Toronto Council recently approved further study on both the “Relief” subway line, and the Yonge Subway Extension north to Richmond Hill. This approval came with several caveats about the timing of projects and the sharing of both capital and operating costs for the YSE.
Meanwhile riders who attempt to use the system as it is are expected to take hope from the fact that “Relief” might appear in only 15 years.
The entire debate about subway capacity in Toronto has, for many years, taken place in among incomplete information, policy directions that looked outward from the core to the suburbs, and in some cases blatant misrepresentation of the complexity of problems the City of Toronto faces.
A major issue throughout the debates has been that individual projects, or even components of projects, are discussed as if they are free-standing “solutions” to the problem when they are only one of many necessary components. Costs are low-balled by omission of critical parts of an overall plan, and the pressures on capital spending are understated by artificially planning major projects beyond the 10-year funding window used for City budgets. This gives the impression that money is “available” for other projects within the City’s financial capacity by stealing headroom in future plans to pay for things that, strictly speaking, should have a lower priority.
The situation is not helped one bit by the lack of strategic planning at the TTC and City where serving the political philosophy of the day often takes precedence over taking a wider view. Indeed the TTC Board, at times, almost prefers to be ignorant of the details because this would force a re-examination of cherished political stances. At Council, although Toronto now has its “Feeling Congested” study and an attempt at prioritization of projects, efforts continue to advance schemes near and dear to individual Councillors who simply will not accept that their wards are not the centre of the known universe.
What Toronto desperately needs is a thorough review of its rapid transit plans and the funding needed to achieve them. This must take into account, and modify where needed, the historical reasons we are in the current situation, and examine what can be done for the future, when this can be achieved and at what cost. The cost question must come second, in the sense that determining what the City needs is an essential first step. Only then can we examine possible alternative ways to address the issues, the cost this will bring and the funding mechanisms that might be used.
History: The Queen (Don Mills) Subway
Fifty years ago, the TTC was considering a subway line that would begin on Queen Street downtown and run in an L-shaped route east and north to connect to the Danforth Subway. Initially this might be operated with streetcars, and later be converted to a subway. A variant on this scheme appears in a 1973 TTC drawing showing the line continuing north through Thorncliffe Park to Don Mills & Eglinton. This is not exactly a new idea, and it must be remembered that, at the time, there was a lot less of suburban Toronto than exists today.
Needless to say, these proposals sat on the shelf for various reasons. One big one was cost, especially as there were competing proposals for other lines like the Spadina and Yonge extensions. Technology debates were another issue, and at one point the line might have been built with the technology used for the Scarborough RT (including some appalling proposals for an elevated structure in the heart of downtown).
As demand built on the subway system through the booming 1980s, a capacity crisis on the lower part of the Yonge line, and specifically at Bloor-Yonge station, spawned the Improved Headway Study for the YUS line. Included in this study were proposals to:
- Substantially revise the structure at Bloor station by addition of a third platform to spread out interchange traffic, and
- A future reduction of subway headways using Automatic Train Control (ATC) to as low as 90 seconds (compared to the current 140).
The scheme for Bloor station has subsequently been abandoned because of its complexity, but there remains an idea to add a new platform at Yonge station (on the Bloor line) much as a second platform was added at Union. This would separate eastbound and westbound traffic onto separate platforms each with its own circulation elements to the Bloor station above.
The (Temporary) Evaporation of a Need for Relief
Come the 1990s, a major recession cut 20% off of TTC ridership, and the problem with subway crowding vanished. In this context, the idea of extending the line north ceased to regard capacity as a limitation, and momentum began to build for this option, especially in York Region.
Reducing headways to 90 seconds would yield a capacity increase of about 50% (40 trains per hour vs 26), and this supposed extra capacity was routinely cited by TTC management as a preferred alternative to the cost of a Relief Line. This argument continued well into the 2000s even as the Yonge line started to fill up with new and returning riders.
The need for relief “someday” became apparent by the 2010s, and a future line started to appear as a long-range consideration. The situation, as summed up in the Downtown Rapid Transit Expansion Study (October 2012) was:
1. Relieving congestion on Yonge subway south of Yonge-Bloor [is a] critical regional strategic issue
2. New subway trains, Automatic Train Control, provide Yonge subway capacity for 15-20 years
• extending Yonge Subway to Richmond Hill brings overcrowding 10 years earlier
3. Fundamental Metrolinx issues (beyond scope of this study):
• almost all growth coming from regions
• role of GO Rail within Toronto, improved use of rail corridors
4. New Rapid Transit to downtown required to relieve congestion
• funding yet to be determined
• requires continuing work with Metrolinx on options and funding
• continue TTC work to determine alignment of new RT line
The assumptions about subway capacity included:
• New Toronto Rocket Trains (2014): +10% capacity
• Automatic Train Control (ATC) (2016): ≤+35%
• Extension of University-Spadina Subway (2016):
• attract customers away from Yonge: +4% capacity
The new TR trains are already in service, and their additional capacity has been eaten up by latent demand on the subway. The ATC project now underway is expected to complete in 2019, but the TTC has now reduced its potential benefit to about 28% based on a minimum headway of 110 seconds, a substantial change from their earlier hoped-for 90 second headways.
Traffic diversion to the extended Spadina line is limited, about the equivalent of one trainload of passengers in the peak hour. While the TYSSE will no doubt benefit York University as well as future developments in Vaughan, it will not do a lot to help with congestion problems on the Yonge line.
The headroom for growth assumed in the 2012 study has been consumed (TR trains) or reduced (ATC) pushing up the importance of a new line. Combined with the loss of ten years thanks to projected demand from a Yonge extension, what was once a distant project has assumed a new importance.
Congestion is a Bigger Problem than Bloor-Yonge Station
Back in the 1980s, the congestion problem was viewed as having one place, and one site where a “solution” was required: Bloor-Yonge station. The situation today is much different in that demand flowing south on the Yonge line now causes backlogs of waiting passengers well north of Bloor, and this will not be helped by diverting riders around the Bloor-Yonge interchange. What is needed is the interception of riders before they even get to the Yonge line, and there are two options for this.
One is the improvement of service on the GO Richmond Hill corridor, but this is constrained by various considerations:
- The route is comparatively slow, and significant works are required both to flood-proof the route and upgrade it for more frequent, bidirectional service. It is worth noting that this corridor is not part of the GO/RER network expansion now underway.
- Train service from Richmond Hill now operates half-hourly in the peak period. Reducing this to a 15 minute headway would add only two GO trains’ capacity to the corridor. This is not trivial, but it is no panacea either. Frequent service north of the York Subdivision (the CN line parallel to Highway 7) must complete for track time with freight operations.
- Fares on GO trains are not competitive with the TTC, and it is clear that York Region expects a “TTC fare” from Richmond Hill to downtown much as they will get a single fare from Vaughan Centre. Shifting traffic to GO is difficult when a more frequent and cheaper option is available.
The other is a line within Toronto paralleling the Yonge subway to the east much as the Spadina line does to the west. This is the extended version of the Relief Line (now dubbed the “Don Mills Subway”) that would run north to Sheppard. Although this line would be expensive to build, the projected diversion of traffic off of Yonge is very substantial according to the Metrolinx study.
However, a problem remains on the Bloor-Danforth line where riders are unable to board during peak periods inbound at stations close to the core, especially on the Danforth side. Intercepting traffic that now feeds into the Danforth subway via buses with a subway line further north could reduce Danforth demand. Some reduction might also come from the “SmartTrack” service on GO/RER with rides at a TTC fare from Scarborough stations to the core.
Discussion of subway congestion focuses on the AM peak and inbound travel. However, there is a big problem outbound in the afternoon that additional subway capacity can address on the YUS line. But this will trigger a problem for the BD line at its transfer stations, Bloor-Yonge and St. George, where more frequent YUS service will now deliver riders at a faster rate wishing to transfer to outbound trains. Station capacity and transfer demand is not just an issue for the AM peak inbound, but for the PM peak as well.
A similar problem will develop at the well-used stations south of Bloor where a 110 second headway of trains will deliver passengers to platforms at a rate 28% higher than today. Some of these stations are quite constrained for exit capacity, especially if pathways are constrained or out of service (e.g. for escalator repairs).
Fleet and Facilities Planning
An important factor that is often overlooked from subway capacity discussions is that passengers need trains to ride in. In general, better service means more trains with a few, limited exceptions:
- If the operating speed of a line can be increased, the number of trains to provide a given level of service drops, or more service can be provided with the same number of trains.
In practice, there are few opportunities to speed up a line, but they include:
- Faster trains
- Reduced dwell time at stations
- Reduced turnaround time at terminals
The TTC has settled on a “typical” operating speed for its trains ever since it abandoned “high rate” operation on the Bloor-Danforth subway many decades ago. This decision was taken because equipment then in use (the “H-1” trains) developed severe mechanical problems when run at high speed. Higher speed also increases the demands on track maintenance. Any change in operating speed requires (a) equipment capable of faster travel and (b) a decision to invest the necessary money in maintenance.
Station dwell times can be reduced only if the demand for boarding and alighting goes down. This is achieved either through lighter demand (and less friction between passengers in cars and on platforms), or by separate loading and unloading platforms. Neither of these is practical for the existing system.
Turnaround times are affected both by the track geometry at terminals (which dictates the length of time trains can block each other from entering and leaving), train length and operator behaviour. The latter can be a major problem if a crew is not ready to take a train out of the terminal when it is ready to leave. One Person Train Operation, a TTC goal, may trigger further problems because an operator will have to walk the length of the platform to change directions.
Turnarounds are also affected by scheduling, and riders are already familiar with queues of trains that build up on the approaches to terminals. This arises from excessive scheduled running time and trains that typically arrive “early” with no platform available because earlier trains are waiting to depart. As scheduled headways get shorter, the ability of a line to absorb padded schedules will dwindle.
The TTC’s Fleet Plans for its subway lines do not provide for all of the potential changes, or at least not on a timely basis. There are two types of cars, the Toronto Rockets or TRs on YUS, and the T-1 cars on BD. Some T-1 cars formerly operated on the Sheppard line, but they have been replaced by 4-car TR sets.
Line 1 Yonge-University-Spadina
The TTC’s fleet plan for YUS is shown in the table below which is taken from the 2017-2026 Capital Budget “Blue Books” Section 4.12 (Subway Car Purchases).
This plan shows an addition of six trains for the TYSSE’s opening, and that will provide service with every alternate train running through to Vaughan. The turnback point will likely be the pocket track at Finch West station.
In 2020-21, six trains are added to provide additional capacity and exploit ATC. Note that this is less than a 10% increase, not the 28% routinely touted for the post-ATC environment. The basic problem, as is evident in the chart, is that the TTC does not have enough trains to make a 28% increase in service on YUS. Therefore, it is not valid to claim that this represents headroom for ridership growth at least until more trains are procured. There is an unfunded $287 million project in the budget starting in the late 2020s to build up the fleet with 10 more trains. Note that 5 of these are earmarked in the plan above for introduction in 2027.
Once the TYSSE opens and the service requirement is 63 trains, a 28% increase would be 20 trains (including spares) less the buffer of 4 “contingency” trains available in 2017. Therefore, the TTC’s plans do not currently include enough equipment, even out to 2031, to fully exploit ATC or provide all of its claimed additional capacity.
Additional trains require storage space, and this will be provided both at Wilson Yard and at a new storage area at Richmond Hill station, but the latter would not be available until that extension (for which there are no trains in the plan above) opens.
Line 2 Bloor-Danforth
The fleet plan for BD is rather odd in that it reflects a point when the Scarborough Subway was intended to open earlier than its now-projected 2026 date.
The TTC owns enough T1 trains, thanks in part to their displacement from the Sheppard line, to operate the BD line including an extension to Scarborough but only with alternate trains turning back at Kennedy in the peak period. Full service to Scarborough Town Centre is not possible with the current fleet, and so this depends on the onset of a T1 fleet replacement now planned for the late 2020s. Note that the table above contains only minimal provision for additional trains beyond those needed to operate the SSE
A related problem is that the T1s would be expensive to convert to ATC operation, and yet the Scarborough extension will almost certainly be under ATC control. The TTC has not explained how they plan to deal with this situation. ATC conversion of the existing BD line is planned for the period immediately after the YUS project completes in 2019, and it would be completed before the SSE opens.
There is no room at Greenwood Yard for additional trains, and moreover “unit” trains like the TRs, which are planned for BD, will not fit in some of the existing yard and shop layout because Greenwood was designed around two-car sets.
The City/TTC are in the process of acquiring property for a new yard near Kipling Station, and this would substantially take over the function now provided by Greenwood for the BD line. The Capital Budget does not include any money for construction of the new carhouse. Depending on the timing of the new subway car order for BD, this facility could be needed in the early 2020s if the fleet is to be in place for opening of the SSE.
TTC management expects to present a consolidated plan for renewal of Line 2 BD to the TTC Board in July 2017. The timing of projects within this plan will be critical as they will affect overall capital spending patterns and could bring projects that have been “parked” beyond the City’s ten-year planning window into the current period when funding is tight.
Line 4 Sheppard
With the acquisition of the new TR trains for Line 4 Sheppard, there are no plans to increase service on this line in the foreseeable future.
Davisville and Greenwood Yards
Davisville now hosts a combination of trains for YUS and Sheppard, as well as part of the growing subway work car fleet. Work is now underway to expand the carhouse building so that six-car TR sets will fit indoors on the easternmost tracks that had originally been designed for shorter train consists. There is a benefit to operating some YUS service out of Davisville because the line can be “loaded” at both ends, thereby reducing the elapsed time to build service up and down for peak periods. (The planned storage at Richmond Hill will add to the “east side” capacity.)
Greenwood also hosts part of the work fleet, and more could be based there once the BD line’s fleet is operating primarily from Kipling. Another potential use for Greenwood would be to host trains for a Relief line that would almost certainly use the shorter 4-car consist now seen on Sheppard.
The single greatest barrier to any capital projects in Toronto is that the City’s appetite for capital considerably exceeds the money that is available. This arises from several factors:
- The City has a self-imposed policy that the cost of debt servicing should not exceed 15% of property tax income averaged over a ten-year period. This cap, in turn, results from both the amount of tax coming from existing and new development, and the increases, if any, in property taxes imposed by Council. (The provincially mandated cap is 25%, but Toronto opts for a lower value to maintain a favourable credit rating.)
- The value of projects in the pipeline and on various wishlists considerably exceeds the available capital.
- Cost sharing agreements with other governments, such as the Federal infrastructure program, can trigger the need for the City to pony up its share for projects that it might not yet have included in its spending projections.
- There is a bulge in approved capital spending that prevents the addition of any new projects to the pipeline from 2018 until the early 2020s unless additional tax revenue, borrowing room or external funding becomes available.
These considerations affect not just transit projects, but all capital works the City might undertake notably major road projects or renovation of public housing stock. This article has reviewed the situation for subway lines, but there is a long queue of transit and non-transit projects threatened by the City’s funding limitations.
The situation is not unique to Toronto, and both provincial and federal programs push a lot of their proposed funding into the future when, they hope, financial times will be better and they can afford to be generous. But spend today? Not happening.
A common refrain heard during budget debates is that the City should simply let the private sector take over the projects. This is not necessarily a good idea because the private sector cannot borrow as cheaply as the City and typically wants to make money on anything it does invest on the City’s behalf. Also, there is a substantial layer of cost and complexity to managing the contract that must be measured against any imputed savings from the partnership. These arrangements are not a one-size-fits-all solution, and in any event deal with marginal savings on projects, not on the much larger overall funding needs of big ticket items like a Relief line. Partnerships are a financing mechanism, a way to offload some of the immediate costs of borrowing and to transfer some risks associated with project delivery to a separate entity. But there will remain the ongoing cost of paying for that investment and its operation.
How Quickly Could We Build?
A common question about the Relief line (or any other big project) is “why should this take so long”, especially when we see cities elsewhere in the world building new lines at a much faster rate. Part of the answer is technical – local geology and construction complexity – and part can simply be the benefit of a city having an established tradition and team of building that just never stops.
But a big part of the problem is financial. Toronto’s endless debates about rapid transit spending have always had a “who goes first” quality to them. Everyone wants their project to be at the head of the queue because they “deserve” the first of any new transit spending. Sheppard West station (formerly Downsview) exists simply because it was common to competing demands for a subway extension either north to York U, or east along Sheppard (a perennial favourite of local Councillors who talk of a “North York Relief Line” with straight faces). One of the hoped-for benefits of the Transit City Plan, leaving aside the debates over technology, was that it put many lines on the map at one go, with the intention that they all be built in a timeframe people could believe in. Alas, that was not to happen, and we are left with a Scarborough megaproject elbowing everything else out of its way.
Toronto should be able to build a Relief line in less than 14 years, but this would require the commitment of political capital (“this is a city building project”), and investment on an accelerated scale. The Crosstown project includes 10 kilometres of tunnel and many underground stations, and it is not taking 14 years to build.
The question that should be asked is this: if we wanted “Relief” sooner, would it be possible? What prevents us from having a new line in, say, 10 years? The answers may not be palatable in that the folks who are squashed onto subway cars never seem to be around when blowhards campaign against “runaway taxes”. If Council really does not care to improve transit, except in the backyards of a few key wards, then it should say so.
But as long as any newfound money is immediately blown on this week’s pet project, Toronto will always wonder why the things we need never get built.