We, the freaking cold – Canadian winter is taken head on as UP and GO trains find new tools and tactics to run during the cruelest months

Frigid conditions are just part of life in our great country, yet it can still be challenging to keep moving – including when you’re one of the country’s largest public transit agencies. This season, the gloves are off – then put quickly back on – as Metrolinx introduces some important cold-busting modifications to its train fleet.

Winter always hits our nation like a fast moving train.

So scientifically, how do you have actual commuter trains – including GO Transit and UP Express fleets – fly in the face of frigid months?

The battle is generations old. The tools, however, are constantly evolving to keep the Canuck cold at bay.

Trains line up, with snow covering their fronts.

Trains parked out at the Willowbrook Rail and Maintenance Facility after a frigid morning commute. (Scott Money Photo)

Last winter was exceptionally daunting, with prolonged periods of record-breaking temperatures across Ontario’s Greater Golden Horseshoe Region. It took a toll on the trains, and in some cases, impacted service.

So how do you fight back? With innovative measures that work on the fly.

Metrolinx’s rail services team was tasked with coming up with upgrades to be completed in time for this 2019/2020 winter season.

The team used new resources, including collaborating with the University of Western Ontario in creating a 3D train model to test inside a first-of-its-kind ‘Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel Laboratory’. The facility has been used in wind engineering everything from the CN Tower to Confederation Bridge.

“The tunnel test provided us with enough information to determine that our issues were more than initially thought,” explained Rob Fuller, Metrolinx’s director of rail services.

The model testing and research provided an opportunity to come up with 11 modifications. Those included focusing on door systems for the GO and UP Express trains, engine performance and air system failures. All are areas that had previously demonstrated significant impacts on the fleet’s on-time performance.

Fuller said the testing proved snow would accumulate in the door areas due to bi-directional service Metrolinx operates – moving back and forth on train lines – and that blowing snow from the track beds caused more problems than previously thought.

Trains would often be delayed because of door failures – unable to close properly due to snow and ice building up on the outside and snow migrating past the seals and into the door pockets.

According to Fuller, understanding these two anomalies allowed his team to come up with different solutions.

One of the ideas was to install deflectors attached to door openings, however the sophisticated testing proved it would have little impact.

In the end, the best solution was to put heaters in the lower areas of the door frame where the ice normally builds up. They worked with improved threshold heaters located at the door entrance which would melt ice and snow on contact.

New door ‘P Seals’ would also help prevent snow from migrating into the door pocket and ultimately freezing and stopping the doors from closing.

Ice melts when pressed against a train door.

Ice melting off on contact with the new, heated P Seals along the door frame (Scott Money Photo)

Some of the modifications are slightly smaller but have an even greater impact on the locomotive itself. If you take a closer look at the undercarriage, you might notice tiny blankets – almost like sweaters – on a vital part called the blowdown.

“The blankets seem insignificant because of their size, however we expect the impact to be significant,” said Fuller. “The blanket keeps the heat from escaping from the heart of the fleet.”

A small device, as big as two fists, is covered in a small blanket, and held in place with wire.

A small modification with a big impact – New, tiny ‘blowdown’ blankets will help keep the trains moving (Scott Money Photo).

The blowdown helps keep the train’s air supply in-check. It has a small heating circuit but in extreme cold, it’s not enough to keep the air exhausting from freezing. The blowdown fails when the moisture being exhausted freezes and the valve sticks open.

Without air, the train doesn’t move.

Along with the tiny blankets for the blowdowns, there are other modifications that have been made. One in particular helps with the warmth of customers.

“We now have more coaches with a better automated door closing system,” said Fuller. “On older series, if the train was idled and if the doors were opened, they stayed that way until the customer service ambassador closes them.”

A person touches the door release on a train door.

When lit, a simple push will help open the doors if the train is idled – This new modification will help prevent the heat inside the train from escaping. (Scott Money photo)

Anyone who has experienced this knows just how fast warm air escapes from a coach. But with the new modification, doors of an idling train now close after 15 seconds, keeping the heat in the car longer. The next customer wanting to access the coach just needs to tap the door release access pad and the doors open again.

Last winter was rough on the rails. Now, Fuller and his team hope these new modifications can help push back the cold front for customers and crews.

“This is about pride – we are proud to provide this service and it bothers us when trains don’t run on time,” he noted.

“We take this personally so it was important to find solutions to make sure our customers aren’t affected by delays.”

Graphic shows the new door heaters.

For easier reading, click here for a PDF version of the above graphic – Improving Winter Performance

That means travellers helping as well. During active weather, please remember to monitor GO’s website, your line-specific handles on social media as well as other media outlets for updates on the weather and any changes to service.

And always be safe in and around station platforms that may be slippery thanks to bad weather.

Winter is a part of life in our northern nation. It can be wonderful, but tends to try to push Canadians around a bit.

But another part of being a Canadian is finding ways to push right back.

Story by Nitish Bissonauth, Metrolinx bilingual spokesperson, media relations and issues specialist.