Updated October 29, 2015 at 7:00 pm: Additional material based on the presentation and debate at the TTC Board meeting has been added at the end of this article.
At its meeting on October 28, 2015, the TTC Board will receive a presentation about bus fleet and garage planning. This combines many threads that have been discussed separately in the past into one overview and co-ordinated long-range planning, something missing from Board-level debates at the TTC for many years.
Four important changes in the TTC’s fleet planning lead to one common goal: an increase in bus reliability.
- Steady-state procurement. TTC bus purchase quantities fluctuated wildly over past decades. In the late 1960s, there was a major system expansion into the suburbs concurrent with the subway extensions to Kennedy and Kipling, and later north to Finch. This produced a big spike in bus purchases which echoed through the system every 18 years or so as this generation of vehicles (and its successors) came due for replacement. Other ebbs and flows arose from political decisions such as service increases beyond “typical” requirements, or service freezes imposed through declining standards. This plays havoc with maintenance planning and with the City’s capital plans.
- Increase the spare ratio. Historically, transit spare ratios have been set at about 12% (even lower values can be found decades ago on the TTC), but this only worked when vehicles were considerably simpler than they are today. It is worth noting that the PCC streetcar was designed from the outset to be a low-maintenance vehicle with roughly a monthly trip into the shops for preventative maintenance. The onset of vehicles with much more complex technology, and especially with technology at the “bleeding edge” of implementation, did nothing to improve transit maintenance costs. Higher spare ratios also require more capital to be tied up in buses under repair. Higher failure rates affect service.
- Early retirement of the hybrid bus fleet. The hybrids were one of those nice “green” ideas where the technology simply did not perform as expected, but for a time government policy forced the TTC into buying nothing else. The fleet is less reliable than the diesels it supplanted, and the extra capital cost is not offset by lower operating cost.
- Re-align diesel bus overhaul schedule. Various subsystems on a bus go through major overhauls or replacement on a planned cycle through the vehicle’s life. The schedule for this work will be adjusted to better match needs and to fit well with a planned 18-year bus lifespan. Equally important will be a change in the approach to routine maintenance with a shift from “fix on fail” that accounts for 80% of work today to a proactive, preventative replacement of parts before their expected in service failure disrupts service.
An additional issue still under study is the question of just how long a bus should stay in service. The 18-year span typical in Toronto (and previously in many other cities) arose from a combination of vehicle quality (the GM New Looks lasted forever) and of limited subsidy funding. However, a longer lifespan demands that transit systems have the capability to perform major overhauls that will keep a bus running that long, and this is not practical for smaller systems. Long ago, the USA standard dropped to 12 years as the funding cycle for federal subsidies to bus purchases. A still unanswered question is whether this should be Toronto’s policy.
Finally, there is the matter of garage space for a fleet that will continue to grow before the combined effect of subway and LRT line openings will see a drop in total fleet requirements.
Factors Feeding Into the Fleet Plan
Even without new rapid transit lines or ridership stimulus policies, the TTC expects to see 12-million more trips in 2016. The bus network’s share of this increase will require 17 more buses.
It is worth noting that the TTC’s method of calculating fleet increase is very conservative. The ratio they use is that one million more trips leads to a requirement for about 1.4 more buses in the fleet or an increase relative to the scheduled peak service of 0.089%. However, one million more trips on a base of 540m is 0.185% or double the factor applied to the bus fleet. This may reflect a view that new trips will come disproportionately off peak when there are spare vehicles, or that the increase will be disproportionately absorbed by the rail network.
To this must be added plans for reduced peak period crowding (the 2015 service changes addressed only the off-peak), and new express bus routes. These will be partly, but not totally, addressed by 50 new buses now on order.
Other pending changes include a reduction in contract services to York Region, the implementation of more articulated buses (these improve operator productivity, but do not change the need for garage space), rapid transit construction (Spadina extension winds down, but Eglinton Crosstown ramps up) and an increased rate of City infrastructure repairs. Transit signal priority and other road congestion measures can provide some offsetting benefits, but there are limits to what can be achieved without a major reallocation of road space and time for transit.
In the short term, TTC forecasts ridership growth based on known economic factors and on policy changes already in the pipeline such as improved service standards. From 2019 onward, they use the City Plan’s 1.5% growth number. Clearly this may be conservative if transit usage goes up faster than the population. The charts below show the effect of a 1.5% and 3.0% annual growth rate over the next decade.
Although there will be some saving in fleet size, notably after the Eglinton-Crosstown opens, the fleet requirement in 2025 will still be larger than it is today thanks to growth on the remaining bus network. The difference between the low and high growth rate translates to a fleet requirement of 120 buses, or half of a typical bus garage.
Historically, TTC fleet planning has been starved for capital, and there is no indication that Toronto Council would embrace plans based on a faster growth rate. This is shortsighted and can only lead to continued problems with system capacity and attractiveness, but Council seems content to focus on a few rapid transit projects to the detriment of its bus network.
Current plans call for the bus fleet at year-end 2016 to look like this:
Note that the major source of service growth in 2016 is the “Service Initiatives”, the next wave of improvements following on from 2015. These will be peak period improvements affecting fleet size rather than off-peak which only affect vehicle usage and operator hours, but not the fleet.
The spare pool will rise to 18% of scheduled service, and a further pool of buses will be out of service for various capital programs. In total, there will be about 400 more buses in the fleet than the scheduled peak service (25%).
Bus procurements come and go. The first big bulge accompanied the suburban expansion of the 1960s, and this had an echo 18-20 years later when those buses came due for retirement. Economic circumstances and political decisions can also affect purchase patterns with decisions to cram more riders in fewer buses, or simply to not operate some service, being driven much more by a desire to “hold the line on spending” than good medium-to-long range fleet planning. The first chart below shows what would happen if the TTC continues on its current pattern, while the second shows the goal, a “steady state” replacement policy. This has the effect of moving some bus purchases into the near years from the comparatively fallow years of 2018-22 in the original plan. That will be a hard sell at Council where any move to bring forward capital spending from the 2020s works contrary to plans for controlling the short-to-medium term debt load.
This change ties in with the planned early retirement of the Hybrid bus fleet (see following section). There was a very large order of Hybrids (almost 700 buses in the mid 2000s) and this is echoed in the spike starting in 2023 on the original plan. Retiring these buses early achieves a goal of flattening out capital requirements and setting a common rate for new vehicle acceptance, warranty repairs and future scheduled overhauls (i.e. there would be a constant number of buses having a nine year overhaul each year). The downside for the City is that the purchases have to be moved into years when added capital spending is not desired under current plans.
Overall, there is expected to be a slight saving for the next decade, but this comes with a shift in the timing of capital spending (see p23 of the presentation for details).
Early Hybrid Retirement
The TTC’s experience with Hybrid buses has not been as rosy as originally hoped. The duty cycle for many TTC routes does not match the heavy start/stop conditions where energy storage systems are thought to create the greatest benefit, and the cost of operation and maintenance over the lifespan of a Hybrid offers little net saving over that of a diesel bus. The premium per bus is calculated as $279k over 18 years. The lower fuel cost roughly balances off the capital cost, but other maintenance and component replacement costs push up hybrid cost-of-owrenship. The hybrid-specific components are expensive and add to the total, not just for original purchase, but for ongoing replacement.
To these issues must be added reliability problems in poor weather, and the fact that the market for this type of vehicle has never grown to the level where economies of scale might begin to make it practical. The TTC has a large Hybrid fleet not because it believed in the technology in a big way, but that Federal subsidies for bus purchases at the time were only available for “green” buses.
Early retirement of the Hybrids will also avoid one cycle of major overhauls for vehicles that are more expensive and less reliable than the diesel fleet. The estimated capital saving would be $141-million, plus the value of spare parts “harvested” from these vehicles.
Increased Spare Ratio
The TTC proposes to increase its pool of spare buses (those which are in running maintenance programs at garages, plus spares for service change-offs and emergencies) from the current target of 12% to 18%. By contrast, the standard in the USA is now 20%, and so the TTC is still staying a bit below what has become the “industry norm”.
It is important to note that adding 6% to the spare pool on a base of 1,600 peak buses is 96 more buses. These have a capital cost, and they require garage space to be housed and maintained (a typical garage holds 250). In past years, the spares have been treated as a cushion against predatory politicians looking to make quick budget cuts, and for a short time, this can isolate the system from the worst side-effects. However, any effective change in the spare ratio is a one-time saving with an ongoing cost – reliability declines and maintenance suffers. The effect of such “efficiency” is that maintenance shifts to a focus on just getting a bus out the garage door.
Indeed, the way the TTC was measuring “service availability” was to count buses that left the garage even if they only went a block before breaking down. This artificially inflated the reliability stats for service dispatched while playing havoc with stats for service actually operated.
Realigned Diesel Overhaul Schedule
The TTC plans to change its overhaul plan for diesel buses as shown below. The revised plan shifts some major work earlier to the six year (1/3) mark in the life of a bus, with a repeat pass on the same subsystems an equal time later. The basic change is to advance work on some subsystems that cannot reasonably expect to last to the original nine-year schedule for their overhauls, and to avoid major work on buses that are close to their 18-year retirement dates.
Reliability Centered Maintenance
For all that the TTC thinks of itself as a great transit system, bus reliability in Toronto pales by comparison to other cities. To be fair, a raw chart of mean-distance-between-defects can hide information such as the average age of fleets, their duty cycles, and the fleet profiles in each city. All the same, being roughly as good as New York is not necessarily a mark of distinction.
The TTC performs most of its maintanence, 80%, on a “fix on fail” basis rather than proactively changing out components when they near their typical lifespans. This may be cheaper (less inventory, use parts until the bitter end), but those failures typically occur in service and affect riders.
Again, this has a medium term cost because it will take time to ramp up the planned replacement of components and many vehicles in the early years of the program will receive new parts sooner than they would have otherwise. This extra cost will run in parallel with failure-based costs on that part of the fleet not yet under the new program, but in the long run, the TTC expects the ongoing cost of materials to drop.
Bus Replacement Strategy
For the 2017 budget cycle, TTC will be reviewing the validity of its 18-year replacement cycle for buses. This arose in the years when Queen’s Park provided substantial capital subsidies, but would not fund new buses to replace anything less than 18 years old.
The cycle in other cities in Canada and the USA varies from 12 to 18 years.
As discussed earlier, a short replacement cycle adds to ongoing capital costs because the TTC would buy 1/12 of its fleet every year rather than 1/18, but with the goal of improved reliability, lower maintenance costs and reduced major (capital) overhauls.
More buses mean more bus garages. The TTC operates seven garages for the “conventional” system, plus one garage for WheelTrans at Lake Shore.
The presentation contains a chart which is odd for what’s missing.
First off, the proposed leased garage (formerly used by York Region Transit) that would provide a 50-bus relief has vanished from the plan. Moreover, an as yet unidentified temporary 250-bus garage is also missing. Compare the first chart below with the one following that appeared in the preliminary Capital Plan in June 2015.
October 2015 version:
June 2015 version:
There is no discussion in the presentation of why these leased garages have disappeared, and I look forward to having this explained at the meeting. Also unclear in the October version of the plan is the meaning of the blue hatched areas on the chart.
Updated: See the end of this article for a chart which does include a leased 250-bus facility, but does not include the 50-bus facility in Concord approved earlier this year.
(Note that for planning purposes, the unit of measure is a standard 10m/40ft bus. Where artics exist or are planned, they are converted to standard buses for the purpose of counting garage space.)
Clearly the TTC cannot accommodate the number of buses it plans to own and operate within existing facilities.
Having overcrowded garages makes for more complex operations, delays while vehicles jockey out of each other’s way, and extra cost simply because buses cannot move freely throughout the property. This affects service because buses do not necessarily get out on the road on time, a situation that can be compounded if there are reliability issues with the fleet (i.e. a dead bus sitting in the middle of a crowded garage). The importance of addressing the situation is summarized on two pages of the presentation:
The presentation concludes with a page showing the combined effect of changes in bus fleet planning at $36-million over ten years. What is missing here is a year by year summary showing how the capital requirements shift from current plans. This is a fundamental requirement for the City’s budget process.
On the operating side, the presentation shows a $7.7m increase for “Reliability Centred Maintenance”, but again misses the issue of multi-year projections. Moreover, leasing garage space (never mind staffing for operations and maintenance of the larger fleet) is also a cost, and this is not discussed anywhere.
The TTC presents a thorough overview of the factors affecting the current and proposed fleet plans. However, the very item on which Board Members, and later the City Budget Analysts and Council will focus – the effect on year-to-year budgets – is missing together with any analysis of how the extra spending will improve service reliability.
I will update this article after the TTC meeting with any information gleaned from the presentation and associated Q&A by Board Members.
Updated October 29, 2015 at 7:00 pm:
The following updates come from the presentation and discussion at the Board meeting.
- In the original article, I said that a plan showing the interim garage configuration had not been included in the presentation. It is unclear whether this was an oversight on my part, or if the presentation was changed to include this after I had reviewed it. Here is the proposed interim garage configuration:The blue hatched areas in the chart above show the effect on bus fleet size if Metrolinx is late in opening its Eglinton and Finch LRT lines.
Notable by its absence is the 50-bus garage in Concord that the TTC Board approved earlier this year. Updated information on interim garage space is supposed to come to a Budget Subcommittee meeting on November 4.
- The chart which shows the development of the service and fleet plan for 2016 shows a shortfall of 13 buses. This is a temporary situation pending delivery of more new streetcars.
- The chart which shows the comparative cost of ownership of hybrid vs diesel buses claims that the premium paid for the 691-bus hybrid fleet would have funded 48 diesels. There is an error in the calculation, and the correct number is 72. In other words, for the premium paid to operate hybrids, the TTC could have run 72 more diesels. (To be fair, there would be an associated garage capital cost that is not included in this.)
During debate, Commissioner Minnan-Wong asked why the TTC was not looking at CNG (compressed natural gas) buses. The TTC had a bad experience with these vehicles which were foisted on the system by a combination of industry interests, the Ministry of Transportation and management who wanted a “green” replacement for the trolley buses. Minnan-Wong asked about Miami-Dade’s plans to convert its bus fleet to CNG, and staff appeared to be unaware of the details of this proposal. It is important to understand that Miami-Dade has not actually made the transition yet, but plans to roll this out over 10 years as buses come up for retirement. An initial order for 300 vehicles would jump-start the process.
What is intriguing about this plan is that the Miami-Dade has not yet announced the result of the proposal evaluations, and more recently, Mayor Gimenez has been looking at electric bus technology. This does not appear to be a “done deal” although the county appears to be very interested in moving to a greener technology than diesels.
Such are the challenges of making policy based on Google searches.
The matter of acquiring buses through the Metrolinx Transit Procurement Initiative came up as a potential cost saving. Staff replied that at the volumes TTC orders, they get a comparable price to what Metrolinx can achieve on behalf of the smaller transit systems in Ontario. Moreover, TTC has a tighter spec and, according to staff, some cities are complaining about the buses procured by Metrolinx (nothing specific was mentioned).
Commissioner Mihevc asked about the effect of moving to a more aggressive growth rate as discussed in the ridership projections, and of fully returning to the old loading standards. Staff replied that the TTC could not just revert to the old standards because they applied to different types of buses. Staff will report on what would be required in the fleet plan to address a full return to “Ridership Growth Strategy” standards, and to embrace a higher growth rate as part of the base plan. This request was also supported by Chair Colle.
Commissioner Lalonde asked that staff pull together all of the factors involved in costs and reliability to a consolidated metric that the Commission could track the costs and benefits of the new fleet policies.
Commissioner Heisey asked that staff extend the concept of benefits to include the time saved by riders through more reliable service.
Commissioner De Baeremaeker noted that he had been on the Board when the hybrids were purchased. There were glowing reports in 2006, but this did not work out in the longer term. Staff noted that neither Toronto nor another major trial city, New York, had ideal conditions for hybrid operation. The technology worked well initially, but did not hold up. De Baeremaeker claimed that Edmonton was undertaking an all-electric bus project and asked about this as a alternative. The technology is still at an early stage.
Staff will update the Board on alternative fuel technologies at a future meeting.
Various reports were requested from staff by the Board:
- For the 2017 budget cycle, staff should present the implications of moving to historic crowding standards and a higher rate of ridership growth.
- Staff will report on the Edmonton electric bus project and on CNG technology, and more broadly on how the TTC plans to meet city energy efficiency and clean air targets.
- Staff will report on whether procurement practices can be improved such as joint purchases with other properties.
- Staff will report on a cost-benefit analysis of securing an additional new permanent garage.