Comparison of Streetcar and Bus Operations on 501 Queen (Part IV)

In this section of my review of bus and streetcar operations on Queen Street, I turn to a comparison of operating speeds by each type of vehicle over the route. The charts presented here show operating speeds for the first week of May 2017 (streetcar) and the second week (bus) between Neville Loop and Roncesvalles.

By way of introduction, here is one page from a set of charts.

On this chart, streetcar data are plotted in orange and bus data in blue. The streetcar data are “on top” so that bus data peek out from behind showing the peaks where buses are operating faster than streetcars.

Each chart set has many pages, one for each hour of the day from 6:00 am to midnight. The values plotted give the average of vehicle speeds along the route. The example above shows vehicles westbound on Queen during the PM peak hour of 5:00 to 6:00 pm. The chart should be read from left-to-right, the direction of travel. (Charts for eastbound operations have the same layout, but should be read from right-to-left.) The sawtooth form of the chart arises from locations where vehicles stop and the spaces in between where they are in motion.

Approaching a stop, especially one where there is a backlog of traffic from the stop, there will be a gradual decline in speed, but then a fast pickup afterward as the vehicles move off. Locations with serious congestion and queueing will show up as an extended area of low speed corresponding to vehicles creeping forward to the stop.

The evolution of traffic speeds over the day can be reviewed as an animation by stepping back and forth through the pages. This shows both the rise and fall of speeds hour-by-hour and the change in the degree to which buses operate faster than streetcars in some locations.

Common to both directions’ data is that buses run faster than streetcars in the east end, particularly during off peak periods when traffic is quite light, and demand is low enough that vehicles will not have to serve every stop. As noted in the previous article on travel times, an important question here is the degree to which this reflects a bus operating “culture” of driving as fast as possible.

Another factor at play is the TTC’s slow operation policy through special trackwork including a mandatory stop-and-proceed at facing point switches. This was a response primarily to the unreliability of the new automatic track switches installed a few decades ago after the arrival of the ALRV streetcar fleet, and the further decline of this equipment in recent years. However, the rule applies to all switches, even manual ones, and this has noticeably slowed streetcar operations through intersections. Another operating rule, rarely seen in action but still on the books, requires that streetcars not pass each other at intersections with special work lest one of them derail and strike the other. Both of these are ludicrous in the context of street railway practice elsewhere, and speak to the TTC’s long-standing unwillingness to address problems with its streetcar track.

After a long period of study and delays thanks to budget cuts, a new track switch system is to be procured in 2018 with installation to be phased over several years thereafter. Whether the operating rules will ever change is quite another matter.

Between 6:00 and 7:00 am, there is a marked difference in speeds particularly on the east end of the route, and quite strikingly eastbound. This changes as the AM peak progresses, and by the 8:00 to 9:00 period, much of the difference vanishes. Some locations remain with notable peaks in bus speed:

  • Two factors affect streetcar speeds between Connaught and Greenwood. One is the slow operation through special work at Russell Carhouse, and the other is the delay caused by crew changes. The buses change crews further east, and so they do not suffer this effect at Connaught.
  • Bus speeds east of River Street are higher than streetcars because the buses do not have a slow order over the Don Bridge (imposed on streetcars due to structural issues), nor do they have to slow for the switch at the junction with King Street.
  • Between University and John, streetcars must slow for the junction at McCaul Street.
  • West of Roncesvalles, streetcars are at the end of their journey, and also must contend with all of the special work at the intersection and at the south end of the carhouse. Buses by contrast simply pull away from their stop and drive off down The Queensway.

As the day goes on, these patterns continue with the speed advantage, such as it is, mainly east of Yonge Street.

A question these charts beg, but do not answer, is the degree to which road conditions and stop service times affect each type of vehicle. Several factors are likely at play.

  • If a street is congested, all vehicles move at the prevailing speed of traffic regardless of the mode.
  • The more frequent the transit service, the greater the effect of transit vehicles holding traffic at stops. Even for curb loading buses this can be an issue if they are unable to pull clear of the centre lane.
  • Buses load through the front door and tend to become clogged in the front half of the vehicle adding to stop service time as riders attempt to board or leave. Streetcars use all-door loading. (Some bus operators on Queen have taken to loading through all doors, although the practice is uneven. For this to work well, the bus must be aligned with the curb over its length, not  just at the front door.)
  • Buses are scheduled to run more frequently than streetcars and this could result in them bypassing some of the more lightly used stops during off peak periods when it is possible nobody wants to board or alight there. With wider headways and larger vehicle capacity, streetcars are more likely to have to stop everywhere because at least one person wants to get on or off.
  • Left turning traffic can delay streetcars, but this is controlled in some locations either by regulation or by signal timings. Are there chronic locations where this problem can be reduced? (Some have already been identified through City of Toronto traffic studies in which I participated.)
  • There are more traffic signals on Queen West than Queen East, and transit stops are more likely to be at signals on Queen West than between them. Where a stop is at a signal, there is a good chance that a transit vehicle (of either type) will drop behind the “wave” of other traffic and be caught with a red signal. Where a stop is between signals, a transit vehicle can pull away without delay. There is also the question of the relative portion of green time given to east-west traffic and the effect this has on the probability a transit vehicle will be caught.
  • It is unclear what transit priority functions are actually active at each intersection along Queen from the point of being installed and of being in working order, and whether Queen Street intersections include the equipment necessary for buses to call out priority where it does exist. Attitudes to “transit priority” vary, and some traffic engineers prefer to design for better traffic flow overall, not specifically for transit. This “rising tide lifts all boats” position could be valid in locations where transit vehicles have no choice but to move along the street as part of a general flow. However, at some locations (moreso where there are streetcar rights-of-way), the “priority” signals can act to slow streetcars by giving the real priority to left turning traffic.

Any overall comparison of bus and streetcar operation should also determine their behaviour under various conditions along the route and by time of day, and how this could be improved for either mode.

5 thoughts on “Comparison of Streetcar and Bus Operations on 501 Queen (Part IV)

  1. A comparison that is especially important to the proponents of this Council motion is the relative car-driving experience with the two different transit services.

    I understand that the shift to buses post-WWII was very motivated by the fact that buses used the curb lanes (thanks to “crowning” of the roads, making them unusable for rails, as they would have a “hump” at the intersection of each cross-street), thus greatly reducing the transit vehicle blocking through movement by other road uses (street cars block not just the centre lanes, but, while stopped, the curb lane as well.)

    This shift to curb lanes simply degrades transit to its current marginal status. I suspect that is just what Ford et al. want.

    Steve: The flip side of that arrangement is that transit vehicles wind up in the usually poorly maintained curb lanes where there are many utility cuts, earning the nickname “gutterliners”. Shows just where transit riders belong in the cosmic scheme of things.

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  2. Please tell more about the new track switch system. I’m curious how it compares with the current one.

    Steve: I don’t know the technical details of the new system yet, but will publish the info when available. I just hope it’s not another “TTC invention” based on the premise that no city/vendor in the known universe has done this before.

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  3. Steve, you are awesome. Do the people at the TTC even listen to what you have to say? As a transit operator (bus), I know management doesn’t listen to operators very much, if at all. Even streetcar operators will tell you that buses are a safer, more efficient way to transport people. Rail lines need to be entirely separate from civilian traffic and pedestrians. But, no matter how many studies and information is provided, I think TTC management will keep the streetcars running. Andy Byford once told me that Streetcars offer a sense of nostalgia to Toronto. Ask the people stuck 5 cars deep, behind a broken down streetcar how they feel about nostalgia.. :/

    Steve: Of course if we had replaced our antique CLRV/ALRV fleets sooner (and no thanks here to Bombardier for their delays), the streetcar reliability numbers would not have fallen so badly. Imagine the condition that bus and subway services would be in if their fleets had been allowed to get into a comparable condition. Similarly, the fleet has not been expanded for a long time, and service cuts of the early 1990s recession were never fully restored because there weren’t enough cars. If the plan was to change people’s attitudes from a love, or at least preference, for streetcars to “give me anything else”, then letting the system fall apart was a perfect recipe.

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  4. Could one of the reasons that streetcars are driven more slowly then buses is that they require more stopping distance, so streetcar drivers leave more empty space ahead of them?

    Steve: Even allowing for this, they are driven more slowly than necessary just to avoid getting ahead of schedule. This tends to disappear in congested areas in the rush hour, and that’s where there is little difference in speed. Streetcars can run faster (and used to regularly), but now the TTC is all about hitting service metrics including a bogus “on time” performance. Management is gaming the system to look good and the service suffers.

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  5. Both streetcars and buses can routinely stop hard enough to be at the limits of customer comfort. I would expect that, in an emergency, a bus on decent pavement would stop in a shorter distance than a streetcar using full track brakes and sanding. I guess if someone is interested enough they can search for max deceleration specs. Note that for buses it’s going to be more variable than for streetcars. Also, buses operating on streetcar routes have to exercise considerable caution when it’s wet, as they can slide a wheel on the streetcar tracks. I have heard that this caused at least one fairly serious incident on King where a bus went into a pole.

    Experienced operators can run a streetcar down Queen at a clip that buses can’t beat. However, newer operators, who have only run under the slowpoke rules, may not have the experience, skills, or confidence to do so. I have also been on buses, on Queen as well as suburban routes, which were (in my judgement as someone who has had a driver’s licence for over 40 years) being operated well beyond the safety envelope.

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