Sample streetcars need more heritage

I went down to the Ex last Saturday to see a Toronto FC home game and after watching another painful loss, I wandered over to the National Trade Centre (Direct Energy Centre, my ass) to see the mock-up streetcars. I arrived late and had to convince the people from Siemens that it was worth staying open another 10 minutes so I could get a look around their car. The personnel at the Bombardier car (TTC employees??) were slower to close, so no negotiations were required. Both competitors offered small sections of their cars for people to examine as well as explanations about why the cars on display wouldn’t really be anything like the final product.

A lengthy review of both cars follows after the jump…

First from Siemens, the Combino Plus.


As I mentioned above, I was greatly bothered by the immediate assertions from both staffs that the mock-ups on display contained large features that would not be seen in the final streetcars delivered to Toronto. For the Combino, it was primarily the unruly 6 person seating unit, obviously designed to make use of the area consumed by the trucks. A grand failure in all respects, the seats are oddly arranged and make traversing the aisles with strollers or wheelchairs impossible. What a bizarre addition to a low-floor streetcar who’s very purpose would be to better serve the disabled. I was assured, when I questioned it’s place in an accessible vehicle, that it would not be included in the final vehicle. An examination of the Combino website shows that indeed there is a raised seat option that replaces the 6-seater badness seen in the demo model. It makes you wonder how many times and in how many cities the Siemens reps have had to make excuses for that misguided idea. With the raised seat option, the Combino does seem to have more aisle space than either the CLRVs or the Bombardier. Beyond that, the interior is somewhat blah. I imagine the blue seats would be replaced for red ones in the final version . I also like the face to face single seats (also featured on the website) in some situations, but think they would be underused in Toronto’s “keep your eyes on your shoes” transit environment.

From the outside, the Combino is aesthetically pleasing, but fails as a solution for Toronto because it gives no hints of Toronto great streetcar heritage. At some point in the design and construction of the CLRV, it was decided that the car should have a centre-mounted headlight. This small feature kept the head-on look of the car, already heavily borrowing from the PCC cars, is consistent with the great trains that have served Toronto for decades; namely the PCC and Peter Witt cars. For some this may seem like an irrelevant detail, but maintaining some connection to our past reminds us of our grand pubic transit history, something that’s especially important in our current darker time. The Bombardier offers something (in the wrong spot) whereas the Siemens car shows that the manufacturer may not truly understand that Toronto was for many years the last bastion of streetcar transit in North America. It’s very likely that the TTC has never included a central headlight in the spec for the new cars, if so it speaks to a lack of historical knowledge in the Commission itself…not that we need more evidence of that. The Combino is very European looking, which is a plus, but could still be sleeker.

I wonder about the sealed drivers station. I imagine this addition might be welcomed by the transit union; a suitable solution to the safety and fare collection concerns of last summer and early this year. When I asked the Siemens rep about how fares would be collected in this configuration, she mentioned that fare cards are the preferred method. Although a smart card system is currently being tested in the 905, the TTC hasn’t made much noise about their adoption of such a system. I can only imagine that some cash option will be required and doesn’t that require a driver who’ll play a part in the fare collection process?

I love that it is an all low floor option, and that Siemens seems more interested than Bombardier in winning the business. That is probably due to the fact that Bombardier rightly considers themselves to be a lock. I love the Combino’s regenerative technology that returns power to the overhead lines during breaking. I also like the pantograph in place of a trolley pole. I know that it’s sensitive issue in Toronto, due to our old-school way of wiring (as I understand the issue) but I’m sure there is an engineering solution that can help prevent the delays caused by trolley poles jumping the wires.

Now the Bombardier Flexity.

I really enjoy streetcars, because I love rail transit. I love a form of transit that brings with it so much interesting infrastructure. When a transit system commits to rail, they commit to stations and platforms and limitless design potential. Something that a bus hasn’t typically provided. The VIVA buses are demonstrating that this doesn’t always have to be true. In Toronto, I get nothing but a sense of mediocrity from our bus service. The point is…I want Toronto to continue to be a bastion of all forms of rail transit and the Transit City program has me dying to see how we can add more rail to our city. But I want this to happen fairly, and in the best interest of riders as much as Canadian business.

I understand and support the idea that Canadian businesses should support fellow Canadian businesses. For that reason I appreciate that the TTC generally favours Bombardier for their rail vehicles.

Bombardier WILL win this contract. Period.

The lack of real competition will rob us of a truly great solution, especially when weighing the merits of the Flexity, which at first glance seems lacking.

The interior of the Flexity, like the Combino comes with a huge caveat. It will look similar to the demo model but will be entirely low floor (according to the TTC staff), which will make it not at all like the demo. The demo seems to use raised areas in the front and back to cover the forward and rear trucks with the middle trucks integrated into the articulation. One of the interesting features in the interior is the bike rack. Though I love the idea, it only has a 2-bike capacity and my guy tells me would make more sense in a 3-car version. The proposed Toronto version is 2 cars. As with the Combino, I imagine that a real TTC mock-up of this car would feature a red interior similar to the CLRVs.

The Flexity is the most “train-like” of the 2 options. This is not a positive, as the boxy look and feel of the car makes it feel too utilitarian. I read a comment on another website that said the Flexity seems better suited to the Transit City LRT project than our streetcar network. I tried not to be put off by the awful bumblebee paintjob of the demo Minneapolis model and actually began to wonder if it would be interesting to return the new cars to the red/gold paint scheme of the PCC cars.

This model has a centre-mounted headlight, but it’s in the wrong place. Obviously this is important to me and I hope either Siemens, Bombardier or the TTC realizes that the headlight is the key identifying feature of our cars. They’re right there on the every streetcar stop.

Like the Combino, the driver of the Flexity is in a sealed compartment. The vital difference here is that the driver is also located well forward of the forward doors. I am rubbing my head trying to figure out who will monitor payment on this car. Maybe we’ll rely on the honour system…let’s see how that works out.

It’s built in Canada and I don’t think Bombardier has let us down yet. Although, they have only really produced one product (that I can find) that they did not acquire from another company, the T-1 subway cars. When Bombardier wins the contract, we will be on our way to having an entire rail fleet (with the new subway cars) designed and made in Canada. It’s hard not to feel a swell of pride about that.

2 thoughts on “Sample streetcars need more heritage

  1. Hey yo-

    Wow-great analysis! I went and took a very cursory look around but have to be honest that I didn’t bother thinking too much about it, assuming (as you also suggest) that Bombardier is a lock. Glad that someone is thinking, though!

  2. Random thoughts…

    I was happy to see your in-depth analysis of these transit options. I too love rail transit. To me the tracks and stations and trains themselves always seemed like one gigantic and graceful machine. One of the highlights of traveling through Europe has been to see the rail systems of various countries in action. There is a certain old-world charm to rail as well that I just can’t seem to shake.

    My complaints about the Beaches streetcars are based purely on implementation issues. A busy tourist street simply cannot support a single lane of traffic (due to the other lane consumed by parked cars) that is shared with a streetcar. If they somehow managed to reduce the street parking, it would work well (and does, during hours when it is prohibited).

    I wish I could remember where I read it, but I recently happened upon an article claiming one of the federal party leaders was backing a highspeed rail line along the Toronto/Montreal corridor. Ah, one can dream.

    Anyways – thanks for the read.

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