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Two-thirds of the city's streetcar tracks are in such poor condition that the red rockets must slow to a crawl or face possible derailment.

As a precaution, the Toronto Transit Commission has hung bright red metal signs on wires overhead to warn streetcar drivers to slow down to 10 kilometres or less. "If streetcars don't slow down at the red flags they could derail," Howard Moscoe, chairman of the Toronto Transit Commission, said in an interview.

The signs, which TTC officials call "red flags," read: Streetcars Restricted Speed Zone. When the danger has passed, green signs signal the all-clear to resume normal speed. TTC statistics show that 27 per cent of its approximately 85,000 metres of track are in "poor" shape.

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Approximately 38 per cent of its track are consdiered "fair." Only 26 per cent can be categorized as "excellent." Another 9 per cent are deemed "good."

Among some of the worst spots: the intersection of King and Dufferin Streets; Carleton Street between Yonge and Sherbourne Streets; Bathurst Street, near Bloor and also south of Queen Street; and College Street between Yonge and University Avenue.

Mr. Moscoe said he was amazed at the large number of red flags he has spotted recently. "I knew the track [replacement]budget was large, but I never realized the extent of the problem," he said.

His request to speed up track repairs will be discussed on Wednesday, at the TTC's regular monthly meeting.

Rick Ducharme, chief general manager of the TTC, said he too would like to escalate the replacement program. But even if he had the money, "I can't spend any faster." The city, he said, is "supporting us as fast as I can go."

The problem is that physically, the commission cannot undertake more repairs than it is currently handling. It would mean too much disruption to city streets and contractors cannot undertake more work, Mr. Ducharme said.

"Even spending $33-million this year is pushing us to the limit."

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When he took over the top job at the commission in 1999, the TTC was spending slightly more than $7-million annually to rehabilitate streetcar tracks, a significant drop from $18-million in 1980.

The track budget has been steadily climbing under Mr. Ducharme's leadership to a total of $22-million this year. When combined with funding for special track projects, the total budget this year for streetcar-track work is $33-million.

The TTC's five-year budget calls for a total $26-million for track repair next year, $37-million in 2005, $38-million in 2006 and $34-million in 2007.

Spending will drop steadily each year thereafter until it levels off in 2011, at which point the commission will require about $11-million annually for track repairs.

"There never will be a time when we never have to not replace tracks," Mr. Ducharme said.

There are two reasons for the sorry state of the streetcar tracks, one being the TTC's decision to spend less during the 1990s, meaning some tracks were allowed to deteriorate. The other was the technology used.

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Historically, tracks were embedded into concrete poured over softwood rail ties that were placed on loose gravel. Over time, the ties rotted and the concrete slabs cracked and broke apart, requiring replacement every 10 to 15 years. Potholes and broken chunks of concrete have become a hazard for streetcars, cars and pedestrians.

A new track system that uses steel epoxy-coated rail ties is expected to have a life span of 25 years. Concrete is poured over compacted gravel, and the ties are placed in another bed of concrete, which is topped by more concrete in which rail clips and rubber-encased rails are embedded. This system makes the rail more stable and quieter, the TTC says.

Only the top level of concrete needs to be removed to replace the track. The old system required everything to be dug up to determine the condition of the wooden ties.

The need to co-ordinate its track-replacement program with the city's schedule for road resurfacing is hampering the TTC. But Mr. Ducharme said it would be too disruptive and costly if the city and the TTC both dug up the same street at different times.

He said that slowing down the streetcars prolongs the life of the track until it can be repaired.

Mr. Moscoe raised the issue of the red flags in a letter to Mr. Ducharme, in which he asks for a report on how repairs can proceed more quickly and on how much it costs to slow down the streetcars.

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Mr. Moscoe said he hopes that debate at the commission meeting will not focus on the merits of streetcars. "Toronto made a long-term commitment to streetcars . . . The streetcar is Toronto," he said.

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