TTC 2016 Budget Update

On January 8, 2016, TTC management presented an overview of the operating and capital budgets at the City of Toronto Budget Committee. The presentation slide deck and video are available on the City’s website.

The format of the presentation is, in part, dictated by a standard city template used by all divisions and agencies for consistency. Much of this material has been covered from previous meetings, and so this article will only touch on some clarifications and highlights.

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Does More Running Time Improve Service?

[This is a long article, and I won’t hold it against anyone for failing to read all the way to the end, or not looking at every page of every chart. The issue here is a system-wide one of how service is scheduled and managed using routes where the TTC is attempting to improve operations as a reference.]

At the TTC Board Meeting of December 2015, Chief Service Officer Richard Leary gave a presentation “Performance Based Service” outlining the work done to date to improve the reliability of surface routes. [A YouTube video of the presentation is also available.]

The focus of changes made to several schedules has been that end-to-end running times should reflect actual on-street conditions rather than presenting drivers with an unattainable goal that cannot be met during typical conditions, let alone anything unusual such as poor weather or unusually bad traffic congestion.

The changes to date are summarized in the table below.

201512_Leary_AddedRTT

In some cases, the extra running time is provided simply by widening the headway. For example, if a route takes one hour, and it has a bus every 10 minutes, that’s six buses. Extending the headway to 11 minutes would change the round trip to 66 minutes with no added cost. In theory, if this allows vehicles to stay on time, better service might actually be provided because all buses would show up as planned. That, however, depends on them being properly spaced so that their capacity is evenly used.

In other cases, where the problem is not just scheduled time but also capacity, more vehicles can be added. In the example above, a seventh bus would allow the headway to stay at 10 minutes while the trip time went up to 70. With the long-standing problems of a constrained fleet, this is only possible in off-peak periods, or by raiding other routes for vehicles.

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NextBus Next to Useless After Major Schedule Changes

Updated January 5, 2016: New schedules have been installed at NextBus and the service on affected routes should now appear correctly.

On January 3, 2016, the TTC implemented major changes in the schedules on 501 Queen and 510 Spadina, as well as minor changes to 509 Harbourfront and 511 Bathurst. Since then, NextBus information has been wildly erratic for these routes.

There are a few underlying problems of which I am aware from past experience like this, and there are likely more, but it’s worth consolidating this information in an article.

First, it is important to understand the basics of how NextBus works:

  • TTC vehicle location information is collected by their monitoring system which polls each bus and streetcar every 20 seconds to obtain GPS readings. These are consolidated into an updated feed that is available to NextBus, but not to the general public.
  • There are two extracts of schedule data that provide the “in theory” version of service for external agencies/applications:
    • A GTFS (General Transit Feed Specification) data feed available through the City of Toronto’s Open Data site
    • A NextBus-specific feed that is not public
  • NextBus uses the real-time data plus the schedule to produce maps showing all vehicles on a route, plus predictions of arrivals at stops. The predictions are based on historical tracking of vehicles and their likely running times, not on scheduled values, except at termini where a vehicle is expected to leave on its scheduled time.
  • Downstream stops from terminals show predicted arrivals based on the schedule until a vehicle leaves the terminal. This can cause errors in predictions because the schedule and real world might differ. Conversely, predictions based on actual travel times will correct for cases where the schedule is unrealistic provided that a vehicle is actually enroute to the stop. This is a “Catch 22” situation.
  • Predictions and displays (e.g. on video displays at stations) can run “late” to the real world for a variety of reasons related to latency in updating the data at each step along the way. If the “real-time” location feed is slow getting from TTC to NextBus, then vehicle positions will not reflect the world “now”, but some time ago. If the station/stop displays do not refresh their information frequently, they will show stale predictions.
  • NextBus only displays vehicles whose “run number” (the reference number assigned by the TTC to each vehicle) is actually in the schedule. When schedules change, an entirely new set of run numbers might be in use, or there could be some overlap with the old schedule. This can cause only partial service to be tracked/predicted because some vehicles are not linked to a run number that is in the schedule NextBus is using. Problems arise either if the new schedule is not imported to NextBus, or if the data exported from the TTC is in error.

All of the apps that run on various platforms use the NextBus feed. They may present this information in different ways, but all are limited to whatever NextBus puts out because that is the only feed available.

As I write this, there is an additional problem with the NextBus display for Queen which is hinted at by the snapshot below.

20160104_Rte501_0515

Note that all of the cars show with the arrow pointing west. If you watch the animated version, some of these cars are actually moving east. Predictions are wildly inaccurate because NextBus does not seem to “know” that eastbound cars actually are eastbound. (This snapshot was taken at 5:15 am.)

The problem changed somewhat later (5:56 am) when a few “eastbound” cars did show up in the display, and in downstream predictions. However, the predictions are still wrong because they only include cars NextBus is tracking, not all service on the route.

20160104_Rte501_0556

For example, NextBus claims there will be two cars eastbound at Bathurst in 18 minutes (they are both at Humber Loop eastbound), and the next one 53 minutes hence.

It is a bit early in the day for examples, but there will likely be cars missing from displays and predictions for 510 Spadina (which has a completely revised schedule for Flexity operation), on 509 Harbourfront and 511 Bathurst (which have been revised to terminate at Fleet Loop due to construction).

Updated: The problem with vehicle direction tracking also appears to have affected 505 Dundas.

The schedule data [this link returns a large XML file] NextBus is using for 501 Queen is from December 2015 when all service operated from Long Branch to Neville rather than with a route split at Humber. (For those who are interested, search on the string “scheduleClass” to locate the start of each block of schedules available.) The situation is the same for other routes.

This type of foul-up between TTC and NextBus has occurred before and at times has taken weeks to resolve making the “service” NextBus provides of poor quality, to be as generous as possible. The problems may lie at TTC or they may be at NextBus or some combination of the two, but they are problems that should be fixed. At the very least, some basic testing should occur at the TTC’s end when there is a change to ensure that the updated schedules have been installed. If I can do this with a simple XML call to the NextBus site, then so can anyone at the TTC.

Problems have arisen in the past where the TTC’s schedule extract for NextBus does not contain complete or correct data. This will only show up with actual use, but some sort of internal quality control on the content of the extract should be possible, especially for a major change such as the restructuring of a route.

This has been an ongoing problem, and it says a lot about the TTC’s alleged commitment to “Customer Service” that it has not been fixed.

501 Queen Service Design Effective January 3, 2016

The TTC has now split the 501 Queen route at Humber Loop on a temporary basis to allow concentration of the larger “ALRV” streetcars (the two-section articulated cars) on the main part of the route east of Humber, while “CLRV”s (the standard one-section cars) provide service from Humber to Long Branch on a more frequent service than before.

The “507 Long Branch” route is back in everything but name except for late evenings when some cars from Neville run through to Long Branch.

Service between Humber and Long Branch Loops is provided by a dedicated fleet of five or six cars operating at a 10 minute headway until mid-evening every day. Early evening service is provided by five cars on all days.

Starting at about 10:00 pm, some of the service west of Humber is provided by through trips originating at Neville Loop. Three cars remain on a Long Branch to Humber service with generous recovery times to make the integrated 9 minute headway work properly. It will be interesting to see how well managed these cars are (or not) and whether they actually split the gap between cars to and from Neville, or run close behind them. If the latter, then the advertised “ten minute headway” on Lakeshore will fall apart late in the evening.

Eastbound from Humber, there will be a mix of cars from Long Branch as well as Queen service scheduled to turn back at Humber. This is, in effect, the current schedule with every other inbound car originating from the two terminals. Again, an essential part of service reliability will be that these cars leave on the scheduled 9 minute spacing, not with a pair every 18 minutes.

The service transitions occur at different times depending on the location and direction of travel:

  • First car from Neville destined for Long Branch: About 9:00 pm
  • First car from Yonge destined for Long Branch: About 9:30 pm
  • First car from Long Branch destined for Neville: About 10:40 pm

During the late evening, service at Humber will be provided on two separate platforms for each direction:

  • From roughly 11 pm and 1 am, eastbound service from Humber Loop will be provided by a mix of cars originating from Long Branch, and cars from Neville terminating at Humber. These use different platforms because of the track layout. It is not yet clear whether the cars from Neville will load on the outbound track (as they did 20 years ago) or on the poorly paved area beside the inbound track.
  • From roughly 10 pm to 2:40 am, westbound service from Humber Loop will be provided with some service on the “Long Branch” side of the loop and some on the “Humber” side outbound. For some reason, the TTC has scheduled the last outbound car, weekdays, on the Long Branch side at exactly the same time as a car on the Humber side, so that there is a scheduled pair of cars westbound to Long Branch. The weekend schedules work better.

Some of the information on the published schedules for the new service is wrong in that some running-in trips to carhouses are mis-identified, and Long Branch trips do not appear on westbound timetables for the east end of the line implying considerably worse service than is actually scheduled. The complete schedules are accurately available in the TTC’s Open Data feed, but making sense of this requires some scripting to assemble the raw information into a comprehensible format.

Concurrently with these changes, running time increases are provided over much of the route to improve schedule performance. The table below shows a few of the changes as examples.

Neville to Humber Round Trip    Travel   Recovery   Total
                                 Time      Time
Weekday Midday
December 2015                    136'       12'      148'
January 2016                     158'        7'      165'

Saturday Afternoon
December 2015                    136'       14'      150'
January 2016                     172'       10'      182'

Sunday Afternoon
December 2015                    126'        6'      132'
January 2016                     164'        7'      171'

How well the service will operate under the new schedules will depend a great deal on line management. It is one thing to stay “on time” and quite another to maintain spacing, especially where services merge as at Humber Loop. In theory, being “on time” should ensure this, but the TTC’s interpretation of that phrase has enough leeway to accept very erratic service as “on time”.

Meanwhile, thanks to a technical foul-up with the schedule feed to NextBus (which might be either at the TTC or NextBus end), vehicle position displays and arrival time projections on this route are totally unreliable as of the launch date, January 3. None of the service west of Humber, and much of the service east of there is missing. This makes tracking of line performance by observers, let alone use of NextBus by riders, impossible. (Displays for other routes with new schedules, notably 510 Spadina, are also affected.)