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.

8 thoughts on “Digging Into Delay Reports

  1. Steve,

    One curious recurring operational delay that is not disclosed in the article is the delay getting into the terminal stations. From my personal experience and those of my close friends, there is often a delay of up to 15mins to get to Finch and higher for Downsview as trains crawl towards the end and wait. This has gotten worse and worse over the last 5 years. It was never like this before. Now it’s a standard occurrence to wait for the train backup to clear. It’s rare to go from North York to Finch and arrive within 5mins. I understand the track geometry limits the number of trains that can proceed through but I feel the TTC isn’t using the platforms well. There was a press release a year ago where the TTC promised to improve the operations at terminals. It helped for a bit but then thugs reverted back to the delayed norm. Do you know if it was the union or lack of supervision to enforce the new behaviour?

    I wish the TTC could address some of their operational issues that are within their control. Take Finch for example, often there is a train sitting there out of service blocking a platform. Could that train not be pulled out into the tail track north of Finch to allow for both platforms to be actively used. These delays are daily and are often worse between 5:30-7pm as trains start to come out of service and when loads are highest. My friend has written to Mr. Byford on this particular issue and he promised to investigate the cause but nothing seems to happen — just more of the same.

    Steve: There are a few problems at terminals, and I really don’t think that the TTC understands what they are doing. The first thing to remember is that being “on time” is key, and the standard response to trains (i.e. operators) being late is to add time to the schedule. After all, if they are late they must need more running time, right?

    However, this extra time is likely only needed on the worst of bad days, and only during the height of the peak period. At other times it is excessive and trains get to the terminals early. However, there is only room for two of them and a backlog forms. The same problem exists on the BD line at both terminals.

    This is tricky to address because shortening the scheduled running time without changing the number of trains require that headways get closer together, and that’s not possible given the limitations of the signal system.

    A further problem arises when one platform is blocked by an out of service train because it is impossible to dispatch the peak headway from one platform. Even if the OOS train is in the far end pocket, it still creates problems because this status activates a speed restriction entering the platform, and the turnaround time goes up as a result.

    Finally there is the problem of operators being ready to take out their trains. This has been partly addressed by drop-back crewing, but even that does not always work. It will be more difficult when the TTC shifts to one person crews, and a turnaround involves a 500 foot walk for the one remaining operator, on top of whatever calls of nature might be pressing.

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  2. Steve wrote:

    Even if the OOS train is in the far end pocket, it still creates problems because this status activates a speed restriction entering the platform, and the turnaround time goes up as a result.

    That is only an issue at Finch when one of the outer pocket tracks is used for an OOS train. If all three pocket tracks are vacant, then an OOS train can be moved to the centre track and the switch can be returned to its normal position, thus eliminating the automatic speed restriction.

    Steve: It is a problem at both ends of the BD line.

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  3. There is a screaming, need for the entire budget thing to become much more clear. The TTC needs to be clear the impact of choosing to push off maintenance, in terms of service, and in terms of the sudden increase in repairs that will be required in the following periods. Out of control costs, like those that follow skipping one too many oil changes or even tire rotations for a car driver. The same as stretching those shingles too long, and ignoring the first signs of a leak in a roof.

    The constant focus on this year’s budget, appears to be making the city look like it has taken 2 year no cost financing package on furniture, and then chosen to not make the full payment at the end of the 2 years. Now we have to pay interest on the entire period, plus penalty, and that interest is 18% per annum. Sure you can save a couple of bucks this year, but it comes at the cost of hundreds next.

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  4. The infrastructure for the TTC is outdated. They need to be updated, which requires money. We can’t keep deferring and deferring and deferring.

    The Yonge Subway was built in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Knob and tube wiring was still used until the 1950’s.

    The Bloor-Danforth Subway was built in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Aluminum wiring was being installed, and in some places up to the 1970’s.

    Don’t know how much of the wiring in the Line 1 and Line 2 is out-dated. With recent electrical fires, probably we still haven’t been able to completely upgrade the wiring.

    How how of the TTC infrastructure hasn’t been upgraded to current standards because we have no money to do so, and end up deferring it?

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  5. Does the TTC charge for Access to Information? Other agencies like the police hide behind hefty Access to Information charges and even then only release information with the most damning parts blacked out. Why does TTC not charge for Access to Information as a way of raising money? Another source of revenue is charging smokers smoking on TTC property and the offenders include not just customers but also TTC drivers taking a smoke break. These are easy sources of revenue that the TTC is overlooking.

    Steve: You seem to assume that there are zillions of Access t Information requests that they could charge for. There are not. Also, by law, they can only charge the reasonable cost of fulfilling the request. It is not a profit centre.

    The amount of money that could be raised from these sources is trivial compared to the overall cost of operating the TTC ($1.7 billion annually). This is a classic example of avoiding the big issue, namely that TTC subsidies are too low, and no amount of penny-ante tinkering link this will fix it.

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  6. Steve said:

    “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’.”

    Has anybody at the TTC or Toronto City Council heard of the accounting term called “depreciation”?

    It was invented in the 18th or 19th century, so not something recently devised. I suspect few councillors have studied economics, commerce, or business, judging by their actions. Probably they are mostly poli-sci majors. Or trolls.

    So, a fleet of subway cars with a 25-yr life expectancy would require the equivalent of 1/25 th of their value to be socked away every year into a capital replacement fund. PLUS an inflation adjustment. At the 25-year mark, there would (surprise) be the money to buy a replacement fleet! The miracle of good accounting practices. (Late delivery of cars from Bombardier notwithstanding.)

    If the “golden, maintenance-free period” comes to an end, that is a real depreciation expense, which ought to have been foreseen.

    If somewhere half-way in their life expectancy they would require generally a 33% of original cost maintenance and rebuild (it might just as well be 50% or 60%), that amount would have to built in to the depreciation schedule.

    Further, government subsidies towards capital or state-of-good-repair (SOGR) tend to be random and certainly have lots of political “free lunches” attached. These random subsidies have the effect of councillors expecting to have the higher level of government covering their asses. Not good accounting or management practice!

    Steve: Depreciation is used as a mechanism to spread out the appearance of an asset as a current expense so that if I buy something with an expected life of ten years, I charge the operating account 1/10 of its value annually and reduce the balance in the capital account (i.e. the worth of the asset). The TTC does this for assets bought with its own money (very little of the total inventory), but not with assets paid for by others. The funding governments take different approaches to the handling of their capital payments, but none of them carry the physical asset (e.g. subway cars) on their books.

    The federal and provincial governments expense their subsidies as current expenditures, although Queen’s Park has been going through some gyrations in the past decade to treat assets it build itself (Metrolinx projects such as Eglinton) as depreciable assets. The takeover of municipal projects by the province was as much a matter of accounting as it was of management. As a provincial “asset”, the value of, say, the Eglinton tunnel appears as an “asset” on provincial books offsetting any debt raised to build it. This makes the books look a lot better than if only the debt is sitting there with the asset in someone else’s hands.

    At the City, there is a lot of capital debt related to TTC assets, but it is on the City’s books, and the interest on this debt does not appear as an expense in the TTC accounts. (Occasionally the City will publish a number showing how much of its debt costs is TTC related, and it’s not a small number.)

    Accounting standards for municipalities changed fairly recently and capital assets/subsidies are now treated differently than before. This actually complicates figuring out what is happening and has made review of an agency like the TTC by outsiders trickier. Subsidies are now counted as “revenue”, but what happens is that the money effectively goes into a holding account and is recognized over the life of the asset. The result is that the deferred revenue and the depreciation offset each other.

    This machinery sets up a situation where, at least on paper, one has assets that could be sold for their current value at a profit or loss, but it does not create any sort of maintenance reserve. Depreciation does not do that either, and given the effects of inflation, the depreciation account does not produce anywhere near the capital needed to replace the asset. If you look at the table showing the funding of the Capital Budget, you will see an entry for “TTC Internal (depreciation)” currently running at about $30m/yr. This declines in the out years as the asset base on which depreciation is charged dwindles because less and less was purchased with “TTC” dollars.

    The City Manager has raised the question of operating budget impacts from capital projects, and the TTC is not too good at projecting this in part because nobody wants to acknowledge the future cost of something like, say, the Scarborough Subway. Another problem is that future operating projections tend to look only at the next few years, while many assets go through a relatively maintenance-free period where their true long term cost is not yet evident. Yes, one could create a reserve to pay for future maintenance, but when that is decades in the future, politicians don’t want to spend taxes today to pay future costs any more than private businesses want to build reserves rather than paying dividends. In a steady state situation where say 1/15 of the bus fleet requires a mid-life overhaul every year, these expenses are ongoing whether we call them “capital” or “operating”, but when half of the subway fleet gets to its mid-life age every 15 years or so, there are bulges in both budgetary and staffing that appear as “surprises” to those who think the expense profile will be flat. The City Manager has been encouraging the TTC to flatten out its capital maintenance needs by staging its purchases, but this is not always easy to do.

    For the purpose of looking at the operating budget and subsidy, it is important only to consider the operating accounts, not capital. Even this gets tricky because some accounts are deferred expenses, and the City holds the money in its own accounts rather than letting the TTC sit on that nest egg. On a consolidated basis, this makes no difference at all, but looking only at the TTC’s books, the subsidy actually received for year “x” is lower than the operating deficit by the amount of future expense that becomes a receivable. This will be partly offset by funds paid for past expenses that have become “current”, but I don’t think these amounts are yet in balance.

    In a Twitter thread, someone mentioned figures that are in the financial statements. There are a lot of numbers there, and it is important to select those reflecting current operations to get a sense of how the TTC is doing “today” separately from the ins and outs of funds representing old liabilities and capital movements.

    About the newspapers causing fires on the tracks and therefore delays to service, I am noticing lots of those free newspapers on all of the subway cars, abandoned, blowin’ in the wind. Of course a percentage wind up blown onto to the tracks, and then the fires. Maybe call a spade a spade, as they say, and make the newspapers pay for the service outages?

    Steve: The newspapers are an issue, and the TTC brings them up as one of the reasons it would like to spend about $1b on platform edge doors. However, it is intriguing that “fires” seem to have certain geographic concentrations suggesting that the accumulation of garbage at track level is not uniform. Moreover, some fires are electrical in origin including a serious one this year near Bloor-Yonge caused by deterioration of cables. In my own travels, the smell of overheated electrical equipment is more common than the smell one would associated with a paper fire. The TTC needs to recognize this difference and stop blaming all of its problems on one source.

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  7. W K Lis says

    “The Bloor-Danforth Subway was built in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Aluminum wiring was being installed, and in some places up to the 1970’s.”

    Aluminum wiring is not dangerous if it is installed correctly and used with proper aluminum rated parts. Aluminum wiring in houses caused problems when it was connected to unapproved switches and outlets or directly to copper wire. If installed correctly it is safe.

    Almost all overhead power lines use Aluminum Cable Steel Reinforced wire as it is much lighter and cheaper than copper wire.

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  8. When I wrote the TTC suggesting banning these free papers off their property the reply was that then they would lose the money the publishers pay to distribute them. This seemed to say the money received was greater than the cost of cleaning them up suggesting it helped pay for cleaning up other litter as well. However, if papers cause fires and train delays, is it really worthwhile?

    Steve: The TTC is good at crafting excuses to justify whatever they do, even if they directly contradict themselves.

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