Follow That Car! (Updated)

Updated November 30, 2010 at 4:00 pm:

  • NextBus links added
  • Information about the Open Data interface added

Original post below:

With the advent of an Open Data interface to vehicle tracking information, there are now two websites providing real-time information about TTC streetcar routes (and a few bus routes) in addition to the official, but not well publicised, NextBus site.

This post is intended as a repository for information on these applications.  If anyone develops a new one, please let me know, and I will update info here.

George Bell’s Site

George’s site began using historic tracking data for individual routes that was supplied to me by the TTC for my route analyses.  Originally, the site allowed you to play back an individual day’s operation on a route to watch how it actually behaved.  This function remains in place along with real time views of the data posted through the Open Data interface.

Currently, this includes all streetcar routes as well as the Bathurst and Dufferin buses.  By default, all routes are shown, but you can select an individual route.  There is no filtering in either the historic or real time views, and the odd vehicle can be found in the middle of Lake Ontario or the wilds of Caledon when its GPS gets confused.  As I write thi, bus 1401 appears to be moored just south of the international border in what would otherwise be Scarborough if that mighty burg had territorial ambitions.

There are many available controls and I leave it to readers to play with the site.  Note that it tends to be rather CPU and bandwidth heavy for those who might be contemplating access from a mobile device.

And, yes, the URL is really “” for fans of the Swedish Chef.

James Agnew’s “Where is my Streetcar

This site, developed with contributions from Mike Humphrey and Dennis Yip, consolidates mapping and arrival projection information from NextBus in one package.  You can pick specific stops as points of interest to see what service will arrive, but the site will remember your favourites and offer them as easy clicks to save on navigation.

The map displaying the route will adjust to display that part of the city where the route lies.  Agnew and Co. may only be “programmers, not artists”, but conveniences like this are what make a good app.

Visit their “About” page for background info.


The official repository for TTC vehicle locations and predictions is NextBus.  This system, whose software shop is based in west downtown Toronto, provides the arrival predictions available by SMS message (using stop identifiers texted to a standard TTC number) and by web.

The TTC does not advertise the availability of vehicle predictions via web, and this is a really big shame because it is a very useful service that is not a big consumer of mobile bandwidth.

To access this function, you must visit and navigate through the list of locations down to the TTC.  If your browser supports cookies, NextBus will remember where you have been and will go directly to your recent query on your next visit.  Otherwise, bookmark the displays you will use commonly, and use any of them as a jumping off point for your next visit.

For example, I often transfer from the 501 to the 504 eastbound at Queen and Broadview.  Once I drilled down to the display for this service, I bookmarked it and can now quickly obtain next vehicle info.  The display refreshes, a nice touch for those cold winter nights when the King car is somewhere out of sight beyond the Don Bridge.

You can get from whatever display you are on to another direction, route and stop with a few clicks.

This site can also be used creatively to get a feel for the degree of bunching or location of gaps by jumping around a route and seeing what predictions look like at various locations.

Full route displays are available, but links to them are not provided.  Here is a link to the King car’s map.  A menu allows you to select multiple routes for display, handy for situations where service is provided by more than one route on the same street.

These two services — predictions and the maps — are not advertised by nor linked to by the TTC, but are easily the best part of the NextBus site.

While you’re there, you can watch the transit service in San Francisco, among other places.

Updated Nov 30, 2010:

A simplified interface to NextBus is available at their Webkit page.  There is also a barebones mobile interface.  The webkit page is better.

Toronto’s Open Data Initiative

The TTC’s Next Vehicle Arrival System data are available online from NextBus.  The data feeds include:

  • A list of supported transit agencies
  • A list of routes within an agency
  • A list of stops within a route
  • Predictions for service at one or more stops
  • A list of changes in vehicle locations

These interfaces are intended for application developers.

Three Views of Customer Service

Customer Service was a big issue in Toronto’s transit discussions over the past year.  Transit touches a wide group of users, and even those who drive listen to horror stories about bad transit trips if only to reinforce their own choice.  “Choice” is an important word for transit, and as with any business, customers are hard-won and easily lost.  The “product” isn’t just “getting there”, but doing so dependably in reasonable comfort.  Everyone knows that real products often fail to live up to the glossy brochure, and the beautiful merchandise in the shop window or online may not match personal experience.

Three different reactions were published in past months, and the contrast between them says a lot about their origins.

  • TTC’s Customer Service Advisory Panel produced a long, if not particularly well-edited report full of recommendations, but ending with an injunction to riders that they should mind their P’s & Q’s if they expect good service.
  • GO Transit announced its Passenger Charter, a much simpler set of goals developed in cooperation with GO’s Customer Service Advisory Committee and employees.  This charter is supported by a number of web pages where riders can track GO’s delivery of what it has promised.
  • The RCCAO (Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario) funded a report by Dr. Richard Soberman which recommends, among other things, a strong customer service focus in the provision of transit.

Continue reading

Forged in Steel

Over the past week, CBC’s Metro Morning looked at the relationship between Toronto and its streetcars, its transit system and the Provincial GO/Metrolinx system.

On Monday, Nov. 22, Matt Galloway spoke with a retired streetcar operator about the problems of sharing the road.

Mary Wiens’ series began on Nov. 23:

  1. Should we get rid of streetcars?
  2. What will the new streetcar fleet bring us?
  3. Crusty old engineer Ed Levy talks about a city that’s great at doing studies, but not so good at building.
  4. Leslie Woo talks about the relationship between Metrolinx and the TTC, briefly mentioning Transit City, but says nothing definitive (this episode will be available sometime on Nov. 26)

Little in these pieces will be new to regular readers here, but I wanted to alert those who don’t listen to Metro Morning (or are outside of its territory) of how Toronto’s top-rated morning show is handling this issue.

Streetcar routes are on the front line of a much bigger problem of improving transit service.  At a time when the political winds are shifting behind those who drive, and for whom transit is a necessary but expensive service used by others, the evolution of support for real transit improvements will be interesting to watch.

LRT For Toronto

Royson James has a pair of columns in the Toronto Star discussing the perennial LRT vs subway transit debates.

City needs a transit lesson (Nov. 17, 2010)

Commuters won’t fill LRTs, much less subways (Nov. 19, 2010)

James sets out the pros and cons without becoming mired in either side’s arguments.  As with any overview, there are points for or against either technology that are not made with the vigour that advocates would prefer.  The important issue, however, is not to choose one technology to the exclusion of the other, but to look at the appropriate one for each implementation.

One critical issue — regardless of which side one might be on — is the matter of land use and how the evolution of Toronto will affect demand on routes and the overall network.  There are two fundamentally different views of of future development — the Official Plan’s “Avenues” with major streets lined by mid-rise buildings and shops giving an active pedestrian environment at ground level, or the more traditional “tower in a park” design that has shaped much of Toronto’s growth since the 1960s.  A third variant has appeared over the past decade — both tall and dense, as exemplified by the railway lands, parts of Liberty Village and most recently the Queen West Triangle (Queen & Dovercourt).

Each of these produces transit demands which vary both due to the built form and to the neighbourhood in which development occurs.  A building located in an existing walkable neighbourhood with shops and transit will have very different transportation demands than the same building located on a suburban arterial where the nearest shop is the mall a short drive or a lonely, windy walk away.

The perennial myth about subways is that their high capacity will be consumed by redevelopment around stations.  This is utter hogwash.  The Yonge line is full well north of Eglinton not with Willowdale condo dwellers, but with traffic fed in on surface routes.  Developments along the line add to the demand, but the subway exists to serve a much wider catchment area.  Similarly, the BD subway depends on feeder services to many stations, and the decades-long absence of nearby development did not prevent the buildup of demand eastbound from Etobicoke or westbound from Scarborough.

LRT lies somewhere in between by serving both busy “local” corridors and, in some cases, acting almost like a subway in speed, if not capacity.  We must remember that the SRT would have been an LRT line (and to Malvern too, decades ago) but for Queen’s Park’s intervention with the ICTS technology.  Regardless of technology, it is a medium capacity line whose principal function is to feed the BD subway at Kennedy and, much more recently, to serve the high-density residential development at Scarborough Town Centre, developments that did not occur until decades after the SRT opened.

In many ways, LRT has always been a misunderstood, orphan technology in Toronto.  Some within the TTC have never accepted the retention of streetcars, much less the creation of an LRT alternative to full-blown subway construction.  At a time when LRT was coming back into favour around the world, Toronto pursued ICTS and lost the chance to show what real LRT could do.  At more than double the cost of the LRT proposal, ICTS “proved” that there was no cheap way to implement transit lines, and system expansion stalled.  The TTC did nothing to advance the LRT alternative.

Spadina, Harbourfront and St. Clair are really not LRT, but rather upgraded streetcar lines.  That statement brings me to a common question:  what’s the difference between streetcars, LRT and “Heavy Rapid Transit” (or HRT)?  Everyone knows what subways, streetcars and buses are, but things get mushy in the space between them.

The boundary between HRT and LRT is fairly straightforward:  if the technology cannot run at grade in medians or crossing streets and walkways, then it’s HRT regardless of what vehicle actually operates on the structure.  There can be “light” railways such as the SRT, or full-blown subways, but in either case the lines are confined to an exclusive right-of-way.  This imposes costs and complexities wherever they are built.

The boundary between LRT and streetcar is not as clear-cut.  How exclusive is the right-of-way?  How much mixed-traffic operation does a route have?  How aggressive is the traffic signal priority?  Do passengers board through all doors?  How far apart are the stations?  How long are the vehicles or trains?  All of these issues and more produce a range of answers, and there is no magic point at which a light blinks on “LRT”.  That’s the strength of the technology — LRT does not have to be the same thing all the time on every metre of a route or a network.  The challenge is to strike a balance between the “light” and “rapid” parts of the name — exclusivity and speed versus the footprint a line can have in a street and neighbourhood.

The term “LRT” has been oversold in Toronto.  We have never seen something in the style of other Canadian LRT implementations in Edmonton or Calgary.  We lost that chance when the Scarborough LRT became the “RT”.  It’s still dubious whether we will see that route incorporated into an LRT network, or swallowed by a subway extension.

Toronto’s “LRT” routes run through downtown areas with frequent cross-streets where traffic signals grudgingly give priority to transit (but just as often serve to delay it).  They have slow on-board fare collection with high-floor cars and low-floor platforms.  They suffer a planning context where transit must fight to be acknowledged.

There is only so much road space and money to go around.  Subways make for flashy announcements and lots of work for the construction industry, but endless waits by riders whose trips are not served by the most recent subway extension. LRT lines (and busways while we’re on the subject) take space that would otherwise be used by motorists.  On some arterials, this space is available, but on many it is not (even VIVA’s BRT network is constrained in places by a narrow right-of-way).

LRT advocates have an uphill battle because Toronto’s version of this technology pleases few.  St. Clair was a disaster for “LRT” (and for transit in general) — there were too many design tradeoffs and construction was appallingly mismanaged.  Operations have improved over “the old days”, but still depend on keen route supervisors who actually manage the service rather than letting cars roam back and forth in packs taking generous layovers at terminals.  We may be rid of traffic congestion, but not the infamous TTC culture.

The political climate may shift back to one where we make announcements to appear to be “doing something”, even if that won’t bear fruit for a decade or more.  Such plans will serve only small parts of the GTA when finished (if ever), we will have yet another “lost generation” of transit investment.  Decisions about how to build, where to build, what to build are difficult and need more than an endless supply of magic markers, maps and press kits.

We have seen how a proposed LRT network suffered from funding cutbacks.  Major new revenue streams (tolls, regional taxes) cannot be implemented in the current political climate without a huge fight and an expenditure of political capital nobody seems willing to make today.

“The Big Move” could turn out to be little more than a modest expansion of GO Transit, busways, and a few rail lines of indeterminate technology within Toronto.  That’s not a network, and certainly not a recipe for convincing people that transit can offer an alternative to driving.  The challenge is to find a plan, a network, a quality of transit service that people are willing to pay for, however the money is raised.

LRT has a role as do full-blown subways and busways with each fitting into the mix under the right circumstances.  Advocates would do well to focus on the strength of each technology rather than trying to justify a full network of one option.  The goal is to improve and expand transit, not to prove that my subway is better than your streetcar.


Within James’ second article, the TTC is quoted as saying that ridership on the King car is 1,800 per hour.  It’s worth noting that the AM peak service is 30 cars/hour of which 7 trips are served by ALRVs.  The TTC’s service design capacity is 74 for CLRVs and 108 for ALRVs, and this gives a total for the route of about 2,450.  Crush capacity is higher.  A common complaint from riders is that they cannot get on, and this suggests that the demand cited by the TTC is rather lower than the actual level.

GO Electrification & Air Rail Link Updates (Update 2)

Updated Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 5:10 pm: Metrolinx today announced that it will be ordering DMUs from Sumitomo, piggy backing on the Sonoma-Marin order.  The statement, which is available in full on the Metrolinx site, includes:

Metrolinx will be entering into formal negotiations with Sumitomo Corporation of America to exercise an option from the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (California) procurement contract to purchase up to eighteen (18) highly efficient Diesel Multiple Units (DMU’s). These vehicles will meet stringent Tier 4 emissions standards and will be convertible to electric for the Air Rail Link.

Updated Sunday, November 14, 2010 at 3:30 pm: Information on the proposed Sonoma-Marin “SMART” Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) acquisition has been linked from this article and the price per unit cited by me in the original text has been corrected.  See the section on the ARL for updates.

The original article (as amended) from November 12 follows below.

On Tuesday, November 16, the Metrolinx Board will receive updates on the GO Transit Electrification Study and on the status of the Air Rail Link to Pearson from Union Station.

The Electrification Study has been underway through 2010 and it has produced a number of background reports.  I will leave the truly keen readers to plough through all of this, but a few high points deserve mention.

  • Electric locomotives are the most cost-effective option for GO services
  • The most value-for-money comes from electrifying entire corridors

That electric operations are better for GO is no surprise to anyone who has watched the growth of electric railways worldwide.  Sadly, GO has decades of saying “no” to electrics on the grounds that investment in better service trumped investment in technology at the service levels then in effect.  With the proposals found in The Big Move, this position is no longer valid.

The study workshops have seen vigourous debate on the issue of locomotives vs a fleet of electric multiple units (EMUs).  It is cheaper to haul longer trains of coaches with one electric locomotive than to power each car in a train.  However, this places a limitation on acceleration and speed between stations because the locomotive must do all of the work.  (Only the locomotive’s wheels provide the power for acceleration, and there are limits to the forces that can be transmitted in this manner.)

The finding that full corridor electrification is most cost-effective comes from the high cost of dual-mode locomotives and the operational constraints that would probably exist if only some units had this capability.  Only trains with “off-wire” capability could be dispatched to outer, peak-only parts of corridors.  The study does not review a configuration with a mix of pure diesel-hauled trains with electric trains, although these would have effectively the same operational constraints.

Continue reading

Who Goes First?

At its Board Meeting on November 16, Metrolinx will receive a presentation on “Project Prioritization”.

Some time ago, Metrolinx produced The Big Move, the regional plan for the GTA.  This contained many projects.  A few of these had an early launch, and some (“The Big Five”) will roll out over the next ten years.  Originally they were going to roll rather faster, but the economic downturn cut Queen’s Park’s ability to finance a large transit network without new sources of revenue.

We’re sitting at a chicken-and-egg debate right now.  Originally, the idea was to get major projects up and running quickly to show what transit could do, and to use this as a springboard for seeking new funding such as tolls or tax increases.  The problem now is that we need the new revenue before most of the showcase lines will actually open.

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GO Transit Announces Rail Service to Kitchener-Waterloo (Updated)

GO Transit has announced that effective late in 2011 they will begin operation of two trains each way on weekdays to Kitchener-Waterloo stopping at Guelph and Acton.

No details of train times nor of overall service levels in the Georgetown Corridor are mentioned in the press release other than that this will be an improvement to current service.

The press release states that the storage facility will be “in Kitchener”.  GO Transit has clarified this as follows:

The temporary train layover facility will be located north of Victoria Street South, between Park Street and King Street West, in Kitchener and will include storage for two 12-car trains, crew and electrical trailers, fencing, and lighting.

The facility will be used until the permanent one is built at Nafziger Road in Baden.

The Future of Streetcars in Toronto

Correction Nov. 7, 2010: An error in the spreadsheet calculating the number of vehicles required for 501 Queen in 2020 (either Flexity streetcar or replacement bus) caused these numbers to be understated.  I have replaced the spreadsheets and modified the text in the article where appropriate.

The election of Rob Ford as Mayor of Toronto brought deep concerns to many about the future of transit as witnessed in the comment threads elsewhere on this site.  Much of this focussed on the existing streetcar network and the planned Transit City lines, but transit as a whole is a larger issue.

This article is not intended as the definitive defense of streetcars.  Indeed, the whole idea of “defending” them starts from a negative perception.  The challenge for those of us who see a future for streetcars and LRT is to advocate for them, for the role they can play in decades to come.  We also have to be honest about the tradeoffs.  No technology — buses, trolley buses, streetcars, LRT, subways, gondolas, dirigibles, even swan boats — is without its problems and limitations.  Pretending that any one of them is “the answer” is hopelessly shortsighted regardless of which one you might prefer.

The election brought a great deal of what I will politely call bovine effluent to the debate on the transit system, and many vital issues were simply ignored.  Nobody talked about fares, only about the technology to collect them.  Rapid transit networks were conceived to fit within funding that candidates thought could be available, rather than starting with the question “what do we need” and then addressing the cost and implementation.  Regional transit was ignored, except for occasional hopes that Metrolinx, that bastion of clear-headed thinking and far-reaching financial planning, would take at least part of the TTC off of our hands.

Transit City was the heart of much debate.  Whether your platform was “more of the same” or “Miller’s plans must be garbage”, campaigns ignored the fact that transit is much more than Transit City.

Continue reading

Service Changes for November/December 2010 & January 2011

There are few changes in service planned for the remainder of 2010, but many improvements for January 2011.

Continuing riding increases on the TTC network will pose an early problem for the new Commission in that these service improvements are driven by loading standards.  If the Commission wishes to save money by reducing (worsening) the standard, then it will have to answer to riders for the effect this will have.  Service is the only thing that the TTC has to sell, and cutbacks, as we have seen before, are counterproductive.

Service on the 28A Davisville to Brick Works which operates only on Saturdays was planned to be dropped in October, but will continue operation through the winter to serve ongoing weekend activities at the Don Valley Brick Works.

Effective Sunday, November 21:

501 Queen: Weekend bus replacement from Dundas West Station to Long Branch will end, and streetcar service will resume 7 days/week west of Roncesvalles.

504 King Shuttle: The weekend shuttle service on Roncesvalles will revert to the weekday routing as through operation with the 501 shuttle will not be required.

49 Bloor West: Early morning service on Saturday will change from every 20 to every 24 minutes to improve reliability.  The average load will rise from 27 to 32 which remains below the service standard of 38.

145 Humber Bay Express: The Park Lawn short turn service will be extended to Mimico Avenue and Royal York to reach customers on Lake Shore west of Park Lawn.  There are no additional trips, but schedules will be adjusted to reflect the extra mileage and actual operating conditions on the route.

39 Finch East and 199 Finch Rocket: Early evening running times on weekdays will be increased to reflect actual operating conditions.

Standby buses scheduled at various divisions will be revised to reflect the additional need for service on weekends before Christmas.  Offsetting reductions will occur on weekday peak standbys.

165 Weston Road North: Seasonal service to Canada’s Wonderland ends.

Effective December 19, 2010:

504 King: Service will return to Roncesvalles Avenue.  The schedules to be operated are identical to those in effect in May 2009, and these will stay in effect until the January 2, 2011 schedule period when weekend service improvements that were made in September 2009 will also be included.

2010.12.19 King Service Comparison

Effective January 2, 2011:

Riding increases on many routes trigger additional service as shown in the table linked below.

2011.01.02 Service Changes

The Steeles East route will be extended into Morningside Heights.

2011.01.02 Steeles East Map