The Evolution of Streetcar Service from 1980 to 2016

Transit service on many of Toronto’s streetcar lines has declined over past decades and, with it, riders’ faith in and love for this mode. Unreliable, crowded service is considered the norm for streetcar routes, and this leads to calls to “improve” service with buses.

The historical context for this decline is worth repeating in the context of current debates over how Toronto should provide transit service to the growing population in its dense “old” city where most of the streetcar lines run.

When the TTC decided in late 1972, at the urging of City Council, to reverse its long-standing plans to eliminate streetcars by 1980 (when the Queen Subway would take over as the trunk route through the core), the level of service on streetcar lines was substantially better than it is on most routes today. Any comparison of streetcars versus buses faced the prospect of a very large fleet of buses on very frequent headways roaring back and forth on all major streets.

Service in 1980 (when the system was originally planned for conversion) was substantially the same as in 1972, and for the purpose of this article, that date is our starting point.

Ten years later, in 1990, little had changed, but the City’s transit demand was about to fall off a cliff thanks to a recession. During this period, TTC lost much riding on its network including the subway with annual travel dropping by 20% overall. It would take a decade to climb back from that, but various factors permanently “reset” the quality of service on streetcar routes:

  • During the recession, service was cut across the board, and this led to a reduction in the size of fleet required to serve the network.
  • In anticipation of the 510 Spadina line opening, the TTC had rebuilt a group of PCC streetcars, but these were not actually needed for the 509/510 Harbourfront/Spadina services by the time Spadina opened. “Surplus” cars thanks to the recession-era service cuts were available to operate the new routes.
  • Since 1996, any service changes have been  made within the available fleet, a situation compounded by declining reliability of the old cars and the anticipation of a new fleet “soon”.
  • By 2016, the fleet was not large enough to serve all routes, and bus substitutions became common.

Some of the decline in demand on streetcar routes came from changing demographics and shifting job locations. Old industrial areas transformed into residential clusters, and the traffic formerly attracted to them by jobs disappeared. Meanwhile, the city’s population density fell in areas where gentrification brought smaller families to the houses.

The city’s population is now growing again, although the rate is not equal for all areas. Liberty Village and the St. Lawrence neighbourhood are well known, visible growth areas, but growth is now spreading out from both the King Street corridor and moving further away from the subway lines. This creates pressure on the surface routes in what the City’s Planners call the “shoulders” of downtown.

As the population and transit demand have rebounded, the TTC has not kept pace.

The changes in service levels are summarized in the following spreadsheet:

Streetcar_Services_1980_To_2016 [pdf]

510 Bathurst: In 1980, this route had 24 cars/hour during the AM peak period, but by 2006 this had dropped by 50% to 12. In November 2016, with buses on the route, there were 20 vehicles per hour, and with the recent reintroduction of streetcars, the peak service was 10.6 ALRVs/hour, equivalent to about 16 CLRVs. Current service is about 1/3 less than it was in 1980.

506 Carlton: In 1980, this route  had 20 streetcars/hour at peak, but by 2016 this was down to 13.8.

505 Dundas: In 1980, service on this route had two branches, one of which terminated at Church after City Hall Loop was replaced by the Eaton Centre. On the western portion of the route, there were 27 cars per hour, while to the east there were 15 (services on the two branches were not at the same level). By 2016, this was down to 10.3. [Corrected]

504 King: This route, thanks to the developments along its length, has managed to retain its service over the years at the expense of other routes. In 1980, there were 25.2 cars per hour over the full route between Broadview and Dundas West Stations with a few trippers that came east only to Church Street. Despite budget cuts in 1996 that reduced service to 16.4 cars/hour at peak, the route came back to 30 cars/hour by 2006. Service is now provided by a mixture of King cars on the full route (15/hour), 514 Cherry cars between Sumach and Dufferin (7.5/hour), and some trippers between Roncesvalles and Broadview. Some 504 King runs operate with ALRVs and most 514 Cherry cars are Flexitys.

501 Queen/507 Long Branch: In 1980, the Queen and Long Branch services operated separately with 24.5 cars/hour on Queen and 8.9 cars/hour on Long Branch at peak. By 1990, the Queen service had been converted to operate with ALRVs and a peak service of 16.1 cars/hour, roughly an equivalent scheduled capacity to the CLRV service in 1980. By 1996, Queen service was down to 12 ALRVs/hour of which 6/hour ran through to Long Branch. Headways have stayed roughly at that level ever since. The Long Branch route was split off from Queen to save on ALRVs, and as of November 2016 6.3 CLRVs/hour ran on this part of the route. Bus replacement services are operating in 2017 due to many construction projects conflicting with streetcar operation.

502 Downtowner/503 Kingston Road Tripper: In 1980, these routes provided 15.6 cars/hour, but by 2016 this had declined to 10/hour.

512 St. Clair: In 1980, the St. Clair car operated with a scheduled short turn at Earlscourt Loop. East of Lansdowne, there were 33.3 cars/hour on St. Clair. By 1996 this was down to 20.6 cars/hour. The next decade saw an extended period of reconstruction for the streetcar right-of-way, and service during this period was irregular, to be generous. By 2016, the service has improved to 21.2 cars/hour, but this is still well below the level of 1980.

What is quite clear here is that the budget and service cuts of the early 1990s substantially reduced the level of service on streetcar routes, and even as the city recovered, the TTC was slow to restore service, if at all. The unknown question with current service levels is the degree to which demand was lost to demographic changes and to what extent the poor service fundamentally weakened the attractiveness of transit on these routes. The TTC has stated that some routes today are operating over capacity, but even those numbers are limited by the difference between crowding standards (which dictate design capacity) and the actual number of riders who can fit on the available service. It is much harder to count those who never board.

In a fiscal environment where any service improvement is viewed negatively because it will increase operating costs, the challenge is to turn around Council’s attitude to transit service. This is an issue across the city and many suburban bus routes suffer from capacity challenge and vehicle shortages just like the streetcar routes downtown.

The bus fleet remains constrained by actions of Mayor Ford in delaying construction of the McNicoll Garage with the result that that the TTC has no place to store and maintain a larger fleet even if they were given the money to buy and operate it. Years of making do with what we have and concentrating expansion funding on a few rapid transit projects has boxed in the TTC throughout its network.

Transit will not be “the better way” again until there are substantial investments in surface fleets and much-improved service.

514 Cherry: Update on Noise & Vibration at King & Sumach Streets

Since late 2016, the TTC has suspended streetcar service on Sumach and Cherry Streets south to Distillery Loop during late evenings and early mornings. The reason for this was that some residents near the junction at King & Sumach complained about noise and vibration from turning streetcars. In a related change, the TTC also imposed a 10km/h speed restriction on the intersection.

During the periods when the 514 Cherry cars divert east to Broadview, a Wheel Trans shuttle bus operates over this route segment on a somewhat unpredictable schedule, and many would-be riders simply walk rather than wait for it.

At the community meeting of November 16, 2016, the TTC advised that additional noise and vibration readings would be taken after the 514 Cherry route was converted to operation with Flexity cars which are quieter than the CLRVs, a change that has now more or less completed. (The occasional CLRV can be found on the route, but officially it is all Flexity.)

On Tuesday, June 27, 2017, there will be a public meeting to provide an update on the situation.

Time: 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Location: Toronto Cooper Koo Family Cherry Street YMCA Centre – 2nd floor, 461 Cherry Street, Toronto

I will update this post following the meeting.

A related issue is the service reliability to Distillery Loop which can be very spotty at times. This will be the subject of a separate article coming soon.

Analysis of 514 Cherry Service for December 2016

The 514 Cherry car has been running since June 2016. Although originally planned as a net new service, budget for the route fell victim to the 2016 round in which headroom for the “new” service was created by reallocating vehicles from 504 King. The purpose was to concentrate service on the central part of King where there is higher demand, but in practice, the original schedule did not work out. In November 2016 the headways on 514 Cherry were widened to compensate for longer-than-planned running times.

The 514 Cherry car has been something of an afterthought for the TTC in several ways. Planning and construction for it began years ago, but implementation was delayed until after the Pan Am Games were out of the way and the Canary District began to populate with residents and students in the new buildings. Another major blow has been the failure to build the Waterfront East LRT which is intended to eventually connect with the trackage on Cherry Street as part of a larger network. In effect, the spur to Distillery Loop is treated by the TTC as little more than a place for a scheduled short turn of the King Street service, much as trackage on Dufferin Street south of King is for the route’s western terminus.

Riders bound for the Distillery District face two challenges. One is that the older streetcars do not have route signs for 514 Cherry, only a small dashboard card wrapped over the “short turn” sign. Tourists might be forgiven for wondering if a 514 Cherry will ever show up. As new streetcars gradually appear on this route, this problem will decline, but it is an indication of the half-hearted way service was introduced that good signage was not part of the scheme.

New low floor cars now operate on 514 Cherry, typically two in off-peak periods and four in the peak. However, the TTC appears to make no attempt to assign these cars to runs that are equally spaced on the route, and so it is common to see both of them near one of the other terminus with a wide gap facing anyone who actually needs to wait for one.

Indeed, it is the same pair of runs that usually have a Flexity on them through much of December, and they do not provide evenly spaced accessible service over the route. The TTC is happy to crow about accessibility, but falls down in the execution.

Worst of all are the actual headways found on 514 Cherry. Although the schedule was revised in November, and cars should generally have time to make their trips, it is very common to see two 514 Cherry cars close together followed by a long gap. This problem originates at the terminals, the points where the TTC’s target for “on time” service is no more than one minute early to five minutes late. This six minute window is routinely broken by service on the route, and the problem only gets worse as cars move across the city.

In effect, the TTC has simply thrown out a bunch of extras for the King car and lets them run more or less at random providing supplementary capacity in the central part of the route.

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The Travails of Cherry Street

A recent meeting of the Corktown Residents’ and Business Association included a discussion of problems with the new 514 Cherry service. As reported by thebuletin.ca

… a resident of the King/Sumach area … commented that the screech of the streetcars turning at King and Sumach was so loud as to prevent sleep. Apparently the issue has been ongoing since the inauguration of the 514 (Distillery Loop–Dufferin) line on June 19.

The issue—which took the meeting somewhat by surprise—was amplified by other attendees, who also noted that there were substantial problems with streetlight timings at the Cherry/Front and Cherry/Eastern intersections, as well as with poorly-delineated turning lane stripes which have led to vehicles accidentally getting onto the streetcar right-of-way and then being unable to get off. (There have been earlier, similar incidents with the slightly older right-of-way at Queen’s Quay.)

Deputy Mayor and area councillor Pam McConnell’s office was aware of the issues and noted that streetcar service was now suspended (replaced with shuttle buses) between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. A public meeting was subsequently scheduled with the councillor’s office and the TTC.

Problems at King & Sumach have continued since the 514 opened for service including:

  • dewirements causing overhead to be pulled down
  • derailments
  • traffic signals that do more to delay transit service than “prioritize” it (this is also a problem further south on Cherry)

When the TTC began rerouting the 514 service late in the evening, the alleged purpose was “railgrinding” and this is still reflected in the URL for the service notice which is called “514_railgrinding.jsp”. The activities underway at the intersection were clearly aimed at the derailment problems by altering the rail profile on the curves.

There is a long-standing slow order for east-west operation on King that has nothing to do with this, but is no doubt related to a few cases of overhead failure.

Meanwhile, the traffic signals here and at other locations on Cherry appear to be on a fixed cycle that has no relationship to whether transit vehicles are present. So much for “transit priority”.

On the subject of wheel squeal, the TTC’s official line is that the new streetcars are supposed to be self-lubricating, and that this would be triggered by GPS information. That’s a good line, but it does not fit with actual conditions.

  • There is a wheel greaser on the southbound approach to Distillery Loop.
  • The GPS-based automatic greasing has not yet been turned on for the new cars. (Anyone with contrary information is welcome to correct me in the comments.)
  • Most of the service on 514 Cherry is provided by CLRVs that do not have automatic greasers.

I have outstanding requests for further information on these issues to both the TTC and to City Transportation, and will update this post as and when they reply.

The TIFF Gorilla Returns For 2016

Once again, the Toronto International Film Festival (aka TIFF) will take over King Street between University Avenue and Peter Street for its opening weekend from Thursday, September 8 to Sunday, September 11. Transit riders rank second to this Toronto event, one which is well-connected at City Hall and can elbow aside other users of the street to suit its purpose. Imagine King Kong descending from the CN Tower for his annual visit.

An attempted compromise that would have kept streetcars running on King during the weekday daytimes fell in place of the benefits of the festival. That’s the official story, anyhow.

Several routes will be disrupted by this arrangement:

  • 504 King will be split into two routes with the eastern segment operating to the Church, Wellington, York loop normally the home of 503 Kingston Road Tripper cars. The western segment will use the 510 Spadina route’s short turn loop via Spadina, Adelaide and Charlotte to King. This is a change from 2015 when the western branch of the route turned north on Bathurst Street.
  • 514 Cherry cars will operate as one route bypassing TIFF via Queen between Church and Spadina. This route already has problems staying on schedule, and the diversion will make things even worse at both ends of the line.
  • 504 buses will bypass TIFF via Richmond and Adelaide (WB and EB) between University and Spadina.
  • 304 King night car will be supplemented by a bus shuttle running from Parliament to Spadina.

The full details are on the TTC’s website.

This arrangement is further complicated by the continuing diversion of 501 Queen service between Spadina and Shaw via King for watermain construction on Queen Street.

The TTC notice says that:

Toronto Police will be positioned at key intersections to assist with traffic flow.

I hope so. The complete lack of transit priority signals to assist in diversionary routings is a long-standing problem for the TTC and produces no end of delays at intersections where turns across traffic must happen. This has shown up already in 2016 as queues of Queen cars eastbound at Spadina (to which the King cars will be added).

There are priority signals for turns off of Spadina to east-west streets, but not for turns onto Spadina. The situation is made worse by the number of electric switches that are out of service because it is the switch controllers that tell the signals when an extra phase for turning streetcars is required.

Diversions like this downtown are commonplace. Both the TTC and City of Toronto should do more to provide transit priority assistance for these as part of the standard installation at all major intersections where streetcars have to make turns during these events.

According to the TTC’s Brad Ross, TIFF is paying for most of this arrangement, although the TTC Ambassadors (extra staff to direct riders to the relocated services) will be covered by the TTC. It is unclear how much of the extra service the TTC will operate (and that’s assuming they do actually provide some) will come out of the TTC budget. This sort of thing is an ongoing issue for the TTC which is expected to arrange alternate services as a community benefit, but usually does not receive compensation for doing so. It is one of those hidden costs of doing business for the transit system.

Full disclosure: I am a regular attendee and donor at TIFF, but I do not agree with the degree to which they disrupt transit service on a major downtown route during workday hours.

514 Cherry: Analysis of Early Days’ Operation June 2016

The new route 514 Cherry began operation on Sunday, June 19, 2016. The route is effectively a scheduled short-turn of 504 King operating between Distillery Loop (Cherry & Mill Streets) in the east and Dufferin Loop (Exhibition West Entrance) in the west.

Service on 504 King itself has been reduced to provide the resources (operator hours) for the new route. During peak periods, this effectively converts some of the 504 bus trippers back to streetcars running over more-or-less the same territory. Outside of the peak, the 514 Cherry runs are created by widening headways on the full 504 King route and overlaying the 514 service.

The 514 Cherry cars run over a notorious section of King Street where running times can vary immensely (see charts in my recent article about stop removals), and this variation is an all-day problem with many seasonal and event-specific triggers.

This article reviews the new route’s operation for its first 12 days. I will update this review when additional data are available as the year progresses. A related issue will be the degree to which, if at all, the 514 cars blend with the 504 King service and the actual combined level of service between Dufferin and Sumach compared to the pre-514 Cherry era.

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Cherry Street Day One

The first day of revenue service was beautiful and warm, ideal for tourists and photographers, although service on the 514 Cherry was quite spotty at times with cars running bunched and off schedule.

For anyone trying to find a 514, there was the added challenge that the TTC export to NextBus has not been set up correctly, and the “main” route appears to be from Queen and Broadview to Dufferin Loop with a spur down Cherry Street. This fouls up predictions for stops on the “spur”, and the clever rider must know enough to look nearby on King to see when a car might show up. Then there is the small matter of the claim that the car goes to “Cherry Beach” which I mentioned in yesterday’s post.

An additional issue was the absence of a low floor car among the five scheduled vehicles, although 4421 was running as an extra all day. The problem appears to be that the TTC neglected to flag crews for this route as requiring Flexity training, and so the operators generally can only drive the older high-floor cars. With 4421 running as an extra, it does not appear on NextBus and anyone needing an accesible vehicle faces an indeterminate, long wait while the car makes its 80 minute round trip. This extra will also be crewed with operators on overtime, rather than as a piece of work integrated into the normal schedule.

Yes, we all know there are not yet enough Flexitys to flesh out all of the service, but like 509 Harbourfront, the 514 could be operated with a few cars sprinkled in (well spaced, please) between the CLRVs as a first step. The TTC made a big point of flagging this as a new accessible service, but have been back peddling saying “when we get more new cars”. That’s not what Chair Josh Colle said in the press release two days ago:

“The 514 Cherry Streetcar will reduce congestion and provide more frequent service along the central section of TTC’s busiest surface route, the 504 King. The new route will be served by the low-floor streetcars, which will provide a more comfortable experience for our customers, and add a new east-west accessible route.” – TTC Chair Josh Colle

4421 was the first car out of Dufferin Loop providing an early trip at about 7:30 am, while 4044 was the first car from Distillery Loop at 7:45.

Another aspect of the route that is not working is the “transit priority” part of the signal system. Yes, there are transit signals, but they cycle through whether a streetcar is anywhere in sight or not. This is particularly annoying at King & Sumach which is a multi-phase signal that now includes eastbound and northbound “white bar” call ons for streetcars. These operate whether they are needed or not, and steal green time that could be used for King Street itself where the 504 cars spend considerable time awaiting their signals.

Although the TTC took several stops served by the 514 (and 504) out of service on June 19, they did little to flag this situation at the stops. Old pole cards, some falling off or visible only from one direction of approach, were all that told people the stops were not in service. The usual TTC signs for out of service stops, so commonly seen for construction projects and diversions, were nowhere to be found, and many riders were waiting at the stops (which were served by considerate operators). Some of the streetcars continue to announce these stops, and they remain in the stop list on NextBus and on the TTC’s schedule pages.

Finally, the shelters installed on Cherry Street are of a smaller type that was supposed to have been discontinued as they provide no “shelter” at all. An example is in the photo at Front Street below beside the former Canary Restaurant.

A lot of this may seem like small change, but collectively there is a lack of attention to detail especially on a new route’s launch where current, accurate info should be the easiest to provide. These are the details that annoy riders because the system and its “customer service” cannot be relied on.

The line is quite photogenic, and the real shame is that there is so little of it. When or if the planned Waterfront East streetcar and the link of Cherry under the rail corridor and into the Port Lands will happen is anyone’s guess.

Finally, there has been some discussion on Twitter about the absence of a stop northbound on Sumach at King. The reason for this is evident when one looks at a Flexity sitting where the stop should be: the sidewalk lip is some distance from the car and does not provide the sort of platform one would expect. This creates a safety hazard were this used as a stop, and probably interferes with operation of the wheelchair ramp. In the absence of a stop (and without a sympathetic operator), north to eastbound transfers (514 to 504) must be made at the next stop west on King at Sackville. This is not the most intuitive arrangement for riders, and the configuration of the sidewalk at Sumach should be corrected as soon as possible.

514 Cherry Opening Ceremonies

The 514 Cherry streetcar had its official opening on June 18, 2016, although regular service will begin on June 19 at 7:45 am. The route will operate between the new Distillery Loop near Cherry and Mill Streets in the Distillery District and Dufferin Loop at the western entrance of the Canadian National Exhibition grounds.

20160619Map514Changes

This is only the beginning of what should be a much larger network in the eastern waterfront, but work on that stalled thanks to the previous administration at City Hall. The impetus to restart on a serious basis will be funding of the Don River realignment and the active development of the land south of the railway corridor. Some idea of the potential network is shown in the following illustration from the Gardiner Expressway realignment study.

Cherry Street will be realigned south of the railway and will cross the Keating Channel on a new bridge including provision for streetcar track. New track along a realigned Queens Quay East will meet up at Cherry and provide the link to Union Station. Also shown (dotted) below is the proposed southerly extension of Broadview Avenue including streetcar track from Queen to Commissioners Street (out of frame below this illustration). Track on Commissioners would link east from New Cherry Street at least to Broadview and thence to Leslie Street and the southwest corner of Leslie Barns.

GardinerFig7HybridAlternative

For the occasion, five streetcars were on hand:

  • Flexity 4421, the newest of the cars in service
  • ALRV 4225
  • CLRV 4140
  • PCC 4500
  • Peter Witt 2766

4421 laden with many passengers and a few politicians set off from Distillery Loop after the usual speechifying such occasions bring, and made a round trip to Dufferin Loop. On its return, the original four cars were still waiting, but in due course the whole parade set off back to the carhouse.

An amusing note from our journey was that the car stopped at (and even announced) most of the stops along King Street that are scheduled to be taken out of service on June 19. This will be the only time that a 514 Cherry car served those stops. No, we did not have a photo op at each one to mark its passage.

Already there is word that operators are displeased with the absence of a loo at Distillery Loop. It’s a shame the Canary Restaurant isn’t still in business at Front Street where streetcars stop right at the door. I suspect this would have been a favourite layover point.

The TTC appears to be slightly confused about the location of the eastern terminus of 514 Cherry. According to the schedule website, this would be Cherry Beach Loop which is somewhat further south across both the Keating Channel and the Ship Channel, a lot sandier, and notably without any track. Not even any Swan Boats.

20160619_514_CherryBeachLoop