Now that the first Low Floor Light Rail Vehicle (LFLRV) is rolling through Toronto streets on test runs, the question of service quality and capacity for streetcar routes is once again an issue.
The most recent TTC document setting out their intended use of the new fleet appeared in the 2013 Capital Budget Blue Books. These are not available online, but I presented the TTC’s fleet plan in an article last fall. From the numbers of vehicles to be assigned to each route, one can work back to the service frequency and capacity numbers. In general, peak period headways get a bit wider, but the capacity goes up, in some cases dramatically.
The TTC faces two challenges: one on the budget, and one in operations.
Toronto Council has been extremely stingy with operating subsidies and “flat lined” the TTC over the past two budget cycles. Hard liners will want the TTC to simply replace service on an equivalent capacity basis and maximize the savings in operator costs. This would be a disaster for service quality even if the TTC actually ran cars on the headways they advertise.
On the operational side, any increase in headways brings even wider gaps when the service is upset by weather, random delays and short turns. It is already a matter of record that the largest drop in riding over the past two decades came on the lines where 50-foot long CLRVs (the standard Toronto cars) were replaced by 75-foot long ALRVs (the articulated version) on an equivalent capacity basis. Falling riding led to reduced service and the familiar downward spiral. This must not happen when the new fleet rolls out across the system.
Since at least the mid-1990s, the TTC has told us that they cannot improve streetcar service because they have no spare cars. In part, they are the victims of their own fleet planning. The TTC originally rebuilt some of its old PCC cars (the fleet preceding the current one) in order to have enough to expand operations on the Harbourfront and Spadina lines. However, by the mid-1990s, service cuts on many routes thanks to the economic downturn in that decade and the subsidy cuts by the Harris government, reduced the fleet requirements to the point where the PCCs could be retired and the Spadina line opened without buying any new cars. When riding started to grow again, the TTC had no spare vehicles to improve service, and to make matters worse, the fleet was entering a period of lower reliability thanks, in part, to poor design.
Toronto waited a long time for new cars to be ordered, and this process was delayed both by the decision to go with all low-floor cars, and by political meddling at City Hall. New residential construction along the streetcar lines pushes up demand, but the TTC cannot respond with better service until they have more cars.
Recent discussions about the new cars have included comments about how we cannot possibly have more streetcars on the road. What many people forget is that the streetcar services were once much better than today. In this article, I will look back at service levels once operated in Toronto, and at the service that we might see if the TTC actually operates the new fleet in the manner their Fleet Plan claims.