The TTC Board met on July 7 with an agenda that did not attract much debate. The two big items were the CEO’s Report which is usually a jumping off point for general questions about the state of the system, and a presentation on the Osgoode Station “near miss” incident.
The CEO’s report continues its pattern of being more a glossy presentation for show than a useful source of data on factors such as service quality and vehicle reliability. Metrics continue to be averaged over days or months rather than pinpointing problem times and areas. Vehicle reliability values are capped so that the true variation in performance is not visible in the charts. The TTC continues its mythology that there are few if any short turns even though this simply does not match up with what anyone riding the system can see. But it’s a colourful report full of good news, and that seems to pass for good management.
Ridership recovery is a concern to the Board and to anyone who cares about the TTC’s survival. The CEO’s report includes a chart showing progress over past months. This chart takes us to the end of May 2021, but the Interim CFO reported verbally that ridership is now running at 36 per cent of the pre-covid level when the budget predicted 38 per cent. They hope for “actual” and “budget” to converge by year-end to about 49 per cent.
The gap will leave a shortfall of over $3 million in fare revenue vs budget, on top of the over $100 million shortfall in committed subsidy from all levels of government. This is a problem for the City to sort out over the balance of 2021 and will partly depend on how much money is left over in other City accounts to offset the TTC’s deficit.
Commissioner Carroll asked whether this is the right time for the Board to go after ongoing contributions to operating subsidies from other governments. (Note that part of the City’s share of provincial gas tax already goes to operating subsidies, but this is a small portion of the total.) CEO Rick Leary replied that he talks regularly with various governments, although his focus now is on the City Manager for the 2021 deficit and 2022 planning.
Carroll then asked about the TTC’s Ridership Growth Strategy (RGS) and asked whether this should be part of a recovery plan. Leary replied that the current issues are cross-border operations fares. Chief Strategy & Customer Officer Kathleen Llewellyn-Thomas noted that fare policy discussions are refocusing on ridership acquisition and growth, and that it would be helpful for the service plan to be considered in this wider context.
An important distinction here is that the original RGS from David Miller’s day was based on the premise “tell me what you can do to improve transit quickly, and how much this would cost”. This contrasts to today’s outlook that “we can’t afford much so we won’t ask”. Any RGS worth the name starts with the premise “what can we do” and leaves the debate about funding to the politicians. It’s amazing what is “affordable” when someone wants to find votes.
Equally, some options (the two-hour transfer if a good example) that might be dismissed as “too expensive” turn out to be cheaper and have knock-on benefits beyond a superficial analysis.
At this point the Board headed off into a discussion of how to get people back to transit. Deputy Mayor Minnan-Wong started off on the right path by asking if the TTC understands why the numbers are so low, who is driving to work rather than taking transit, and who is working from home. That’s a good start, but the debate went into the weeds quickly because it missed a crucial point that was mentioned, but not heard by most involved.
TTC ridership has major subsets including office workers in the core, light industrial and care workers in the suburbs, students and other broad groups including entertainment trips. Some of these groups, notably office workers and students, will not return to the TTC until they have some place to go. They will probably come back at different rates in different locations depending, for example, on how entrenched work-from-home has become and where in-person jobs reappear. Students tend to be more transit dependent, but there are no student trips if schools are closed. Ball parks and theatres do not fill with people (and transit riders) when they are closed or operating at limited capacity.
The TTC can advertise all it likes, but some types of demand simply do not exist today. The challenge is to get those riders back when they have a job, or a class, or an event to attend.
Minnan-Wong went off on an odd tangent suggesting that the TTC should be going after riders in lower income groups, and wondered what is holding them back from taking transit. Llewelyn-Thomas replied that cost is still a barrier for some riders, and moreover there is a $25 million gap in funding full rollout of the Fair Pass. Another obvious issue here is that those eligible for such a pass do not represent a lot of trips, and they might not buy one simply because they don’t use the TTC enough to justify the expense.
Carroll asked whether RGS will do what we need it to do. She observed that the first (Miller era) RGS asked how the TTC could get suburbanites to make a mode change. However, what we now see on social media is people in low income areas who complain about crowding. The problem with lost riders lies downtown, she said, where the TTC is losing short trips to walking, cycling and Uber. What should an “after-times” RGS look like to attract a different type of rider?
One might argue that some short trip losses are thanks to lower overall riding, and a decline in pass sales. What was formerly a fixed monthly cost for many is now pay-as-you-play, although that is comparatively easy with Presto and buffered by the benefit of a two-hour transfer.
For much of the discussion, the word “service” was rarely heard. TTC management reports infrequently and with little detail on actual service quality. Their focus is on making routes more “efficient”, a concept that does not tie automatically into “reliability” and “quality”.
Osgoode Station “Near Miss” Incident
At its June meeting, the TTC Board considered in camera a report on a near miss incident late on the evening of June 12, 2020 at Osgoode Station. This arose from a Toronto Star story about a serious event that was a well-kept secret within TTC management for almost a year. See The “Near Miss” at Osgoode Station.
In June, the Board passed a motion establishing its policy about incident reporting and directed that management provide a public briefing on the incident at the July meeting (this one). The July Report and Presentation Deck are on the TTC’s site, and the presentation can be viewed on the TTC YouTube Video. The aftermath of the incident is at least as important as the almost-disaster itself.
I recommend that interested readers watch the video as it includes the recorded conversation between Transit Control and the train crew.
In brief, the chronology was:
- A train (run 114) stopped northbound at St. Andrew with an emergency.
- A southbound train (run 123) at Osgoode was directed by Transit Control to short turn via the pocket track there in manual operation, subject to favourable signal indications.
- Run 123 entered the pocket track but the south end driver did not proceed all the way to the “stop” marker.
- The north end operator could not see the signal governing departure from the pocket, but because the switch was correctly aligned for that move, thought that he had clearance to depart.
- The emergency at St. Andrew had cleared and the northbound run 114 departed.
- Run 123 leaving the pocket stopped just short of colliding with run 114 coming north from St. Andrew. The north end operator stopped because the south end operator saw run 114 approaching on the parallel track.
Rick Leary began by saying that safety is paramount at the TTC, but then turned the presentation over to his management team.
Jim Ross, Chief Operating Officer, said that the on board emergency on run 114 was not unusual, and that the TTC has roughly 60 of these a week. Filling the gap in service this would create required a southbound train to be short turned. All of this is perfectly normal, but what was unusual was to do this via Osgoode Pocket for reasons we will learn later. However, that was the only choice given the position of the trains.
The Transit Control Tower Operator [a title left over from railway days when signals really were controlled from towers with a clear view of rail lines] instructed the crew on Run 123 to proceed into and out of the pocket track on manual control when they had a clear signals to do so. Manual control is rarely used, and this was at the root of the incident.
Betty Hasserjian, Acting Chief Safety Officer, continued with the presentation and described how Run 123 entered the pocket and stopped 5m short of the correct position. However, this condition was not evident on the control panel at Transit Control. That stop short meant that the signal that would show the north end driver whether he had a clear route out of the pocket was not visible due to the train’s position.
Here is the mimic board for the signal system as seen at Transit Control with Run 123 entering the pocket track. Note that it does not show how far the train has proceeded into the pocket. Note also the lie of the switches leading from the southbound mainline into the pocket.
Once Run 123 cleared the switches, they would automatically restore to their “normal” position. Here is the mimic display with Run 123 in the pocket and Run 113 with a clear route north from St. Andrew Station. Note that the switch at the exit from the pocket track points toward the northbound main line. There is no provision for a derail or “trap track” should a train attempt to leave the pocket without clearance, and regardless of its position the switch could send a train into a conflict on either of the adjacent main line tracks.
Because the switch was in the correct position for northbound departure, and because the Tower Operator’s instruction had been to enter and leave if the signals were clear, the north end driver of Run 123 left the pocket track headed for the northbound mainline. He stopped it 1m short of striking Run 114 which was under automatic control having been cleared from St. Andrew. The crew then moved Run 123 back into the pocket track.
The conversation between the crew on Run 123 and the Tower Operator shows the attempts to find out the sequence of events, including queries from Control asking “did you guys move”. This was subsequently investigated by a Chief Supervisor as an “unauthorized move”, a lower severity incident, because the distance that Run 123 had actually moved was not accurately reported. The video from Run 123 was downloaded the day after the incident, June 13, at which point the severity of what had happened was evident.
There is a safety notification protocol that progresses from an initial incident report when an event occurs, followed by a seven-day period for investigation after which the incident severity would be classed from “1” to “3”. Thereafter, various events are possible depending on the severity and complexity of the investigation including possible third party review.
In the case of the Osgoode incident there were a number of meetings including the CEO who decided to bring in a third party to investigate.
Later in the Board meeting, Commissioner Carroll asked when the decision to bring an incident to Board’s attention would occur. Hasserjian replied that as soon as staff knows it is of a serious nature they would notify the Board immediately. Clearly that did not occur in this case.
Several corrective actions were immediately taken to reinforce correct operating procedures by train crews and at Transit Control including:
- Transit Control should issue only one directive to a train at a time, not two, and they should receive acknowledgement from the crew that the instruction is understood.
- There was insufficient familiarity with the operation of signal equipment at Osgoode by the train crew, notably that they mistakenly thought the trip arm (part of the legacy signal system) was down indicating a clear route. In fact it was tied down because it had been decommissioned as part of the ATC conversion. That, coupled with the switch position and the invisibility of the signal led the driver to believe that he had clearance to proceed out of the pocket.
- The ATC signal system did not include “flank protection” against side impact, and this issue exists at other pocket and centre track locations. Operating procedures have been changed for visual oversight at work locations and lockouts of ATC moves in territory where a train operates in manual mode.
- The automatic location detection at Osgoode had been turned off at Osgoode so that this location could be used by work cars that did not yet have ATC equipment fitted. Three days after this incident, it was restored and non-ATC cars are no longer permitted in the pocket track.
Kirsten Watson, Deputy CEO, continued. She emphasized that manual operating mode is highly dependent on procedures that must be reinforced by training. The “manual” mode has now been renamed “emergency” mode to emphasize that special procedures are required. Single instructions with crew acknowledgements will be used for all operations at pocket tracks.
She noted, without attribution, that there had been a suggestion to reintroduce trip arms. This would be an expensive modification to the ATC system and would add a point of failure that does not now exist. Instead, the ATC system software has been modified to increase flanking protection where trains could move on a collision course. There is no location in the system where the TTC needs to shut off the automatic location detection (also known as GAMA, or Geographical Automatic Mode Authorization, in the report). There will be a final report on the incident in 1Q22.
In my previous article on this incident, I mentioned the use of trap tracks at some locations on the TTC so that the route out of a pocket or centre track will not lead onto a mainline track unless the route is clear. There was no mention of this in the TTC’s discussion.
Watson listed other factors:
- The conflicting sources of information about whether the route was clear, and the need for additional training on this point. To avoid operator confusion about whether a trip arm is active, decommissioned trips in areas converted to ATC will be painted bright orange.
- The short distance between the signal in the pocket track and the fouling point where a collision might have occurred makes clear understanding of signalling and operations essential.
- The Tower Operator at Transit Control thought that GAMA was active at Osgoode when it was not.
- Due to concerns about overwork at Transit Control, another Tower Operator has been added and more may be needed. [The purpose is to ensure adequate coverage when there are multiple concurrent incidents.]
- In newly converted ATC areas, wayside operators can be added to ensure correct operation. This applies particularly to work trains that may be operating in manual/emergency mode.
Work continues on hazard review, and all of the changes emerging from this investigation will be rolled into the remaining ATC conversion.
On June 16, the Board has issued a direction about incident notification:
That the TTC Board direct the Chief Executive Officer to alert the Board when an incident meeting the identified thresholds for escalation occurs and subsequently report to the Board once a comprehensive review or investigation has been completed.
Watson described the report of incidents to the Board as being at the discretion of the CEO or of the Chief Safety Officer. That is not what the motion said. Having a second reporting path could be useful, but it should not be discretionary.
Gary Downie, Chief Capital Officer, reported that a team from the International Association of Public Transit (known by its French acronym, UITP) had reviewed the TTC’s ATC system and concluded that its implementation was in line with industry best practice. A team from the American Public Transit Association (APTA) will review the incident in coming weeks.
That “best practices” reference has come up both in the UITP review and in the third party review mentioned earlier. Its importance is to establish that the ATC system was not faulty or poorly designed, and, by implication, the problem does not lie with the team behind it. ATC is widely used around the world and the standards for its implementation are well known.
Commissioner Carroll underscored that for the public, knowing what is happening is key. She does not ever again want to hear about an incident like this from the public or from an employee, but from management. There is no question that these events would become known publicly, and the governance arm of the TTC should know before any external body.
Carroll continued that for organizations like the UITP, if the TTC is going to rely on them for peer review, then the TTC needs to interact with them more. Even before the pandemic, budget constraints had ended participation by the Board [and staff] in UITP meetings.
Chair Jaye Robinson noted that the TTC wants to roll out ATC for many reasons, and this should have happened decades ago. They are expediting the work on an accelerated schedule, and when complete ATC will prevent this type of incident, she said. It will also, of course, modernize decades-old signalling and increase the potential capacity of the subway.
The elephant in the room here is the role of the CEO. He knew that there had been an incident serious enough to warrant a third party investigation, but he did not tell his Board about it. This continued for a year until Ben Spurr broke the story suggesting that there was a lid on the information within the TTC. The Board’s explicit direction to report serious incidents reinforces a role and duty that should be painfully obvious as part of organizational governance.
It is inconceivable that this would have happened on Andy Byford’s watch, a man who was always on the front line when things went wrong. He may have loved any chance to appear on camera, but the TTC is worse off for his departure.