All Night Subway Service?

The Transit Commissioners have forwarded a letter from another of Toronto’s long-time transit advocates, Philip Webb, to their staff for study.  The nub of Webb’s proposal is that the TTC should stop trying to conduct maintenance a few hours at a time in the middle of the night and simply close down sections of the subway for a day or two on weekends when necessary. 

Although he was addressing the now-and-forever asbestos removal program on the North Yonge Subway (work that factored in the February 2006 accident with carbon monoxide poisoning), Webb argued that changes in work scheduling would allow the TTC to run all-night subway service.

The Commission’s motion asked that staff report back in six months on:

  • A trial all-night operation of one route
  • Serious consideration of Philip Webb’s proposal including operational, financial and maintenance issues
  • A review of how other transit systems provide all-night service and maintain their systems

The Toronto Sun ran an article about this, and there has already been considerable negative commentary from TTC management on the issue.  So much for a six-month-long serious review.

One point raised was that only when the Yonge-University line has new signalling (ten years from now, if then) will the TTC be able to run single track, bidirectional service in the middle of the night so that maintenance can occur on the other track.  This assumes that the model for diverting around maintenance is single-track operation.

What we really need is a review of the type and duration of night-time works that now occur so that we can see how they could be rescheduled.  One project that has amused me over the years I have been commuting to Scarborough is the periodic reballasting and realignment of track on the open cut between Victoria Park and Warden Stations.  This work proceeds at a snail’s pace because so little is done in each installment.  What could be achieved with, say, an all-Sunday shutdown?  How much would be saved by more efficient work schedules?

One important issue will be the relative convenience of surface operations especially where stations are widely spaced.  People travelling in the middle of the night will not relish a long walk to 24-hour stations as a replacement for a nearby bus stop.  This assumes, of course, that we are running reasonably frequent bus service.

This issue will likely surface again in March 2007 when the staff report back.


8 thoughts on “All Night Subway Service?

  1. In principle, I think this is a wonderful idea and signifies a mature city. But an all-night subway line must also be complemented by more service on surface routes. It’s like the analogy of building a highway — it’s useless unless you’ve got on- and off-ramps. I doubt that providing a 24-hour trunk line without a corresponding increase in the feeder routes is that much of an improvement in service. Who wants to ride a subway to wait 30 minutes for a bus?


  2. The Toronto subway was designed to require periodic maintenance using work car vehicles and power off situations.

    It was not designed to be operated for 24 hours.

    Some subways are designed with no allowance for work crews to descend to track level during operating hours (London Underground does not have an employee catwalk) while other subways were designed with alternate routing and tracks to allow continuous or express services.

    During each workday TTC employees and their supervisors inspect and identify defects such as broken clips, adjustments required, items for grinding, or to be welded. Many of these repairs must be done at night due to power rail proximity or service requirements. Many of the defects must be repaired immediately (or urgently) and are identified for immediate attention of the night crews.

    Accumulating defect repairs awaiting a 60-hour repair opportunity will result in:

    1. Extreme competition for available resources. Work cars, track availability, power on-off requirements and work force.

    2. Prioritisation of defect repairs will take place, as it would not be possible to make the required repairs in the available time frame.

    3. Dangerous deferral of defect repairs based on the competition of available resources and resultant prioritisation.

    4. Deferral of defect repairs based on overtime opportunities. Work that could be repaired on day shift may be backlogged by naughty TTC staff in favour of overtime repairs.

    Closing the subway for 60-hour periods initially appears to be a good way to accomplish a great deal of work at one time however:

    1. It will be difficult for maintenance managers to maximise the available time period. Multiple work shifts designed to be continuous to maximise the available time period would surely result in extensive overtime premiums being paid out.

    2. Capitalised project work such as asbestos removal and rail replacements will be able to utilise the large work window. The smaller numerous routine operating work jobs such as catch basin pumping, or tunnel relamping will be unable to make effective use of the large work window due to work car operator availability as well as the required track availability. Cancelled work due to work area conflicts, illness, work car breakdowns that presently cause a single lost shift could delay the intended maintenance for weeks at a time.

    For subway wayside maintenance, track time is like gold. A single long shift cannot work but other options and efficiencies can and should be explored.


  3. Since the Sun article came out last week, it seems most of the debate has focused on whether or not 24-hour service is doable (and the technical details that might be involved).  I think there’s a more basic question that has to be asked: even if it is doable, would 24-hour subway service be worthwhile?

    In terms of the maintenance proposal, it would allow for 24-hour service but doesn’t require it.  It’s not like we’d expect the people shut out of the subway on a maintenance weekend to start making those trips in the middle of the night during the week!

    Most subway systems shut down overnight.  There are exceptions: New York and Chicago have 24-hour subway lines, and Copenhagen runs its metro around the clock on weekends.  But in all the other major cities I checked (Madrid, London, Paris, Moscow, Hong Kong, Tokyo, San Francisco, Mexico City, Washington DC, and Montreal), the system shuts down nightly.  Some close as early as midnight.

    In terms of getting people from A to B overnight, it seems to me that night buses do as good a job as the subway would, if not better:

    Traffic is so light at night that the night buses move almost as quickly as a subway would.
    It’s unclear whether people are safer waiting inside subway stations (well lit, with cameras, but isolated and potentially deserted) or outside at bus shelters (somewhat lit, no cameras, but with taxis and other cars passing by regularly).
    Given the potential safety issues of waiting around at night, more frequent service seems especially valuable.  Right now the Yonge and Bloor night buses come every 15 minutes; a bus every 5 minutes would be a major improvement.  Because a subway has 20x the capacity of a bus, it would be hard to justify more frequent service (in fact, it’d be too easy to justify cutting back those services to every 30 minutes, the same headway as all the other night services).
    As you mention, subway service will mean longer walks to a stop; it also can’t support the “request stop” program for getting off closer to home.
    Swapping a bus for a subway won’t change the less unpleasant aspects of “vomet comet” service — the same drunk, rowdy passengers will make the ride less enjoyable.  But there will be fewer staff nearby — instead of one driver at the front of a bus, there’d be two subway operators locked in booths with six cars between them.
    Running subway service can’t be cheap: staff for various stations and the trains, new overnight duties for transit control, subway mechanics, etc., and extra patrols of the stations by special constables.  All of this would have to be funded without the high usage level that makes daytime service cost-effective.

    As far as I can tell, the main advantage the subway has going for it is perception — people are familiar with it, feel comfortable taking it, and think it’d be substantially faster.  But I find it hard to believe that those perceptions would cause such a huge surge in night ridership to make 24-hour subway operation anything but a drain on the cash-strapped TTC.


  4. If, as Matt says, a subway train is equivalent to 20 buses, to provide the same number of seats as a bus every 15 minutes for 5 hours would only take one train.

    Probably at 3 a.m.


  5. NYC is a 4-track system and that’s why they can do it.  They simply close a pair of tracks and leave the other pair open.  That’s where we went wrong — we should have built Yonge as a 4-track, express and local.

    I don’t think 24-hour service will work here, and I don’t see how they can run trains in both directions on a single track without having to cross over all over the place.  That idea makes me uncomfortable — I can just see another Russell Hill incident with a head-on collision this time.

    What is this new signal system for YUS?  Is it true ATO, or does it only allow signalling in both directions on both tracks?  It would be nice if the TTC introduced ATO everywhere — something long overdue.

    Steve:  The TTC has not detailed exactly what they plan to implement, but some recent comments imply that it would allow bidirectional operation on one track.  The intent is to allow the trains to run closer together using moving block technology similar to that on the SRT.  This implies that the operator will, at most, start the train but not actually drive it.


  6. So they’re moving to cab-based signalling on YUS? Interesting, but don’t they have to do something about the terminal station crossovers to get trais on a 60-90 second headway?

    Steve:  You’re not supposed to mention that part.  The idea is that the Spadina extension past Downsview will include a high-speed pocket track (ie graceful turnouts) to deal with the problem at that end.  I’m not sure what they have in mind for Finch, but it probably involves turnbacks north of the station.  In any event, they would have their work cut out to get much below 120 seconds.  That’s an improvement from today’s 140.

    I wonder why they don’t plan to do it on Bloor-Danforth at the same time.  If both lines were fully automated (after all, it is the 21st century), it would open up a whole new world of service possibilities.  They could dynamically route trains around service delays by using the *other* track and the nearest crossover — and the Bloor-University wye could be used for rush-hour only routes.

    Steve:  Two reasons.  First is cost.  YUS alone is bad enough without the cost of another line (and its terminals).  Second is the fleet.  How much retrofitting of automatic controls are we going to do versus having trains built with at least that capability from day one?  Even the so-called T-2 cars won’t be enough to completely handle the YUS line, and some T-1’s will have to be retrofitted.

    This is all ten years in the future, and I’m not holding my breath.


  7. Matt (above) makes the valid point that most subways in the world don’t run on a 24-hour basis.  The only one I am familiar with that does, New York, makes major routing changes for much of the late-night service.  Such service is possible in the first place only because many of their routes have four tracks.

    Other than possibly later (not 24-hour) service on Friday nights and Saturday nights, I have no problems with the service levels “as is”.  There are surely many other projects to which resources can be devoted.

    I don’t know enough about the arcane details of signalling systems to know why the major expenditure on a new system is needed, or, if deemed necessary, why it would take up to 10 years to install as I read in at least one report.


  8. Why not just extend the subway to 3:00am on Friday and Saturdays so us party people don’t have to pay for a cab or squeeze into the Vomit Commet?


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