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TTC control centre tour

Last night I had the rare opportunity to be given a tour of the Toronto Transit Commission‘s Control Centre. The tour was organized by the East Toronto Chapter of the Professional Engineers of Ontario, of which I am a member.

I use the word “rare” because in this post-9/11 world, bureaucrats are very paranoid about allowing ordinary citizens to see this kind of critical infrastructure. Security was tight at this facility; we had to sign in twice in order to gain access to the building, and the location was not disclosed until the last minute. Photos of the facility, of course, were strictly prohibited.

For these reasons I originally considered not writing about the trip, but I discovered that a cursory search for “ttc control centre” at Google reveals enough information about it that I consider the information to be in the public domain. (The items have since been removed from the City of Toronto’s website since the TTC section was redesigned, but I scanned them from the paper copies and they are available here.) We didn’t learn any more about the facility than what was written in those articles.

The Control Centre is responsible for all aspects of subway and SRT operation, and is also the central point of coordination for any emergencies, even if they occur on surface routes. (Surface route control is handled at the individual divisions, e.g. Roncesvalles or Connaught for streetcars.) The new facility replaced a legacy control centre elsewhere on the Hillcrest site, which was based around 1950’s electromechanical technology.

Some of the requirements of the project were explained to us by the project manager who originally ran the initiative:

  1. Replacement of all signalling control systems but little trackside equipment; existing signalling system was used;
  2. Replacement of analog power control equipment (substation control and monitoring);
  3. Replacement of RTUs which control fans, ventilation, etc.
  4. Needed to build a unified communications system to replace a myriad of communications devices including PA, surface radio, trackside radio, etc. All these devices are still used in the field, but all feed back to one control console on each operator’s desk.

and of course the need to build a new building to house everything.

After the PM gave the background we proceeded to actually step onto the floor of the control centre. Here is a picture of what the control room looked like before anything was installed. Nowadays, the walls on the right are covered with large rear-projection screens showing live diagrams of all the subway lines and the SRT, which they refer to as “mimic boards”. On the extreme right are screens showing inputs from the RTUs, the substation statuses, emergency exit statuses, and all other miscellaneous infrastructure, as well as an imposing screen showing the CPU load on the SCADA system (the central computer into which all the RTUs feed.)

Being a group of engineers, everyone asked a lot of questions of the assistant supervisor on the floor, and she even demonstrated the subway incident alarm system by having a train operator call in a test yellow alarm. This causes an ominous computerized female voice to boom from all the workstations’ speakers, saying “Yellow Alarm, Yellow Alarm.” It definitely reminded me of the Heart of Gold from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

It’s too bad that we didn’t get to see the old control centre with its circa-1950 mimic boards, but I’m more disappointed that this facility isn’t available for tours by ordinary citizens. I understand the reasons for it, but it’s a sad reflection of the state of our world where more and more of our public infrastructure has to be hidden from the same public that originally funded its construction. Maybe one day ordinary citizens will again be able to tour fascinating facilities like this and the R.C. Harris Filtration Plant in the east end of Toronto.