Tackling No. 3 Switch – How a notoriously troublesome piece of Lakeshore East GO equipment is being improved

Sometimes the smallest things – such as the space between electrical circuits – can threaten the timely commute of thousands of GO train customers. With each riddle, comes an inventive and complicated solution. This is how one signal box is being brought up to date.

A transit problem that starts out as big as a large suitcase – and grows from there – has become a high priority refurbishing mission for Metrolinx.

A headache for GO Transit, as well as thousands of customers, No. 3 Circuit is being updated. That means Lakeshore East train customers won’t experience the same equipment delays because of it, as they did this past winter.

Historically, terms like ‘equipment problems’ are used to describe woes and work on rail lines.

But we wanted to take you behind the scenes, and down at track-level, to show you the challenge and solutions that take place far from your seat on our vehicles.

So here’s the backstory on one nagging problem and the long-term fix, which speaks to the amount of effort needed to keep equipment running – and customers moving – even in the harshest of conditions.

A harsh and very Canadian environment

You can think of No. 3 Circuit, clicking off and on right next to a well-used section of rail near Scarborough’s Guildwood train station, in many ways. But to those Metrolinx experts assigned to monitor and work on it, it’s a symbol of how keeping customers moving on time can come down to simple drops of moisture.

Four workmen toil away in the dark, as they peer into a piece of rail equipment.

Repair crews work by flashlights in the darkness of night on Box 3.

And then there was, this past harsh winter along every rail corridor, rock-hardened ice boulders building up and falling onto tracks and equipment from the undersides of passing trains.

While it’s been an occasional pain in the commute, the work taking place on No. 3 will improve reliability and improve service for GO customers when next winter rolls into Ontario.

A track switch is a piece of track that allows trains to move from one set of rails to another. This is done with a vital electro-mechanical appliance that ensures the rails are always aligned to within millimetres and trains can pass safely.

In this case, more than 150 trains pass by and over No. 3 every full weekday. That rail traffic is not only local, but people and freight heading toward Montreal and beyond. The Guildwood station is separate from the box, which is located just under a kilometre away.

Housing electrical circuits that help trains switch from three to two sets of tracks, in a place appropriately called the Guildwood Wedge, No. 3 is just one piece of aging rail equipment. And, like every transit system around the world, it requires work and eventual replacement – a redesign that is has been a constant evolution.

A worker welds the front of a GO train.

Repair and upkeep is constant on machinery and equipment that face extreme weather.

As Metrolinx peers under and behind every piece of important equipment as part of annual infrastructure inspections, the well-documented box is high on the list of overhauls.

A trusted guard is changed

In March, crews performed containment plans by installing compartment heaters to prevent condensation in the box and improve the weather tightness until it can be relocated to a warm and dry location. This is a stop-gap toward a permanent solution, and avoids buildup of frost. But a planned warm and dry location will be resilient to polar vortex freeze-thaw-freeze weather.

In April, those dogged crews began recabling of the entire location and began cutovers in May – final completion will be for October 2019, prior to next winter season. That should help customers when cold weather hits again.

The importance of needed changes to No. 3 is not something that was just discovered. Like every component on every line, it has been carefully monitored. And every piece of equipment, no matter how old, is maintained to a high level of safety.

And No. 3 has long been a valued mechanical foot soldier for Metrolinx. Over the years, components have constantly been tailored and parts tinkered with. Replacements in-kind for the box have been ongoing, to make sure it’s had a reliable and useful life.

But time eventually catches up to all those serving on the front-lines. And it’s now time for a major change for this hardy guard.

“Some parts of it are dated all the way back to 1963. As it is now, it’s come to the end of its service for us.” – Xavier Hall, a senior manager in corridor maintenance.

While not the only piece of aging pivotal equipment, it has become a priority.

It’s also a symbol of how those who repair this type of equipment must work with the diligence and detail of forensic investigators, as well as world-class mechanical medics.

But first, back into the clicking box.

“It’s getting close to the end of life,” says Xavier Hall, a senior manager at Metrolinx for signals and communications systems, as he scrolls through pictures of original schematics of the relays inside No. 3. “Some parts of it are dated all the way back to 1963.

“As it is now, it’s come to the end of its service for us.”

Time catches up as the pace speeds up

When the original box was installed – before rail traffic, including GO Transit, VIA passenger runs and CN freight trains, rumbled over it at least every 15 minutes – builders positioned it right beside the tracks. Perhaps it was to save on expensive wiring, but over decades the constant vibration as the trains go past, and those ice boulders pounding down, has taken a toll. Metrolinx asset management plans initiated an upgrade for this site prior to service increases with design and implementation underway before the last winter season. However lead times have only allowed the work to happen in parallel to the additional scheduled trains for more service.

A passenger train is seen on rail lines.

A VIA passenger train makes a journey along the busy Lakeshore East lines. Traffic is constant on the rails that head toward Quebec. Winter, along with extreme changes in the weather, can create a harsh environment for rail equipment that is used constantly.

Now seasons of past snow, combined with Ontario’s recent climate swings, have caused accelerated weathering and moisture to seep inside the box. There have been effective remedies over the years. They have only bought time, with the eventuality that No. 3 would have to be dealt with.

Despite installation of a heater, drop-by-drop, water has found a way inside. That moisture then freezes and turns to frost during colder temperatures. Trapped in the space between circuits no thicker than a child’s hair, and suddenly rail traffic passing through the wedge is at risk of disruption. The box is so old it doesn’t have today’s modern sensors that can perform a self-diagnostic. Crews have to quickly pinpoint whether or not it even is No. 3 causing the system to malfunction.

A warm and dry place

Replacing this box – and other aging equipment – is a long-term venture. A plan – using people with unique skillsets working on a system that is constantly in use – is currently underway. Performing this work during the winter also poses the challenges with frozen underground cables and digging foundation for new hardware.

Experts want to relocate the box away from the tracks, to a warm and dry place where vibrations aren’t constant and where it will be less vulnerable to drops of moisture.

Moving to a new location will bring reliability up to a level consistent with the rest of the network. Remedies are now being completed, and it will be bolstered to support increased rail service and weathering against harsh winter conditions.

Crews have to work with surgical precision to reconfigure and replace the box so that service is not disrupted, as nearby rail lines continue to be in use. Also, until the new design removes these types of boxes, refurbished equipment must be used to fix No. 3, because companies no longer make original parts. Those parts date back to 1963 and are now as obsolete as the workings of a black and white TV.

It’s a bit like repairing and keeping a 1963 Dodge running – while it’s still on the road, in heavy traffic. Instead of an engine hum, the box clicks with electrical impulses that help GO customers on the Lakeshore East line get safely to where they need to be.

Hall says no one can just come in and, in an easy swoop, fix every piece of outdated equipment. It is a piece at a time – a section of relays and copper wire circuits at a time.

“Our job is to keep people moving,” says Hall. “This is just one example of the things that can suddenly threaten that goal.

“Even something as small as this box.”

Customers will be thankful, especially come next winter, that crews are working now to put a very obstinate – and notorious – Box 3 in its proper place.

Story by Thane Burnett, Metrolinx manager of editorial content.