Special Report: Light Rail

Anti-LRT Fearmongering Targets Overhead Wires

Recently, an LRT opponent claimed that the overhead wires have been linked to cancer. That is simply not true.

By Chris Drew
Published July 31, 2017

I'm a passionate supporter of light rail transit (LRT) for Hamilton, Brampton, Mississauga, Ottawa, Waterloo Region, and Ottawa (because one city isn't enough, right?). Over the years of being a volunteer citizen advocate for LRT, I've heard all sorts of false claims, myths, red herrings, distractions and mistruths about the LRT plans for these cities.

They can range from the obviously ridiculous to the complicated-to-respond-to-quickly. The ones that fall in the complicated-to-respond-to-quickly category are the most frustrating because they take so much time to research, fact check and address.

Particularly in the Brampton debate, I'm always wishing I had more time to respond. Of course, I've also been told, "Chris, just ignore it. Hope it goes away. Don't give it the attention". That's always hard for me because I earnestly like to have discussions, conversations, and try to learn more about the concerns people have in an honest, respectful, and professional way. That's what my planning school education at Ryerson taught me to do. That's what my career has taught me to do. That's just how my parents (fellow transit/train fans) raised me.

One funny part I find about being passionate about transit is that because I engage, am involved, like to respond, some folks who don't like the above transit plans think I work for Metrolinx or I get paid to do this. I don't.

In fact, no one needs to pay me to volunteer my time to do advocacy. I enjoy it so much and feel like I'm making a positive difference that I don't need to be paid. Also, I'm self-described transit/train geek. I've got lots of pictures from when I was young watching trains, riding transit, going to museums.

Being in the debate also means encountering ridiculous assertions about LRT. These ones take much less time to respond to because they are so easy to fact check. Now that Donald Trump is on the scene we have a 2017 term of these types of arguments about LRT: fake news.

Recently, a Hamilton LRT opponent commenting on a Facebook thread about the Waterloo Region LRT said this: "Wires that create quite a bit of EMF to the point that the WHO has done studies on such proving links to cancer."

That's such an obviously false statement, I knew it would be quick to provide a response. My initial response was brief and blunt: "False. There is zero evidence from any professional in the field that any wires associated with LRT in any city in Ontario will do this. If this were the case, the entire streetcar network in Toronto would be forced to shut down. But then again, I guess some see Trump's fake news style as something to be emulated rather than rejected."

But then I thought: Chris, you can do even better. This can be an educational opportunity, because maybe there are others out there who have a general concern about wires. After all, LRT is new to Ontario. So I reached out to my friend and transit advocate, Steve Munro.

Steve has spent a lifetime advocating for transit, researching it, and helping to save it. That's about as short of a biography as I can do. I'm a big believer in young generations reaching out to those with expertise and insights gained over decades. Not to compare Steve to the age of my grandparents, but I always valued their wise advice and life experiences. I miss them.

(The other great part about my grandparents? Besides also being transit fans and one of them working on the railway for 40 years, they never held back.)

I emailed Steve asking for this response to the false statement. Here's his full response:

The TTC system (streetcars and subway) are both 550V DC which was a standard for street railways a century ago.

New systems tend to be powered at a higher voltage, including [the Eglinton] Crosstown, which is 750V DC. There are advantages in a higher voltage related to line losses in transmission and a few other things. Voltages vary from city to city and a lot depends on the prevailing standards. The Crosstown effectively sets the standard for southern Ontario. Ottawa is using 1500V DC.

I suspect that when the TTC was designing specs for the legacy+transit city vehicle order, they chose a voltage for the TC lines that was close enough to the legacy system that the same basic car design could be used for either situation.

One of the big advantage of the PCCs and Witts was that they were designed for systems where the voltage could fall under stress way below 550. I remember leaving the CNE during its heyday on a huge parade of Bathurst cars after the fireworks. The lights were dim, and got dimmer every time any car in the section moved, but the car still worked. Don't try that with a CLRV.

The railway corridors will be electrified at 25,000V AC, which is a railway standard. The very high voltage avoids the need for closely spaced substations, but this is also the reason why clearance requirements for main line electrification are much higher than for "streetcar/LRT" installations.

By the way, the SRT uses 440V DC but it is supplied at +220 and -220 (hence two power rails). The reason for this is that with the lower voltage to ground, they would save on insulation and hence weight, a critical consideration in the early days of that technology. It's also the reason the power distribution for the SRT would have to be completely replaced as part of an LRT conversion.

Question: is there is any UN study that says wires for streetcars/LRTs have negative health impacts?

None that I have seen.

Also worth noting that the field, such as it is, around a DC line is static whereas around an AC line it varies at the cycle (typ 60 hertz) of the power.

Streetcars and subways historically use DC because until the arrival of reliable, durable solid state devices, it was not practical to use single phase AC. Modern vehicles like our subway cars and new streetcars have AC motors, but this is synthesized on board.

Similarly the high voltage feed for mainline rail is a matter of technical convenience - many fewer substations needed - although typically the voltage is transformed down on board and converted to another format for actual tractive effort.

There have been street railways, subways and mainline rail running under wire since the late 19th Century. If there was a problem, we would know by now.

On a related note, the fields from hydro corridors are MUCH greater because of the higher voltage and current. If someone wants to go bananas about this issue, hydro is where it's at. You have probably noticed nobody is proposing we shut down Hydro.

For LRT opponents, the power is a convenient distraction because somehow the idea of transmitting energy through a wire for an LRV is somehow different than every other type of power distribution we use.

I think Steve for his responses. My motivation for posting it here is so that it's easier to refer back to in the future. Sometimes comments get lost in Facebook threads.

Chris Drew is co-founder of Fight Gridlock in Brampton, a citizen advocacy group that supports transit and complete streets in Brampton.


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By Haveacow (registered) | Posted July 30, 2017 at 22:45:36

I to am a Ryerson planning Grad and I to am also Urban Planner but as an independent consultant not a member of Metrolinx. I lived in Toronto for the first half of my life and worked with TTC during the summer as part of line crew. I worked for the CPR the next summer as track crew in the Agincourt Yard (now CPR Toronto Yards). Now I live in Ottawa with my family and have worked with YRT/VIVA, OC Transpo (Including the original O-Train, now the Trillium Line). I did early systems and capacity planning of the Confederation LRT Line. I also was on the board of a Railway Museum until recently. So I honestly have a feeling of kinship here.

With the sheer number of projects on the go I am constantly surprised the Agency known as Mertolinx hasn't just self destructed yet but it seems to soldier on, so best of luck!

However, as per the subject of your article anything man made will probably eventually, lead to cancer. But if LRT OCS wires lead to cancer then there are many other things like high tension power lines, certain very common electrical and electronic components that will lead to the death of us all via cancer. This is not by any measure an exhaustive list stuff that could kill us with possible connections to cancer by the use of high voltage and magnetic fields. So I would not really sweat it and demand proof from legitimate medical sources when people make these kinds of claims.

After following what has been an emotional and sometimes wild series of events in Hamilton's LRT proposal and living through Ottawa's LRT history it is no surprise that LRT opponents have sunk to these kinds of claims. When you see the positions taken and lies by some, not all, anti-LRT opponents, it really shouldn't surprise anyone that the cancer angle gets played. The shear desperation of some LRT opponents is quite remarkable.

At a public meeting for a transit line extension assessment I was once part of, a woman told me that any noise (especially construction noise) above the noise level of a hand drill (about 40-50 decibels) would literally kill her husband. So any construction must not produce noise above 40-50 db. How this would be possible in an oxygen based atmosphere is unknown to me and I chose to tell her that. You can't run a dump truck at less than 40-50 db. if you plan to actually use it. Sensitivity to honestly concerned residents is critically important but you do here some whoppers every once and while. I honestly hope the man was okay when the project happened but 40-50 db is not that loud.

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By mdrejhon (registered) - website | Posted August 03, 2017 at 22:49:00

Thanks Chris for a very informative article.

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