Renewing TTC’s surface-running streetcar track

Written by John Thompson, Canadian Contributing Editor
TTC Composite

The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) owns and operates more than 200 single-track miles of surface streetcar track, including loops, yards and carhouses. The TTC is responsible for its maintenance, as well as construction of extensions. The mileage has declined significantly from its peak of approximately 325 miles, due to abandonments over the decades, but the track still requires a concerted effort to maintain in satisfactory operating condition.

Methods and materials have changed significantly since the TTC commenced operations on Sept. 1, 1921.

TTC CompositeAt that time, and until the growth of motor vehicle traffic in Toronto made this impractical, the TTC could take over whole sections of streets for construction projects, laying temporary tracks for work cars (crane cars and motorized flat cars) to remove and install rail. Concrete was mixed on site during the early years, before the advent of offsite ready-mix plants.

Track work in Toronto has traditionally been hampered by the fact that many of the city’s main streets are just 66 feet, or four lanes, wide.

After taking over in 1921, the TTC was faced with the massive task of rebuilding much of the trackage of several predecessor private companies, as it was in seriously deteriorated condition. Devil strips (the space between two sets of tracks) had to be widened, from 3-1/2 feet to a new standard of five feet. This permitted operation of the Commission’s large new Peter Witt cars, which had been ordered in large quantities, complete with a quantity of non-powered trailers.

The Way Division adopted an improved method of track construction for street (embedded) trackage. The trackbed would be excavated and smoothed, then concrete poured in to a depth of nine inches. Non-creosoted wooden ties were laid on two-foot centers, then the rail, generally girder (grooved) was spiked down, with tie plates. Tie bars were installed at six-foot intervals to help maintain the rails in gauge.

Rail joints were thermite welded on site. Then, another six inches of concrete was poured around the ties. After the concrete hardened, a thin layer of gravel would be poured over it. Last, a layer of granite paving blocks was laid in the trackbed and for about two feet on the outside of the rails, and mortared in place. The blocks, or setts as they were locally known, absorbed vibration and were very durable, standing up to the steel-wheeled horse-drawn wagon traffic of the era, reducing vibration and corrugation, and helping to maintain gauge.

However, the uneven stone surfaces were unpopular with motorists, and of course horse-drawn vehicles were rapidly decreasing in number. The last major installation of granite blocks was in 1956. Asphalt paving between the rails, and concrete in some locations, such as car stops, which experienced heavier wear, became the order of the day.

The TTC continued with its regular track maintenance programs through the 1960s, although these were, naturally, reduced to only the most essential maintenance on lines slated for abandonment due to subway openings and other considerations.

The TTC was planning to abandon all streetcar operation by 1980, when its newest PCC vehicles would be 30 years old. However, this changed in 1972, when the Metropolitan Toronto government instructed the TTC to continue surface rail operation indefinitely, partly due to environmental concerns, and to buy new streetcars. Most of the system has been retained and even expanded, apart from the Rogers Road and Mount Pleasant Road routes, converted in 1974 and 1976, respectively.

The new cars turned out to be the Canadian Light Rail Vehicle (CLRV) and Articulated Light Rail Vehicle (ALRV), jointly designed by TTC engineers and the UTDC (Urban Transportation Development Corp.), a provincial agency. The first CLRVs entered service in the fall of 1979.

In 1973, with continued rail operation assured, a system-wide rail renewal program was launched. Speed was important, as much of the trackage had been allowed to run down in anticipation of abandonment.

Track jobs were done under service, with rail renewal, including special work, being performed at night. Three separate track gangs were on the job, related to the three carhouses. Girder rail, generally 122 pounds per yard, continued in use for both tangent and curved sections, but was now bolted together rather than welded, for reasons of expediency.

The procedure was to excavate the trackbed with a backhoe, removing the paving blocks or asphalt; take out the deteriorated rail; install the new steel; level it; support it with wooden shims placed on the original wooden ties; then pour concrete to the flange lip.

By the mid-1970s, the venerable crane and flat cars, some of which dated back to the World War I era, had been retired. Pettibone trucks with heavy-duty speed swing cranes and flat bed trucks for transporting the rail to job sites replaced them.

In subsequent years, girder rail on tangent sections was phased out, due to its greater cost, and replaced by 115-pound T rail. The grooved rail is still used for guardrail on curves, and is purchased from European or Asian suppliers.

The early 1980s saw most of the surface rail system renewed. However, as the decade concluded it became evident that the hasty and cost-saving rebuilding work was deteriorating prematurely at an alarming rate. Cracks appeared in the concrete track beds; joints became uneven; rail wear increased; and noise and vibration and rough riding became significant problems, with complaints from riders and adjoining residents.

Part of the track problem was attributed to the CLRVs that were replacing the PCCs. These cars were considerably heavier, and had a different truck (outside frame) and wheel (solid steel) design. These factors caused some of the track bed failure.

The vehicle problem was partly resolved by replacing the solid steel (Bochum) wheels with fabricated (sandwich) ones, similar to those on PCCs. It was realized, however, that a revised approach to track construction was needed. The new procedures were adopted in the early 1990s.

The first step is to break up all the concrete with jackhammers, including the decades-old base. A new base is poured. Then, after the concrete hardens, sturdy metal crossties are installed at six-foot intervals, resting on thick, circular rubber pads that absorb noise and vibration.

T rail, thermite or flash-butt (electrically) welded on site, is laid on the ties. Pandrol clips secure the rails to the ties, and concrete is poured up to the railhead.

The TTC now has a policy of shutting down streetcar service on the affected sections, replaced by shuttle buses, during major track jobs. This procedure allows the concrete time to harden properly, undisturbed by streetcars, and allows the crews to do their work in a less-pressured environment.

The new methods have proven quite satisfactory, and are being used for new lines, such as the Spadina and Cherry Street projects. The TTC’s trackage has, for many years, been entirely in paved form, except for the approximately two miles on The Queensway, which was in center-reservation ties and ballast. This, however, will be converted to pavement in 2017, providing a more-solid track bed and superior ride.

Track jobs are coordinated, whenever possible, with the City of Toronto road paving work. Projects are planned and designed by TTC staff, with supplies and tools stored at the Hillcrest complex in central Toronto.

The TTC’s fleet of 196 CLRVs and 52 ALRVs is gradually being replaced by 204 Flexity Outlook low-floor, five-section articulated cars from Bombardier. It remains to be seen what effect these vehicles will have on the trackbed in the long term, although it should stand up well.
























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