Updated September 14, 2017 at 6:00 pm: An inconsistency in the opening date for the Finch West LRT between the Capital projects update and the project’s website has been flagged by a reader. Snapshots have been added to this article.
The Metrolinx Board met on September 14 to consider various reports. I have already written about the Fare Integration update, and will devote separate article(s) to the “Next Big Move”, the updated regional plan.
Other items of interest on the agenda included:
Presto Update and Quarterly Report
The roll out of Presto continues and TTC, even with a relatively low take-up rate to date, now accounts for more Presto taps than any other agency in the network. However, this only slightly more than one quarter of all Presto “taps” on a monthly basis (6.6 million for TTC vs about 24m for all systems). As the proportion of Presto-based TTC trips rises, TTC figures will dwarf all other agencies.
Status updates of note:
- Readers are now performing well, but problems remain with the add value machines. A new generation of machines is now in testing and these will be rolled out across the system in the near future, including on the about-to-open Spadina subway extension to Vaughan.
- There is no plan to introduce “open payments” (credit/debit cards, etc) on Presto in 2018 because Metrolinx is pre-occupied with the TTC roll out. Something might appear in the following year, but a related issue is that security standards for bank card transactions keep changing and getting tighter requiring ongoing design updates.
- Presto sales and reload functions in Shoppers Drug Mart stores have been well received.
- Presto supports “UPASS” programs. These are specific to each institution, not a system-wide standard implementation. Improvements coming in November:
- UPASS program core functionalities enabled as part of PRESTO Vouchers solution.
- UPASS program will provide discounted fares to university students in their respective districts through their local transit agency and universities.
- Students will be able to electronically load discounted passes onto their cards through the PRESTO Customer Website, and universities can add eligible students through the PRESTO Vouchers portal.
- Presto has negotiated a new agreement with various client agencies. There was no information in the presentation about how willing these agencies/cities were to accept higher service fees to fund the Presto system.
Capital Projects Update and Quarterly Report
Metrolinx’ large inventory of capital projects continues, notably the Crosstown LRT, but also expansion of GO corridors.
There was a lengthy discussion of Union Station capacity, and among the information that came out was that Metrolinx is considering a reconfiguration of the station with fewer tracks and wider platforms. This would provide more passenger handling capacity, a key requirement considering the anticipated rise in service on all corridors. A new layout would also imply that services would be “hooked up” east and west of Union rather than terminating there. This would considerably simplify operations. A study of Union’s future requirements will come to the Board in December 2017.
Metrolinx is planning to study the status and appropriateness of Hydrogen technology to their operations:
- A feasibility study on the use of hydrogen fuel cells as an alternative technology for electrifying GO rail service and the UP Express is underway
- Ontario is committed to running electrified trains on the GO rail network by 2025. Studying the feasibility of hydrogen rail technology is part of our due diligence to ensure that we choose the appropriate technology.
- Metrolinx has had discussions with the Germany-based National Organization Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology (NOW) to learn directly about early experience
- Metrolinx is committed to bringing industry leaders together for a symposium later this year to explore the potential application of hydrogen fuel cell technology
This will be useful if only to get a current view of the technology’s maturity and applicability, assuming that there are no Ministerial interests in forcing a conversion on Metrolinx. According to staff, they are operating on the basis that RER will be rolled out with existing electrification technology.
Updated September 14, 2017 at 6:00 pm:
In the Quarterly Report, there is a status table for all of the projects. The Finch West LRT is shown with an In-Service date of 2022.
However, the project’s web page shows a 2021 opening. I have asked Metrolinx to clarify this discrepancy. Thanks to reader Kass Forman for catching this.
2016-2017 Annual Report
The Annual Report includes, under the heading of “Being responsive & accountable”, the following statement [p. vii]:
- Increasing transparency in its financial, labour, realty, freedom of information, support fleet, information technology and capital projects details, so that Corporate and Administrative Costs are easier to understand.
- Increasingly relying on evidence-based cost drivers to strengthen the data used to allocate costs to capital and operating programs.
These are fascinating claims considering the degree to which Metrolinx is a secretive organization. Far too many background studies are published, if at all, long after the Board has made a decision and the time for public input which could have been informed by such studies has passed.
“Freedom of Information” should occur naturally (as it would for a municipal agency), not when it is forced on Metrolinx by a formal FOI request from the media.
Easy understanding of costs will be more challenging because of corporate restructuring to amalgamate former divisions (Presto and UPX) into the main body of Metrolinx.
The integration and consolidation of operations under one management structure will deliver core Metrolinx services to customers and allow us to leverage internal learning and skills so we can adapt quickly and respond to our dynamic and fast-changing region. While we will maintain the identities of each service brand externally, we will be looking for opportunities to help our customers and the public understand the connections between each service and product. Beginning next fiscal year, we will report on our consolidated transit operations division, which will combine data and statistics for GO Transit and UP Express. [p. viii]
This will make determination of the profitability or cost of individual segments that have been treated as independent divisions more difficult, along with the degree of cross-subsidy that might exist between various aspects of Metrolinx’ businesses.
I asked Robert Siddall about this during the press scrum after the meeting. Siddall is the Metrolinx CFO, but is also Acting President and CEO pending the arrival of a recently-appointed CEO in October. He replied that with UPX becoming operationally part of GO Transit, it did not make sense to attempt to break it out as a separate cost and revenue centre. He was silent on the question of Presto.
For 2016-17, Presto received $14.8 million in usage fees. Operating costs were not broken out. [See charts on pp 35 and 38 of the report.] Oddly, the Presto update earlier in the agenda treated the negotiation of the client agreement with UPX as if this were a completely separate agency rather than part of GO Transit. The degree to which there are cross-subsidies between GO and UPX trips and Presto is completely hidden.
To Kirby, or Not To Kirby
The line in the Annual Report about “evidence-based cost drivers” is particularly amusing given the situation at both the provincial and municipal levels.
Ben Spurr in the Star has reported on political interference with the stations selected to be part of GO’s coming expansion. Specifically, the Lawrence East and Kirby Stations were originally not to be included in the list recommended to the Metrolinx Board, but this changed after intervention by the Minister of Transportation.
During the press scrum, Metrolinx Chair Rob Prichard performed a not-too-elegant dance around repeated questions about just how the change in Metrolinx’ official position on these stations came about. Boiling many answers down to their core, he argued that although the Board had considered the matter of the station list on three occasions, they only actually voted on it once. Moreover, it is Metrolinx’ job, he argued, to provide advice based on information and analyses they have. Such decisions are a combination of technical analysis and art, he said. It was a performance not quite at the level of Swan Lake. [I will leave it to the reader to decide whether Prichard was auditioning for Prince Siegfried or Baron von Rothbart.]
An obvious question here is this: Metrolinx is supposed to give advice based on their expert technical studies (and whatever art they might muster). However, if the Cities of Toronto and Vaughan have new information about development plans for these two station sites, one must ask why Metrolinx staff and consultants did not have this as part of their study. How credible is any plan Metrolinx produces if “new information” can arise with clear political motives to swing decisions?
Fare Integration Update
As I previously reported, Metrolinx has rethought its approach to integration so that it can actually achieve something rather than endless discussion. Specifically, the Board approved:
- The Metrolinx Board endorse the step-by-step strategy outlined in the Report and that staff report back on December 14th 2017 on means to advance the strategy which includes:
- Discounts on double fares (GO-TTC)
- Discounts on double fares (905-TTC)
- Adjustments to GO’s fare structure
- Fare Policy Harmonization
- Staff undertake to engage the public and key stakeholders (including municipal elected officials) on advancing the step-by-step strategy
- Staff post the consultant’s Draft GTHA Fare Structure Preliminary Business Case
After a long period when Metrolinx was attempting a “big bang” change in fare policy, they are now trying a “step-by-step” approach intended to deal with the most annoying inconsistencies in regional policy without actually tearing the entire structure apart. Although it is clear Metrolinx would like to reach an end-state based on fare-by-distance, they will settle for an interim configuration for “two to five years”, according to Leslie Woo, Chief Planning Officer. Politically, that is equivalent to saying that the matter is deferred sine die.
This would conveniently allow someone in, say, the midst of an election campaign, to promise added funding to cover the cost of bringing the TTC into a consolidated fare system, to rationalize GO transit’s fares, and to sort out some regional inconsistencies such as the TTC’s transfer policies.
If Toronto adopted the two-hour transfer, this would make a seamless cross-border trip simple to implement and administer for Presto users. With the 416/905 barrier out of the way, the “need” to completely reorganize fares would drop substantially, and the political leverage to go “all the way” to fare-by-distance would be reduced almost to vanishing.
One issue came up during the scrum, and it will be thrown into the hopper for December’s report: the integration of UPX fares with the rest of GO. It makes no sense to operate UPX effectively as a short turn service on the Kitchener line while charging different fares. Moreover, integration of UPX trips with the wider GO tariff, including any TTC co-fare, is essential if Metrolinx is to play by the same rules they expect of every other transit agency.
Particularly important to any discussion about alternative fare schemes will be an open revelation of how each arrangement would affect different types of riders. Metrolinx has always been silent on the effect of a distance-based fare and premiums for “rapid transit” (e.g. subway) on long-haul suburban commuters within Toronto. Failure to publish this information puts the “debate” in the ludicrous situation of asking for a faith-based approval rather than one based on actual evidence. This kind of “planning” and “consultation” at Metrolinx must stop if they are to achieve their goals for transparency.