So You Want To Own A Subway (2018 Edition)

Among the many promises made by the Progressive Conservative Party in the run-up to the June 7 election is a scheme to upload the Toronto subway system to the province with the intention of relieving Toronto of this ongoing cost. This was also part of their 2014 campaign, and it is born no doubt from the Ford brothers’ assumption that (a) this could be done cheaply and (b) Toronto would save money overall. The pot is sweetened this time around with the guarantee that Toronto would keep the fare revenue and operate the system. The overall tradeoffs in operating and capital costs are not entirely nailed down.

Oliver Moore in the Globe has written about this proposal wondering whether it is actually workable. The quotes below are taken from his article.

The Tories are framing the upload largely as an accounting exercise, making it easier to find funding and thus facilitating transit construction. The province would pay an estimated $160-million annually for major capital maintenance on the subway network, taking an obligation off city books.

Under the proposal, the Toronto Transit Commission would keep operating the subway, with its board setting fares and the city retaining revenues. Expansion planning would be controlled by the province, although Toronto and Ottawa would be asked to help fund construction.

Note that the proposal is silent on the operating cost of the subway. There is something of a myth that the subway “breaks even”, but this is not true, especially for the more-recently opened segments. It is a matter of record that the Sheppard Line loses money, and the TTC estimated that the operating impact, net of new fares, of the Vaughan extension would be $30 million per year.

If the province builds a new subway line, would Toronto, through the TTC, still be on the hook for paying its operating cost?

Any concept of “breaking even” requires that fares be allocated between surface and subway routes and this is an impossible task. One can propose many schemes, but they all have built-in biases because a “trip” and a “fare” are such different things. The situation is even more complex as an increasing number of riders pay through some form of pass all the way from the yearly Metropass (formerly called the “monthly discount program”) down to the two-hour transfer.

How Much Does The Subway Cost?

The estimated value of an upload to Queen’s Park of $160 million/year is woefully inadequate because the TTC’s capital budget for ongoing maintenance is much, much larger. There is much more to owning a subway than collecting billions in construction subsidies. Despite the frequent claim that “subways last 100 years”, they require a lot of ongoing maintenance and replacement of subsystems. With the exception of the physical tunnel and station structures, a large proportion of the older subway lines has been completely replaced or undergone major overhaul at least once since they opened. Line 1 YUS is on its third generation of trains, for example.

I wrote about this four years ago, and this article is an update of my earlier review.

A big problem arises for anyone taking a superficial look at the TTC’s books because so many projects are not funded, or are not even part of the approved “base budget”. They are “below the line” or, even worse, they are merely “proposals” of future works that might find their way into the official list. Looking only at current, approved funded projects ignores a large and growing list of projects that, for political convenience, are out of sight, the iceberg below the water line.

Slogging through the TTC’s Capital Budget is no fun, but somebody has to do it. You, dear readers, get the digested version of hundreds of pages of reports. Thank you in advance.

Continue reading

TTC Contemplates Earlier Subway Closing

At the TTC’s Audit & Risk Management Committee meeting of May 29, 2018, staff presented a report entitled Internal Audit Quarterly Update: Q1 2018. That is not the sort of title that would prompt avid late-night reading, but one item within the report sparked a brief conversation between the committee and staff.

There are several issues related to the management of overnight work in the subway which requires a variety of resources including staff, work cars, power cuts and central supervision to keep all of the crews from tripping over each other. One part of the ongoing audit work is to review the systems (many automated, but some manual) used to schedule and track the work plans, but another issue raised was the relatively short maintenance window within which work can be done. Responding to a question, staff advised that they are reviewing the operating hours of the subway to determine whether changing these hours could improve the productivity of overnight maintenance work.

Here are extracts from the report:

Audit Observation #3: Track Level Maintenance Window

TTC’s revenue subway service hours limit the nightly maintenance window, which impacts the efficiency and effectiveness of track level work and exposes subway infrastructure to accelerated deterioration.

Limited Track Level Maintenance Window

Per an international CoMET/Nova benchmark study of “Metro Key Performance Indicators (2016 data)”, TTC ranked fourth amongst 34 participants in terms of subway service density or network utilization – a standardized method that measures operated passenger capacity compared to network size. This KPI reflects the ‘intensity of utilization of the metro network’, which is a function of train frequency, train length and car capacity. The study asserts high train frequency may reflect a good use of fixed infrastructure, but the intense impact on asset utilization should be warranted by ridership demand, i.e., recognizing the need to balance competing objectives of making subway service more available for customers versus the costs associated with accelerated deterioration of subway infrastructure and assets due to an increase in daily use. The study comments that TTC offers relatively high levels of capacity primarily due to larger trains and higher frequencies across its entire, relatively small network.

TTC track level work starts once the system is fully cleared of revenue trains. TTC’s subway system is closed to the public at 1:30am and opens at 6:00am on week days and Saturdays, and at 8:00am on Sundays. However, trains continue to run through the system until approximately 2:30am and re-enter the system at around 5:30am, leaving an average total available daily maintenance window of 180 minutes (300 minutes on Sundays as service preparation starts around 7:30am).

Night shift work typically runs from 10:30pm to 7am, including a 30-minute unpaid meal break. Per discussion with Subway Infrastructure management, track level set-up activities typically start at 2:45am and Transit Control requests crews to complete work and start clearing the track at 5:00am. Work activities expected to be performed out-side of this track level access time period include employee roll-call, safety-talks/briefings, work car preparation, and tools maintenance, etc.

[…]

In a Nova comparison study, “Track Possession Timings ” (2014), it was noted that given TTC’s subway service hours, and taking into account estimated time required for set-up and safety check activities, as well as post work preparation for service, TTC workers’ total available time to work productively at track level was between 30 and 225 mins less than the other ten participants. Further, the average maintenance window of these other participants was almost 2hrs longer than that of TTC.

If the maintenance window was to be increased by 2 additional hours, 5 nights a week, Audit estimates the opportunity for improved productivity by SI’s Track Maintenance and Structure Maintenance Sections alone to be valued at approximately $3.38 million. Such a change would also reduce overtime and potentially the need for weekend closures by these two groups. Based on payroll data, Track Maintenance and Structure Maintenance incurred overtime costs of $4.58M and $1.26M respectively in 2017. Structure Maintenance Management estimates that if the maintenance window was to be extended by 2 hours, 5 nights a week, the annual overtime for this Section could be reduced by 75%, which in 2017, would be equal to approximately $945K. It is reasonable to assume productivity improvements and material overtime savings could be realized by other groups that complete maintenance and capital project work at track level if the maintenance window is extended.

[pp 8-9 of Attachment 3, at pp 27-28 of the document]

Note that the “other ten participants” are not listed nor are the relative service levels of their transit systems mentioned to indicate whether they are valid comparators for Toronto.

A proposed action plan appears a few pages later in the report:

Audit Observation #3 – Management Action Plan Considerations:

To maximize and optimize the track level maintenance window, Management should:

  • Evaluate actual ridership and revenue associated with TTC’s late-night subway service (after midnight runs) to ensure current intensity of service and impact on subway infrastructure (and vehicle) asset maintenance costs are warranted.
  • Conduct in-depth analysis of TTC’s current subway infrastructure asset management approach, resource planning and crewing methods, work car dispatching techniques and work methods to identify opportunities for maximizing productivity and transparency of resource utilization at track level.

This was striking on at least two counts.

First, there is no recognition in the report that closing earlier is anything more than a question of sending trains back to the yard earlier, and no mention of providing replacement service. It is no secret that night buses on Yonge and Bloor-Danforth are very heavily loaded after 2 am and, if anything, more service is needed then. A similar problem occurs during the early part of the day before the subway opens. The auditors also seem to be unaware that there is no night service to replace the University-Spadina subway, and this is difficult (as users of Spadina shuttles know) because the subway does not follow an arterial road like Yonge or Bloor.

If two hours were added to the shutdown period, the amount of bus service required to replace the subway would be substantial, and it is likely that ridership would be lost thanks to the relative inconvenience. Moreover, there would be knock-on effects for users of connecting bus services who would face much longer journeys to their connection points on a surface bus, and who might also face a decline in service thanks to the unattractiveness of the night bus replacement for the subway.

This change could actually trigger a system-wide retrenchment of service hours.

Second, there was absolutely no intimation that anyone at the meeting was aware of just how severe the impacts of this proposal would be on riders, nor was there any attempt to defend their interests. Indeed, the focus is on making the maintenance teams more efficient and saving millions without considering the offsetting costs and potential lost revenue.

Some of the basic assumptions in the text quoted above are wrong, notably a claimed closing time for the subway of 1:30 am. In fact, the closing time varies across the system. There is a scheduled meet of the last northbound, eastbound and westbound trains at Bloor-Yonge at about 1:54 am that has been in place since the BD line opened in 1966. Stations close as these last trains make their way outbound to terminals. One might hope the auditors would check with TTC planners or even simply look at their own website.

The last train eastbound on Line 4 Sheppard does not leave Yonge-Sheppard station until 2:14 am.

It is quite clear to anyone who actually rides the subway late at night that it does not close at 1:30 am across the network. This is only the start of a process that continues until about 2:30 am, and some trains have to return to their overnight storage locations even later. The maintenance window varies depending where one is on the network.

The comment in the report about “accelerated deterioration of subway infrastructure and assets” is a function of the very frequent service the TTC provides across the entire subway system at all hours with trains every 5 minutes or better until almost the end of service. How much extra wear and tear this represents since the subway opened in 1954 might be of interest, but this service level is a matter of TTC Service Standards. One could argue that full service is not required, based on demand, beyond a core portion of the system late at night. However, I dare any politician to stand up and tell suburban Toronto that they will lose their frequent service just because the trains are not full.

Another issue here is that actually running the trains is only part of total subway costs, and unless one can also drop staffing levels associated with stations, security, line supervision and on-call maintainers, the saving of running, say, only half of the service beyond a turnback point such as Eglinton is small. The same consideration applies to running less frequent service generally – the trains are only part of the overall operating cost.

It is important to note that this “accelerated deterioration” is a function of frequent service over long hours, not some side-effect of inefficient maintenance procedures as one might erroneously read the audit report.

I hope that if there is a detailed study, it will take into account the benefits of good late night and early morning service on the subway, not to mention the requirements for substantially improved night bus service. Indeed the existing night service needs improving, but languishes thanks to a combination of indifference and budget restraints.

It is only a few years since the TTC began Sunday service at 8:00 am rather than 9:00 am in January 2016.

In a Nov. 4, 2015, letter to the Board, Mayor John Tory and Chair Josh Colle wrote:

“As a vibrant and growing city, Toronto does not conform to a traditional Monday to Friday schedule … Our businesses are open, our cultural centres are operating and the engines of our economy remain in motion. The people of Toronto should be able to move around this city with ease — seven days a week — and the TTC plays an instrumental role in providing this mobility.”

Early Sunday openings are the latest service improvement to be introduced in recent months, following this year’s expansion of overnight service and all-day, every-day service across the city, implementation of ten-minute-or-better service and reduced off-peak crowding on bus and streetcar routes.

Someone should send a copy of this letter to the auditors who appear to be incapable of making a full evaluation of the effects of their recommendations or even appreciating the seriousness of what they propose. “Efficiency” in one department does not mean better service for the organization and the City as a whole.

Relief Line South Station and Alignment Plans

Detailed study of the southern portion of the proposed Relief Subway Line from Pape & Danforth to Osgoode Station is now underway including public consultation sessions on the design. Two of these have already occurred as I write this on April 29, but one session does remain:

Monday, April 30, 2018, 6:30 to 8:30 pm at Morse Street Junior Public School, 180 Carlaw Ave (south of Queen)

The first session was held near Pape & Danforth on April 23, and it was a packed house because construction of this line will have a major effect on properties along the route through Riverdale. Much of the detailed information is not available online because of the size of the files. This article contains snapshots of station and alignment plans along the route at a resolution sufficient to see the details while staying within reason for online viewing. (All of the illustrations are clickable to see a larger version. Some of them have artifacts of viewing large files at a reduced scale, notably the partial graying-out of some text.)

Commentary on the designs is my own except as noted.

Thanks to the City of Toronto Planning Department for provision of the electronic versions of the plans from which the illustrations here are taken.

For further information, please see the Relief Line South website.

Continue reading

A Few Questions For Metrolinx (II) (Updated)

Updated April 15, 2018 at 6:00 pm: Comments about projected demand at Park Lawn Station have been added at the end of this article.

In a previous article, I reviewed the Metrolinx technical report on the performance of proposed new GO and SmartTrack stations as part of their overall network. At the time, there was some debate about the validity of the report’s analysis.

Metrolinx has now produced a backgrounder to this report which gives greater details about their methodology and results.

This information is interesting not just in its own right as part of GO’s planning, but also in its implications for the City of Toronto’s expectations for GO/SmartTrack service. The service levels listed in the City’s report date from a Metrolinx plan approved by their board in June 2016. The levels shown in the backgrounder are different, and reflect the change to a mix of local and express trains in the GO corridors. The backgrounder takes pains to emphasize that the service plan is not definitive, but the express/local mix of trains is an essential part of GO’s strategy as approved at a recent Board meeting.

The report begins with an introduction common to such documents laying the basic process for “business analysis” of new proposals. This is summarized in the following diagram. The model focuses on a few key factors:

  • The degree to which riders are lost from GO because the addition of stops reduces the competitiveness of GO travel versus driving.
  • The degree to which riders shift to a new station thereby reducing their travel time.
  • The number of new riders who previously drove and are enticed onto transit by the new station.

This scheme underpins recent changes in the planning for services notably through the benefits conferred by a combination of express services (avoided delays from new stations) and level boarding (reduced station dwell times generally). The technical details of “level boarding” have yet to be revealed, but the analysis assumes a benefit through the elimination of the step between platforms and the interior of trains.

The benefits of electrification in reducing overall travel times and allowing for more closely spaced stops are not mentioned at all, and travel time comparisons are based on an electrified service as a starting point. Metrolinx has effectively discarded one of the arguments they used in advocating electrification in the first place.

Continue reading

Queen’s Park’s Long Overdue Move on Fare Integration

The recently-announced Ontario Budget includes a lot of spending on transportation that transit riders in the GTHA can only hope to see delivered by whoever is in charge at Queen’s Park after the June 2018 election. Even though the budget is as much about vote-getting as about actual governance, it is worth looking at what the promised fare changes would bring if they are implemented.

From the press release:

  • Beginning in early 2019, the province is reducing the cost of GO Transit trips to just $3 for PRESTO users who are travelling under 10 kilometres anywhere on the GO network
  • All GO Transit and Union-Pearson Express trips anywhere within the City of Toronto will be reduced to $3
  • With proceeds from Ontario’s cap on pollution, the province will also provide fare integration discounts of up to $1.50 per ride for anyone who travels between the York, Durham, Brampton and Mississauga transit networks and the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), saving regular commuters up to $720 every year
  • PRESTO card users travelling on GO Transit between Union Station and stations near Toronto, such as Port Credit, Malton, Pickering, Ajax or Markham will see fare reductions.

As with any announcement, “the devil is in the details”, and I fired off a series of questions to clarify how this might all work. Responses came back from Metrolinx.

Q1: Regular GO Transit riders now enjoy a monthly cap of 40 fares on their travel. The 36-40th trips are at a discount, and from 41 onward, they are free. Will this apply to the new $3 fare? In other words, is there an upper limit of 40 x $3 = $120 to a rider’s cost of using GO within the 416, or is it open ended like TTC fares where there is no cap unless one buys a pass?

A: Details on this will be worked out as part of our implementation planning and work.

Q2: There are now co-fare arrangements between the 905 systems and GO, as well as between GO and TTC. If someone makes, for example, a YRT-GO-TTC trip, what discounts apply? Are the cofares cumulative?

A: YRT-GO Co-Fare, GO-TTC DDF. Yes, cumulative.

Q3: By analogy to Q1, if a rider makes a three-legged trip regularly, thereby becoming entitled to free rides for the GO segment after 40 trips, what happens to the co-fares? Do they still apply, or does the rider pay full 905 plus TTC fare in this case? The potential savings are “up to $720 per year”. Is this simply a calculation based on 20 commutes for 12 months, or will it be a capped saving?

A: Details on this will be worked out as part of implementation planning and work.

Q4: If someone has a Metropass (or its Presto equivalent), they are not entitled to the TTC-GO co-fare. Is it correct to say that their monthly cost would be the cost of the pass plus $3 times the number of GO trips taken within Toronto?

A: For adults, yes.

Q5: For clarity, is the $3 fare a flat rate even if riders transfer from one GO service to another, such as from Lake Shore to UPX, but stays within Toronto for their trip?

A: Yes as long as [the] individual uses the GO readers for their UP Express trip.

Q5a: If part of their trip is inside Toronto, but a second leg goes outside, does the $3 apply to the “inside Toronto” portion? Example: Rough Hill to Union to Weston is all inside Toronto, but Rouge Hill to Union to Airport is not.

A: Fares for any trips to and from Toronto Pearson Airport remain unchanged.

Q6: The co-fare for GO-TTC is relative to an assumed $1.50 per full adult fare with lower co-fares for those getting discounts like Seniors. Will the same apply to the 905-416 co-fare?

A: Details on this will be worked out in conjunction with the transit agencies.

In brief, the only thing that is nailed down so far is that discounts between each leg of a trip are cumulative so that, for example, a Miway rider travelling to a station within the $3 GO tariff zone and thence to a TTC route will get the Miway co-fare discount, the new low GO transit fare and the GO-TTC discount. Also, transfers between GO services do not attract another fare provided that the trip stays within the city.

Every thing else is to be “worked out”.

There are a variety of scenarios one can construct including the combined effects of bulk fares (passes) on 905 systems, the existing GO Transit monthly fare caps, and whatever co-fare/discount arrangements will exist. Anyone trying to work out the permutations has my sympathy. From the Metrolinx point of view:

The reason these changes will only be introduced in early 2019, is because Metrolinx needs time to work with our transit partners to ensure the various scenarios and all fare rules are in place. This budget provided Metrolinx with direction to move forward on fare integration. [Metrolinx email]

Leaving aside the question of whether the government in place for the 2019-20 budget will support whatever fare scheme Metrolinx comes up with, there are also obvious questions about the implications for service crowding and for possible changes needed in local route networks, mainly on the TTC, to provide better connections with GO stations. The lower fares may look attractive, but actually using the service could be challenging within Toronto.

  • On Lakeshore West, most inbound trains run express from Clarkson to Union with local trains only every half hour in the AM peak. The same arrangement applies outbound on the PM peak.
  • On Lakeshore East, there is a similar pattern with express trains skipping all stops from Rouge Hill to Union, and local trains running roughly twice/hour in the peak, albeit on an irregular headway. Some additional service is provided at Danforth (Main) and Scarborough stations by the Stouffville line’s trains.
    • TTC services in southern Etobicoke and Scarborough focus on the Bloor-Danforth subway, and actually reaching the GO stations (or using the TTC as a connecting service from them) is not easy.
  • On the Milton corridor, trains operate only in the peak period, peak direction although for someone at Kipling Station, the all-local service now operated would actually be better than what is provided at, say, Mimico on the Lakeshore West corridor.
  • The Barrie corridor and the Vaughan subway extension are in direct competition with each other, although service is far more frequent, especially during the off-peak, on the subway than on the hourly GO train, and the GO stations within Toronto are not well-served by the TTC network (other than the connection point at Downsview Park station).
  • The Richmond Hill corridor, like Milton, has only peak service, and its stations within Toronto are poorly served by the TTC.
  • The Stouffville corridor has all-day service with stations that potentially could connect with TTC feeder routes at Steeles (Milliken), Sheppard (Agincourt) and Eglinton (Kennedy). As on Lakeshore, the tradeoff will be for a faster trip bypassing the subway.
  • The Weston corridor is a special case because it hosts not only the GO Kitchener service but also the Union Pearson Express (UPX) trains which provide the most frequent of GO services within Toronto.

The fare reductions for trips from the near-Toronto stations in the 905 could shift some travel away from the subway, although few of the stations are well-located for this purpose. The Richmond Hill corridor is the most obvious of these, but the limited service there does not offer a lot to diverting demand.

As a follow-up question, I asked Metrolinx whether they had any demand studies to show travel patterns with the new fares, to the degree that these are known. Their reply is pending, and I will update this article when I receive further info.

It is well-known that the demand models are sensitive to three factors: trip speed, service frequency and fare level. This came out quite clearly in the background studies for SmartTrack and the Scarborough Subway where ST would succeed in drawing significant riding only if it operated frequently and cheaply, as originally touted in John Tory’s campaign. Just how many riders the lower GO fares, by themselves, will attract remains to be seen. A related problem, of course, is the question of train capacity if many actually shift to GO.

Not to be forgotten in all of this are the cross-border travellers between the 905 and 416 (in both directions) for whom a discounted fare will be a benefit. However, if this is only available to riders paying the full adult fare in each jurisdiction, this could undo the benefit now enjoyed by pass users who will not get any further discount. This would be particularly important if a pass holder took many “local” trips on the TTC in addition to cross-border trips into the 905.

In general, riders who already enjoy some sort of discount like seniors and students will benefit far less from the new tariff.

Whether any of this will come to pass is purely speculative at this point given the tenuous status of the current government and the well-known, vague bluster of their principal opposition.

Metrolinx (and by implication its political masters) have wasted years on pursuit of “fare integration” schemes that began with the premise of revenue neutrality to limit the government’s cost through added subsidies, and with the underlying view that distance-based fares were the end state at which they would aim. Had the option of added subsidy and reduction of short-haul GO fares been part of the mix a few years ago, the entire debate over fare integration could have taken a completely different path and a new tariff would already be in place.

Transit policy should arise from reasoned, open evaluation of alternatives, including those that may require an “investment” to make them work, not from a deathbed change of heart by an unpopular government facing defeat at the polls.

New SmartTrack/GO Station Designs (III)

In two previous articles I review new station plans for the Weston and Stouffville corridors that are part of the SmartTrack scheme. This article turns to stations on the Lakeshore East corridor at Gerrard/Carlaw and at East Harbour.

At a public meeting on March 21, 2018, there was a large crowd who raised many of the same issues from residents along other parts of the corridor.

Cost: Capital, Operating and Future Fare Integration

Metrolinx’ recent report on new stations included a capital cost estimate of $1.195 billion for the construction of six SmartTrack stations. A report on the overall financing of SmartTrack, which also includes the proposed Eglinton West LRT extension, is expected to be on the April 2018 Executive Committee agenda.

However, there is no information yet on an operating agreement for SmartTrack service or for the cost to Toronto of “fare integration” between the TTC and GO/SmartTrack services. Metrolinx representatives tend to be evasive when pressed on these issues for the simple reason that they don’t have any answers. If there are concrete proposals on the table between Metrolinx and the City, there has been no indication of any details. This is likely to be a very delicate matter heading into an election at both levels of government and a possible change in provincial transit policies.

If fare integration requires additional subsidies, this will probably be substantially at Toronto’s cost, and could represent a diversion of transit operating dollars from other needed improvements to the wider TTC system. There is also the question of whether integrated pricing will eventually extend to all GO services within Toronto, and the potential for cost increases if the amount of service is expanded from planned GO/RER levels to the claims made for SmartTrack at recent public meetings.

The current peak service levels planned for parts of the corridor, as described on the Metrolinx website are:

  • Weston corridor: Four trains/hour between Bramalea and Union overlaid by four trains/hour to Mount Pleasant of which two/hour in the peak direction would extend to Kitchener. The Bramlea trains would provide the “local” service stopping at the new SmartTrack stations.
  • Stouffville corridor: Four trains/hour between Unionville and Union overlaid by three trains/hour to Lincolnville in the peak direction. The Unionville trains would provide the “local” service.
  • Lakeshore East corridor: Four trains/hour between Oshawa and Union.

If express trains on either corridor, including the Oshawa service, stop at any of the new stations, this would be at East Harbour given the projected demand.

The original service design proposed in June 2016 was for all trains to run local, but Metrolinx has revised this to a mix of local and express trains. The claim of 6-10 trains/hour (corresponding to headways of 10 to 6 minutes) at SmartTrack stations which has been made at all three of the public meeting simply does not line up with current Metrolinx plans. It is misleading to claim that SmartTrack will in any way be “subway like” at this service level except at the express stations, which do not even include all of the existing GO stations.

Metrolinx has talked of trying to increase the local service, but the infrastructure has not been designed for this. Moreover, it is unclear who would pay the cost of more local “SmartTrack” service and the added infrastructure this could require.

Noise and Pollution

A major issue for residents along the Lakeshore corridor west from Scarborough Junction is the potential for noise and pollution as the level of GO service increases. Metrolinx is less than honest in its discussion of this issue because the context of the new station studies takes a narrow view of the station effects, not of the wider issue of the accumulating increase in all types of service.

At the currently planned service levels, there will be the following trains on the Lakeshore corridor from East Harbour to Scarborough Junction:

  • Four trains/hour each way on the Oshawa service
  • An unspecified number of extra “express” trains in the peak direction to/from Oshwas
  • Four trains/hour each way on the Unionville service
  • Three trains/hour in the peak direction to/from Lincolnville
  • VIA service including possible future upgrades to train frequency

This gives in the range of 20 trains/hour in total, or one every three minutes. Some of these will eventually be electrified, but not necessarily all of them, and in any event Metrolinx is likely to improve service from existing levels before the electrification is in place. (There is also the possibility that a new regime at Queen’s Park will derail the electrification project.)

If SmartTrack service were provided every 6 minutes (10 trains/hour), and assuming that this would be achieved in part by having the “express” trains stop at SmartTrack stations, this would add a further three trains/hour each way. It is quite conceivable that the corridor could see combined service with a train passing every two minutes on average, and two trains passing at the same time is a likely event.

Any noise studies must take into account the cumulative effect of all services, their stopping patterns, the possible mix of propulsion technologies including a worst case all-diesel configuration, and the effect if service is improved beyond the planned levels to achieve the claimed SmartTrack frequency.

Metrolinx and the City owe us all a thorough, public discussion of service and technology plans, and the implications for the neighbourhoods through which GO/RER/SmartTrack will operate.

Continue reading

PTIF Phase 2: The Lottery Win Is Not As Big As It Seems (Updated)

Updated March 16, 2018 at 5:15 pm: The Fire Ventillation Project which includes second exits from several stations was omitted from the list of major projects in the original version of this post. It has been added.

Updated March 16, 2018 at 3:25 pm: The Ontario Ministry of Infrastructure has clarified that the Ontario funding for the Scarborough Subway is separate from the $4 billion in matching dollars shown in the table below.

On March 14, 2018, the Federal and Provincial governments announced the scale of the second phase of the Public Transit Infrastructure Fund (PTIF) to be spent over the next decade. Some of the details are in a backgrounder.

Funding allocations for the Toronto area are summarized in the table below. The amounts are based on transit ridership, not on population, and so Toronto gets by far the largest share of the pie.

Source: Infrastructure Canada Backgrounder

If one believed the ecstatic response of politicians and some media, one might think that all our transit prayers have been answered.

Not quite.

An additional $9 billion is not exactly small change, but Toronto has a huge appetite for transit spending and a daunting project backlog. The new money will help, but with it comes the requirement that Toronto pony up about $3 billion for projects that are not in the city’s long-term budget.

Capital planning for many years understated the infrastructure deficit by hiding projects “below the line” outside of the budget, and even more by leaving important work off of the list completely. The infrastructure deficit is much larger than the TTC reports and city financial plans indicate.

That, in turn, affects the city’s financial planning, subject of a recent report from the City Manager. Despite assurances from city staff that all known TTC costs have been included in their projections, there is a long history of the TTC leaving significant projects out of funding lists to keep their total “ask” down to a politically acceptable number.

Much needed work is not the sexy, photo-op rich stuff of subway extensions, but the mundane business of buying new equipment to replace old cars and buses, and to increase system capacity.

The new plan is to run for ten years. The money will not all land in Toronto’s hands this year, but will be parceled out as projects are approved and actual spending occurs. There is no guarantee that a future government will stick to any commitments especially if the “funded” projects are not the subject of a binding agreement. Toronto has its share of cancelled projects including the Sheppard Subway, cut back to Don Mills, and the Eglinton West Subway (both victims of Mike Harris), not to mention Transit City and the pliable attitude of various governments to the worth of a subway in Scarborough.

Updated March 16, 2018 at 3:25 pm:

Before we even start into the possible projects to be funded, some money is lopped off the top based on a past commitment.

  • Ottawa will provide “up to $660 million for the Scarborough Subway extension project, pending submission and approval”.
  • It is unclear how much of the provincial commitment to the SSE of nearly $2 billion is included in the $4 billion under the new program.

This brings the available federal funding down to about $4.237 billion.

Whether the total available from Queen’s Park is $6 billion ($4b new plus $2b for the Scarborough Subway), we do no know. I have a question in to the Ontario Ministry of Infrastructure to clarify this. They have acknowledged the question, but have not replied as of 11:45 am, March 16.

Update: The Ministry of Infrastructure has clarified how the previous SSE funding fits with the newly announced program:

Ontario is committed to cost-matching federal funding for municipal projects at 33 percent. This equates to $4 billion from the province to match the City of Toronto’s $4.9 billion federal allocation. No previously committed funding for Toronto projects is included in this allocation.

Ontario’s commitment to match this new federal funding at a 33 per cent share is separate from and above the province’s previous commitment of $1.48 billion in 2010 to the Scarborough Subway. [Email from Alex Benac, Press Secretary to the Minister]

Continue reading

New SmartTrack/GO Station Designs (II)

On March 6, 2018, the City of Toronto and Metrolinx hosted a meeting at Scarborough City Hall to present the two new SmartTrack stations proposed for the Stouffville corridor. This follows on from a meeting to present the west end stations, and the series will conclude on March 21 with a presentation of the downtown east side stations (East Harbour and Gerrard-Carlaw) at Queen Alexandra School.

The Scarborough meeting dealt with two stations: Finch-Kennedy and Lawrence-Kennedy.

The audience was not particularly supportive of the project. Complicating this situation was a group of presenters who seemed either not fully in command of information about the stations, or unwilling to engage in discussion, and a moderator who lost his credibility as an impartial actor. Some statements were, to put it charitably, badly misinformed on two key issues.

Service Levels

The viability of the Scarborough SmartTrack stations, especially the one at Lawrence which will replace the existing RT station, depends on service frequency. Past Metrolinx publications including the GO RER website claim that the line will see seven trains/hour of which four would run through to/from Lincolnville and three would run to/from Unionville. (For details, see my previous article A Few Questions For Metrolinx.) Originally, all trains were to stop at all stations, but Metrolinx has recently changed their service plan so that only the Unionville trains will run “local” and stop at the SmartTrack stations (among others). This fundamentally alters the attractiveness and usefulness of the service.

At the meeting, a Metrolinx representative claimed that the service plan was actually for seven local trains, not four, as well as the four express trains. This is the first time that service plan has been claimed for the corridor. Whether it is actually possible given the absence of passing tracks and the effective headway of under six minutes is quite another matter. An express train can only make up more than the time between two locals if it can overtake them. Metrolinx has not presented a track design that would allow this, and the corridor is constrained for additional tracks especially where GO must co-exist with the Scarborough RT. The whole point of the 4+3 service plan was to fit within the capabilities of planned GO RER infrastructure.

Fares

The attractiveness of a train in the GO corridor as part of the local transit system also depends on the fare that will be charged. Although Mayor Tory’s SmartTrack plan claims that free transfers would be available between the TTC and GO, information from Metrolinx varies with options including:

  • A flat fare structure as promised by Mayor Tory with free transfers.
  • A discount for GO+TTC usage similar to that now in place for riders who pay with single fares on Presto (not passholders).
  • Reduced GO fares within Toronto, but not necessarily to “TTC” levels.

It is irresponsible and misleading for anyone at a public meeting to say definitively what the fare structure will be. This has not yet been negotiated between Metrolinx and the City of Toronto, much less approved by the two bodies as to the cost sharing arrangements. Toronto is supposed to be on the hook for all “SmartTrack” costs, and a subsidized transfer fare would be on the City’s account.

A further problem is the question of how extensively a “Toronto” fare would apply on the GO network, whether it would be valid on the “express” trains running in the SmartTrack corridor, and whether it would be valid at all stations including existing GO stations like Agincourt and Bloor (Dundas West), let alone on other GO corridors like the Lakeshore East and West.

Continue reading

A Few Questions For Metrolinx

The recent publication of updates to the New Stations review together with information at two public SmartTrack station meetings raises several questions about Metrolinx plans and their methodology in evaluation of the worth of new facilities.

In attempting to dig through the contradictions, I asked Metrolinx for the detailed background reports for their updated “business cases” for new stations, and was advised that there are no reports beyond the technical paper that is part of the board’s agenda for their March 8, 2018 meeting.

This is not a credible statement.

The evaluation of new stations depends heavily on the projected demand at each location. This demand depends on several factors:

  • The frequency and capacity of service provided at the station
  • The travel time to destinations for trips served by the station
  • The cost of a trip
  • Feeder services for riders including connecting transit routes and parking lots

Land use patterns around the station are also a factor, but they are secondary in two senses. First, demand projections are generally run against a fixed land use model while changing other factors such as service frequency and cost. Second, land use is not under the direct control of a transit agency while service and fare factors are, and they can have a much more immediate effect on demand.

The newly modelled demand for stations follows on from the Initial Business Cases (IBCs) of 2016:

The overall methodology and approach to modelling used in carrying out the business case analysis is consistent with the approach used in undertaking the 2016 IBC’s and has been independently peer-reviewed and validated. In particular, the current business case analysis measures and captures the same key benefits (e.g. new station users benefit from the station) and impacts (e.g. delays to upstream riders due to the station). The current business case analysis for new stations take advantage of updated input information, including GO rail service assumptions, land use, connecting rapid transit infrastructure, and a refined approach to ridership forecasting and modelling.

The economic and financial cases for each new station depend on forecasts of how travellers will respond to the presence of a new station. Stations can support increased system ridership by providing a new access opportunity that may be closer to household locations and employment, school, or other travel destinations. Individuals who use the new station benefit by saving time relative to their previous travel option – travelling farther to another GO station, or using a different transport mode such as subway, bus, or auto. Existing GO passengers that do not use the station, on the other hand, can be delayed if they travel on a train that now stops at the new station. Examining travel time savings, delays, and modal shifts is the focal point of the business case analysis. [p 7]

Metrolinx is all about “transparency”, and in that spirit here are several questions about their models and plans.

Continue reading

Metrolinx Continues Its Pursuit of Hydrogen Trains

Metrolinx has released a long study about the feasibility of using electricity generated from hydrogen fuel cells as an alternative to conventional railway electrification with overhead wires. The “Hydrail” project page contains links to both a quicky “fact sheet” and to a 353-page report. The report itself contains a 13-page Executive Summary giving a high level view of the proposals and recommendations without much of the technical detail.

It is impractical here for me to review the entire document, and indeed this is not really needed because a great deal of the content is a tutorial on hydrogen technology. The report is clearly written by people with more of a background in hydrogen technology and marketing than in railway planning and operations.

Fascinating though this is, the report does not address the most crucial issue of all – what are the implementation scenarios for hydrogen propulsion depending both on technical maturity and on policy decisions still to be made about the evolution of the GO Regional Express Rail (RER) system.

A great deal of confusion lies in the process Metrolinx is following to provision RER. Their intent is to farm the entire thing out to a private consortium:

Design-Build-Finance-Operate-Maintain (DBFOM) Procurement Process

Metrolinx is intending to engage a contractor to upgrade the GO network using a Design-Build-Finance-Operate-Maintain (DBFOM) model. As part of the tender process, bidders will be able to propose both hydrail and overhead wire technology to electrify the GO network. The benefit of this DBFOM approach is it allows one single party to manage all the interrelated decisions necessary and oversee each phase of the process from design to maintenance. This ensures optimal performance is achieved for the entire system, which can create efficiencies. [Website]

However, as the industry now stands, the information needed to allow an informed assessment of technical maturity, feasibility and risk for hydrogen trains at the scale of a GO/RER implementation does not exist. There is a lot of speculation, but it is based on much, much smaller and simpler implementations of various aspects of the technology.

The intent of the proposed study is to acquire as much information and experience as possible so that bidders can bid intelligently. The real challenge will be for this to happen before the Request for Proposals is issued at the end of 2018.

There is a subtle change in the text above to statements by Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster in 2017 when he said that it would be up to bidders to decide which technology they would choose to offer. Instead, the description above states that bidders can propose either technology and it would be up to Metrolinx and the Government of Ontario to decide which version to implement. It is quite likely that for the riskier new technology, bidders will be less willing to accept broad technical risk, and they will charge a premium for this. Whether the government of the day will see any extra costs as worth the investment remains to be seen.

Indeed, although the report states that the Cost:Benefit ratios for conventional and hydrogen options are similar, there is no mention of the risk premium a bidder might place on one option over the other. Moreover, the actual calculation of the ratio is not explained, nor are the total costs given. This raises the question of whether a higher cost is offset by a higher assumed benefit so that the ratios come out similarly, even if the magnitudes of investment differ.

At a recent Board of Trade appearance, Verster was asked about electrification, and replied with praise for Ontario’s “hydrogen economy”. It is quite clear that he drank the Kool-Aid and the government’s usual fascination with technology is getting in the way of his proper role as CEO. Immediately afterward, he reverted to the position that it is up to the would-be builders/operators of the RER network to propose technologies and the risk they are willing to assume.

Later the same day, when asked at a Metrolinx Town Hall about the possibility that hydrogen efforts would delay electrification, Verster replied with the standard response that the vendors will decide. However, the timelines for investigation of hydrogen and the contract award date suggest that a lot of work will be jammed into a very short period, and that Metrolinx’ own technical investigations will overlap the bid process.

A fundamental problem with Metrolinx “benefit cases analysis” (also misleadingly termed “business case analysis”) lies in the calculation of presumed benefits which are built up from a variety of factors. These include not just direct spending, but also the imputed value of effects such as reduced travel times, reduction of congestion and the value of environmental improvements. This side of the analysis is not present in the report, and so it is difficult to ascertain the “benefits” against which each scheme is measured. As for costs, so many elements of the hydrogen train proposal are little more than assumptions about the scalability of existing technology, it is hard to believe that the cost estimate is much beyond the back-of-an-envelope stage.

The capital and operating cost estimates presume a level of certainty about the hydrogen option which simply cannot exist at this point. Indeed, a major purpose of the planned work is to provide the technical basis on which a bidder might construct a proposal. Some capital costs included for conventional electrification are not included in the hydrogen scenario, and there is a wide variation in the range of projected operating costs.

With a planned launch of RER by 2025, the timelines are quite tight because major decisions on the infrastucture needed for either alternative must be made soon so that RER is “ready to roll” when planned.

Notable by their absence are key pieces of information:

  • What is the relationship between the timelines of the proposed hydrogen investigations and prototyping, and the timespan of the DBFOM procurement through all of its phases from initial tender up to revenue service? Can the research phase be completed in time to inform bids from potential builders/operators of the GO/RER network?
  • If the DBFOM bidders depend on investigative work done by Metrolinx or others on its behalf, what liability will Metrolinx have for non-performance if their work turns out to be incomplete or faulty, and therefore prevents the successful execution of the contract?
  • What is or will be the position of the railways, CN and CP, to the presence of hydrogen trains on their systems? Their dislike of electrical distribution and overhead structure in their territory is cited as a benefit of the hydrogen alternative, but one must ask how the railways will view the risks of a new propulsion technology co-existing with their operations.

This brings us to a fundamental question about RER and electrification, regardless of the technology. At the risk of being accused of environmental insensitivity, it must be said that electrification is not a prerequisite for RER implementation at the service levels now planned. Indeed, electrification makes the system design more complex especially where GO services operate over other railways’ territory. The tradeoffs are between many issues including the increased intrusion of more frequent GO service in corridors now hemmed in by residential development rather than by industry. This brings noise and pollution from frequent service with diesel locomotives. Even electric trains are not silent.

Reading between the lines, one might well think that full electrification is now contemplated as something for the future, in the mid 2040s, not in the 2020s. This is fundamentally tied up with questions of implementation and roll out, none of which is addressed in the report because it assumes this is a matter for future study.

Although much discussion reads as if RER will appear overnight in January 2025, Metrolinx plans to begin building up service levels from current to the RER proposal on an incremental basis as infrastructure improvements are completed. This means that a substantial portion of “RER” based on existing technology would exist before electrification, by whatever scheme, actually is “turned on”.

An important part of any implementation plan will include the mechanism by which a DBFOM bidder will take over existing assets, and this necessarily must be spelled out as part of the tender process. This will lead to two huge transitions occurring in parallel: the move from direct Metrolinx capital and operating responsibility for the GO system to a separate provider, and the technology transition from diesel to electric on some or all of the network. Whether Metrolinx has the capability to manage something on this scale, or will simply dump the responsibility in the provider’s lap and hope for the best, remains to be seen.

There is also the fantasy that the “risk” will be transferred from the government to the provider, but that risk comes at a price, and what is effectively “risk insurance” usually has a cap. Examples of capped liabilities, or even of providers walking away from their responsibilities, are not hard to find. Of course there could be problems with conventional electrification too, but they are less likely with a mature technology.

In this article, I will review the recommendations so that readers who want the “short version” can get my opinion without reading all the way to the end. In a separate future article, I will turn to specifics in the detailed report.

Continue reading