#309 – Stop, Slip and Slide

As if streetcar rails in the middle of the city don’t pose enough threat, the city of Toronto adds grease to the curves.

Slop, slip and slide

Bruce Cockburn recently performed solo in the Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music where he studied years ago. The occasion was the launch of his memoir, Rumours of Glory. I felt privileged to hear the man perform in such a small auditorium with amazing acoustics—just him and his guitar.
But that’s not where I expected to learn about the greasing of streetcar tracks. For those who ride in Toronto or San Francisco, trolley tracks set in city streets are something we contend with, as they do in many places in Europe. Switches on train tracks are greased. But who ever thought that the streetcar tracks operated by the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) were? Not me!
I’ll back up a little here.
I met an acquaintance during the intermission at Cockburn’s concert. She was there with her brother who was recovering from a motorcycle spill he’d had two months earlier. The seats they had were near impossible for him as he couldn’t bend his knee enough to fit in against the wall. He had stood for much of the first set, holding onto a walker. Our seats were on the top floor too, but we sat sideways looking over the railing and there was plenty of legroom—in particular, to the right. So we made the brother tell us what he rode before we agreed to swap seats.
We enjoyed a slightly different perspective, and really, what a show! Skilled and impassioned guitar playing by a man who honoured artistic creativity over the mighty paycheque has enlightened us. “If a tree falls in the forest, does anybody hear?” Back in 1988 Canadian Bruce Cockburn was lamenting deforestation of the “climate control centre for the world” making species extinct at the rate of one a day, long before climate change became a household term.
After the concert I learned streetcar tracks had been involved in the brother’s single vehicle accident. He was downtown, at a junction on Victoria Street, a place where streetcars can go straight or turn. He slipped on the tracks, fell, and caught his leg just so. Something bad happened to his knee. The BMW he was riding was fine and he’ll ride again next year. Since the accident he’s learned they grease the tracks, and that the curved sections should be avoided. I said, “WHAT?”
I’ve only once wiped out once on streetcar tracks and I remember it well. It was a quiet Sunday in 1979. I was passing a slow moving bus while flying down the Bathurst Street hill. Suddenly I saw the curved tracks—too late! My narrow bicycle tire slipped in the curved track and my handlebars turned hard. I was tossed onto the pavement and my head slid under the bus. I saw the front wheel and realized my head was lined up with the rear wheel behind me. The bus driver knew about the tracks and saw me coming. He stopped the bus in time and I crawled out from under it, my head barely in front of the rear wheel. Yeah, I remember. I managed to ride home but for a week after was too sore to ride, and then the week after that too wobbly and afraid. I got back in the saddle, and the following year was riding motorcycles—carefully—over streetcar tracks.
I called my friend Steve Munro, a well-known advocate for the TTC with a passion for improving public transit in Toronto. In 1972 he was one of the culprits who convinced the TTC and city council to not to dismantle the streetcar system. They are great for many reasons, but in my opinion, electric busses are better suited for sharing the roads, as streetcars can’t swerve around left turning traffic and they let passengers off in the middle of the road where they are at constant risk. Steve was awarded the Jane Jacobs Prize as an “unsung hero” among Toronto citizens back in 2005.
No one gave me such an award. And so it is that streetcars rule. But do they really grease the tracks?
Steve explained, “The way greasing used to be done was basically a workman, a pot of grease and a stick. “About 10 years ago the TTC moved to an automatic system that can be seen in various locations such as the entrances to Neville Loop and Broadview Station, as well as at the south end of Connaught.
“These devices only squirt grease now and then and therefore are much less likely to cause a road slick. Eventually, this will be obsolete because all cars will have automatic onboard devices, but until at least 2020 they will remain.”
The grease is designed to reduce the squealing when the metal wheels turn. This is why only the curves require greasing. Cars don’t do more than clatter when traveling straight. But the yards are filled with curves, and nearby neighbours don’t want to hear squealing all day long; hence the grease. I made a mental note to be cautious while riding anywhere near those places, or intersections where there are curves.
Having learned of the GPS-controlled greasing system on the new cars I had to wonder. These big beautiful cars have started to appear on Spadina and will fill the streets of Toronto when the Leslie Street construction finally ends. The development of a streetcar “barn” south of Lakeshore has bungled up the east end well over a year and effectively ended the L&L (Leslie and Lakeshore) biker gatherings at Tim Horton’s. And these modern streetcars have their own track greasing systems? Hum. Streetcar tracks are like any train tracks—slick enough in rain without needing grease! Steve added,” The point is that greasing is required but only selectively. If a new ‘problem’ location crops up, it can simply be added to the list used by the GPS-based greaser.”
So, it could happen anywhere, Steve?
“Only at curves would it be turned on, and only because it is the wheels that are greased, not the track.”
My research informed me that the TTC tried adding water outlets at some curves because wet tracks don’t squeal. However, this caused puddles and was impractical in winter. But it explained the times I rode through wet intersections when it wasn’t raining.
I’ve ridden for years without knowing of the hazard of greased wheels—which leads to greased tracks. So if you’re riding in Toronto, consider yourself warned about tracks: slippery when not even wet!