At its recent marathon meeting, the TTC considered an update on the Customer Service initiative. Thanks to two other long items (Ashbridge Carhouse and Service Cuts), the actual discussion on this report did not occur until very late in the evening. The report on the agenda contains the following recommendations:
1. Receive the attached matrix updating the status of the recommendations contained in the Customer Service Advisory Panel report, dated August 23, 2010; and
2. Approve the creation of the Customer Service Advisory Group, to include Commissioners, outside Customer Service specialists, the Chief General Manager and appropriate staff; and
3. Endorse in principle the draft Customer Service Business Plan, as detailed in the staff presentation.
[Updated February 9, 2011 at 9:50 am]
This was amended by the Commission as follows:
i) That the TTC endorse the establishment of a skill-based
Commission and work in partnership with the city on a model for the TTC.
That consideration be given to the establishment of a citizen steering committee to oversee and provide input into the model.
ii) That the Chair of the Customer Service Sub-Committee work to establish a process for citizen representatives on the Customer Service Advisory Panel.
The first staff recommendation merely updates the Commission on the area of responsibility and status within the organization for various ways in which the TTC will seek to improve itself in response to the Customer Service Advisory Panel report.
The second recommendation is notable for the absence of one group on the recommended panel: customers. To her credit, Chair Karen Stintz moved an amendment to correct this. How the representatives of customers will be selected remains to be seen.
The third recommendation is a Trojan Horse. The Business Plan to which it refers exists only in a presentation made at a busy TTC meeting, not available for review in advance, and not published since on the TTC’s website. (The failure to publish material of this nature is an ongoing problem with the TTC’s site as compared to the City’s site where presentations generally appear before, concurrently with or at worst shortly after the meetings at which they are seen.)
Indeed, this is not a “business plan” in the sense that it might give an overview of how the many hoped-for improvements for the TTC’s business would be implemented. Instead it is a grab-bag of projects, many of which have little to do with short-to-medium term customer service or satisfaction, or with the original Advisory Panel’s report, and a decidedly thin attention to customer-related issues.
Commissioner Minnan-Wong favoured approval of only the first two recommendations, but lost out to the Chair’s position that the whole package should go forward. This was a mistake, and I can only hope that we are not told in a few months that the more dubious initiatives have now been “approved in principle”.
There are good points within the whole, but they are drowned by the presence of projects that have no business in this plan. I cannot help being reminded of the perversion of the Ridership Growth Strategy (a scheme for low-cost, short-term improvements) by amendment to insert subway construction to keep management happy.
Let’s have a look under the covers at this presentation and plan.
A good sense of its relative priorities can be seen in its table of contents:
(p4) Customer Pledge
(p6) Major Aspects of Plan
(p7) Service Quality Projects
(p8) Subway Capacity and Reliability Projects
(p14) Toronto Rocket Trains
(p19) Automatic Train Control Signalling
(p23) Platform Edge Doors
(p27) Station Managers
(p34) Elevating Device Reliability Project
(p35) Device Monitoring
(p36) Overhaul Program
(p39) Station Cleanliness Project
(p45) Street Supervisor Plan
(p53) Workforce Training
(p55) Convenient and Reliable Ticketing
(p55) Open Communication
(p58) Customer Safety and Security
Notable about this list is the length of time it takes to get to “communication”, and the presence of projects, some yet to be approved, with long lead times and high costs, notably the Platform Edge Doors. What appears to be happening with this “approval in principle” is that the TTC is embarked on a plan to spend a lot of money under the rubric of “Customer Service”, just as much is now swept up in the general term “State of Good Repair” in the Capital Budget.
The “Customer Pledge” has five aspects. Four of these relate to reliability and punctuality of vehicles, elevators, escalators and ticket machines, and the fifth is cleanliness of stations and vehicles. Absent is any mention of the interaction between the TTC either at an organizational or individual level with its customers. This shows how far the goals have drifted from the hopes of the Advisory Panel’s report.
Metrics for the Customer Pledge
The TTC seeks to have 99% of the service it schedules actually on the street, as opposed to cancelled thanks to equipment failure or lack of operators. That’s a tall order especially on a system depending on overtime to fill many pieces of rush hour work. Considering that the much-revised 2011 budget includes a hiring freeze and a cutback on overtime, getting to 99% of scheduled service will be a challenge.
On time performance (defined as being within 3 minutes of schedule) would be improved from 90 to 99% for the subway, and from 55 to 70% for surface routes. There is no word on what would be done for headway reliability for the 30% of the time that service is not running “on time”. It’s a rather sad admission to see that surface routes are “on time” only slightly more than half of the time today. On time performance is, of course, even harder to maintain when some of the service is missing (see paragraph above).
Subway train reliability will be improved by increasing km/delay by 75% (from 34k to 135k) for delays greater than 5 minutes, and by 75% (from 494k to 1,977k) for delays over 20 minutes. This is quite a goal when one considers that half of the fleet is already the T1 cars that are supposed to be wondrously reliable, and a further improvement is expected for the TRs (claimed to be 10x more reliable than the existing fleet). Notwithstanding these goals, the projected spare ratio for both types of car is 13% in the 2011 fleet plan.
Escalator and elevator reliability is to be improved from “TBD” (there is no metric currently) to 99%. Those of us who watch for months while machines sit idle look forward to this change, but must ask if it is possible, why it isn’t accomplished today. Moreover, cuts in funding for planned changes in escalator mechanic skills will mean the benefit of more flexible use of the workforce will be lost.
Finally, stations cleanliness will be improved to a rating of 75% from 68% based on a quarterly audit of conditions, and 99% of vehicles will be cleaned inside daily and outside weekly. No figure is given for the current frequency of cleaning, although there has been mention in other presentations that the TTC will start tracking vehicle cleanliness in 2011.
Major Aspects of the Plan
This page consolidates info from the preceding section, but adds three major items:
- increasing subway capacity by 40%,
- separation of platform and track as a customer safety measure, and
- increased customer care.
While the first two may be justifiable in their own right, they are hardly part of a customer service plan, especially one which should see benefits in a few years, not decades.
Finally we see a reference to looking after customers, a topic that includes Station Managers, Street Supervisors and Communications.
The goal, as shown here, is that any capital improvements would be done during routine renewal of facilities at end-of-life (vehicle replacement, station renovation), while operating improvements would be achieved with staff reallocation. On the capital side, this suggests that customers will wait a very long time for some improvements given the long lifespan of facilities and vehicles. On the operating side, the statement does not align with proposed increases in staff levels included in the 2011 budget.
Subway Capacity and Reliability Projects
At this point, we have left what most people think of as “customer service” behind, and turned to a collection of projects aimed at increasing the subway’s capacity. This is a set of expensive, long-term projects including:
- Toronto Rocket (TR) trains
- Automatic train control (ATC) and signalling
- Platform edge doors (PEDs)
Also included in the list are the Station Managers, although their contribution to capacity will be limited by whatever service is actually running on the tracks.
The Subway Fleet Plan (to be covered in a separate article) foresees a shift so that the Yonge-University-Spadina line is entirely served by TR trains, and all of the T1 trains move to the Bloor-Danforth line. An immediate increase of 10% capacity is provided by the “gangway” layout of the TRs whose interiors are one continuous space. This will be immediately consumed simply absorbing the current capacity backlog of 10% on the YUS. Given that the changeover won’t be complete for several years, we will actually be worse off when riding growth in the interim is considered.
The TTC looks to increase service from 26 trains/hour currently (2’18” headway) to 35/hour (1’43”) for forecast demand in 2030. This is impossible without four operational changes:
- moving block signalling to allow trains to run closer together safely
- shorter dwell times at major stations
- improved turnaround times at terminals
- more trains
The signal system on the YUS is being replaced with a target completion for the Spadina Subway Extension opening in late 2015. At that point, only TR equipment equipped for ATC will serve the line, and this will mark a transition to moving block signalling. Shorter dwell times can only be achieved if platform congestion is reduced by better balancing the capacity supplied by the trains with demand on the platforms. Major transfer stations are a particular problem because passengers flow in two directions at once, and the platforms require capacity both for those leaving and those wanting to board.
In this context, the TTC advocates PEDs for better crowd control and safety at stations, but it is unclear how this will actually increase line capacity under crush conditions. PEDs require automatic operation and accurate positioning of trains at platforms, and therefore cannot be implemented before the new signal system and ATC are in place.
The YUS fleet will build up to 80 trainsets by 2015 when the Spadina extension opens. These trains require maintenance yards, and operational planning has recently identified problems simply getting this large number of trains onto the line at start of service. More carhouse and yard space is needed, and a new subway yard is almost certainly in our future.
Terminal operations are not mentioned in the presentation, but as I have already discussed in previous articles here, the track layouts at existing terminals cannot handle a 105 second headway. This is not a matter of automation, but of physics. Trains that are 138m long take time to move through terminal crossovers at speeds appropriate for safety (anticipating stopping at the platform) and passenger comfort (transition through curving switches). Short turn operations during peak periods can eliminate terminal constraints, but they also create a need for sprightly handling of trains at the turnback point.
All of this will consume a great deal of capital and will increase future operating costs, but won’t deliver much in “customer service” for many years. Indeed, we have yet to see a business case establishing that the system-wide $1-billion cost of PEDs can be justified versus other possible system improvements. Current plans call for PEDs between Bloor and St. George Stations (the busy downtown “U”) by 2015, but installation on the remainder of the YUS won’t even start until after 2020. On the BD line, PEDs are in the distant future following its conversion to ATC in the mid 2020s.
The idea of having “station managers” has been around since Howard Moscoe chaired the TTC, and it is finally creeping into reality, subject to possible budget cuts.
The concept is to have a “team leader” for stations who has responsibility for facilities and services now delivered by separate departments, as well as for crowd and emergency management. A station is not an escalator, or a platform, or a turnstile, or a collector’s booth — it is the service provided to the public by all of these and more. Far too many of these “services” seem to languish while everyone waits for “someone else” to fix them.
The eventual goal is to have a “Day Team” and an “Evening Team” of Manager, Collector, Custodian and Equipment Maintenance who would be consistent at their sites, learn their stations, and work together to keep them in good shape. However, the initial rollout was planned for mid-October with 8 station managers on the day shift from 6:30am to 2:30pm weekdays. They would be located at the downtown stations on the lower “U” of the YUS.
The program would gradually expand to both shifts, then to the full YUS and Sheppard lines, BD and the SRT at dates to be determined. A footnote to the rollout chart states that workforce requirements would be reduced by realignment of Collector Supervisor and Janitor Foreperson positions, but this does not show what proportion of the eventual 200-strong station manager group would be staffed this way, nor the comparative cost of the positions.
The first part of this project is the addition of remote monitoring to the escalators and elevators in the system. The idea is to (a) know that a machine is not working and (b) know what has failed so that a repair team can arrive properly equipped. Over time, this should yield stats about the frequency and type of breakdowns, as well as leading to prompter repairs.
It is unclear from this presentation whether Station Managers will be able to restart escalators that have been stopped manually (as opposed to an equipment problem or garbage jammed in the works).
Escalator overhauls are a major annoyance because they take equipment out of service for an extended period. The majority of the fleet (189 of 295 escalators) are Montgomery machines and the number overhauled per year will double in 2012 compared with 2011 (to 10). A program has been underway since 2009 to reduce the number of escalators out of service at the same time, and in 2011 this should be down to 1. The length of time for a 25-year overhaul will be reduced from 17 weeks (2009), to 9 (2011) and eventually to 4-6 weeks (2012). This depends on moving from 1 shift, 4 days/week to 2 shifts, 7 days/week with appropriate changes in staffing.
This section is silent on elevator outages and repairs.
It is also silent on the relationship between system accessibility and the reliability of escalators and elevators. If the TTC really does expect to shift riding from Wheel Trans to the conventional system, then elevating devices must be reliably available almost all of the time. Random shutdowns simply will not be tolerable, and could invite complaints that the TTC was not taking its duty for accessibility seriously.
The TTC has been trying to get its cleanliness up to a standard of 75% as measured on an industry-standard scale and externally audited. 100% on this scale is spotless, and 75% is somewhat below that level. However it is well above the 59% rating achieved in February 2008 when this program started, and better than the 68% mark achieved in September 2010. To this point, the improvements have come with no additional workers, only with “revised work scheduling and supervision”. Hmmm. One can read a lot into that statement, and it is an implicit admission that the existing staff were, to be generous, poorly deployed and managed.
As of September 2010, 4 stations still ranked below 60% and 39 were in the 60-70% range. This is offset by 27 comparatively pristine stations ranking 70-80%. What is missing is a breakdown of the locations achieving each ranking, and the effort required for various locations to reach an acceptable level. It is worthless if, say, Bloor-Yonge languishes in the 50s only to be offset by the little-used Bessarion.
Starting in 2010, new positions were proposed to provide for specific targets in station cleanliness. Whether these will actually show up as hires, notwithstanding Mayor Ford’s desire that Toronto have the cleanest subway stations in North America, remains to be seen.
- 2010: 5 new positions to clean escalators of debris to reduce unscheduled outages
- 2011: 32 temporary positions for a cleaning blitz to bring the system up to a higher average standard
- 2012: 23 new positions for general janitorial services
- 2013: 29 new positions for general janitorial services and washroom cleaning
I am sure there will be a heated discussion about deployment of the new staff and whether they are all required to provide the desired level of service throughout the system.
Street Supervisor Plan
A new term, “Balanced Route Management”, has entered the TTC lexicon. The premise is that a combination of central control, on-street supervision and roving supervisors for emergencies will give more effective overall route management. This will translate into better service regulation, more even headways, less crowding and short turns and friendlier, less-stressed operators and passengers.
We will see. A proposed addition of 17 supervisors was cut from the 2011 budget, and it is unclear when or if we will see more on street management. A related requirement is the rollout of units for supervisors to access route management data online so that they have a better sense of how their service is actually operating. I cannot also help observing that pairs of supervisors, nominally assigned to different parts of a route, might be more effective if they did not spend their time at the same location as is too often seen on downtown routes.
The buildup in service during the past decade was not matched by a corresponding increase in route supervision. Indeed, the number of supervisors went down from 146 to 136 while the number of operators went up from 2880 to 3813. The TTC’s plan would barely return to the former ratio by 2014, and with the 2011 cuts, this is now unlikely.
Better service management, keeping vehicles properly spaced, evening out loads, and minimizing short-turns if possible allows the provision of more service capacity with the same vehicles. A pair of buses, one jammed and one empty, is only two half-full buses on average. It will never be possible to get spacings exact, but more needs to be done to correct for bunching.
In a trial on the 7 Bathurst and 29 Dufferin routes beginning in April 2009, additional supervisors were assigned to manage these routes at the street level. This brought:
- less bunching and gaps
- a reduction of short turns by about 9%
- 20% reduction of collisions, assaults and on-board injuries (presumably due to less stress between staff and passengers, and safer driving)
- better operator compliance with various rules including speeding and the use of cell phones
- a 39% reduction in complaints.
This is an impressive accomplishment, although some riders will point out that both of these routes still suffer from erratic service. Possibly it is less erratic. There is a definite benefit if these improvements are real and can be reproduced system-wide. Budget cuts may get in the way.
Refresher courses for bus operators are given every 5 years, and this was supposed to be reduced to every 3 to match the standard for rail operators. However, budgets once again get in the way.
I must ask, however, if goals of improved relationships with customers have to wait for the entire workforce to cycle through a training program rather than establishing standards for the system and plucking the bad apples. “Safety, Courtesy and Service”, the TTC’s motto, should not await a refresher course.
Convenient and Reliable Ticketing
This gets one page in the presentation with a note that there will be a direction chosen for Smart Cards and/or Open Payment in 2011.
2011 should see the rollout of Delay Information Screens at major in station lobbies so that passengers will know what is going on as they enter the network, and staff are aware of issues that could affect recommendations about routes riders might take.
There will be a review of the system used to track complaints, and a customer survey.
Under the heading of “Image/Brand Improvement”, the TTC will attempt to explain why they take the actions they do under various circumstances. Whether this will be anything more than self-justification so common in past exercises remains to be seen. Obviously, “what they do” is influenced by “how they manage” which, in turn, brings us to adequate management staffing, tools, and the will to improve the system, not simply grouse about traffic congestion at every opportunity.
There are plans for improve Way Finding including signs, maps and posters. Hmmm. Maps. Haven’t we been down this path before? Given the TTC’s resistance to criticism of their existing way finding, I am not holding my breath for much improvement in this area.
Customer Safety and Security
We will see more cameras in stations and vehicles in coming years, and once again we see those Platform Edge Doors listed as an improvement.
Finally, we come to the Chief Customer Service Officer whose hiring is planned for March 2011, and the formation of a Customer Service Advisory Group.
I will be intrigued to see who is chosen and how well, if at all, they will operate within the closed TTC culture. The proposal that the Advisory Group be devoid of customers shows just how hard a battle anyone hoping to represent their interests will have.
If you are still with me, congratulations!
The title of this piece includes the word “hijack”, and I do not think that is too strong a description. Rather than concentrating on how we can make the TTC better for riders today, this year and next, a great deal of the “business plan” is a rehash of expensive, long-term projects related mainly to subway capacity. It’s almost as if TTC subway management needs to be reassured at every opportunity that we haven’t forgotten them.
Whether this is a “plan” or even good “business” is very hard to tell because so much is missing. There is no budgetary projection of costs over time and no evaluation of the benefit (by whatever metric you might choose) of the various initiatives.
When transit is pinching pennies at every turn, Toronto deserve better work than this so that we can spend our money wisely and with clear expectations of improvement.