TTC CEO Andy Byford’s Youtube apology for subway service fiascos on March 18 stirred a lot of interest, along with an interview on CBC’s Metro Morning. This will no doubt continue at a town hall meeting tonight (which I cannot attend due to scheduling conflicts).
Monday afternoon’s peak was not a good one for TTC subway service:
- 5:16 Trains holding for smoke at track level at Eglinton Station (cleared 5:31)
- 5:25 Trains holding for smoke at track level at Keele Station (cleared 5:33)
- 5:58 Power cut at Dupont halting service from St. George to St. Clair West. Train doors opened in the tunnel. 24 minute delay
The times shown for the smoke delays are from timestamps on TTC e-Alerts, and the actual duration of the delay was probably longer. We know from Byford’s comments that there were a few passenger assistance alarms from people requiring medical assistance, but these never showed up as official alerts to riders.
The TTC’s daily measurement of service punctuality for the Yonge line fell to 93%, below the target of 96%. This is an all-day average of performance at many places on the line, and it takes a big upheaval in service to make a dent in the considerable amount of more-or-less punctual service rating for the line as a whole. The index has never been known to fall below 90%.
The delays were only part of the regular menu of service disruptions including mechanical failures of trains, track and signal problems, weather, security incidents, not to mention suicides. Running a well-behaved service can be quite challenging. One of those challenges is to simply keep people informed about what is going on when multiple delays interact to foul up service, and info about what is left running changes from moment to moment.
Seeing Andy Byford there on YouTube with his mea culpa is a nice touch, but there is a limit to how many of these the TTC can issue before riders simply say “oh no, not again”. The TTC’s new Customer Charter commits the organization to improvement, but the message coming through loud and clear at public meetings is “show me”.
Monday’s events highlight some obvious issues for managing complex events, but they also raise questions about how much we can reasonably expect of the transit system.
The incident with the doors opening on a train between stations was a matter of human error by the Guard who inexplicably opened them when the train was stopped north of Dupont Station at a red signal. Automatic Train Control could have prevented this, but that’s years away and, fortunately, this sort of incident is extremely rare. The TRs will only open their doors when the train is stopped, and indeed the sensing associated with this feature is part of the extra delay time when trains arrive at stations.
Updated Mar 21:
There has been another incident of train staff accidentally opening doors in the tunnel as reported today by the CBC.
Any incident like this, and including fires or smoke, requires a power cut and affects service in both directions, whereas an ill passenger, most of the time, holds up service only one way for a brief time while they are assisted off of the train.
However, there are a lot of incidents, and each of them adds to discontent among the affected riders. Even if someone only encounters a major delay once or twice a month, that’s the experience they remember and tell their friends about. What’s more, if the system cannot get through the rush hour without, simply as a matter of probabilities, having a few non-trivial delays, this compromises the TTC’s ability to achieve its planned capacity.
A few years ago, the TTC had an independent review by UK-based transport consultants who found that, generally speaking, the TTC subway wasn’t all that bad for systems of comparable age and technology. However, the consultants warned that hoped for increase in capacity required more reliability in trains and infrastructure, fewer incidents of passenger illness caused by crowding, and a general attention to running as tight an operation as possible. Some delays are inevitable, and for them the issues are incident management, good communications with passengers, provision of alternate service if possible, and quick recovery of full subway capacity.
When we talk about how close the TTC might be to running out of capacity, optimists love to quote the highest possible figures — automated trains running on the closest headways, passengers flowing quickly to and from trains to minimize dwell times, equipment with superb reliability, and a magic world in which nothing ever goes wrong. That’s not how the subway actually operates, and Byford’s task is to expunge every source of “controllable delay” from the system.
On Metro Morning, Byford made a passing remark about improving terminal operations and getting trains out promptly. That’s an important change, one that is essential to maximizing the trains/hour actually operated and maintaining good service spacing.
Getting the subway to work as well as it possibly can is an important start, but it’s only part of the job. We will probably never see YouTube apologies for the large gaps in service on surface routes, but instead will have small tutorials on why short-turns are required. Sadly, “TTC Culture” still includes too strong a sense that most of the problems are external and this must change.
A target of 65% for “punctual service”, itself based on a generous 6-minute-wide margin for service relative to scheduled headway, accepts that the odds are better than half that a rider will encounter a significant gap at least once a day, probably more if they take multiple trips. What we don’t see is a measure of how well or poorly passenger loads are distributed among buses and streetcars, and what the riders see rather than what the hourly or daily averages report.
If transit really is going to attract more riders, especially those facing longer trips, reliability is key. To some, the solution is a network of subways, but that simply won’t happen thanks to cost and the time needed to build them. Some new rapid transit capacity is overdue, but it must be placed where it will do the most good, not as pet projects of particularly noisy and influential members of Council.
Meanwhile, the TTC must address service quality on that vast part of the network not served by subways, and Andy Byford must be just as prepared to take responsibility for the Finch and Dufferin buses and the Queen streetcar as he is for the Yonge subway.