Now that the first Low Floor Light Rail Vehicle (LFLRV) is rolling through Toronto streets on test runs, the question of service quality and capacity for streetcar routes is once again an issue.
The most recent TTC document setting out their intended use of the new fleet appeared in the 2013 Capital Budget Blue Books. These are not available online, but I presented the TTC’s fleet plan in an article last fall. From the numbers of vehicles to be assigned to each route, one can work back to the service frequency and capacity numbers. In general, peak period headways get a bit wider, but the capacity goes up, in some cases dramatically.
The TTC faces two challenges: one on the budget, and one in operations.
Toronto Council has been extremely stingy with operating subsidies and “flat lined” the TTC over the past two budget cycles. Hard liners will want the TTC to simply replace service on an equivalent capacity basis and maximize the savings in operator costs. This would be a disaster for service quality even if the TTC actually ran cars on the headways they advertise.
On the operational side, any increase in headways brings even wider gaps when the service is upset by weather, random delays and short turns. It is already a matter of record that the largest drop in riding over the past two decades came on the lines where 50-foot long CLRVs (the standard Toronto cars) were replaced by 75-foot long ALRVs (the articulated version) on an equivalent capacity basis. Falling riding led to reduced service and the familiar downward spiral. This must not happen when the new fleet rolls out across the system.
Since at least the mid-1990s, the TTC has told us that they cannot improve streetcar service because they have no spare cars. In part, they are the victims of their own fleet planning. The TTC originally rebuilt some of its old PCC cars (the fleet preceding the current one) in order to have enough to expand operations on the Harbourfront and Spadina lines. However, by the mid-1990s, service cuts on many routes thanks to the economic downturn in that decade and the subsidy cuts by the Harris government, reduced the fleet requirements to the point where the PCCs could be retired and the Spadina line opened without buying any new cars. When riding started to grow again, the TTC had no spare vehicles to improve service, and to make matters worse, the fleet was entering a period of lower reliability thanks, in part, to poor design.
Toronto waited a long time for new cars to be ordered, and this process was delayed both by the decision to go with all low-floor cars, and by political meddling at City Hall. New residential construction along the streetcar lines pushes up demand, but the TTC cannot respond with better service until they have more cars.
Recent discussions about the new cars have included comments about how we cannot possibly have more streetcars on the road. What many people forget is that the streetcar services were once much better than today. In this article, I will look back at service levels once operated in Toronto, and at the service that we might see if the TTC actually operates the new fleet in the manner their Fleet Plan claims.
For the purpose of comparison, I have chosen services as they existed on several dates:
- April 1954: The Yonge subway has just opened between Union and Eglinton and much of the north-south flow into the core has been redirected from surface routes onto that line.
- April 1964: The University subway has opened, but Bloor-Danforth is still two years in the future.
- January 1968: The Bloor-Danforth subway has opened between Keele and Woodbine, but extensions beyond are still under construction.
- October 1971: The Spadina subway has not yet opened.
- October 1980: The subway is at the extent it will remain for many years, but 1980 brings the first drop in TTC riding for decades thanks to the Gulf War induced recession and spike in oil prices.
- April 1990: The early 90s recession is just about to arrive.
- February 1996: The combined effect of the recession and Harris service cuts hits the TTC which will lose 20% of its former peak ridership.
- September 2006: The TTC has started to climb out of its ridership slump, but has not yet surpassed its previous record level.
- March 2013: TTC now has record ridership and service is improving, although not much on the streetcar system thanks to fleet constraints.
- Post LFLRV implementation: Working from the planned fleet allocation, it is possible to calculate future capacity levels on each route, although some assumptions are needed about details of service design.
Service Into the Core Area
Four streetcar routes continue to serve the core area (506 Carlton, 505 Dundas, 501 Queen, 504 King plus supplementary routes 502, 503, 508 and trippers on some lines). In the following chart, capacity numbers are based on the services in place at each time period.
The values shown are for the peak hour inbound in the AM peak, and are based on the design capacities of the vehicles for service planning, not on their crush capacities. The ratio between these is higher for streetcars than for buses because of the relatively larger amount of standee space.
As a simple example, a service of 20 cars per hour (three minute headway) of PCCs or CLRVs (design capacity 75) provides a line capacity of 1,500 although with crush loads this could in theory go up about 30% at a penalty to passenger comfort and speed of service. (More cars would be needed to maintain the headway because they would spend longer at stops thanks to crowding.)
Queen and King have always been the two busiest corridors, but Dundas and Carlton were once provided with much better service as well.
The figures shown for the west and east sides of this route are identical except for 1954 when an extra short-turn service was provided on the eastern leg. The route is otherwise unchanged over the entire period.
This corridor has seen various service designs over the years. Until the B-D subway opened, the west side was served by Dundas cars while the east side was served by the Harbord route (which terminated at what is now Pape Station). After the B-D subway was in operation, the Dundas route served both sides of the city, but for a time some of the peak service short turned (at City Hall, later at Church) and served only the west half of the route.
The Queen car originally ran from Neville to Humber with a separate service provided on Lake Shore by the Long Branch car. The two routes were amalgamated in 1995. Supplementary AM peak services on Queen include:
- Long Branch service via Queen to Church Street in peak periods (discontinued after route amalgamation)
- Service from Kingston Road to McCaul Loop (now called 502 Downtowner)
- Eastbound trippers from Roncesvalles carhouse (effective April 2013)
Capacities shown are based on the vehicle type(s) in operation on each date.
The King car has operated from Broadview & Danforth to Bloor & Dundas for nearly a century. Supplementary AM peak services in King include:
- The Kingston Road Tripper (now 503 Kingston Road) operated from Bingham Loop to Roncesvalles & Queen via King Street, but was cut back first to Dufferin and then to its current terminus at York.
- After the amalgamation of the Queen and Long Branch routes, a Lake Shore tripper was introduced from Long Branch to downtown via King.
- A service of King trippers operates eastbound from Dundas West Station starting at about 7:00 am providing extra service on the more heavily-loaded west end of the route.
What is immediately obvious in this chart is the much higher level of service and capacity provided by the major streecar corridors before the B-D subway opened. Some of the change in demand is a direct result of that subway which absorbed trips to the core formerly handled by these surface routes as an alternative to the very busy Bloor streetcars.
The King car is a special case because it is a route that has held its post-B-D ridership the best. This is helped by new residential demand both to the east (the St. Lawrence neighbourhood, and more recently the Distillery), and to the west (Liberty Village and the Bathurst/Niagara condos. As more development appears, and as this shifts north to other corridors, they too will come under pressure for increased service.
Streetcar Services Outside of the Core
In addition to the four corridors entering the core area, there are services in a number of locations whose evolution is worth looking at.
Until the Bloor-Danforth subway opened, the Bathurst car provided a very frequent service from Vaughan Loop (St. Clair & Bathurst) with two-thirds of the cars operating into the core area via Adelaide eastbound (returning west on King). When the B-D subway opened, the route was shortened to loop at Bathurst Station, and all cars operated to Exhibition Loop.
The Spadina subway absorbed more demand from feeders to the Bathurst route, and the wider headways from ALRV operation contributed to further decline as wait times became a substantial part of trip times for riders on this short route.
Queen & Kingston Road
Services from the Beach once operated much more frequently than today, especially on Kingston Road which was fed by bus services from southern Scarborough. This demand almost totally shifted to the B-D subway and especially to its extension beyond Woodbine Station.
The drop in demand on both the Queen and Kingston Road corridors is also related to changing demographics and travel patterns from this area, although there is something of a vicious circle thanks to service quality. Beachers enjoy a premium fare express bus to downtown although on a 15-minute headway, this does not contribute much to the corridor’s capacity.
Roncesvalles & Broadview
These north-south outer parts of the King route once drew much demand from feeders at the terminals, but now moreso from residents along the routes. Although it is not shown here, the TTC initially cut more than half of the route’s service when the B-D subway opened thinking that nobody would ride the streetcar any more. Most of the service had to be restored a few months later when the TTC discovered what “local demand” really meant.
Originally service on Lake Shore west of Humber Loop was provided by the Long Branch car with peak period service through to downtown via Queen. Since 1995, this area is served by 501 Queen with half of its service running through to Long Branch and a small supplementary peak direction 508 Lake Shore service (3 cars inbound AM, 4 outbound PM, expanding to 6 PM in April 2013) via King Street.
The St. Clair streetcar provided very heavy service feeding into the Bathurst car and the Yonge subway until the B-D subway opened in 1966. Riding fell off as some trips shifted to north-south routes such as Dufferin, but picked up again when the Spadina subway provided a direct route to downtown from the St. Clair line.
Until 1974, the Rogers Road car supplemented the St. Clair service between Oakwood and Yonge.
On the chart, no value is shown for 2006 because the route was under construction.
Until 1997, service on Spadina was provided by the Spadina bus and the scheduled capacity was actually higher than that of the streetcar service that replaced it. However, the buses routinely were caught in traffic and provided much worse service than the scheduled values would indicate.
Plans for the Low-Floor Streetcar Fleet
On both of the charts above, the last, pink column for each route shows my estimate of the capacity to be provided by the new fleet assuming that the TTC sticks with its published fleet plans. These will take many years to roll out, but service improvements should not have to wait for all of the new cars to arrive.
In 2014, the Spadina/Harbourfront route will be the first to get new equipment, and this will free up cars to improve service elsewhere, assuming that Council provides the TTC with adequate funding.
Three routes (Carlton, Dundas and St. Clair) are particularly hard hit with wider headways because the planned capacity increase is less than 30%. With 100% larger cars, the frequency of service will be much worse. Whether this change is actually implemented by the TTC remains to be seen, especially with growing demand from development along these routes. My estimated service levels are on the second page of the Fleet Plan linked from the article above.
Another problem with the Fleet Plan is that the TTC wants to get rid of the less-reliable ALRVs before it implements LFLRV operation on the Queen and King routes. This would imply a shift back to CLRVs and a temporary improvement in headways, only to be followed by much less frequent service with LFLRVs. This does not make sense.
The TTC is expected to produce a rollout plan for LFLRV service later this year and it will be more public than burying it in the budget papers. This is also important for operating budget planning in coming years.
Looking Back to Former Streetcar Routes
The level of service operated on some routes, notably Bloor-Danforth, usually stuns anyone who didn’t see it first hand. Comparisons with today’s operations show just how much traffic that formerly fed into the streetcar routes now is handled by the trunk east-west subway line.
Until the subway opened, service was provided on Bloor-Danforth by two-car trains of PCCs running less than 90 seconds apart. The route extended from Luttrell Loop (east of Main) in the east to Jane Loop in the west. Service to the east was heavier than the west, and a short-turn operation looped at Bedford (now St. George Station).
The design capacity (based on 75/car) was over 6,000 passengers per hour, and actual loads were above what is now considered a reasonable service design level.
After the Keele-Woodbine segment of the B-D line opened in 1966, shuttle services ran on the outer ends of the streetcar line connecting with the remaining bus feeder services. The level of demand for these two links can be seen in the service level for 1968 with a capacity of 3,000 per hour, greater than any streetcar line now operating.
This shows clearly the role of feeder bus services as much of the demand on the two shuttles did not originate from local traffic in the mainly low-rise residential areas they served.
The Harbord car took a meandering route from the west end of the city to downtown. In 1954, it began at Townsley Loop (St. Clair & Old Weston Road) and ran south and east along Davenport, down Dovercourt to Bloor, east to Ossington, south to Wellesley, and east (finally on its namesake street) to Spadina, then south to Dundas.
After the CNR grade separation west of Lansdowne, the route was cut back to St. Clarens Loop (now a parkette east of Lansdowne on Davenport), and with the B-D subway opening, the route was carved up into many pieces as it no longer had a role as a downtown link from suburban bus feeders.
It is hard to believe that Harbord Street at Spadina now operates with the infrequent Wellesley bus (5 trips per hour) compared to a capacity of over 2,000 riders/hour in 1954. This is definitely a case where the subway completely absorbed the surface route’s demand.
After the Yonge Subway opened, service on Bay was provided by the Dupont car (supplemented further south at times by the Dundas car). Streetcars were replaced by buses after the University Subway opened, and service capacity today is less than 1/3 of the level when streetcars operated.
Demand on this route has changed considerably with traffic to the business district coming more via the subway and GO Transit, and the Bay bus having its greatest demand at the north end of the line for government offices.
Quite recently, this route has seen new demand from condos along the northern part of Bay and also to the new developments in the eastern waterfront, notably George Brown College.
Until the Yonge Subway opened, north-south routes close to Yonge provided supplementary capacity for travel into the core. The Church car lasted only until mid-1954, and the bus replacement service gradually dwindled until it disappeared totally in 1996.
Streetcar service on Parliament was replaced with buses when the B-D Subway opened in 1966. The level of service is now much lower.
What Could the Streetcars Do?
Looking at the former service levels on streetcar line, one is tempted to say that this is a vast amount of untapped capacity. That is a true statement, but equally important are the questions of where riders will come from and whether service will be operated at a reliable enough level to attract them.
Already we can see the effect of new development on the King corridor east and west of downtown, and the Queen corridor is about to see similar growth of development and demand. This effect will spread north to Dundas and to College/Carlton presuming that the economic incentives to continue residential intensification downtown remain. St. Clair is also starting to build up with new high-rises near the Spadina Subway, but mid-rise developments are planned further west.
A two-minute service of the new LFLRVs (30 cars per hour) would provide a design capacity of 4,500, well above any existing route’s service today, but within the capability of on-street operation. The challenge will lie in elbowing other traffic out of the way, and in handling pedestrian movements at major stops. Whether any route will actually reach this level of demand remains to be seen.
The TTC and the City must plan for the population and travel demand that will exist in the coming years, not simply perpetuate service levels that have been constrained by fleet size for well over a decade.