At a time when TTC ridership is sitting at just under 50 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, this may not seem the time to ask a question like this article’s title. However, the service effects of an operator shortage are felt across the system and may not disappear soon.
The TTC puts recent service cuts down to vaccine hesitancy among a small group of staff. Leaving aside the internal union politics and the constant skirmishes between ATU and TTC management, there is more going on here.
At its meeting on November 29, the TTC Board received a third quarter financial update, and there was considerable praise for how management has “contained” costs shifting the year-end outlook to one where the TTC will not actually use all of subsidy monies available. In fact, $36 million will go into the City’s transit reserve where original budget projections forecast a draw, not a deposit. That’s money not being spent on transit, and moreover, it sets the bar lower for a starting point in 2022.
A big contribution to that saving is that the TTC is not scheduling as much service as it budgeted, and even then is not staffing at a level where all scheduled service actually gets onto the street. Cancelled runs and missing buses are common, and this problem continues even on the reduced schedules of November 21.
This situation is a complete reversal from past years when anyone who said “give us more service” received a stock two-part reply: we have no buses, and even if we bought more, there is no garage space.
The problem today is not buses – it is operators to drive them.
In this article, I turn the question around and ask how much service the TTC could provide if only they hired enough staff.
The TTC has always owned substantially more buses than it requires to operate service. This is perfectly normal for any transit system, but the gap between what the TTC owns and what it operates widened over the past decade.
The proportion of the fleet that is “spare” (a word embracing many factors) has grown for two related reasons. Buses are more complex than they were a few decades back, and that affects maintenance work. Historically, the TTC aimed for a 18-year bus life cycle, but they are working toward a 12-year cycle to advance retirement of lower-reliability old buses and avoid the cost of major overhauls to keep them running. They have not yet reached that goal, and currently planned bus purchases do not fully achieve this.
One might argue that it says something about the robust nature of older buses compared to what we see today. To some extent, a shorter lifespan target can be a self-fulfilling prophecy when maintenance plans assume that a 12 year old bus will be discarded, and buses in what was once a middle age of 8-10 years are now seen as elderly.
There was a time when a ratio of buses in service to those held aside as spares was between 7:1 and 6:1, or a spare factor close to 15 per cent. By about a decade ago, this ratio fell to 5:1 or a 20 percent spare allowance. Since then, as a deliberate policy, the TTC has allowed it to fall to 4:1. There is no sign yet of a return to a better ratio. Two factors – a younger bus fleet and the benefits of electrification (partial or complete) – are yet to be reflected in the provision for spares. This affects not just capital costs – more buses are needed to provide a given level of service – but also the need for garage space.
In the pandemic era, the number of spares has risen considerably and the ratio is in striking distance of 2:1 thanks to recent service cuts.
If the ongoing cost of operating the TTC falls because of cutbacks, then the challenge to restore funding faces the double hurdles of cost inflation and a return to historic service levels both for operations and maintenance.
Turning back the clock can be difficult if a generous spare ratio becomes a “new normal” and buses can simply be sidelined rather than repaired. Even worse, if capital to buy new buses is plentiful, but operating funds to maintain the fleet are not, garages can fill up with vehicles that are tempting spare parts stores. This happened decades ago in Boston from which TTC CEO Rick Leary hails (but not on his watch).
Unpopular though this could be in some political circles, the TTC should ask the question: what service could we operate with the existing fleet if only we had enough money to hire drivers for all of the buses? Don’t tell Toronto what we “can’t afford”, tell us what would be possible and how much this would cost. This is a perennial problem with the TTC: a failure to advocate for the best we could have.
How Many Buses Does The TTC Own?
My apologies to readers: the tables below are “busy”, but the intent is to show both the current situation and how the fleet and service levels have evolved for much of the past decade. (Click the images for larger versions.)
The first page shows the number of vehicles by type and year of acquisition. Since January 2013, the fleet has grown by 219 buses, or 12 per cent, from 1,859 to 2,078 buses. A summary graphic in the CEO’s Report claims that there are 2,114, but it is out of date. (These are official TTC numbers from a report that has been published online for years.)
Where a zero is shown, the group of buses has been authorized, but none had yet been delivered.
Here are the tables as a PDF.
What About Those Spare Buses?
Now we get into the “messy” part of the table, but a vital part of fleet planning and the question of “how we got here”.
If you are running a bus line, it is not enough to have vehicles out on the street carrying people. You need spares to provide for various maintenance activities. In a transit system there are several sub-groups of spares, although there can be overlaps between them.
- “Hot spares” available for service in case of special need (subway shuttles) or simply as “change offs” for buses that break down in service.
- Routine maintenance spares for work such as inspections and tune-ups that are done at each garage.
- Major overhauls for which buses travel to the main shops and are out of service for an extended period.
- Warranty spares provide for post-delivery “fixes” done under warranty, although the size of this group varies with the reliability of a new batch of buses.
Spares are calculated based on a percentage of the scheduled service. For example, a 20 per cent spare ratio means that for every 5 buses in service, there is 1 spare. If the spare ratio is 25 per cent, then the ratio changes from 5:1 to 4:1. This ratio can have quite profound effects on vehicle requirements, capital programs and garage space.
In the table above the spares are examined from a few different points of view.
First is the actual level of spares is shown over time on three lines:
- Total fleet: This is the total number of buses the TTC shows as active..
- Peak scheduled service: This is the total number of buses scheduled including buses for construction extras and the so-called Run-As-Directed (RADs) or “600s” (because of their internal route number), but not ad hoc extras that might be dispatches for special occasions.
- Actual spare factor: The ratio of fleet excess of scheduled requirements (the spares) to the scheduled buses. The current situation with service cutbacks has a fleet of 2078 for a service of only 1439, or 639 spare buses. The spare pool is 44 per cent of the scheduled service, an unusually high value due to the reduced level of service.
Second is an examination of the headroom for service growth based on a spare factor of 20 per cent, the value the TTC claims to aim for.
- Total fleet: Same as above
- Fleet spares and Peak available for service: If the fleet were fully used, then in theory the peak service would be the fleet size divided by 1.2. This leaves the spare pool as 20 per cent of the scheduled service. If the spare ratio changes, then the number of buses available for service goes up or down.
- Peak scheduled service: Same as above.
- Scheduled spares and Peak vehicle requirement: The peak service multiplied by the spare ratio gives the size of spare pool needed to support this level of service. The peak requirements sum the scheduled service and the spare pool.
- Room for service growth: This is the difference between the peak scheduled service and the peak available for service. For November 2021, these numbers are 1439 and 1732 respectively, a difference of 293. In other words, the TTC can schedule 293 more buses at peak than they do today based on the fleet size and the 20 per cent target for spares.
Third is a repetition of the previous block, but with the spare factor set to 25 per cent. This reduces the room for growth by 70 buses to 223. (70 buses is about 5 percent of the 1439 scheduled fleet.)
The Evolving Spare Ratio
Until 2016, the TTC actually did operate with a 20 per cent spare factor, more or less, but this jumped to 25 per cent and more in 2017 and beyond. What happened?
Readers may recall the fall 2014 municipal election in which then-candidate John Tory’s magic solution for all our transit woes was “SmartTrack”. We all know just how far that project got us. At the same time, Olivia Chow advocated improving service with more buses, a scheme dismissed Tory, at least until after the election. Subsequently, Mayor Tory had a change of heart and decided that the previous regime (the Rob Ford era) had been too hard on transit and that more buses were needed.
Like magic, the TTC was given money to buy 100 more buses, and they show up in the table in 2017 where the fleet size jumps from 1853 to 1960. Note, however, that the peak scheduled service actually went down from 1584 buses to 1560. What happened?
Those new buses went not onto the street but into the maintenance pool boosting the spare factor to 25 per cent. The argument was that newer buses were more complex and more spares were needed to keep up with maintenance. Riders would benefit indirectly because less service would be cancelled due to a lack of working buses.
This is the point where one might gaze at the ceiling, drum one’s fingers on the table, and think how the Mayor was duped into funding not an increase of 100 buses’ worth of service, but a change in TTC maintenance targets. We heard about those buses often from Tory, but they did not actually add to service.
Note that in the table, data are shown for June (effectively the summer schedules) from 2018 onward. This illustrates the drop in requirements over the summer that traditionally has been used to backfill for construction projects during a period when transit demand ebbs.
The operating budget challenge for 2022 lies in the considerable overhang of bus fleet size versus utilization. At a spare factor of 25 per cent, the TTC has enough buses to add about 15 percent to service across the board, not including buses that will be released from streetcar routes in 2022.
Based on November 2021 schedules, the peak service is 1439 and there are 223 spares available over and above the 25 per cent target. At least another 40 could come from streetcar routes in fairly short order. A medium term goal should be a reduction below a 25 per cent target to realize benefits of a reduced average age for the fleet and for the technology benefits of electric buses.
An important point here is that when we talk about fleet, this only constrains peak service. Many service cuts have occurred in the off-peak periods. This reduces the number of drivers, but not the number of buses. Conversely, restoring off-peak cuts requires more drivers, but no change in the fleet size. I cannot count the number of times I have listened to debates at both the TTC Board and at Council where these basic facts are misunderstood or, worse, misrepresented.
Buses on Streetcar Routes
The question of buses diverted to streetcar routes comes up from time to time, especially in claims that “suburban” buses have been repurposed for “downtown”. The actual number varies from time to time, but is particularly high through 2021 because of the scale of utility and track maintenance that were launched both to take advantage of lower traffic levels and to generate employment.
These buses are included in the table above, and even then there has been room for additional service since pre-covid times. The TTC (and City Council) have simply chosen not to fund more service.
The streetcar system has been beset by closures in recent years both for track repair, water and sewer main construction, and reconstruction of the overhead power system for pantograph operation. Some of these replacements could have been simpler, or shorter lived, if the TTC did not have so many spare buses and were forced to husband their use for the bus network.
The number of buses assigned to 501 Queen will drop substantially once construction along the route finishes in stages through the first half of 2022. 504 King will return to full streetcar operation later in the year following completion of work on Broadview and on Roncesvalles.
When this happens, the number of replacement streetcars, given their size, will be smaller than the number of buses now used. If all of the buses go back to add service on the bus network, the total number of drivers must rise to crew both those buses and the streetcars that will replace them. The TTC can treat this either as a chance to redeploy drivers and vehicles to bus routes, or simply to add to the pool of spare buses. That decision will depend greatly on the 2022 budget debates.
A further wrinkle is that buses running on streetcar routes for construction work are charged to the capital project, but if they return to regular operation on the bus system, they become an operating cost and a drain on subsidies. The TTC can afford to run lots of replacement buses for streetcar track projects because these are paid for out of the capital budget.
However the service is funded, these are buses that could in theory be used on bus routes. However, there TTC has so many spares that in fact they could improve bus service today without the buses covering for or supplementing streetcars.
What About All Those Streetcars?
The streetcar lines were not, with one exception, affected by the November 2021 service cuts. However, the extent of streetcar operations has been limited in past years by major maintenance projects to bring fixes to the fleet including major structural repairs of the first 70-odd cars. That work is supposed to be completed late in 2022, at which point the fleet should return to its full 204-car strength.
Can this fleet replace bus operations on all routes?
In the table below, the AM and PM peak vehicle requirements are shown for all streetcar routes including the buses running on those routes. Spares are added to the service needs at 25 per cent.
The TTC Service Standards give the peak period, pre-pandemic capacities on a 12m low floor bus as 51, and on a 30m low floor streetcar as 130. The ratio is just over 2.5:1. The “Bus as SC” column converts the current bus allocations to streetcars at this ratio, and the “SC Equiv” column shows the effective number of streetcars represented by current operations. (One might argue that there could be some trimming as the number of buses on some construction shuttles is excessive for normal conditions.)
The TTC currently fields about 140 streetcars at peak, implying an available fleet of 175 including spares at 25 per cent while the remaining 29 cars are in various stages of major repair. Returning the entire fleet to “normal” condition is essential to overall service.
At current service, the system would require 212 cars, and that is without restoration of pre-covid service which would require 229. There are 60 cars on order, but they will not be here for a few years. Close to half of them would be consumed simply to eliminate bus operation, and the other half would be available for service improvements and a system extension such as the Waterfront East LRT plan.
Bus operation on some streetcar routes clearly will continue for a few years yet.
Bus Purchases in 2022-2025
The TTC plans to buy 600 buses over the coming four years. This project was described in the recent quarterly financial report at pp 31-32. Half of these will be diesel-electric hybrids, while the other half will be battery buses. The bus purchases are fully funded by various governments, but the cost of charging equipment at garages only has one third of its needed funding from the City.
The size of the order is not driven just by a desire to “go green”. A few years ago TTC policy changed to move from an 18-year target lifespan for a bus to a 12-year target. The argument was that this would eliminate the need for a second major overhaul during the life of a bus, remove older less reliable buses from service and reduce maintenance costs.
Another effect this should have is the ability to reduce the spare factor because there will not be a pool of elderly buses that prefer to stay in the garage rather than go out into service. That benefit has yet to be realized or factored into fleet plans, in part, because Toronto is embracing a new technology whose long-term reliability is not yet known. Moreover, depending on the operating scheme used, the battery buses could drive up spare requirements if they cannot stay in service for the same duty cycle as a diesel hybrid.
By contrast, electric vehicles usually last longer than their diesel counterparts, but that depends in part on having a robust body design, and electrical systems that can last for the life of a bus. (This was the bane of vehicles like the CLRV and the SRT whose electronics became obsolete faster than the vehicles wore out.)
Looking at the table above, there are 747 buses whose acquisition date is 2012 or sooner, and which will hit their 12-year mark by 2024. Many are already over that line. The TTC does not actually have enough buses in their current plan to replace everything that they would retire based on a 12-year cycle. If they are forced to stretch that out, this has implications for buses that would otherwise have been overhauled at year 12.
There will also be changes in peak bus requirements with the opening of Lines 5 Crosstown and 6 Finch in the near future, as well as the SRT shuttle bus that will be required between fall 2023 and 2030 when the Scarborough Subway opens.
The TTC has not produced a detailed fleet plan showing how all of these factors interact, although I hope to see one as part of an update on bus purchases in the near future.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The first question the TTC must answer is just what a post-pandemic service might look like. Simply returning to January 2020 schedules fails on two key counts:
- Conventional peaks and the profile of times when ridership is strong may not return system-wide. This could actually free up resources for better service.
- The bus fleet was underutilized even with 25 per cent spares before the pandemic. Should the TTC be aiming to use all of its buses, or at least identifying what additional service they could provide with existing vehicles?
Of course there are budget implications. Even without the reduced revenue of the covid era, running any additional service almost certainly adds to subsidy requirements on a system where riders pay about 60 per cent of the total. A commitment to more service brings a need for more subsidy. The question is how much, and what benefits might we see from the spending?
I have no illusions that the TTC Board or Management will turn overnight into advocates for much better service. They are busily focused on saving money during a period when special pandemic-era subsidies will start to dry up. And yet this is precisely the issue the TTC should examine looking at its future.