At a time when TTC ridership is sitting at just under 50 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, this may not seem the time to ask a question like this article’s title. However, the service effects of an operator shortage are felt across the system and may not disappear soon.
The TTC puts recent service cuts down to vaccine hesitancy among a small group of staff. Leaving aside the internal union politics and the constant skirmishes between ATU and TTC management, there is more going on here.
At its meeting on November 29, the TTC Board received a third quarter financial update, and there was considerable praise for how management has “contained” costs shifting the year-end outlook to one where the TTC will not actually use all of subsidy monies available. In fact, $36 million will go into the City’s transit reserve where original budget projections forecast a draw, not a deposit. That’s money not being spent on transit, and moreover, it sets the bar lower for a starting point in 2022.
A big contribution to that saving is that the TTC is not scheduling as much service as it budgeted, and even then is not staffing at a level where all scheduled service actually gets onto the street. Cancelled runs and missing buses are common, and this problem continues even on the reduced schedules of November 21.
This situation is a complete reversal from past years when anyone who said “give us more service” received a stock two-part reply: we have no buses, and even if we bought more, there is no garage space.
The problem today is not buses – it is operators to drive them.
In this article, I turn the question around and ask how much service the TTC could provide if only they hired enough staff.
The TTC has always owned substantially more buses than it requires to operate service. This is perfectly normal for any transit system, but the gap between what the TTC owns and what it operates widened over the past decade.
The proportion of the fleet that is “spare” (a word embracing many factors) has grown for two related reasons. Buses are more complex than they were a few decades back, and that affects maintenance work. Historically, the TTC aimed for a 18-year bus life cycle, but they are working toward a 12-year cycle to advance retirement of lower-reliability old buses and avoid the cost of major overhauls to keep them running. They have not yet reached that goal, and currently planned bus purchases do not fully achieve this.
One might argue that it says something about the robust nature of older buses compared to what we see today. To some extent, a shorter lifespan target can be a self-fulfilling prophecy when maintenance plans assume that a 12 year old bus will be discarded, and buses in what was once a middle age of 8-10 years are now seen as elderly.
There was a time when a ratio of buses in service to those held aside as spares was between 7:1 and 6:1, or a spare factor close to 15 per cent. By about a decade ago, this ratio fell to 5:1 or a 20 percent spare allowance. Since then, as a deliberate policy, the TTC has allowed it to fall to 4:1. There is no sign yet of a return to a better ratio. Two factors – a younger bus fleet and the benefits of electrification (partial or complete) – are yet to be reflected in the provision for spares. This affects not just capital costs – more buses are needed to provide a given level of service – but also the need for garage space.
In the pandemic era, the number of spares has risen considerably and the ratio is in striking distance of 2:1 thanks to recent service cuts.
If the ongoing cost of operating the TTC falls because of cutbacks, then the challenge to restore funding faces the double hurdles of cost inflation and a return to historic service levels both for operations and maintenance.
Turning back the clock can be difficult if a generous spare ratio becomes a “new normal” and buses can simply be sidelined rather than repaired. Even worse, if capital to buy new buses is plentiful, but operating funds to maintain the fleet are not, garages can fill up with vehicles that are tempting spare parts stores. This happened decades ago in Boston from which TTC CEO Rick Leary hails (but not on his watch).
Unpopular though this could be in some political circles, the TTC should ask the question: what service could we operate with the existing fleet if only we had enough money to hire drivers for all of the buses? Don’t tell Toronto what we “can’t afford”, tell us what would be possible and how much this would cost. This is a perennial problem with the TTC: a failure to advocate for the best we could have.Continue reading