How a brand-new TTC streetcar arrives in Toronto
The TTC’s next-generation streetcars, of which there will eventually be 204, are still a head-turning rarity on Toronto’s streets—and that’s mainly because Bombardier’s chronic labour and manufacturing problems have at times slowed the assembly line to a virtual halt. Even once a streetcar is assembled and ready to roll, though, it has to clear a final obstacle before it can start serving Toronto passengers: the 1,000-kilometre journey from Bombardier’s plant in Thunder Bay to the TTC’s Hillcrest maintenance yard on Bathurst Street, where trained technicians unload it and probe it for defects. Here’s what that process looked like recently, when the TTC took delivery of streetcar 4408, the eighth member of its shiny new fleet.
There’s really only one way to get the new streetcars to Toronto, and that’s by rail. “The vehicle is too big to transport by road. It’s 30 metres long,” says Greg Ernst, the TTC’s chief streetcar engineer. Each streetcar is lashed to a flatcar for transport.
A rail spur leads into the TTC’s Hillcrest maintenance yard, where a purpose-built structure is topped by tracks roughly level with the rails on the top of the flatcar.
The height of every flatcar varies by a few centimetres because of the amount of wear on its wheels and the precise configuration of its suspension. Hydraulic jacks lift the loaded flatcar to the precise height of the TTC’s delivery platform.
Before unloading begins, a team of inspectors from Bombardier walks around the streetcar making note of any scratches, dents or marks on the body. At this stage, the TTC can still refuse delivery if there’s significant damage. The last streetcar to arrive at Hillcrest was tagged with graffiti while in transit and required extensive cleaning at Canadian Pacific’s expense.
With inspection complete, the most delicate phase of the operation can begin: pulling the new streetcar off the flatcar. First, a spare old-style streetcar pulls up to the back of the new one and a tow bar is connected between the two. The “straps” holding the new streetcar to the flatbed (they’re actually chains) are disconnected and the parking brakes are manually released.
The TTC didn’t know in advance, but Canadian Pacific delivered this new streetcar backwards, its rear end facing the unloading bay. As a result, the technicians have to take some extra steps to get the vehicle into the maintenance barn the right way around for testing.
Mihai Birjovanu, a rail vehicle analyzer with the TTC, is charged with safely towing the new streetcar off the flatcar. “Vehicles aren’t that hard to pull,” Ernst says. “They have good bearings, and on steel wheels with steel rail it only takes a few hundred pounds to move it.”
Following instructions issued over a walkie talkie, Birjovanu carefully backs the new streetcar over a piece of temporary track leading off the flatcar. Michael Bailey, another rail vehicle analyzer, walks behind the reversing pair, ensuring the trolley pole on the older streetcar—the rod that connects it to the overhead wires—doesn’t snag on anything.
Streetcar number 4408 and the towing 4194 snake through the Hillcrest yard en route to the workshop. Because 4408 is still facing the wrong way, Birjovanu must take part in a piece of choreography that involves briefly blocking traffic on Bathurst Street. First, the coupled pair reverse into a position that allows a second spare vehicle to connect to the front of the new streetcar. Birjovanu, poking into traffic, breaks his link at the rear and 4408 is pulled forward to the entrance to the barn and backed inside. From above, the brief ballet looks like a pair of three point turns.
Although it’s safely inside the TTC shop, streetcar number 4408 is still a long way from being ready for passengers. There’s another thorough inspection to check for shipping damage; the batteries are carefully reconnected; and mirrors, fire extinguishers and peripherals are installed. The new streetcar is then put through its paces on the TTC’s internal test track to ensure the acceleration and braking systems are working properly ahead of an on-street, 600-km “burn in” process, which takes about five days. If the car performs as expected, the TTC signs the all-important final acceptance agreement, which finalizes the purchase of the $4.5 million vehicle.