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Ten years after

Aug. 6, 2005. 11:36 AM



TTC structure and maintenance supervisor Robert Newman, left, points to a sign warning subway drivers to slow down before a curve north of Dupont station on the southbound Spadina subway line. A decade ago, a driver who ran three red lights and ignored the sign caused the system’s worst accident when he rear-ended another train stopped at a red signal light just around the bend.

On Aug. 11, 1995, 3 died when a subway train rear-ended another underground at Russell Hill Dr.

It shut down the Spadina line for 5 days — and sparked a philosophy shift from expansion to safety


The brass plaque commemorates the three passengers who died in the tragedy, and it hangs at the exact spot in the Spadina subway tunnel where the impact occurred.

Here, on Aug. 11, 1995 — 10 years ago Thursday — a southbound, six-car subway train known as Run 35 smashed at nearly 50 km/h into the back of its Run 34 predecessor, which was stopped at a signal light just north of the Dupont station.

The impact — so tremendous that it mushroomed subway cars into a metal plug that sealed the tunnel from track to ceiling — killed Kinga Szabo, Christina Munar Reyes and Xian Hui Lin and injured about 140 others.

Like many such disasters, this one was caused by a combination of mechanical and human errors.

Run 35 driver Robert Jeffrey, who fled his front window post and survived the crash, had run through three sets of red lights before swooping around a blind curve under Russell Hill Dr. at 6:02 p.m. to find the stopped train sitting dead ahead.

But another culprit sat 411 metres behind the impact site, back up the winding track at a segment of tunnel designated SP71.

It was a homely little device known as an Ericsson trip arm. But it would have a bigger impact on the Toronto Transit Commission than any piece of equipment in system history.

About 28 centimetres long, the Ericsson’s motorized, track-level shaft was supposed to swing up as the nearby signal light turned red and “trip,” or engage, the brakes of any train that passed through the visual stop sign.

Instead, a design flaw that had been lurking in the device for 18 years caused the arm to swing down as the train passed over, allowing Run 35 to proceed at full steam.

That split-second motion; that tiny, trip-arm fulcrum, turned North America’s third-largest transit system on its head.

“What changed at the TTC after the accident?” says David Gunn, who was the recently appointed chief general manager of the commission at the time of the “Russell Hill” disaster.

“I’d have to say just about everything.”

Almost all senior managers at the TTC’s Davisville Ave. headquarters have a picture of the faulty Ericsson trip arm in their office.

It’s a caution against arrogance as much as a plea for vigilance.

“The TTC had a culture which was a little bit smug before the accident,” says Gunn, who left the system in 1999 and now heads the U.S. Amtrak train service.

“They were sort of living on their reputation, which was the best transit system, blah, blah, blah, for safety and so on.”

It was an illusion, says Gunn, who has called Russell Hill the best thing that ever happened to the TTC.

Indeed, many transit experts say, it took the worst accident in commission history to push it to the point where it can now — a decade later — finally make good on those erstwhile safety boasts.

Today, a system that had become a ticking time bomb is widely considered a paragon of safety, accountability, diligence and responsible management.

The American Public Transit Association, which conducts safety audits on all of North America’s major transit systems, now uses the TTC as a gold standard in assessing the policies and infrastructures of other properties.

“Over the recent couple of years we have called on the Toronto Transit Commission to assist us as we conduct peer reviews of other transit systems,” says Greg Hull, head of safety and security at the Washington based association.

“We would say that the Toronto Transit Commission is certainly one of the safest systems we see. They have embraced safety and system safety concepts.”

Before Russell Hill, however, the mantra of TTC supremacy, an article of faith for many Torontonians, masked a plethora of problems that ran through the system’s workforce and its surface and subterranean fleets.

These included:

  • A subway system that was in such advanced disrepair that long segments of track could have been condemned.

  • A signal system that malfunctioned with astonishing frequency and jaded train drivers who would routinely run red lights to save time.

  • A geriatric bus fleet in the midst of mechanical and structural collapse.

  • An old-boy management clique plagued by self-satisfied incompetence.

  • A corporate structure that discouraged communication between key departments, including the maintenance personnel who detected problems and the engineering division that fixed them.

  • A hubristic focus on grand subway expansion at a time when the existing system was aging and wearing out.

“The first reaction I had after the accident was, ‘That can’t happen — you can’t not trip’,” says Gary Webster, the TTC’s current operations manager, who was already a 20-year veteran in 1995.

“Obviously, we found out that it could happen.”

Post-accident investigations would find out a whole lot more.

TTC deputy general manager Lynn Hilborn says localized examinations of the accident scene soon spread out to the entire subway system, parts of which dated back to 1954.

“It was like a pebble thrown in the water; there was a ripple effect that came out of that,” says Hilborn, who was head of TTC communications at the time and suffered through two years of insomnia after the accident.

“It wasn’t just the localized condition around the accident scene. The next ripple was the tunnel structure, the next was the drains, the track, the signals.”

Hilborn says the trip arm failure served as a wake-up call for the commission, which had its eyes trained persistently on massive expansions — four big projects were in the hopper at the time — as its infrastructure fell to pieces.

And what soon became apparent, he says, was that the system did not even have a concept of what acceptable safety standards should be for its fleets and tunnels.

“We started to ask, `Do we even have a proper baseline of what the conditions should be?’,” Hilborn says.

“And we said, `Let’s put it all on the table, how many rail defects do we have? How bad is it?’”

Intensive efforts to catalogue the system’s faults and to set standards were initiated within days of the accident. And efforts to meet the new standards and maintain them have consumed the TTC ever since.

“What we came up with under David Gunn was the philosophy of `state of good repair,’” says Hilborn.

And to this day, state of good repair has remained the TTC’s guiding philosophy.

It also has eaten up billions of dollars — the vast majority of the system’s capital budget — at the expense of expansions, or anything else that might challenge it.

How dangerous was the TTC as Aug. 11, 1995 loomed?

An inquest held into the deaths at Russell Hill, coupled with a TTC report tabled at the hearings, produced a 236-item menu to improve the system. It ranged from the wholesale replacement of some 295 Ericsson trip arms along the Spadina line to the construction of a new $60 million transit control centre.

And over the past decade, the TTC has become obsessed with ticking each item off that list.

“We’re now 99.9 per cent done,” says Hilborn, who notes that the only significant project left on the “due diligence list” is a multi-million dollar speed control system that’s now being deployed in the subway. (Based on trackside transponders, that system will automatically slow trains down if they’re moving too fast as they approach red signals.)

Far beyond the list, however, Russell Hill has informed almost every aspect of the commission’s work over the past 10 years, says John O’Grady, head of safety on the system.

“The whole management structure changed, there’s better internal communications, we separated the subway and surface organizations and made it much more clear where the lines of accountability were,” O’Grady says.

The lapses in accountability and communications throughout the TTC were astonishing prior to Russell Hill, says Mark Reidak, superintendent of subway signals.

For example, he says, little communication existed between the engineering department, which was more concerned with designing new subway lines, and the workers who walked the existing tracks at night.

“Now we have our own engineers in every department and we work hand in hand with them on a daily basis. We went from nothing to everyday.”

And Reidak, who was instrumental in discovering the cause of the trip arm failure after the accident, says that huge elements of maintenance were ignored completely.

“We spent nothing on exchange, or overhaul, or change of any portion of the (subway) signal system prior to 1995,” says Reidak, who catapulted from foreman to department head after the accident.

“In other words, whatever was built from 1954 and on through the various expansions, no thought was ever given to how we replace something that’s worn out.”

Gunn adds that long segments of the old Yonge St. line could have been “condemned” upon his arrival because of the poor state of its tracks.

As well, maintenance that was completed before Russell Hill was often ad hoc, and communicated by extremely informal means, he says.

“If we wanted a procedure on something, I’d take out my cigarette package, scribble it on the back, then somebody might photocopy it … and it might be tucked in somebody’s drawer.”

Maintenance is now organized by a computer, which keeps track of all scheduled work.

Every subway segment now has its own inspection schedule and protocol. Each of the system’s 1,200 trip arms, for example, is now tested and measured up to eight times a year.

As well, the practice of drivers switching from surface vehicles to subway trains, common before Russell Hill, has been all but eliminated.

“Prior to Russell Hill … they could choose to go down into the subway in the wintertime to avoid having surface accidents,” says Kathy Dean, manager of TTC training.

Dean’s training department itself was only introduced into the system after the crash.

Under her new mandate, driver training for subways was extended from 12 days to six weeks, and operators were required to go back to class for three days, every two years.

Prior to Russell Hill as well, subway operators were rarely punished for violating signals, many of which were shorting out on a regular basis, O’Grady says. Often, subway drivers familiar with the system would run full steam up to the red lights, knowing that they would likely change to green by the time they hit them.

Today, he says, new, on-board technologies allow transit control officials to monitor each subway train and every signal violation is treated as a serious offence. Drivers who blow through three stop signals in any 12-month period are banned from subway operations for two years.

Emergency training and procedures have also been vastly upgraded since the Russell Hill accident, where confusion and communications problems hindered rescue efforts.

A new communications system has been installed, which allows police and emergency workers to speak to each other underground, and allows emergency calls to take priority over the entire network.

“We’ve developed emergency procedures for a variety of different incidents, which is relevant because of the state of the world today,” says Paul Millett, head of subway transportation.

Emergency training is required for the recertification of subway employees, which occurs every two years.

Hilborn says the system had an unexpected opportunity to test its emergency response initiatives in the summer of 2003, when the eastern seaboard electricity blackout stranded 31 trains inside tunnels.

“It went off without a hitch.”

What’s changed most since Russell Hill, however, is the way the TTC allocates its money.

“The state of good repair became the number one priority for budgeting purposes,” says O’Grady, whose safety position also gives him the authority to stop any aspect of the system’s operations.

“It trumped any expansion to the system, and it became everyone’s goal in the early going to inventory and document the condition of thousands of different items and to bring forward a plan to get from where we were to where we are.”

Even with the unwanted burden of the $934 million Sheppard subway line, which had been committed to before the Russell Hill crash, the vast majority of TTC capital funding over the past decade has been dedicated to good repair.

A chart tracking the mountainous rise in capital expenses after 1995 clearly shows the system’s hyper new interest in infrastructure maintenance and improvements.

In 1994, for example, the TTC’s annual budget for infrastructure and new vehicles hovered around $100 million.

By 1998 it had soared to more than $400 million. And while it crept back below $200 million three years ago, it began to rocket back up in 2004 and this year sits at more than $400 million again.

“And now we’re really going to face a mountain,” says Rick Ducharme, the system’s current chief general manager, who has taken up his predecessor’s unwavering commitment to good repair.

Ducharme points to a chart showing the TTC’s capital expenses rising to some $700 million around 2007, with more than $600 million of that dedicated to maintenance and new vehicles.

What’s missing in these Himalayan spending peaks, which chart off until 2014, is even a hint of subway expansion.

Indeed, Ducharme places new subways as a distant third on the TTC’s capital priority list behind good repair and more modest system improvements, such as dedicated bus and streetcar ways.

Barring money from heaven, what Toronto is likely to see from its transit system over the next decade is a far more pedestrian plan; one that is based almost entirely on the need to keep the system running, and running safely.

Over the next 10 years, the TTC will replace 1,530 buses and buy some 232 new subway cars. It will also conduct a major overhaul of 196 streetcars, revamp the Scarborough RT fleet and purchase 159 new Wheeltrans vehicles. The system is also eyeing a fleet of new streetcars, which could be running through the city over the next decade.

This utilitarian budget practicality, all admit, is a lot more boring than subway fantasies or monorail dreams.

But it represents an epiphany in transit thinking for Toronto, a revelation that took place on the Spadina line as it slopes down under Casa Loma near Russell Hill Dr.

“Before the accident … it was all expansion,” Gunn says. “Work had been deferred for years on both the subway and the surface systems.”

Of four proposed expansion projects — new lines on Eglinton and Sheppard and extensions of the Spadina line and the Scarborough LRT — only a stump of the Sheppard was ever built.

And while people are looking closely at more modest Bus Rapid Transit corridors for the city, no serious subway expansion is now on the table in Toronto. Meanwhile, the new emphasis on maintenance is unlikely to change, says O’Grady, who stresses that the state of good repair philosophy is built right into the revamped management system.

Moving with stunning swiftness after the accident, Gunn basically decapitated the TTC’s “inbred” upper management circles within weeks.

“They had people in jobs where, while they weren’t bad people, they were in over their head,” he says.

Already an American transit legend, Gunn had been credited with “saving” New York’s decrepit subway system when he headed that city’s Metropolitan Transit Authority in the 1980s,

Coupling his can-do reputation with the political urgency that Russell Hill created, Gunn gained almost unfettered powers to change the TTC.

By October of 1995, he had cashiered most of his department heads, replacing them largely with employees who had hands-on experience with the system and with people from outside rail and utility properties.

He also streamlined management into more logical and accountable structures, says Gunn, 68.

O`Grady says Gunn’s new management inserted state of good repair directly into the everyday life of TTC employees, where it remains to this day.

“We have a very defined set of inspection regimes that they follow though on every night, every two months, every six months, every year and so on,” O’Grady says.

As well, all of the work is documented and signed off on by senior management personnel, who must take responsibility for its quality.

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