The Vanishing Relevance of SmartTrack

The Metrolinx Board received a presentation today from their Chief Planning Officer, Leslie Woo, about the Yonge Relief Network Study. One item in this report raised eyebrows – the projection that GO RER and SmartTrack services would divert only 4,200 passengers during the peak AM hour from the Yonge corridor.

In the discussion, it was clear that service in the SmartTrack corridor would be every 15 minutes. Four trains per hour is hardly an inducement to change routes although at least if SmartTrack operates with TTC fares, it could still be atttractive.

However, I wondered just what that 15 minute headway meant, and so I wrote to Leslie Woo for clarification:

When you talk about 15 minute headways, does this mean an RER train every 15′ and an ST train every 15′ for a combined 7’30” headway, or is this 15′ for the combined service with a wider (e.g. 30′) headway on each one?

Her reply:

15 mins – combined.

Keep in mind that where Kitchener/Milton/and Barrie corridors converge we are already at less than 15 min headway in the peak.

This is a fascinating statement. SmartTrack is, among other things, intended to add stations along the GO corridors so that a more finely-grain service can be provided in Scarborough and at some locations along the Weston corridor such as Liberty Village. However, if the combined express GO and local ST services will only run every 15′, this implies a wider headway on ST, possibly every over train or 30′. With only a pair of tracks on the Stouffville corridor, and likely only a pair dedicated to GO+ST on the Kitchener corridor, it is impossible for express GO trains to pass local ST trains, and this limits how many trains per hour, in total, can possibly operate there.

During the press scrum, Metrolinx CEO Bruce McCuaig was asked about the equipment to be used, and he said that both GO and ST services would run with GO trains. It would appear that the only difference will be where they stop. Of course we already have this type of arrangement on the Lake Shore corridor, and didn’t need an election campaign to get it.

When candidate John Tory pitched SmartTrack, it was to be a “surface subway” using, mainly, existing GO rights-of-way but operating with quasi-subway service level, speed and station spacing. There were claims made for 200k/day in ridership, and the whole project was pitched as if it was the one line to solve every problem. Ask about the weather? SmartTrack will fix it. Out of a job? SmartTrack will speed you more quickly to job locations you never dreamed of. Why don’t we have more buses? Buses are a waste of money and what you really need is a shiny new fast train.

The problem with these claims is that they depended on SmartTrack actually being “like a subway” with frequent service, something it is quite clear that it will not be, at least not as Metrolinx sees things. The challenge here is that unless there is a very substantial investment in infrastructure by Metrolinx beyond what is planned for GO/RER, the network cannot handle the very frequent service contemplated for SmartTrack and this limits the effect it will have region-wide.

Even if SmartTrack did operate more frequently (a situation that was modelled by Metrolinx), it doesn’t attract much more ridership away from the critical Yonge corridor. The basic fact is that the west end of SmartTrack (wherever it might actually go) is so far from Yonge Street that it addresses a completely different market. Even the eastern branch on the Stouffville corridor is a fair distance from Yonge and, if anything, would bleed demand from the Scarborough Subway rather than the Yonge line.

A vital but missing piece of information in the presentation is the count of likely riders on various routes in the modelled networks. This report tells us how many riders are diverted from Yonge, but not how many riders would be on the other corridors and, therefore, the value of and need for more service in them. This information should come out in a technical background paper expected in July 2015.

Although the Metrolinx discussion did not get into SmartTrack costs, there are fundamental questions to be answered:

  • What are the comparative costs and benefits of serving the Eglinton West corridor with the proposed SmartTrack tunnel or with the planned westward extension of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT? (This should be answered later in the SmartTrack study of that corridor.)
  • Will SmartTrack share GO’s corridor through Union Station, or will it split off into its own tunnel downtown? Would the more frequent service a tunnel implies actually be able to co-exist with GO operations when the line rejoined the GO corridors?
  • What is the actual, likely cost of SmartTrack? For election purposes, this was estimated simply by taking the average costs of a few European “surface subways” or “overground” lines as London calls them, and scaling this to the length of the SmartTrack route. Originally, it was claimed that there would be no tunnels, but the campaign quickly learned that their research was faulty on that score. The cost is important because Toronto has volunteered to pay 1/3 of the total, whatever that might be.
  • Why should Toronto taxes be used to pay for a service which had among its objectives improvement of access to commercial properties in Markham and Mississauga?
  • Can a local service that operates considerably less frequently than a subway route be expected to generate much development as associated tax revenue?

As things now stand, SmartTrack has all the appearance of a line on the map that fades gradually under the harsh light of actual planning, operational constraints, and the degree to which Ontario is prepared to build infrastructure to enable it.

The State of TTC Streetcar Track Switches (Updated)

Updated June 28, 2015: Additional historical information from TTC Budgets has been added to the end of this article.

Ever since the introduction of the articulated streetcars back when the earth was still cooling, automatic track switches have been plagued with less-than-ideal reliability of the new system that was installed to operate them. This was triggered by the different lengths of ALRVs and, hence, the different distance from the front of the car to the point where the trolley pole sits on the overhead. A system based on a contactor on the overhead simply would not work with the ALRVs. The new system uses antennae at the front and rear of each car together with antennae in the pavement. This system allows the “front” of the car (rather than the rear) to signal the direction it wants to turn, and also provides a lock-unlock logic based on the rear end antenna passing the switch.

A project to replace this system has been on the books for years, but with little progress. Meanwhile, many switches that should be automatic (and through that automation interface with traffic signals) are manual. At the newly opened Queens Quay and Spadina, a pointman operates the switches.

I wrote to the TTC about this situation. Here are my questions and their replies.

Q: With the Queens Quay project finishing, an issue has shown up (again) that the switches at Queens Quay and Spadina are still being manually operated usually by a point duty operator, sometimes by the streetcar ops themself.

A: We are in the process of prioritizing restoration of a number of out-of-service switches in the network. Resources will be made available to restore the four (4) switches on Spadina and Queens Quay as a top priority.

Q: This delays service and also means that the transit priority signals cannot work as intended because they don’t “know” where a car intends to go.  Two points:

For years there has been a budgeted project to update the switch electronics because the old equipment has never been reliable.

A: We would not characterize the equipment in those terms. We are short of replacement parts due to the OEM changing ownership, losing interest in supplying parts, and that the original design files were lost in a major fire.

Q: If I remember correctly, this was one of the projects sloughed off to 2016 due to budget cuts. Is this correct?

A: We are still working on a new equivalent design and taking steps to secure its safety certification. Our objective is to create a controller with identical functionalities and a design that we own and take control.

Q: A commenter on my blog claims that there are long delays because Hydro must to an inspection when a switch is activated. Switches that are ready to be energized sit for months in manual mode. Is this correct?

A: New installation of wiring and controller must be performed in accordance with Hydro’s electrical safety code. Safety inspection by Hydro can indeed be a lengthy process. We would normally submit our application for inspection partway through the Work to reduce wait time gap.

There really is only one obvious question left here: if this were a subway signal system, would the problem have been left outstanding this long?

Updated June 28, 2015:

On the afternoon of June 27, an eastbound streetcar on Queens Quay at the entrance to Queens Quay Loop took an open switch and turned into the side of a westbound car. As luck would have it, this was one of the new LRVs, 4404. The story was covered in brief by CBC and several photos appeared on Twitter including this overhead view. The Star also has an article.

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