Fleet Street Overhead and Other News of Changing Streetcar Infrastructure

The TTC plans to resume streetcar service on Fleet west of Bathurst with the 509 Harbourfront and 511 Bathurst routes on March 30. Trackwork, except for Fleet Loop, is in place, and the overhead construction is underway working west from Bathurst Street.

One of my regular readers, Harold McMann, sent me a few photos of overhead installation on Fleet Street and I am including one of them here because it shows a very recent change in the TTC’s standards for streetcar overhead.

Look closely at the hangers and you will see they are different from those commonly seen on Toronto’s system. These hangers are designed so that the contact wire will be held below the span wire and so that both pantographs and trolley poles can navigate them. If you look closely, you will see that hangers on alternate spans face in opposite directions so that there will be a slight meander to the overhead to avoid groove wear on pantographs.

Another change not as obvious from a photo is that the TTC is now using 4/0 gauge wire rather than 2/0. This is a larger cross section, but not twice as big even though the number might imply this. You can read about the arcane world of wire on Wikipedia. The larger cross section allows more current to be delivered by the wire in anticipation of the power demands of the new larger streetcars planned for Toronto.

The TTC Capital Budget contains a project to convert the entire overhead system by 2012, but it’s sad to note how long it took the TTC to accept that this would be necessary.

Further west on Fleet beyond the loop we find a forest of closely spaced poles marching down the centre of the right-of-way. These appear to be much closer together than the normal span wire spacing. This design leaves a lot to be desired if it is an indication of what we will see on future routes because the poles will dominate the visual landscape. I have already written here extensively about the shortcomings of centre poles on downtown streets and will not belabour the point.

Another project in the works is the complete replacement of the automatic track switch system. The current switch machines and their electronics date from the arrival of the ALRV fleet when the distance from the trolley shoe to the front of a car ceased to be constant. This meant that the old contactor-based switching had to be replaced, and a new system with pavement loops was installed.

This has been no end of trouble to the extent that some switches on the Spadina project have switch machines, but have never been activated. Many regularly used switches around the city sport “out of service” signs because they are no longer reliable or their parts have been raided for other more important locations. Because these switches are so unreliable, streetcars must come to a full stop at all facing point switches (including, amusingly, manual switches that cannot leap open in front of a car).

This practice makes for slow and jerky operation at intersections, and the TTC has not bothered to deal with this problem of reliability for quite a long time. Design of a new track switch system is underway and is expected to complete this year with procurement and installation to follow in future years.

Over the next four years, we will see a gradual transformation of the streetcar infrastructure in anticipation of the new fleet. Let’s hope the TTC gets it right this time. We cannot afford another fiasco like the CLRVs and their inability to deal with a system that PCCs had navigated for decades.

Victoria Park Station Re-Design

There is a report up on the TTC’s site showing the plans for renovation of Victoria Park Station. Note that this is a roughly 3.5MB document.

For those of you looking at the URL linked here, yes there is a spelling mistake in the TTC’s filename with “Vcitoria” Park station and terminal “Finsihes”. If they fix this, the link may break, and you will have to go to the general report site to get the document.

Listening to the Public

The Star reports today that the GO Transit Board rejected a call for fare rebates in compensation for poor service. This is no surprise, but that’s not my topic.

What fascinated me in the article was this:

[Pat] Eales was initially given five minutes to make her case to the board but GO Transit chairman Peter Smith said he would allow her to talk as long as she wanted.

Her presentation, along with questions and answers, went on for more than half an hour.

Meanwhile, over at the TTC, deputations have taken on a surreal air thanks to the Draconian new rules of procedure. We get five minutes, as always, but questions are rare and motions to extend speaking time are non-existent. I was used to being cut off back in the Lastman era, but Admiral Adam runs a tight ship and I’d better finish my speech in 5 minutes.

This reached an absurb height at the last meeting when John Cartwright of the Labour Council wanted to present information about shortcomings in the Buy Canadian study done for the current streetcar tender. Because the request to speak came in late, Chair Giambrone had to ask for the Commission’s indulgence just to get Cartwright on the agenda.

When the time to hear the material came up, they got five minutes. Full stop.

Meanwhile, TTC management gets to drone on at excruciating length about whatever project they have dropped onto the agenda often with little advance notice to those who might want to comment on it.

I suppose I shouldn’t complain. Metrolinx has yet to discover deputations and favours instead a complex process of public feedback through their website. No opportunity for irate members of the public to call politicians or management to task for their incompetence. Just remember this as and when they take over GO or even the TTC.

You won’t be able to complain about the Queen car because nobody will want to hear you.

Somehow the golden age of transit is looking a lot like the bad old days when pensioners got cigars, the Commissioners drank from bone china cups, and the public knew their place.

The Torontoist’s Million Dollar View

David Topping at the Torontoist has a good post about the need for people to embrace the TTC and work for positive changes rather than using the current labour situation, including the “million dollar” campaign, as an excuse to bash both the TTC and its employees indiscriminately.

As I’ve said in a preceding post, I think that the million dollar campaign is weak on details, and many have commented on how it makes the union (and its members) look bad by inflating their worth. One huge gap in the analysis is that it omits the value of the billions invested in transit infrastructure without which the ATU members would not have jobs and all of the economic activity they claim for themselves would, theoretically, never have happened. I and all of my readers helped pay for those investments through taxes at all levels, and if we’re going to shut down the TTC, I want my money back.

For its part, the TTC continues to struggle with low-balling the complexity of fixing long-standing problems with service and maintenance, or even of admitting that these problems exist. Politicians, even those who are strong supporters of transit, don’t want to hear that there is so much more to be done with money that isn’t in anyone’s budget.

This may sound like a broken record, but much of what has been achieved in the past decade came from pressure on the TTC to tell us what it could do, not what it couldn’t. The ideas of actually improving service, rebalancing fares and stimulating ridership came because we concentrated on improving the system.

We need more advocacy from within the TTC and City Council, detailed information on the actual state of the system and on what can be done to improve it. Some changes — better service for one — are finally on the street, but there’s a lot more to do. Let’s concentrate on making the transit system much, much better.

What A Million Dollars Buys You

I wasn’t going to comment on Marilyn Churley’s paper claiming that each TTC employee contributes $1-million to the local economy, but a remark buried in a long post at Blogto caught my eye. Specifically:

It can be a very useful source of information for pro-transit activists, and helps underscore transit’s importance (which makes sense given Steve Munro and Franz Hartmann were involved in it).

Since I seem to have been “outed” here, and am also thanked for input on page 3 of the report, I need to explain the context.

I cannot speak for Franz Hartmann (of the Toronto Environmental Alliance), but I was approached to review the document when it was in draft form. At that point, it needed a lot of work because of poorly thought out arguments. Some of my input found its way into the final version, some didn’t. I didn’t know the video existed until it appeared online. Finally, I don’t agree with all of the claimed economic benefits of the transit system’s existence — ie things that would simply disappear if there were no transit service.

That said, the problem lies more with the premise, rather than with the calculation. Personally, the TTC saves me a bundle because I can live without a car and my total transportation expense for 2007 was $1098 worth of passes (on subscription), the odd cab fare, and dinner/drinks for friends who provided chauffeur/cartage services.

Many families could not exist without one car given the problems of getting to work in transit-starved suburbia. However, a good transit system can reduce the need for every family to have two or more cars. Alas it won’t reduce road space because the highway system is so overcommitted by demand that any transit gains will only allow backfilling on the roads.

Scale up that sort of benefit across the city, and that’s money in every transit rider’s pocket.

Many of the comments on blogto are extremely one-sided being so directed at the union and the operators. Lousy service is a function of years of underinvestment in transit (new vehicles, more rapid transit) by politicians of every stripe. Lousy service is also caused by mismanagement of what’s there. Yes, some operators take advantage of this by playing games with their schedules, but they are far from the majority of the staff. Political decisions not to buy more buses, to downsize the fleet by 300 vehicles, had nothing to do with the ATU.

For decades, the TTC has claimed that it is powerless to provide better service due to traffic congestion. As reviews of their own vehicle monitoring data have shown here, congestion is only one factor, and the TTC’s solutions, aimed primarily at the core during peak periods, will not solve this problem. Huge gaps in service to the outer ends of lines are caused by bad operating practices in line management.

I agree that Local 113 has overstated its case with Churley’s report, but they don’t deserve the virtiolic remarks aimed at them by many writers. I open this post to comments with trepidation and will tell everyone in advance that I will ruthlessly expunge remarks that don’t address the larger issue of making transit better.

Waiting for the 501 — An Operator’s View

[Updated March 17, 2008: I have received various comments with schemes for alternate ways to operate the 501/502/507 in various combinations. None of these will be posted here as this debate could go on forever. The next round in the discussion will come with the TTC’s own proposals expected in May.]

On March 6, Ed Drass wrote about the Queen car’s problems and the various options that might improve service, some day. The article is not yet up on the Metro News website, but the link here will take you to an index of Ed’s columns.

Recently, I received a long note from an operator about the problems of the new way the line is being managed. These are grouped in blocks by general subject with my own comments interspersed. Continue reading

The Look of the TTC

Today’s Toronto Star has an article Sick transit: TTC dirty, leaking, decaying about the sorry state of many of our subway stations.

Although this is the worst time of the year for assessing the general look of anything that is used by hundreds of thousands of people per day, many of the complaints from Star readers ring true.

Stations don’t look as clean as they once did despite the TTC’s attempt to arrange its crews for heavy-duty blitzes on stations rather than superficial dusting. This is further complicated by the now-and-forever construction and repair projects that give the impression of jobs half done and forgotten. The TTC could do a much better job, both on site and online, of posting notices that should be kept up to date about what is going on.

Speaking of notices, there is a huge, ongoing problem that notices when they do appear remain in place long after the work is done and they act as magnets for grafitti and other abuse. This sort of thing contributes to a look that says “we don’t care”.

(My personal favourite was College Station during the 506 streetcar track reconstruction where three different generations of diversion notices existed, in some cases side by side, in various locations.)

Oddly enough, just a few days ago I did an interview with some journalism students from Ryerson about “design on the TTC”, to which my first offhand reply was “what design?”. Yes, there are various standards for new signage as well as older generations, but this is obscured by so much pure junk that the clean, unifying benefit of consistent graphics is totally lost.

Plant maintenance is one of those TTC budget lines that was squeezed for years, and gets little respect because it’s always easy to say “just get more productivity out of your staff” rather than looking at the underlying problems. Like so much else in the TTC (and municipal services in general), we need to know what it would cost to provide better service in this area. As long as the attitude is “we can’t afford it”, we (the public) never get a chance to weigh in on where the TTC might spend more money. This was the situation with service quality and, although it has taken forever, the Ridership Growth Strategy allowed those who want better service to advocate for it with hard numbers on costs and benefits.

Litter will always be with us, and the sooner the TTC picks it up, the better. Scratchitti is becoming a major problem and I’m not sure how quickly the TTC addresses this. My gut feeling is that I see far too much of it, and it can’t all be fresh.

Attracting riders isn’t just a matter of better service, it’s the environment in which that service runs. Telling riders that it’s their fault for littering blames the many for the thoughtlessness of the few.

Census Updates on Commuting Reported by CBC

The CBC website has a report about the drop in the percentage of people commuting by transit according to the recent census. In this piece, I am erroneously identified as a member of Rocket Riders. Although I have provided suggestions and advice to that group from time to time, I do not speak for them and my comments should not be construed as an official pronouncement by that group.

Here are my remarks. For the complete text, go to the CBC site.

Toronto transit advocate Steve Munro said the 2006 findings are disappointing because they show there is little change in the number of people taking public transit.

“I’m frankly surprised that’s it’s only gone down by a small amount as it has,” said Munro, a member of the Rocket Riders, a citizen advocacy group dedicated to public transit issues in the Greater Toronto Area.

Munro said part of the problem is much of the transit system in Toronto is oriented towards downtown, including GO Transit and the Toronto Transit Commission with its network of subways, buses and streetcars.

He said travel patterns show people are commuting in all different directions these days.

“It’s one of the biggest challenges for transportation planners,” Munro said.

“It’s an everywhere-to-everywhere kind of demand pattern, and that’s very hard to serve without building quite a large network of transit lines to make everywhere-to-everywhere commuting by transit possible.”

Munro said convincing people who live in areas outside the downtown core to get out of their cars will take large investments in transit in the GTA.

“We’re a long way away from having a really strong network in the outer suburbs to really make a change in the way people think about commuting in those areas.”

A stronger network will also reap environmental and economic benefits, he said.

For individual families, if the transit system can serve their needs, the cost of getting to work is lower. For cities, if the transit system moves people around efficiently, there is less stress on the roads, Munro added.

“The road system in the suburbs is full. There is a general economic benefit to having a better transit service. It means families don’t need a car for every member of the family to get around.”

Transit City Update

At the TTC meeting last week, there was a long presentation about the status of the various Transit City projects. The TTC’s website contains only the two page covering report with absolutely no details, but lucky for you, my readers, here is an electronic copy. As and when the TTC actually posts this report on their own site, I will change the link here to point to the “official” copy.

Warning: 7MB download: Transit City February 2008

While there may be individual issues to prompt kvetching in this report, overall I am impressed by what is happening. For the first time in over 30 years, we have not only a unified plan, but a unified set of studies. I may be naïve to expect all of this will actually be built, but we are in far better shape knowing what might be than if only one or two lines were on the table.

Here is an overview of the report along with my comments.

Overall Priorities

Of the various Transit City proposals, three have been selected as the top priority for design, funding and construction: Sheppard East, Etobicoke Finch-West and Eglinton-Crosstown. All lines were scored against various criteria, and those coming out on top overall got the nod. This doesn’t mean work stops on the others, but at least we know the staging.

Projected total ridership is highest for Eglinton, Finch and Jane, with Sheppard East in 5th place. Partly, this is due to the length of the routes and their catchment areas. Note that Waterfront West brings up the rear, unsurprising given the area it draws from.

The lines rank roughly the same way for the number of car trips diverted to transit and the reduction in greenhouse gases. There’s something of a compound effect here as several measures all vary more or less as a function of ridership.

Transit City, again with the exception of Waterfront West, touches the City’s priority neighbourhoods where better transit is needed to increase mobility and economic opportunities for the residents.

What’s Missing

Notable by their absence are the Waterfront East lines (Queen’s Quay, Cherry Street and Port Lands) as well as the Kingston Road line in Scarborough. EAs are aready in progress for these, but they don’t make it onto the overall status report.

This is a shame because we must stop making distinctions between “Transit City” itself, and other related transit projects that will compete for attention and funding. Continue reading