Jan 25, 2007

Frozen switches through the ages


GO Train passengers can be forgiven their frustration with frozen signal switches last week, but they can take some solace in the fact that while they sat and waited to get going again, their cars were nice and warm.

A Canadian winter has always been something to contend with, but a century ago in the early days of public transit, the only thing between you and the elements was your coat and mitts and, if you were lucky, a bale of hay on the floor of the streetcar to tuck around your feet.

On the other hand, you didn't have to worry about frozen signals because the Toronto Street Railway employed an army of men with shovels, brooms and pickaxes to keep snow off the switches.

When an ice storm threatened, they did a wheel quick-change, replacing the smooth brass wheels with wheels that had teeth. The weight of the car crushed the ice and the gaps allowed the ice to be thrown to the side.

"It was pretty low-tech, but effective," says Ted Wickson, long-time archivist for the Toronto Transit Commission.

In fact, the lessons learned a century ago are still in use when it comes to the city's streetcar fleet. It means they may run slowly in storms, which is to be expected, but they rarely stop dead. The real cause of problems is motorists blocking the road.

If switches stick, drivers have a switch iron that does the trick manually. The bar is pretty much the same tool in use for 150 years.

Toronto has one of the most moderate winter climates in Canada – in fact the climate is the mildest of any place in Canada east of the Rockies, largely because of the moderating effect of the lake. It means a lot of precipitation and in winter, a freeze-thaw cycle.

When the thaw doesn't come, there's always the army.

Toronto's public transit system started in the 1860s and grew rapidly. The first streetcars were pulled by a single horse and had room for a dozen or so people on bench seats. In 1891 the Toronto Railway Company introduced its first snow sweeper, an occasion for an impressive civic demonstration. It was pulled by a dozen horses and had huge roller brushes at each end.

It proved to be more symbolic than practical because the following year, the railway company began electric service and pledged to provide service by horse and sleigh on major routes should a blizzard knock the electric cars out of service. The sleighs may evoke a Doctor Zhivago-like scene of pastoral winter tranquility, but they were cramped, uncomfortable and accompanied by a sub-zero wind chill to boot.

"Travelling by transit in winter was pretty primitive," Wickson says.

The good news was that along with electric cars came heated public transit in the form of a coal stove at the front, probably of more use to the driver than passengers.

The driver was part of a two-man crew. His job was to time the drive between stops so that the conductor could collect the fares.

The new age of electricity meant electric sweeper cars, which together with "storm cars" drove the main routes throughout the night to keep the tracks clear of snow.

Trackmen worked a section of the line, much as they did on Canadian Pacific main lines.

By the 1920s, the TTC had 28 electric snow sweepers and six gasoline plows, and the better technology meant fewer and fewer trackmen.

The plow trains were so effective the TTC kept them in service until the early 1970s, finally retiring them and selling them to railway museums. By then, many were 75 years old. (Two are on display at the Halton County Radial Railway, the Streetcar and Electric Railway Museum on Guelph Line in Milton.)

For streetcars, storms and freezing rain are less a track problem than one that affects overhead wires.

The main problem for GO passengers is the electronic signals that determine whether the train should stop or go.

They usually work pretty well, but during extreme weather the de-icers that keep the switches moving can freeze.

It takes someone to manually flip the switch, but the entire line has to stop until that person does the trick.

On the other hand, a streetcar driver just gets out, looks around and if the coast is clear, flips the switch and gets going. Maybe that does make the TTC the Better Way.

Thanks to the Toronto Star and reporter

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