Maintaining the Streetcar Fleet in Winter Months
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Maintaining the Streetcar Fleet in Winter Months

Upkeep on the streetcar fleet is tough work in cold weather, but a new generation of vehicles brings a different set of challenges for TTC mechanics.

Winter Blues on the Red Rocket from Giordano Ciampini on Vimeo.

Jeff Fleming took his first job with the TTC just three weeks after he graduated high school in 1983. A year later, he left subway-track maintenance for an entry-level position in the streetcar department, and began to learn the ins and outs of the two models. The TTC’s fleet was composed of both new and old vehicles; six-year-old CLRVs were outfitted with elaborate pneumatic and hydraulic systems, and they complemented the rudimentary President’s Conference Committee cars 40 years their senior. When the TTC introduced the longer, articulated ALRV in 1987, the PCCs were phased out of service.

“You saw the people that had been around, the older guys that knew the PCCs inside and out, looking at the new cars as some fancy toy―‘What do we need that for?’” Fleming tells Torontoist. “And then you had young guys just starting out as mechanics that maybe didn’t appreciate the simplicity, design, and reliability of the PCC.”

And now, the streetcar life cycle has come full circle.

Today, Fleming is the supervisor of the Roncesvalles Carhouse, a 120-year-old west-end facility where roughly half of the TTC’s 249 streetcars go for overnight storage and maintenance.

Once again, the fleet is experiencing a generational update. Just as PCCs were once replaced by newer models, the CLRVs and ALRVs (now both referred to as “legacy cars”) are gradually being decommissioned to make way for new and enormous “low-floors.”

The tools that mechanics will use on the low-floors are also new. A computer network gives the streetcars the ability to self-diagnose, which replaces the multimeters, blueprints, and flashlights that have been used to troubleshoot electrical problems for so long. Carhouse workers are being asked to adapt.

“There is a learning curve,” Fleming says. “We’ve got a lot of guys that got some decent seniority in, that have been around and know these cars, but the new car, they’re kind of looking at it, going, ‘I don’t know.’”

A certain degree of reluctance to change is unsurprising; on the grounds of the 39,000-square-foot Roncesvalles facility, work gets done within the well-established rhythms of a 24-hour day. Mornings are spent repairing cars, sending them out onto the streets, and scheduling work for the other two shifts, while afternoons see less traffic and are devoted to catching up on cleaning, checking, and servicing.

“The night shift gets the full brunt,” Fleming says.

“They get the last cars coming in off the line, and they’re prepping and cleaning the last cars to go out, which will leave a few hours into their shift. That itself is a handful.”

GCiampini TTCRoncyYard 6322

Day shift at the Roncesvalles Carhouse.

In all, the Roncesvalles shop sends 100 streetcars into daily service; 104 more set out from its east-end sister, Russell Carhouse. Operators returning these cars report issues with them, the more complex of which are investigated by rail vehicle analyzers (or, briefly, RVAs). Frequently, and especially in winter, the problems that arise affect the complex system of pneumatic lines underneath the car body that operate the brakes, doors, and suspension on legacy cars. And although 113 people work out of the Roncesvalles Carhouse, only one specializes in maintaining and repairing these lines―the shop’s pneumatic analyzer, Tony Precopi.

“I love working on my own,” Precopi says. “And I like doing what I do.”

But the volume and frequency of air-line leaks can become overwhelming in winter, as the cold weather makes it more difficult to troubleshoot what might be wrong with a vehicle. Streetcars that struggle while out on service sometimes fix themselves once they get inside and warm up.

“What do I do? What do I change?” Precopi asks. “You look down here and see a 75-foot streetcar with all these valves; I can’t start changing every part.”

If Precopi can’t find the problem, chances are good the streetcar will act up again and be sent back to him the following day. “This time it may be left outside, which is a bonus,” he says. “As much as I hate that―because they’re freezing cold and they’re dripping with snow and ice―at least when it’s cold, this thing that wasn’t leaking yesterday, now all of a sudden it’s leaking.”

Roncesvalles Carhouse supervisor Jeff Fleming was involved with the development of the low-floor cars from the very beginning, as a liaison between Bombardier and TTC engineers.

At one time, three pneumatic analyzers worked in the Roncesvalles shop. Now the need for the position is being eliminated entirely; while the low-floors have two small compressors―one to raise and lower the operator’s seat and another for the rail-sanding system―the brakes are hydraulic and the door motors electric.

“We got away from that,” Fleming says, “from all the inherent issues with an air system.”

There is another fundamental difference from the legacy cars, too: the low-floor is able to live up to its name only by stashing much of its propulsion equipment underneath its roof. Renovations at both Roncesvalles and Russell over the next several years will enable mechanics to work on the cars from above rather than below. A third facility is also under construction, at Leslie and Lake Shore.

When the Roncesvalles Carhouse no longer needs a pneumatic analyzer, Precopi says he’ll work as an RVA, a position he’s already qualified for. Even then, he may find himself solving some old-fashioned problems; the TTC plans to overhaul 30 ALRVs over a three-year period to keep them in service, pending approval at City Hall. Meanwhile, the CLRVs are scheduled to be retired gradually, in reverse order of their reliability. Precopi, who has worked for the TTC since he was a teenager in 1981, doesn’t plan to retire with them.

“My wife is still working,” he says. “I don’t think she’d really be too thrilled with me being at home and her going to work. I have a cottage and a boat, and I love fishing―I could do a lot of that―but I’m still young.”