Are eBuses The Answer To Everything?

Over on spacing’s website, my friend John Lorinc has written The case for way more electric buses in which he wonders whether Toronto should just give up on building rail lines and focus on buying a large fleet of electric buses.

What New Money? And a Bit of History

The impetus for this is that the Federal government is handing out a potload of money for electrification according to a recent press release. Before I get into the details of Lorinc’s article, there is a vital statement in the press release:

This funding is part of an eight year, $14.9 billion public transit investment recently outlined by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and will also support municipalities, transit authorities and school boards with transition planning, increase ambition on the electrification of transit systems, and deliver on the government’s commitment to help purchase 5,000 zero-emission buses over the next five years.

Yes, that’s right, this is not “new money” but a carve-out from a previous announcement that, when stretched over coming years, is a lot smaller than it sounds. Now we learn that of the $5.9 billion planned for 2021-2025, $2.7 billion or 46 per cent, is earmarked for electric vehicles. Transit systems that might have had their eye on other projects will have to think again.

Updated at 9:05 pm March 5: I have received a reply from Infrastructure Canada confirming my interpretation of the press release:

Hi Steve,

That’s correct.

The Prime Minister’s announcement on February 10, 2021 provided $14.9 billion for public transit projects over eight years, which included permanent funding of $3 billion per year for Canadian communities beginning in 2026-27. In the first five years, $5.9 billion will be made available starting in 2021 to support the near-term recovery of Canadian communities by several means, including supporting the deployment of zero-emission vehicles and related infrastructure.  

The announcement made on March 4th to invest in electrifying transit systems across the country funding is a part of this initiative. The funding is separate from funding currently available under integrated bilateral agreements in place with provinces and territories.

Source: Email from Infrastructure Canada Media Relations

The problem here is that by dedicating the funding to a specific type of project, the type of spending cities will make will skew to where the money is available. Indeed, they will rush to buy new buses with federal funding even though their existing fleet might not actually be due for replacement.

A further problem arises if the feds expect that this will be a cost-shared program. Will Toronto and Ontario pony up their share of a bus purchase plan, especially if it is accelerated beyond normal vehicle retirement cycles when they might have eyed the federal dollars for projects like the Waterfront LRT and the Ontario Line that are in various stages of engineering and procurement?

This continues the distortion of spending priorities we saw when Paul Martin’s government threw its support into hybrid buses. There was lots of money for hybrids, even though they had a 50 per cent cost premium over diesels, but if a transit agency simply wanted to buy more buses to run better service, and get the best bang for their buck with diesels, no federal money was available.

The cost premium for battery buses currently sits at about 50 per cent above hybrids, although this is likely to fall as the technology becomes more common.

Update March 6 at 8:00 am: With the cost of an eBus sitting at $1.0-1.2 million, generously assuming prices will fall as the industry ramps up, 5000 buses represent a capital cost of over $5 billion. It is quite clear that the federal program will not cover 100 per cent of the new vehicle costs. In the TTC’s capital plans, future buses remain largely in the “unfunded” category, and new City and provincial dollars will be needed. The federal funding reduces the cost of eBuses and infrastructure but does not represent a sudden supply of “free” vehicles.

At the TTC, there is a love for big bus replacement orders because it shifts costs from the operating budget (with small subsidies) to the capital budget (with very large subsidies) both by avoidance of vehicle rebuild costs and by shifting a large chunk of the fleet into a warranty period. (Warranty repairs effectively come out of the purchase price of the bus on the capital side of the ledger.)

This approach works well enough if the new technology pans out, but the TTC had a lot of problems with its first batch of hybrids. Generally speaking, the technology has not achieved quite the benefits originally hoped.

That issue of “benefits” bears examination too. Some cities expected to see big drops in diesel fuel costs, but this depended on buses running in a very urban stop-and-start environment where a lot of energy could be recouped from braking. The situation is very different on suburban routes. If one were looking to save big on fuel costs, hybrids might not quite achieve what one hoped.

Conversely, if the aim is to eliminate tailpipe emissions and the transit carbon footprint, that is quite another matter. However, it comes at a cost, and that at a time when transit systems are just trying to keep the lights on. There are hopes that going electric will save money, but this depends on the interaction of many factors:

  • How efficiently will a battery bus use power, allowing for conversion losses, and can a bus run a full day’s service without needing to recharge?
  • When will recharging power be consumed? Overnight when, presumably, there is surplus power for the taking, or during the day when power is less available and more expensive?
  • Will buses be built to last longer than 12 years on the assumption that without the vibration of a diesel engine they will last longer? What would be the implications for subsystems such as batteries and electronics? In effect, can the higher capital cost of the vehicle be amortized over a longer period?
  • What scale of charging infrastructure will be required, and how much does this effectively add to the per vehicle cost?

This is not to disparage electric buses. After all, I was part of a group that fought to save Toronto’s trolleybus system, an idea that reached the stage of a preliminary plan for network expansion by the TTC. However, there were forces working against trolley bus retention including:

  • TTC management who preferred to have an all-diesel fleet (this was 30 years ago, and hybrid technology was unheard of).
  • A “new technology” group in the Ontario Ministry of Transportation who had little to show for their existence.
  • A bus builder who wanted an easy contract to build vehicles for the TTC.
  • The natural gas industry which had, at the time, a surplus of product looking for a market.
  • A manufacturer of pressure tanks looking to market his wares. (I am not making this up. “Industrial development” gets into odd corners of the economy at times.)

The result was a move to buses fueled by compressed natural gas (CNG) that were pitched as “green” and therefore an alternative to electric buses tethered to overhead wires. This scheme did not work out as well as hoped, and CNG had a short life as a transit technology in Toronto. But management was rid of the trolleybuses, and their real goal was achieved.

The TTC regularly claims that it has the largest fleet of electric buses in North America, although if you press them on the issue, they must admit that this only applies to battery buses. There are fleets of trolleybuses in other cities, some larger than Toronto’s ever was:

  • Vancouver has about 260 of which 74 are 18m articulated buses.
  • San Francisco has about 275 of which 93 are articulated.
  • Seattle has 174 of which 64 are articulated.
  • Boston has 50 of which 32 are articulated.
  • Dayton has 45 standard sized buses.
  • Philadelphia has 38 standard-sized buses.

All of these have off-wire capability to varying degrees allowing for short diversions when necessary. This was held as a shortcoming of trolleybuses by their critics even though off-wire was already a feature of new trolleybuses three decades ago.

The big change today is that the technology to carry on-board power has improved a lot, and cities can go electric without having to string a network of overhead wires.

This may seem like a lot of history to go through before I turn to the question of the future of electric buses in Toronto, but it is worth knowing of past technology issues and the unseen hand of government, through targeted subsidies, on the scales of transit planning judgements.

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The Gradual Slowing of 512 St. Clair

When the St. Clair right-of-way went into operation after an extended construction period and a lot of political upheaval, streetcar operation was scheduled to be faster than the old mix-traffic model. The TTC even produced a before & after comparison that is still posted on their Planning page (scroll all the way down to “Miscellaneous Documents”).

Alas, the 512 St. Clair is now scheduled to operate more slowly than in pre-right-of-way times. This article reviews the evolution of the route since July 2010 when it fully opened from Keele to Yonge to early 2021.

Looking East at Spadina Road

This is a long article, and I will not be offended if some readers choose not to delve into the whole thing. My intent in part was to show the level of analysis that is possible with a large amount of data stretching over a decade, and also to examine the issue in some detail.

As a quick summary:

  • Scheduled travel speeds for the 512 St. Clair car have slowed since the right-of-way opened in July 2010, and they are now below the pre-right-of-way level in 2006.
  • There was an improvement in 2010, but this has been whittled away over the decade with progressively slower schedules.
  • Separately from travel times, scheduled terminal recovery times have increased from 2010 to 2020 especially during off peak periods. This does not affect speed as seen by riders, but it does show up in longer terminal layovers. This recovery time now accounts for a non-trivial portion of total time on the route.
  • Driving speeds are slower in 2020 (pre-pandemic) than in 2010. This is a characteristic across the route, not at a few problem locations, and is probably due to differences in how the new Flexity cars are operated compared to the predecessor CLRVs. A few location, notably the constricted underpass between Old Weston Road and Keele Street, have seen a marked decline in travel speeds over the decade.
  • Many locations have “double stop” effects where streetcars stop nearside for a traffic signal, and again farside to serve passengers. Transit signal “priority” clearly needs some work on this route.

It is important to stress that this gradual decline in speed does not invalidate the right-of-way itself. Routes without reserved lanes have fared worse over the past decade, and St. Clair would certainly be slower today without them. The big challenge, especially with pandemic-era ridership declines, is to maintain good service so that wait times do not undo the benefit of faster travel once a car shows up.

Scheduled Speed

The charts below show the scheduled speed over the line from 2010 to 2021 with 2005 (pre-construction) shown at the left side as a reference point. The information is broken into two charts to clarify situations where there are overlaps.

In 2005, the AM and PM peak values were the same, but from 2010 onward the PM peak had a slower scheduled speed. In the off-peak, the midday and early evening speeds are the same from 2010 until 2018 after which midday speeds drop considerably.

The big dips in the charts correspond to periods of construction when travel times were extended to compensate.

The transition from CLRV to Flexity service began in 2018, and by September it was officially recognized in the schedule.

Source: Scheduled Service Summaries
Source: Scheduled Service Summaries

Schedules are one thing, but what is the actual “on the ground” behaviour of the route. Here are two charts showing the evolution of travel times between the two terminals westbound in the 8-9 am and the 5-6 pm peak hours. Regular readers will recognize the style of the charts, but there are several points worth mentioning.

  • The data run from July 2010 when the right-of-way was completely open to February 2021, although there are gaps. I did not collect data in every month over the period. However, the overall pattern is fairly clear. Unfortunately, I did not collect any data between July 2010 and September 2014 and yet there is a clear jump between the two.
  • Travel times build up to late 2019 and remain high to January 2020. Then comes the pandemic and the times fall, but not by much (the change is much more noticeable on other routes that operate in mixed traffic).
  • There are upward spikes in values. A few of these are caused by delays that affect several cars so that even the median value (green) rises. However, if only one car pulls onto the spare track at St. Clair West and lays over, this pushes the maximum (red) way up while leaving the other values lower. (Layovers can also occur at Oakwood Loop, and at Earlscourt Loop eastbound.)
  • Occasional downward spikes of the minimum values (blue) do not represent supercharged streetcars, but rather bus extras that ran express for at least part of their trip.
  • When comparing these value to the scheduled speeds above, there are subtle differences:
    • The scheduled speed is based on end-to-end travel including arrival and a short layover, notably for passenger service at St. Clair Station. “Recovery time” (about which more later) is not included in the scheduled speed calculation.
    • The travel time is measured between two screenlines: one is in the middle of Yonge Street, and the other is just east of Gunn’s Road so that the entire loop is west of the line. This does not include any terminal time at either end, but does include layovers, if any, at St. Clair West Station Loop.

Here are the corresponding charts for eastbound travel.

Full chart sets including midday and evening travel times are in the pdfs linked below for those who are interested.

These charts show changes have occurred, but where and why?

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