The Metrolinx Board met on February 17 with the following items, among others, on their public agenda.
- Presto Update
- Regional Express Rail Update: Level Crossings
- Fare Integration
- Bombardier LRV Delivery
Updated: Replies from Metrolinx to questions clarifying their process for grade separation prioritization have been added to this article.
There are now close to 6,000 readers installed on TTC vehicles and in stations. In January 2017, total trips paid for with Presto crested 4.5 million, and during the past week (second week of February), there were 1.2 million Presto fares paid on the TTC. Over half of these fares are paid in subway stations. Across the province, Presto collected over 5 million fares.
These numbers are impressive to the untutored, but omit the fact that this is a trivial proportion of the total fare transactions on the TTC which has close to two million daily riders, and double the volume of “boardings” when transfers between vehicles are counted. This is offset by barrier-free transfers between routes at subway stations that, at least for the present, do not require one to “tap” just to change vehicles.
Presto usage is growing, but the most important changes have been to software on Presto devices. Problems with reload machines should be corrected by new software, and reliability stats have improved according to Metrolinx. The fare vending machines will be replaced beginning late in 2017 when new devices will be installed in subway stations. These will vend all fare types including the new Presto single ride tickets. This conversion is essential for opening the subway extension to Vaughan where the stations were built without the traditional collector’s booths and fare vending procedures. Entry will only be via Presto, according to Metrolinx.
On surface vehicles, there has been a problem with the operating system on the readers (it is a now unsupported version of Windows CE). Upgrades are in progress, and I can report from personal observation that out-of-service devices have been less common in the past week. Whether this is an accident of my travels, or a real improvement, we will see in time.
Metrolinx has devised a new scheme to determine when readers in the field are not working. Using a combination of reader data, cell phone records (the devices “phone home” for updates) and Nextbus tracking data, Metrolinx can distinguish between units that have failed in service and those that are sitting in out-of-service vehicles in garages. Current reliability stats are at 95%, but Metrolinx is holding off on publishing details until there is enough data available to justify claims of improvement.
Metropass functionality will come soon to Presto. This had been held back pending software updates last fall (not to mention increased capacity in the backend data centre). The intent is to gradually phase in passes on Presto cards to avoid a “big bang” effect and the problems of a fast rollout.
Other pending features include daily and weekly capping of charges to provide the equivalent of shorter term passes and children’s fares (free rides for under 12s). Also pending is support for Premium Express routes. (At the TTC Board meeting of February 21, Deputy CEO Chris Upfold advised that the capping function for weekly use would not be available until the fall pending a software upgrade, and that the daily and weekly caps would both be implemented at the same time.)
About one third of payments (reloads) are now handled online, but Metrolinx is hoping to encourage a higher proportion. (This number appears to be low, but could be due to dilution of the original GO Transit user community by more-recent Presto converts on the TTC.) A mobile point-of-sale device will be used at retail locations where riders will be able to reload their Presto cards. The participating retailer has not yet been announced.
Meanwhile, Presto cards are available at Gateway News outlets, albeit with surcharges by the vendors who are all “independent” and free to charge whatever fees they desire. This is a bizarre situation that could have been avoided if sales had been handled by TTC collectors pending the installation of robust, high volume vending equipment for fare media.
A mobile “Presto App” will be introduced concurrently with Open Payments and support for Apple Pay in late 2017 or early 2018.
A major shift will come with a move away from processing logic shared between Presto cards and readers to “backend” system processing much like online banking. This will give move flexibility in the payment products that Presto can handle because it will no longer be tied to a proprietary card. This capability is in place now and is under testing.
All of this is presented as “good news”, but one must ask why most of the Presto equipment failed to operate properly and/or was poorly designed from the outset.
[Self Service Reload Machines] were causing challenges for customers and not meeting Metrolinx standards in terms of:
- Transaction Speed
- Reliability and Availability
- Receipt printing error
After unacceptable rates of [on board vehicle reader] failures were seen in the fall multiple software updates have been applied to all PRESTO bus and streetcar readers.
[Presentation deck at pp 5 and 7]
This was clearly a system not “ready for prime time” even though it was touted, nay, forced on transit systems as Ontario’s fare collection solution. Metrolinx staff acknowledge that other systems such as Oyster are years ahead, but this begs the question of whether licensing existing technology would have been preferable to a roll-your-own system.
There are historical reasons behind some of Presto’s oddities (the state of mobile communication networks in early days being one), but these are far in the past. With a move to Open Payments and a shift to central processing of transactions, Presto will be less a proprietary technology than a brand name. This should leave Metrolinx free to concentrate on service and convenience rather than technology development, a field where the Ontario government’s record is less than stellar.
Meanwhile, negotiations with client cities continues regarding renewal of Presto operating agreements and fees, a topic that has raised considerable objection as Presto looks to increase its revenue stream. There is a certain bait-and-switch aspect to Presto and its move to be self-sufficient after years of government subsidy.
Metrolinx has undertaken a review of all of its level crossings which number 185 on the public portion of its network, and a further 51 on private properties such as farms and industrial sites. Of the 185, 46 are on the portion of the network that is not owned by Metrolinx, but by the freight railways.
As the frequent, all day service builds out on the network, more and more crossings will reach a point where the combination of train frequency, competing traffic volumes and site conditions dictate that crossings must be grade-separated for safe and reliable train operation. The crossings were all ranked based on an Exposure Index combining these factors, and staff recommended that the Board approve a list of sites for inclusion in work on the RER (Regional Express Rail) infrastructure projects. Items marked (*) below were announced in 2015, and for them planning and design is already underway.
- Lakeshore West corridor
- Burloak Drive (*)
- Kerr Street
- Lakeshore East corridor
- Galloway Road (*)
- Morningside Avenue (*)
- Scarborough Golf Club Road (*)
- Stouffville corridor
- Finch Avenue East
- Steeles Avenue East
- Barrie corridor
- McNaughton Road
- Rutherford Road
- Wellington Street East
Beyond this immediate approval, Metrolinx is working on a review of all of its crossings which they hope to complete in draft by September 2017 with a final version by December. Full details of the methodology and scoring for each crossing are in the report.
Broadly speaking, the inventory of crossings is broken down into three tiers:
This totals 115 crossings. The remaining 70 have Exposure Index values below 200,000 which Metrolinx cites as an industry standard for the point below which grade separation would not be require. The first round of grade separations selected by Metrolinx comes from the first tier, locations that they own and that will have service every 15 minutes or better.
Metrolinx policy is that they will not create new grade crossings anywhere, but there will be cases where either by acquiring new corridors or by service improvements, the ranking of sites for grade separation will change. It is unclear whether there are aspects of the Exposure Index that would trigger a widespread need for more separations, although an obvious issue would be service frequency. At some point, trains will arrive too frequently, considering bidirectional service, for the intersecting road and its traffic. This has implications in future decades of RER if the base frequency drops below 15 minutes, not to mention the potential traffic effects at stations where both development and passenger volumes would grow.
Metrolinx standard is that all crossings have at least warning lights, bells and gates, and this would apply both to existing locations and to any which are added through network expansion.
Costs are shared with the affected municipality, and where Metrolinx initiates the project, the federally-mandated split is 85/15 with Metrolinx bearing the lion’s share. The proportion can change, as it did in some Toronto projects, if other municipal works or improvements are combined with the grade separation. Metrolinx acknowledges that determining these costs up front is an important part of engaging municipalities in these projects.
I asked a few follow-up questions on this report, and here are the replies from Metrolinx:
Q1. In his presentation, Greg Percy stated that GO’s policy was that no new level crossings will be created. Does this implies that any further expansion of service (at least on GO-owned corridors) would not be undertaken without removing the level crossings? How will this policy affect any future expansion plans, especially for new services on a limited (peak only) basis? Or does the policy simply mean that GO will not agree to any new level crossings where one does not already exist?
A1. The policy is for any future crossings where one does not already exist. The Metrolinx policy is that it will not initiate any new level crossings on its network, or support any proposals by others for new level crossings.
Q2. Current plans are for RER service to operate every 15 minutes in most corridors. Is the structure of the index such that there is some critical level where the service frequency is high enough (every 10 minutes? 5 minutes?) that all other factors have little bearing and full separation is required? In other words, is there a constraint on how much more frequently service can be provided before a requirement to grade separate every crossing comes into play?
A2. There is no specific level of traffic at which a grade separation is required. In developing the analysis, combined rail and road traffic volumes were incorporated along with other factors such as accident history, the surrounding environment, the physical geography and construction considerations. As traffic increases, the option can be considered along with other measures such as enhanced crossing protection, signage and sight line improvements.
In a separate series of articles (beginning here), I have reviewed this update and related work from June 2016.
The supposed purpose of this round is simply to introduce a fourth possible scheme to the consideration, a fully fare-by-distance model. Not to belabour a point, the problem lies in the aspects of fare structure that Metrolinx chooses to ignore, and the lack of published modelling of the effects a new fare structure will have.
Metrolinx fixates on the “cross border” problem as shown by this observation:
More than 55K riders a day currently pay two fares for one trip creating a “barrier” that discourages transit use [p. 3]
To put this in context, according to the January 2017 GO Fact Sheet there were 304,000 “boardings” (one passenger boarding one vehicle). Given that most feeders to GO’s rail operations are not operated by GO itself, we can assume that the ratio of “boardings” to riders is not much above 2:1. (Most riders will make a round trip and hence count for at least two boardings, but their “last mile” journey will be by private car or local transit bus. Therefore, this link will not count as a GO Transit boarding.) This gets the number of daily riders down to somewhere in the 150k range, possibly lower. And so for GO, those cross-border trips represent about 1/3 of their rider base.
However, the TTC carries about 1.8 million rides per day, which translates to many more boardings (the average TTC rider transfers once per trip), and many more individual riders than on the GO system. Cross-border fares are annoying, but they affect a minority of TTC riders. That is not to say they should be left as-is, but any change should not come at the expense of higher fares to most TTC riders who would not benefit from a cross-border discount.
Metrolinx staff acknowledge that they need to understand the implementation effects of a new fare system, who it will affect the most, and what short of “cultural change” it will bring in how people view transit services. The fundamental problem remains that any proposed scheme will:
Increase customer mobility and transit ridership while maintaining the financial sustainability of GTHA’s transit services
At full implementation, fare integration aspires for commuting costs to be no more than they are today. [p. 4]
In other words, Metrolinx is still hung up on revenue neutrality, and hopes somehow that costs for riders will not change. Both goals are simply not possible. A study from June 2016 has already established that a new fare scheme will incur a net cost because new discounts offered to one set of riders will not be offset by added fare revenue. As for keeping commuting costs to “no more than they are today”, that is applicable only to all riders, and there will both winners and losers as the fare revenue shuffles around.
By June, Metrolinx expects to have enough information for a round of “engagement” on a decision with the municipalities. Just how subtle those discussions will be and which options will be offered remains to be seen. In particular, a fait accompli with a single, predetermined fare structure and philosophy is not “engagement”. The last thing municipalities need to hear is that a single scheme has already been recommended to and approved by the Metrolinx Board.
Conversations with the regional Mayors and Chairs to date have been on an individual basis, not as a group, and the dynamics are quite different. As one Metrolinx director observed, “the devil is in the dollars”, and with the bulk of trips taking place inside of Toronto, there is a political problem. Raising fares on 90% of riders for the benefit of 10% simply won’t fly. However, there is a related problem with Mayor Tory whose SmartTrack scheme requires some sort of fare integration, and his willingness to rock the boat on a Metrolinx proposal may be compromised by a desire to advance his pet project.
Another director noted that a proposed fare-by-distance framework could appear good, but tap on/off requirements could clog up transit operations. This type of requirement is not unknown internationally, but Presto as implemented (especially on the TTC) is not oriented to serve “tap offs” well. Indeed we have yet to see how it will work with only the full volume of “tap on” traffic. Aside from system capacity issues, there will almost certainly be a need for more readers on vehicles (both for volume and facing appropriately for both boarding and alighting passengers), and changes in subway stations to deal with the very large volume of riders who now make barrier-free surface to subway connections. The implications have not been thought through, at least not publicly.
One director asked whether there are warning signs on political issues that might arise. Metrolinx staff replied that operators (the various transit systems) “all agree” that the fare by distance scheme is useful and helpful, but without specifics it is hard to know just what they have “agreed” to. Moreover, that opinion is at a staff level and does not necessarily reflect what will happen when the implications reach the politicians.
Director Carl Zehr, a former Mayor of Kitchener, asked about integration with municipalities beyond the 905, and worried that local systems would be forced into adopting Presto. It is clear that this system is still not universally welcomed, or at least trusted.
An intriguing thread emerged from Leslie Woo, Metrolinx Chief Planning Officer, who noted that a metric of social benefits (a common part of benefits analyses for capital projects) needs to be part of the discussion. Metrolinx undertakes very large capital projects that bring ongoing financing and operating expenses that are simply part of the cost of doing business. Meanwhile, fare subsidies to address implementation of a new fare structure and limit its negative effects could have a higher payback as an “investment”. She hopes to present an update to the Board incorporating this view in June 2017. The challenge, of course, will be to get political buy-in.
If Metrolinx had started with that outlook rather than seeking some sort of revenue neutral scheme that inevitably would penalize some riders, this whole process and debate could have been much simpler over a year ago.
CEO Bruce McCuaig claimed that, at present, there is no “front runner” among the possible fare systems, and that there is a lot of work still to do. In the short term, a proposal may take elements of the options under review. Chair Rob Prichard noted that the purpose of this report was simply to get Option 4, full fare by distance, on the table for consideration.
The sound of an organization tip-toeing back from a potentially contentious position is unmistakable.
Following the meeting, I posed questions of Metrolinx about their studies. The following is from an email reply of February 21, 2017.
Q1. Are there any additional studies including any related to the newly proposed Option 4 (fare by distance) before the Board today?
A1. There is no additional documentation being published at this time.
Q2. In the June 2016 study, there is one example of a potential new fare structure, but an observation that there are many more permutations possible. Two questions about this:
a. What additional configurations have been studied, e.g. higher or lower differences between fare classes?
Each of the four concepts being analysed could have a near-infinite number of permutations. A fare structure’s overall performance can be affected by factors such as the absolute prices charged, relative pricing differences between service types, definitions of service types, transfer/stopover policy, and a whole variety of choices related to how distance travelled gets reflected in the fare. Those would include the size and layout of any fare zones, the shape of a fare-by-distance curve (i.e. its slope and whether flat sections or inflection points are included) and the exact method for calculating distance, to name a few.
During this initial analysis phase, Metrolinx and its consultant have created and tested hundreds of different variants in order to estimate the range of possible performance by all four concepts and identify common themes in terms of opportunities and limitations.
It is important to bear in mind that considerations beyond the structure, such as what products are offered, further impact performance.
b. The study concentrates on the effect of a new fare structure on cross-boundary travel. Has the effect on riders within Toronto been studied considering that the distances associated with various fare tiers been calculated and detailed?
While to date most of the public conversation has been about fare barriers associated with cross-boundary travel, the study is taking a holistic view of the regional transit network and is concerned with trips of all types. The way a fare structure handles the large number of trips that are internal to the City of Toronto (including both those that are on the TTC only, and those that already involve GO or could theoretically involve GO) is of tremendous importance and will be carefully considered as we continue to advance analysis.
Considering the amount of consultation that has already taken place at the political and staff level, and the claim that a recommendation will likely be made in June 2017, the analysis should be sufficiently advanced to give both a general picture of the effect of various fare schemes if only to make sense of these consultations. It is self-evident that there are hundreds of permutations and effects, but the interaction of these should be reasonably well understood by now. We should not arrive at a recommendation cast in stone, one that will automatically receive the weight, such as that might be, of “board approval” without a better understanding of the options.
It is ironic that other parts of Metrolinx have learned the hard way that simply dropping a solution into the public realm is a recipe for disaster, and that it undermines Metrolinx’ reputation. The Fare Integration Study appears to be headed straight for the same type of blunder.
Bombardier LRV Deliveries
The issues surrounding the lawsuit between Metrolinx and Bombardier has been covered in the press in some detail, and I am not going to attempt to summarize the positions of the two parties here. In brief, Metrolinx has served notice to Bombardier that it wishes to cancel its vehicle contract for non-performance, and Bombardier has sued claiming that Metrolinx has misrepresented the state and history of its order.
Bombardier has contracted to provide Metrolinx with 182 vehicles, an order that was originally part of the much-delayed Toronto streetcar purchase, but hived off to Metrolinx when Queen’s Park took over the Transit City projects from Toronto. Metrolinx faces problems on a few fronts even when the cars are delivered:
- Only 76 cars are required for Eglinton-Crosstown and 23 for Finch.
- The status of eastern and western extensions of the Crosstown to University of Toronto Scarborough Campus and to Pearson Airport is dubious given rising costs of competing transit projects.
- The Sheppard East LRT, although still mentioned in recent government economic statements, is under heavy fire from the Scarborough Liberal Caucus who are pushing for an east-west subway extension, not an LRT.
- Some of the Metrolinx cars will go to the Mississauga and Hamilton LRT projects, if these ever get off the ground into construction.
- None of the cars is required in the immediate future, and Metrolinx has no place to store a large fleet if one were delivered. The new carhouse at Mount Dennis is only at the very early stage in its construction. (This is reminiscent of the TTC’s position when delays at Leslie Barns were offset by delays in new vehicle arrivals.)
- When a car is accepted, the clock starts ticking on the warranty (which is paid for as part of the purchase). It is conceivable that if cars were delivered now, they would be out of warranty well before the lines for which they were bought entered service.
Bombardier’s position is hardly angelic. Their deliveries for Toronto are well behind schedule, and without a major reorganization of their production facilities to repatriate work from Mexico to Canada, it is doubtful Toronto would ever see its new fleet. Even though the first car for the Kitchener-Waterloo ION LRT line has been shipped, much work remains on it although the extent of this has not been published.
What is even more appalling is that this company is supposed to be a Canadian success story, and it has built hundreds of vehicles for Toronto and other North American clients in years past. The European operation churns out new cars similar to those ordered by Metrolinx for many cities. Meanwhile, the company’s owners appear more interested in building airplanes and soliciting government subsidies. Management turnover at the Canadian rail operations is distressingly high leading to concerns about management frustration and project continuity.
Metrolinx public statements have been unusually forceful considering the charmed life Bombardier leads in political circles, but the details of both sides’ claims will not come out until the court case begins in a few weeks.
Bombardier Statement Re Metrolinx (Feb. 9, 2017)
Statement by Metrolinx Chair Rob Prichard (Feb. 17, 2017)