Why Are Subway Cars on Bloor-Danforth So Dirty?

As a regular traveller on the Bloor-Danforth subway (Line 2), I cannot help noticing how often a car will appear with a very grimy exterior. Although inside the cars look just fine, the exterior can leave much to be desired. The comparison is quite striking with the gleaming trains on Yonge-University-Spadina (Line 1).

It turns out that this problem is caused by a combination of factors including the fact that the BD trains (the T1 sets) are riveted aluminum, while the YUS trains (the newer TR sets) are welded stainless steel.

I asked the TTC about this issue, especially considering how important system cleanliness is in their attempt to present a good face to customers, and they replied:

You’re correct that some of the T1 cars are not as clean as we like.

There are a number of factors in play here.

Trains are not washed regularly through the winter when the ground temperature drops below a certain point. Every winter, it follows that the trains become less clean. We do wash trains mechanically but it is less effective.

Each summer we employ summer students to hand wash the trains using detergent and pressure washers. They can do a train or so a day. They look pretty good, but with the condition of the body and its design –  it takes time.

Chemicals used also make the aluminium more porous and so we have to be careful how much we use, or we potentially make the issue worse over time as the body will attract even more dirt.

The work is made more difficult due to the number of rivets used on the sides of the train. You can see more staining around the doors in general where the normal train wash (think of a car wash for trains) just doesn’t get into these nooks and crannies. On the TR we designed this dirt trap out by the smooth car body.

The students have started work and you’ll see a gradual improvement in the fleet. That said, progress will be slower this year as we are using them to clean also air filters on the trains’ heating system which whilst invisible to customers needs doing across the fleet and is a higher priority.

We will be targeting the worst units first, and working through the fleet on a priority basis.

[Email from Mike Palmer, Deputy Chief Operating Officer, TTC, April 19, 2016]

The T1s will be with us for many years as they are only about 15 years old. TTC has had aluminum bodied cars for decades, and I hope that they can maintain some semblance of cleanliness with this fleet.

29 thoughts on “Why Are Subway Cars on Bloor-Danforth So Dirty?

  1. Why does the Bloor Danforth line smell like brake dust? (or something like that). I especially notice it at Sherbourne station but it’s there to Spadina at least.


  2. On the bright side they have pretty much eliminated the rampant “scratchitti” that plagued Bloor trains much more so than Yonge ones.


  3. When GO transit ran the old single level cars which were essentially 85′ versions of the H1 cars right down to the same trucks minus motors I believe they had a clear “paint or sealer’ that they put on the cars to protect them from the dirt and the effects of the washing chemicals. Perhaps the TTC should look into something like that though I think that they claimed with their clean regime it wasn’t necessary.

    Steve: Also, the GO trains don’t have to run in the tunnel environment with the goo that is a compound of oil, brake shoe dust, concrete dust and who knows what other stuff.


  4. Personally I do not care that much for the state of the vehicle exteriors. I live in an open cut section and travel from Warden to Islington daily.

    The cars will become filthy no matter what you do. With all the brake dust, mud, dust and rain the cars come across both in and out of the tunnels there is nothing you can do to keep them perfect at all times.

    As long as the inside of the cars are clean I am good to go. There is nothing worse than the state the car interiors were in before Byford. As you and your readers know Steve, prior to Byford having trains cleaned at the terminals it was not uncommon to see trains littered with newspapers and the floors stained with coffee. There is nothing worse than stepping on a stream of fresh coffee.

    On a side note I agree with Jim. Recently, I have noticed an increase in brake odor. Maybe the operators are being heavy handed with the brakes or the signals a little wonky either way it is not a pleasant odor.

    Steve: Compare the trains on Yonge where they spend lots of time underground as well. Much cleaner.


  5. I’ve seen dirty T-1s in the summer time. The TTC could do a better job keeping the exteriors clean.

    Steve: Yes, the idea that we have to await the arrival of summer students to get clean trains is rather disappointing.


  6. Richard White wrote:

    There is nothing worse than stepping on a stream of fresh coffee.

    Just one: stepping on the stream of goo that not-so-fresh coffee becomes. 😉

    Richard White also added:

    Recently, I have noticed an increase in brake odor. Maybe the operators are being heavy handed with the brakes or the signals a little wonky either way it is not a pleasant odor.

    It could also be the TTC is using a new supplier of brake pads, or a combination of all of these. Steve, any chance you can find out if this is a possibility?


  7. Could it also be that the T1 fleet is the older fleet and thus the wear and tear of age is making the cars look worse. Like with many items, things are not as shiny when older.

    Steve: The T1s are older, but the different material makes a difference plus the effect of the TTC having fallen out of the habit of keeping the cars as clean as possible.


  8. I wonder why they cannot install car washers on all exits from the carhouses? It would be as simple as driving through a car wash really.

    Steve: They have washers but don’t want to use them (at least at Greenwood) in the winter due to icing problems. Strangely this was not a problem when the T1s were at Wilson.


  9. “I do not care that much for the state of the vehicle exteriors…”

    Well, we that ride the transit system should care! Cleaning vehicles inside and out is all part of the “maintenance of the system”, or as the TTC likes to say “a state of good repair”. To be able to give a number of factors that, apparently seem to acknowledge and justify the existence of a problem in keeping the exterior of trains clean, just doesn’t seem to me to be the correct approach. If we can see a problem and the desire to fix it is not there, one might wonder what happens to problems that we can not see?



  10. I remember the original vehicles, with the 3 pairs of doors, from the British company had steel bodies, and the TTC experimented with aluminum bodies on the final six vehicles.

    Am I remembering wrong — was the TTC praised as an innovator for saving energy by using lighter materials?


  11. Were the the H5’s on Yonge in the past also as dirty as the T1’s are now?

    Steve: No, and the T1s were not as dirty either. This problem originated with a reduction of car cleaning at Greenwood when a wash track was out of service, and the dirtier cars became “normal”.

    Also Steve, I asked the TTC but they didn’t know. Why do some transfers have different numbers on top than the route? Ex. I ride the 15 but my route says 49 Bloor west on top!

    Steve: There was a time when routes shared transfers with a lesser route using transfers from a busier service, but punched to indicate which route was actually issuing them. It could also be a situation where a bus runs out of transfers and borrows some from another route.

    Comments from others in southern Etobicoke?


  12. Harold wrote:

    Well, we that ride the transit system should care! Cleaning vehicles inside and out is all part of the “maintenance of the system”, or as the TTC likes to say “a state of good repair”. To be able to give a number of factors that, apparently seem to acknowledge and justify the existence of a problem in keeping the exterior of trains clean, just doesn’t seem to me to be the correct approach. If we can see a problem and the desire to fix it is not there, one might wonder what happens to problems that we can not see?

    An excellent point.

    I was once taking an Air Canada flight back to Toronto and while boarding, they had music playing that sounded like it was a tape that had been randomly stretched, or the capstan was slipping (that’s a rubber wheel that maintains constant tape speed, back when music came in analog format!). Practically everyone entering had an odd look on their face as they could hear the non-constant-speed music playing.

    When one passenger was getting into the seat in front of me chuckled at the sound of the music, I commented that it didn’t bode well for one’s confidence in their maintenance. He quipped back that the entertainment system is not a critical part of the aircraft. I had to be the sh*t disturber and respond, “Tell that to the passengers of Swissair 111.”


  13. Leaving Chicago on an L1011 one time in the 1980s, the cabin lights above the passengers began to turn on one off randomly, like a set of Christmas lights, independent of the on switch. A flight attendant chocked it up to a computer problem.


  14. Returning to the aluminum, at times there’s a somewhat acidic environment in Caronto, where the NOx isn’t dispersed too thoroughly, and with humidity can be more rapidly acidic, not that I’m up on all the chemistry etc., just all that car exhaust isn’t taken back by the drivers to their living rooms (Let’s privatize exhaust!).

    And the mention of brake dust – wasn’t there a small problem with having asbestos brake pads a couple of decades back? Have things changed? Should we spray paint the wall tunnels??

    Steve: Actually the main asbestos issue was on the North Yonge subway where the noise dampening stuff sprayed on the tunnel liners contained asbestos. That’s why the project to repair/replace these liners took so long — the work had to be done with full hazardous materials precautions.


  15. Steve: Why are subway cars so dirty?

    Well, it’s not just the subway cars but look at any TTC escalator and compare it to any Eaton Centre escalator for example and see how dirty TTC ones are and how clean Eaton Centre ones are. And why is it that escalators and elevators rarely break down at the Eaton Centre if ever while some TTC ones are out of service for over an year? It’s a public sector vs private sector thing. TTC washrooms that used to be so filthy are now miraculously so clean and do you know why? When they were so filthy, they were cleaned by public sector TTC employees and they are clean now because TTC public washroom cleaning has been contracted out to a private company. Incredibly now, the washrooms are the cleanest part of the TTC stations that do have them as the rest of the station is still cleaned by public sector TTC employees and hence incredibly dirty. The reason for this public sector vs private sector difference is that it is nearly impossible to fire public sector employees but in the private sector if you don’t do the work, then you are replaced in no time. Ever wondered why TTC buses and streetcars bunch together and so many of them show up at the same time? Steve says that it’s because of lack of supervision but are these drivers little children that need supervision? The privately run VIVA buses manage to avoid all bunching and run on time even when there is no supervision on weekends and holidays and late at night. I am not saying that all jobs should be privatised but that the TTC should look into privatising some as a pilot project. I know that Steve won’t like my post but I think he will post it because it is respectful and something worth debating.

    Steve: I think your black and white treatment of private vs public sector employees is too simplistic. For example, the escalators in the subway carry far more people over a longer time span than those at the Eaton Centre, and people in malls are not walking directly to escalators from environments full of rain, snow and dirt. As for year-long shutdowns, those are for major overhauls/replacements of machines that are over two decades old. Malls go through major overhauls too, but they tend to do this with the stores closed. The TTC does not have this option.

    That said, the TTC (and by extension those who fund and set its policy) have long placed a lower priority on escalators and elevator repair because (a) for decades they were seen as a convenience, not as an integral part of the systems accessibility, and (b) escalators are very different from a fleet of buses where if one breaks, you just get another from the garage.

    Stations beyond washrooms are not “incredibly dirty”.

    Bunching vehicles is as much a question of the ethos of management (and by extension of those to whom they report) and of the front-line employees. For decades, the standard excuse was “we can’t run good service in mixed traffic” and “congestion” is the root of all evil. That absolved everyone in the organization from trying to understand what was really happening and trying to improve. The TTC had vehicle tracking data for decades, but management’s attitude was not keen about using these data to understand how routes work. Even today, the typical response is simply to extend running times so that there is less short turning, but without addressing underlying problems that irregular service lies within what is considered to be “on time” performance.

    I will agree that the attitude that “it can’t be fixed” has created a situation where operators and route supervisors don’t have to do as good a job as they might, but this would be a problem whether it was a public or private sector workforce. Viva may run better (I would be interested to hear from VIVA riders about this) in part because it has a simpler operating environment and in part because it was seen as a premium operation intended to provide reliable service from day one.

    According to YRT’s website, the YRT/Viva network has a fleet of 455 buses with an annual ridership of about 23 million. By contrast, in 2015 the TTC carried 241 million riders on its bus system with a fleet of 1,708 vehicles. That’s a 10:1 ratio of passengers with a 4:1 ratio of vehicles. Then there is the small matter that YR/Viva recovers only 39% of their operating costs from the farebox. The operating environment is rather different.


  16. Even near the end of their lives after 36 years, the M-1 (Montreal Locomotive Works) cars still looked clean because car washing with whatever chemical mixture removed the tunnel grime was more frequent. Using less of the chemicals probably saves money but then the grime builds up more between washes, which makes it harder to remove when the trains are washed. They may have also at some point switched to a more environmentally-friendly cleaning solvent, which may not be as effective in dissolving the grime as “the old stuff”.

    Steve: I cannot help re-iterating that the T1s on the Yonge and Sheppard lines never looked as bad as they do on BD. It’s at least partly an issue of a different wash cycle at Greenwood, and this is reinforced by the TTC comments that the major cleans depend on summer students.


  17. Transfers issues on 123 Shorncliffe are headed 50 Burnhamthorpe, with a punch for 123. This is kind of odd, as 2012 ridership for Shorncliffe was 5400 while for Burnhamthorpe it was 3100.

    It also ran me afoul of an operator who was extra-keen on checking transfers. I was boarding an eastbound 36 Finch West bus at Humber College. First, he said “you can’t use a Burnhamthorpe transfer here,” and I had to point out that it was punched for Shorncliffe.

    Then he said, “What are you doing here?” Pretty straightforward: I boarded a Shorncliffe bus on Lake Shore, rode to Kipling station, and caught a 191 Highway 27 express to Humber. He then told me that I should have taken the Kipling express bus. When I told him it didn’t run all day, he insisted, “Yes it does. I’m a bus driver and I know these things.”

    But, back when this happened (2010) he was wrong. 🙂


  18. With regards to the comments about brake shoe dust. I noticed in the past few months that the air in the stations on the Bloor-Danforth line can at times be cloudy/blurry when looking down to the other end of the platform. It’s apparent to me as I bi-weekly take the subway between Yonge and Coxwell stations. I don’t know if the air is the same at all stations but on the occasions that I have waited at Broadview and Donlands stations I definitely do notice it as well. Steve, do you know if there is a specific reason why these certain stations might have what I presume to be more brake shoe dust in the air than other stations? It is sort of concerning when one can see the other end of the platform in a slight haze while waiting for the next train. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that breathing in these particles is probably not so good for the lungs.

    Steve: I use Broadview all the time and have not noticed this. It tends to get well aired-out with the prevailing wind in off of the viaduct. I will make a point of checking on future visits.


  19. Steve: I would be interested to hear from VIVA riders about this.

    VIVA has a number of good policies. One of many of those is zero tolerance policy for drivers who leave early or who leave late from a terminal and yes, drivers have been fired over this. Also complaints against VIVA drivers are taken very seriously and thoroughly investigated and action taken as opposed to the TTC which simply apologies “for any apprehension caused” and that our concerns have been passed on to senior TTC management but then you see the same TTC driver doing the same thing again and you know, no action was taken against the driver.

    John Tory recently took a tour of several East Asian cities with some of the most extensive subway systems in the world and he learned that it was only possible because of extensive privatization. It’s high time that TTC look at privatization in these Asian cities with highly efficient transit systems and also at the privatized VIVA model of running individual routes. If you are going to insist on the status quo of 100% public sector transit, then you are going to get the status quo of poor quality service.


  20. About the dust thing, the air quality in the subway system as well as underground streetcar tunnels and loops is very poor due to decades of underground construction, unnecessary renovation and sign and map changes due to line numbering for political reasons, etc. Also lack of platform doors means selfish people throwing garbage in the tracks gets broken down by trains and gets converted to dust which we all inhale. Is there any data about the life expectancy and lung health of subway drivers and collectors? People who throw garbage on tracks and unlawfully on the platform where it gets blown on to the tracks should face a minimum of 10 years imprisonment.

    Steve: I think you are being rather harsh about this especially considering that garbage from passengers is not the only source of dirt (not to mention fire hazard) in the tunnels. There is also the issue of how often the TTC actually cleans things.

    About the privatisation debate, be open to studying the idea and trying it out on a limited basis to evaluate its benefits and drawbacks before making further decision about whether or not to privatise extensively.


  21. In response to PK, all those “unnecessary renovations” and underground construction you speak of had to be done.

    Union was 60 years old and in bad shape. It needed renovations to make it safe. The old platform was falling apart and too small to handle passenger volumes. Museum and Pape were done because of their age and the need to modernize stations that really need it. Pape was an accessibility nightmare and needed a renovation to bring it up to AODA standards along with modern fire code.

    As for the underground construction the North Yonge line was going from round to oval. That needed to be done for the line to remain in operation. If the tunnel is losing it’s shape then it becomes a structural issue requiring immediate repair. All the ongoing signal work is necessary to ensure trains can operate without delay.

    As for signage.. that needed to be done and was not politically motivated. Can you imagine if we called Line 1 the Yonge – University -Spadina – York Region line? Every so often signage needs replacing and things need updating.

    Not meaning to be rude but put that in your pipe and smoke it.


  22. Richard White said

    “Not meaning to be rude but put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

    (Just make sure you don’t inhale the smoke!)


  23. TTC subway drivers and collectors and tunnel and other underground workers should be paid higher due to the hazardous air in their work environment and consequent lung problems and reduced life expectancies. Steve who always stands up for public sector employees should stand up for this vulnerable group of workers and fight for danger pay for them just like police officers.

    Steve: I would rather that the TTC dealt with the problem of dirt especially if it is different depending on which line one works. As for worker safety, that’s a job for the ATU. Danger pay is going rather far.


  24. I read an above comment suggesting private sector transit may be better.

    The city of Toronto did have it’s mass transit service provided by the private sector in two contracts from 1861 – 1891 and another from 1891 -1921, the latter one being the reason why the TTC was created in the first place, or the Toronto Transportation Commission as it was called originally.

    The Toronto Railway Company would refuse to serve new areas of the city as the city grew, so the city had to create the Toronto Civic Railway in order to serve the then newer parts of the city.

    By the 1910s the TRC had become quite poor for the physical state of their transit vehicles, made even worse by a car barn fire that thinned the transit fleet even further.

    Of course there have been cut backs to the TTC. It caused the transit service to fall behind, becoming more dependent on farebox revenue. The results of those cuts should surprise no one, I doubt the private sector involvement in London UK Transport was of any good either..


  25. Jordan Kerim wrote:

    The Toronto Railway Company would refuse to serve new areas of the city as the city grew, …

    Was that their fault, or the fault of the city government who wrote the conditions of the charter? Time and time again, we see government contracts that leave all sorts of loopholes. I’m sure others can add substantially to the list, but Bombardier streetcar deal comes to mind (sure, there will be penalties, but they didn’t deter what has happened), the length of the strike that affected three of YRT’s four contractors, and then there is the whole 407 lease deal. Need I say more?

    Steve: No, it was the company’s fault. After their initial investment, they wanted to run what they had into the ground, not invest more as the city grew. As a result, Toronto was forced to build the Toronto Civic Railway to cover the new territory.

    By the 1910s the TRC had become quite poor for the physical state of their transit vehicles, …

    By that time, it was pretty well understood that their charter would not be renewed. Had the city lead them to believe they had a fighting chance, they may not have operated in lame duck mode for a decade.

    Steve: Chicken meet egg. The city was not going to renew the charter because they had refused to expand, and the cost of doing this fell to city taxpayers.


  26. VIVA Rider wrote:

    “It’s high time that TTC look at privatization in these Asian cities with highly efficient transit systems and also at the privatized VIVA model of running individual routes. If you are going to insist on the status quo of 100% public sector transit, then you are going to get the status quo of poor quality service.”

    Sorry, but I have to disagree. Private organizations are only interested in one thing: profits. This means that they will only want to operate profitable routes (i.e. any route that’s farebox pays for the expenses of operating the line), and they will cut costs where possible. And people in Toronto do not only take one route, they may take two, three, four routes. How do you divide up the one fare between each?

    Also, the public sector does not mean ‘poor quality service.’ But the Commission, and City Council by default, has to take a position that only ‘good quality service’ is acceptable and that they need to take action when and where required. But we need to get the politics out of running the TTC, which in my experience seems to be a problem, at least at times.

    Steve: There is also an entrenched attitude within the TTC about the impossibility of running proper service due to funding cuts, traffic congestion, too many passengers, and on and on. The idea of actually trying to make things better is comparatively recent and has not really put down roots very deeply.


  27. TTC needs to change the wooden sleepers to concrete. Ottawa and Waterloo are installing concrete sleepers for their projects (includes tracks going to maintenance facilities). Concrete sleepers mean tracks don’t buckle as easily when the heat kicks in.

    Take for example at Davisville station, it is notoriously slow because of the wooden sleepers.

    Steve: The problem at Davisville is more complex than just the choice of ties/sleepers. The foundation under the track from Muir Portal to Berwick Portal (the open section between St. Clair and Eglinton Stations) must be rebuilt, and this job has been put off for several years because of its complexity, and the possible length of time it will take. The most recent deferral was for the Pan Am Games last year, and now the TTC hopes to co-ordinate some of the shutdowns over this stretch with major work at Eglinton Station related to the Crosstown connection in 2017. I have not heard how they expect to break the work into short enough chunks to do it incrementally with weekend shutdowns. This has been an ongoing problem for several years not just for track stability but for signal systems due to poor drainage.

    TTC has generally been using concrete ties for all new installations except at special work where non-standard size pieces are required.


  28. The transfers on one of the routes that goes up Marlee are still punched. I’m sure there are a few others. And on Sunday nights the Rosedale bus gives you a Sherbourne transfer without a punch, even though the bus says Rosedale. On Sunday nights, the Rosedale bus does not go in a loop, but ends up at the bottom of Sherbourne. The TTC site makes no mention of this. It has happened to me twice and actually got me in trouble with my employer.


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