News / Toronto

Why TTC workers manually switch directions of streetcar tracks

Cosmo Mannella cheerfully waits in a neon-coloured jacket at Bathurst and Fleet Streets for the next streetcar to come along.

Normally, he’s a TTC driver. But it was his job earlier this week to switch the track with a long metal pole, making sure nearing streetcars got set off in the right direction.

It’s one of the handful intersections around the city where the TTC requires drivers to manually switch the direction of tracks, despite an electronic switch system that’s been in place since the 1980s.

At busy intersections — Bathurst and Fleet, Spadina, Queens Quay and sometimes others — there’s a streetcar operator, like Mannella, working as a track switcher. At the intersections that see less traffic, streetcar drivers have to stop, get out and do the job themselves.

Stephen Lam, head of the TTC’s streetcar program, said the track switchers are required because the electronic track-switching system is breaking down faster than it can be replaced.

Part of the problem is the surprisingly difficult job of making new parts.

The company that sells the switching system is no longer supplying parts. The system, called SelTrac, changed ownership more than a decade ago and at the same time, the company’s headquarters in Don Mills burned in a huge fire, said Lam.

“So, they lost a lot of the design drawings and design information,” he said. “We’ve been trying to do all those things ourselves, repair the controllers ourselves, until we are running out of hardware that we can repair.”

Meanwhile, the TTC’s streetcar system is expanding, putting more pressure on the dwindling number of available parts.

The TTC is working on hiring a consultant to reconstruct the missing pieces, but Lam doesn’t expect new parts to come online for another year.

In the meantime, the poor state of the TTC’s signalling system comes with a risk that the track won’t be switched correctly. That’s why it’s policy for the driver to always stop and check the track direction before proceeding.

The didn't happen as it was supposed to when two streetcars colliding Saturday on Queens Quay at Lower Spadina. The track was set wrong, there was no one there to make the manual switch and the driver didn’t notice.

“That’s why he was taking a curve instead of going straight, and in taking a curve he ran into the car that was coming the other way,” Lam said.

The electronic track switchers are a “convenience tool, not a vital one,” because the system can work with manual switching if the operators are always responsible for them, Lam said.

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