Tory Plan: Fire the Managers

According to today’s Toronto Star, PC leader John Tory’s solution to GO Transit’s on-time performance problems is to fire managers if they cannot meet the targets.  Although this is a refreshing change from the usual right-wing habit of blaming everything on the unions, it is no more realistic or responsible a platform.

GO Transit operates in the unenviable position where much of the physical plant is not under its control.  If CNR doesn’t have enough switch heaters, or decides that their freight train is more important than GO’s service, there is very little GO can do about it.

Yes, operating contracts could contain penalty clauses for poor performance, but I doubt that CN would ever sign anything with draconian penalties that would actually affect their profits.  Indeed, performance management of “private partners” is a big problem and there is a balancing act between holding the private sector’s feet to the fire and reaching a point where they don’t bother trying to meet their obligations.

We need a much better public accounting and explanation of the reasons why trains don’t run on time so that everyone can discuss what areas (a) provide lots of opportunity for improvement and (b) why some problems will always be with us.

How often is GO service blocked by freight activities?  How often does a train not run because there is no working equipment?  How often does the crew show up late for work?  How often is there a problem with the track or signals?  How often is there a cow on the tracks?

Each of these problems needs its own approach, and there will be different issues on each line. 

John Tory’s simplistic “solution” shifts the blame from where it really belongs — at Queen’s Park and the decades of underfunding — to the managers who try to run an organization under difficult times. 

Tory needs to own up to his own party’s legacy, to changes in funding and downloading of costs to municipalities, and say what he would change.  The Liberals may have left some Harris policies in place for their own convenience, but if there are things Tory would change, he should say so.  He should acknowledge the damage that was done the last time his party ran Ontario and set himself clearly apart from that regime.

Some Thoughts on Accessibility

Renee Knight sent in two comments that deserve their own thread:

Accessibility is an issue, that I don’t see a space for on the site. I’d really like to address issues of accesibility on the site.

It’s an area that the TTC is working on, but nowhere near fast enough, especially in the subway stations.
I understand that there are agreements with neighbouring realesate/businesses for elevators/escalators in lieu of space on TTC property for such, and also realize that in those situations the elevators/escalators are frequently out of service where they exist.

Try accessing Osgoode Station, St. Patrick, Union, Wellesley or Sherbourne Stations with a baby carriage, large suitcase, walker, or wheelchair. Some of these stations have their own escalators/elevators, but only have them going one way, others they are out of service so frequently, they might as well not even promote it being there.

We have a long way to go before our city is accessible to those with even mild disabilities, and mothers with strollers, let alone those with serious physical limitations.


And …

How many people can fit on a bus safely?

Far fewer on the new models supposedly designed to be more friendly for those with disabilities!

Also, these new accessible models are about as easy to stand on as an oversized skateboard with wonky wheels. Ever try to stand on one and keep your balance? Try doing that if you have a spinal disease, ribs wired together, or hip injury like I have! Try doing that if you are blind, walk with a cane or walker, have groceries to get home, or are simply frail or elderly and are getting knocked about by other riders trying to stay on their feet…

Did anyone at TTC test these vehicles out? I heard that the TTC was forced to buy these vehicles or get nothing new for the bus fleet. I am not sure if this is true, but I do know that ultimatums are never a good idea for purchasing anything, especially on the taxpayers coin!

While these accessible buses are designed to take wheelchairs, scooters…the majority of people who are not ambulatory take Wheel Trans, as when they get to the subway most of the stations cannot get them down to subway level or back to ground level. I know the TTC is working on this, but it’s going too slow to keep up with the population that is aging, having babies using stollers, even those travelling with suitcases down to Union Station will find the hoops one has to jump through to get from one station to the next, and finally into Union Station to be less than amusing entertaining…

Just for fun, go downtown and buy something large, that you cannot pick up and carry. Then put it in a cart, and see if you can get home on transit with it. Are there enough elevators, escalators…so that you don’t have to lug things up two flights of stairs to get down into the subway, and then between line transfers within subway system, and then bet back up to street level to take a bus or streetcar home. Now imagine doing that every day, like those of us with disabilities have to do! Not fun anymore, is it?

Like I have said before “the service is only as good as it’s weakest link!” If the link is weak to serve those who are ambulatory, and living with a disability, then other transportation options are chosen, purely from a safety perspective to prevent further injuries, though the options may be more expensive. If you find an alternative for part of the route, how likely is it that you’ll get on the TTC, and pay a fare for another leg of your trip.

Ridership loss! Exactly!

Steve:  I have not been impressed by the low-floor buses we have seen in Toronto.  They are an odd match of a fairly roomy, but small front half and a passenger-hostile upper gallery behind the centre doors.  I have trouble sitting for any length of time where I cannot stretch my legs and those upper seats just don’t work except for short hops.

The TTC has proposed an alternative seating layout in the next batch of buses with seats facing each other across the aisle, but this will further reduce the capacity in this area and remove many of the forward-facing seats.  I have written elsewhere about seating orientation, and it’s amusing to find the “solution” for the buses is to introduce even more perimeter seating.  Maybe the TTC figures that those whose backs don’t work well on such seating also won’t want to climb the stairs, and so the riders can hope to get one of the handful of forward facing seats “downstairs”.

As for escalators and elevators: 

The TTC tries to negotiate an accessible path to the surface through new developments at station sites, but in most cases has to retrofit elevators within their own stations.  Where the escalators or elevators in, say, an office tower are out of service, the TTC really doesn’t have much leverage to get them fixed.   

For a time here last year, I was tracking the frequency with which I encountered escalators that didn’t work, but I dropped that thread because, to the TTC’s credit, this was not happening anywhere nearly as often as a few years ago.  Elevators, however, are a problem because the people who need them really don’t have an alternative.

Imagine if stairways were closed as often the chaos that would ensue and the complaints the TTC would get.

If the TTC is going to be serious about accessibility, if they are going to all the trouble and expense of putting elevators in the stations to save on Wheel Trans costs, then these elevators have to work reliably.  As more and more stations have elevators, people will count on them working wherever they need them, not to be inexplicably out of service for days at a time.

TTC Riding Continues to Climb

The TTC monthly report of ridership and budget performance tells us that riding is up 3.8% over last year and 2% over budget.  Total riding for 2007 is now projected at 462-million.

However, much of this growth has come through increased Metropass usage, and the average fare has actually fallen by 3.6 cents as the “free” additional Metropass trips dilute the overall revenue.  As a result, there is no change in the projected total revenue for the year.

This year, we passed an important point in the evolution of fares on the TTC — over half of the adult fares are now paid by Metropass rather than by tickets, tokens or cash.  This has strong implications for ridership because the “free” extra rides a pass offers cement a rider’s choice of the TTC for their travel.  Moreover, proposals to implement any new fare system must meet the Metropass test for simplicity and cost.

The TTC plans service improvements and better loading standards for fall 2007, and details of this will probably appear soon given the lead time for implementing schedule changes.  With better service will come more riding.  Let’s hope that Council is prepared to pay for more improvements in years to come.

A TTC Business Case for Smart Cards?

The TTC has published a lengthy report on the subject of Smart Cards.  I am not going to attempt to precis the material here, but the “bottom line” is that, yes, Smart Cards will work, but are we willing to pay the price for what they will give us?

The conclusion observes:

The business case demonstrates that a smartcard system will have definite benefits for customers (convenience), decision-makers (flexibility in policy and pricing), and employees (safety and security). The analysis estimates that the cost for a TTC owned and operated smartcard system is between $250M to $260M in capital, and $11M to $12M in additional operating expenses annually. The business case analysis further shows that while the current TTC fare system does have limitations, it is simple to understand and operate, and is relatively cost efficient and reliable. From a state-of-good repair perspective, the current fare system does not need to be replaced.

There is an interesting table in Appendix H showing the capital cost of various new Smart Card systems on large transit properties expressed per weekday boarding.  The cost cited for Toronto is cheap compared with Boston, Chicago or New York.  Whether this indicates we will do things better and at less cost, or that there is more headroom for overruns, only time will tell.  The time to implement a system on the TTC is projected at six years.

There are without question benefits that would come with Smart Cards.  However, we must decide whether they are worth the investment.  Recent comments at the TTC minimize costs with a shrug “it’s only about $40-million a year”.

As I have said so often, remember this the next time the TTC says that they cannot afford more bus service, or Council balks at the rising cost of transit subsidies.

Amazing, isn’t it, how we have money for the toys, but not for the things we really need.

New Light Rail Vehicle Update

The TTC agenda for next week includes a report on the status of the new LRV project.

Seven companies expressed interest in bidding, although one dropped out.  They are:

  • AnsaldoBreda
  • Bombardier
  • Kinkisharyo (No longer participating)
  • Mytram
  • Siemens
  • Skoda
  • Vossioh-Kiepe

The TTC plans to include public participation in the evaluation of possible new cars.  This will include a website (presumably not designed by the wizards responsible for the existing one), and would-be vendors will be asked to provide a car for viewing.  I suspect that this will cull a few more from the list as the expense of bringing a car to Toronto is substantial, and only someone with deep pockets and a fair hope of winning the bid would undertake this.

The current plan is to award a contract in June 2008 with the prototype cars delivered in 2010.  Cynics among us will point out that this corresponds with the next municipal election cycle.

The nub of this issue is funding.  Council is pursuing a tri-partite arrangement with Queen’s Park and Ottawa, a scheme that could very well see this in limbo for years. 

We don’t have years.  The cars proposed here will only cover replacement of the existing fleet let alone expansion into new routes.  Maybe with our “new revenue tools”, Council will shoulder more of the cost locally and we will stop holding the transit system hostage to three-way political haggling.

What Will the Spadina Subway Cost?

Next week’s TTC agenda contains a report on potential ridership, costs and revenues for the Spadina Subway extension.

This is fascinating reading because we now begin to see vaguely real numbers about this project.  Contrary to claims in an earlier report to Council, the line will not recover 80% of its costs from opening day and a special subsidy will be needed. 

One particular observation notes that York University students now ride in from the 905 on a single York Region fare.  They will not be willing to pay an extra fare for a “TTC” fare zone on the subway, and therefore won’t contribute much revenue to it.  They are the single most important part of the revenue projections for the new line, but the marginal revenue they will actually generate is small.

The City of Toronto has been asked, through the operating agreement for the new line, to shoulder all of the future costs and losses despite the considerable benefits for both York Region and Queen’s Park.  The TTC holds that this should justify a special operating subsidy.

The Toronto portion of the subway is projected to open with a 62% cost recovery for operations.  This is quite respectable, but below average for the system and operating dollars will have to be found (or diverted) to run this line.  On Sheppard, we got no special subsidy and absorbed the extra operating cost into the base budget.  Remember that the next time the TTC says it cannot afford to run better service on your bus route.

The TTC is quite clear in saying that subways require a density of 100 persons and/or jobs per hectare, and that:

… the Spadina Subway Extension, especially the portion north of Steeles Avenue, is not expected to reach this density threshold for some time after the commencement of revenue service …

Revenue service is almost a decade away, and “some time after” even further in the future.  Meanwhile, we have many pressing transportation requirements in the GTA that will go unfunded.  The report ends by stating:

A substantial operating cost contribution from the Province of Ontario to the estimated $14.2-million in net operating costs for the entire line should be pursued to offset the City’s financial risk.

I’m sure further study of this problem will magically reduce the projected losses to politically acceptable levels.  The Emperor’s tailor will be visiting any day now.

GO Construction News

Robert Wightman sent in this update: 

Since I retired again on May 31st (I do this every 6 months or so) I have been driving around and have a few observations on GO construction:

The three track section on Lakeshore West from Burlington to Bayview Junction is finished and new signalling has been installed. The signals are no longer searchlight but three (or in some cases two) aspect LED signals. They look quite sharp.  The north track only goes up the Dundas sub and the South track only continues into Hamilton whilst the middle track can go to either.

Most of the track on the Barrie extension has been relayed with 115 lb. continuous welded rail. Every level crossing is having crossing gate installed including the one that runs about 200 yds to a farm house. The Station area at Allendale (Barrie) is all fenced off and levelled. There is a concrete foundation for what appears to be a sub station behind BDO Dunwoody. It looks like the parking lot here will be 200 to 300 feet wide and a mile long. Maybe they will have one long loading platform and you can park either beside where you get on or where you get off.  All the new stations on this line are architecturally similar to the original stations which have been completely refurbished. The station in Bradford has, it appears, just been refurbished including the pole that held the train order semaphores. This line is supposed to open later this year.

The track work on the Georgetown line from Bramalea to Mt. Pleasant is proceeding as almost all of the bridges have been widened and in some places grading has started for the additional track. CN has started to replace the existing signals with gantries to hold the signals for the extra track and all the heads are 3 aspect LED signals like on Lakeshore.

They are going to have problems at the Brampton Station — is it is effectively one track east of the station and you very seldom get two trains passing there. People have gotten used to running behind the trains as soon as it has cleared Church Street to get to the train. When it is two tracks some one is going to get killed as they get hit by a through freight going the other way. They have had police out telling people that it will soon be two way all the time but it won’t help.  It will be interesting to see the platform on the South side as it will be at street level at the West end and elevated at the East end, the Brampton EL, or is it L?

I do not venture out to the East end much so I have no idea what is happening there. The GO trains have disappeared from Guelph Junction so I assume the new storage yard in Milton is built. I have seen work going on at the Lisgar Station and it is supposed to be open in the fall.

If I see anything new I will report.

Robert Wightman

Anyone with news of events in the other half of the world is welcome to add to this post.

How Long is it from Woodbine to Yonge?

In a separate thread here, there is an extensive discussion of whether it is faster to take the Queen car from Woodbine to Yonge, or to take a bus north plus two subway trips.  I originally quoted a running time of 20 minutes for this trip, but was subsequently convinced to up this to at least 25.

Recently, I began looking at the Queen car’s operating data for December 2006.  [For all of you who have been waiting, the grand work on King is now complete and I will be publishing a much abridged version here soon in installments.  In time I will also address the perennial Spadina vs Bathurst question.]

For the first three weeks of December, the running time from Woodbine to Yonge sits quite consistently on 25 minutes from about 7:30 am until 6:00 pm.  The spread in values ranges mainly from a low of 20 to a high of 30, although the majority of observations are within a few minutes of 25.  For trips leaving Woodbine from about 8:00 to 8:30, the running times can be extended to over 30 minutes although this tends to occur moreso on poor weather days.

A related problem is the reliability with which each scheduled car actually shows up for the peak inbound trip.  In my analysis on King, I had already discovered that several cars scheduled to pass through Parkdale during the height of the peak do not always show up, or show up late leading to erratic service just when it is most needed.  I looked for the same effect on Queen and was not surprised by what I found.

In the two hour period from 7:00 to 9:00, there should be about 25 cars westbound on Queen (I say “about” because the actual value is fractional thanks to the 4’52” headway).  As on King, some of these cars do not show up reliably or at all, at least east of Woodbine Loop, and the problem is more severe as the rush hour goes on.  Missing runs are particularly a problem starting around 8:00. 

This means that just at the point when most people want to get downtown for a start in the 8:30 to 9:00 period, the service gets reliably worse.  Because of crowding, this also means that travel times will be extended.

I have not yet had a chance to examine this in detail for the Queen route, but on King the origin of the problem is quite clear.  Some runs, especially those scheduled to enter service comparatively late, don’t always make it out of the carhouse, or if they do, they are late.  Those that are late are often short-turned, or make their trips well off-schedule.  Either way, they are missing from the time and the place when they are most needed.

The reason for this, I believe, is that these runs do not have assigned operators but use either staff from the Spare Board (operators with no assigned work who fill in for absences) or volunteers working overtime.  There is, of course, a good chance that the number of operators available for these runs will be lower on days when the weather is bad.  People who are marginally ill choose not to come in to work, and people who might take overtime prefer not to work in snowstorms.  Just when all the service is needed on the street, critical peak period cars are missing.

Intriguingly, there is very little variation through the day in running time over this section, and systemic traffic congestion does not appear to play a role in westbound trips over this segment of the route.

Often, I have discussed the question of the adequacy of service to meet demand, and the TTC routinely talks about the level of scheduled service.  The problem here is that anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of the “scheduled” service may be missing on any weekday during the morning peak westbound at Woodbine.

Congestion is a serious problem on parts of the system.  However, this is not a question of transit priority or rights-of-way, this is a question of the TTC actually operating all of the scheduled service. 

Mysteries of Poles on St. Clair

No, this is not a commentary about immigration, but about the seemingly mundane issue of street lighting, hydro and TTC poles on St. Clair Avenue.

Regular readers here will know that I am not impressed by designs including centre poles because:

  • they take up an extra metre of road space that could be used at the sidewalks,
  • they interfere with emergency vehicles (or even TTC buses) using the streetcar right-of-way, and
  • they are just not very attractive.

People involved with the project from both the City and the TTC have steadfastly maintained that these poles are essential to the project and that they were “selected” by public participation.  This is complete nonsense on both counts. Continue reading