TTC workers on the Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension have a big job ahead of them before riders hop on in three months time.
The city recently announced an opening date -- Dec. 17, 2017 – for commuters but before then, TTC officials warn there are hundreds of tests to be done and snags to iron out.
More than a decade in the making, theproject has cost roughly $3.18 billion.
The 8.6-kilometre extension will add six new stations to Line 1, including two in Vaughan and represents the first major subway expansion in the city since the construction of the Sheppard Line(which opened in 2002).
To some, opening a new stretch of subway might seem as simple as building a tunnel and flipping a switch. They couldn’t be more wrong.
TTC Chief Operating Officer Mike Palmer spoke with CP24.com about what has to happen before anyone hops a ride on the city’s newest stretch of subway.
‘About 1500 snags’ to iron out
With just three months left on the clock, much of the heavy lifting has already been done. The tunnels have been dug, the six stations have been built (with just one left to be handed over to the TTC from contractors) and the track power has been turned on, with 600 volts now humming through the rail.
But now, the goal is to make the extension function like the rest of Toronto’s subway system.
“There’s a whole load of peripheral things which are invisible to customers,” Palmer says. “Ventilation on the stations, train radios, lighting is a bit more obvious, elevators and escalators, closed circuit television, public address, customer points, Presto gates and so the list goes on. So all of that has to be available as well.”
The TTC has thousands of moving parts that it monitors through a system called SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition). For example, doors that unlock remotely need to be properly connected to the TTC’s transit control centre.
“What we’re doing now is inspecting all of those assets, one by one, station by station – testing them, making sure they do what’s promised,” Palmer says. “Then as we get closer to the opening in December we start to manage those assets as a group rather than individually.
“By December we will have a fully functional extension running with stations that work and trains that work and signaling that works on power that works. But we’re taking baby steps at the moment.”
He likens the process of checking and testing all the many components to doing a walk-through after a contractor has finished doing a job on your home.
“It’s a bit like testing a new building or a new house – you have all your trades come in and do some work and they snag it and then they come back and do more work,” Palmer says.
So where are we in the process now? Palmer estimates that around 1,500 “snags” or deficiencies have been identified so far.
While that may sound like a lot, he says that list includes many small things like plugs that are in the wrong place or data sockets that are missing.
“Some of them are omissions by the contractor. Some of them are things we didn’t ask for but we need and some of them are things that we missed,” Palmer says. “It’s normal in any house to find a number of things not what you expected or not working properly or missing or in the wrong place.”
Over the next three months those snags will be ironed out and testing will begin to make sure that all the pieces work together as they should.
Conducting drills with Vaughan emergency services
While much of the preparation for the opening involves standard technical tests, many of the challenges involve going places that the TTC has never been.
For example, while the transit agency has worked with Toronto police and fire services for decades, the extension into Vaughan will be the first time that the subway has gone outside of Toronto, meaning a new relationship with York Regional Police and Vaughan Fire Services.
That means drills with those emergency services over the coming months so that if they are called to the stations, they are familiar with the layout and the procedures.
“As we go through toward December the exercises will get more complex,” Palmer says, explaining that the TTC is looking for the “delta” between the new systems and the old.
That also means testing out how some of the new technology going into the extension jives with other TTC systems that are decades old.
“Some of our power equipment is 60 years old. The power equipment that’s gone in (to the new stations) is state-of-the-art, so it’s a different generation,” Palmer says.
He says it’s a bit like someone with the very first cellphone trying to figure out how we got the latest iPhone.
“So it’s a 60-year leap in technology so that’s a big challenge.”
Looking to the future
While the focus has been on working toward the opening of the new extension, Palmer says the process has helped the TTC to better prepare for future transit expansion as well.
For example, the agency tested the tunnels in several different ways, both old-school and cutting edge, to see which method is the most precise.
So while workers literally ran an old train covered in polystyrene through the tunnels to see if it would bump into anything, they also used a “Lidar” system to survey the tunnels with lasers.
“It’s really an academic exercise. We’ve taken all of our sources of data to look for which is the most accurate,” Palmer says. “That’s really about in the future when we build other extensions, how we do the same thing.”
The TTC has also built in spaces to “future-proof” the new extension so that some of the station work is already complete when new transit lines, such as the Finch Light Rail Line, are built.
“So at Finch West, buried in the new station, is the new light rail terminal. So when that’s built, you just literally break out a wall and there will be a light rail platform there,” Palmer says.
Following a flurry of activity by contractors and TTC staff over the next few months, there will be a period in mid-November following the checks and tests where the TTC will run what is called a “Ghost service” on the new portion of Line 1.
“We will load a train service from Vaughan to Finch and we will run four days of service, except we will have no customers,” Palmer says. “That will just be a period of stability where we gain confidence and understanding of the system.”
Critically, that will be when staff themselves have a chance to adapt to the new section of the line and become familiar with it.
“The most important thing for us is safety,” Palmer says. “We want to make sure that our staff are safe and we can keep our customers safe by operating this equipment correctly.”
Thankfully, this isn’t Palmer’s first time at the rodeo. Both he and TTC CEO Andy Byford have been engaged in opening a new section of subway before, on the Jubilee Line in London.
“The good news is a lot of the TTC have done this before with Sheppard and there are a few die-hards who go right back to parts of BD (Bloor-Danforth) and YUS (Yonge-University-Spadina) opening,” he says.
For those who spend their working days running subway systems, it’s easy to imagine the excitement that comes with opening a slew of new stations.
“In a way, it’s the fun bit where we get to play trains in stations,” Palmer admits while talking about the testing phase. “We need to learn to operate it, break it, fix it, what to do, what not to do. A lot of that is just about that they’re new stations. We’re not familiar with them yet.”
“It is a lot of work, it’s a lot of fun but there will be some long days and some long shifts,” Palmer adds.
That includes reading hundreds of new documents about how to maintain all the equipment, bringing all those systems online and stocking spare parts.
What will be different?
When all’s said and done, Palmer says “We’re still running Line 1; it’s just six more stations.”
But those extra six stations will mean access to thousands of new customers.
Riders who hop on at Downsview Park, Finch West, York University, Pioneer Village, Highway 407 and Vaughan Metropolitan Centre will be more easily connected to the rest of the city than ever before.
The commuter lot at Highway 407 will make it easier for hundreds of people to get onto the subway, as will Highway 7’s Bus Rapid Transit connection at Vaughan Metropolitan Centre.
“They‘ll have a very fast way of going from Vaughan to downtown,” Palmer says. “The stations will be Wi-Fi ready, the stations will be Presto ready, the stations are new and state of the art – they are beautiful.”
He says riders can expect a southbound train every four minutes or less in the mornings and northbound trains every 2.5 minutes in the evenings.
A number of bus routes will also fall away as the new stations go into service. A proposed list of changes to bus service has now been finalized.
A trip anywhere on Line 1 will still cost a flat fee of $3.25, though that could eventually change as Metrolinx explores harmonizing transit fares across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, with zones or fares-by-distance two possible options down the road.
After years of work and with the finish line now in sight, Palmer says those who have been involved in the project are busy, but excited.
“I think everyone is excited,” he says. “I think everyone is slightly daunted by the scale. It’s the largest extension we’ve opened for a while. It’s exciting. I think we’re immensely proud of what’s been done by our partners building the extension and we’re highly confident that people are going to be wowed by the station.”
That said, he expects the next three months to go very quickly.
“What we’re trying to do is make sure we don’t waste any day, any hour in checking documentation and looking for opportunities to sign things off and commission things,” Palmer says.
While there will be lots of parties, ribbon-cutting with dignitaries and celebrating on Dec. 17, Palmer say that at the end of the day, he’d like to say the opening was uneventful, that watching people board at Vaughan Metropolitan Centre was as boring as watching them board at Union.
“It’s gonna be a big day for everybody, but as COO, I just want the opening day to be a non-event; no excitement, no drama, no failures, no nothing.
“For me that would be the sign of a good opening.”
By the Numbers
6 number of new stations on the extension
600 – volts going through the track
2,811 new parking spaces
$3.18 billion – estimated cost of the project
$3.25 - fare to ride the subway
Before Dec. 17
1500 – snags to be worked out before opening
Hundreds – pages of instructions for all the new equipment
60 – years difference between old and new technology to be worked out
3 weeks of “ghost testing” before opening day