Digging Into Delay Reports

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.

Hunting for John Tory’s $135 Million (Updated)

Updated: Two changes have been added to this article:

  • The TTC has confirmed that they have now entered into a lease for temporary warehouse space.
  • The “subway service resiliency” item was supposed to involve providing more service on Line 1 YUS and Line 2 BD. In fact the service frequency has not changed since January 2015 when this funding was announced, and no trains (i.e. no extra operating costs) were added to the schedules.

Back in January 2015, newly-minted Mayor John Tory summoned Toronto’s media to an outdoor press conference at a windswept schoolyard. The purpose? To announce his mea cupla, that he was wrong in his campaign against added transit funding.

“It was not until the transition period after the election that I was fully able to comprehend and see put in front of me, all the facts as to the scope and extent of transit cutbacks imposed by the previous administration.”

The Mayor would fix this with an infusion of $135 million, restoration of services, and a new fare policy – free rides for children. This “investment” in better transit service comes up time and again when Tory is challenged about his budget policies.

But where did the $135 million actually go? Did all of that money actually find its way to service riders can enjoy? The TTC’s news bulletin outlines the announcement and further details are in the TTC 2015 Operating Budget report. [See pp 6-8 and 14-15]

With budget approval coming in mid-winter and many of the changes planned for mid to late 2015, the initial cost of any improvement is less than the full-year expense. This allows a big promise to come in “year one” without the need to actually spend big money until “year two”. However, that year two money never showed up in the TTC’s budgeted subsidy.

TTC Costs for 2015 Improvements

Item                                 2015 Part   2016 Full
                                     Year Cost   Year Cost
                                       ($ m)       ($ m)

Ten minute network                       3.7        11.3
All door boarding                        3.4         5.6
Reduce off-peak wait times/crowding      3.2         9.9
Subway service reliability               2.8         2.8
All day, every day service               1.7         5.5
Subway service resiliency                1.0         1.5
Express bus network                       .9         2.7
Route and station management reviews      .9         2.0
Expanded blue night network               .8         2.4
Station supervisors                       .8         2.3

Purchase of 50 new buses                13.9        12.0
Leased garage setup                      3.3
Warehouse and interim garage leases      2.5        30.2

Subtotal                                38.9        88.2

Free rides for children                  5.4         7.1

Total                                   44.3        95.3

In 2015, the TTC’s budgeted subsidy rose to fund the in-year cost of the new services except for the free children’s rides which were funded within the overall fare changes. There was no added City subsidy for this policy, despite the Mayor’s taking credit for it.

However, the TTC’s budgeted subsidy in 2016 only increased to $494.6 million, far short of the amount needed to pay the full-year cost of the 2015 changes. On top of this, more improvements were approved for 2016, although the lion’s share of their cost would come in 2017.

TTC Costs for 2016 Improvements

Item                                 2016 Part   2017 Full
                                     Year Cost   Year Cost
                                       ($ m)       ($ m)

Bus service reliability                  2.0         5.8
Subway service reliability               0.9         2.6
Early morning subway service             1.1         3.0
New/enhanced bus service                 1.7         4.9

Total                                    5.7        16.3

For 2017, Mayor Tory proposes a 2.6% reduction in the subsidy. If this is implemented, the 2017 subsidy would drop to $481.7m, only $41.6m more than the level in the last year of the Ford administration. Relative to that year, the City’s “investment” in transit improvements is much less than the announcement might claim.

TTC Operating Subsidy ($ m)           Budget       Change
                                                 From 2014
2014 (Last Ford year)                  440.1
2015 (First Tory year)                 478.9        38.8
2016                                   494.6        54.5
2017 (proposed 2.6% cut)               481.7        41.6

Cumulative total                                   134.9

The TTC faces costs not just for new and improved service, but for inflationary increases and these affect the entire expense budget of $1.7 billion, or $17m for every 1%.

Although the TTC received its subsidy in 2015 including money for the listed improvements, some non-service items did not move forward. There has been no progress on acquiring a leased bus storage facility, and this is responsible for severe overcrowding at existing garages. No mention of this scheme was made during the bus fleet plan presentation at the TTC Budget Committee meeting on September 6. Similarly, the proposed consolidation of warehouse space has not taken place, and it is unclear when any spending related to it will happen.

Updated September 8 at 9:47 am: The TTC’s Brad Ross advises:

“… we have leased a warehouse in the Unilever property for the next 7 years to tide us over while we determine the long term warehouse strategy for the TTC.”

This means that most of the $36m ($5.8m 2015, $30.2m 2016) in proposed “investments” did not actually occur.

The 50 bus purchase that had been timed for 2015-16 was actually completed in 2015, and all of its cost was paid out in that year. This absorbed the shortfall in spending on the proposed leases in 2015, but there is still that $36m unspent from the claimed investments.

Updated September 8 at 10:21 am:

The “subway service resiliency” was supposed to improve subway service:

Subway Service Resiliency: $1.0 million. Two additional peak period subway trains will be added on each of Lines 1 (Yonge-University-Spadina) and 2 (Bloor-Danforth) to improve service reliability.

In fact there has been no change in the scheduled service on Line 2 Bloor-Danforth. On Yonge-University, some “gap trains” (spare trains used for service adjustments) have been converted to scheduled trains, but the total number of trains in service and the scheduled frequency are the same as in early 2015. The recent extension of AM peak short turn service north to Glencairn was accomplished with 3 new trains and 1 reassigned gap train.

Line 1 Yonge-University-Spadina
                    Service Trains          Gap Trains
                    Jan/15  Aug/16  Sep/16  Jan/15 Aug/16 Sep/16 
AM Peak Trains         46      48      53      4      2      1
AM Peak Frequency     2'21"   2'21"   2'21"
PM Peak Trains         49      51      51      2      0      0
PM Peak Frequency     2'31"   2'31"   2'31"


Line 2 Bloor-Danforth
                    Service Trains
                    Jan/15  Sep/16
AM Peak Trains         45      45
AM Peak Frequency     2'21"   2'21"
PM Peak Trains         42      42
PM Peak Frequency     2'31"   2'31"

John Tory talks a good, if somewhat repetitive, story about how he rescued the TTC from the Ford-era cuts, but in fact the amount of new money his administration has put into transit operations is quite small. Improvements, such as they are, have been funded at least as much by cutbacks in overall TTC budgets and by fare hikes.

Much of the $135 million exists only as a line in a press release.