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Transit City cars to operate along "standard-gauge" tracks

In an article appearing on Wednesday, January 6, the Toronto Star reports that Metrolinx and the TTC will operate the Transit City light rail lines with tracks that are narrower than streetcar tracks on city streets.

(Toronto’s streetcars run on tracks with a wider “gauge”. The gauge is the distance between the inner edges of the two parallel rails.)

Now, almost 149 years after the Toronto Street Railway installed Toronto’s first street rails, the TTC has agreed that the Transit City lines will conform to the worldwide standard of 4 feet, 8½ inches (or 1.44 metres), a little more than two inches (50.8 centimetres) narrower than the TTC’s current 4 feet, 10-7/8 inches (1.5 metres).

Better value

Using the standard gauge could help Metrolinx receive a better price when it buys the new streetcars.

The Star quotes John Howe, Metrolinx’ vice-president of investment strategy and project evaluation: “What we want to do is remove as much vehicle customization as possible, because we think we can achieve better value for the taxpayer by taking an international off-the-shelf standard design, basically the same proven LRT vehicles that are used elsewhere in Canada, the U.S. and Europe.”

Standardizing the tracks may help Metrolinx to buy these light-rail cars and future cars for other Ontario light-rail projects in Mississauga, Hamilton and Waterloo Region from the same manufacturer. Buying many vehicles from the same supplier at the same time reduces the overall costs and the individual cost of each car.

This approach has already worked successfully for Metrolinx. In December 2008, it collaborated with 12 Ontario transit agencies, including Barrie Transit, Burlington Transit, Durham Region Transit, the Hamilton Street Railway, Milton Transit, the St. Catharines Transit Commission and York Region Transit, to buy as many as 160 buses from New Flyer Industries Canada ULC and City View Bus Sales.

The article doesn’t confirm whether Metrolinx plans to exercise the TTC’s option to buy the Transit City cars from Bombardier. Last summer, the TTC awarded Bombardier a $1.2 billion contract to build 204 streetcars to replace the cars currently serving routes on city streets.

Two track gauges

The TTC does not plan to convert its current routes to standard gauge and operating cars with two track gauges shouldn’t be a problem.

For the most part, Transit City lines link to the subway, instead of other streetcar lines, so they can operate separately from the city streetcars. Two of the lines, along Jane Street and Don Mills Road, may also extend into York Region.

The one exception might be the Waterfront West Transit City line which likely will use the regular TTC gauge tracks along the Queensway and Lake Shore Boulevard West. (Plans for the future light rail line in Mississauga show the Waterfront West line extending along Lakeshore Road East to join a line along Hurontario Street at Port Credit GO Station.)

Unlike regular TTC cars, the Transit City cars will also be double-ended so that drivers can operate them from either end of the cars. This means the new lines don’t need loops at the end of each Transit City line: the driver simply walks to the other end of the car to move the car in the opposite direction along the line.

Why Toronto has a different track gauge

What’s missing from the article is the fact that many transit systems that operate streetcars do so on tracks that are not standard gauge. The TTC is not unique in North American in requiring streetcars to operate with a unique gauge of tracks. For example, Philadephia and Pittsburgh use “Pennsylvania Trolley Gauge” — 5 feet 2½ inches (or 1,588 millimetres). New Orleans cars also roll along tracks with 5 feet-2½-inch gauge.

The article quotes Steve Munro to explain to readers that the TTC had two reasons for using a different gauge: “One was to make it impossible for the steam railways to use city tracks and the other (alleged) was to allow carriages and wagons to drive on the tracks when roads were impassable due to mud.”

In the Transit Toronto “streetcar FAQs” page — answering the questions our readers frequently ask about streetcars — James Bow also tackles the issue of Toronto’s streetcar track gauge.

“In the Articles of Agreement negotiated between the City of Toronto and the Toronto Street Railway on March 26, 1861, article five states: “That the gauge of the said railways shall be such that the ordinary vehicles now in use may travel on the said tracks, and that it shall and may be lawful to and for all and every person and persons whatsoever to travel upon and use the said tracks with their vehicles loaded or empty, when and so often as they may please, provided they do not impede or interfere with the cars of the party of the second part (Toronto Street Railway), running thereon, and subject at all times to the right of the said party of the second part, his executors, and administrators and assigns to keep the said tracks with his and their cars, when meeting or overtaking any other vehicle thereon.

“Note that this passage doesn’t mention a specific gauge. However, Bill Miller of Electric Lines of Southern Ontario cites Ken Heard, Consultant Museologist, Co-ordinator, Technology and Transport Museums Sector, Canadian Museums Association, as stating: “One of the terms of these agreements was that the track gauge was to accommodate wagons. As horse car rail was step rail, the horse cars, equipped with iron wheels with flanges on the inside, ran on the outer, or upper step of the rail. Wagon wheels naturally did not have a flange. They were made of wood, with an iron tire. Wagons would use the inner, or lower step of the rail. The upper step of the rail guided the wagons on the track. In order to accommodate this arrangement, the track gauge had to be 4 feet, 11 inches. As the streets themselves were not paved, this arrangement permitted wagons carrying heavy loads a stable roadbed.”

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