Toronto Deserves Better Transit Service Now! Part 4: Streetcar Riders Count Too

Much discussion of improved service has talked about bus riders in the suburbs who have long trips and whose bus routes lost peak service when the crowding standards were rolled back in 2012.

Peak period crowding standards had never been improved for streetcars because there were no spare vehicles, and so there was nothing to roll back. However, over past decades, that shortage of streetcars limited peak service in a way that the bus system didn’t have to deal with.  This was compounded by two factors:

  • The TTC opened a new Spadina-Harbourfront line without increasing the fleet.  This was possible because service cuts on the early 1990s left Toronto with “spare” streetcars.
  • The project to buy new streetcars dragged on for years thanks both to the embrace of 100% low floor technology, and the obstructions posed by Mayor Ford to streetcar and LRT plans in general.

Between 1998 and 2014, the total number of streetcars scheduled for the peak periods has risen only 10%, and there is no headroom for further growth with the existing fleet. Indeed, service quality is compromised by vehicle failures, and the scheduled service may not all get out of the carhouse.

This year, the TTC will finally take delivery of the first “production” vehicles in its new fleet, and claims that service will operate as of August 31, 2014 on 510 Spadina with the new cars.  Whether the line will convert 100% to the new fleet in one go remains to be seen.

The TTC Fleet Plan contains no provision for improving service on any streetcar route beyond the higher capacity that new cars will provide. This will come only as the new fleet rolls out line-by-line and some routes will wait until late this decade to see more capacity (and even then with less frequent service).  Existing cars would be retired at a rate that matches or exceeds the new fleet’s ability to replace service, and would also eliminate any spare capacity for growth on lines running older cars.

This is what passes for responsible planning in an organization that claims a dedication to “customer service”.

This article looks at each streetcar route in turn and at a possible revised fleet plan that would make provision for short term improvements as the new fleet arrives.

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Streetcar System News – February 2014 (Updated)

Updated February 11, 2014 at 10:00 am:  Questions & answers related to trackwork plans and new streetcars have been added.

Spadina / Queens Quay Update

To nobody’s great surprise, the restoration of streetcar service south of King Street on Spadina will not occur until June 21 rather than with the schedule change in late May as originally hoped. This is a direct result of the bad weather and poor construction conditions. The TTC’s position is:

Due to the delays in Waterfront Toronto’s work and the need for TTC work to follow in series (i.e. overhead), it is not anticipated that the loop will be available for service for the May Board Period. Once we have greater clarity, we will reflect that online.

Some preliminary work on suspension for the new overhead has already been done, but this cannot be completed until the track is in and overhead vans can drive on the new pavement at the loop.

As plans now stand, service will resume on both the 510 Spadina and 509 Harbourfront routes with the re-opening of new streetcar track on Queens Quay rather than in two stages as originally hoped.

I await detailed info from Waterfront Toronto on updates to their construction plans. Much of the utility work on the south side of Queens Quay is now completed, and traffic is shifting to that side of the road at least as far west as Rees Street. This move will allow work to begin on the new streetcar right-of-way in the middle of Queens Quay and the construction of the new permanent roadway on the north side.

Detailed construction news updated weekly is available on Waterfront Toronto’s Queens Quay project page.

No sooner will streetcar service resume on southern Spadina, but the route will convert to bus operation for two track projects likely in August. The intersection at Dundas will be rebuilt this year (the one at College has been deferred because of scheduling conflicts), and there will also be work at Spadina Station.

When the line reopens on August 31, service will be provided, at least in part, by the new low-floor streetcars.

Updated February 11, 2014:

Q: What work is planned at Spadina Station? Track? Platform – especially provision so that two new cars can be on the platform at once – one loading, one unloading. Only 3 CLRVs fit there today.

A: The TTC has placed two low floor streetcars at Spadina already. They can physically fit inside the station, although the lead module of the lead car would have to be positioned opposite the five pillars with glass curtains, and that the lead door would be on curved track with a wider gap between the vehicle and the platform. We are reviewing operating procedures and possible alterations that are necessary to allow two new cars to be on the platform at the same time if necessary.

This implies that the work to be done in August will be trackwork, not platform changes.

New Streetcars

Recently, I sent questions to the TTC about the status of new car production and the implementation of these vehicles. Here are the replies:

Q: What is the status of the order and when will production deliveries begin?

A: Production deliveries will begin in March.

Q: What will be the rate of deliveries?

A: As always planned, there will be a ramp up to the production rate of 3 per month (36 per year). Once stabilized at this rate there are opportunities to transition to a higher rate and this is currently under investigation.

Q: What effect will this have on planned retirement of the problem ALRVs before the next winter season?

A: ALRVs will begin retirement at the end of this year and throughout 2015 as more new streetcars enter service.

What is still unclear is how the TTC will adjust service on 504 King and 501 Queen as the ALRVs [the existing two-section streetcars] disappear from the fleet and these routes continue operation with the remaining CLRVs [the shorter, single-section cars].

Updated February 11, 2014:

Q: Are there outstanding issues still to be dealt with on the ramps in the new streetcars, or have whatever design tweaks were necessary been incorporated in the production versions we will receive?

A: There are still a number of outstanding issues to be resolved. The production vehicle will have the necessary structural changes made to receive the new ramps. However, there is a transition phase between cars going into revenue service and when the final version of the ramp is delivered. For a number of vehicles that will go into service, an interim ramp will be incorporated to improve on accessibility – with improved transition between the ramp, the door threshold and the interior car floor. The final production version will be lighter in weight, less demanding on the drive mechanism (hence more reliable), and will have faster deployment and retrieval times. Initial production cars that do not have the latest ramp configuration will be retrofitted with the final version as part of the configuration control process.

Capital Budget Cuts

Among the City-imposed cuts in the Capital Budget was a $10-million/year cut in surface track maintenance for 2014 to 2018 with an equal cut to subway track in 2019 to 2023. I asked about the effect of these cuts.

State of good repair, which track replacement is clearly part of, will not be affected. If we need to further cut the capital budget to do track work, we’ll find that money elsewhere.

Queen East Major Track Projects

Two major projects will affect streetcar service on Queen Street East this spring.

At Queen and Leslie, the new sewer line must be tied into existing infrastructure under Queen Street, and then the new special work for the track leading to Leslie Barns must be installed.   Tentative plans are for this work to begin in mid-May and run to the end of June.

While Queen Street is closed, service will operate with bus replacements and streetcar diversions:

  • A 501 Queen bus will run from McCaul Loop to Woodbine Loop (at Kingston Road) diverting around construction via Jones, Dundas and Greenwood.
  • 501 Queen, 502 Downtowner and 503 Kingston Road Tripper streetcars will divert via Broadview, Gerrard and Coxwell.
  • Carhouse trips for 504 King and 505 Dundas that now operate west from Russell Carhouse via Queen will use Coxwell and Gerrard.

Beginning at the end of June and running through July, the special work at Broadview and Queen will be replaced. This intersection is in poor condition with long-standing slow orders and one switch (west to north) permanently out of service due to a danger of derailments.

During this work, service will operate as below:

  • The 501 Queen bus will divert via River, Dundas and Carlaw.
  • 501 Queen, 502 Downtowner and 503 Kingston Road Tripper streetcars will divert via Parliament, Gerrard and Coxwell.
  • 504 King cars will divert via Parliament and Dundas.
  • Carhouse trips to Russell will continue to operate via Coxwell.

Normal service on all routes resumes in August.

King Street Diversion

New February 11, 2013:

Q:  The 504 King diversion around construction at the Don Bridge is now listed as running to August due to additional work in the area.  I understand that the track connection at Sumach to the new Cherry Street line is to go in this year.  Will this be done while the 504 is on diversion (ie before August), or will there be yet another shutdown for this trackwork too?

A:  The Sumach/King connection work is scheduled for March 30.

Transit Priority for Diversions:

Q:  With the extended period of various diversions, why has there been no change to implement transit priority or at least advance greens for left turns at various locations?

A: We continue to work with the City on transit priority signalling. There are no new installations to date; where there, they are in use. Advance greens and the like is a question better put to the City.

I am meeting with Stephen Buckley, Toronto’s General Manager of Transportation Services, on February 12 and will discuss this issue with him.

[TTC comments provided by Brad Ross via email on February 7, 2014.  Updates by email on February 11, 2014.]

Feeling Congested Part 2: Setting Priorities

The City of Toronto’s Planning Department is consulting with the public for the development of an updated Official Plan.  The plan’s transportation component falls under the rubric of “Feeling Congested” with a website devoted mainly to transit issues.  In the first round of meetings, the focus was on “what is important”, what goals should the new plan try to achieve.  In the second round, the topic is the prioritization of goals and how these might drive out different choices in a future network.

This parallels work that Metrolinx is doing on their Big Move plan, but it includes additional options for study that are city initiatives such as transit to serve the waterfront.

A survey now in progress (until June 30) seeks feedback on the evaluation criteria for transit projects, and also for the goals of the cycling plans.  Some of this makes more sense if one first reads the toolkit, but even then the presentation will leave skeptics unhappy because there is no link to the detailed study explaining how the proposed criteria have been measured for each of proposals.  (A summary chart on page 14 does not include the subcategories within each of the eight criteria that generated the total scores .)

Even with this background, an exercise asking whether the methodology is sound seems to be an odd way to survey public attitudes without a stronger discussion of the implications for a preferred network.  This is rather like discussing the colour of a magician’s hat rather than the effect this might have on the rabbit he pulls out of it (or if there’s even a rabbit at all).

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Kingston Road Construction News

The City of Toronto has issued a preliminary notice of the reconstruction of Kingston Road from Queen Street to Victoria Park Avenue.  This work will take place starting in June 2013 through to December and will include replacement of all the streetcar track.

This is the last major piece of track in regular service to be rebuilt to new standards introduced almost 20 years ago.  (Downtown tracks on Victoria, York, Richmond and Wellington will be replaced over the 2013 and 2014 construction seasons.)

Past and Future Streetcar Service Capacity

Now that the first Low Floor Light Rail Vehicle (LFLRV) is rolling through Toronto streets on test runs, the question of service quality and capacity for streetcar routes is once again an issue.

The most recent TTC document setting out their intended use of the new fleet appeared in the 2013 Capital Budget Blue Books.  These are not available online, but I presented the TTC’s fleet plan in an article last fall.  From the numbers of vehicles to be assigned to each route, one can work back to the service frequency and capacity numbers.  In general, peak period headways get a bit wider, but the capacity goes up, in some cases dramatically.

The TTC faces two challenges: one on the budget, and one in operations.

Toronto Council has been extremely stingy with operating subsidies and “flat lined” the TTC over the past two budget cycles.  Hard liners will want the TTC to simply replace service on an equivalent capacity basis and maximize the savings in operator costs.  This would be a disaster for service quality even if the TTC actually ran cars on the headways they advertise.

On the operational side, any increase in headways brings even wider gaps when the service is upset by weather, random delays and short turns.  It is already a matter of record that the largest drop in riding over the past two decades came on the lines where 50-foot long CLRVs (the standard Toronto cars) were replaced by 75-foot long ALRVs (the articulated version) on an equivalent capacity basis.  Falling riding led to reduced service and the familiar downward spiral.  This must not happen when the new fleet rolls out across the system.

Since at least the mid-1990s, the TTC has told us that they cannot improve streetcar service because they have no spare cars.  In part, they are the victims of their own fleet planning.  The TTC originally rebuilt some of its old PCC cars (the fleet preceding the current one) in order to have enough to expand operations on the Harbourfront and Spadina lines.  However, by the mid-1990s, service cuts on many routes thanks to the economic downturn in that decade and the subsidy cuts by the Harris government, reduced the fleet requirements to the point where the PCCs could be retired and the Spadina line opened without buying any new cars.  When riding started to grow again, the TTC had no spare vehicles to improve service, and to make matters worse, the fleet was entering a period of lower reliability thanks, in part, to poor design.

Toronto waited a long time for new cars to be ordered, and this process was delayed both by the decision to go with all low-floor cars, and by political meddling at City Hall.  New residential construction along the streetcar lines pushes up demand, but the TTC cannot respond with better service until they have more cars.

Recent discussions about the new cars have included comments about how we cannot possibly have more streetcars on the road.  What many people forget is that the streetcar services were once much better than today.  In this article, I will look back at service levels once operated in Toronto, and at the service that we might see if the TTC actually operates the new fleet in the manner their Fleet Plan claims.

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OneCity Plan Reviewed

The OneCity plan has much to recommend it even though in the details it is far from perfect.

The funding scheme requires Queen’s Park to modify the handling of assessment value changes, and they are already cool to this scheme.  Why OneCity proponents could not simply and honestly say “we need a 1.9% tax hike every year for the next four years” (not unlike the ongoing 9% increases to pay for Toronto Water infrastructure upgrades) is baffling.  A discussion about transit is needlessly diverted into debates about arcane ways of implementing a tax increase without quite calling it what it is.

On the bright side, Toronto may leave behind the technology wars and the posturing of one neighbourhood against another to get their own projects built.  Talking about transit as a city-wide good is essential to break the logjam of decades where parochialism ruled.  Couple this with a revenue stream that could actually be depended on, and the plan has a fighting chance.  Ah, there’s the rub — actually finding funding at some level of government to pay for all of this.

Rob Ford’s subway plan depended on the supposed generosity of Metrolinx to redirect committed funding to the Ford Plan (complete with some faulty arithmetic).  Similarly, the OneCity plan depends for its first big project on money already earmarked by Metrolinx to the Scarborough RT to LRT conversion.  If this goes ahead, we would have a new subway funded roughly 80% by Queen’s Park and 20% by Toronto.  Not a bad deal, but not an arrangement we are likely to see for any other line.

On the eastern waterfront, there is already $90m on the table from Waterfront Toronto (itself funded by three levels of government), and OneCity proposes to spend another @200m or so to top up this project.  Whether all $200m would be City money, or would have to wait for other partners to buy in is unclear.

Toronto must make some hard decisions about a “Plan B” if the Ottawa refuses to play while the Tories remain in power.  Even if we saw an NDP (or an NDP/Liberal) government, I wouldn’t hold my breath for money flowing to Toronto (and other Canadian cities) overnight.  A federal presence is a long term strategy, and spending plans in Toronto must be framed with that in mind.

Sitting on our hands waiting for Premier McGuinty or would-be PM Mulcair to engineer two rainbows complete with pots of gold landing in Nathan Phillips Square would be a dead wrong strategy.  Bang the drum all we might for a “one cent solution” or a “National Transit Strategy”, Toronto needs to get on with debating our transit needs whether funding is already in place or not.  Knowing what we need and want makes for a much stronger argument to pull in funding partners.

In some cases, Toronto may be best to go it alone on some of the smaller projects, or be prepared to fund at a higher level than 1/3.  If transit is important, it should not be held hostage by waiting for a funding partner who will never show up.

The briefing package for OneCity is available online.

My comments on the political aspects of OneCity are over at the Torontoist site.

To start the ball rolling on the technical review of the OneCity network, here are my thoughts on each of the proposals in the network. Throughout the discussions that will inevitably follow, it is vital that politicians, advocates, gurus of all flavours not become wedded to the fine details. Many of these lines won’t be built for decades, if ever, and we can discuss the pros and cons without becoming mired in conversations about the colour of station tiles.

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“One City” To Serve Them All

Updated June 27 at 5:20pm:  I have written a political analysis of today’s announcement for the Torontoist website that will probably go live tomorrow morning.  A line-by-line review of the plan will go up here later the same day.

TTC Chair Karen Stintz and Vice-Chair Glen De Baeremaeker will formally announce a new plan called “One City” on June 27 at 10:30.

The plan already has coverage on the Star and Globe websites.  Maps:  Globe Star

I will comment in more detail after their press conference, but two points leap off the page at me:

  • The proposed funding scheme for the $30-billion plan presumes 1/3 shares from each of the Provincial and Federal governments.  This money is extremely unlikely to show up, especially Ottawa’s share.  From Queen’s Park, some of the funding is from presumed “commitments” to current projects such as the Scarborough RT/LRT conversion which would be replaced by a subway extension.  The rest is uncertain.
  • The “plan” is little more than a compendium of every scheme for transit within the 416 that has been floated recently in various quarters (including this blog).  What is notable is the fact that glitches in some of the existing ideas (notably the fact that the Waterfront East line ends at Parliament) are not addressed.  The whole package definitely needs some fine tuning lest it fall victim to the dreaded problem of all maps — once you draw them, it’s almost impossible to change them.

For those who keep an eye on political evolution, the brand “One City” surfaced in April 2012 in a speech made by Karen Stintz at the Economic Club of Canada.  This idea of a new, unifying transit brand appears to have been cooking for some time.

Buses vs LRT: “And”, Not “Or” (Updated)

Updated September 6, 2010 at 4:50 pm:

Anna Mehler Paperny of the Globe and Mail writes about the difficulties of getting around on a bus network where service leaves much to be desired.

The better way? Don’t get Janet Fitzimmons started.

The East Scarborough resident lives less than five kilometres from her work in the Kingston Road-Galloway Road area. But the bus ride takes a good 40 minutes – once the Lawrence Avenue bus comes, if it isn’t full. If the weather’s nice, her commute is faster by foot.

“But I’m lucky: I’m able-bodied and healthy.” And, she adds, “my commute isn’t bad for Scarborough.” A colleague of hers takes three buses to traverse what’s barely a seven-kilometre direct trek.

Meanwhile, Tyler Hamilton of The Star tells of the travails of attempting to use service on Kingston Road in The Beach.

Last Tuesday I needed to head downtown – Bay St. and King St. – for an event. […] It was rush hour. I seemed to have plenty of time, so I decided to take the 503 Kingston Rd. streetcar route. Checked the schedule. Walked to my stop and arrived what I thought was 10 minutes early.

No streetcar. Twenty minutes later, no streetcar.

This is rush hour, remember. Finally a bus that would take me along Queen St. arrived and the driver encouraged me to get on. “The 503 won’t be coming. Take Queen St.,” he says. “It will get you close. Hop on.”

I hop on. A man sitting across from me leans over and says, “TTC, eh… it means take the car.” I offer a forced chuckle. The bus drives along Kingston Rd. for five minutes and then reaches Queen St. “Time to get off,” the driver says. Huh? I join a herd of passengers exiting the bus. Apparently I should have known about transferring onto a Queen St. streetcar.

Confused, I wait. I wait. I don’t see a streetcar. I see a cab. Hail it. It will be worth the $20 at this point – enough money, mind you, to drive half a month in my Honda Civic.

I share my frustration with the cab driver. “The TTC is good for the cab business,” he replies with a smile.

Of course, a regular rider would know that there is no such thing as a 503 car, at least not until September 7 when streetcar service returns to Kingston Road.  The scheduled bus service is every 12 minutes on the 502 and 503 providing a supposedly blended 6 minute headway.  Take the first thing that comes along if you’re going downtown.  If it’s a 502, change to the King car at Broadview if you want King rather than Queen Street.  This is the sort of survival tip a regular will know, but a novice won’t.

By the way, the streetcar services will run every 15 minutes, with an allegedly combined service of 7’30”.  Don’t hold your breath.  A big problem with both of these routes is that they are short-turned and wind up missing the very customers they are intended to serve.

Add to this the appalling off-peak service and you have a recipe for driving away customers.  The 502 bus or streetcar is scheduled every 20 minutes, but only a few days ago I waited 36 minutes for one to show up.  I had not just missed one, and so the gap was easily over 40 minutes.  By the time we reached Queen Street westbound, we had a light standing load even on that wide headway, and we had also passed two eastbound 502s.  That’s right:  3 of the 4 buses on the route were east of Coxwell.  This is called “line management”.

The real irony is that the 12 Kingston Road bus comes and goes at Bingham Loop every 10 minutes.  There is better service east of Victoria Park than west of it on weekdays.  Evening and weekend service on the 22A Coxwell is better than on the 502.  This is one of the few places in the TTC where weekday service is worse than at any other time, and that’s assuming the weekday service is vaguely on schedule.

An important part of improving bus services generally is that the TTC must stop thinking of the outer parts of lines as places where short turns and unpredictable, infrequent service are acceptable.

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