The TTC’s new life-sized streetcar simulator is not a toy—but it looks like one

The TTC’s new life-sized streetcar simulator is not a toy—but it looks like one

(Image: Kayla Rocca)

Halfway down a long corridor inside the TTC’s Hillcrest facility, on Bathurst Street, there’s a room marked “streetcar simulator.” Inside is a state-of-the-art training device on which the next generation of TTC streetcar drivers will earn their wheels.

The simulator is an exact replica of the cockpit of one of the TTC’s new streetcars, the first of which went into service late last month. The throttle and brake controls, speedometer, buttons and even the plush leather seat are identical to the real thing. The only difference is that instead of a windshield, the driver-in-training looks at a computerized 3D version of Toronto rendered on a massive wrap-around screen.

When Mark Knackstedt, the training coordinator for the new streetcar program, suggested I try driving, I jumped at the chance. Inside the cab, the fake streetcar felt eerily like a real vehicle. The screen covered all my sight lines and the sound of passing traffic played over the speakers.

“It’s not just like a video game,” Knackstedt said. “It’s calculating in real time what a physical model of this car is doing.”

I drove the “streetcar” east toward Yonge Street. The sound of wheels gliding and clattering over switches played as the simulator moved. Realistic vibrations rumbled up through the floor. The only thing missing was the inertial lurch whenever the the vehicle turned a corner.

In virtual Toronto, traffic moved along the road and pedestrians strolled by mechanically on the sidewalk. Though the world is mostly filled with generic buildings, the layout of the streetcar rails is identical to the real thing. To lend a degree of authenticity, select landmarks like the Art Gallery of Ontario, OCAD, the CN Tower and the El Mocambo (RIP?) populate the landscape.

“We asked for certain landmarks to make it look like Toronto, but not everything, because the more you ask for the more it’s going to cost you,” said Lionel Jordan, a senior instructor for streetcars and other TTC light-rail vehicles.

The simulator is divided into two parts: the mock cab and the instructor’s station on the other side of the room. The trainee is expected to navigate the streets while the instructor takes notes and occasionally causes trouble.

“You can do whatever you want with this, and this is the real power of the simulator,” Knackstedt says. “You can simulate any weather conditions. You can simulate the changes in friction on the rail, whatever you want.”

The instructor has the power to cause vehicles and pedestrians to swerve in front of the streetcar, summon a snowstorm or rain, even replicate an overhead power outage. Trainees are coached based on the quality of their responses.

So far, none of Toronto’s roughly 500 streetcar drivers have used the new simulator. It was installed just three weeks ago as a replacement for a previous simulator that was tailored to the TTC’s older fleet of streetcars (the commission also has bus and subway simulators), and it still needs to be cleared for use. It comes as part of the TTC’s $1.2-billion streetcar contract with Bombardier, and its graphics were designed by a Michigan company called FAAC Incorporated.

The sim isn’t easy to use. Just as I felt like I was getting the hang of the basic controls, I narrowly avoided rear-ending a lime-green truck at Beverley Street. It was at this point I realized I had neglected to open the doors at any of the stops. Worse was to come, however.

In the middle of Yonge-Dundas Square, I miscalculated my stopping distance and hit a motorcyclist. Mercifully, there was no sickening crunch. The computer silently logged the mishap and the digital victim drove off unscathed.

“It’s not like playing Grand Theft Auto,” Knackstedt said—which is probably for the best. Anyone who has ever driven a streetcar, real or simulated, knows that they make very poor getaway vehicles.