The never-ending winter – How Metrolinx keeps its fleet of trains and buses moving through northern cold

We all know Mother Nature has her frigid side – especially in Canada. But luckily for GO Transit and UP Express customers, Metrolinx is well prepared to get people where they need to go, even through slush and snow. This is why, for those who keep those vehicles rolling, there is never an end to winter.

There are more than a few Canadians, now working from home, who stand at kitchen windows with coffee in hand, snickering as the bone-chilling months get closer.

But when you’re a large transit agency, responsible for moving essential travellers every day of the year – especially during a pandemic – the only way you have the last laugh when Canada turns frigid again, is by always being prepared to move.

A man moves snow on a walkway in the early morning.
Workers at the Bramalea GO station clear snow from the entrance at 5 a.m. on Feb. 27, 2020. (Thane Burnett photo)

This is how, every year, Metrolinx constantly fights the cold.

In the summer of 2019, many upgrades were made to the GO rail and the UP express rail fleet. You can find that story by clicking here.

These improvements were specific to passenger doors, train air systems, insulating blankets around specific components and air intake changes on the diesel multiple-unit (DMU) trains to reduce snow egress which causes engine performance problems. Throughout the summer and fall of 2020, more improvements have been introduced on the passenger door systems, coach heating systems, air systems, as well as more insulating blankets. As well, further design improvements are being tested to the DMU’s engine air intake.

New this year is a test design to reduce snow building on surfaces that monitor train speed on the locomotives – all in an effort to improve locomotive performance.

Image shows an UP Express train waiting at the platform.
An UP Express train prepares to head out on a snowy trip to Pearson Airport on a snowy morning. (Thane Burnett photo)

But it’s not just about machines. It’s also about muscle to clear needed paths.

The Rail Facility Assets team ensures that snow contractors are in place to move snow, and salt pathways for the crews and technicians to safely get to and work on the trains. Their preplanning also reviews, inspects, and maintains the various systems needed to support reliable train storage and movement. Teams also ensure the power keeps lights and heat on so passengers don’t walk onto freezing cold coaches for their journey.

“We’re always tweaking,” said Rob Fuller, director of Rail Operations.

Here’s an explainer video we published at the start of 2020.

Fuller noted Metrolinx rail services is in constant review of train performance and takes pride is reducing train delays, increasing customer comfort and ensuring or passengers arrive safely and on time. In the case of maintenance, the trains are started and prepped for service far in advance of their normal times so that any problems or faults can be diagnosed and repaired prior to the trains starting their revenue service cycle.

And while some people might be happy to put winter behind them once the season is over, the same can’t be said for those who work in rail.

“As far as Rail Services is concerned, winter never ends we are always thinking about it and preparing for the next season of it,” Fuller said.

The Network Operations Centre keeps close tabs on potential storms and will activate various protocols in an effort to mitigate service disruptions on the rails. This could include adjusting train trips, and having crews start shifts early to de-ice and warm up as well as inspect the trains.

But trains aren’t the only vehicles in need of winter readiness.

GO buses service an area of more than 11,000 square kilometers, and ensuring they are well prepared for cold months is imperative.

A GO train runs along a rail line, as snow sits arounds it.
A GO train takes a run along a snowy rail corridor. (Metrolinx photo)

Regular bus maintenance and updates are performed throughout winter, including air tank, HVAC, tire, electrical wiring and connections inspections, along with simple but important things like windshield wiper blade replacement. Buses are stored in indoor, climate controlled facilities to help melt snow and ice.   

“Bus service is very agile, very adaptable,” said Ryan Dupuis, assistant manager of Union Station Bus Terminal and service readiness. “If a winter storm is in Hamilton, we can focus our resources there and strategically place extra drivers at terminals and stations.”

Fleet rover trucks are also called upon to help buses climb hills if they get stuck, and GO Transit works with other transit partners, like the TTC, and will reach out for assistance if needed, Dupuis explained.

Winter weather reports are followed closely and preparations are made up to 24 hours in advance of a storm’s arrival.

“We do a route by route analysis,” Dupuis said.

But what about when you’re a customer, just standing at a station, waiting for that vehicle to arrive?

A man, bundled in a winter coat, breathes out into cold air as he waits for a GO Train.
Customer Harsh Dara waits in the cold at the GO train platform in Agincourt, in early 2020. (Photo by Thane Burnett)

Salt is used strategically to maximize snow melt, and water absorbing mats help combat pooled water at the bottom of stairwells. Some stations will be kept open longer so customers can take advantage of heated waiting areas, and work is done around the clock to clear our parking lots, sidewalks, and platforms of ice and snow to help keep you said while travelling. Many stations and stops also have heated shelters to keep customers stay warm while they wait.

When bad weather hits, potential service and schedule adjustments will be communicated as early as possible through websites, social media, On the GO Alerts, this Metrolinx News site, and other channels where appropriate. Customers will also receive regular safety reminders across all channels and in all messages.

And as we all get ready for the cold – even for those standing at their kitchen windows – here are some safety tips to keep in mind when heading outdoors in colder months:

  • Dress for the weather: wear multiple layers, bring a change of clothing, ensure you are wearing proper footwear (anti-slip, water-proof winter boots).
  • Slip, trips and falls: look where you are going and have both your hands ready to steady yourself should you slip.
  • Stay hydrated and alert: drink fluids regularly as you dehydrate faster in cold weather conditions, eat/snack often and opt for warm, nutritious, high calorie food to keep you going throughout the day.
  • Vehicle safety: before heading out into the cold, inspect your vehicle to ensure that everything is functioning properly and that you have enough gas and windshield washer fluid. Ensure the vehicle has an ice scraper, snow brush, shovel, and flashlight with batteries. When driving, use your full lighting system and take it slow, roads can become icy, so pay attention to changing conditions. Be careful when entering or exiting a vehicle for slippery ground below.
  • Know the signs of frostbite and hyperthermia: signs of hypothermia include shivering or shaking, lack of coordination, drowsiness or confusion, and slurred speech. Signs of frostbite include: skin that is very cold and turns numb, hard and pale, blisters or swelling and joint or muscle stiffness.

As Canadians, winter can be a bit rough. Which means measures to combat it, have to be that much tougher.

Story by Fannie Sunshine, Advisor, Social Media and Issues Management