From The Archives: “Unwatched Trains”

A recent reference in the Globe & Mail to a long-dead magazine, The Idler [that is the way they styled themselves], reminded me that back in late 1988, I co-authored a long piece Unwatched Trains for them on the TTC.

That sent me into the files to see just how relevant the text is today.  Sadly, a lot of it could have been written in 2007, not 19 years earlier. 

Looking back at something you wrote in different circumstances brings back the feelings of the time.  This was an era when the TTC was run by “citizen members” appointed by Council.  That practice went the way of the dodo, and none too soon for reasons I won’t delve into here.  Don’t ask.

Management was hostile to public input and criticism, and I learned from a friend that consorting with me could be a seriously career-limiting move.  Things improved greatly when David Gunn arrived, but that was still in the future.

As you read this, remember that many things have not happened yet:

  • The Liberals are in power, the NDP has not yet even dreamed of replacing them, and the nightmare of Mike Harris is beyond anyone’s worst fantasy.
  • The recession of the 1990s is not yet seriously upon us, although you will see references to funding cuts that had begun even before Bob Rae took ofice.
  • The Russell Hill disaster, a product of inadequate training and poor maintenance, fed by years of cutbacks, had not shocked the TTC out of its complacent self-image as a paragon among transit systems.
  • Riding was still at levels to which we are only now returning, service was commensurately better and the TTC’s fleet was larger.
  • Regional transit problems were not even on our radar.  Vast areas of what we now call the 905 were still small towns and farmland.
  • $100-million was a seriously large amount of money in 1988 while today it will buy you a modest subway station.

My co-author, Tom Langan, is now Professor Emeritus at St. Michael’s College.  We collaborated in the trolleybus battles, but went our separate ways afterwards.

I have scanned in the article as text and stripped the illustrations as they are copyright by the original artist.  Imagine Munch’s Scream as a motif for TTC passengers.

3 thoughts on “From The Archives: “Unwatched Trains”

  1. This is for all the people who use the politics of resentment to falsely claim that all of our budget problems originate with greedy unions and that by merely reigning them in all the problems would go away. While my personal experience with TTC operators is that they are courteous helpful and professional to a fault, there are always some whose actions are used as anecdotal examples by the politics of resentment commentators. This quote from your article may shed som light on the situation.

    The decline may be seen in human terms in the morale of TTC staff. Poor public sector management is often to blame for the growth of selfish, irresponsible unions, and for the impatient surliness with which employees greet the public. They don’t get any satisfaction from their work — they just want to get home when their shift is over. Morale among the drivers falls, as the old pros watch the system decline, and new drivers get used to slovenly habits.

    As you suggest in the intro, it is hard to believe that the article was written 20 years ago. I suppose the principal difference is that the (all politician) Commission no longer resents public input. Instead they welcome input from the ridership — then they close subways and slash service.


  2. This article also refutes the notion that the TTC’s woes are all of recent manufacture (ie. all Mike Harris, amalgamation, Mel Lastman, etc). The problems started long ago, and managed to be masked by the good times of the mid-80s, with increasing ridership and all the good PR of years past. It looked as if things were going to turn a corner with the Transit City announcements and a fresh attitude from Mr. Giambrone, but the hanging threat of cutbacks may just perpetuate the situation longer.


  3. The article is a really fascinating read and history lesson. I am amazed at a) how little the problems facing the TTC have changed b) how in decline the system seemed 19 years ago. At least the streetcar track situation has improved. I am also shocked by how so many of your points you made in this article you make again and again currently.

    I am really getting the feeling despite the MoveOntario 2020 and Transit City announcements that nothing will happen until we have leadership that does not make announcements for a photo ops and election promises only. I have very little confidence in either Mayor Miller or Premier McGuinty actually following through with funding.

    What keeps you positive after years of battling the odds?

    Steve: I have to say that the dark days with Mike Harris, Mel Lastman and Al Leach in charge of things did not do wonders for the spirit. However, over the long haul the hope is to make gains enough when conditions are favourable to more than offset the losses when they are not. This is, after all, the same strategy as the right wing: change the agenda, to change the reference point by which public services are measured that their vision outlasts any left wing interregnum.

    What pains me about the current situation is the way that Miller & Co. are doing the work of the opposition by making people think that transit really is going to be slashed to ribbons. If this keeps up long enough, everyone will think that Transit City and MoveOntario were just passing dreams and that transit, as usual, will never deliver on its promise.


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