The Ottawa LRT Report Part I

The Ottawa LRT project opened for service in September 2019. It was riddled with problems years before through the procurement, construction and commissioning. After several failures, including two derailments, the Ontario government created a Commission of Inquiry under the Honourable Justice William Hourigan to investigate how this came to be.

This article is not an exhaustive review of the findings. Interested readers can browse the full report on the inquiry’s website. The Executive Summary gives a good overview, but many of the details are in the full report which is organized into “deep dives” into various aspects of the project’s history.

There are many lessons to be learned for other agencies and projects, and there is no reason to believe that the issues are unique to Ottawa’s first LRT line.

Where I quote directly from the report, this is shown clearly in quoted blocks. I have used the Executive Summary as a starting point, but have also woven in material from the detailed chapters to give additional background. Any conclusions or interpretations are my own.

This article reviews the report up to the point where the contract is awarded to a P3, Rideau Transit Group, to build and maintain the system. Part II will pick up the story from that point onward.

I have included part of the “Conclusions” section here for the benefit of readers who do not want to read through the full articles, much less the report.

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Tracking Metrolinx Project Costs

The Province of Ontario is not exactly transparent when it comes to reconciliation of announced project costs and actual spending, let along the changes that might occur along the way. A project, or group of projects, might be announced with a value in then-current dollars, and without necessarily including all future contract costs. There are various reasons behind this approach including:

  • The government does not want to tip its hand on the amount of money “on the table” to prospective bidders who might tailor their bid to the perceived level of funding.
  • Some contracts include future operating and maintenance costs as well as capital costs. In some case the announced cost does not include the O&M component, only the estimated capital portion.
  • Provincial projects are typically quoted in then-current dollars with future inflation to be added as it occurs, at least to the point where there is a contract in place which includes that provision.

This approach hides the likely as-spent costs and makes provincially run projects appear cheaper, at least in the short run.

This is fundamentally different from the way the City of Toronto tracks projects and how TTC requirements are reported. Specifically:

  • City project cost estimates include inflation to completion because this is factored into future funding requirements.
  • City projects do not bundle future operating costs with capital, but report them separately.

Note that cost estimates shown in the Infrastructure Ontario market reports do not necessarily match values shown by Metrolinx because IO shows these values on a different basis. Future operating and financing costs are no longer included in IO estimates so that a project’s value reflects only design and construction costs, a value that gives potential construction bidders a general size of the project’s scope.

Infrastructure Ontario notes on the November 2022 Market Update that we have modified the methodology used to calculate the estimated costs as presented on the chart. In May 2022, and for Market Updates prior to that, we used the Estimated Total Capital Costs. For the latest update, and going forward, the costs listed only include Design and Construction costs.

These changes were adopted after feedback from our construction industry partners found that including only design and construction costs provided them with a better sense of the scope of the project and would assist in determining if they wished to participate in the bidding process.

Email from Ian McConachie, Infrastructure Ontario, Manager, Media Relations & Communications, November 24, 2022.

This can be confusing with “bundled” projects such as the Ontario Line RSSOM contract which includes both provision/construction of vehicles and infrastructure, as well as future O&M costs. This is probably the reason, or a good chunk of it, for the very large increase in the RSSOM contract value between the initial estimate cited by IO and the contract award. However, the way these contracts are handled generally makes it impossible to know how much of the change is simply due to inflation in materials and labour costs, and how much is due to underestimates or scope changes.

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King-Queen-Queensway-Roncesvalles Update: November 26, 2022

The KQQR project is heading into the home stretch with work now underway on the North Gate to Roncesvalles Carhouse, and roadway construction and paving on The Queensway west to Parkside Drive. Alas, there is no announced completion date.

At the North Gate, recently completed utility work allows the area to be excavated in preparation for the new special work. This track has not yet been rebuilt to current standards (a program that will take years to complete as the cycle time is 20-30 years) with a concrete foundation, pre-welded track mounted on panels, and a top layer of concrete that can be removed for repairs without disturbing the two layers below.

The new track panels are sitting on trailers on King Street east of Roncesvalles awaiting installation.

Meanwhile there is some preliminary work on new overhead leading north into this area, but the main installation cannot occur until the new track is in place and overhead trucks can drive under the new wire.

On The Queensway itself, overhead has begun to take shape at Sunnyside Loop, but it is still not operational. This leaves the 501 Queen service turning back at Dufferin Street.

On King Street east from The Queensway, conversion of overhead suspension to pantograph compliance has finally started. This area and Kingston Road are the last two major areas to be converted.

Along the south side of The Queensway, much of the new curb is now in place and concrete for the new curb lane will likely appear soon, weather permitting. At Glendale eastbound (St. Joseph’s Hospital) the bus stop is even more rudimentary than on previous visits. Passengers wait in the temporary crossing area (which is now at least concrete rather than a wooden bridge), and then move across the traffic lane to board a bus when it arrives.

Between Claude and Parkside (the easternmost part of the existing streetcar right-of-way) excavation is in progress to remove old track and wooden ties in anticipation of completing the new trackwork between Glendale and Parkside.

So You Want To Be A TTC Commissioner (2023 Edition)

Our brand new City Council meets this week. After the requisite speechifying and back-patting typical of the inaugural gathering, they will get into the business of appointing members of various Committees and Boards, including the one that runs the Toronto Transit Commission.

There are two sets of Board members: Councillors and citizens, a.k.a. civilians who (in theory) are not politicians. Only the first group will be appointed at this meeting, and the citizen members will come up for review in the new year once the City goes through the motions of soliciting applications.

The choice of a TTC Chair is up to Council, although it’s hard to believe that a nod from the Mayor, even without any new powers, would be ignored.

On the past Board, the Council members were: Jaye Robinson (chair), Brad Bradford, Shelley Carroll, Cynthia Lai, Jennifer McKelvie and Denzil Minnan-Wong. Of these, Councillor Lai died just before the election, and Minnan-Wong chose not to run. The Chair’s job should go to someone with experience and a strong commitment both to transit and to making something of the position, not just being a seat warmer.

Oddly enough, none of the existing Councillor/Commissioners has asked to be reappointed. This could lead to turnover (good, maybe) but also the loss of institutional memory at the Board level. That works to management’s advantage, but an organization as large as the TTC needs experience at the top for policy and oversight, not just ribbon cutting.

The new Board, to be confirmed by Council today, will have Councillor Burnside as Chair, with Councillors Mantas, Holyday, Moise and Ainslie as members. The citizen positions will be filled separately in the new year, and current members remain in office until that occurs. I cannot say that I am enthusiastic abouy Burnside as Chair, and do not expect much advocacy from that quarter beyond a knife aimed at the budget, and hence the quality of transit service.

The new Board will face very, very serious problems affecting transit’s future in Toronto. As pandemic-era financial supports wind down, the TTC will simply not be able to afford to operate service without new revenues through fares or subsidies. Moreover, their capital plans vastly exceed available resources.

Since 2020, the struggle has been to just get past the crisis, but the TTC faced a bleak outlook even before the pandemic. I have no crystal ball or magical insights, but offer this article as advice to the new Board.

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Infrastructure Ontario Procurement Update: November 2022

Infrastructure Ontario has issued an update on its various projects in procurement. I have been tracking the transit projects for some time, and the table linked below shows how they have evolved.

My last article on the subject was for the January 2022 update, but I skipped May because so little had changed. This article (and the table) reflect changes in the May and November bulletins.

Updated Nov 22/22 at 7:20 pm: The status tracking table has been updated to correct the date for the Ontario Line Pape Tunnel project.

IO Status Tracking November 2022

Some of the changes in this update are quite substantial.

Ontario Line

The North Civil, Stations and Tunnel contract previously included both the tunnel segment from Gerrard north to the Don River, the bridge over the river, and the elevated structure north to Eglinton. This has now been split into two separate contracts.

  • Elevated Guideway and Stations
  • Pape Tunnel and Underground Stations

Each of these projects is shown with an estimated cost of $1-2 billion, compared to $3 billion for the combined version.

In May 2022, the North Civil contract execution date was July-Sept 2024.

The Elevated Guideway and Stations contract is now shown in two stages with the Development Phase Agreement (DPA) in Jan-Mar 2024 and the Project Agreement (PA) in Jan-March 2025.

The Pape Tunnel and Underground Stations contract is now shown with a DPA of Jan-Mar 2024 and a PA in July-Sept 2026. [Corrected]

There is no indication of the effect these changes will have on the opening date.

The Rolling Stock, System Operations and Maintenance (RSSOM) contract was awarded in November 2022. In previous updates it was estimated at “>$2B” (greater than $2 billion), but was awarded at a value of $9 billion.

The South Civil, Stations and Tunnel contract was also awarded in November 2022, In previous updates it was estimated at “>$4B”, but was awarded at a value of $6 billion.

Line 2 (Scarborough) Subway Extension

The Stations, Railway and Systems contract project agreement (PA) date was previously cited as Jan-Mar 2024, but this has been changed to July-Sept 2024.

The tunnel contract was awarded in May 2021 and is already underway.

Line 1 (Yonge North) Subway Extension

The tunnel contract Request for Qualifications issue date has slipped from Jan-Mar 2022 in the January 2022 update to Jan-Mar 2023 in the November update. For some reason, the estimated cost has gone down from $2-4 billion to $1-2 billion. I have asked Infrastructure Ontario to clarify this.

The Request for Proposal issue date was supposed to be Jul-Sept 2022, but is now Apr-June 2023.

Contract execution has slipped from July-Sept 2023 to Apr-June 2024. It is not clear what effect this will have on the planned opening date.

Eglinton-Crosstown West Extension

This project has four components:

  • The tunnel contract for the segment from Renforth to Scarlett was awarded in May 2021.
  • The tunnel contract for the segment from Jane to Mount Dennis closed its RFP process in November 2022. Award is expected in Jan-Mar 2023.
  • The elevated structure between the two tunnels is in a separate contract now at the RFQ stage.
  • The Stations, Railway and System contract has not been issued yet.

Lines In Planning

Three lines are in the planning stage only with one added in the May 2022 update:

  • Line 4 (Sheppard East) Subway Extension
  • Hamilton LRT
  • Eglinton West Crosstown Airport Segment (new in May 2022)

GO Expansion

All of the contracts for the expansion program have now been awarded, and they will not appear in the IO updates.

What Should Be Done With Spadina and St. Clair?

This article was originally going to be a very long reply to a comment left in the Spadina vs Bathurst thread, but I have moved it to its own article for better exposure.

I received the following comment from someone whose identity I will keep to myself. You know who you are.

Steve, I am a political strategist at the municipal level here in Toronto. I have a meeting with some new inner city Councillors next week (+ the Mayor) who are interested in this issue of streetcar speed and reliability (as am I as a fervent reader of your blog!).

Putting aside cost and political barriers for the moment: from a purely technical perspective, what measures would you recommend implementing on the Spadina and St. Clair streetcar routes to speed them up without losing ridership?

For instance:

  • Are there any stops on the Spadina line, near or far side, that could be eliminated while still retaining the riders who use those stops via other stops?
  • What kind of TSP [Transit Signal Priority] extension would yield the best results if having to choose between the two: extending the seconds of green light extension OR maintaining the green light extension window while simultaneously allowing for more active TSP (ie rather than just if it’s late)?
  • How much time would be saved if all far side stops were eliminated on Spadina and St Clair?
  • How much delay does the lack of grade separation for the final/first leg of the St Clair route (ie when it’s entering or leaving the station and having to wait for cars and pedestrians) cause? Would installing a signal system for that unprotected stretch that prioritizes the streetcar result in any substantial gains?

Open to all thoughts and suggestions – many thanks 🙂

I am replying to this in public because (a) the comment was left in the public thread rather than sent in a private email, and (b) my answers will be of interest to other readers.

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Metrolinx Vandals And Osgoode Hall (Updated)

Updated November 21, 2022 at 10:45 am: The Sir William Campbell Foundation has written to Metrolinx challenging their plans for Osgoode Hall’s garden and noting specifically their previous commitments to await a City-commissioned study.

Earlier this year, after considerable debate about the future of the trees in the park at Osgoode Hall, Metrolinx agreed to the City undertaking a study of alternative designs for the new Ontario Line station there. No action would be taken until a consultant’s report, commissioned by the City, was delivered and presented to Council.

The report is supposed to be completed in 2022 and reported to Council in the first quarter of 2023.

Now, Metrolinx has advised the Law Society of Ontario that tree clearing will begin on December 5, 2022. This is in direct contravention of the agreement Metrolinx made with the City, the Law Society and other community groups.

It is no secret among any groups and politicians, with the possible exception of the Premier, that Metrolinx’ word cannot be trusted on any “promises” or “commitments”. This outcome does not surprise me one bit based on their past behaviour. Why should anyone participate in their public participation shams?

There is no word from our all-powerful Mayor who made threatening noises – back when he was trying to get re-elected – about protecting Osgoode Hall. How long has he known that this would be the outcome, that Metrolinx would forge ahead with their plans on their schedule, and the City’s position be damned?

It is entirely possible that Metrolinx knows what the consultant report says based on discussions they have already had. If so, and if the consultant’s position was “gee whiz guys, I really would like to save your trees, but …”, then simple decency demands that the report be released and the options debated before Metrolinx launches into their tree clearing. But that’s not how Metrolinx works. Bull ahead, make an irreversible move and to hell with the consequences.

My opinion of Metrolinx is no secret, even though I keep trying to find touches of good will, of professional quality among the dross and endless feel-good PR they churn out. Sadly, Metrolinx never surprises, never actually listens and consults, beyond asking what colour of toilet paper we want to clean up their inevitable mess.

The timing of the announcement, right as the new City Council is getting established and distracted by its own problems, is typical. Catch the opponents when they have other things on their plate.

This is a disgrace for Metrolinx, and a disgrace for Mayor Tory who can huff and puff for the cameras, but when it counts turns out to be Doug Ford’s puppet.

TTC Demand Bounces Up In September 2022

The October 2022 CEO’s Report has been posted on the TTC’s website. Although most of the charts in this edition run only to the end of August, the ridership and crowding chart data extends to the end of September. The two charts below show how strongly ridership improved between the summer and fall periods.

At the end of September, bus demand on weekdays rose to 75 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, while streetcars sat at 55 percent and the subway at 63. The difference reflects the weak return of demand in the core area which is served by streetcars and the subway.

The TTC reports that in pre-pandemic times, post-secondary students and office workers represented 22 and 38 per cent, respectively, of total demand. Downtown offices were about one-third full in mid-September.

In the chart below, note that although the streetcar portion (green, hiding behind the boxes with values) has not widened very much and sits roughly at summer levels. The green stripe sits higher because the bus (red) and subway (blue) portions of the bars have grown.

How long this will persist is difficult to project. Anecdotal observations from my own travels on streetcars give the sense that demand was up in October, but the actual stats will not be out for another month.

Another factor whose effect is hard to judge is the many construction projects that remove streetcar service, or interrupt it with bus replacements. Some trips might never be taken, or might travel via a different route served by buses. The streetcar system will not be back to “normal” until early 2023, and there is always a lag between loss of ridership and recovery as would-be users discover that service has improved. Although the TTC plans a campaign to lure riders back, there has to be something worth riding.

Another measure of demand is the rate of bus occupancy at various levels. This is measured with Automatic Passenger Counter data. The streetcar fleet does not yet have APCs installed on all vehicles, and so comparable stats for the streetcar routes are not available. (Note that this chart goes back to January 2020 whereas the chart of boardings above only begins in April 2022. Earlier boarding figures are available in older CEO reports.)

An overall observation here is that in the absence of a major new wave triggering reduction in travel, the chart shows a consistent growth. Even the dip in mid-2022 is a typical seasonal decline and the September data continue the trajectory of Spring 2022 numbers. This is for the bus network, and a comparable trajectory does not necessarily apply to other modes as shown in the boarding counts above. Crowding numbers can also be affected by service levels, although there has not been a major jump in service that would dilute the occupancy numbers.

Particularly striking here is the big jump in trips above 70% capacity which are now about 10% of total trips, and a similar large jump in trips above 50% capacity to about 23% of total trips. This reflects a demand growth that is greater than the rate of capacity growth.

The TTC observes:

While crowding has increased in line with boardings demand heading into September, the continued growth in high-occupancy bus trips suggests demand is growing more concentrated around a number of key trips.

TTC CEO’s Report, October 2022, p. 27

As the busy routes become more crowded, more riders will see a crowded bus even though the majority of trips will still be uncrowded. The perception of crowding will be greater than the overall average value. This is an inevitable situation on a transit system where demand is not evenly spread in time or place on the network.

However, if the stats are misinterpreted or misrepresented by those looking for “efficiency”, the problem is that the capacity from emptier trips cannot always be reallocated. Some routes have strongly directional demand, and will always be lightly loaded in the counter-peak direction. Those trips, however, are an integral part of the route even though they can pull the “average” load down.

In an extreme example, if a bus is at 100% capacity travelling east and 0% going west, the “average” says that only half of the one-way trips are crowded. Obviously one cannot have the eastbound trips without the westbound returns. Real routes are more complex, but this shows how simplistic analysis can lead to dubious conclusions.

Some routes have lighter demand, but still meet the TTC’s Service Standards for boardings per bus hour. They might never accumulate a full load and therefore appear to be targets for service cuts. However, in the process the service becomes less attractive and ridership can fall further.

A critical factor will be service reliability which, as I have documented at length elsewhere, leaves much to be desired notwithstanding TTC metrics that purport otherwise. Some crowding is a direct result of bunched and missing vehicles which create gaps and heavier loads than evenly spaced service would.

The City faces a large operating deficit both for 2022 and projected for 2023. To what extent this will result in limits on TTC service and a move to improve “efficiency” with more riders per bus remains to be seen.

Spadina vs Bathurst: The Great Race Revisited

Back in August 2021, I published an article about running times on the 510 Spadina streetcar including comparisons with the nearby 511 Bathurst car. Despite being on its own right-of-way, the Spadina car is almost always slower than the Bathurst car.

There are various reasons for this including double stops at signalled intersections and longer stop service times due to the demand level on Spadina.

That article used May 2021 data which reflected mid-pandemic traffic conditions. With demand and traffic rising in past months, I return to the subject using October 2022 data.

The situation has not changed much in the intervening year and a half. 511 Bathurst cars still win the race during most time periods, although on a few occasions the 510 Spadina cars take the prize.

Comparing Travel Times

Here are comparative running time averages for October weekdays on the two routes. Two sets of values are shown here:

  • The solid lines show average travel times between Bloor and Front each way.
  • The dotted lines show the average travel times between Bloor and Richmond each way avoiding problems with congestion and enroute layovers at the south end of these lines.

Throughout these charts, data for Spadina are plotted in red while data for Bathurst are in green.

During most weekday periods, Bathurst cars have the lower average travel time between Richmond and Bloor, but the results are mixed between Front and Bloor.

Here are the comparable charts for Saturdays and Sundays. Bathurst almost always wins out.

The charts below subdivide the weekday data by week to show that the numbers are not always exactly the same. There is even more variation on a day-to-day basis. I include these to illustrate the importance of not taking averages over long periods at face value because this can hide variations.

In these charts, the warmer colours (red through light green) show data for the Spadina car while the cooler colours (blues and purple) show the Bathurst car.

These charts show the general shape of average data, but more a more detailed view is needed to compare the routes’ behaviour.

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King Transit Priority Travel Times Update: 2016 to 2022

The priority transit lanes and other traffic measures have been in place on King Street between Jarvis and Bathurst Streets since the fall of 2017, five years ago. This article updates past charts and observations with data to October 2022.

There are three quite separate areas on these charts:

  • 2016 to fall 2017: This is the pre-priority era in which travel times were longer and, during parts of the day, quite unpredictable.
  • Fall 2017 to March 2020: This is the era of transit priority pre-pandemic. There is a marked reduction in both the length and variation in average travel times during most periods.
  • March 2020 to October 2022: This is the pandemic era. A further drop in travel times occurred almost immediately as this period began, and values have only begun to climb upward in recent months.

A troubling question, difficult to answer this early in the “recovery” period, is how far up both average trip times and the variation in these values will climb. Motorist have had free rein on King Street for two and a half years, and the “priority” scheme is a shadow of its former self.

The situation will be further complicated when Queen Street closes for Ontario Line construction and traffic diverts onto Richmond and Adelaide with, no doubt, some spillover to King. There is no sense that robust priority measures will be in place for transit, but instead that the focus will be on moving traffic generally through downtown. Transit will benefit, to the extent it might, from the “rising tides lift all boats” philosophy that sees any benefit to auto traffic as having a spin-off value to transit. That is a false but commonly used analogy.

In the charts below, there two galleries, one with westbound and one with eastbound data. This allows a reader to open the gallery and step back and forth through different hours of the day to see how the data change.

All of the charts have the same layout.

  • The x-axis gives the date over the past five years.
  • The y-axis is time in minutes with the bottom of the axis at 10 and the top at 40. This gives more “breathing room” for the variations as there are “zero” values in the chart only where there are no data due to a diversion or missing data in the TTC feed. The upper value of 40 clips some of the very high peaks, but these are rare.
  • There are two lines showing the 50th percentile (mean, blue) and 85th percentile (yellow) for the travel times.
  • There are various vertical bars marking significant events including the start of the King Street pilot (green), the onset of Covid (brown) and the annual film festival (red, omitted for 2020 and 2021).
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