Past and Future Streetcar Service Capacity

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.

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A Chat With Minister Murray

Glen Murray has only been sitting in his new office as Minister of Transportation and Minister of Infrastructure for Ontario for about 2½ weeks, but already his comments in the mainstream media (Globe Star) and on Twitter (@Glen4ONT) show that business as usual will not be the style of his office.  We chatted for about 45 minutes earlier today.

I began by asking about the change of his Twitter handle from the suffix “TC” (for his riding’s name, Toronto Centre) to “ONT” and his recent comments about transportation in northern Ontario.  Murray’s focus there is on economic development, and the need for transportation facilities to support investment, especially in mining.  On the question of passenger services, it was a bit harder to nail down the Minister’s position.

Murray is a big fan of High Speed Rail, and feels that the Windsor-Quebec corridor needs that sort of investment as an important first step, followed by improved rail and bus feeder services.  Yes, but what does this do for the north?  Murray sees the need for a spine rail service linking Toronto to the north with bus routes feeding into that spine, but neither details nor any sense of timing emerged.

Two important dollar figures, however, came out.  First, in southern Ontario, current spending on the 400-series highways is about $2.4-billion annually, and there is an argument to be made for upping spending on transit.  Second, mining now brings in about $1-billion annually, and the industry’s primary complaint is the lack of infrastructure, not their tax burden, according to Murray.

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4400 Makes Inaugural Run to Bathurst Station (Update 2)

Early on March 14, the TTC’s first new LFLRV (low floor light rail vehicle) made its inaugural test trip out of Hillcrest Yard to Bathurst Station and return.  The TTC’s Brad Ross posted photos of the event.  (Three photos were added at about 4:00 pm on March 14.)

Owly ImagesLeaving Hillcrest Yard

Owly ImagesSB on Bathurst at the CPR underpass

Owly ImagesUnder the CPR underpass

Owly ImagesAt Bathurst Station

Owly ImagesLeaving Bathurst Station

Owly ImagesNB north of Bathurst Station

Owly ImagesReturning to Hillcrest

Another test run is tentatively planned for the morning of March 15 leaving Hillcrest after the last 512 St. Clair car has passed enroute back to Roncesvalles carhouse at about 2:30am.  Car 4400 will make a round trip to Exhibition Loop.

Updated March 15, 2013 at 11:20 am:

Photos from the run to Exhibition Loop are in a gallery on the Torontoist’s website.

Feeling Congested: Does Toronto Suffer From “The Moscow Syndrome”? (Updated)

The City of Toronto’s consultations about transportation plans and financing continued on the evening of March 4, 2013, with a panel discussion at the St. Lawrence Centre.  The 500-seat Jane Mallett Theatre was packed for the event, and had been sold out for several days in advance.

The participants were:

  • Matt Galloway, host of CBC’s “Metro Morning”, as moderator
  • Jennifer Keesmaat, Chief Planner of Toronto
  • Larry Beasley, retired Chief Planner for Vancouver, keynote speaker
  • Carol Wilding, president and CEO of the Toronto Board of Trade
  • Councillor Peter Milczyn, chair of Toronto’s Planning & Growth Management Committee and member of the Toronto Transit Commission
  • Councillor Michael Thompson, chair of Toronto’s Economic Development Committee
  • John Howe, Vice-President, Investment Strategy and Project Evaluation at Metrolinx

The most newsworthy comments of the evening were a clear break by the two Councillors, both members of Mayor Ford’s Executive Committee, with the Mayor’s position on financing transit.  Michael Thompson stated that getting rid of the Vehicle Registration Tax was “a mistake”, and Peter Milczyn stated that Council (by implication with or without the Mayor) would approve “a suite” of tools to generate the needed revenue.

The message that “the people are ahead of the politicians” on transit financing, first raised by Carol Wilding, was a consistent theme.

Updated Mar. 5, 2013 at 11:10 am:

Although Larry Beasley’s thesis was that Moscow was trapped in an inescapable hole caused by decades of inaction on transit investment, this information appears to be out of date.  As one commenter here has noted, since the arrival of a new mayor and the availability of petrodollars, a lot has been happening.  This can also be seen by a cursory trip around the internet looking at the Moscow system.

Yes, the hole they have to dig out of was very deep, but they’re trying.  Toronto has not yet really acknowledged the effort needed not just to arrest the decline, but to make up for decades when transit wasn’t “important enough” beyond fighting over a vanity subway line or two.

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TTC Announces a Customer Charter

With a modest fanfare (but no flourishing of trumpets), the TTC proclaimed its Customer Service Charter on February 28, 2013, at a press conference held at the busy Bloor-Yonge Station. This is a “good news” story, at least for the TTC for whom “customer service” is the new mantra. Senior management at the TTC seem to be headed in the right direction, but I couldn’t help feeling that I had been offered a banquet and found, instead, a snack.

The question of customer service reaches back into the days of the Miller/Giambrone administration. I have written at some length on this issue before.

Although the earlier exercises were well-meaning, this process has been underway for over three years.  In August 2010, an advisory panel produced a report that included more recommendations for ways TTC passengers could improve their behaviour than ways the TTC could provide better service to riders.  The effort had all the earmarks of a self-serving justification for inaction from an organization far too set in its ways.  Indeed, a panel member confirmed to me that TTC management had a large influence in the report, an obvious conflict where the customer viewpoint should be paramount.

In October 2011, TTC Chair Karen Stintz said that “it would take some time” to implement recommendations as “culture change” is not an overnight thing in an old organization.  That’s a fair comment, but this argument cannot be trotted out forever to imply that some changes will come eventually, just not now.  “TTC culture” is a phrase I have heard for years well back into Adam Giambrone’s term as chair, and it is wearing rather thin after so long.

Those of us who have a long history of TTC watching are inevitably suspicious of this process, and it is with that background I approached the announcement.

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