The National Post’s Victor Ferreira has a long article today about TTC subway delays. His post consolidates information from the months of September through November 2015 breaking down the causes of delays and gives a better background of why subway service might be erratic than anything published by the TTC.
Over those three months, there were 1,190 delays lasting more than two minutes, and the total delay time was 7,301 minutes or roughly 6 minutes per delay. This raw statistic does not tell the full story, however, because some delays are trivially short, an annoyance to people on a few trains, while others last longer, shut down sections of lines and affect thousands of riders. That is a level of detail missing in the Post’s article, but likely also in the underlying TTC data. For a “customer focused” organization, some measure of the breadth of a delay’s effect is an obvious metric.
The overwhelming major categories for delay causes are “Customer”, “Mechanical/Infrastructure” and “Crew/Operator” which between them account for about two thirds of all incidents with “customers” contributing just over 300 out of the total. In other words, of the major categories, over half of the delays are due to TTC-side, not customer-side issues. The remaining one third of the total are a mixed bag of problems.
Some of these relate to train speed and operation, although pending changes to the signal system will reduce, then eliminate this problem through a move to new speed control software and, eventually to automatic train control. This is an important operational issue, but the question remains of just how much time each such delay represents and how many trains (i.e. passengers) were affected. There were only 36 delays cause by an “oversensitive” speed control system in the study period, and so the magnitude of improvement riders might see will be small.
Friday has slightly more delays than other weekdays, but without a breakdown by delay type, we don’t know whether this is primarily due to more operators calling in sick, or because doors prefer to stick just before the weekend. There are also peaks in numbers of delays coinciding with the two daily rush hours, no surprise considering that there are more trains in service to fail, and more riders putting more stress on the system.
A key comment by Mike Palmer, Acting Deputy Chief Operating Officer:
For delays caused by mechanical and infrastructure issues, “money is the quick fix,” Palmer said.
This is the same sort of issue as the broken air conditioning units on Line 2 BD trains this summer. If you don’t spend the money on maintenance, things don’t work. Anyone who owns a car or a house knows this, but for some members of City Council, there is a mythology that boils down to “buy and forget” when it comes to expensive capital assets such as subway infrastructure and rolling stock. The trains on BD are roughly at the midlife period on a 30-year design span, and things that worked perfectly ten years ago don’t today.
Having large fleets of a cars all of a similar vintage can lead an organization like the TTC to forget that maintenance is necessary. For a time, many cars may be in their golden, maintenance-free period. When the time comes to undertake major overhauls, the staff and budget are not in place and budget hawks claim that rising costs are “out of control”.
In recent budget debates, some at the TTC have brought up a long-dormant scheme to install platform edge doors (PEDs) at stations. The total cost of this project is about $1 billion, and neither the TTC nor the City has that kind of spare change available. One factor often mentioned is the ability of such doors to keep garbage, notably newspapers, off of the tracks and thereby to reduce the number of fire delays. However, many fire-related calls (smell of smoke, etc) are the result of electrical issues including overheating of equipment and wiring. A recent major delay at Yonge Station was caused by deteriorated cables, not by newspapers.
The TTC should subdivide its statistics to show which type of delays would actually be addressed by specific types investment and/or procedural changes, and how much better service could be as a result.
Service quality is the TTC’s primary problem because riders do not trust the system to get them to their destination reliably. This requires a high level of consistency in TTC performance where a 90% target may sound good, until one acknowledges that this means one trip in ten (that is to say once a week for a regular commuter) will be affected by a delay of some type. Frequent riders see even more delays, and unreliable service leads people avoid transit as a first choice and use it only when the alternative is even less palatable.