Bombardier Layoffs Should Be No Surprise To Politicians

Today’s news of Bombardier lay off plans for half of its Thunder Bay workforce came as political shock, but anyone who has been paying attention to both their empty order book and cutbacks in fleet expansion plans in Toronto should not be surprised.

Bombardier’s industry credibility is less than sterling, but much depends on which product lines and manufacturing plants are involved. A high regard for trams produced in Europe does not translate directly across the patchwork quilt of plants and products Bombardier built into a conglomerate over decades. Back when the Flexity was sold to Toronto, it was touted as a relative of a new 100% low floor design for Berlin, and if Toronto had received Berlin-quality vehicles, a great deal of the anguish about our new streetcar fleet might have been avoided.

It is no secret that Toronto needs more than the 204 new cars it will have by year-end, but the urgent problems of streetcar fleet capacity have been ignored by politicians besotted with new rapid transit projects. The issue predates the Ford government’s moves to take over some or all of the TTC, although that brings further complications. (There are parallel issues with bus fleet capacity planning, bus as they don’t involve Bombardier, I will not get into them here.)

Getting a new streetcar is not simply a case of sending an email to Thunder Bay and saying “send us 60 or 100 more”.

Thunder Bay is more an assembly plant than a point of manufacture for many parts of these cars. Expensive subsystems, such as electronics, are built in Asia, and a significant chunk of the vehicles can never be “Canadian content” because there is no domestic industry for some components. Before any new car order can start down the production line, Bombardier must load up its supply chain.

But we cannot even get to the point of ordering vehicles until funding is in place.

Toronto has a desperate shortfall in its capital budget and funding plans, and anything related to more streetcars is no more than a notional entry if funding were available. It never is because this must compete with a long list of competing projects, not all of which are even in the transit funding envelope. There is a further problem because moving beyond the 204-car order will trigger several other expensive TTC projects including a proposed major change in the use of Hillcrest Shops, and it is not clear just where the TTC would put a much expanded streetcar fleet. (Again there are parallels with bus network shortages, compounded by plans to move to a zero-emission fleet.)

At Queen’s Park, the idea that the streetcar-hating Doug Ford would fund a bailout of Bombardier by way of an order for more streetcars is not credible. If any money flows for rail cars, this would go to more GO passenger cars, or, less likely, new subway cars. GO cars would be a stop-gap, and in any event, direct purchases for GO run counter to Metrolinx plans to push equipment choice and acquisition down to a future network operator for the GO Regional Express Rail (RER) network. There is no guarantee this work would go to Bombardier. Although the Ontario line’s technology is still a mystery, it will definitely not be a conventional subway car. This brings us to the Skytrain technology best known in BC (a Bombardier product, but not from Thunder Bay), or to something comparable from another vendor.

In Ottawa, the federal government has its Public Transit Infrastructure Fund, but Toronto’s allocation is already fully spoken-for for Doug Ford’s transit scheme. There is no money sitting on the table to fund a streetcar purchase. The haggling between the two governments about which of them is holding up spending ignores the fact that none of the subway plans will trigger large scale car orders in the near future.

Even when this is sorted out, the pace of transit spending for the Toronto share is well above the levels in past budget forecasts.

Until the 2019 budget cycle, the TTC had planned to begin replacing its “T1” subway car fleet (the trains that serve Line 2 BD). Here is the procurement plan from the 2018 budget:

In 2019, the TTC changed its T1 fleet plan from replacement to renovation. This pushes any manufacture of new trains further into the future with the Scarborough extension and added trains for the Yonge line in the mid-to-late 2020s. When the TTC Board approved this change, there was no hand-wringing about the potential effect on Thunder Bay’s workload.

Even if the TTC held to its original plan, significant spending on new subway cars would not get underway until 2022.

In all of this, we heard nothing of the Kingston Plant which churns out a car now and then. An obvious question is whether its capacity would be needed if Thunder Bay is idled.

The fundamental problem for Thunder Bay is that Toronto, by itself and with orders from GO Transit, cannot generate enough work to keep the production lines filled.

New Car Reliability

In a small bit of good news, reliability of the Flexity fleet continues to improve. This was reported verbally at the June TTC Board meeting, and the stats are in the July CEO’s report. After the meeting, I chatted with TTC staff about these results and whether this was a one-day-wonder or an improvement that was sustained beyond May 2019. The answer was mixed in that they expect the MDBF value to drop but still be above 20k. With the number of outstanding fixes to be made to the fleet, “reliability” is a moving target. One change is that some conditions, previously considered as faults requiring a car to be pulled out of service, are now treated as fixable at a later time. This reduces the number of faults charged against the MDBF metric.

After years of bumbling along with minimal capacity increases on the surface system, Toronto has finally discovered that its fleet is too small, and there is a desperate backlog to address both capacity and service quality. The problem was obvious to riders for years, but the King Street Pilot drove home what could be done if only we had the will to make transit more attractive.