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Metrolinx moves to ban some e-bikes from GO trains over battery-fire worries

Click to play video: 'Metrolinx planning to ban some e-bikes from GO trains in and out of Toronto'
Metrolinx planning to ban some e-bikes from GO trains in and out of Toronto
WATCH: The provincial transit agency Metrolinx is set to ban some batteries and e-bikes from its trains amidst safety fears. Global News' Queen's Park Bureau Chief Colin D'Mello has the story – Mar 13, 2024

Metrolinx is set to ban non-certified e-bike batteries from all GO trains in the coming months, Global News has learned, as transit systems across the province deal with a growing threat of battery fires.

Sources told Global News the transit system has begun conducting electric bicycle inspections across the network, looking for uncertified batteries which could be a potential fire hazard.

While batteries that carry ‘UL’ or ‘CE’ markings on them have received GO Transit security seals, others — such as problematic lithium-ion batteries — are expected to be barred from the network entirely.

Government sources stressed the policy, when in effect, is only expected to impact a small number of e-bike riders.

The upcoming ban comes nearly a year after Health Canada warned about the “misuse or modification of lithium-ion batteries” which poses an electrical, chemical and fire hazard.

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Health Canada said lithium-ion batteries in e-bikes are “larger and more powerful” than smaller products, such as power tools, and could lead to “thermal runaway.”

“Thermal runaway can occur when too much heat builds up inside the battery due to damage, malfunction or misuse,” Health Canada said in a 2023 safety alert. “This excessive heat, in combination with the highly flammable contents of the lithium-ion battery, can lead to explosions or fires that are extremely difficult to extinguish.”

Jurij Zurba, the owner of e-bike retailer EP Rider, told Global News the issues are twofold: lack of proper maintenance and cheap, after-market batteries.

“They’re overcharging them or using the wrong chargers,” Zurba warned. “When the batteries do die down they’re buying inferior batteries and putting them in. That’s what’s causing the problems with the bikes.

On New Year’s Eve, a lithium-ion battery failure caused an e-bike to burst into flames on board a Toronto subway car. The fire was reported on a Line 1 subway train, resulting in a “significant and aggressive” fire, which Toronto’s fire chief said also led to gases being released into the carriage.

A Vancouver widow is also suing an e-bike maker and battery repair shop after she says a battery caught fire while charging in the living room, allegedly leading to a rapidly-growing and deadly fire.

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David Shellnutt, co-founder of The Biking Lawyer LLP in Toronto, said the provincial government, Metrolinx and municipalities are catching up on the e-bike and “cycling revolution” as more couriers and cyclists hit the streets in Ontario.

“I totally understand the safety concerns. There’s been one-off cases of battery fires in other jurisdictions; you don’t want that kind of thing on a train where it could injure people,” he said.

“But what we’ve heard about how it’s going to be rolled out raises some concerns. First and foremost is the equity concerns around having fare inspectors, who are security in a sense, being tasked with this role.”

Shellnutt said he worried about how people’s rights would be communicated to them and if fare inspectors had the training required to do the job.

Shellnutt said it was important for Metrolinx and other government bodies to proactively communicate battery rules to make sure people don’t buy the wrong bikes and get caught short.

“I think that’s going to come as a real shock to folks,” he said. “They’re going to show up to work one day wanting to get on the train and they’re going to be told by a security guard fare inspector that, ‘Nope, your battery’s wrong.’”

The battery certification process is part of a broader review at Metrolinx over how to accommodate a growing number of bike couriers riding GO trains, particularly on the Kitchener line.

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Trains running the route, which stops in west Toronto, Brampton, Guelph and Georgetown, have had additional bike carriages added to them during the winter. Bike coaches normally on trains headed to Niagara Falls have been moved to help deal with the influx.

A review of how to handle e-bikes and couriers on GO trains has been going on since at least January. When summer schedules resume, bike carriages will likely be returned to the Niagara Falls line, adding some urgency to the review and Metrolinx’s planned solutions.

Brice Sopher, vice-president of Gig Workers United, said he wanted to see Metrolinx provide more storage options for bikes in Toronto, eliminating the need for riders to take their bikes in and out of the city every day.

“I can’t argue with the idea of protecting people, but I believe they’re going about it in the wrong way,” he told Global News.

“What they should be doing is providing ample storage facilities that are affordable for e-bike delivery people and for anyone who wants to, utilize their bike as part of their commute.”

For those who do take their e-bikes on the GO train, there are safety measures they can be aware of.

Zurba said there is one telltale sign that the battery has overheated and could cause a fire: “If you can hear a pop, and then a little smoke will come out that means the battery is going to explode.”

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