Metrolinx, New Stations and the Auditor General (Updated)

The Ontario Auditor General released her 2018 annual report on December 5. Many topics were examined by the AG, but two related to Metrolinx bear examination by anyone concerned with the future of transit planning and management with more responsibility shifting to the provincial level.

This article deals with the station selection process and the controversial recommendations for new stations at Kirby and at Lawrence East. I have written about this process and related issues before:

Updated: Links to Articles & Interviews

The Auditor General appeared on Metro Morning on December 6 speaking about, among other things, the cost of policy changes regarding LRT lines, and the evaluation of potential stations.

Former Minister of Transportation, Steven Del Duca, wrote an opinion piece in the Toronto Star claiming “I wasn’t meddling, I was building transit”. This is rich considering the effort Metrolinx went to in revising its evaluation of new stations.

Del Duca was notorious during his Ministry as using Metrolinx as an unending source of profile-building photo ops. He uses the Relief Line as an example of his intervention to get the project going despite early reluctance at the City and TTC level. This is a convenient rewriting of history and, in particular, of the huge difference between an RL ending at Danforth, and the one later evaluated by Metrolinx running north to Sheppard. The RL became popular and scored well once its extent and projected demand produced a significant dent on the Yonge line so that the Richmond Hill subway might be feasible.

A Few Thoughts About the Metrolinx Board

Although the Metrolinx Board meets in public from time to time, the legislation governing this body allows most issues to be debated and decided in private. There is no reason that this will change for the better. The chronologies set out by the Auditor General reveal situations where the Board was advised privately as issues evolved and met publicly only for the formality and patina of respectability conferred by their “approval” of matters already decided.

Throughout the station evaluation process, Metrolinx revised both published analysis and supporting documentation. This obscured the net economic costs estimated in the original business cases, making the results of the business-case analysis—both on Metrolinx’s website and in the published report to the Board—much less clear and transparent. [p. 315]

What is unclear is whether the Board actively participated in directions to staff that would lead to the rewriting of reports and recommendations, or merely chose to avert their eyes from the mechanics of political sausage making.

In any event, the process detailed by the AG throws into question everything that Metrolinx has done. Can anyone trust an organization whose professional opinion is so pliable, and which will defend recommendations, threadbare though they may be, so strongly? This is not just an issue for Metrolinx but for many public agencies involved in transportation planning notably the City of Toronto and the TTC.

To its credit, Metrolinx is developing a standard methodology for Business Case Analysis and will publish this in April 2019. However, the problem remains of just how well this will protect against hidden interference from politicians and their friends.

Metrolinx Business Cases

For many years, Metrolinx has used a methodology to evaluate projects that purports to establish the worth of a scheme, which could be negative, such as a new transit line or a significant change to existing facilities. The framework includes multiple factors examining projects from different points of view.

The Strategic Case looks at how a scheme works within the network and the wider public goals of supporting regional development. Factors include:

  • Ridership projections
  • Revenue and Operating Costs
  • Population and employment served
  • Travel time changes
  • The reach of a new/revised service
  • Effects on greenhouse gas emissions from trips shifted to transit

The Economic and Financial Cases review a proposal from two different monetary viewpoints.

  • The Economic Case measures benefits such as auto operating cost savings, reduced emissions and air pollution, travel time savings, health benefits and reduction of accidents.
  • The Financial Case looks at the cost and revenue estimates to produce a net operating cost as well as a “net financial impact” stating the total revenue over the study period minus the capital and operating costs.

The Deliverability and Operations Case concerns the implementation plan, procurement, operations, maintenance and risk management.

These factors overlap and the calculation machinery includes many assumptions such as future population and employment patterns, fare structures, operating and capital costs, trip diversion rates to transit, and the value of various benefits both to transit riders and society in general. Many of these are not published at a level of detail that would permit an outsider to understand how each factor behaves, and there is considerable leeway to affect the outcome by “twirling the dials” on factors readers cannot easily review.

A big issue with these analyses has been the question of how benefits are valued. For example, if a new transit service attracts people out of their cars, then this reduces the operating cost of those vehicles and produces environmental benefits, but it can also reduce travel time both for new riders and those on existing services. The values assigned to these and other benefits do not accrue to Metrolinx, but to the wider population. These savings, whether they be tangible (lower driving costs) or intangible (the value of time saved) are used to offset the hard costs of actually building and operating a service. While there may be an overall balance, the savings do not pay the bills which must rely on future revenue and subsidy.

A major contribution on the “benefit” side of the analysis is almost always the travel time savings for riders. For example, in the recent GO Expansion BCA, this is the overwhelming contribution to “value” in the analysis. Any factor that increases travel speed affects this measure, and in the case of stations “less is more” is the rule. Fewer stations make for faster trips and that translates to a higher modelled benefit. This has been at the heart of Metrolinx analyses for years and drives a pressure for wider station spacing even on urban lines like the Crosstown project. Adding a station to any route triggers a requirement to find an offset elsewhere such as a stimulus to riding that will drive up total rides even if they are all a bit slower.

A further problem with Metrolinx analyses is that the time period for comparison of costs and effects has grown to a 60-year horizon with the effect that far-distant benefits are shown as potentially offsetting short to medium term costs. This requires assumptions about the future of the transit system, the economy and regional development far beyond a period where anyone can reasonably know what will happen. In an effort to temper this, Metrolinx performs sensitivity analyses by changing factors to see what the effect would be. For example, if a more conservative set of assumptions goes into the model, what happens to the benefits, or does the proposal even fall into negative territory? How “successful” does Metrolinx and the region have to be in order to achieve its goals?

Needless to say, with such a timeframe, most of the readers, let alone authors, of these studies will be long gone before we could challenge their long term validity. The more subtle problem is that showing such long term benefits tends to paper over the fact that in the short to medium term, new facilities (particularly those requiring large capital investments) will not achieve anything near profitability and this shortfall must be financed. I will turn to this in more detail in a review of the Metrolinx GO Expansion BCA in a future article.

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Superlinx: A Big Solution or A Big Con? (Updated)

Updated November 7, 2018 at 1 am: Details of the Environics poll conducted for the Toronto Region Board of Trade have been added to the end of the article. The content does not change my argument here, namely that the specifics of a new agency, its potential benefits or problems, were not presented in detail. The poll only measures a response to a generic scheme for provincial control to the extent that respondents might know about it. Of particular note, the Superlinx proposal came out in fall 2017 and had little media coverage in the period preceding the poll conducted almost a year later.

The Toronto Region Board of Trade published a proposal in November 2017 for the amalgamation of all transit agencies and operations in the “Toronto Corridor”. Ostensibly, this was written as input to the updated Metrolinx Regional Transportation Plan aka “The Big Move”. However, the guiding policy framework is clear in the first paragraph of “The Board’s Vision”:

The Toronto Region Board of Trade (the Board) has a vision for a modern transit authority that is best in class globally. This regional transit authority would plan and oversee a system that pays for new lines and superior service enhancements substantially through commercialized transit related assets—not new taxes. This modern transit authority would quickly deploy smart technologies and service features systemwide, thanks to its unified planning and operations platform. It would ensure public transit land is maximized to meet housing and commercial needs. It would plan and fast‐track the delivery of a super regional transit network to meet the needs of Canada’s most populous and economically active region—the Toronto‐Waterloo Corridor (the Corridor). [p. 3]

The key point here is that transit improvements, both capital and operating, would not require new taxes. This is a political holy grail, the “something for nothing” of political dreams in any portfolio. However, at no point does the Board of Trade actually run the numbers to show that this would actually work, that the money available from “commercialized transit assets” would actually pay “substantially” for the transit the Toronto region so desperately needs.

The Board speaks of the “Corridor” with an emphasis on the Toronto-Waterloo axis, but this simply restyles a region made up of what we now call the GTHA into a larger unit, and it includes substantial areas that remain rural where transportation needs and planning policy options are very different from those of the urbanized parts of southern Ontario.

At the time, I did not comment on the scheme, but with the change in government at Queen’s Park and the arrival of dogma as the central driver of policy choices, another look is in order.

On October 31, 2018, the Board of Trade published the result of a survey which claims to show overwhelming support for complete amalgamation of transit systems. Their press release is entitled “Greater Toronto and Waterloo region voters support Superlinx concept”. However, it is by no means clear that their panel is made up of actual voters, only adults. The spin begins before we even get into the substance of the release.

This was duly covered by the media, including The Star and The Globe and Mail.

The Environics poll of 1,000 adults in southern Ontario claims:

The concept of a single regional transit agency funded by the provincial government received support from 79 percent of regional respondents and 74 percent of Toronto respondents.

It is worth noting that the article on Environics’ site, identical to the Board of Trade’s press release except for the title, is not a detailed analysis of the results. It does not include the context in which questions were placed, and so it is impossible to know exactly what people thought they were “supporting”. No margin of error is cited because of the poll methodology, according to Environics. With only 1,000 responses that are further subdivided among seven municipalities, the sample for any one of them will be quite small. The sample size and demographics for each municipality are not included, nor is there any indication of transit usage patterns among the respondents, only car ownership. With the relatively low transit usage outside of Toronto, one can reasonably assume that the poll overwhelmingly reflects the opinion of people who do not use transit as their primary or only means of travel.

Among the measures polled was “satisfaction with the local transit system”, and this ranked second lowest at 59% in Toronto with York Region, at 55%, bringing up the rear. The high, at 71%, was in Peel Region. Ironically, Toronto and York also have the lowest agreement that the “commute has worsened in the past 12 months”. There is widespread support for the concept that “regional transportation systems require a significant overhaul”, but there is no sense of what this might entail. The Superlinx scheme also has strong support, but again we do not know how it was described to respondents.

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Many Questions About A Subway Takeover

In the melee that passes for Ontario politics, one major issue is the proposed takeover of Toronto’s subway system by Queen’s Park. Such a change, they claim, would allow a great speed-up of system expansion currently hung up at Toronto Council. A good deal of that hang up can be traced to the Premier and his brother’s actions at Council, but such trivialities get in the way of a good stump speech.

The idea that planning should be based on actual evidence is a buzz-phrase heard most commonly when a politician is trying to appear “businesslike” and claims to be applying some sort of intellectual rigour to back-of-the-envelope planning. The uploading proposal sounds good in theory, but this is due in part to poor understanding of transits needs and cost both at Queen’s Park and at City Hall. The scheme surfaced years ago at Council as a simplistic way to cut the cost of transit support in the City’s budget, and the idea moved to the provincial level along with the Ford regime.

A common thread through every proposal is that the true cost of owning, operating and upgrading the subway system is poorly understood, even by members of Toronto Council and the TTC Board whose job it should be to know these things. It is a convenient myth that the subway “breaks even”, and that if only someone would take the cost of expansion and capital maintenance off of the City’s hands, all would be well.

In the interest of informed debate, this article examines the plan, such as it is, and the many issues that have yet to be addressed by its proponents.

Understanding the TTC Budget

A detailed breakdown of the TTC Budgets can be found in:

The TTC’s budget and long-term plans are poorly understood. The TTC Board scheduled Budget and Strategy meetings, but either cancelled them or spent the available time on narrow-focus rather than system-wide issues. At Council, things are even worse because budget debates, crammed with every department’s issues, get only short review. These are usually in an environment hostile to discussions of change except for a few, small topics. The “big picture” is limited to battles over new transit lines while the health of the overall system goes ignored.

For a decade or more, service growth in Toronto was constrained by the size of the streetcar and bus fleets, the physical limits on train spacing on the subway and the capacity of its stations. Much of the recent service growth is outside of the peak period when spare vehicles are available.

On the capital side, the City has a policy that its debt service costs should not exceed 15% of tax revenues. The province mandates a 25% cap, but the City takes a more conservative approach to provide headroom. Originally the cap applied to each year individually, but it is now considered over a ten-year average so that peaks and valleys in debt costs can smooth out for a 15% average. Already, planned borrowing for future years takes up all available room, and additional debt-financed work is possible only with special levies such as the Scarborough Subway tax (1.6%) and the John Tory City Building Fund (building up to 2.5%). (These are both tax increases above the rate of inflation.) If the cost of borrowing goes up, or City tax revenues fall, the 15% line will be only a fond memory.

The problem is compounded by a chronic understatement of transit needs going back at least eight years. When the marching orders are to keep deficits, and hence taxes, down, any proposals for improvement run counter to political goals. “We can’t afford it” becomes a standard response, and options simply go unstudied especially if they are associated with the wrong political faction.

If we don’t know what options will cost, we don’t know what might be possible or what the trade-offs among options would look like.

Even worse, with the Capital Budget, there is a long list of items that are either:

  • approved but not funded (roughly 1/3 of the approved list, about $3 billion worth)
  • “below the line” with neither approval nor funding (over $1 billion)
  • “future consideration” (over $2 billion)

Many of the big ticket items in these lists are subway items such as new and expanded fleets for the two major routes, and capacity expansion at busy stations. Many items in the budget are actually part of a larger project such subway capacity. However, the budget is presented on a departmental basis, and there is no consolidation of related line items. This has two effects: the TTC Board and Council rightly complain when projects appear to grow because approving the first step triggers the need for all that follows, related items are consigned to “funded” or “unfunded” status without regard for their place in the larger scheme.

The problem with these lists is that they are getting longer, especially the second and third group, even though some items form parts of critical system updates. Other projects simply are not on any budget, or are pushed so far into the future that they have no effect on the current ten-year plans. The 15% rule caused important projects related to Line 2 Bloor-Danforth to be pushed into the late 2020s even though some of them are pre-requisites for the Scarborough Subway Extension. (The components of Bloor-Danforth subway renewal and capacity expansion are discussed in detail in an appendix to this article.)

If Ontario takes over responsibility for the subway, they will inherit that long list of projects. For its part, Toronto Council and the TTC Board do not fully understand the implications if Ontario simply chooses not to invest in the existing system because the estimate of a takeover has been low-balled.

The TTC Board is very simple-minded in its deliberations, and avoids going into details. Their focus is on cost containment, not on service, except when someone needs a photo op to announce some relatively trivial change such as an express bus network that adds few new buses.

If Council and the TTC don’t understand their own system and its real needs, how can they fight for it?

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The Sixth Worst City Myth

Recent stories beginning with the Toronto Sun, and followed by other media including Global, CTV and City, latched onto a claim from a recent study that Toronto was the sixth worst city in the world for commuting. The study from UK’s Expert Market blog writer Sean Julliard combines data from several other sites and indices to formulate a commuting index for 74 cities around the world.

Toronto likes to think of itself as a “transit city” while having severe congestion problems that are regional in scope, not simply confined to the core area which is a tiny fraction of the overall territory covered by this study. That ranking intrigued, but did not surprise me, and I set out to determine just how Toronto ranked so low in a rather long list.

Links to both an Excel and PDF version of the scores and their components are available in Julliard’s article.

First off, it is vital to understand just how these scores were compiled. Here are the components:

  • Metro population: This is the regional population, not necessarily the same as the city population. No source is cited for these values, nor is there a guarantee that other factors are drawn from the same geographic scope. For example, the population given for Toronto is almost 6 million (obviously the GTA), but the price of a monthly farecard is based on the undiscounted value of a TTC Adult Metropass.
  • The following four values come from the Moovit Insights compendium of public transit facts and statistics (Toronto page):
    • Average time spent commuting: These are transit commuting times and have nothing to do with traffic congestion except as it might affect transit vehicles.
    • Average time spent waiting for a bus or a train daily: Again, this is a transit value and appears to be a compendium of all wait times on journeys, not just the initial stage of a trip.
    • Average journey distance: This is a transit journey distance. The value shown for Toronto, 10km, lines up with information from other studies. It is slightly higher than the average for the TTC itself because regional commutes are included in the total. This is a one-way value.
    • Proportion of commuters who have to make at least one change during a transit journey.
  • The following value is derived from the Numbeo Cost of Living index (Toronto page):
    • The percentage of a monthly salary represented by the cost of a monthly transit travel card. In Toronto’s case, this is a salary for Toronto proper, and an undiscounted adult Metropass.
  • The following value is derived from the INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard:
    • Average hours spent in traffic congestion over 240 days (twelve twenty-day months)

Note that most of these factors refer only to transit with only the final one having anything to do with road congestion. This did not prevent many from reporting on how the study showed Toronto with the sixth worst congestion in the world.

Julliard notes that his composite index was primarily based on two factors:

The final ranking is weighted, with cost and time spent commuting judged to be the most important factors.

He does not explain exactly how much weight each factor is given in the total score.

Toronto ranks high on the transit cost component because of our relatively expensive Metropass. Numbeo notes:

Toronto has 13th Most Expensive Monthly Pass (Regular Price) in the World (out of 444 cities).

As for congestion, Toronto sits at 49th place (with 1st being the worst), and its position is rising (bad) thanks to increased time spent by commuters in traffic.

And so we have a sixth worst ranking on Julliard’s scale because we have rotten traffic and expensive transit.

Traffic Congestion

The INRIX scores rank many North American cities, including Montréal (38th), worse off than Toronto for congestion. Los Angeles tops the list with New York (3rd) and San Francisco (5th) not far behind. On a world scale, we are better off than London (7th) and Paris (12th) among many others.

This is a very different view than presented in media reports based on Julliard’s blog.

Transit Indices

Toronto is almost at the bottom of the list for the average time spent commuting by transit at 73rd place out of 74 in Julliard’s list. This is not surprising with a very high 96 minutes spend on average claimed by Moovit. Remember that this is for a round trip, and so their value for the average one-way trip is 48 minutes. That’s a reasonable number for Toronto. It is worth noting that of the 74 cities, only 24 have values of an hour or less. Others in the 90+ list include: Portland, Miami, Istanbul, Philadelphia, Sao Paulo, Birmingham (UK), Salvador (Brazil), Rio de Janiero, Brasilia, and Bogata.

This also begs the question of the scale of transit service in various cities. It is quite likely that in the overall list, it is physically impossible to spend as much time as in Toronto on commute journeys either because the city regions are smaller, or their transit networks do not reach as far as Toronto’s.

For transit wait time, Toronto is much better off at 41st with a relatively low value of 14 minutes. We may take long journeys, but we spend less time waiting to make them.

Our journeys are comparatively long at 10km reflecting the geography of the GTA’s population and work locations, and we sit at 63rd place in the list.

As for transfers, we rank well down on the list at 69th, and that is a direct result of our transit network’s design. Most riders (73%) have to transfer at least once, and given the size of Toronto, that would be hard to avoid except with massive duplication of routes to provide many more one-seat rides. Only 17 cities in the list have a value under 50%, and they tend to be smaller than Toronto with populations averaging 1.7 million (25% of the GTA value).

Toronto is 62nd on the list for cost of a monthly travel card (a TTC Metropass) as a percentage of monthly income at 6.5%. Montreal has a value less than half of Toronto’s, and most cities in Julliard’s list fall below 5%.

Concluding Thoughts

If you want to complain that the TTC costs too much, especially its monthly pass, that’s a valid point, but it has nothing to do with traffic congestion. Travel distances and times are a direct consequence of a region that has, for the most part, built up around a road network, not around transit. Where once the “old” city with its spine of subways and frequent surface routes dominated the travel market, the city region is now overwhelmingly car-based with sprawling populations and job centres to match. This model “worked” when roads had capacity and the assumption that everyone had a car was taken as read. That is not what Toronto has become, and we now have a crisis in transportation network capacity and in the economic viability of so much travel for work and study taking so much time out of everyone’s day.

The Toronto Sun has even taken up the fight against the streetcar again lumping in the downtown know-it-alls who killed the Spadina Expressway with those who preserved the streetcar system. The fact that the vast majority of the GTHA has never seen a streetcar and manages to be hopelessly congested all the same has escaped them. Toronto being “sixth worst” is yet another reason to drag out this hobby horse.

And, of course, some of the greatest congestion lies on our “express” road network. Unlike downtown Toronto, Etobicoke, Scarborough and North York never faced the prospect of demolishing large residential areas in the name of “progress”. A plan to widen the expressways beyond lands long-ago acquired for their construction might teach folks outside of downtown just what provision of adequate road capacity would mean in their own back yards.

Julliard’s study (really a collection of data, but not a “study” in the sense of a detailed review of how the underlying numbers work and what they reveal) is a convenient jumping off point for lazy politicians (and sadly, I must say, for journalists too), but it has been used without context and with even the data it does include misrepresented. If Toronto had a cheaper transit pass, we would have ranked much better, and there would be no story, but this would have no effect on traffic congestion.

Are there problems in the GTA? Of course there are, and they start with a built form and demand pattern that are extremely difficult (impossible in places) to serve with transit. Once the roads are full, they guarantee congestion, and this will not be solved with a few subways or by getting rid of a handful of streetcar lines in Toronto’s core. The “fix” will take time, and must begin with a recognition that shifting people to transit is hard, expensive work. Simplistic, campaign-driven, vote-buying “solutions” are worthless.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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