Some thoughts on transit.

Railway tracks are not a modern invention. They were used in mines in the Middle Ages and almost 200 years ago, the first public railway line carried people in steam powered trains. The whole point of railway and tram lines was to create a level surface so that heavy vehicles didn’t get bogged down in the frequently muddy and rough roads of the time. Rails provide an ultra smooth surface and can accommodate vehicles carrying  large loads at high speed.

In Toronto, street railways arrived in the form of horse drawn street cars in the 1860s. They were able to conquer the terrible road conditions common before modern day road paving. Street cars as we know them today began in Richmond Virginia in the 1880s using an electric motor fed by a single overhead power line (the internal combustion engine was not as reliable as electric motors at that time). Toronto began using electric streetcars in 1892 and has done so ever since. In 1966, plans were made to eliminate the fleet by 1980 but a strong opposition played up the fact that Toronto was one of  the few remaining cities to use the (by then considered old fashioned) vehicles. They were kept thanks to effective and vigorous campaigning, possibly because they’re quaint, for their tourist appeal and just maybe because Toronto is notoriously slow to change. Incidentally, many readers will know there was a line that extended to Weston until 1948 when the streetcars were replaced by trolley buses.

Toronto Suburban Railway Car #12 going through the village of Weston in 1908. I love the jaunty angle of the utility poles. Toronto Public Library.

Trolleys were used until 1993 in Toronto when the fleet became too decrepit to continue. Trolley buses are electrically powered but run on rubber tires and require two overhead wires instead of one.

The great thing about street cars and trolley buses is that they run on relatively clean energy (only about 10% of electricity generated in Ontario comes from carbon based sources). They don’t pollute the air with toxic and dangerous gases and particles. Their motors are quiet.

Over the last few years, there has been a streetcar boom (often called light rail) in cities throughout Canada and the U.S. and they are seen as the latest thing in transit. They also benefit from novelty and nostalgia and some equate them with theme parks. The downside of streetcars and trolleys is that they need to be attached to overhead wiring and streetcar tracks are very expensive to build and maintain, especially in our climate with its potential for frost and salt damage. Another negative is that tracks usually run down the middle of a street with the potential of being blocked by cars and forcing boarding and alighting passengers to cross at least one lane of traffic.

Where am I going with this?

Asphalt roads became common about 100 years ago and helped make car travel possible. They form a resilient, level surface that can also accommodate vehicles carrying heavy loads at high speed. Public transit no longer needs rails to provide a smooth ride. On the other hand, modern day buses are loud and polluting – even diesel-electric ones.

In Mount Dennis, instead of the originally proposed gas-fired generating station, a large bank of batteries is set to power the entire Crosstown LRT for up to four hours.

Battery power has come a long way recently and is also about to revolutionize transit. The TTC has promised that it will be 100% emissions free by 2040. Unlike Metrolinx and its bizarre hydrogen fuel cell boondoggle the TTC has seen the future and decided that it’s battery powered. Thirty battery-powered buses have been purchased with the help of the federal government and will join the TTC fleet beginning in the fall. These are from three competing companies, Xcelsior, BYD and Proterra. The buses will be put through trials to see if they can manage in our winter conditions, have a range of around 250km and will be charged overnight using cheaper power. There is a proposal to increase the number to sixty buses.

Three demo buses have just arrived in the city to allow staff to familiarize themselves with the technology.

What are the implications?

  • If the trials are successful, replacing 2000+ conventional buses will be expensive and will need to happen over several years.
  • Fuel and maintenance costs will decrease.
  • Carbon tax will be lowered as more vehicles are bought.
  • In time, battery capacity will improve, buses will have a longer range and cost less.
  • Streetcars could be converted to battery power eliminating expensive, overhead wires.
  • We may not need streetcars and their tracks anymore. Instead, we could dedicate lanes to electric buses.
  • Street noise levels will decrease.
  • Carbon monoxide and dioxide levels will decrease.
  • Dangerous particulate matter from diesel fumes will decrease.
  • People will be healthier.

What do readers think? Is the TTC on the right track?

Update: This historic footage from New York City at the beginning of the motor car era in 1911 is fascinating. Note the street cars have no overhead wires and are cable cars like the ones in San Francisco. They are pulled along by an underground cable.

7 thoughts on “Some thoughts on transit.”

  1. I also think that they should start using the railways again for transporting products from coast to coast. Having been on the 401 the other day around noon hour, the number of transport trucks was unbelievable. Every second vehicle was a transport truck, 18 wheeler, 5 ton etc.

    No wonder we have massive traffic jams on the highways these days. Not to mention the pollution..

    Why did they stop the railway transportation?

    1. Lynn,
      Rail is still heavily used in Canada for freight transportation. Transport Canada data for 2016 puts the national freight tonnage transported by rail as 21% of the total and that transported by road at 72%. A great deal of rail freight moves through Weston, in fact, along the Canadian Pacific Railway’s main line to western Canada.
      There was of course a time when rail transport’s share was much higher. There are several reasons why but the most important is that truck operators use roads which are free to use while the railway companies maintain their own rights of way and pay tax on the land they own.

    2. Lynn: The reason that train traffic has declined probably boils down to cost. On the other hand, ask any resident of Weston and Mount Dennis who live close to the CP line if freight trains still run and they’ll tell you that there are still quite a few. The problem is that while our roads are nationalized and somewhat subsidized (depending on who you talk to), I don’t believe that railways are so heavily funded by the government.
      Confusing the issue, CP pays very little tax thanks to an 1880 deal between the company and then Railway Minister, Sir Charles Tupper (later PM). CP was exempted from taxation (on their business operations existing at the time) ‘forever’ to reward them for completing a line to British Colombia.

  2. Roy,
    Battery powered buses appear to have plenty advantages but light rail retains an edge in some cases, particularly with higher passenger volumes.
    The friction coefficient (the energy loss caused by friction) for rail is 1/6th of road transport. This translates into much higher energy efficiency for rail. This has particular advantage where larger loads are transported. We see this in the fact that the largest passenger busses typically carry no more than about 110 people, whereas one of the new Flexity trams used by the TTC can carry 251 riders at full capacity with no significant loss in acceleration.
    One answer might be “well add more buses” but a huge proportion of transit operating costs is labour (i.e. paying drivers).
    Rail by its nature also provides a much smoother ride.
    I think battery busses are a great development but light rail has an important role to play.

    Incidentally it is possible to operate light rail without overhead centenary. This is done in Tours, France and some other places as well that I can’t remember. The infrastructure costs are higher, though.

    1. Eric: Excellent points about the lower friction, better cost effectiveness and higher capacity for light rail. Thanks for the tip about the catenary free light rail. I’ve linked to a video that illustrates it.
      Catenary free light rail.

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