Fix The 501 Queen Streetcar Forum (Updated)

[Updated December 8:  I have added a link to James Bow’s post with his observations of the meeting.] 

For the benefit of those who could not attend last night’s forum, here are a few comments from a rather jaundiced participant.

The meeting was well-attended (about 90 people)  Even though the original venue was changed to a larger room in anticipation, we were full around the edges.  I was pleased to see that we had folks from both The Beach and from southern Etobicoke so that we had the flavour of both ends of the line.

Ed Drass started off with introductions, and managed to keep the meeting rolling along.  We consumed a full 2 1/2 hours.

James Bow talked about his personal history with the Queen car going back to the days of PCC trains when he first rode the line.  His major point was that a once proud line, one of the heaviest in the system, had been reduced over the years to just another busy route.

I talked about the history of service cuts, route amalgamations and ridership losses (this has been described elsewhere in the “Queen Car” subject thread on this site), and how this route is a textbook example of how to drive riders away.  The TTC has managed to lose half of the riding from the routes formerly known as Queen, Downtowner, Kingston Road and Long Branch through their ill-advised changes in service levels, and their inability or unwillingness to manage what remains on the street.

I also talked briefly about my work on the CIS data and how important good route management will be to any solution (all of this has appeared here in much more detail already).

Adam Giambrone, TTC Chair, introduced the team from his organization saying that, yes, they accept that there are problems on the Queen line and they’re working to fix them.  He also suggested that if the TTC had conscription powers, they would have me doing the work.  Alas, I’m already doing their work for them pro bono, and it’s about time the TTC’s professional staff did what they’re paid to do — understand how lines work, run good transit service, not find excuses.

Rick Cornacchia, General Manager of Operations, was up next along with Paul Millet from Rail Operations (responsible for both surface and subway rail services).  Between them, they acknowledged that there’s a problem and they are hoping to bring some of the operating strategies from the subway to bear on surface routes.  We shall see.  These are very different worlds and, in particular, the option of just stopping the whole line when something goes wrong is not viable aboveground.

Mitch Stambler brought up the rear with the TTC’s common complaints about traffic congestion, signal priority, banning turns and controlling parking.  I am sympathetic to all of these but with two huge caveats. 

First, delays are a fact of life on surface routes, streetcar or bus, due to the amount of traffic and the widths of the roads.  Many streets operate de facto one lane, each way, thanks to parking.  Transit priority and changes in traffic regulations will not be politically viable in most locations, and the TTC has to learn how to live with conditions as they are.  From my own reviews of line operations, chronic congestion is far more common than actual blockages, and predictable congestion should be allowed for in operational plans.

Getting rid of congestion will shorten trips and allow the TTC to provide more service with the same number of cars (not that this is their usual reaction to improvements in operating conditions), but there will always be some congestion.  Moreover, some delays are caused by long loading times, and that really won’t be sorted out until the TTC changes the way it serves stops both through low-floor, all-door loading, and through the use of a longer stopping area as a valid place for boarding.

In the name of “safety”, most TTC vehicles won’t open the doors until they are right at the stop.  This adds a huge amount to stop service times and often prevents more than one car from serving a stop at the same time.  Oddly, the same two cars, coupled together, or re-engineered as a new, longer streetcar, can serve a longer stop area “safely”.

This is related to the TTC’s claim that running cars more often than every 4 minutes is counter-productive because they get bunched up in traffic.  One major source of that bunching is the practice of only letting one car serve a stop at a time, and another is the lack of working transit priority at many intersections.

Finally, rather than griping about the non-enforcement of traffic regulations, the TTC and City Council should actively pursue the ability for TTC staff to tag and tow.  Indeed, this could be a lucrative source of revenue for the City.  The current situation, where this task is reserved to the police, is not the situation across Canada, and changes require only Queen’s Park’s approval.

The TTC was roundly criticized (I am being kind here) by several people who queued with questions for the appallingly bad service.  People reported walking very long distances twice a week before a streetcar passed them.  Delays of 20 to 40 minutes are commonplace to riders.  This is not a fiction I or any other activist invented, and the TTC has known (or should have known) about the situation for years.  They chose to do nothing claiming they were powerless to change things.


The TTC is now at the beginning of its own very public “twelve step” program to improve streetcar service.  The first step is admitting that there is a problem.  The harder part comes with accepting that all those excuses, honed over the years to justify inexcusable behaviour, really are empty and must be discarded.

This won’t be pleasant to watch, and we can expect lots of backsliding along the way.  But some day, some bright, shining day, I will attend a meeting where the phrase “traffic congestion” isn’t the transit equivalent of a cork popping out of a bottle.

[The following is the original announcement from Roger Brook of Rocket Riders.] 

Sponsored by: Sierra Club & Rocket Riders (Toronto Environmental Alliance)

Tuesday December 4th, 6:30 – 9:00 pm Metro Hall, Room 310 55 John Street (at King W.)

The Fix the 501 forum will examine rider concerns and seek solutions for the troubled Queen line, the backbone of transit service in the south end of the City.  The meeting will tend to have a focus on operations as well as some planning issues. More short term, rather than capital heavy solutions.

Context:  The TTC was to bring the issue to their December 6th board meeting.  Councillor Bussin whose ward would be affected by any changes has rescheduled the issue for the January TTC meeting to prepare.


6:30 Intro: Moderator Ed Drass (Metro reporter)
6:40 James Bow (Transit Toronto)
6:45 Steve Munro
6:55 TTC: Adam Giambrone (chair), Mitch Stambler (service planning), Paul Millett (operations)
7:25 Panel discussion,­ questions & coments from audience (panel includes speakers).  

There will be a wrap up when most questions/comments have been exhausted before 9pm.

16 thoughts on “Fix The 501 Queen Streetcar Forum (Updated)

  1. Hi Steve:-

    The comment that you made in the above re the TTC argues that with car service at a headway of less than four minutes bunching is caused. I submit that this is just another example of how shrugged shoulder excuses have allowed a once great transit system to deteriorate, for I ask you and the powers that be, how could the present Transit Commission’s predecessors have operated at one and one half minute headways with ‘K’ controls, no electronics, front doors that could be opened SAFELY while the car is moving, slow speed gear ratios, terrible door arrangements in regards the layout between the motor and trailer (therefore not optimal passenger flow) and with no radios nor cell phones, computers nor CIS?

    Some might say, ‘can’t be true can it? It sure was and on a road as congested as any in the city now and with autos and trucks that didn’t have the get up and go of todays rubber tired beasts. Even the odd horse and wagon might have shown up in that traffic mix. I’m sure bunching occurred for we all know that Yonge Street was a major traffic headache. But my point is, that they got on with the job at hand and carried thousands of passengers daily. Then too, the subway construction came along with its demands of taking over the road. How did the Transportation Commission employees cope? Well instead of complaining and giving up, temporary track was laid around the excavation sites to keep the service flowing.

    If some looking back can take place by those in charge now, maybe those Sergeant-Major like Line Inspectors that stood out in all weather conditions, pencilling checks and notes on their schedule pads, could teach the present day folks some of their tricks of the trade. Certainly modern technology has a place in transit, but don’t discard wholesale the low tech options that could make all of the differemce to a reliable service. The TTC once did rely on the reliable and until fairly recently were leaders in their industry because of that choice. They’re not leading now!!

    Mr. D.


  2. Definitely a good meeting. It was a pity, I had to leave early. I don’t get it. Why does the TTC waste so much time, and money doing “research” into this problem? Everyone knows the service can be improved simply by adding more cars!

    To me, the TTC is more concerned about making excuses, than doing anything.

    Steve: The odd thing about Queen, when I look at the degree of bunching, is that if the existing cars were simply managed to run reliable (even if slightly wider at times) headways, the service would actually be much better than it is today. However, a new model for scheduling and crewing will have to be adopted to give the flexibility needed.


  3. I’m a big believer in the truth revealed by Freudian slips. Did you notice how Paul Millet repeatedly used the word “subway” when he meant to say “streetcar?” We shall see whether this realignment of TTC operating divisions to group streetcars and subways together is truly as synergistic as they think it will be.


  4. I attended, and it was an interesting meeting. However, I noted it consisted mostly of blaming, complaining, and passing the buck, instead of actually discussing strategies and solutions to the problem.

    For a 3-hour meeting, I would have liked something more tangible to come out of it, like a list of 5 concrete steps that the TTC were going to take to improve service.


    1. Split the line into smaller segments.
    (More analysis needed by staff).

    2. Immediately allow all-door loading, regardless of proof-of-payment. (Staff will monitor route to determine resulting fare evasion rate, and whether some Inspectors are required at a later date.)

    3. Cancel the $7 million re-location of Humber Loop 500m west to Park Lawn & Lakeshore.
    (Staff will use the money to improve service along the route for EXISTING customers, not future non-existant customers along the undeveloped motel strip. Buy a couple of streetcars, refurbish some older ones, hire route operators, a route manager, inspectors, GPS trackers, etc)

    4. Actively measure the performance of the route over the next 3(?) months, publishing the results publicly, and holding operators and management staff accountable for the performance.
    (The one guy’s idea of buying/renting GPS trackers and software was brilliant. They could be re-used afterwards on other routes, not neccessarily permanent to the 501 Queen route.)

    5. Advertise that this is all occuring so that the public starts to trust that the TTC actually cares about the service it provides.

    Really, not many of these ideas cost a whole lot of money and some can be done immeadiately with great benefit to service. And they can be adopted and applied to any other route in the City.

    Overall, I wish more IDEAS and SOLUTIONS were discussed at the meeting!

    Instead, I heard the line “We can’t do that because…” far too often.


  5. One interesting fact that I noticed yesterday (Wed. Dec. 5) was that Mr. Stambler boarded my bus (64 Main route) in the morning and rode up to Main St. Stn. and the subway. Usually, he boards a 143 Downtown Express at Wineva and gets off downtown to connect with the YUS.

    It will be interesting to see if the TTC can bring about improvements to ALL surface routes, not just the 501 (although this one is the worst), given their old-school line management procedures. As an operator, I often shake my head at some of the instructions that I am given by the CIS Supervisors (but comply as I like receiving my paycheque every week).

    Keep up the good work and keep on the TTC’s case about the 501 and all surface routes in general.


  6. Sorry I missed it, but I have one question. Who else from City Hall was in attendance?

    I’m assuming Councillors Bussin and Giambrone, but the 501 service cuts through a vast constituency.

    Did any of the local MPPs or MPs make an appearance?

    Steve: Councillor Bussin is away this week and did not attend, but Gord Perks whose ward covers the section of the line in Parkdale was there. There were also aids for some Council members. Nobody from other levels of government — I don’t think that the Queen car has registered on the radar at Queen’s Park, let alone Ottawa.


  7. As a longtime Queen car user in the downtown core, I’ve always found it ridiculous how it’s impossible to get across downtown quickly during rush hour, with any mode of transport other than bike. I know you’ve looked at the TTC’s operational details in depth and avoid grand schemes but I’ve always had this idea that feels like it should work wonders. I call it the downtown loop and it goes like this:

    Establish a single dedicated street car lane westbound on Richmond and eastbound on Adelaide between Bathurst and Parliament (a 3.5 km distance). That’s the loop, around which streetcars continuously run. Eliminate the King and Queen cars in this stretch through the core. Eastbound Queen cars then go south at Bathurst and turn right onto King, becoming the westbound King car. Eastbound King cars go north on Bathurst and turn left onto Queen, becoming the Westbound Queen car. Something similar happens at the east end on Parliament. People dismount at covered terminals on Bathurst and Parliament to switch between the King/Queen cars and the loop.

    This scheme should be a wash for cars/trucks/taxis because they lose a single lane on Adelaide and Richmond but get rid of streetcars on Queen and King. The streetcars unambiguously benefit from the right of way in the loop. The required additional infrastructure should be fairly modest. Am I missing something obvious that makes this a bad idea?

    Steve: The additional infrastructure is far from “modest”. There is no track on either Richmond or Adelaide east of Church. Westbound track on Richmond ends at York, and eastbound track on Adelaide from Bathurst to Spadina was taken out decades ago. Also, the curves needed at two of the intersections (one of which was just rebuilt a few months ago) are missing.

    More importantly, however, is the assumption that virtually all of the passengers from both ends of the line will put up with a transfer at Bathurst or Parliament. The problem here is that the added time to make this transfer (let along the inconvenience) will far more than outweigh any benefit from the “faster” service on your proposed loop.

    If we were going to do something like this, I think it would make more sense to have overlapping services through downtown so that, for example, eastbound Queen cars became westbound King cars from Parliament, and similarly westbound Queens became eastbound Kings at Bathurst or Shaw. Again, tracks are missing to make this possible.

    If we are going to establish reserved lanes, do it on the streets where the routes are now. We shouldn’t be spending so much effort getting streetcars out of the way of cars on King and Queen, but rather should emphasize removal of traffic obstacles on the main streets.


  8. Thank you for the recap of the meeting, which I could not attend.

    Keep up the good work and hopefully (if) when the Eglinton line comes into being these problems with such a long line will not be carried up there.


  9. I wish I could have attended. We live in the beach and one of the chronic problems with exiting the beach by the 501 is the rudely long time it takes to interconnect to the subway without getting off and changing to a Woodbine or Coxwell bus. We timed it several times and even doing this we can get downtown faster than just staying on the 501 to the Queen Subway station.

    What they need is a “beach rocket”. This would be a street car that would make use of the line being completed from Coxwell station back to the turn at Gerrard. The reason they have never put this line back in was because they said it would not pay…well if you just run down to the Coxwell loop and back, no it won’t. But if you ran from the station down to Queen then turned east to the end of the line and looped back you’d have tons of riders. Moreover, the TCC is struggling with enclosed street car service facilities. Yet there lies dormant the Coxwell barns. These could be used for PCC / Peter Witt storage and for added service work from the Neville yard. Heaven for bid I suggest using part of the space as a Toronto Traction Museum, which would generate riders and revenue but there that is as well.

    The bottom line is if people could get on a short loop ride in the beach and have it run up to Coxwell station they would make great use of it AND it would reduce load on the cross town run allowing more short turns, and better service overall on the majority of the line.

    Why has no one looked at this and considered the benefits, would have been my question had I gone. If you polled the Beach and said, if you had a no transfers ride to Coxwell station on the street car, would you use it more, the answer would be YES. How do we motivate some meaningful dialog on this?
    Doug North – Beach res.


  10. On the Ramster / Steve discussion: it might be possible to establish streetcar right-of-ways on both Queen and King.

    How about this design: 2 exclusive lanes for streetcars (running both ways), one lane for through car traffic (one way), and one lane for parking spaces (near intersections, parking spaces can give way to a turning lane). Relocating the rail from the centre to one side of the road would cost quite a bit, but there is no need to do it all at once. The changes can come gradually as the rails age and become due for replacement.

    Steve, is anything like this, or conceptually similar, being considered for the downtown sections of King and Queen? I know there are ideas to dedicate a portion of King to pedestrians and streetcars only, but then delivering supplies to the local businesses might become problematic (how do the trucks get there?).

    Steve: The idea of shifting the rails to one side of the street brings problems at junctions where the curves, already tight, would have even shorter radii on the “near” side of the junction. (For example, if the eastbound rail were in the south lane of King Street, a curve from York north to east would need to connect in with the eastbound track at a more southerly point. This would require either a tighter curve or a cutback in the sidewalk to make room for the relocated track. This is difficult in locations where there is a building right on the corner, a problem that is acute on Queen.)

    I think what bothers me generally about proposals to make large-scale physical changes is that they substitute construction for good line management and traffic management. Moreover, they are irreversible, and after a year or more of construction upheavals, if it doesn’t work, we can’t just change everything back overnight.

    Taking your specific proposal, the heart of it (regardless of where the tracks are) involves elimination of one direction of car traffic and parking on one side of the street. We could do this today. Nobody seems to want to push the taxis off of King even though they have no business being there. Alternately, we could configure King (from south to north) like this:

    South lane eastbound parking
    Eastbound streetcar reserved lane
    Westbound streetcar reserved lane
    Westbound traffic lane with no parking

    This is not all that different from your proposal, but it avoids moving the tracks and can be changed in the blink of an eye to some other arrangement. It can also have different operating parameters at different times of the day or days of the week.

    More importantly than all of this, the congestion on Queen that produces significant delays does not happen primarily between Yonge and Spadina, and it does not happen in the rush hour. You are not going to get a dedicated lane for a streetcar that comes by every 8 minutes in an area where parking is considered essential to the operation of the neighbourhood. The TTC has to live with that (as they did for decades), and manage the line to take this into account.

    If, in the CIS data, I saw well-behaved service at times and locations where there is no congestion, I would believe the claims that only with some form of priority could we fix the problem. That is not the case as vast amounts of CIS data show. The service on the street is simply not being properly managed, and any true congested effects are largely buried in much larger variations due to a total lack of headway regulation.

    When a Queen car to Long Branch regularly has time for a layover greater than 10 minutes (the TTC’s Mitch Stambler claimed it was only supposed to be 6, and many cars get over 20), we do not have a problem with running times, at least for the cars on that branch.


  11. There seems to be confusion between two ways to improve service on a surface transit line, better line management (which reduces bunching, but only marginally improves service speed) and transit priority measures (which increase service speed, and which reduce bunching somewhat but which are not a substitute for better route management). The TTC has a nasty habit of mixing them up and claiming that the former cannot be done without the latter (which was proven false in the days when PCCs ran every 2 minutes on Queen).

    The first is better line management. There are several measures that could help to improve this. Managing short turns properly (rather than making them blindly) would be very helpful to users at the ends of the line. Making sure that vehicles leave the termini at regular intervals (which seems not to be the case on many lines, even Spadina with its dedicated ROW) would reduce bunching. Streetcars should never enter the yard or take long breaks to switch drivers; the driver should be waiting for the streetcar so that the switch can take place quickly, and driver changes should take place at the terminus wherever possible. All scheduling on lines with a scheduled frequency of 10 minutes or less should be done using headways, ignoring all schedules, because schedule-based headway control creates a slew of problems. And, of course, there is always the option of simply running more cars, which worked very well in the early 20th century. Unfortunately, better line management only marginally increases speed of service, so we cannot rely on it, for example to make riding the Queen car from the Beaches to Yonge & Queen FAST. It only really helps to make sure that you aren’t waiting 40 minutes for a streetcar in the snow.

    The second is transit priority measures, which actually speed up transit service. These include dedicated ROWs/bus lanes on existing or new routes, parking and turn restrictions and signal priority. Many of these are politically difficult to implement, especially dedicated ROWs on streets less than the equivalent of 6 lanes wide, and in the case of ROWs are expensive to build, but when properly implemented (i.e. not on Spadina) these are very beneficial to speed of service. For political reasons, the TTC cannot expect these to be implemented, so it has to settle with better line management to improve service.

    All-door loading with some sort of proof-of-payment system doesn’t fit very well into either category. It would allow service speed and regularity to be improved substantially by reducing dwell times at stops. It would require modifications to the fare collection system, though, on most lines to prevent fare evasion. Alternatives include replacing the fare system with smart cards and/or paper tickets (expensive), making the possession of transfers on the streetcar mandatory when transferring from the subway to streetcar and using a system like POP on 501 Queen (which would cause delays at the transfer machine in subway stations), a device at the back of each streetcar that spits out a transfer in exchange for a token, or putting a second employee at the back door of each bus/streetcar (expensive). Despite the high cost of the smart cards, I think that this is the only fare system that will allow the full benefits of all-door loading to be achieved.


  12. I liked Andrew MacKinnon’s comment above. I think that the TTC needs to concentrate on line management for now. Until the service is being run effectively, I suspect that any attempts to speed up the service will not be particularly effective or even noticeable to riders. Moreover, the reduction in waiting time that would result from line management that focuses on headways rather than schedules is probably the most dramatic improvement that could be made to speed trips.

    There is a larger point here. The mismanagement of the streetcar network has resulted in widespread anti-streetcar sentiment among the public. Therefore, the public will to support investment in transit priority or similar measures will be lacking until the TTC shows us some goodwill by proving it can better manage the system to the benefit of riders. Why should I believe their promises, or even care, that some expensive transit priority investment will reduce my trip time by 2 or 3 minutes, if they’re still going to make me wait up to 20 minutes for the next streetcar to arrive?


  13. Regarding the headways during “frequent service” periods, one approach could be implementing a system that ensures even-spaced departures from the terminals, and then asking the drivers to follow schedules relative to the terminal departure time. For example, if the expected weekday ride time from Long Branch to Humber is 12 min and from Humber to Roncesvalles is 15 min, then the car departing from Long Branch at 7.52 am should strive to be at Humber at 8.04, and at Ronces at 8.19. If the next day the same car leaves Long Branch at 7.57 am, its targets will be 8.09 at Humber and 8.24 at Ronces. This way, there will be less room for very uneven headways to emerge.


  14. Steve:-

    I can’t help but concur with your analysis that 501-502-503-504-508-509 services are misaligned and it shouldn’t require large capital investments to correct the service issues.

    Adding new trackage on Adelaide and Richmond would not result in improved service. Nor would moving the tracks to the curb. The A+R routing does not permit easy access to the subway. You’ve already noted the technical issues with curb trackage.

    There are existing restrictions on King St. for a transit priority lane that are not enforced. In addition I see numerous offenders making turns every single day. The level of enforcement is a joke of epic proportion. There does not seem to be the political will to address the problem of transit service.


  15. Hi Steve:-

    I enjoyed Doug North’s comments and suggestions. A lot of excellent green light thinking there. Massaging all of what he’s proposing could work into something very very pallatible for everyone with a stake in transit in the east end.

    One of the key issues in it is that if Beachers are riding up Main, Coxwell and Woodbine to get to the B/D line anyhow, why not give them a one seat option. (This is assuming the Beach/Coxwell car won’t be short turned somewhere along the way, just because it can). I’m sure many of the Beachers who do this routing now are not all going to the financial district, but may be travelling to downtown North York, Scarborough Town Centre, Hillcrest, Yonge/Eglinton or…… any other area within the city that would take them north of Gerrard or well west of Yonge. This routing then would be a natural for them plus giving a one less transfer choice for the downtown destined rider for the west, north, west, south option that some are using now anyway!

    Then too, we might even see a (5)22A Kingston Road/Coxwell car once again, with dare I say it, better service in the off peak than in the core of the day and with green transit vehicles to boot. How brash of me to think that, eh!

    Mr. D.


  16. The Beach Metro News: is reporting that “One of the improvements that has been put into effect about a week ago was the shift from schedule focused service to headway focus service. ”

    This is a major victory isn’t it? But is it true … seems odd that the local rag is picking up this story, but no one else?


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