The Toronto Transit Commission meeting of December 19, 2012, brought a few items of interest, although the desire to get away for Christmas was definitely in the air. Nonetheless, the public meeting ran close to five hours.
In this article:
- Leslie Barn(s)
- A New Approach to Community Relations
- Subway Station 2nd Exits
- Presto Update
- CEO’s Report
- Gateway Lease
- City Auditor’s Report on Wheel-Trans
Back in November, the Commission decided to rename the Ashbridges Bay Streetcar Maintenance & Storage Facility as “The Leslie Barn” at the request of the local community and Councillors. However, something was lost in translation, and the name should have been “Barns”. This will be formally rectified at the January Commission meeting, but in the meantime, the webpage for this project already contains the “s” in its name.
Construction is underway on the main site, although the carhouse building cannot be started until a Hydro One high voltage cable running under the property is relocated. The contract for the connection track north to Queen Street and associated streetscape improvements will be let early in 2013. More information is on the website.
This report and associated materials respond to the City of Toronto Ombudsman’s report that was highly critical of the TTC’s handling of planned work for second exits at Donlands and Greenwood Stations.
Without going into the details (you can find these in the Ombudsman’s report), TTC’s handling of community consultation was appalling. The TTC has accepted responsibility for this and vowed never to proceed in so insensitive a way again. Much of the presentation at the Commission meeting and elsewhere focuses on the reorganization of the Community Relations and Communications functions within the TTC, and a dedication to keeping all affected parties up-to-date and involved in major projects.
This new approach is visible in presentations and websites, but actual success cannot be measured until the TTC has been through a few new projects and gains a reputation for open, fair dealing with neighbourhoods.
Technical Criteria for Evaluating Alternatives
A major flaw in the process at Donlands and Greenwood was that the TTC relied on two separate legislative sources — the Ontario Building Code and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) code from the USA — and blended aspects of each of these into its evaluation scheme. The difficulty lies both in which codes apply, and which items in each code are hard rules not to be broken, or design goals to be achieved on a best effort basis. The TTC also appears to have inconsistently applied the codes. This could be a valid approach if this is only a “best effort” and circumstances differ at the two sites, but in practice the exercise gave the affected communities the sense that TTC staff were cherry-picking the codes as it suited their preferred designs. This sentiment was echoed in the Ombudsman’s report.
Clearly, a better understood way is needed to perform evaluations that can be agreed to both by TTC staff charged with design and safety, and by the affected communities (even though the results cannot please everyone all of the time). On this point, the TTC was very disappointing. The Greenwood project has been deferred for five years pending budget room and also for consolidation with the Easy Access project (elevators, etc). The Donlands project is on hold for two years until the fate of this station as a possible interchange point for the Downtown Relief Line is known.
The effect of these schedule changes was to dodge any material discussion of the actual standards for station construction together with a re-evaluation of the options. This may suit the TTC’s schedule, but it leaves the neighbourhoods in limbo.
The TTC has not replied in detail to the technical aspects of the Ombudsman’s report because they have not yet been provided with the engineering report she commissioned.
Meanwhile, the TTC is purchasing the property where its preferred exit building would go. To say the neighbourhood is suspicious of the TTC’s motives would be an understatement, but the reasons behind this move were not made public (property dealings are allowed to be held in confidence until they are concluded). It is possible that the TTC is dealing with a willing seller and keeping its options open by grabbing available property.
Although there are two web pages on the TTC’s site, one for each station, the information on both of them is, at this writing, identical.
This includes the text of a latter from Andy Byford to the communities, and a pdf of the presentation given at a Community Meeting of December 3.
A separate project is underway at Woodbine Station. Presentation materials on this are available in the TTC report that was on the December 19 agenda, and on the page for a public meeting in June 2010. This presentation is not yet linked from the project’s web page.
Work is also planned at Coxwell Station to provide elevators and other Easy Access upgrades, but this does not include work on a second exit from the station.
The Commission asked the CEO to report in February 2013 on four recommendations from neighbourhood members:
- that the project budget be suspended until an appropriate solution has been reached;
- that a project mandate be introduced that articulates the need for a balance of engineering and community needs;
- that a revised process receive oversight by a third party with the appropriate engineering, urban design and community-issue expertise; and
- that any decision about a location of a second exit be brought back to the Commission before it is finalized.
The substance of these recommendations was not adopted by the Commission, only the request for a report.
An update on TTC’s progress negotiating with Metrolinx about the Presto implementation was given at the meeting, but the materials are not online. I have converted the Powerpoint to a simple text file (there were no illustrations).
Presto is in use at some subway stations today, but it is only able to charge the standard adult token fare. If a rider needs to change to another route, they would obtain a transfer in the usual manner because there are no Presto readers on surface vehicles. The equipment now in place is the “Version 1″ Presto system, and it will not be retained for the system-wide rollout which will use the “Next Generation” Presto system.
The most important part of any Presto implementation is that it will meet the TTC’s business requirements. This includes support for the fare structure as well as for back-end services. The TTC has not discussed moving away from its complex transfer rules to a time-based fare, but a decision on this is needed soon both to set the parameters for a Presto rollout and to prepare riders and operators for the new rules. The TTC expects to lose some revenue with such a change, although this will affect only riders who now pay single fares, not passholders. The offsetting benefit is a simplification of the fare structure and its potential integration on a regional basis with other carriers already using time-based fares.
Metrolinx will finance most of the cost of implementing Presto on the TTC except for about $47m sitting in a reserve from the Canada Strategic Infrastructure Fund that will be used by the TTC for subway power upgrades and for project team costs.
Originally, Metrolinx had been talking about recouping it capital costs by scooping whatever savings the TTC obtained as revenue collection shifted from their in-house operation to Metrolinx. In effect, the TTC would see no operating savings, and would be funding the Metrolinx capital project out of its ongoing revenues. This now appears to have changed and the TTC will pay a flat 5.25% of revenues collected through Presto to Metrolinx. Ongoing fare collection costs are expected to stay at or below current levels (7-8% of revenue), and the onus is on Metrolinx to find cost efficiencies to offset its capital investment.
Presto will eventually support “open payments” (the ability to use a bank card or mobile device), but there is no timeframe for this capability to be implemented.
The development process includes several points of detailed review by the TTC to ensure that the product will actually work as expected when it is rolled out. Toronto has benefited from recent difficulties with Presto in Ottawa where it is no longer necessary to pretend that the product is perfect or to avoid criticism of a provincial pet project. Having something that actually works seems, at last, to be important.
Metrolinx is reviewing its agreement with the TTC to remove “commercially sensitive” information. When this document is available, I will comment on it in a separate article.
Ridership and Budget
Ridership continues to run well ahead of budget projections for 2012 with the projected year-end total at 514m (compared to the budget level of 503m). Although $2.1m worth of additional service was approved by the Commission and Council, the TTC will still run about $37m below the originally allocated subsidy level. (The full year value of the service additions is about $6m because they were not implemented until fall 2012.)
Farebox revenue is projected at $15.5m above budget while expenses are $21.6m below budget thanks mainly to lower than expected costs for diesel fuel ($6.5m), traction power ($2.5m), utilities ($2m), accident claims ($4.4m), labour rates ($1.8m) and other employee costs ($4m). Some savings are due to lower prices (energy costs) and weather (mild winters). The unused subsidy will be returned to the City of Toronto as part of its “surplus”. Whether the City would be as generous had circumstances gone against the TTC is another matter, although it is worth noting that in 2012 the City will cover the retroactive costs of an arbitrated labour settlement separately from the regular subsidy.
The CEO’s report continues to present an overview of TTC operations in KPI (Key Performance Indicator) scorecard format. A fundamental problem with many of the indices uses is that they represent such a degree of consolidation that many problems simply vanish.
The target KPI for rapid transit service reliability is 96.0%. What this is supposed to mean is that 96% of all trips are “on time” give or take three minutes. The TTC interchangeably uses “on time” to mean “relative to schedule” and “relative to scheduled headway”. In fact, it is the latter value that is measured, and “on time” performance is something of a joke given the commonly-observed mid-line exchange of trains by crew members.
Moreover, with a scheduled peak headway of 2’20”, a lower bound of about 2’00” set by the signal system, and an upper bound from the KPI of 5’20”, it is possible for service to be atrocious, and yet still rank as “on time”. In a worst case scenario, over half of the service could be missing (a headway of 4’40”) and yet the KPI would still read 100%! Off-peak headways on the two major subways are never greater than 5’00”, and so a range of 2’00” (the practical minimum) to 8’00” counts as “on time”.
The situation is further confused by the fact that the results are averaged for many observation points and directions on the system, and it is rare that a major delay affects service on the complete line. One section may be totally out of service while others continue to operate more-or-less on time with the result that the “average” performance continues to rank high. If that isn’t bad enough, the numbers are consolidated with 2/3 of the value coming from peak service and 1/3 from everything else. It’s no wonder that the subway reliability index never falls below 90%. This is just about a mathematical impossibility.
What is missing from the KPI is an indication of how much service was operated, how many of the scheduled trains actually ran, and how often individual sections and times were affected by significant disturbances in service quality.
One technical issue that has been flagged is the door problem on the new Toronto Rocket trains, and this is cited for the relatively poor performance of the Yonge-University line at “only” 94.2%, a value that would be exemplary if it were meaningful.
On the Scarborough RT, reliability problems have been addressed by extending the running time. In January 2012, the trip time was 22′ at most times, but it is now 27′, an increase of 23%. Headways have been widened substantially (AM Peak 3’30” to 4’30”, PM Peak 3’40” to 4’30”, Off Peak 5’30” to 6’45”) giving roughly 25% less scheduled service.
On the surface routes, the target is much lower at 65% for buses and 70% for streetcars, and the KPI for these modes refers explicitly to headway reliability, not on-time performance. As we have seen in route analyses I have published (and a considerable amount of unpublished data as well), it is comparatively easy for routes with frequent service to stay within the 3-minute window.
Bunching shows only one longer-than normal headway even when many vehicles run in a pack. Unlike the subway, very short headways are possible. The lead bus may be in a wide gap, but could be followed by many running at 1 or 2 minute intervals, probably within the -3 minute range of the scheduled headway. Peak service tends to dominate the stats because it operates more trips than off-peak on many routes, but headway reliability during the off-peak and on weekends is an almost unknown concept in parts of the network.
I do not yet know the details of how the TTC calculated its surface reliability KPIs and so cannot comment on any problems or bias within the methodology. However, given the range of values reported, I suspect that these are much more representative numbers than on the subway.
TTC management do review the details of service reliability internally, but these are not published. As a result, the numbers don’t reflect the actual experience of riders who will tend to remember (and be much more seriously affected by) bunching, interruptions and short-turns, not to mention pass-ups by full vehicles.
Elevators and Escalators
Other critical KPIs include those measuring elevator and escalator availability for which the targets are 97%. Again, it is unclear just what this represents — single or multiple observations per day — and whether machines out of service for scheduled repairs count against the index. A passenger does not care. Unlike buses for which a pool of spares is maintained, if an escalator or elevator is not working, it is of no use to those with mobility challenges. This is an essential part of making the TTC accessible and achieving an increase in use of the “regular” system by riders who might otherwise be forced onto Wheel-Trans assuming there were rides available.
Recently, the TTC has been including elevator outages in its online service notifications, and these will be useful in tracking the actual availability of elevator service. Escalator outages, especially those for repairs and routine maintenance/inspection, should also be included because many locations do not have an elevator as an alternative.
According to the CEO’s report, the TTC is taking steps to improve reliability by holding the elevator maintenance contractor to account for non-performance, and by tracking escalator reliability to identify and correct underlying problems leading to repeated failures.
Noise and Vibration
Noise and vibration complaints continue to dog the TTC in some locations, notably the western part of the Bloor subway. Many possible causes including the condition of running rails, joints, tunnel concrete, vehicle axles and wheels are being investigated and corrected, and there is ongoing involvement of affected communities and their Councillors to track the success of these efforts.
This raises a more general question of whether there has been deterioration of overall conditions due to reduced maintenance, or if there is a long-term decline in the infrastructure itself.
The current leaseholder of the subway concessions is Tobmar Investments International Inc. operating as Gateway Newsstands. On October 24, the TTC approved entering into further agreements with Tobmar to extend and consolidate leases for the many sites throughout the system. The October report stated:
There has been no written interest expressed from other sources to lease the subway newsstands.
However, the process of awarding this extension without inviting bids has been challenged by International News who wish to make an offer of their own. The matter will be discussed at the January Commission meeting.
The City’s Auditor General reported on the Wheel-Trans services under the title “Sustaining Level and Quality of Service Requires Changes to the Program”. When the media picked up this story, they focused on the term “unsustainable” although this was the TTC’s own characterization of budget problems with the service, not the AG’s.
The fundamental problem is that Wheel-Trans only recovers 5% of its operating cost from the farebox, and the penny-pinching by City Council forces either that it improve by reducing or shedding costs (better “efficiency” and/or service cuts). Unlike the regular system, increasing demand cannot be paid for with a combination of fare increases, stronger ridership and cuts to “poor performing” routes.
The budget pressure for 2013 has been handled by dropping service for dialysis patients (in by effect transferring the cost elsewhere, not by eliminating the demand). This is a one-time saving, and it could only be repeated by finding a new class of rider who could be elbowed off of Wheel-Trans each year. This will be difficult given the demographics which will drive demand up with an aging population and legislative changes that will add to, not reduce, the demand that the TTC cannot evade.
The AG’s report title is misleading in that maintaining the “Quality of Service” seems to be the last thing on his mind. Instead, he throws out a grab-bag of proposals, some of them with penny-ante returns, and only a few which may represent major savings. None of this is in the context of a strategic plan for Wheel-Trans and its evolving demand. To be fair, the AG’s job is only to look for possible misspending or opportunities for improvement, but none of the recommendations admits of a context where demand and associated costs will rise even if savings are found in current operations.
Shifting Users Away From Wheel-Trans
The first major recommendation is that existing Wheel-Trans clients be encouraged to use the conventional transit system, possibly by offering free passage to them. The premise is that as accessibility on that system rises, more trips should be possible without recourse to a dedicated bus or taxi service.
The AG has completely missed an important issue — access — and the difficulty faced by many riders not just in using the transit system when they reach it, but in simply getting to a bus stop or station. Further problems can be encountered if their trips require transfers that may not occur in the best of locations for those with mobility impairment, or for whom standing around waiting for an infrequent and unreliable connection may not be physically possible. The ability to use the regular system may be weather-sensitive, and a Wheel-Trans user would not likely give up their right to door-to-door service just because they might be able to walk to a bus stop on a bright, warm day.
Without question, there is a group of potential riders who fall between the hale-and-hearty regular users and those who can travel only with great difficulty. These would-be travelers face on one hand a system not designed primarily with their challenges in mind, and on the other an eligibility test for door-to-door service that they might be unable to pass. It is these “in between” riders for whom accessibility improvements are most important, not for the small proportion of Wheel-Trans users who might be redirected to the conventional system.
The AG reports that in consultation with rider groups, many issues including malfunctioning devices (lifts and escalators), platform alignment of subway trains (a height difference enough to block wheelchair or scooter access), and uncooperative staff are barriers to using the conventional system. The rate of retrofitting stations for accessibility is slow both because there is no legislative requirement to complete this work until 2025, and because sufficient funding has not been provided in the TTC Capital Budget.
A related issue is the frequency with which devices don’t work and the less-than-speedy efforts to restore service, some of which are budget related. The TTC does not seem to understand that a broken elevator or escalator is the equivalent of cancelling service on a bus route or closing a subway station — it’s an all-or-nothing issue, not an inconvenience some riders can avoid. Yes, maintenance windows are inevitable, but they take a long time in part because of limited staff and budgets.
Physical access is the issue, not cost. Considering how often pleas for reduced or zero fares from other deserving groups fall on deaf ears at the TTC and City Council, the idea that free rides might be offered as a “cost saving measure” is almost insulting and shows a profound lack of understanding of the factors that make Wheel-Trans necessary in the first place.
On a related note, the AG takes issue with the process for evaluating Wheel-Trans user eligibility suggesting that medical certification should be required, and implying that the service is now exploited by people who should not be using it. The TTC’s own experience is that someone’s own doctor will almost always certify eligibility as they are advocates for the patient and their quality of life, not for saving the TTC money. If anything, ongoing complaints from the disabled community about the stringency of the application process suggests that few malingerers slip through the cracks.
Chair Karen Stintz challenged the AG about whether he alleged that the service was abused in this way, and he backed off in his verbal response. The proportion of Wheel-Trans riders who might not strictly qualify is very low, probably well below the level of fare evasion on the regular system. The cost per ride is higher on Wheel-Trans and this attracts more attention as an avoidable expense.
The AG notes that the Ministry of Transportation requires a medical certificate as a condition of granting parking permits. However, there is no cost to Queen’s Park if such a permit goes to someone who might not meet strict qualification requirements. The situations are not directly comparable.
Trip Bookings, Late Cancellations and No-Shows
The trip booking process has been under fire for years by Wheel-Trans users, and the AG echoes these complaints. However, his only suggestion involves some redeployment of staff to different shifts and duties to deal with a very high call volume mid-evening to confirm trip times. A chart of call volumes [page 30 of the AG’s report] shows that the proportion of abandoned calls is substantial all day long and is regularly over 50%. The inability to reach an agent is as much as accessibility issue as whether one’s local station has a working elevator, and more will be needed to address this problem than simply shuffling around a few bodies in the call centre.
The trip booking system itself produces schedules for drivers that may contain anomalies (less than ideal routings, duplication of vehicles with similar destinations), but the drivers are by policy forced to follow their run sheets even if they make no sense. This does not say much for Wheel-Trans management. A new system is supposed to come into operation in 2013.
Another source of extra cost to the TTC comes from “late cancellations” and “no-shows”. At first, the report seems to imply that this is the fault of users who take the system for granted and don’t bother cancelling. However, comparisons with other systems show (within limits of the data provided) that the highest rates of missed trips come from systems with the longest cutoff deadline for cancellations. Where riders have the option of cancelling a trip, say, four hours before it is to occur, they are more likely to be able to deal with last-minute changes and give up their booking. That assumes, of course, that they can reach a booking agent, and that the dispatching system can handle changes in real time rather than only on the evening before when schedules for booked trips are drawn up.
From the customer’s point of view, the inability to reach a Wheel-Trans agent is a major problem especially when trips do not arrive as expected. Riders are supposed to be at their pick-up spots on time and have five minutes’ grace while an “on time” vehicle will wait. However, if the vehicle does not show up, the rider must wait another 20 minutes before calling to report or making alternate arrangements lest they be counted as a “no show”. This can be an onerous situation, complicated by the probability that a call will never be answered. Unlike a user of the regular system, a Wheel-Trans rider does not have the option of looking up the status of a route on Nextbus, changing their trip strategy, or simply walking.
The “Community Bus” services (400 series of routes) come under attack because of their “low productivity” averaging five passengers per hour per bus. (By comparison, the standard for the much larger city buses is 10 passengers per hour below which a service is considered uneconomic.) What the AG completely misses is that these routes are designed to provide a one-seat ride between many community and health centres, shopping and seniors’ homes. These are trips that would be impossible on the conventional system, in some cases because there is no transit service to the locations, and in others because of the rigours of transferring between infrequent routes. The entire premise of the Community Buses is to eliminate the need for Wheel-Trans bookings and to improve the mobility of seniors generally whether they would qualify for Wheel-Trans or not.
The AG’s other main issue is with the contracts for taxi and sedan services that provide approximately two-thirds of the trips by Wheel-Trans users. There are issues with the current contract terms and the procurement process, some of which are dealt with in a confidential report. The AG takes issue with management fees paid to the taxi companies and with the lack of competitive bidding. In an attempt to improve customer service and to ensure that drivers were properly paid, the TTC had fixed prices for these contracts and the bid process depended mainly on the quality of service each company might provide. The problem with a price-based bid has been that inevitably service quality suffers because the taxi companies and drivers are trying to keep down costs and shave time off of trips.
The contracts for Wheel-Trans taxi services have always been a contentious issue at the TTC because of friction between the taxi brokerages who provide dispatching service and the operators of the cabs. One issue raised by the City Auditor General is the flat fee paid to the incumbent brokerages and the amount of work they have to do in passing trip bookings on to their cabbies. Conversely, some cabbies object to the proportion of revenue on Wheel-Trans trips they must give up to the brokerages in return for getting the work.
A staff report had proposed extending existing contracts for six months, although they do not expire until the end of 2013. This was opposed by advocates of a new bid for the taxi services. The Commission agreed to the extension, if it proves necessary, but also directed staff to launch a new RFP (Request for Proposals) process including the use of an external Fairness Monitor to guard against interference.
The matter will no doubt be back before the Commission sometime in 2013 as part of a general review of Wheel-Trans operations scheduled for the April meeting.