Restructuring the Queen Car

The TTC Agenda for July 9 included a report on Queen streetcar operations.  Most of this deals with line management techniques, and is discussed in the preceding article on this site.

For the period October 18 to November 21, 2009, the TTC will experiment with splitting the line in one of two ways.  The specifics have not yet been decided.

  • Split the route at Humber Loop into the original 507 Long Branch and 501 Queen routes.
  • Create two overlapping routes with Long Branch cars operating east to Church or Parliament, and Queen cars operating west to Bathurst or Shaw.

Implementation of an overlapped service is constrained by the number of available cars as well as by track layouts and the location of electrified switches for turnbacks.

There are arguments to be made for either configuration, but the first one does have the problem that if Queen service is disrupted in the west end, the link to Long Branch will be lost as most Queen cars will turn at Sunnyside.  Conversely, an overlapped route will force anyone travelling from west of the overlap area to east of it to transfer. Continue reading

Queen Car Operation Update

At its meeting on July 9, 2009, the TTC considered a staff report about operation of the Queen 501 streetcar service.  This reviews various attempts at line management and scheduling as well as their effects on service as measured by short turn counts as well as the number of wide gaps between cars.

For the period October 18 to November 21, 2009, the TTC will experiment with splitting the 501 into two separate overlapping routes, although the exact termini of the routes is not yet decided.

The Queen car has been the source of many complaints about service quality, and I have written several articles here examining the actual behaviour of the route in detail based on TTC vehicle monitoring data.  The most vocal complaints arise in The Beach, and much effort has focussed on that end of the line, but problems also exist on Lake Shore.  Concerns to the west emerged during recent public meetings on the proposed Waterfront West LRT line where providing basic, reliable service today was more important to residents than a new LRT service in the distant future. Continue reading

Who Will Build Transit City’s Fleet?

In a press scrum after today’s TTC meeting, Chief General Manager Gary Webster was asked about the follow-on order of streetcars for the Transit City lines.  Given the planned opening dates, these vehicles must be ordered fairly soon.

Webster replied that the optional order had not yet been placed, and that with the new legal framework around Metrolinx, that agency has approval powers over acquisition of cars to be used on lines funded by Queen’s Park.  Brad Ross, TTC’s Director of Corporate Communications piped up that the cars may not even be built by Bombardier.

Metrolinx certainly has chutzpa!  Quite recently, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced funding for the Sheppard East LRT, and proudly claimed that jobs would be created at Bombardier to build cars for this line.

More to the point, do we really need to go through the entire procurement cycle all over again?  What does Metrolinx hope to bring to a repetition of the bidding process?  Are they just throwing their weight around, or are unseen interests bent on derailing the Bombardier deal?

Queen’s Park Reveals Metrolinx’ Role

My thanks to Peter Miasek who sent me the link to this item on York Region’s website.

Recently, Ontario’s Deputy Minister of Transportation, Bruce McQuaig, wrote to York Region advising on the financial and operational framework for “designated projects” as defined in the recently enacted Metrolinx legislation.  This letter can be found among several pieces of correspondence bundled into one PDF starting on pages 12-16.

I understand that a similar letter went to the City of Toronto, but it has not yet appeared in any public debates, partly because there are so few of them currently.  It is alluded to in a TTC report on Transit City funding.

The scheme begins with a desire by Queen’s Park to bring its books into line with current accepted accounting principles.  What this means, in practice, is that instead of shipping money off to York Region and Toronto, never to be seen again except as part of the Provincial Debt, Ontario will now own the assets purchased with those funds.  Nothing in the letter explains how those portions of projects funded by others such as Ottawa would be treated, nor what would happen with extensions of existing lines owned municipally like the Yonge-University Subway.

The assets would be depreciated over their expected lifetimes and would show up as an offset on the provincial books to the debt raised to fund them.  This is a neat bit of accounting that ignores the fact that an asset only has a real value if you could sell it and recapture your investment, but it keeps the bean counters happy and makes the books look better for the politicians.  To quote the letter:

Through retaining the risks and rewards of asset ownership over regional transportation assets, the Province can best achieve its accounting and financial management objectives.

This, of course, has nothing to do with transit and could equally refer to a hospital, a school or a highway.

There are some fine words about partnerships with the municipal governments coupled with concern about “value-for-money to taxpayers and transit customers”.  Then we get into the details.

Ontario, through Metrolinx, will own and control the Sheppard LRT, Eglinton LRT, Finch LRT, Scarborough RT and VIVA Next Bus Rapid Transit.  Ownership, from an accounting point of view, requires control and this means that Queen’s Park can’t just build the lines, they have to actually appear to manage them rather than effectively ceding them to municipalities via a long-term lease.  This does not prevent Metrolinx from contracting with local agencies for construction, operation and maintenance, but on paper, the lines remain Queen’s Park’s property, and they could be assigned to some other entity if they chose to do so.

Terms of any operating agreement would be set at 75% or less than the expected lifespan of the asset so that, in a worst case scenario, Metrolinx would regain control of a line before it was run into the ground.  A great deal of legal verbiage must be created to define the criteria to which local agencies (or any private entity) will be held by Metrolinx.  This strikes me as an opportunity for a huge bureaucratic waste of time especially if all parties involved are in the public sector.

Metrolinx will define project scope, budgets and schedules, and any changes will require their approval.  Given the total absence of political input from the municipal level to Metrolinx, these discussions will likely happen in private.  Of note is the exclusion for Metrolinx funding of ancilliary upgrades to utilities, streetscaping, etc. that are thought to be add-ons of convenience for a municipality rather than an integral part of a transit project.  It will be interesting to see what standards Metrolinx defines as the “basic” level it will fund, and how much will fall on municipal budgets.

Queen’s Park wants transit riders to “experience the benefits of a regionally integrated and inter-operable system”, and the Presto fare card will be a requirement for all of the designated lines.  In a telling comment, the Deputy Minister states:

 … the Province and Metrolinx will … monitor the evolution of technologies, and will consider how to plan for enhancements and improvements as part of an overall strategy to sustain the Presto electronic fare collection system.

“Evolution” will no doubt include a recognition that this is not a situation where Ontario should develop or adapt a proprietary technology, but should work with internationally recognized electronic payment standards and systems.  The time is long past when Ontario could get away with building “roll your own” systems, and they need to look at the extensive experience in other jurisdictions.

While Metrolinx is working on the benefits of a regional service, they will also need to address the integration of GO Transit fares and service into the wider regional system.  GO, as a separate entity, has remained aloof from regional integration except as it suits them with cost sharing arranements in 905 municipalities.  These arrangements are to GO’s advantage because the joint fares with local operators are much cheaper than the cost and development effects of building more parking at stations.

Finally, Infrastructure Ontario will act on Metrolinx’ behalf for projects that are to use Alternative Financing and Procurement (AFP).  This is a variation on a PPP in which the asset may actually be built and held by a private company and leased to Metrolinx.  The accounting fig leaves are thick on the ground here.  One way or another, Ontario borrows money, Metrolinx builds something (or has it built for them), and, likely, the local operating agency contracts to run it.

Lurking under all of this is a clear indication that it is Queen’s Park, not the Metrolinx Board of Directors, who runs the show.  To be fair, it is their money (or more accurately our money), but the opportunities for interference and sheer bureaucratic incompetence are legion.  There’s a reason transit has been in local hands for decades — the Ministry of Transportation hasn’t the first idea how to operate large systems, nor any feeling for the local issues involved.

Metrolinx itself becomes little more than a construction planning and, later, a holding company on the Province’s behalf.  This should not overly tax the skills of the new, non-political Board, for whom all of the important decisions will be made elsewhere.

Eglinton LRT Design (Part 3: Warden to Kennedy & Tunnelling Options)

This series works through the three-part presentation of the proposed Eglinton LRT design that appears on the project’s website.  Part 1 brought us east from the Airport to Black Creek, and Part 2 covered most of the remainder east to Warden.

Part 3 of the presentation deals with the short section from Warden to Kennedy as well as various construction issues, notably an alternative scheme for tunnelling.

Continue reading

Eglinton LRT Design (Part 1: Introduction & Western Segment)

My apologies to regular readers for the delay in posting news and comment on the last round of Eglinton LRT designs.  Over the next few days, I hope to catch up on this and other topics.

June 2009 brought a major round of public meetings for the Eglinton LRT complete with a detailed look at how the line would be implemented.  The display panels for the current proposals are available on the project website.

The Eglinton line is a huge project, and if it’s done right, will show off the capabilities of LRT versus other modes.  The line will be partly on the surface, partly grade separated (mainly underground), and will be a real test of fitting infrastructure appropriate to demand levels across much of the city.

The comments below follow the display panels in the order presented by the TTC to save readers from jumping back and forth to locate various topics. Continue reading

Observations from GO Niagara

Robert Wightman rode the GO service to and from Niagara Falls today (July 1), and sends the following comments.

I rode the second GO train to Niagara today — 650 passengers.  The third train ran with 270.  GO is running ten car trains so that they do not need to make and break train sets but they are only using the eight cars closest to the locomotive because St. Catharines appears to only have an eight car platform while Niagara only has a five car platform; they stop the train twice.

GO has put in proper platforms including handicap mini platform at St. Catharines and Niagara.  There is room to lengthen the Niagara platform but there is some construction going on there. It appears that they are putting in a wayside power connection at Niagara, probably for VIA.

GO has not done a Mickey Mouse job at these two stations as they have put in new platform lighting and a proper and permanent mini platform.  It appears as if GO wants to make this a permanent run.  They were running a buy-one-get-one-free promotion today so you could buy a one way ticket and use it as a return ticket.  Toronto to Niagara and return cost $15.90 instead of $35.80 on VIA.

GO pulled out all the stops as they had a GO crew and a CN crew in the engine because GO crews are not current on the Grimsby Sub.  They also had two CSA’s (Customer Service Agents or door operators,) and two or three Special Constables to make sure everything ran smoothly.  They did not check tickets in either direction on my two trains.

I was surprised at the number of people who got on both ways at St. Catharines.  Considering the amount of money that GO has put into platforms and lighting at these two stations, I bet that they will start running two trains in from Niagara in the morning and out in the afternoon sometime this fall.  The trains are in the new Lakeshore West timetable and will run on Saturdays, Sundays and Holidays until Oct. 12.  It would not cost them any new equipment but they would probably need to put in a yard at Niagara to store the trains overnight.

Number 98 the 17:25 Amtrak/VIA train to Toronto was 1h45 minutes late as US homeland security decided to check what every one on the train was exporting from the US.  It was probably a not so subtle hint to keep your vacation money in the US.  This caused a 1h05 delay to the GO train into Niagara at 18:15 as it had to wait for the Amtrack train to clear Canadian Border Security Agency check.  Amtrak/VIA did not pull into the second track even though one Niagara person who was apparently instrumental in setting up the GO excursion train said they were supposed to as part of the contingency set up for this scenario. The VIA agent said the Customs people had refused in the past to check trains on this track as they thought that it was dangerous to cross track one to get to track two even if the passengers had to do it.

I was pleasantly surprised to see how many people were riding the train. Once GO gets its operation down pat to the point where they can run three man crews this should be a money maker as well as a boon to tourism in Niagara and Toronto.  Perhaps they could consider doing this for Stratford to improve tourism there as well as getting nameless transit commentators to their hotel before they go to the theatre.

Running this type of service has a low cost to GO as the equipment is sitting around all weekend doing nothing so they do not need a large passenger volume to cover their costs.  With eight cars to carry 650 passengers the train was not crowded but it still carried enough to cover its marginal costs.

It was educational to compare the GO and the VIA Amtrak service as they loaded at Niagara.  The VIA Amtrak trains loaded about 25 people through one narrow door for about 7 minutes.  GO loaded close to 500 passenger through 10 double width doors, including a number of bicycles, in about two minutes and these were mainly people who do not ride any train normally.  VIA and Amtrak should scrap their existing equipment and replace it with something like the Bombardier bi-levels that can load and unload so much faster with their low level double width doors.

If the US security folks want to see people spending money south of the border, they should be happy to see all sorts of US goodies in travellers’ arms going back across the border to Canada.  Of course how much of that stuff was actually made in the USA and how much elsewhere is another problem.  Conflicts in operations like this need to be worked out.

It’s good to hear that the train did well on its first day although the effect of full fares needs to be seen.

As for cultural events, it’s still a pain in the butt to get to Niagara-on-the-Lake.  Stratford, for me, is a weekday jaunt.  The city would love to see GO run service there regularly and has proposed the largely vacant yard at Stratford as a GO facility, but it’s quite a jaunt west of Kitchener.

The problem on that line is that the arrival time of the morning train is now just late enough that catching a matinee isn’t a sure thing.  I doubt GO will be running midday trains that far from Toronto any day soon.