The Ever-Fading SmartTrack

John Tory might be gone as Mayor, but SmartTrack clings on like grim death even in his absence. A report before an upcoming meeting of Toronto’s Executive Committee shows that the total cost of the five remaining stations is estimated by Metrolinx at $1.697 billion, yes that’s with a “b”, or $234 million higher than the City’s $1.463 billion budget for this work.

Federal funding of $585 million has already been committed, but the remaining $1.112 billion is on the City’s dime. The City’s share will come from “development charges, tax increment financing and the City Building Fund” [CBF] according to the report. The CBF is an extra levy on the City Property Tax (recently extended to compensate for increased borrowing costs) that will help to pay for one of John Tory’s legacies.

Metrolinx seeks full reimbursement for this amount, but the City in March directed “the City Manager to negotiate with the Province of Ontario for the Province to commit to paying all amounts above the original Program Budget”. Negotiations are ongoing and a supplementary report will follow at an unspecified date.

The station locations are shown below, and they include a key station a East Harbour that will be the interchange between GO Transit, the Ontario Line and a possible future Broadview Avenue streetcar extension into the Port Lands. Why the City is paying for a major regional interchange is something of a mystery, but even worse is the fact that we now face a per-station cost of about $340 million for surface rail stations. The exact numbers are shrouded in the usual Metrolinx secrecy.

This is a sad story where too much political capital has been expended for anyone to ask just why we are building these stations, and especially why the SmartTrack moniker survives. With all of the hand-wringing over City budgets, the survival of at least some of these stations as City-funded projects should be reconsidered.

Charting Service Frequency (2)

In a previous article, I presented a proposed way to display service frequency on a route in a manner that, I hoped, would convey the pervasiveness of irregular service, be clear to casual readers, and in a consistent format. Several readers commented on this either on Twitter or via email, and I thank all for their contributions.

One immediate change, which I included in an addendum to the article, was to replace the vehicles/hour counts (which indicated how many buses or streetcars passed a point each hour) with an average wait time for a would-be rider. That time was calculated on a weighted basis to penalize long gaps in service.

The average wait time stat has other uses which I will explore later in this article.

My intent in developing this new type of chart is to add to the repertoire of charts I publish when reviewing a route’s performance and to show how, or if, changes the TTC makes to schedules affect service riders actually encounter.

For those interested in the details, read on. Again, comments are welcome. I would like to nail down the format before launching into a series of route reviews.

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Charting Service Frequency: A Request for Comment (Updated)

Updated May 26, 2023 at 5pm: In response to a reader’s suggestion, I have added a sample chart that includes average wait times for would-be riders in place of the count of vehicles. To jump directly to this update, click here.

In the many articles I have published trying to review service quality on the TTC, one topic has eluded presentation: how to chart service quality over a long period while preserving the hour-by-hour, day-by-day character of the data? That question has several dimensions because a quality metric is not simply a matter of pooling stats and saying that overall things are not too bad, or even worse that service meets some sort of standard on average.

In the past I have published charts showing headways, and others showing how organized (or not) service on a particular day might be, but it has been more difficult to condense months of data for multiple times and locations.

The TTC standard for surface routes is:

On-time performance measures vehicle departures from end terminals. Vehicles are considered on time if they depart within 59 seconds earlier or five minutes later than their scheduled departure time. (-1 to +5)

CEO’s Report, May 2023, p. 18

The intent is to hit this target 90% of the time, but the TTC does not achieve this with values typically falling in the 70-to-85 per cent range. At an individual route level results can be considerably worse. Streetcar routes fared worse with a 50-to-85 per cent range, and the higher end was achieved during the pandemic era when traffic and demand were light. The numbers have fallen since then.

The TTC’s metrics have big credibility problems because they bear little relation to what riders actually experience.

There are three major reasons:

  • Quality is measured on an all day basis, or worse on longer periods such as months. Variation by day and time is completely obscured by this approach. Reliable service at 10 pm is cold comfort to a rider whose bus has not shown up for 15 minutes in the peak period.
  • Quality is measured only at terminals, not along routes where various factors can degrade service that might begin well, but quickly deteriorates with bunching and gaps.
  • Service is measured relative to schedule on the assumption that “on time” performance will automatically be reliable. However, there is considerable leeway in that standard allowing irregular service to be considered “on time”, and the TTC does not even hit their target levels in many cases.

The CEO’s Report tries to work around the limitations of the metric by noting that some routes do farly well while others encounter a variety of problems. With respect to the bus network, the report notes:

Network performance was negatively impacted by the inclement weather the weeks of February 20 to March 10, where over 60 centimetres of snow fell on the city during this time. Weekday On-time performance was 88% for Weeks 7, 11 and 12. During weekends for the period, OTP was 82%. During February, 32 of 159 weekday routes were impacted by construction for at least three weeks of the period. Overall weekday OTP was 88% for the 127 routes not affected by construction:

  • 48 routes were “On-Time” (90% OTP or better).
  • 53 routes were “On the Cusp” (85-90%).
  • 26 routes were “Not On-time” with OTP less than 85%. In summary, 80% of the routes not affected by construction scored 85% or better.

This still does not address reliability issues at the level riders experience. Moreover, for frequent service, riders do not care if a bus is “on time”, only that service is reliable. TTC assumes that on time service will, by definition, produce reliable service, but they don’t actually operate on schedule and fail to measure service as riders see it.

Irregular service also affects crowding because passenger loads are not evenly distributed. If most riders are on full buses, the following half empty vehicles are not part of their experience (except possibly their frustration with a long wait for the advertised “frequent” service). Average crowding stats do not reveal typical riding conditions. (Analysis of crowding is complicated by the limited availability of automatic passenger counter data outside the TTC. I have tried for a few years to obtain this without success.)

The charts show that bunching (headways of two minutes or less) and large gaps (20 minutes or more) are common, and that they exist across the four months of data here. They are not occasional effects, but a basic feature of TTC service. The stats at terminals, where the TTC takes its on time performance measurements, are less than ideal, but the service degrades as buses and streetcars move along their routes. Most riders do not board at terminals.

This article presents a proposed method of charting service quality on routes to provide both the detail of day-by-day, hour-by-hour conditions and a broader overview. The charts are an experiment in condensing a lot of data into a manageable size, but I am not wedded to the format. Comments are welcome. Regular readers will recognize the format from a previous attempt, but I hope this is an improvement.

The goal is to produce something that can track the quality of service over time so that the decline or recovery of TTC routes is clearly visible along with the effectiveness (or not) of any changes to schedules, transit priority or route management.

There are a lot of charts in this article, and it is a long read for those who are interested. Feedback on this method of presentation is most welcome.

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Why Do The 506 Carlton Cars Short Turn At Broadview?

Among various problems that became evident with the many route changes on May 7 was the deep mismatch between advertised and delivered service.

Both the 501 to Neville and the 505 to Bingham Loop were often missing in action short turning usually at Woodbine Loop (Kingston Road & Queen, named after the former racetrack).

Aside from the scenic tour the 501 Queen car takes via McCaul, Dundas and Broadview, plus the usual congestion on Dundas Street, another congested location was Broadview northbound between Queen and Dundas.

In that segment, three services, 501 Queen, 505 Dundas and 506 Carlton, were all queuing for the left turn at Dundas, compounded by 504/505 buses attempting to serve the northbound stop while blocking both lanes of traffic.

Under these conditions, it was impossible for any of these services to stay on time. The situation has been partly remedied by using traffic wardens to manage the intersection, but even that depends on ensuring that streetcars get priority all of the time despite the signal setup there.

As the week of May 7 wore on, I noticed that a lot of 506 Carlton cars were not getting east of Broadview. Riders complained about cars going out of service, and I received a tip from a reader about scheduled travel time changes.

This sent me into the electronic versions of TTC schedules which are published for use by trip planning apps and which also are the source for info on their own website. These files give a stop-by-stop schedule for each vehicle on a route and allow very fine-grained examination of the schedule design. What I found was quite surprising.

Over the portion of 506 Carlton common to the March 2023 schedules when all streetcars ran through to Main Station and the May 2023 versions with service diverting to Queen Street East, the running times were substantially shorter in May than in March. The schedule as designed could not be operated, and it has become common practice to turn most of the service back westward from Broadview. Here are charts comparing the scheduled travel times.

The eastbound comparison on the left covers the route from High Park to Broadview where streetcars turn off of their usual route. The westbound comparison covers the route from Parliament, where cars rejoin the route, to High Park. Each dot is one scheduled trip plotted with the departure time on the X-axis (horizontal) and the trip length on the Y-axis (vertical). Values move up and down over the day based on expected conditions on the route.

In almost every case the March travel time is longer than the May time. It is no surprise that streetcars have to be short-turned when the schedules work against them. How the schedules came to be designed this way is a mystery, but it creates big problems for riders.

This sort of thing cannot be corrected overnight, but in the meantime the TTC should formalize the route change and post notices everywhere so that riders know how the route will actually operate. New schedules will come in late July when Metrolinx closes Queen at Degrassi for preparatory work for GO corridor expansion and the Ontario Line, and all of the streetcar routes will shift north to Gerrard. With luck, they will reflect actual travel time requirements.

Shifting the westbound Carlton cars off of Broadview at Dundas reduces the number of turns that the intersection must handle per hour. A related issue will be the degree to which traffic wardens intervene to move transit vehicles through this choke point in the network. Both of these changes improve travel times for 501 Queen and 505 Dundas cars and could contribute to more reliable service east of Queen and Kingston Road to the two terminals. I will be monitoring this over coming weeks.


For the benefit of readers who don’t know the whole context, the 506 Carlton car normally operates to Main Station via Gerrard. During construction at Coxwell, it has been diverted via Broadview and Queen eastbound to Woodbine Loop. The westbound diversion runs via Queen, Broadview, Dundas and Parliament including a north-to-west left turn at Dundas because there is no track for a left turn northbound at Gerrard. (The TTC was planning to add one, but the message was lost somewhere in planning when the intersection was rebuilt.)

This is part of a larger set of diversions for construction projects that will evolve over coming months.

A Travel Time Comparison From TransSee

Darwin O’Connor has left a comment noting that you can get comparisons of scheduled and actual running times from his site Here is a chart comparing the situation for eastbound travel from High Park to Broadview in March (green) and May 2023 (red). The dots show actual travel times while the lines show the scheduled values.

Note that the green dots (March) are almost all below the green line, while the red dots (May) are almost all above the red line showing that with the new schedule cars would always be late, sometimes by a wide margin.

O’Connor notes that this type of analysis chart is available on his site free for the Toronto streetcar routes.

Restoring Full Service on the TTC

“What would it cost to put service back to pre-pandemic times?”

That question comes my way as riders deal with another round of service cuts, and would-be mayors vie for attention. The answer is not simple, but an unexpected statement at the recent TTC Board meeting surprised me at how low the barrier to full service was claimed to be. Responding to a question from Commissioner/Councillor Chris Moise, the TTC’s CFO stated that the cost would be $69.5 million/year.

Although hardly small change, that is a lot less than the depth of service cuts might imply. That sent me on a dive into TTC budgets and stats to validate the TTC’s claim.

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TTC Boosts Late Night Subway Service, Restores Beach-to-King Street Service

Effective Monday, May 8, the TTC has restored late night service on Lines 1 Yonge-University-Spadina and 2 Bloor-Danforth to every six minutes, seven days/week. This will be done with extra trains to supplement the scheduled service. The change will be formally scheduled in a future update.

Also, with the disappearance of the 503 Kingston Road car and its temporary replacement by the 505 Dundas, the TTC is now operating a supplementary bus service from Queen & Kingston Road to downtown via Queen and King from 7am to 7pm weekdays.

A direct streetcar service will not be possible until work on the Queen Street Don Bridge finishes sometime this summer, but there is another wrinkle. In the summer, Queen east of Broadview will close for Metrolinx bridge work at the future Riverside Station on the Lake Shore East Rail Corridor forcing all streetcars to operate via Gerrard. In turn that cannot begin until water main and track work at Coxwell & Lower Gerrard completes.

The additional subway service is made possible by an unexpectedly lower absentee rate among operators compared to budget. The TTC made a larger provision for covid-related sickness and finds itself with more available staff.

905 Eglinton East Express March-April 2023

The 905 Eglinton East Express operates from Kennedy Station to the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus with service also via Ellesmere east to Conlins Road on weekdays. This article primarily reviews the service during March and April 2023.

Major differences in the service after March 26, 2023 include:

  • Articulated buses replaced standard sized vehicles.
  • Scheduled service ran less frequently to compensate for the larger vehicles.
  • Scheduled travel times were lengthened.
  • A stated goal of the new service design was to improve reliability. This was only partially achieved.
  • Although the route officially operates with 18.5m articulated buses, standard sized 12m buses can be found regularly as extras both on weekdays and weekends. This suggests that even before the new service began operating, the TTC realized that they might have cut too deeply. The number of extras varies from zero to three, day by day.
    • These are extras that were reported in the tracking data. Whether there was even more unscheduled service is impossible to tell.
  • Travel times during the weekday daytime between Ellesmere and Kennedy Station, both ways, increased by 10-15% with the new schedule and larger buses.
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TTC Wants Your Input on Service Plans

Although month after month of service reductions to fit the available budget dominate transit debates, the TTC forges ahead with their “5-Year Service Plan & Customer Experience Action Plan”. The intent is to develop priorities and strategies for the 2024-2028 period.

Also underway is work on the 2024 Service Plan. This will focus on issues arising from many construction projects.

The work will take place until October 2023 in various stages beginning with a survey available online (it is also available by mail on request).

The elephant in the room through all this is, of course, the future funding status of the TTC and the level of service they can hope to operate with whatever money comes their way. Part of the survey asks which aspects of service should be enhanced or trimmed depending on the availability of funds.

The objectives of the plan are described with this text:

“We consider two major objectives when planning transit services in Toronto:

  • Maximize mobility and satisfy changing travel needs by ensuring public transit is provided in the right places, at the right times; and
  • Ensure all TTC transit services are efficient and cost-effective (and therefore affordable).

As we work towards these objectives, we strive to balance the benefits of transit services with the cost of providing them.”

This says quite clearly that money will rule the planning, but what has consistently been missing in TTC plans is a sense of advocacy. “Cost effective” is a term that depends very much on the frame of reference. Service convenience, speed, reliability and comfort all have a value as part of an overall push to move people to transit from cars. It is pointless to trumpet a move to greener buses if those buses provide poor service, or worse, sit in the garage because there is no money to operate them.

“We can’t afford that” is a common response when people ask for better service, but too often we are not told what improvements might cost. We might not have the money today, but good political debate should be informed on the options.

Twenty years ago, an essential part of David Miller’s Ridership Growth Strategy was to say “don’t tell us that we cannot do anything, tell us what our options are and what they will cost”. The decision should be up to politicians and their constituents, not pre-empted by management. Of course, if plans are built under direction to avoid spending more money, then management does what they are told.

Parts of the survey could use more granularity. For example, the response to construction and diversion requirements is very different depending on which part of the city one talks about. Where there is a fine-grained street grid, it is much easier to keep service near its normal route than in areas where through streets are widely spaced.

There is no recognition that service reliability interacts with service frequency and speed. There is no point in spending great effort on transit priority schemes only to reduce service and ignore reliability. Travel time savings on paper can be offset by unpredictable wait times, not to mention longer walks to stops.

The survey recognizes the importance of communications. I wrote recently about problems in navigating the TTC’s website and confusion in presentation of updates. A related problem is that that riders have different needs for accessing information. In some cases, it will be “what should I do tomorrow” planning, but a lot of access is for “where is my bus right now”. Finding accurate info quickly is vital whether this is via a smartphone app, an in-shelter next vehicle display or a poster hanging by a string from a stop pole.

The challenge is to get from recognition to implementation, a big problem in an organization that has too many information silos and no apparent single point of responsibility.

“Customer experience” is a slippery term that has, in the past, revealed a lot about how some at the TTC regard what might entice riders to the system. The emphasis has been on nice-to-haves like WiFi (only recently elevated as a safety issue), elaborate waiting stations at transfer points and shops in subway stations. The most basic part of the experience – the wait for and crowding on board vehicles – is rarely discussed. As extra service for the pandemic era winds down, this is the central debate.

Where Is My Diversion Notice?

I recently wrote about the large number of overlapping construction projects affecting the streetcar system this year. A major problem today, as in years past, is that the TTC’s website is very badly designed from the point of view of actually finding information. As I wrote that article, I kept discovering info by looking under various rocks, and in some cases from a City web page with related information.

A typical transit rider should not have to undertake such explorations just to find out what the present and planned network configuration will be.

This article describes the layout of the TTC’s site as it exists on Thursday, May 4, 2023. Things move from time to time, and you might not find a page where you thought you left it the previous day.

A fundamental problem with the site is that there are at least five different types of posts which convey service information in addition to the basic schedule and map pages for each route:

  • Service Alerts: These are posted by Transit Control and advise of current major issues affecting routes.
  • Service Changes: This page list service changes and diversions.
  • Subway Closures: These detail planned work requiring the shutdown of service on parts of the subway network.
  • Construction Notices: These detail work in progress at various sites, but these are separate from …
  • Projects & Plans: These describe major projects including construction.

Some but not all of these automatically link to the affected routes. The Construction Plans are only available to those who seek them out as I will describe later. It is not unusual to find conflicting information related to the same route or project.

There is an IT term “denormalization” which describes a situation where the same information is contained in multiple places risking synchronization problems during updates.

The TTC’s web site has many links between pages that are clearly intended to provide a “fast path” in hopping around the site rather than always drilling down from the top. However, these are not implemented consistently. Moreover, some pages with different information and purpose have the same or similar descriptions in links.

This article is not intended as a commentary on the site’s design beyond the general difficulty of finding information and the inconsistencies in where this is posted. I am sure others (you know who you are) could have a lot of fun talking about design in the comments.

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The Cost of a Scarborough RT Busway

On May 2, Toronto’s Executive Committee considered a report on the future bus service to replace the Scarborough RT which will shut down in late 2023. The “debate” was notable for a few key reasons:

  • The staff report took the position that a busway in the SRT corridor was not on the table because it is not “funded” in City budget parlance. Therefore, the report concentrates on buses operating over city streets between Scarborough Town Centre and Kennedy Station.
  • There was considerable confusion about the cost of the SRT busway option, although it has been under study by the TTC for a few years.
  • Completion of the design to 30% lacks only $2.9 million in funding. The position of most Councillors and of staff is that the province should pay, and talks are underway as part of the wider Scarborough Subway funding arrangements. Meanwhile the design work sits.
  • The Committee was misled by City staff about the busway’s cost by confusion of busway-specific costs with other elements such as the eventual dismantling of the SRT which is a common cost for any scenario.
  • Several City staff appeared to have done little prep work for the debate even though it was well known in advance that this would an item of interest on the agenda.

Meanwhile, the hapless transit riders in Scarborough wait for a fast route to replace the SRT, but see this drifting off into the mist. There is a strong sense that this project is not a priority for the City unless someone else pays. That may sound very good as a negotiating stance, but it does little for riders.

This article reviews the estimates for the busway to sort out the confused material presented to Executive Committee. Possibly, if the planets all align over Scarborough, Council can unscramble this at its meeting on May 10.

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