears unchanged in the 2015 version above. The project, then as now, had an estimated final cost of $15m.
In the 2015 budget, the spending plan looked like this:
This is quite clearly a four-year project stretching out to 2018, and it will not be finished overnight.
In the 2016 Capital Budget Preview, this project shows up among the streetcar-related items.
Note that $13m remains to be spent, and by comparison with the 2015 plans, it is clear little work will actually occur until at best 2016 because the already-spent $2m is in past years.
Will the TTC finally take this project seriously? Toronto’s is not the only streetcar system on the planet, and other cities have track switching systems that have worked reliably for decades.