TTC’s Revisionist History — Where Have The Queen Car Riders Gone

Today’s Star contains a pair of articles by Tess Kalinowski and Christopher Hume on the joys of the Queen car.  Recently, National Geographic listed the 501 as one of the world’s ten top streetcar rides in Journeys of a Lifetime.  Some riders may feel that’s an apt description of their typical journey.

A few nuggets from the TTC in the article show that this organization still refuses to understand and accept its own role in the destruction of riding on this line.  Marilyn Bolton, speaking for the TTC, is quoted:

Much of the 501’s ridership decline coincided with the expansion of the Bloor-Danforth subway and the Scarborough RT in the 1980s, according to the TTC.

“Riders moved up (north) to take advantage of the new subway lines and moved away from the Queen streetcar,” said Bolton.

A look at the statistics [discussed here on December 11] shows that ridership on the Queen Street corridor fell during a period long after the Bloor Subway opened in 1966 (extended to Islington and Warden in 1968, then to Kipling and Kennedy in 1980).

That old chestnut about congestion shows up again:

The sheer length of the route is also a problem. When a car blocks a streetcar by making an illegal left turn or someone parks on the tracks or some other delay occurs on the line, the reverberations travel a long way.

As my analyses of operations on streetcar routes have shown quite clearly, major blockages of service are rare and the disarray in operations can be traced substantially to poor line management and dubious on-time performance even when there is no external source of delays.  Without question, the length of the route magnifies any event, but minor delays are a fact of life for transit operations.

The article also includes a claim that it takes up to five hours to make a trip on Queen.  That’s for a round trip, not a one-way, and even then, this is a rare situation belonging to major storms and regional traffic snarls.

If riders migrated north to the BD subway, they were driven away by poor, unreliable service on Queen.  After the Fix the 501 Forum, the TTC claims it will change its operations and address reliability issues.  Inventing new excuses for driving away riding at a rate unmatched elsewhere on the system is no way to tackle the problem.

18 thoughts on “TTC’s Revisionist History — Where Have The Queen Car Riders Gone

  1. It’s pretty obvious Queen riders didn’t go to Bloor. Where’s the proof? Did they do O-D surveys to get this information?

    The Bloor line’s riders are coming from the north. Even when my family lived on Harbord St. (a short walk south of Bloor), they would not walk north to get on the subway after it opened if their destination was south of Harbord. They would use the Harbord bus instead. So, somebody look at the ridership on the 94 bus and see if it tanked after 1966. I’ll bet it didn’t. If Harbord didn’t go down, routes south of it wouldn’t either.

    The excuse the TTC keeps putting out there for bad service on Queen (“service delays are beyond our control”) are very similar to the ones they used to kill the downtown routing of Bloor subway trains. They kept saying they couldn’t control those delays either. In fact, if they really wanted to, with a little ingenuity, they could have. It’s the same with Queen — they’re just not trying hard enough.


  2. Steve, I read the Star articles for which you provided the link. I thought the following was interesting:

    “On a good day, the [end-to-end Queen line] trip takes 90 minutes, but as driver Patrick Lavallee points out, that’s on a good day. A bad day can mean up to five hours, most of its spent waiting for cars and trucks to get out of the way.”

    We’ve also heard from Driver Bob (I assume it’s not the same guy under a pseudonym?), who has said much the same things about the Queen line: the trip is slow because of traffic.

    Steve, I wonder why you assail “TTC management” who blame traffic for the problems on Queen, but generally disregard the anecdotal reports from drivers, who (while also blaming management) are saying the same thing: congestion is a problem.

    Although I agree that the regularity of the Queen line could be hugely improved through certain operational reforms, it would do nothing to solve the other frustrating fact about the 501, namely its glacial speed. And while you may win back some of the lost riders by guaranteeing a car every 5 minutes, the growth you will see will be mostly on short trips. You are not going to convince commuters to get out of their cars if it still takes hours to get across the city.

    Steve: The data I have from the TTC’s own vehicle monitoring system shows that a five hour round trip simply is not the normal state of affairs on the 501. However, what is normal is that cars are not regularly spaced (a) because operators don’t try to stay bang on schedule and (b) TTC route supervisors to nothing to space out the service. Every route I have reviewed had problems with bunching of cars on Christmas Day 2006 when there was absolutely no congestion, no snow, no nothing to get in their way. They left the terminals bunched and stayed that way all the way to the other end of the line. If the cars were properly spaced, they would also have better balanced loads, and riders could depend on them showing up.

    Yes, there are operators who are bad apples, who run directly behind their leaders all of the time. The data clearly shows cases where a car ran back and forth for more than one complete trip right on the tail of the preceding car. Why is this allowed to happen? It is an operator problem for doing it, but a management problem for allowing it.

    Why do I blame TTC management? First off, their style of line management until a few weeks ago (and even this is subject to verification) concentrated on keeping cars on time rather than keeping them well spaced. The riders don’t care if their car is on time, only that they don’t have to wait 20 minutes for it to show up. A great deal of time is wasted by cars laying over at turnbacks. When they do come back into service, there is no guarantee that they will “split the gap” and may simply wind up running as a pair with a through car.

    Next, TTC management describes congestion and other delays as an insurmountable problem and the root of all service foulups. This is nonsense as their own data clearly shows. Yes, there is congestion, but in most cases it is at a predictable level and the service should be able to recover with the assistance of good route management to ensure proper spacing. Yes, there are accidents that block the tracks. These are rare.

    There is a consistent problem with cars entering service from the carhouse late or not at all. This triggers gaps in the peak period because the cars are missing their place in the schedule. In some cases, they don’t even serve the very part of the route for which their trips were designed.

    Because the Queen line is so long, and because merging the two services at Humber requires padded running times, operators get very generous layovers especially at Long Branch Loop. If the route were split, such layovers would not be needed, and this could be recaptured as productive, in service time.

    Finally, because the route operates on wide headways, any disruption or short-turn is magnified considerably to the point that service beyond the short-turn is intolerably infrequent. The TTC does itself no favours advertising “frequent service” when gaps of 20 minutes or more are common.


  3. Hey – if a service can be made more reliable, there will be more riders. However, the main reason for the long term decline is in the demographics.

    Over two or three decades, the people living and working in places served by the route have changed. The biggest change is in the West end. Most people I know who live towards the West end of the Queen line work at or near the Airport or in Mississauga and further west. These people have short drives to work – and one woman cycles from Mimico up to the Airport Corporate Center.

    Maybe a couple of decades ago, people lived in those areas and took the streetcar downtown. However, this is a long haul even with good service. As the west end developed, the location became more attractive for people who worked out that way. The people who lived there in 1980 have likely mostly moved, retired, died or have different jobs.

    A great example of a noticeable demographic change is in the early 90’s data. There was a huge economic downturn in Ontario. Many people lost jobs – and many professionals left the province after the big tax hikes of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. (At my employer at the time, we had easily 250 engineers and computer professionals take company transfers to the US and Alberta.) You see this in the graphs.

    Conversely, new arrivals who are going to be working in the downtown area have chosen to be on the subway – or these days, actually downtown in condos.

    In a sense, the subway gained riders while the streetcar lost – but mostly indirectly to predictable demographic changes.

    Steve: One observation about the 1990s: The Queen car lost riding at a disproportionate rate to the other streetcar lines, and this was also the line that had the worst combined effect of service cuts and headway widening due to ALRVs replacing CLRVs. I agree that there was some economic and demographic effect on the system as a whole, but the Queen line sticks out from the others. The difference is in the decline in service quality.


  4. On Christmas Eve at 23:00 I caught a 501 eastbound car at 10th Street in New Toronto. I spent some time wondering if this trip should have been by car (this part was the coming home portion) because I knew about how unreliable the service was at the west end of the route. As luck would have it, the car arrived within 20 seconds of my arrival at the stop.

    However, when we got to the Humber Loop, there was already as Humber car sitting in the turn track. This would not have impeded the progress of my car and it could have proceeded through the loop. However, my operator got out of the car and went for a visit with the other operator. They chatted for five minutes or so, and then the first car pulled out with our car right after it. I found the delay in our journey mildly irritating – and I am sure there is no layover at Humber for the Long Branch operator. However, while I was sitting in the car I was thinking about the extra waiting time for any passenger farther along the line – out in the somewhat cold Christmas Eve weather. Here we had “bunching” on a night with no snow, no rain, no traffic and no (few) passengers. One can only conclude that collectively the TTC makes no attempt to adhere to a schedule.


  5. Oh God. The commenters are being more ridiculous than the article, which to begin with is pretty ridiculous.

    Any streetcar problem can be fixed by Proof of Payment on all cars at all times, which is actually done, and management actually beginning to give a damn of keeping cars evenly paced.

    Congestion!? You can still get across the city in a relatively decent amount of time during rush hour. To blame congestion is just foolish, and a cheap, disgusting cop-out.

    Of course, management will never begin to figure this out, but that’s another story for another day. Those who blame congestion will salivate over oceanfront property in Saskatchewan I have for sale.

    The problem in this city the last thirty years is people making decisions on things they don’t have, and won’t bother to get a clue about. Absolutely ridiculous.


  6. Does anyone have any stats on car traffic on Queen relative to the other routes, then, and now? Maybe people also left the route because it became much slower due to increased traffic over the years. It seems that King and Queen have the worst traffic, while College, Dundas, St. Clair and Bathurst are OK. Service on Bathurst 511 was reduced in the same way — did it suffer the same ridership losses?

    Steve: I don’t have traffic stats, but Queen is the one route whose running time today is greater than it was back in the 1980s. However, some of that may be the padding that was added to deal with merging services at Humber. As for the Bathurst car, yes it too suffered a similar drop in riding out of proportion to the lines that kept CLRVs and comparatively frequent services.

    I believe that the TTC managed to push the headway, as actually experienced by riders, over the line between perceived “frequent service” worth waiting for and an unreliable mess. If the posted headways were actually operated, they would have a fighting chance, but as we have seen from the stats, this is a very rare situation. When the TTC looks at the impact of service cuts, they don’t seem to take into account the multiplier effect of wider headways and irregular service.


  7. Steve,

    Glad you clarified the five hour number – when I read that article I was left with the impression that it was one way!


  8. What would the penalty be if “short turns” were abolished for any reason?

    What would a trial period of a week or so with no ad hoc screwing around with short turns reveal?

    If traffic congestion is a constant condition, all day, every day as the TTC contends wouldn’t a “gatekeeper” at the ends of a route enforcing headway times solve the problem because after all that old devil congestion will keep them apart no matter how much the operators try to form convoys? Cars may not run any faster but at least they will be spaced properly.

    Seems simple to me.

    Don Hamilton


  9. Here is a radical proposal for making the Queen line much faster and more attractive for long-haul trips. In addition to the Waterfront West line, build a second Waterfront East express line, with ~1km stops, running parallel to the Queen’s Quay East line west of the DVP (probably along Lakeshore – I know it’s not very pedestrian friendly but this is an express route). East of the DVP, it would run along either Lakeshore or Eastern and connect to the existing Queen line near Queen & Kingston Road. Beach(es) and Kingston Road streetcars would run along the new ROW to Kingston & Queen and then continue east. Queen streetcars would be limited to running between Roncevalles and Kingston Road.

    Obviously without proper management and traffic signal priority this will not work. However, this does not require tunneling downtown (except for Union Station if we expand the underground loop there) so it wouldn’t be very expensive.

    Steve: This has two problems.

    First, people coming from the east won’t get to their destination (allowing for the double-back move from, say, Union Station) faster than they would provided that the 501/502 service actually showed up regularly east of Woodbine Loop. It’s the unreliability that contributes most to the excessive trip times. Similarly, folks on Lake Shore already have about as uncongested a route as you are going to find until the cars reach Roncesvalles. Again, running time to downtown, especially via King (the 508 routing) will compete with any express trip along the waterfront by delivering people directly to their destinations. Reliable headways are the key.

    Second, Lake Shore has already been studied for LRT service in the eastern waterfront. Unless you are prepared to take capacity away from the road (you will get a hug fight on that count from the road users), there isn’t room for an LRT on that corridor. Moreover, there is a limit to the capacity of Union Station to handle more traffic than what is already planned. One strength of bringing folks in along King and Queen is that this distributes the load on many streets, rather like the pre-subway days of intensive service on Bay, Yonge and Church.


  10. Last time I rode the 501 (maybe a week ago?), there were many many more inspectors along the line than I’ve ever seen before. I rode quite a short trip, Yonge to Bathurst, and saw maybe 5 route inspectors along the way. All were running around the street grinning at the streetcar operators, who were grinning back. It felt like something was afoot? Regular headways maybe? No, couldn’t be… could it?


  11. With Marilyn Bolton admitting that Queen is too long, is she the only one at the TTC who says this? Is anyone there, besides operator Lavallee, hearing, reading or understanding this? Does she have any pull with the people who can make the changes? Does cosmic dust cause CISs problems? These and many other questions will be answered when the ‘TTC fixes the Queen Car’ (Beach Metro News’ headline).

    Steve: Cosmic dust, eh?

    I have just been rewatching early episodes of DS9, and believe that the TTC may be interested in a new technology. Wormholes. This will allow cars to pass from just west of Neville to just east of Long Branch without having to deal with any traffic congestion downtown. The ideal transit route. Fast service, no passengers.

    Now all we need is a way to get the swan boats through without losing any feathers.

    And a Canadian manufacturer.


  12. Steve notes that he “believes that the TTC managed to push the headway, as actually experienced by riders, over the line between perceived “frequent service” worth waiting for and an unreliable mess.”

    I made a trip to the Urban Affairs Library this week and, in perusing various documents, found the older Queen study report from the 1980s (to which I believe you have referred in previous posts). I did not have time for a lengthy read, but one thing which stuck out was a set of headway scatter plots similar to the ones you produced from December 2006 data. It is telling that, back in the 1980s when riders were complaining about service, the y-axis on the graphs only went up to 14 minutes. In your data, the y-axis would need to reach more than 20 minutes, and to capture all data it would need to reach more than 30 minutes.

    A 10-minute headway is classified as “frequent service.” Prior to the introduction of ALRVs, even with noticeable fluctuation and the dreaded short turns, service was still largely within the range of what would be considered “frequent”. So, the service has in fact been pushed over that line.

    Interestingly, the report from the 1980s did note that the line was scheduled to be switched from CLRVs to ALRVs in the then-near future and that it would be critical to solve the reliability problem before longer scheduled headways made the fluctuations and unreliability worse.

    Steve: There is an article about the 1984 operations study conducted by Streetcars For Toronto Committee with the assistance of several Councillors and community volunteers posted here. This includes a full copy of the text of the report.


  13. Even if Marilyn Bolton of the TTC says the 501 route is too long I would not look for too much change in the service actually provided. At the 501 forum I think it was Rick Cornacchia from the TTC who said that the service on Queen Street stinks and he’s the General Manager, and apparently even uses the 501. If a person who is the GM in charge can’t do something about a service he admits needs improvement then I really do wonder whether TTC management can actually manage.

    It will be very interesting to see what proposals they bring forward to the January TTC meeting and whether these deal with the managerial problems so clearly demonstrated by you, Steve. I suspect they will continue to put most of the blame on traffic congestion and propose things which will never be approved such as less parking, fewer left turns or the “St Clair-ing” of Queen Street.


  14. The Beach Metro Community News quoted Mitch Stambler as saying: “No one else tries to run streetcars in mixed traffic.” That statement appears to be inacturate as I have seen several cities in Europe that had at least some mixed traffic lines: Dusseldorf, Potsdam, Berlin, Dresden, Bremen, Zurich. However, transit authorities apparently prefer to separate traffic wherever they can and lines often run in a mixture of mixed traffic and reserved ROWs. For example, according to a documentary I saw, over 60% of the tram tracks in Brussels are in PROW and the goal is to increase this to 90%.

    Here’s a mixed traffic example from Nordhausen in Germany photographed in May 2004 showing a low floor Combino:
    Bahnhof str. NDH3604

    Steve: The issue is not that mixed traffic operations are undesirable, but that they exist and have done so for a very long time in Toronto. The TTC would rather blame their problems on a situation they cannot eliminate than dealing with their own inability to run proper service even at times and on days when there is no traffic congestion in sight. Of course, we could always take the approach of bulldozing half of the buildings, widening the street and creating a right-of-way. Kill the patient, cure the disease. And the service would still not be properly spaced.


  15. Steve said: “Of course, we could always take the approach of bulldozing half of the buildings, widening the street and creating a right-of-way.”

    From what I have seen in Europe, they don’t bulldoze any of those cute, old buildings. They just squeeze the space available to auto traffic. And for some reason, it does not seem to adversely affect retail strips along the streetcar route.

    However, from what you wrote in other posts, it seems our car culture prevents European-style transit tactics.


  16. Hi Steve:-

    Since European practices are being cited, what if we considered narrower bodied cars now that we’re into the mind set of super length beasties for our older city street lines?

    As I’m typing this, there was an announcement on CFMZ’s news report of Milan, Italy introducing a $!5.00 charge to auto drivers bringing a vehicle into their core to attempt reducing traffic levels. Here’s a city that has private reservation where they can and mixed traffic streetcars where they can’t. And where they can’t, they are running through narrow streets with funky old buildings on either side.

    For anyone not familiar with this city’s streetcars, there are many photos posted on the site. Worth a gander to see what is possible in mixed traffic.

    Steve, I understand that there is another Italian City that may be worth a study for Swan Boat technology. Starts with a ‘V’ I think.


    Steve: The issue is to see mixed traffic as a challenge, not as an excuse for inaction.

    One problem with congestion charging is that the worst problems in the GTA are in the suburbs where transit is not exactly a viable alternative to driving.

    As for that “V” city, don’t give Admiral Adam any ideas, or they will be digging up Queen Street any day now!


  17. On all buses and streetcars, I have seen passengers will only exit at the front door next to the driver. They may sit beside the center doors, but refuse to use it to exit. Even on the 501 ALRV, passengers continue to exit at the front door. Why?

    My habit is to board any bus or streetcar and head to the rear. I almost always get a seat. When I exit, I always use the rear doors. Unfortunately, exiting at the front door delays the passengers boarding. It also delays the bus or streetcar driving to the next stop. I can understand if one is elderly or handicapped, but for the rest of us use the rear. Even when my kids were in a stroller, I exited using the rear doors.

    Steve: On buses, there are times that only the front door is close to the curb thereby avoiding the very long step down to the pavement. Also, rear doors on buses can be ornery if you are not quick on your feet. I think that the real secret to getting people leaving by all doors is to have them boarding by all doors, but we won’t see that here for a few years.


  18. Hi Steve.

    Dennis Rankin’s comment about Toronto looking at what Milan does is an interesting idea. Milan could teach Toronto a lot about how to operate streetcars and how to build new lines in the city and the suburbs. In fact, Milan has recently completed three extensions to the suburbs and is, I believe, extending at least two other routes.

    Milan has a lot of PRW and it also has some heavy lines that mix in with some heavy automobile traffic. ATM (their transit authority) is not afraid to mix big articulated cars in and amongst that traffic.

    To be fair to Toronto, any time that you lose in the street can be made up on the ROW sections, as each route seems to have some street running and some PRW. I do not recall seeing that many short turns but I will admit that you could sometimes get some gaps in service. The service was usually frequent and well patronized. (I would like to see Toronto’s service schedulers in Milan. They would be afraid to run buses in some of that traffic, let alone streetcars. It is not for the faint of heart to drive in Milan on a weekday.)

    It would take the total commitment of the city to bring such an idea to pass because Milan has restricted access for private cars to a lot of the old inner city. Milan has some other advantages, too. There is more money available in Europe for transit, the population densities are a lot greater there, and all levels of government seem to agree that transit is a necessity. But, there is still a lot to learn from their operations.

    PS: I forgot to mention one thing about Milan, and this is right up your alley – there is a section of town where they have a canal. The city used to have a fair number of them, including one that used to circle the downtown. There is hope yet………


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