Budget season brings some of the more extreme and ill-informed statements from the Poo-Bahs who govern our fair city. For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the Gilbert & Sullivan operatta “The Mikado”, the Oxford Dictionary defines the name/term thus:
A person having much influence or holding many offices at the same time, especially one perceived as pompously self-important.
Throughout the development of the TTC Operating Budget, a central question has been that of projected ridership and the service it will require. The accept wisdom goes roughly like this:
- We expected lots and lots of new riders in 2016, but we aimed rather high, a “stretch target” as CEO Andy Byford described it.
- They didn’t all show up. This led to a shortfall both in ridership and in revenue compared to the original 2016 budget.
- Service improvements were planned for fall 2016 based on the target numbers, but as there are fewer riders, the improvements were not required.
- Ridership for 2017 is projected to be only barely above 2016 levels, and the service operating in fall 2016 is adequate to handle the demand.
- There is no provision in the 2017 budget for service increases beyond the full-year effect of changes made partway through 2016.
All of this is quite plausible, but it runs headlong into conflicts with other factors. The most recent of these is a letter from Mayor Tory and TTC Chair Josh Colle to Bombardier complaining about the late delivery of streetcars.
Crowding, What Crowding?
This letter informs us that the quality of TTC service is affected by the availability of the streetcar fleet, and in turn, of the bus fleet which has been partly diverted to serve streetcar routes. The letter is quite clear in saying that crowding results from diversion of buses to the streetcar routes, and from a lack of reliable streetcars.
That is not the same thing as “we don’t need any more service because there isn’t enough demand”. Indeed, even if the TTC had a larger reliable fleet, it would have no money in the 2017 budget, nor available headcount (i.e. authority to hire more drivers) to bring these vehicles out onto the street. The vehicle shortage and Bombardier’s late deliveries are actually helping the TTC and Mayor Tory impose his limits on service expansion. Without them, he would have an embarrassment of idle vehicles.
We have seen this problem at the TTC before where attempts to improve service (the Ridership Growth Strategy under Mayor Miller) were thwarted by a shortage of vehicles and operators. TTC management plans to bring an updated RGS to their Board in January 2017, but unless both the Board and City Council approve funding and staff, nothing can happen during 2017 except by shuffling service from one route or time period to another. This is “fine tuning”, an exercise in “efficiencies”, not a commitment to a broad-based improvement in service.
If routes are overcrowded, the first thing the TTC owes everyone is a detailed list of when and where this is taking place. How many buses and streetcars are we really short of requirements, and if they were available, what would be the budgetary effect simply of getting up to the service standard set by the Board? If we are already at this standard, how can Tory and Colle claim that crowding is the result of a vehicle shortage?
One big problem with crowding is that, beyond a certain point, it does not really measure demand. How many people could not get on because a bus was full? How many people gave up and walked or hailed a cab because their streetcar never showed up?
Budget hawks whose attitude to transit roughly equates to “there’s always room for one more on the roof” ignore this problem of latent demand and abandoned attempts to ride the TTC. They would rather talk about how there must be even more money the TTC can wring from its operations to avoid higher subsidies. They don’t see the taxicabs trolling major routes for fares whenever there is a gap in service (they’re not hard to find) and picking off would-be TTC customers.
How Is The Bus Fleet Used?
An important starting point is an understanding of the way the bus fleet provides supplementary service for a variety of reasons. First and most obvious in this context is the use of buses to replace streetcars. In January 2017, the peak number of buses operating on streetcar routes will be:
- 501 Queen: 23
- 502 Downtowner: 9
- 503 Kingston Road Tripper: 7
- 504 King: 12
- 511 Bathurst: 17
- Total: 68
In the case of 501 Queen, the number of buses is driven by the need to break the line at Roncesvalles for construction. If not for this project, it is unclear just how many streetcars would actually have to come off of the route to fit with maintenance needs of the old cars.
By comparison, the number of extra buses required to deal with construction delays for the Eglinton-Crosstown project are:
- 34 Eglinton East & 100 Flemingdon Park: 4 (net due to route reconfiguration)
- 51 Leslie: 1
- 54 Lawrence East: 2
- 56 Leaside: 1
- 32 Eglinton West: 3
- 33 Forest Hill: 1
- 90 Vaughan: -1
- Service Relief Buses: 3
- Total: 14
Many other routes such as 7 Bathurst and 29 Dufferin are affected by Crosstown construction, but the schedule adjustments have simply stretched the existing service over longer trip times (and hence wider headways between buses). This increases crowding because the number of buses per hour past any point is reduced.
Other projects such as the Spadina subway extension, the Renforth Gateway, the Six Points, not to mention the shortage of working trains for the SRT also contribute to the total of extra buses on various routes, but not at the scale caused by the streetcar shortage.
Another way that the available bus fleet is reduced is a change in maintenance requirements. For the January 2017 schedules, 20 buses have been cut from peak service to increase the pool available for maintenance. Affected routes are:
- Bay – 2
- Eglinton W – 2
- Glencairn – 1
- Highland Creek – 1
- Leslie – 1
- Markham Rd – 2
- Martin Grove – 1
- McCowan – 1
- McCowan N – 1
- Scarborough Rocket – 1
- Service Relief – 1
- Sheppard E – 3
- Shorncliffe – 1
- West Mall – 2
According to the TTC, all of these routes will remain within the official crowding standards even with fewer buses. I leave it to riders to comment on whether there actually is any room to spare on these routes today.
Another matter is the question of service reliability which has been examined many times on this site. Vehicles commonly operate in pairs (or only a few minutes apart) with the result that the average condition seen by most riders is the crowded first vehicle, not its roomy follower. TTC stats might report that service meets standards on average, but most riders are not on an “average” bus or streetcar. This is a long-standing problem with Toronto’s transit service about which the TTC does next to nothing if actual conditions on major routes are any indication.
Finally, it is worth looking at the scheduled service over recent years.
- The drop in scheduled buses between 2014 and 2015 results from the introduction of larger 18m vehicles which displaced the regular 12m buses on a 3:2 ratio on affected routes (roughly equivalent to a 60 bus reduction). The effect had largely worked its way into the schedules by fall 2014, and so the difference between 2014 and 2015 is not as marked later in the year.
- 2016 saw the introduction of vehicles from the order delivered in 2015, although the rise in scheduled vehicles is considerably lower than the size of the order. Based on a 105 bus order, one would expect about 88 more scheduled vehicles for 20% spares. This level of change is visible only in fall 2016, and service cuts plus redirection of buses to streetcar routes have undone much of the benefit. These are the new buses announced in the Tory/Colle press conference early in 2015.
- The peak scheduled bus count in January 2017 is the same as in November-December 2016. It is only 3.7% higher (56 buses) than the count in January 2015.
As for the streetcar service, the number of peak vehicles stayed fairly constant until 2016 when it began to drop. A small part of this is due to the introduction of larger vehicles on 510 Spadina which now has fewer new Flexitys serving it than in its days with CLRVs. The main reason for the drop is withdrawal of streetcars from service for maintenance and reliability.
In summary, yes, the TTC bought new buses early in the Tory administration, but the full increase in fleet was only briefly seen on the street, and this has now been reduced by a combination of service cutbacks and redeployment of buses to streetcar lines.
John Tory Discovers Service Shortage
During his election campaign, John Tory’s position was that everything was just fine with transit service, that more buses or streetcars were not a solution to anything, and that his SmartTrack plan would solve every problem. It was a very big chicken that would fill every available pot.
Today, SmartTrack consists of six new GO Transit stations that will be built on the City’s dime, plus the western extension of the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT to Renforth Gateway and, maybe, to Pearson Airport if someone else will pay for that part of the route. Gone is the surface-subway frequency of trains from Markham to Mississauga and all that this would imply for a transformation of the rapid transit network. Gone is a service that might carry hundreds of thousands of riders daily. All that remains is election souvenirs and the signature SmartTrack colours.
Shortly after taking office, Mayor Tory and Chair Josh Colle held a press conference to announce that, goodness gracious, the “previous administration” had made unconscionable cuts to the TTC and taken service away from people who really needed it. This about-face compared to his election stance was a pleasant surprise, but it brought nowhere near the resources one might expect to see on the transit system. A promised investment of $95 million turned out to be roughly half that amount once other cuts to the TTC’s budget were taken into account. The TTC is buying new buses ostensibly for more service, but does not have the budgeted resources to operate them.
On the heaviest streetcar line, 504 King, the TTC talks about adding more capacity by running buses on the route, but in fact the buses only barely offset the capacity lost because streetcars have been removed. The capacity actually provided on King has not changed in years, and even this is subject to periodic disruption for events where transit takes a back seat to other civic priorities.
Meanwhile in Thunder Bay
Lest all of this appear to be an anti-Tory rant, Bombardier is no saint in this story either. They have been promising new cars but failing to deliver for a long time, and as TTC CEO Andy Byford says, “we have more schedules than streetcars”. The mess with fleet availability can be traced directly to the delays in manufacturing the new cars thanks to quality control problems that have been well documented elsewhere. The fact that the TTC is now seeing several new cars in a short period is good news (the planned 30th car is enroute to Toronto as I write this), and Bombardier will hit its oft-revised target for the end of 2016. We will, however, still be 70 cars short of where we expected to be by this time. Forty more cars are expected in 2017, but the system will still depend overwhelmingly on the remaining fleet of old cars.
The CLRV fleet (the single section cars) dates from 1977-81 while the ALRV fleet (two-section cars) were delivered in 1987-89. The CLRVs are well beyond the normal 30-year retirement age for a rail vehicle, and the ALRVs would wave their farewells in the next few years. Instead, the TTC shops are working to rebuild enough cars to keep some of the fleet in reliable shape while awaiting the rest of the Bombardier Flexitys.
According to CTV News:
In 2018, Bombardier says it will provide 76 new streetcars to the TTC and 58 in 2019. TTC staff says that works out to a rate of approximately one car every 3.3 days in 2018 and one every 4.4 days in 2019.
In his response, Bombardier Transportation Americas President Benoît Brossoit says the company has “doubled our production output over the last three months.”
“Based on these results we are fully confident that we will meet our commitment to deliver an additional 40 new streetcars in 2017 and all 204 by the end of 2019.”
He said that understand the company “may have failed to meet your expectations” but added that the slow delivery of streetcars “does not reflect the type of company Bombardier is around the world.”
That is a stunning understatement. Bombardier Transportation is headquartered in Berlin, and grew by amassing various European carbuilders along with their designs and expertise. The new Toronto streetcars are an offshoot of a design first unveiled for Berlin’s system. (Yes, gentle reader, they do have streetcars in Europe despite the best efforts of trolls on this side of the pond to claim otherwise.)
When Toronto first looked at replacement streetcars a decade ago, their first target was a vehicle with a low centre section (about 70% of the car) and two high-floor end sections. (A mockup based on Bombardier’s design for Minneapolis was displayed at Dundas Square in mid-2007.) This would have provided accessibility to a limited part of the car, but at the expense of internal circulation problems thanks to having two separate floor heights. When the Berlin 100% low floor design came along, the TTC switched direction. That change cost some time early in the project, and this was compounded by the failure to get an acceptable bid in the first round.
By the time a second round was in, only two bidders remained (Bombardier and Siemens), and Bombardier’s price was much lower than Siemens’. The contract went to Bombardier in mid-2009, and at that point completion was scheduled for mid-2018. After three prototypes, the first production vehicle was to arrive in 2012. This would allow a comparatively relaxed production rate over six years, but production delays have compressed this to a much shorter period even with the end date now in 2019. Even the 40 cars for 2017 is a rate only one third above the originally planned 30/year and this will leave 134 to be delivered in 2018 and 2019, more than double the originally planned rate.
Bombardier builds a range of vehicles over the entire rail spectrum, and wouldn’t have arrived at this position by failing to deliver on their contracts. Indeed, even in Toronto, Bombardier has churned out subway cars for years with some teething problems, but no reason to expect they were incapable of delivery. This history makes the streetcar problems even more troublesome because they were so unexpected, and they came at a time when the company was preoccupied with the survival of its aircraft business.
Bombardier has reorganized its production capacity not just for the TTC order, but for cars destined to Metrolinx LRT lines as well as Kitchener-Waterloo’s ION LRT. Plants in both Kingston, Ontario and La Pocatière, Québec have become part of the LRV manufacturing process. The overall status of delivery schedules for orders beyond the TTC remains a mystery.
Will Huffing and Puffing Get Toronto More Service?
Mayor Tory’s letter to Bombardier is timed intriguingly to land just before the City’s Budget Committee will review TTC financial plans for 2017, and during a period when demands for better service are commonly heard. If anything, this is a diversionary tactic to say “we couldn’t run more service even if we wanted to” and thereby avoid any debate over funding transit improvements. This could well pre-empt even a discussion of what might be needed and what could be done, a typical Toronto transit situation where any real discussion of improvements is sandbagged. Meanwhile, fantasies of new subway lines dance in Councillors’ heads at a cost both directly in borrowing and debt service, and indirectly in the works that never get off of the drawing board for lack of funding.
Holding down property taxes is a holy grail to the Mayor who insists on across the board cuts to spending even when the effect is to undo many of his own promises.
All of Toronto’s (and Ontario’s) capital spending on transit puts the City and the TTC on the verge of substantial increases in operating costs for day-to-day service. Rapid transit is more expensive to operate than the bus routes it replaces, and higher frequency trunk lines attract more riding on feeder routes. Any fare consolidation with GO Transit under the rubric of “SmartTrack” or “Regional Integration” will almost certainly mean additional subsidies for Toronto’s riders. Will these costs be borne from City revenues, or will riders pay for them with higher fares and service cuts? This is vital financial planning, but the area has been utterly ignored by Toronto’s politicians for years.
Recently, Mayor Tory has taken a new, combative position saying, in effect, that nobody before him on Council lifted a finger to improve transit. This is a remnant of “SmartTrack as cure-all” from his campaign days, and it does much disservice to those who fought through the Ford years to limit the damage to the transit system. Those who fight the good fight do not always win, but that failure is far different from inaction, and just keeping issues in the public eye has long-term benefits when political winds change.
The real issue before Council with the 2017 budget is that transit needs better funding, and that there are serious questions about the adequacy of transit service. Trying to shift all of the blame to Bombardier denies the very real problem that service out there on the street is not meeting riders’ expectations and needs.
A productive discussion would find out just how badly behind those needs the TTC really is and work out a way to solve this problem. That would make a great start for a re-election campaign in 2018. Making transit work better now, not in a decade’s time.
But instead, we will hear all about saving precious taxpayers dollars, building new subway lines, and nothing about improving the transit service riders face every day.