The past two years at TTC and Council have been all about the fight over LRT and subways, and the shifting loyalty to each mode especially when potential votes are to be gained. While Toronto (and Queen’s Park) flailed about with expensive rapid transit plans, something more important, but more subtle, off the radar, was happening.
Discussion of the future of our transit fleet and service levels later this decade took a back seat in the triumph of ideology over planning. We are now in a position where all three modes — subway, streetcar and bus — will strain to meet demands placed on them for the foreseeable future. We will have very clean subway stations, but service and capacity are quite another matter.
The problems for each mode are different.
On the Yonge-University-Spadina subway, headways cannot be substantially reduced until the new signal system with automatic train control (ATC) is in place, a project that will not complete until mid 2018. Meanwhile, there are a few improvements in the pipeline:
- extension of the AM peak short turn from St. Clair West to Glencairn in 2015 (this has been on the books for some time and is repeatedly pushed back due to budget pressures);
- five trains (about a 10% increase) added in 2016 to handle growing ridership in addition to trains for the opening of the Vaughan extension.
More trains will be added post-2018 but this depends on the new signal system.
On the Bloor-Danforth subway, the TTC has discovered something I wrote about here a few years ago: their plans to add trains are constrained by the limits of existing track geometry and signalling. One additional peak train is planned for each of 2014 and 2015, and that’s it until 2023 when there will be a subway extension, a new signal system and a new fleet capable of operating with ATC. A lot of the work needed to get us to 2023 is not funded, and decisions are needed fairly soon to hit that target.
There is no planned service increase on the Sheppard line.
The Bus Fleet
Planning for the bus fleet is a bit jumbled right now. When the TTC drew up its budget, the plan was to move from an 18-year life cycle to 15 years in keeping with current industry practice. This would avoid the need for a second overhaul allowing buses to reach 18, offset by the cost of a shorter procurement cycle for replacement vehicles. The City’s budget folks did not agree, and so the budget has a number of modifications to the details to undo the 18-to-15 year change.
The fleet plan, by contrast, does not appear to reflect a reduction in lifetime for diesel buses, but does show the effect of the early retirement of the hybrid fleet.
Bus fleet planning has been subject to two major upheavals in recent years.
- Several of the Transit City lines were deferred or scrapped both by Mayor Ford’s hatred of streetcars and Queen’s Park’s desire to cut spending. Bus fleet plans had presumed that many major routes would convert to LRT during the rollout starting in 2013, but we won’t see any new lines until 2020 unless Metrolinx brings the Sheppard line forward for an earlier completion. All of the buses that would be replaced by the LRTs are required in the interim along with garage space to hold them.
- The Ford/Stintz inspired downsizing of transit capacity with greater packing for peak loading standards not only reduced the total fleet needed for service, it avoided a year’s worth of new buses, and put back the date for the new McNicoll Garage. Those changes cannot be undone on a moment’s notice because there is a lead time for new buses, and the garage itself won’t be ready now until around 2019.
There will be a drop in total bus requirements in 2016 after the Spadina extension opens creating a lull in fleet growth (net of retirements) between 2015 and 2018. Only a small amount of growth is projected out to 2020 when the Eglinton line opens and there will be a big drop in planned bus requirements. Retirements in 2021 greatly exceed new purchases, and this continues on a smaller scale in 2022. (It is likely that when this plan was created, a Scarborough LRT was still on the books for opening in the same timeframe as the Eglinton line. Unfortunately, the plan does not contain explanatory information about the presumed dates of such major events that would affect the fleet.)
To put this in context, the peak fleet required for service in 2015 will be 1,675 buses, or 7.2% more that the peak needed in 2013, 1,563 buses. That’s a healthy growth compared to system ridership, but this will almost certainly require a higher growth in budgeted service hours than we have seen recently, typically 1% or less per year. Will Council fund operations at a level commensurate with the planned fleet size?
Bus retirements tell interesting stories about vehicle reliability. The first batch of Hybrids, purchased in 2006, will be retired in 2016-17 at the tender age of 10 years. The second batch, cumulatively 541 buses, the “Next Generation” Hybrids, date from 2007-2009. They will be retired in 2017-2021. This shorter-than-planned vehicle life triggers larger fleet purchases in the later years of the plan when both the Hybrids and a batch of Low Floor Diesels will be retired at the same time.
The plans for McNicoll Garage are not completely funded by Council, and it’s easy to see why in the fleet plan. By 2021, there will be the equivalent of an entire garage in spare storage capacity. This will be needed for some growth, but there is always the question of more rapid transit expansion displacing buses in the mid 2020s.
The discrepancy is explained by a separate proposed purchase of 135 buses in 2019 that is not included in the fleet plan. These are described in the TTC’s Capital Budget report as:
Additional buses are proposed to be added in 2019 in order coincidental with a future recommendation to improve existing loading standards (i.e. to make vehicles less crowded).
Yes, you read that correctly. There is actually a plan to revert to the more generous loading standards we enjoyed under the Ridership Growth Strategy (or something similar to them), but not for six years. Although we could buy buses sooner (the actual order would be placed in 2018), doing so would make even worse the problem of garage space.
In theory, the TTC could squeeze more capacity out of its existing operations with better line management, to the degree that better-spaced service avoids wasting capacity on lightly-loaded buses. That argument is valid with two very important provisos:
- If all of the buses on a route today are full in spite of erratic headways, then there is no unused capacity to be recaptured.
- The TTC’s long history with what can best be called laissez-faire service management, presuming some of it is managed at all, does not inspire confidence.
The current managerial and political fetish of “value for money” leads to claims that an organization can and will do “more with less”, thereby avoiding the question of whether this is simply an excuse for helping the bottom line at the expense of riders.
Completely absent from the plans is any reference to the network of core bus services with policy headways no worse than 10 minutes all day and express services where this would provide faster trips for a substantial number of riders. This was the goal of the Transit City Bus Plan, a good, if flawed start to recognizing the importance of routes and projects that were not “rapid transit” with billion dollar price tags.
There is no plan for any increase in the Wheel Trans fleet out to 2023. In fact, the fleet will decline as the remaining older “ELF” vehicles are retired. New purchases planned for 2018 and beyond only replace retirements of the “Friendly” buses with no increase in fleet.
It is clear that the TTC plans to shift more demand to contract taxi services.
The Streetcar Fleet
The long-awaited fleet of low floor streetcars will not make its debut in service until fall 2014. Delivery of production cars was supposed to start in December with two more cars, but there is no word on whether they will actually arrive. The streetcar fleet plan presumed that by year end there would be nine cars in Toronto with a further 34 to come in 2014. This is quite clearly optimistic, and so the implementation plan is already out of date.
Routes originally planned for the new cars were 510 Spadina, 509 Harbourfront and 511 Bathurst, as well as the first stage of conversion for 505 Dundas. Even the first three routes require about 35 cars, including spares, and we will be lucky to see that many in Toronto by the end of 2014.
A much more serious problem lies in the reliability and retirement plans for the existing fleet of CLRVs and ALRVs (their larger, articulated cousins). The CLRV fleet dates to the late 1970s, while the ALRVs go back to the mid 1980s. Both fleets are getting long in the tooth. The ALRV’s long-standing reliability problems, coupled with a decision not to invest heavily in keeping them working well, makes them the TTC’s choice as the first to go when new cars finally start operating. Current mean mileage between failures for CLRVs is 4,323km while for ALRVs it is only 2,323. Although the TTC has 52 ALRVs, they only schedule 38 at peak, and it is not unusual to see CLRVs on Queen trying to carry ALRV headways and loads.
Leaving aside the timing of exactly when the production deliveries of new cars will be reliable and the conversion of routes can proceed on a steady basis, there is a big problem with retirement of the ALRVs used on Queen at a time when new cars are going to CLRV routes. There simply won’t be enough CLRVs in the fleet to convert Queen back to CLRV operation at its present capacity pending the switch to new cars on that route.
The TTC proposes retirement of 42 ALRVs in 2014. This would leave only enough for the peak period trippers operating on King. However, the Queen line needs 31 ALRVs for service, or 47 CLRVs converting on a capacity basis. Spadina, Bathurst and Harbourfront between them do not provide enough cars to run an all-CLRV service on Queen, and it would be tight even after complete conversion of Dundas sometime in 2015 on the proposed schedule. Clearly, the ALRV fleet has to remain active longer, or be replaced with new cars sooner.
If the conversion of Queen is moved up, we would see real benefits in capacity (if not in frequency) right away because plans actually call for a roughly 1:1 replacement of ALRVs by new cars that are 25% longer. However, other work needed to convert Queen, notably changes to the power distribution system and substations, is timed to suit a rollout of new cars on that route in 2015-16. The work plans would have to be rearranged if the rollout sequence changes.
If the ALRV fleet is to remain operating, some money must be invested in keeping the cars at a reasonable level of reliability. The problem is money, according to the TTC, an odd position for an organization prepared to spend $15m a year to keep the SRT in operation until 2023.
Another effect of the retirement plans is that service improvements will not be likely on any routes until they see new vehicles, and even then “improvement” will be in capacity, not in headway. This is a major issue for streetcar riders given the TTC’s history with the conversion of Bathurst and then Queen to ALRV operation. It is no surprise that riding losses of the 1990s fell disproportionately on these two streetcar routes where headways were stretched out with the introduction of ALRVs.
Haphazard line management is bad enough with relatively frequent service, but once larger cars start running further apart, the gaps can be enormous. This is probably one of the biggest challenge the TTC faces — offsetting the wider scheduled headways with much better reliability of the service on the street. Failure to do so (and equivalently for the bus routes that receive the new, larger articulated vehicles in 2014) will spark a backlash against declining service quality. It’s a sad comment on TTC affairs that just running service on a vaguely reliable basis is seen as a way to compensate for less frequently scheduled service.
Basic day-to-day service has taken a back seat to the rapid transit battles for too long. Although riding grows at a rate pushing three percent annually, provision to handle this demand during peak periods is constrained by lead times on major projects (the subway) and by fleet and service policy decisions (the surface). Off peak improvements are always possible because they require no additional vehicles or infrastructure, but even here growth is limited by policies that grant new capacity only when existing services are heavily loaded. (It is worth noting that, on a bus route with scheduled service every 10 minutes or better, off-peak loading standards are only slight less packed than during peak periods.)
The TTC and Council talk about giving riders something back for their fare increase, but the actual level of planned service by late 2014 is only 1.34% higher, measured in scheduled hours, than in fall 2013. Even this may be threatened by a $6-million unspecified reduction in expenses that is part of the TTC’s budget now before Council. Chair Karen Stintz has talked about getting this funded during the budget debates, but there has been no call to action nor a detailed breakdown by TTC management of where the axe will fall if this cut is not reversed.
Why this was not dealt with when the budget was before the TTC Board is a mystery — if it was really important, if it was an unacceptable cut, then the Board should have said so. Instead they went along with the proposed budget sending it on to Council with little debate, and no sense of the urgency. This leaves the impression that Andy Byford and his team will skimp on paperclips and hope for unexpected savings (they were rescued on a few past occasions by unexpectedly low diesel fuel prices among other savings). However, there is no commitment that the planned service improvements are safe from pillaging by budget hawks.
Stintz has announced that she will resign as TTC Chair, but remain a member of the Board, in February 2014 after the budget is finalized, so that she can concentrate on her mayoral campaign. Both of the announced candidates to replace her, Councillors Maria Augimeri and Josh Colle, have talked of the need to focus on service, the one thing that the TTC can deliver in a fairly short period.
The problem for either of them as a new Chair, and for Toronto’s long-suffering transit riders, is that more than fairy dust and a magic wand are needed to bring improved service thanks in part to decisions made while Mayor Ford and his sycophants were “protecting the taxpayer”. The spineless middle block on Council who supported Ford, at least in the early days when his “mandate” had some credibility, has a lot to answer for.
Some blame rests with Queen’s Park both for acceding to Ford’s meddling with rapid transit plans, and for their continuing failure to redress funding cuts now almost two decades old. More money may come to Toronto if the new transit revenue tools make it into law in 2014, but opposition party attitudes ares not helpful nor hopeful. Each has their ideological gods to serve, and transit riders will freeze at bus stops before we see meaningful contributions especially on operating funds.
Toronto must decide whether it really wants good transit service that riders can count on, that they would willingly use more and more rather than avoiding if possible. This requires leadership and advocacy from the TTC and its Board. Are they capable and willing, or will the TTC just muddle through, undermining claims that transit can make our lives better by delivering inadequate and unreliable service?