Updated April 27, 2018 at 10:45 am: A table of planned conversion dates for pantograph operation has been added at the end of this article.
The streetcar system on Tuesday evening suffered a major outage when all Flexity cars were ordered to “stop and stay” on their routes following an overhead failure at King and Spadina. At the time, a problem with power surges was also reported.
Through comments and emails I received, I learned that there had been a developing problem with the carbon inserts on trolley “shoes” on the new Flexity streetcars, and I pursued this issue with the TTC. Following an investigation, their response arrived this morning.
Premature wear of carbons on pole configuration is normal during periods of high humidity and high precipitation. The carbons absorb the moisture, become softer, and wear out faster. Under dry conditions, the carbons are expected to last 4-5 days. Under wet conditions, they are expected to last 1-2 days. A review of maintenance records for the past 3-4 days indicate the latest carbons that were installed on the LFLRV fleet lasted less than 8 hours. We believe this significant reduction in carbon life is due to a combination of factors that include:
- A potential quality problem with the material composition of the carbons.
- The use of pole configuration with the LFLRV design. The LFLRV design requires a higher current draw through the power collection system. Normally this higher current draw is handled through a pantograph system. The pantograph system has a larger carbon strip which helps to dissipate heat and distribute wear. On a trolley pole, the higher current draw through a smaller carbon generates more heat and wears quicker.
Due to the reduced carbon life, usage of these parts in the past 48-72 hours has more than doubled. Subsequently some vehicles burned through their carbons and started to run on the bare harp that resulted in numerous pole dewirements and the downed overhead on St Clair.
To conserve and maximize carbon life the following plans are being implemented:
- Immediately drop the 12 mm threshold for replacement to a nightly check of 7mm min. material remaining at the front, leading edge of the carbon.
- Strict control of carbon shoe counting and sign-out.
- Keep all replaced carbons for evaluation/recordkeeping.
- Sort through old, discarded stocks of carbons and retain those with more than 9mm depth remaining at the leading edge. Use these on a dedicated fleet of panto only cars for Harbourfront. We only need to use these carbons to get us to Exhibition and back each day. Save all new carbons for pole only routes.
- Expedite the testing and start-up of panto use on Spadina.
- Reserve “Seattle” carbons as a last resort. These carbons are thinner and our previous experience found they had a shorter service life. At best they should be used on the shortest mileage/time based runs. There is added risk of them wearing out mid-day, requiring more frequent road inspections.
In addition the above, staff will be expediting test runs of LFLRV on the pantograph system along the Spadina route. Overhead crews are also expediting the conversion of the St Clair route.
[Email from Brad Ross, Executive Director Corporate and Customer Communications, February 22, 2018]
There have been several problems with overhead down in recent weeks, and events of the past few days are clearly connected with the long run of rainy weather.
The move to accelerate the conversion of Spadina and St. Clair to pantograph operation is welcome news, but this begs the question of the status of the King and Cherry routes which use a large and growing part of the Flexity fleet. Conversion to full pantograph capability of the overhead along them is still some time off, and the schedule for this work lies in 2019, notably at the King/Queen/Roncesvalles where replacement of the track is also planned. A further problem is that service on King routinely short turns and diverts via streets that are not planned for conversion until 2020.
This project has slipped by about a year from plans in earlier capital budgets with more work now in 2020 than in previous versions.
2017 Version2018 Version Updated: In response to a comment asking for an illustration of this problem, it turns out that I have an old trolley shoe with a broken carbon in my collection. This is from a Peter Witt car.
This shows what one does not want to see. The contact wire should run along the carbon surface, but instead here will drag against the metal. Also the shoe will ride higher on the overhead potentially contacting pieces of the suspension system.
Updated April 27, 2018
The following table of planned conversion dates to pantograph operation was provided by the TTC.
Any sense of the reason for the foot dragging on the pantograph conversion? Wasn’t the back half of the car order supposed to ship without poles on the original schedule? 2020 now?!? Seriously?!?
Steve: The overhead conversion has dragged on and on, with no discernible link between the locations chosen for work and the then-current implementation plans for new cars. I suspect this is related to the fact that the department responsible for the power distribution system used to be part of “subways”. Also, until the recent problem with material quality of the carbons, the problem was not as bad and I suspect the slippage wasn’t considered critical.
There is a parallel situation with the installation of new electronics for the electric track switches which, according to the 2018 budget info, will finally actually get underway this year. The current setup has been a problem for decades, but it was easier to just have operators (or even point duty staff) throw switches manually than to fix the problem.
That’s The TTC Way.
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The original plan was, I think, for all new streetcars after #60 to come ONLY with pantographs. This is clearly not what is happening. Was this decision taken because overhead work had fallen behind or is overhead work so slow because they decided to keep getting ‘pole cars”? Does installing new overhead ‘only’ mean new wires/supports or are ‘electrical upgrades’ needed too? Though I am sure it is easier to put in new overhead at the same time as new track is installed the new track does go back in the same location. It would seem best to expedite overhead replacement work so that pantographs can, soon, be used on ALL routes (including of course the very busy 504 and 514) that will (very soon) be 100% Flexity.
Steve: Yes, originally only the first 60 were to have poles because the conversion was supposed to be completed much sooner. Please don’t get me started on the TTC’s chronic inability to schedule various seemingly-related projects together. This is an example of a silo mentality that has infected the organization for as long as I can remember.
Again, your fiscal conservatives making things worse. The “money savings” end up costing more time and money.
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For those of us… less knowledgeable (cough)… about streetcar parts, would it be possible to please add a simple diagram (or photo of a streetcar with an arrow) indicating the part being discussed? and, is this a problem that will go away with the conversion to pantograph?
Steve: Here is a photo on Flickr by Vic Gedris showing the part of a trolley pole that connects a car to the overhead. In the photo, the assembly is on its side, but would normally face upward. If you look inside the U-shaped bronze piece, you will see a black piece that actually runs the length of shoe. This is the carbon insert which (a) provides electrical contact to the wire and (b) slides along the wire without wearing it out.
It is critical that this carbon insert be replaced before it wears down to the point where the contact is made to the bare metal both because this is rough on the wire and because the whole thing can snag on hangers and especially on frogs and tear down the overhead.
With pantographs, there is a carbon insert running the width of each of two contact bars. This provides a greater area for power transmission between the wire and the car. Also, the wire does not have to be positioned directly above the car but can shift from side to side. This is actually preferably because it spreads the wear over a wider area. The TTC will converted its system to this scheme ones the last of the trolley pole cars is retired.
In this photo, you can see a car with its pantograph up and the trolley pole down. The assembly in the photo linked above is clearly visible at the end of the trolley pole.
Other photos in this gallery show the special arrangements for co-existence of poles and pans on the TTC. Special work is designed so that pans will ride under the junction between wires while the trolley shoes on the older cars ride through.
Pantographs will largely eliminate the problem and will also simplify intersections because the need for frogs (the pieces linking crossing wires) disappears.
I have added a photo of a trolley shoe to the article.
Just as a side note – my understanding of the reason TTC streetcars have poles instead of being converted to pantographs log ago was due to the presence of electric trolley buses in the TTC fleet mix of equipment. With their rubber tires, the trolley buses needed a second wire set to act as the ground side of the electrical service. If a streetcar with a pantograph passed under the trolley bus wires, the pantograph would make a direct connection between, and short out the the trolley bus power supply.
Steve: The last time the TTC contemplated a migration to pans was with the construction of the Spadina line in the mid-90s. The last of the trolley coaches were gone in 1993, and so this should not have presented a design issue. Some of the Spadina overhead was built for pans, and there was a scheme to retrofit starting at that point on the CLRVs. However, the idea was dropped, probably because of cost issues as the TTC came out of the recession and into the Harris years.
A lot of work was done on the 512 overhead a couple of years ago, and the charts above seem to indicate that the last bit of work, in the west station, was completed last year. The cars are a mix of CLRV and LFLRV, but only poles are used. Did the TTC not equip the route with those skates that allow mixed pole/panto use??
Steve: Yes, St. Clair has been pantograph ready for some time and there have been test runs with cars there.
I reiterate here my objection to whichever idiot at TTC decided the colour green should be used in any context other than “completed”.
My understanding is that the pace of pantograph readiness was slowed to save money because the Flexities were not coming as quickly as expected – now Commissioner and Council penny pinching is biting the transit service in the ass for the umpteenth time.
Given that Bathurst is fully panto ready, wouldn’t it make sense to move some Flexities to 511 from 504 and CLRVs in the other direction?
Steve: They are running every Flexity they can get on 504 to provide added capacity. The real issue in the short term is to get a supply of carbons from the vendor they were using before the current batch that do not hold up well.
This sounds like a quality control problem and the TTC received a bad batch of carbons. The Flexities have been running for several years now and even though it’s been rainy and humid recently, it isn’t the first time the streetcar fleet has been exposed to that, which makes me think the factor that changed was the carbon shoes. The communication you received didn’t say the TTC’s investigating this with their supplier did it? Sometimes companies make changes to materials or manufacturing processes and everything looks fine during in-house testing only for problems to emerge in customer use situations. I’m wondering if something like that may have happened here.
Steve: There is talk that the TTC change suppliers, but I await details.
Although there may have been unique factors at work in Toronto’s case (which is so in many things, esp streetcar infrastructure) in theory and practice elsewhere, trolley wires (as in electric buses) and ‘tram’ pantographs are fully compatible.
Here’s a number of pics and description of just one instance of many:
Trams, Buses & Trolleybuses Can Co-exist
The TTC certainly is “unique” in many ways…
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I am actually surprised that there are apparently multiple suppliers of these carbons. How many places still use poles or do those with pantos also need them (though, presumably, a different size.)
Great article as usual Mr Munro. Always informative and entertaining. Nice reading without pandering to either fanatics or uninformed commuters. Your knowledge of transit matters is impressive. Most denizens of the city are only interested in why bus/train/tram are late. Not always the fault of a fare hike or operator.
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That may be so but it doesn’t mean they’ll do it. I’ve complained bitterly on Steve’s blog about this. Prime examples: Conversion of the Dundas/Church intersection done shortly before intersection track replacement and the time they did midday overhead replacement at Broadview and Gerrard (while the 505 was on diversion via Gerrard thus blocking all 504/505/506 cars for 10-15 mins at a time) when the routes were scheduled to be bustituted shortly after. Much bad planning and it stretches back for years.
That could be it. If TTC changed suppliers, the new supplier probably has a different formulation for their carbon parts that has different characteristics than the previous supplier. I wonder if the carbons that are wearing excessively quickly have a higher grease/other additive content than the previous ones causing the new ones to be softer and wear quicker.
If supplier change theory is the case, it’s a shame the TTC didn’t order a small batch and field test them on a number of Flexities to see how they hold up in service since those are the worst case, ragged edge use case, before committing the whole fleet to them.
Does the TTC have a lab in house? If so, can they do materials tests?
Is the map slightly out of date already? I was at Wellington and Church the other day and it looks like it’s already done.
Steve: The pattern of when work is done vs when it is planned can be something of a mystery. In any event, the most current map is from last summer, and so would not pick up work that was likely done as part of bringing Wellilngton Street back online.
Thanks for all the detail about this issue! When I had gone to the open house at the overhead at the overhead department I asked about when Spadina would be converted to pantograph operation. IIRC the reasoning was that trolley pole/panto coexistence is a tricky thing to deal with and there’s the potential for the trolley poles to mess up some hanging elements and interfere with pantograph operation, which is why it sounded as if Spadina with it’s many intersections was not being converted sooner, though I believe they wanted to convert St. Clair over soon since it is a relatively isolated like 509.
With regard to the overhead plan, does the blue book contain information about what wasn’t completed since the provided image (June 26) was produced? I know at least Dundas & McCaul hasn’t been completed, and I don’t believe Gerrard & Broadview nor Queen & Parliament have either.
Steve: Gerrard and Broadview is mostly done. I will have to visit the other locations to see how far they have progressed. It is not unusual for a conversion to get to “almost” complete and then appear to be forgotten. The work is done in stages over several days/weeks.
From my experience, these maps are rarely correct, but I include them as the best available info from the TTC.
A bit like TTC route schedules in fact!
For a good many years in Cleveland, pantograph-equipped heavy rapid transit cars coexisted along the same tracks under the same wires with streetcar type equipment. Can’t the same thing be done in Toronto?
Steve: This is done here today. The problem is that cars that should be running with pans due to their power draw are using trolley poles, and the carbons in their shoes are no longer physically up to the task, possibly due to a change in supplier.
I lived in San Francisco in the late 1970’s when SF MUNI upgraded its overhead in preparation for replacement of their fleet of PCC streetcars with LRVs and except for a couple of test cars that were fitting with trolley poles, the new LRVs were pantograph only. SF MUNI has an extensive network of trolleybus routes and this has not prevented use of LRVs with pantographs as there were special guides on the overhead to allow a panograph to pass under trolleybus wires without contact. There were also upgrades of the trolleybus overhead that reduced de-wiring and allowed the buses to pass through overhead switches and crossings at greater speed. As pointed out trolleybuses were discontinued in 1993 (borrowed buses from Edmonton no less) and the old overhead was removed soon after so it’s clear there are other reasons why the new LFLRVs are still mostly using trolley poles.
Steve: TTC TB overhead was very much behind the times, and had operational problems because there was no secondary suspension. This means every span had to be as tight as possible to hold things up rather than balancing the load among a spiderweb above the intersection (the way the TTC is building streetcar intersections today). All that tension, coupled with the generally decrepit state of the TB system, made for lots of failures. The TTC didn’t want the TB system to survive, and their cronies in the natural gas bus industry provided them with a “green” out.
This is one of those sequences of events that make me distrust the integrity of “transit professionals”. Some really are very good. Some will write whatever they’re told/paid to do.
Yes, I recall CNG being touted as the “green” future when those buses started appearing on TTC routes. It was clear to me the trolleybus system died of neglect, with no interest in investing in updated overhead and new buses. I even recall hearing one of the arguments against them that Toronto doesn’t have the steep hills San Francisco has as to why we didn’t need them. And now the CHG buses has joined the TBs to the scrap yard, I could easily see TBs on many of the heavily used routes and New Flyer has some decent artics for those routes. Now TBs are a distant memory while in SF they’ve long ago expanded their TB routes. I still remember my first trip back to the city of my birth and being very impressed with the TTC, and recall the new stations along the Spadina line were still gleaming. Now the whole system seems tired and shopworn with the LFLRVs the only thing new and shiny (for now).
Sometimes there is problem with streetcar trolley shoes, sometimes streetcar parts are falling on tracks, sometimes streetcars travelling in opposite directions manage to collide, etc. All these problems should be a hint that we should be investing in electric articulated buses instead.
Steve: Leaving aside that streetcars are used all over the world in cities, some much bigger than Toronto. Streetcar parts have not been falling on the tracks for years since the early tests of the prototype Flexitys. Trolley shoes are a supplier quality problem. We didn’t ditch buses because natural gas didn’t work out, nor because hybrids didn’t work out; we simply got better buses. We didn’t ditch subways because the H6 trains were lemons. As for the SRT, well we should never have bought it, but that’s water long under the bridge. Your bias is showing.
Then there are future streetcar and light rail extensions to be considered. Which means more capital and operational budget increases (excluding inflation) in the coming years and decades.
We have streetcar extensions south into the Port Lands, from Cherry and Broadview extensions. We have the eastern part of Queens Quay, that would join Union Station with the Port Lands. We have the 505 eastern extension to the Gerrard Station with the Relief Line (and SmartTrack). Then, if they ever get off their knees worshipping the automobile gods, the 512 western extension to Jane and/or Scarlett Road. Likely the Waterfront West LRT, which would likely use TTC streetcar gauge between Park Lawn and Bathurst.
That’s just the streetcar track gauge network. The light rail network (using standard track gauge) could see expansion after Eglinton LRT, with Finch West, Sheppard East, Eglinton East and West, Jane, and hopefully others in time.
All would need operational budgets to keep them working at the top of the game, instead of the current situation because of underfunding. I’m worried that there will be some future non-transit genius who will demand cuts and more cuts to make themselves look “good”.
What will happen to the heritage fleet of PCC, Witt, and hopefully CLRV’s once the whole system is converted to pantograph? Will the system remain backward compatible for trolley poles or will it become pantograph only, kicking the last of the old fleet to the curb?
Steve: I have asked about this and there is nothing definitive yet. Structurally, the CLRVs can handle pans because they were designed for it. PCCs and the Peter Witt might need modifications to carry the weight.
Actually, PCCs have a history of being reequipped with pantographs, One good example was way back in 1961 when GE’s plant in Erie, PA purchased one from Washington, DC for use in automation experiments. the same system sold 74 cars to Sarajevo where they all got their trolley poles replaced with pantographs before entering service there. Also Cleveland and Pittsburgh eventually installed pantographs on at least some of their PCCS during the 1980s.
In February, Brad Ross said “staff will be expediting test runs of LFLRV on the pantograph system along the Spadina route”. The statement suggests that the overhead is ready for testing. Would you know if the testing has started or if it was successful? Will we soon see pantograph operation soon on Spadina? I thought at one time the TTC was reluctant to use pantographs on Spadina in case there was a diversion on unconverted overhead.
Steve: A table of planned conversion dates for pantograph operation provided by the TTC has been added to the article.
The way the pantograph overhead conversion is scheduled seems pretty odd to me.
Carlton is done pretty early, although it’s supposed to be the last route to go all LFLRV. Well, you can say “what about diversions?”, but Queen and Lake Shore are the last to be converted, and Queen is so often a diversion for King. Also, Lake Shore is mostly done. After the loop is done — and they have to do it, the overhead was mostly taken down during construction — it’s just a few spots such as the Kipling junction that may need work.
Thanks for the table.
Having two entries for 501 Queen – east versus west of Humber Loop – suggests that route 507 will be resurrected once again in all but name. Doing 511 Bathurst before 514 Cherry seems strange since the latter has the Flexity streetcars. Putting 504 King almost last is strange for the same reason. Putting 502 Downtowner and 503 Kingston Rd before both 504 King and 501 Queen seems strange unless the TTC is thinking about the places where the routes overlap from Woodbine Loop to downtown.
Steve: I suspect it is more a case of knocking off the routes that don’t need many new cars first before doing the two big crosstown routes. Obviously if 502/503 have converted, this takes care of part of Queen and King. The real issue now is for Bombardier to get the new fleet to us rather than giving the TTC and a DoFo Queen’s Park an excuse to start trimming back on the size of the order.
Seems odd that 504 King is so far down the list as it is supposed to be 100% Flexity fairly soon. Clearly they intend to get almost all of the 203 streetcars with both poles and pantographs which seems somewhat wasteful. The original plan was to have pantos only after car 60!
According to blogTO, 510 Spadina converted to pantographs on May 14, 2018.