Analysis of Route 509 Harbourfront: Laissez-Faire Mismanagement

In a recent post, I looked at the time needed for 509 Harbourfront cars to make their way between Union Station and the CNE. These times are extremely well-behaved and show the benefit of having a line both in its own right-of-way and on a route where traffic congestion is almost unknown (at least in December).

What this analysis didn’t talk about was headways.

There is no way to put this gently. The service on Harbourfront is appallingly bad because some operators treat the schedule as little more than wallpaper, and nobody in Transit Control seems to care about the quality of service. It’s a little shuttle, it will look after itself. Meanwhile, as we have seen in the Spadina car analyses, the attitude seems to be that short turns of Union-bound cars are just fine, maybe because that wonderfully reliable 509 will handle the demand.

These lines are supposed to show what the TTC can do when we get traffic out of the way. What they demonstrate is that the TTC doesn’t give a damn about running proper service in an area where the population is growing and the transit system hasn’t got long to establish its attractiveness before they all buy and drive cars.

Where will this leave us in the eastern waterfront? What does it bode for Transit City?

Here are the running time charts showing times westbound from Union to Exhibition, and eastbound from Fleet/Bathurst to Union. Note that departure times from the CNE are not reliably present in the CIS data and “CNE to Union” times vary a lot because of layovers at Exhibition Loop.

509 Westbound from Union to CNE
509 Eastbound from Bathurst to Union

I am not going to give you many charts to pore over because the information you need can be gleaned from overviews and a few examples.

Because the running times along the route are quite predictable and the route is short, the headway seen at any point is representative of the route as a whole. There isn’t time for cars to change their relative spacing either due to variations in demand or traffic interference.

Here is the headway summary for December westbound at York Street.

509 Headways Westbound at York

If you look at the first three pages (weekdays before Christmas) as well as the fifth page (all weekdays), you can see a huge scatter in the headway values particularly during the pm peak and early evening. The plus or minus three minute rule is nowhere to be found here, and the number of very short and very long headways shows us that many cars are running in pairs.

Page four (weekdays after Christmas) are not quite as bad, but there is still a lot of paired running. Weekends are generally better behaved.

To get a sense of what this looks like on a service chart, here is a sampling of days through the month.







Friday December 1
Tuesday December 12
Friday December 15
Saturday December 16
Sunday December 17
Monday December 18

On Friday, December 1, one car Run 3 (yellow) consistently runs close to its leader, run 1 (black). Run 4 (turquiose) only pulls close up to run 2 (purple) on its running in trip leaving Union just after 9 am. Service through midday is well behaved with two cars shuttling back and forth. However, by the pm peak, things getquite ridiculous. Run 3 (brown) develops a fondness for run 2 and stays nose-to-tail with it until running in at about 19:15. Meanwhile, run 4 (green) spends much of its time following run 1.

On Tuesday, December 12, the peak period service is much better behaved. (Note that some of the strange behaviour around 14:00 is due to missing CIS data.)

Friday, December 15 brings us back to pairs of cars running together in the PM peak.

Saturday, December 16 shows well-behaved off-peak service. Note that there is a block of CIS data missing on this day in the early afternoon. Sunday, December 17 is similar.

Monday, December 18 shows a weekday with reasonably well-behaved service.

Clearly, the style of peak period operations depends a lot on who is operating the line. Some days, the operators run properly spaced service, other days, there may as well not be any peak period extras. Line management is nowhere to be seen because the pairs of cars are allowed to run back and forth making wide gaps where riders expect “frequent service”.

Finally, a look at the terminals. Although times at the CNE loop are a bit dodgy (generally, CIS does not “see” a clear departure time), we can measure the round-trips from nearby locations where CIS data is reliable.

York to Union Station
Bathurst to CNE

At the east end of the line, the round trip time from York to Union and back is quite consistently at the 6-minute line plus or minus a few minutes. This indicates that although there are some layovers at Union, they are fairly consistent and not extraordinaily long.

The data for Bathurst to the CNE is quite another matter. The average of round trips lies in the 10-to-15 minute range on weekdays, and higher on weekends. The considerable scatter in the data shows that cars get long layovers at the CNE on some trips and probably have more running time than they need overall. The higher weekend numbers show that the layovers (and hence the excess running time) are even longer on those days.

The 509 looks like a very cushy route to operate: almost no traffic to worry about, lots of layover time and little demand to provide well-spaced service during the peak. This is not an ideal example of how our new premier services should operate, and it gives the TTC and its “LRT” programs an ill-deserved black eye for riders.

9 thoughts on “Analysis of Route 509 Harbourfront: Laissez-Faire Mismanagement

  1. I have never understood the value to the transit system of layover times, other than those required for employee breaks. If this is a 15 minute service from Union to the CNE it would make sense to operate it continuously with emplyee breaks as required by law and also human decency. If that was the case, service frequency on this short route should not be a problem. I don’t think the fundamental problem lies with unionised employees. I believe it lies with the direction from the TTC. Better direction is required.


  2. The problem here, quite clearly, is that the streetcars aren’t leaving the terminal at regular intervals. This is a significant problem on Spadina and other lines as well. Can’t the TTC install some sort of simple timer of some sort at the terminals of lines giving drivers the order to depart? For departures from Union, it might also help to allow 509s and 510s to switch roles as required to reduce bunching. As for layover times, when drivers need a break, another driver should always be ready to take over so that the streetcar doesn’t wait too long in the terminal.


  3. Steve, first-time poster to your blog but long-time reader. I take the 509 daily and I totally agree with your analysis. If streetcars were evenly spread out during peak periods, then the service wouldn’t be so bad. However, some operators on the route like to leave a few minutes early, thus creating a larger headway for the next car behind it. Plus, other than Queens Quay and Spadina, there is no other way of short-turning a 509 car because of problems with the track at Fleet loop. Thus, some operators might feel they can get away by following their “own” schedule.

    Another interesting observation on the 509/510 route is that morning southbound 510 cars entering service the 504 King route (there are at least three Spadina cars from Russell that do a round trip on King in the AM peak before entering service on Spadina around 9 am) always short-turn at Queens Quay and Spadina, even if there is a lot of passengers waiting for a car to go to Union Station. I think those 510 cars should go to Union instead because 509 service can be unreliable at times.

    Steve, excellent blog and keep up the great work!


  4. The problem is that the union shields its employees from any meaningful discipline from TTC management, such that streetcar and bus drivers do what they please. I heard from several streetcar drivers that there was (maybe still is) one streetcar driver on 506 who always drove so slow, he was always short-turned so that he never reached either end of the route, ever. Management was powerless to do anything about him or terminate him. All they can do is wait for him to retire.

    What is wrong with this picture? Sure managment’s got it’s problems, but the union’s a major problem itself.


  5. Careful Mike, lest you awaken the sleeping giant that is Steve Munro. Him and I have battled on many fronts over an issue that is all too common on the system: the TTC union. This is just one symptom of a rather large and systemic problem of the TTC, the total control of the TTC by the unions and not by management, as it should be.

    Having the only solution as to wait for the offending operator to retire is just silly. Compound this with the relatively high salaries of most TTC workers and what you get is the laissez-faire attitude of the operators. Sure, they may be a minority, but the numbers are indeed apparent. It’s no wonder why the travelling public has such a low opinion on TTC operators, although I will concede that it is the hard-working people who usually get the wrong end of the stick.

    Steve: You won’t get any defense of that sort of operator behaviour from me. What I have always objected to here is broad-brush comments that treat all union staff as trash who are only out to do the least work for the most money. The rotten apples need to be disciplined.

    Having said that, the TTC raises the issue of “congestion” every chance it gets as if there was no other reason for service foul-ups. Failure to properly manage the service, even with operators who ignore the schedule, is a management problem. Many of the service management issues I have raised involve needless short-turns, mismanagement of re-entry by short-turned cars and an undue reliance on a catch-all excuse for doing nothing even in cases where there is no traffic congestion for miles.


  6. It would be useful to inventory everything that could be done by the TTC to improve the reliability of streetcar service, organized by what needs to be changed (training, collective bargaining agreement, investment, signage, etc)

    I am on the 506 every day, and every day streetcars are bunched up as early as 7 am. At night, walking is often faster than waiting.

    When a streetcar is delayed, passengers build up at stops, so stopping to pick them up and forcing passengers to “move to the back” further delays the first streetcar. There seems to be no attempt made to “unbunch” the streetcars. It is particularly frustrating to be yelled at to move to the back in a packed streetcar, the first of a series of 3 – #2 and #3 driving empty. With the lack of funding we have, how can we afford empty streetcars at rush hour?

    In case of 2 or more streetcars following each other closely, what about:

    – The operator should monitor the proximity of streetcars front and back.
    – The first streetcar in a bunch should stop only to let passengers off – to gain speed and catch up.
    – Subsequent streetcars would stop to pick up remaining passengers.
    – If necessary, subsequent streetcars should wait to restore appropriate headways – where safe to do so.
    – Boarding through all doors and POP on all streetcar lines.

    Thoughts? What would it take? It seems like if we can’t make this work, what will it be like with new, larger and less frequent streetcars?


  7. Your posts often mention the problems with CIS and how vehicles either disappear or are reported in improbable places. I suspect that must make it difficult for Transit Control to follow up with errant drivers. I found a short trade magazine article reporting that Ottawa (OC Transpo) is getting a GPS system to monitor all its busses. Is something like that needed for the TTC?

    Steve: The TTC is converting its vehicle location system to use GPS with a target completion of July 2008.


  8. My comment was not meant to brush all TTC drivers as irresponsible. In my experience 90% are very concientious and professional, and stop if they see someone running for their vehicle, if it is safe to do so.

    However the 501 Queen line seems to have more than its fair share of the rogue 10% of drivers.

    Still, union protection is a major factor in this 10% getting away with doing whatever they feel like doing.


  9. I actually wonder if it wouldn’t be better for drivers *NOT* to wait for people running down the street. Over a few intersections, waiting messes up the headway and creates bunching. Especially when waiting makes you miss the light. Think about it. You wait for one person and delay 50 in the streetcar + everyone else waiting down the line.

    Steve: The people who were running after the car at Long Branch were already in the loop and the operator just flew by without stopping, this after a layover. Bunching and delays are completely irrelevant here.

    As for waiting for someone running for the streetcar, after they have been left behind a few times, they will drive.


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