In response to complaints about unreliable service and crowding, the TTC routinely talks about buses that are on standby ready to fill in for overcrowded routes and emergencies. It is common to hear statements such as:
… we have 120 -140 buses each day to adjust service where and when possible to increase ridership levels …
This statement is not true.
What the TTC does have is 120-140 crews for standby buses, but these are not all in service at the same time. They are spread broadly across three shifts as the chart below shows. (The actual counts for August 2021 are 128 crews on weekdays, 155 on Saturdays and 124 on Sundays.)
[Chart methodology: The source data are in the TTC’s run guides for the August schedule period. These show the start and end times for each bus. For charting, the day is divided into quarter-hours, and a crew is counted if it overlaps an interval, even if it is only just starting or ending. For example, a crew from 8:10 am to 4:10 pm counts in the quarter hours from 8:00 to 4:00. Most crews are 8 hours long, but some on weekends are 10 hours long, and there is one oddball that is 8.5 hours.]
The peaks in the chart are caused by overlaps between shifts so that there is no gap while one shift of buses returns to their garages and another enters service.
The first crews report just after 3 am, and the last ones come back after 6 am the following day (times after midnight are shows as hours 24 to 30 in the chart legend). The build-up is a bit slower on Sunday reflecting the later start of service on many routes.
Realistically, the maximum number of “Run As Directed” (aka “RAD”) buses, also known by their internal route number “600”, is represented by the horizontal segments of the chart. For the weekday AM peak period, this means that there are 44 buses waiting for the call to action, not 140.
This is an important distinction on a network where the peak number of buses in service is about 1,500. The RADs provide a buffer of about 3 per cent. This buffer is proportionately larger off peak and on weekends because there is less scheduled service (about 1,000 buses on Saturday and 900 on Sunday).
On weekends and some late evening periods, these buses fulfill the original mandate of “route 600” as subway shuttles. They were originally set up to ensure that there would be staff pre-assigned to work on those shuttles rather than depending entirely on voluntary overtime where operator availability is strongly influenced by the weather. However, if they are running as replacement service for the subway, they are not available to fill gaps on other routes.
The actual usage of the RAD buses is very difficult to determine. They are not tracked by apps such as NextBus and Rocketman because they do not appear in the TTC data feed. Even if they did, they might not be “signed on” to the route they are serving, and there is no schedule against which their operation can be predicted. (NextBus depends on a bus having a schedule in order to make its arrival predictions. The NextBus feed is used by many other apps.)
I have attempted to extract the RAD buses from “full dump” samples of TTC tracking data (rather than route-based extracts), and they are hard to find. Some of them spend much time not going anywhere as one might expect from a bus on standby.
The TTC does not report on the actual usage of the RAD buses, but routinely invokes their existence to explain it is “doing something” about crowding. Some riders might disagree.
Where’s My Bus?
A rider expecting to see a bus and wondering where it is will not see the RADs on bus arrival predictions either on their phone, or on a TTC display. What they will see predicted is a gap in service that could well send them looking elsewhere for a ride.
On August 14, I happened to be online browsing Twitter when a complaint appeared from a rider awaiting a 72 Pape bus at Freeland Street (east of Yonge) on Queens Quay. Intrigued at what might be happening, I started to poke around.
There are two sources I use for situations like this:
- NextBus which will provide a map-based representation of an entire route. The link here goes to 72 Pape. Change the URL as desired for another route.
- Transsee among many other functions can produce operating charts (examples below) for any route in real time or on an archival basis. The link goes to their main TTC page. Select a route and then scroll down to the turquoise box for the operating charts. Note that these are free for streetcar routes are free, but for buses you must have a premium account.
This sort of thing is best done on a computer with a good sized screen where maps and diagrams can be seen in some detail. Smartphones have their limitations.
Here is what I saw when I asked NextBus to show me the Pape Bus at 5:42 pm on Saturday, August 14. Only two of the five buses scheduled for this service appeared, and neither of them was anywhere near Union Station. Buses can disappear from mapping and prediction apps for a few reasons:
- Most commonly, the operator “signs off” the bus and it stops appearing in the TTC’s data feed as a tracked vehicle.
- A bus has gone off route. NextBus does not always display these vehicles.
- An operator has signed on with the wrong route number, or with a run number that does not exist in the schedule. NextBus only tracks scheduled service. This prevents extras, however they might be identified, from appearing on displays or in predictions.
- A bus is missing.
I also looked at Transsee to find out what the recent route history looked like. In this chart, Union Station is at the top of the image and Pape Station is at the bottom. Each line tracks the movement of one vehicle back and forth along the route. Some of the Pape service is scheduled to turn back at Eastern Avenue and this shows up as the smaller peaks in the lower part of the chart.
What became immediately obvious here was that only three buses were reporting a location late in the afternoon, and one of those was sitting at Pape Station. Two other buses had gone out of service earlier in the day (9219 just before 2 pm, 8450 at about 5:20 pm). The line’s operation was severely disrupted by construction and a diversion near Union Station which can be seen in the extended periods where buses begin their return journeys (for example 9227 at about 4 pm).
The combination of severe delays and missing buses led to over half of the 72 Pape service being unavailable to riders. There might be a RAD bus in there somewhere, but it’s impossible to tell. A rider complaint about a long wait suggests that the RADs were elsewhere.
It took a few hours for some semblance of regular service to return. One scheduled bus did appear at about 8 pm bringing the total up to 3 buses with 2 still missing.
I looked at a few other routes to see what was going on.
75 Sherbourne was a complete mess. There are supposed to be 4 buses on the route, but there were only two, and they were operating nose-to-tail over the course of three round trips from 1 to 4 pm. The chart shows one bus disappearing just after 10:30 (8948) and another just after noon (8871). A third bus (1096) enters service at about 4:00 pm.
65 Parliament, nominally a route with 2 buses, did not fare well either and operated with a single bus from 1 pm onward.
87 Cosburn was also having its problems. It is supposed to have 5 buses, but is effectively running with only 3 from about 3 pm onward. Moreover, there is severe bunching at times making the service gaps even bigger than they might otherwise be. Fairly regular service was restored in the early evening.
22 Coxwell suffered from a missing bus between roughly 2:00 and 3:30 pm, and considerable bunching into the early evening.
My apologies to readers who do not live in the east end of Toronto and East York. I picked a few routes nearby me to start, and it did not take long to find problems. The severity of bunching and missing vehicles is quite stark on short routes where the absence of one or two buses makes a big difference. The longer suburban routes did not look too pretty either. Here is 43 Kennedy as an example.
Two effects are quite evident here:
- Congestion northbound south of Ellesmere
- Severe bunching through much of the afternoon
Three buses were running as a pack for a considerable period: 3222 (green), 3237 (red) and 3112 (blue) putting large gaps in the service. On a route with a scheduled service of 10 minutes (Steeles branch), a 30+ minute gap due to bunching is appallingly bad service.
One might be tempted to say “oh, but there’s a RAD bus filling those gaps”. One might reply that if anyone was actually dispatching the RAD buses, they could just as easily manage the service that was already on each route and space buses appropriately.
In any event, August 14 was a subway shutdown day on Line 1, and many of the RAD buses that might otherwise have been used were actually in subway shuttle service.
The time is long overdue for TTC management to produce meaningful reports on service quality, not the drivel that appears in the CEO’s report. Real riders know that service can be undependable, and simplistic claims that the RAD buses will fix everything ignore fundamental problems with headway management, vehicle and operator availability.
Initially, reports that reflect reality will be very troubling reading. Sad, but necessary. The challenge is to show that service is really improving, and not by making problems vanish with creative reporting.
Will the TTC Board actually address this problem? If past experience is any indication, I doubt this very much.
On Aug 14th there was also a “personal injury at track level” at North York Centre resulting in shuttle buses from 12:15 to 2:30, which may help explain where some of the buses went, although these routes are quite far from the event.
Steve: If the TTC was stealing buses from these routes, they certainly were not putting them back promptly, if at all. Moreover, this does not explain travesties like the pair of Sherbourne buses running in tandem for three trips. That’s just line management that is MIA.
As a person who has operated one of these RAD buses for over 2 years, I can tell you they are not being used as extra buses. These buses are being used to fill in for buses that should already be out there. For example if an operator books off sick, they are using the RAD bus to fill in for that bus and often they will log that bus on as the regular bus, so technically it is no longer a RAD bus. This is happening on a daily basis.
Steve: Looking at those service gaps on August 14, they are suspiciously like missing operators. I have not cross-checked the crew guides (yet) to see if the disappearances line up with crew changes.
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Further to Rick’s comment, lots of crews being left unfilled these days. Missing operators have been an issue on and off for the last year; I’ve had to drive my bus back to the garage early several times when there was no relief operator to continue driving the run.
Steve: What this tells me is that the TTC is skimping on staff levels preferring to cancel runs rather than have someone surplus with nothing to do. As service starts to build up this fall, will they have enough staff to actually fill all of the crews?
They are denying overtime. There are operators ready to work and do more work to help out. They’re denying it. Currently, we think it’s their way of proving why they think they need part-time work. Full time workers are able and ready. If you want this fixed, allow us to get back to going overtime at our garages.
They are also not giving enough time on routes to properly and safely complete the trips. Taking time off routes equals less buses. More buses means more time. The TTC I’ll assume is hurting financially due to the pandemic, this is their way to limit further debt.
But in no way should part time work even be thought of in operations. Means more relief drivers and further delays due to operators exchanging buses A LOT more frequently. Imagine if one part time worker takes time off. Would be a mess as you need a ratio of 2 to 1 to adjust one full timer booking off.
This is actually a joke. When there were standby operators, the public complained that these operators were sitting and getting paid. In response, the TTC drastically reduced the number of spareboard crews which resulted in fewer open report operators. Now the public is complaining about service. What is it that they want? It should be obvious (even to the simple mind) that the TTC cannot predict when operators will book off sick and only schedule open report operators during these times. Open report operators must be available at all times in order to fill these crews just incase they become open. This is the result of the public’s outcry. It’s not rocket science.
Steve: I think you mistake public outcry when what we are really dealing with is idiotic members of Council and the TTC Board who do not understand how transit operations work. In effect, they have made virtue of necessity by converting spare board crews to “run as directed”. There is some advantage to this because it guarantees that more operators would be available for this type of fill-in service while calling them something that sounds a lot more useful than “spare” operators, but it comes at the cost of a fixed eight-hour shift rather than the 13 hour spread that used to apply to the spare board (an operator could be held for up to five hours and then either had to be released or assigned work that did not go beyond the 13 hour mark). It would be interesting to know how many of those overnight RADs actually fill in for night buses, but in effect they replace a spare board report late in the afternoon.
Where the problems come is that there is no tracking of where the buses they allegedly drive are actually used, nor any trace of them in the service tracking logs/prediction apps unless the RAD bus actually signs on to a genuine run number of the route it is operating.
I suspect that if the public and politicians knew more about how much time those RAD buses sit waiting to do something, they would be displeased considering how much they are hyped. Meanwhile the problem of non-existent headway management is neatly sidestepped, at least until riders call out the RADs as the TTC’s equivalent of The Emperor’s New Clothes.
They have a valid function, but the TTC overstates how many there are, and therefore how much effect they could actually have even if they were all in active use for something other than a subway shuttle.
Is Malvern going to be getting anymore early morning 600 crews? As an operator I use to always like doing the early morning 600 crews but now there like just 1 morning crew available now and I’m noticing mcnicol division is now doing all the early morning 600 crews now.
Steve: I have not seen the crew guides for September, but they would have been signed up by now. As to the future, I don’t know. I know that Service Planning would like to shift more runs back to being scheduled rather than RADs, but that partly depends on how quickly service is restored to previous levels.
The charts prove that at anytime, you can wait forever for a bus. Anywhere there is a wide gap between parallel lines means a long wait time. Lines close together indicate bunching. There are route supervisors whose job is to make the spacing even, meaning to keep the buses on schedule. The TTC has spent millions of dollars to provide these tracking systems. The route supervisors can see these messes in real time. We don’t see that they are doing anything about it. Passengers are waiting forever!
Read your article about Queen closure at Yonge for station work. Is there not already a station platform for a future Queen line when the Yonge Subway was constructed?
Steve: It is small, considerably shorter than the trains that will operate on the Ontario Line, and the connections to the Yonge line don’t have the capacity needed. The OL tunnel and station will be underneath this structure and will use it as part of the station’s circulation system.
Yeeech. So in addition to the general AWOLness of management, who seemingly haven’t even tried to have buses depart terminals on headway or schedule in years, let alone managing headway midroute — reports are now that they simply aren’t hiring the number of bus drivers they need, *and* aren’t authorizing overtime?
What is going on at TTC bus operations? This is whacked out! Is there absolutely nobody in oversight who is paying any attention in detail?
While I don’t want to believe this, this seems exactly like the type of thing the people managing the service would do.
Personal anecdote here: During pre-pandemic times I heard a complaint at Pape subway station eerily similar to the one voiced by that person on Twitter.
Someone was complaining about a wait of well over 30 minutes for the Union Station branch of the 72. What made me suspicious was the sight of a parked bus at the station which was displaying 501 Queen on its signs. If I recall correctly, on that day there was a disruption on the 501 which required temporary bustitution.
It’s really bad form if they’re pulling buses off routes with 18 minute headways to fill in elsewhere. I didn’t have any data to comb through to make determinations of fact but maybe others do. I would like to say it was in the early afternoon on December 23 2019 but not with 100% certainty.
Steve: A common problem on summer weekends is a shortage of operators. The “disappearances” of buses from routes, if they were for a subway shuttle, would all happen close to the time of the event. In fact they were scattered through the afternoon including times long after the subway emergency ended. What is far more likely is that the times correspond to shift changes when the operator who should be taking over a bus is not there. This could occur either because they booked off work, or because the crew is unfilled because there are fewer operators than there is work scheduled and available, and the TTC is trying to limit overtime.
This is beyond frustrating. The technology is in place now. The TTC could have a high school drop out trained to look at all the active routes throughout the city and notice which ones were operating abnormally. The new Vision system probably has programs built in that would send an alert to transit control if a route was deviating from normal operating. Why is nothing being done!?! What are these supervisors doing, what are the people managing the system doing? Clearly it is not their job, which begs the question, why are we paying them? The TTC looks to be top heavy with its top part being nothing but fat. There is no excuse in the world for this. Like i said we have every single bus, streetcar and subway being monitored 24/7 yet somehow buses keep running in packs and no one thinks “oh hey maybe I should get on this radio thingy we have here and tell bus 3445 to hold at his present location until there is enough space between him and bus 3544. Or hey if they cant do that why not direct the drivers to hold and wait when they catch up to another bus? Sorry for the rant but holy jebus this ticks me off.
Steve: I have been on vehicles that have been instructed to hold to space service, and have seen evidence of this in the tracking logs. It’s not that nobody does it, but that it does not happen as routinely as it should. A related problem is that service can be bunched and yet still “on time” by TTC metrics. Spacing buses could put them off schedule but provide better service. If the TTC actually measured service quality (regular headways) together with crowding that is induced by bunching, and made this a management goal, we might see a change. As long as the “on time” metric has a built-in blind spot for bunching and gaps as I have discussed before, we get irregular service.