TTC Major Projects Overview: September 2021

The agenda for the TTC Board’s meeting on September 15, 2021, contains three related reports about the status of capital projects:

Among the projects discussed are several that relate collectively to the Bloor-Danforth Modernization Project (Line 2) that was originally proposed when Andy Byford was CEO. It was always a report that was “coming soon” to the Board, but after Byford’s departure, references to it vanished without a trace. I will return to the collection of BD Modernization projects later in this article.

A major problem for decades with TTC capital planning was that many vital projects simply were not included in the project list, or were given dates so far in the future that they did not affect the 10-year spending projections. This produced the familiar “iceberg” in City capital planning where the bulk of needed work was invisible.

The problem with invisibility is that when debates about transit funding start, projects that are not flagged as important are not even on the table for discussion. New, high-profile projects like subway extensions appear to be “affordable”.

There is a danger that at some point governments will decide that the cupboard is bare, and spending on any new transit projects will have to wait for better financial times. This will be compounded by financing schemes, notably “public-private partnerships” where future operating costs are buried in overall project numbers. These costs will compete with subsidies for transit operations in general. Construction projects might be underway all over the city, but this activity could mask a future crisis.

Please, Sir, I Want Some More!

The current election campaign includes a call from Mayor Tory for added Federal transit funding including support for the Eglinton East and Waterfront East LRT lines, not to mention new vehicles of which the most important are a fleet for Line 2.

The Waterfront East project has bumbled along for years, and is now actually close to the point where Council will be presented with a preferred option and asked to fund more detailed design quite soon. This is an area that was going to be “Transit First”, although visitors might be forgiven for mistaking the 72 Pape bus as the kind of transit condo builders had in mind as they redeveloped lands from Yonge east to Parliament. Some developers have complained about the lack of transit, and the further east one goes, the greater a problem this becomes.

The Eglinton East extension to UTSC was part of a Scarborough transit plan that saw Council endorse a Line 2 extension with the clear understanding that money was available for the LRT line too. Generously speaking, that was wishful thinking at the time, and Eglinton East languishes as an unfunded project.

For many years, the TTC has know it would need a new fleet for Line 2 BD. The T1 trains on that line were delivered between 1995 and 2001, and their 30-year design lifespan will soon end. As of the 2021 version of the 15 year capital plan, the replacement trains were an “unfunded” project, and the project timetable stretched into the mid 2030s.

City budget pressures were accommodated a few years ago by deleting the T1 replacement project from capital plans. Instead the TTC proposed rebuilding these cars for an additional decade of service. This would stave off spending both on a new fleet and on a new carhouse, at the cost of assuming the trains would actually last that long. The TTC has found out the hard way just what the effect of keeping vehicles past their proper lifetime might be, and that is not a fate Toronto can afford on one of the two major subway lines. The T1 replacement project is back in the list, but there is no money to pay for it.

Finally, a signature John Tory project is SmartTrack which has dwindled to a handful of GO stations, some of which Metrolinx should be paying for, not the City (East Harbour is a prime example). If we did not have to keep the fiction of SmartTrack alive, money could have gone to other more pressing transit needs.

When politicians cry to the feds that they need more money, they should first contemplate the spending room they gave up by ignoring parts of the network and by putting most if not all of their financial nest-egg into politically driven works. It does not really matter if Ontario has taken over responsibility for projects like the Scarborough Subway because one way or another the federal contribution will not be available to fund other Toronto priorities. The same is true of the Eglinton West LRT subway.

Any national party could reasonably say “we already helped to pay for the projects you, Toronto, said were your priorities”, but now you want more? A related issue for any federal government is that funding schemes must be fitted to a national scale, and other cities might reasonably complain if Toronto gets special treatment.

A Long Project List

  • Bloor-Yonge Capacity Improvements
  • Line 5
    • Eglinton Crosstown LRT
    • Eglinton Crosstown West Extension
    • Eglinton Crosstown East East Extension
  • Line 6 Finch LRT
  • Line 1 Extension to Richmond Hill
  • Line 2 Extension to Sheppard/McCowan
  • Line 3 Ontario
  • Waterfront Transit Network
    • East LRT and station expansions
    • West LRT from Exhibition to Dufferin
  • BRT Projects
    • Durham-Scarborough
    • Dundas West
  • Line 4 Sheppard Extension
  • Transit Control Integration
  • Subway Fleet Replacement (T1) and Expansion
  • Fleet Storage
  • Automatic Train Control
  • Platform Doors
  • Easier Access Plan
  • Purchase of New Buses and Electrification
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TTC Service Changes: September 5, 2021

September 2021 will see expansion of TTC service in anticipation of returning demand including in-person learning at schools and universities. Many express bus routes will be improved or enhanced.

In a reversal of past practice, schedule adjustments for “on time performance” will actually reduce rather than add to travel times in recognition that buses do not need so long to get from “A” to “B”, and that they can provide better service running more often on their routes than sitting at terminals.

Full details of the schedule changes are in the spreadsheet linked below.

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TTC Plans 60 Streetcar Order (Updated)

On Tuesday, May 25, 2021, the TTC will hold a special meeting to confirm that it will purchase the full 60 additional streetcars proposed in their 2020 Fleet Procurement Strategy and Plan. 13 of these cars are already on order thanks to funding from the City of Toronto, and the remainder will come thanks to recently announced funding from the provincial and federal governments.

The project budget includes a placeholder amount of $100 million for the proposed renovation of Harvey Shops at Hillcrest as a small carhouse for about 25 cars. The remainder of the 264-car fleet will fit within existing carhouses at Leslie, Roncesvalles and Russell once renovations are complete at the two older sites.

The costs will be shared among all three governments as shown below:

Updated May 22, 2021:

The TTC’s Interim CFO, Josie La Vita, commented:

As part of their year end process, the  City annually reviews its accounts.  There was funding left in a reserve dedicated to TYSSE that had not been fully utilized.  The reserve can only be used for TYSSE purposes. By applying those reserve funds to TYSSE expenses this frees up the debt that was being used to fund those costs and now can be used to fund other expenditures.  

Source: Email from Stuart Green, TTC Senior Communications Advisor

Based on the January 2020 level of service on 512 St. Clair (20 cars), that route would use all of the cars proposed for storage at Hillcrest. The project estimate does not include any allowance for the dead-head time that will be saved with a yard much closer to the route than today, and this should be shown as an offsetting saving to the capital cost.

With a fleet of 264 cars and a target spare factor of 18 percent, there should be 224 cars available for service. In January 2020, the peak streetcar service was only 142 cars, partly because the first third of the Flexity fleet is going through a major overhaul to correct manufacturing defects. The change will represent an increase of almost 60 percent in the available fleet. Now all the TTC needs is riders to fill these cars, and operators to drive them.

Although there have been proposals for reconfigured streetcar routes in the past, there is nothing definite on that score. A related issue is the timing of the Waterfront East and Broadview streetcar extensions for which a completion date keeps drifting into the future.

The TTC estimates that this change will also release 50 buses that can return to that network. More buses run on streetcar routes today (about 70 at peak), but that is due to construction projects which tend to occur during periods when the full bus fleet is not required (summer schedules).

TTC Board Meeting: May 12, 2021

The TTC Board will meet at 10:00 am on Wednesday, May 12. The agenda is short, but contains a few major items.

After the Board meets, I will update this article based on their discussions and staff presentations.

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TTC eBus Update April 14, 2021

This article is an update to TTC Plans Massive eBus Order to include information from the TTC Board meeting of April 14, 2021. The staff presentation video is available on YouTube.

The TTC has tested eBuses from BYD, Proterra and New Flyer in a “head-to-head” comparison over the past year (times vary due to delivery delays). There was a sense when this trial began that it would reveal whether certain products were inherently better than others, and possibly winnow the field of potential bidders.

They plan to award a contract for 300 hybrid buses in 3Q2021, and a contract for eBuses in either 4Q2021 or 1Q2022.

In his presentation, Bem Case, Head of Vehicle Programs, made considerable effort to note that the trial was not intended as a selection process, but rather to inform vehicle specifications and contract provisions for a future purchase. Case claimed that BYD and Proterra would be “upping their game” for the large eBus RFP, and their bids should address many issues from the trial. The expected cost for an eBus is around $1 million, about $200k less than the average cost for the trial fleet.

The three trial vendors are not the only ones in the running. Nova Bus, was not part of the trial, but Case advise that they plan to be compliant with the requirements when a Request For Proposals (RFP) goes out.

There are two unnamed manufacturers, one in Canada, one in the US, described as “upstarts” who are trying to get into the market.

Reading between the lines, one can sense that lobbyists have been busy to ensure that no vendor has an inside track. With a 300-bus order on the line, there is a lot of money at stake.

The challenge for the TTC will be to frame a tender whose language actually protects the system up front from bad products rather than simply counting on provisions such as liquidated damages (penalties for non-performance). Issues with the first generation of hybrid buses and the Bombardier streetcars order are fresh in everyone’s mind.

An important clarification emerged regarding the “Negotiated RFP” process. It is not the TTC’s intent to select one vendor in advance and negotiate a contract, but rather to invite bids and then negotiate with vendors to fine tune requirements and issue a revised RFP if necessary. The intent is to avoid writing a spec that disqualifies most or all vendors and forces the entire process to start again from scratch.

Case emphasized that the eBus industry is maturing quickly especially with respect to spare parts availability and post-sales support. Both of these are essential to keeping the fleet on the road, and for ensuring that warranties are honoured promptly. The head-to-head comparison will continue through 2021, and this will provide additional experience to inform both the specifications and evaluations. The TTC expects that availability and reliability issues to date with the trial fleets will be resolved, and they expect strong competition between would-be vendors.

During the trial, many of the problems with vehicles did not lie with the propulsion systems, but with other factors such as vehicle quality, doors and heating. This implies that the ability to actually build a reliable bus is at least as important as packaging the electric technology, and bidders with a track record as bus builders should have an advantage.

A question arose about why management needs to have negotiation authority now when the trial period is still underway. Staff claim that this is needed to begin the process so that eBus deliveries can begin in 2023 rather than pushing the hybrid-to-eBus transition out to 2024. This puts the TTC Board in the difficult position of handing authority for a major procurement to management with little oversight of the decision, but that appears to be how the Board prefers to operate.

Commissioner Ron Lalonde asked whether a larger bus fleet would be needed to compensate for charging time. Case replied that at current battery capacity and usage, so-called “long range” buses can operate for only about 15 hours. This covers only about 40 per cent of TTC service as it is now scheduled. (Many diesel and hybrid buses enter service for the AM peak and stay out until well into the evening.) Various options are available to address this:

  • Reschedule routes so that vehicles return to the garage before they run out of charge. With a 15 hour limit, this constrains vehicles to operate from the AM peak until the early evening, or from the PM peak through late evening.
  • Hydrogen fuel cell buses were mentioned by Case as a longer-range option, although they bring their own challenges.
  • On route charging was also mentioned, but with no details such as a distinction between charging stations such as those used in other eBus systems, or in-motion charging using trolleybus overhead.

Case advised that in the short term, eBuses would be used on routes where their range was not an issue, and that options to expand charging options could be left to the future.

Lalonde asked that management provide an ongoing comparison of the economics of eBuses with comparison to hybrids so that the Board can follow the evolution of the technology.

Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong took the, for him, unusual step of promoting himself as an advocate for green technology. He noted that according to a Columbia University Study (done for New York’s MTA), although the capital costs of eBuses are higher than for other technologies, this is offset by lower operating costs and the green benefits are, essentially, a free benefit of converting. (The situation is a bit more complicated than this because the analysis also includes health care savings that do not accrue to the transit budget.) He did not mention that capital purchases are much more heavily subsidized than operating costs, and this has a beneficial effect on the TTC’s bottom line and City subsidy requirements.

There was only limited discussion of the proposed arrangement with Ontario Power Generation and Toronto Hydro for the supply and operation of the electrical distribution and charging systems. Responding to a question about various configurations of lease and purchase of system components, Bem Case noted that it is to the TTC’s advantage to buy buses and to specify an industry standard charging system because this avoids being locked into a single vehicle that is part of a vendor/lessor’s offering. This keeps electricity supply separate from vehicle selection.

An important factor in the timing of the planned order is the availability of federal subsidy. It is ironic that the feds will be pushing the transit market to buy eBuses as part of their “green” strategy, when a predecessor government (Paul Martin was PM at the time) forced the purchase of early generation hybrid buses that were quite troublesome.

An annoying part of the discussion was the TTC’s penchant for being the best and biggest and first in whatever they might do. Many other cities are testing eBuses. Toronto is not the only one with a cold climate (Edmonton and Winnipeg, for example, are much worse). Despite repeated statements that this order would give Toronto the largest fleet of electric buses in North America, the existence of three large trolleybus systems (Vancouver, Seattle and San Francisco) was not acknowledged.

TTC management would do well in future reports to include more comparative data and experience from other cities. This should not be difficult considering that they chair a regular online meeting of 26 properties who are testing and operating these vehicles.

The staff recommendations were amended by a motion from Commissioner Bradford asking management to include in their next Green Bus report a fleet plan showing the TTC’s existing fleet, potential eBus allocations and possible deployments to routes.

The presentation included a chart showing the planned rollout/conversion of garages to electric operation. This shows that the intent is a gradual buildup of eBus operations across all garages rather than full conversion of a few sites early in the program. This plan distributes whatever problems might arise with eBuses across the system, but more importantly it defers the need for large scale hydro infrastucture until 2024 and beyond.

This chart was included in the online presentation and is clipped from the video, but it is not included in the online presentation deck.

TTC Plans Massive eBus Order

At its coming meeting on April 14, 2021, the Toronto Transit Commission will consider two reports that, if adopted, will begin a transition to an all-electric fleet over the coming decades.

Although the first report’s title suggests that this is simply an update on the trial of 60 eBuses now in progress, in fact the report includes recommendations for eBus purchases:

The Board delegate authority to the TTC CEO to undertake a public procurement through issuance of a Negotiated Request for Proposal (NRFP) and enter into up to two contracts for the supply of approximately 300 long-range, battery-electric buses (eBuses), based on the following:

a. Limit the total contract award amount, including all applicable taxes, and project delivery costs to within the approved funding of approximately $300 million;

b. Apply lessons learned through the TTC’s eBus Head-to-Head Evaluation to pre-qualify potential suppliers based on demonstrated compliance with system compatibility requirements and Transport Canada’s Motor Vehicle Safety Standards;

c. All 300 eBuses to be delivered between Q1 2023 and Q1 2025; and

d. Negotiation of an acceptable agreement that is satisfactory to the TTC General Counsel.

Procurement

The TTC plans a split contract to two vendors. Based on experience to date, this would seem to guarantee work to New Flyer Industries [NFI] but a second vendor is a more difficult question.

The TTC raises important caveats:

When reviewing this report, it is important to understand that the findings are specific to the eBus models procured, and to how those buses have performed in the TTC’s operating environment. As a result, the findings of this report may not be applicable to other transit authorities. Further, as the results are preliminary, we expect that action plans across all vendors will result in improvements to vehicle and vendor performance that will be reflected in our next report on the eBus head-to-head evaluation in Q1 2022.

As well, new eBuses offered by BYD, NFI and Proterra are expected to address system compatibility issues, which for the TTC will be critical for the successful adoption of this technology.

Eventually, TTC management has to qualify or disqualify each would-be vendor, but clearly we are nowhere near that point.

Under normal circumstances, the TTC would have an open bid on which any vendor could make an offer. An invited bid creates a process where we must trust that no untoward influence occurs. Considering the unseemly way in which BYD elbowed its way to the table through lobbying and a direct sales pitch to the Board in the guise of a “deputation”, a closed process could be subject to challenge depending on who is invited to bid, and who is excluded.

It is totally unclear why management seeks authority to negotiate a contract at this time when the head-to-head comparison has a year still to run and the vendors might, or might not, correct performance problems in the meantime. Conversely, none of the vendors in the trial has a vehicle that comes close to meeting the performance of the hybrid fleet.

Assuming that Nova Bus, a major Canadian supplier whose vehicles were not in the trial, is asked to bid, it will be interesting to see what types of vehicle they will offer. The TTC plans to pre-qualify bidders based on experience in the trial, and it is hard to understand how, within this constraint, Nova Bus would be invited unless the TTC uses experience from other properties as a reference.

One expected outcome of converting to eBuses is that by 2040:

Vehicle reliability and availability will have increased by an estimated 25%

It is not clear what the base for this improvement is. Is the TTC including its aging diesel fleet in the baseline, or speaking relative to the hybrids already in operation?

Aside from transparency, the results to date raise another key issue. Suppose that eBuses simply do not attain the performance and reliability we have come to expect from transit buses. Do we embrace the technology in the hopes that it will catch up and for the larger “green” agenda, and will we provide adequate budget to the TTC to handle the extra cost of ownership?

Throughout the evaluation report, there are many points under the heading “Lessons Learned”. For readers’ convenience, I have consolidated these in one document. They show just how many topics require a hard-nosed negotiating position by the TTC together with credible vehicle performance data.

There are few surprises, but clearly the TTC intends to go into this bus procurement cycle with is eyes open. Many of these lessons depend on work still underway as part of the trial making the delegation of purchase negotiation authority to staff at this stage even more troubling.

Quite bluntly, the proposed procurement process does not make sense and leaves Toronto open to being saddled with less than ideal vehicles. The authority to negotiate a purchase should be deferred until the results through 2021 are known, and the eligibility (or not) of Nova Bus as a potential supplier is clarified.

Fleet Planning

Updated April 10 at 8:20 pm: The original table of buses incorrectly showed vehicles 1000 to 1689 as diesels when they are, of course, hybrids. This is corrected below.

The TTC is not prepared to completely switch its purchases to eBuses because the technology is not yet mature. Purchase of 300 hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEVs) was authorized by the Board in October 2020. Together, the orders would allow eBus and HEV technology to displace about forty percent of diesel fleet where many buses are near end of life.

What is not clear is the proportion of net new vs replacement vehicles in the 600 bus procurement, nor of the amount of additional service that the refresh of the fleet on this scale will represent. As I write this article, I await the TTC’s provision of an updated fleet plan showing the overall fleet size, service allocations and maintenance spare factors for coming years.

The current bus fleet numbers 2,113 vehicles of which 1,404 are diesels.

Adapted from Scheduled Service Summary for February 14, 2021 (p. 74)

The purchase calendar for new buses in the October 2020 fleet plan shows that the TTC anticipated more than 600 buses in the coming five years, but the number is capped by available funding.

Over recent years, the TTC increased its spare factor in response to dropping vehicle reliability and increased technical complexity. A tactic to offset this was to shift from an 18-year to a 12-year replacement cycle so that buses are retired before they reach an age where maintenance needs rise and reliability drops. This has an obvious effect on capital budgets, and that is compounded by the current premium paid for electric buses compared to diesels.

An important part of buying new buses and a new technology is the hoped-for improvement in vehicle reliability and availability. This would mean that the size of the fleet needed to provide a given level of service would go down. For example, if the spare factor is 20%, then a 120-bus fleet is required in order to field 100 of them in peak service. If the fleet overall becomes more reliable and the spare factor can be lowered, this translates to savings in both capital and operating costs.

Conversely, if new eBus technology cannot achieve a spare ratio equivalent to the existing diesel and HEV fleet, then more buses are needed just to provide the same service. This will be affected not just by reliability factors but by the capacity for charging vehicles that could remain in service through the day. If buses must be scheduled for garage trips simply because they will run out of power, that represents non-productive mileage and driver hours that add to fleet size and operating costs. (An alternative is on-route charging, but the TTC has not yet discussed that option in detail.)

With the shift to HEVs and eBuses, the premise that a bus should only be retained for 12 years may no longer be valid, but it will be at least a decade before we know if the new propulsion technology translates to long-term reliability and a longer replacement cycle. Past experience with trolley buses suggests that eBuses should last longer, but other factors including the robustness of bus bodies and the pace of technology change in the propulsion systems might work against this.

A more subtle problem can arise if a fleet is larger than needed to achieve the target spare factor for an extended period. Surplus “problem” vehicles might be sidelined rather than kept in working order. An organization can reach a point where a larger spare pool becomes part of the maintenance culture and a return to the target level is not as simple in practice as in theory.

For a fleet of 2,113 vehicles a 20% spare factor should allow a scheduled peak service of about 1,761 buses. The peak requirement in May 2021 schedules is about 1,500. Similarly, a streetcar fleet of 204 should allow peak service of 170 vehicles. Whether the TTC will achieve this by the end of 2021 when major overhauls are completed and construction projects affecting streetcar routes will all wind down remains to be seen. Buses now operating on streetcar routes are included in the peak service count, and they would be available for redeployment to bus routes.

This is an issue for the TTC as it moves out of the pandemic era: despite its large fleet, how many vehicles are actually available for service? Do vehicle purchases perpetuate a higher spare ratio? Is the service offered limited by actual vehicle availability, by the number of drivers the TTC hires, or both?

Comparing eBuses with Hybrid Bus Performance

Over the course of testing their 60-vehicle fleet of eBuses, the TTC used its existing Nova Bus hybrid fleet as a comparative benchmark. Despite problems with early generations of hybrids, reliability of recent purchases has been quite good. If an eBus cannot at least match this reliability, this has grave implications for service planning and ongoing costs. It is all very well to be “green”, but a bus in a garage for extra maintenance work chews up funding that could be better used to serve riders.

A very high level comparison of the four fleets for four key criteria appears below. There are many other factors in the evaluation, but these are considered essential. Of the three eBus vendors, only New Flyer avoids the “Needs Improvement” flag in this key group.

Note that Nova Bus was not part of this trial because they did not have a “long range” vehicle capable of extended service when the TTC issued its RFQ.

When the TTC procured its eBus fleet, Nova Bus did not offer a long-range battery electric bus. However, it is now building on its experience with HEVs and opportunity charged battery-electric buses to offer a long-range bus starting in 2022.

For clarity, “opportunity charging” refers to the use of charging stations installed along routes where buses can recharge “on the fly” using a pantograph to link to an overhead power feed.

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Are eBuses The Answer To Everything?

Over on spacing’s website, my friend John Lorinc has written The case for way more electric buses in which he wonders whether Toronto should just give up on building rail lines and focus on buying a large fleet of electric buses.

What New Money? And a Bit of History

The impetus for this is that the Federal government is handing out a potload of money for electrification according to a recent press release. Before I get into the details of Lorinc’s article, there is a vital statement in the press release:

This funding is part of an eight year, $14.9 billion public transit investment recently outlined by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and will also support municipalities, transit authorities and school boards with transition planning, increase ambition on the electrification of transit systems, and deliver on the government’s commitment to help purchase 5,000 zero-emission buses over the next five years.

Yes, that’s right, this is not “new money” but a carve-out from a previous announcement that, when stretched over coming years, is a lot smaller than it sounds. Now we learn that of the $5.9 billion planned for 2021-2025, $2.7 billion or 46 per cent, is earmarked for electric vehicles. Transit systems that might have had their eye on other projects will have to think again.

Updated at 9:05 pm March 5: I have received a reply from Infrastructure Canada confirming my interpretation of the press release:

Hi Steve,

That’s correct.

The Prime Minister’s announcement on February 10, 2021 provided $14.9 billion for public transit projects over eight years, which included permanent funding of $3 billion per year for Canadian communities beginning in 2026-27. In the first five years, $5.9 billion will be made available starting in 2021 to support the near-term recovery of Canadian communities by several means, including supporting the deployment of zero-emission vehicles and related infrastructure.  

The announcement made on March 4th to invest in electrifying transit systems across the country funding is a part of this initiative. The funding is separate from funding currently available under integrated bilateral agreements in place with provinces and territories.

Source: Email from Infrastructure Canada Media Relations

The problem here is that by dedicating the funding to a specific type of project, the type of spending cities will make will skew to where the money is available. Indeed, they will rush to buy new buses with federal funding even though their existing fleet might not actually be due for replacement.

A further problem arises if the feds expect that this will be a cost-shared program. Will Toronto and Ontario pony up their share of a bus purchase plan, especially if it is accelerated beyond normal vehicle retirement cycles when they might have eyed the federal dollars for projects like the Waterfront LRT and the Ontario Line that are in various stages of engineering and procurement?

This continues the distortion of spending priorities we saw when Paul Martin’s government threw its support into hybrid buses. There was lots of money for hybrids, even though they had a 50 per cent cost premium over diesels, but if a transit agency simply wanted to buy more buses to run better service, and get the best bang for their buck with diesels, no federal money was available.

The cost premium for battery buses currently sits at about 50 per cent above hybrids, although this is likely to fall as the technology becomes more common.

Update March 6 at 8:00 am: With the cost of an eBus sitting at $1.0-1.2 million, generously assuming prices will fall as the industry ramps up, 5000 buses represent a capital cost of over $5 billion. It is quite clear that the federal program will not cover 100 per cent of the new vehicle costs. In the TTC’s capital plans, future buses remain largely in the “unfunded” category, and new City and provincial dollars will be needed. The federal funding reduces the cost of eBuses and infrastructure but does not represent a sudden supply of “free” vehicles.

At the TTC, there is a love for big bus replacement orders because it shifts costs from the operating budget (with small subsidies) to the capital budget (with very large subsidies) both by avoidance of vehicle rebuild costs and by shifting a large chunk of the fleet into a warranty period. (Warranty repairs effectively come out of the purchase price of the bus on the capital side of the ledger.)

This approach works well enough if the new technology pans out, but the TTC had a lot of problems with its first batch of hybrids. Generally speaking, the technology has not achieved quite the benefits originally hoped.

That issue of “benefits” bears examination too. Some cities expected to see big drops in diesel fuel costs, but this depended on buses running in a very urban stop-and-start environment where a lot of energy could be recouped from braking. The situation is very different on suburban routes. If one were looking to save big on fuel costs, hybrids might not quite achieve what one hoped.

Conversely, if the aim is to eliminate tailpipe emissions and the transit carbon footprint, that is quite another matter. However, it comes at a cost, and that at a time when transit systems are just trying to keep the lights on. There are hopes that going electric will save money, but this depends on the interaction of many factors:

  • How efficiently will a battery bus use power, allowing for conversion losses, and can a bus run a full day’s service without needing to recharge?
  • When will recharging power be consumed? Overnight when, presumably, there is surplus power for the taking, or during the day when power is less available and more expensive?
  • Will buses be built to last longer than 12 years on the assumption that without the vibration of a diesel engine they will last longer? What would be the implications for subsystems such as batteries and electronics? In effect, can the higher capital cost of the vehicle be amortized over a longer period?
  • What scale of charging infrastructure will be required, and how much does this effectively add to the per vehicle cost?

This is not to disparage electric buses. After all, I was part of a group that fought to save Toronto’s trolleybus system, an idea that reached the stage of a preliminary plan for network expansion by the TTC. However, there were forces working against trolley bus retention including:

  • TTC management who preferred to have an all-diesel fleet (this was 30 years ago, and hybrid technology was unheard of).
  • A “new technology” group in the Ontario Ministry of Transportation who had little to show for their existence.
  • A bus builder who wanted an easy contract to build vehicles for the TTC.
  • The natural gas industry which had, at the time, a surplus of product looking for a market.
  • A manufacturer of pressure tanks looking to market his wares. (I am not making this up. “Industrial development” gets into odd corners of the economy at times.)

The result was a move to buses fueled by compressed natural gas (CNG) that were pitched as “green” and therefore an alternative to electric buses tethered to overhead wires. This scheme did not work out as well as hoped, and CNG had a short life as a transit technology in Toronto. But management was rid of the trolleybuses, and their real goal was achieved.

The TTC regularly claims that it has the largest fleet of electric buses in North America, although if you press them on the issue, they must admit that this only applies to battery buses. There are fleets of trolleybuses in other cities, some larger than Toronto’s ever was:

  • Vancouver has about 260 of which 74 are 18m articulated buses.
  • San Francisco has about 275 of which 93 are articulated.
  • Seattle has 174 of which 64 are articulated.
  • Boston has 50 of which 32 are articulated.
  • Dayton has 45 standard sized buses.
  • Philadelphia has 38 standard-sized buses.

All of these have off-wire capability to varying degrees allowing for short diversions when necessary. This was held as a shortcoming of trolleybuses by their critics even though off-wire was already a feature of new trolleybuses three decades ago.

The big change today is that the technology to carry on-board power has improved a lot, and cities can go electric without having to string a network of overhead wires.

This may seem like a lot of history to go through before I turn to the question of the future of electric buses in Toronto, but it is worth knowing of past technology issues and the unseen hand of government, through targeted subsidies, on the scales of transit planning judgements.

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TTC Service Changes Sunday, March 28, 2021

March 28, 2021, will see revenue service begin from the TTC’s new McNicoll Garage. This will entail the reassignment of many routes between all garages as the TTC rebalances it fleet and service to relieve crowding and minimize dead-head times.

There are few service changes associated with this grand shuffle. The primary effect is that garage trips at the end of peak periods will change to reflect the shift of some routes to a new home in northern Scarborough.

For example, north-south routes that formerly had transitional peak-to-evening service southbound will go to evening service levels sooner because buses will dead head to McNicoll rather than making a southbound trip before running back to Eglinton or Birchmount Garage.

  • 17 Birchmount
  • 43 Kennedy
  • 57 Midland
  • 68 Warden
  • 129 McCowan North

The short-turn point for 39 Finch East and 53 Steeles East off-peak garage trips will change so that buses do not double back on themselves. These trips will be shortened to end at Kennedy rather than at Markham Road. Trips on 39C to Victoria Park will end at McNicoll & Victoria Park rather than at 480 Gordon Baker Road.

The 45 Kipling and 945 Kipling Express move from Queensway to Arrow. Trips to the garage after the AM and PM peak will no longer make southbound trips. Trips at the beginning of the PM peak will no longer travel north from Queensway.

The old and new garage assignments are at the end of this article for those who are interested.

Fleet utilization continues to be well below system capacity. In January 2020, the total AM peak buses in service was 1,625. In March 2021, it will be 1,527. This does not include buses used in Run As Directed (RAD) service. Although the TTC now has an additional bus garage, its capacity is not included in the table below.

For comparison, here is the January 2020 (pre-pandemic) table.

The number of buses used on streetcar routes continues to be high. These vehicles are included in the counts above, and represent additional capacity available for bus routes when the construction projects now underway finish. 506 Carlton will return to all-streetcar operation in May, but other routes will be affected by construction for much of 2021 notably at KQQR and on Broadview north of Gerrard (starting in May).

Here is the streetcar peak service table. Note that there is an error in the afternoon peak “base going into Mar 2021” column where the streetcar total should read 127, not 142.

Construction Projects

During the construction of McNicoll Garage, all trips on 42 Cummer were operated as 42A to Middlefield. This will continue, and the 42B and 42C services will remain suspended. An eight month long water main project on Cummer will require that westbound service divert via Leslie, Finch and Bayview. New farside stops will be added southbound on Leslie at Cummer, and westbound on Cummer at Bayview to serve the diversion.

At the King, Queen, Queensway, Roncesvalles intersection (KQQR) construction work will block transit service beginning on March 31. This will affect all services that pass through this busy location.

  • 501 Queen buses (501L Long Branch and 501P Park Lawn) will operate via King and Dufferin Streets to route. The official east end of the route will remain at Jarvis Street. In current operations, many runs have been extended as far east as River because the schedule is very generous in anticipation of construction traffic delays that have not yet materialized. Buses are also taking extended layovers at Long Branch Loop because they arrive early.
  • The 504 King west end shuttle will be broken into two parts.
    • A 504G King shuttle will operate between Dundas West Station and Roncesvalles Carhouse (entering and leaving via the North Gate).
    • A 504Q King shuttle will operate between Triller and Strachan. The west end loop will be via Dufferin, Queen and Triller. The east end loop will be via Duoro and Strachan. This is a change from the current shuttle terminus at Shaw.

Operation of the 506 Carlton bus shuttle will be officially changed to use the loop that was informally implemented almost immediately after this service began in January. All buses will loop via Gerrard, Sherbourne and Parliament. Full streetcar service will resume on 506 Carlton with the May 9, 2021 schedules.

Miscellaneous Route Changes

Weekday scheduled round-trip travel time on 1 Yonge-University-Spadina will be shortened from 161 to 154 minutes in recognition of time savings with Automatic Train Control. This will address some of the train queuing problems at terminals. Headways will also be widened slightly to reflect lower demand.

43C Kennedy service to Village Green Square will be modified so that all trips begin and end there. Half hourly service will be provided northbound from Kennedy Station from 6:30 to 8:30 am, and from 4:00 to 7:00 pm. Southbound service will leave Village Green from 5:58 to 8:28 am, and from 3:30 to 6:30 pm.

The Amazon Fulfillment Centre at Morningside & Steeles will be served by two routes:

  • 53B Steeles service to Markham Road will be extended via Passmore to the cul-de-sac at the site. This operation is already in place.
  • 102 Markham Road service will be routed north on Markham Road, east on Select Avenue, south on Tapscott Road, east on Passmore Avenue to cul-de-sac, west on Passmore Avenue, north on Tapscott Road, west on Steeles Avenue, to south on Markham Road. This route will be changed when the the intersection of Steeles & Morningside fully opens later in 2021.

Trip times on 167 Pharmacy North will be standardized so that the weekday and Saturday schedules are the same. The first trips will run northbound from Don Mills Station and southbound from Pharmacy Loop at 5:30 am. Service at all times will be on the half-hour (:00 and :30).

Articulated and regular buses will shuffle between routes:

  • Three artics now used on 60 Steeles West will be changed to standard buses. The artics will return in late May.
  • Most runs on 89 Weston will switch from artics to standard buses. In late May, all 89 Weston local buses will be standard-sized, but the 989 Weston Express service will resume.
  • Six standard buses now used on 929 Dufferin Express will be changed to artics.

310 Spadina night service will be cut to half hourly. This route was missed in January when other night services reverted to a 30 minute service (previously every 15 or 20 minutes).

Details of the changes and service plan comparisons are in this spreadsheet.

Revised Garage Assignments

TTC Board Meeting: February 10, 2021

The TTC Board met on February 10 with a thicker-than-usual agenda including:

  • A review of the Five Year Corporate Plan Status & CEO’s Report
  • A report on liquidated damage provisions within the contract for additional streetcars
  • Proposed asbestos removal projects at St. Patrick and Queen’s Park Stations
  • An update on the Presto contract with Metrolinx, and on the TTC’s pursuit of information on a possible replacement system from other vendors
  • An update on the Fair Pass program

The Board spent considerable time on the proposed shutdown of the SRT. Please see my original article Bye, Bye Scarborough RT on this issue which has been updated to reflect their debate and decision.

The Transit Network Expansion report also deserves its own article and will be reviewed separately.

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Measuring and Reporting on TTC Operations: Part I

The TTC reports on its overall performance through the monthly CEO’s Report. This document is rarely discussed in detail at Board meetings, and often is the underpinning for “good news” about how well the TTC is doing, not about how it could be even better.

Regular readers here know that I often despair over the quality of the metrics used in this report. A few months ago, during a Board meeting, CEO Rick Leary mentioned that the metrics in his report were to be updated. This article is the first in a series discussing of what might be done to improve things. Future articles will review practices in other major North American transit systems, as well as the state of TTC service seen through a more rigourous reporting standard.

The pandemic era fundamentally changed the environment where the TTC operates. Ridership is down, but demand for reliable service is as strong as ever because social distancing is a new requirement. In past years, riders might complain about crowding, but this could be fobbed of with the usual excuses that things were not too bad on average – in any event, we could not improve service because either we had too few vehicles or too little budget room to operate more.

Plans were always tailored to available subsidy funding and the on-and-off-again political desire to “improve” transit by freezing fares. In spite of repeated requests from some TTC Board members, staff would never produce an aspirtional budget showing how much it would cost to plan for overall service improvement beyond a minimal level. That was the approach in the Ridership Growth Strategy, now almost two decades old, and hard fought-for in its time.

Today, a crowded bus represents more than an inconvenience – riders see crowding as a safety issue in this pandemic era.

Looking ahead in 2021 and beyond, there is a potential for resurging transit demand at a time when government support for emergency funding could wane. This could force cutbacks just at a time when transit needs to at least hold its own, if not improve.

The TTC reports superficial measures of its service that do not tell us much about rider experiences even though that is the “shop window” of the transit business. Far too few data are reported at a granular level where the variation in experiences is evident. Little data is available online for review, and much of that is not up to date.

The Tyranny of Averages

Riders do not consume “average” service. Getting to work on time, on average, is not an option. Riders have to assume that the service will be bad and build padding to compensate into their plans.

Riders usually board the first vehicle that shows up after an indeterminate wait compounded by potential crowding. Even if they allow for irregular service, they have no control over whatever shows up day-by-day. Both the physical environment and the need to be somewhere on time can add anxiety to their journey.

Many routes and trips are not crowded, considered on an all route, all day basis, but some are. A major problem here is how we count things.

If we count crowded buses, we might find that, over the day, ten percent of vehicles are crowded. However, there are more passengers on those buses and so the experience of crowding affects proportionately more riders. The same applies to long waits before a trio of buses appears at a stop. The “average” service might match the scheduled buses/hour, but the true experience is of a long wait followed by a crowded journey.

This is the basic reason why management can claim that “on average” service is pretty good, even in these difficult times, while riders complain bitterly that it is not. Service metrics are needed to reveal the variations, how often and how badly the TTC misses its targets, as well as the number of affected riders.

Big Data vs Big Reports

Over the decades, the CEO’s Report (formerly the Chief General Manager’s Report reflecting the position’s earlier title) varied in volume and complexity. This depended on the interests of the then-sitting Board and the style of the then-current management. For a time, it included detailed project status reports on everything from major subway construction all the way down to routine system repairs, but with no interpretive summary to flag problem areas.

Only the most dedicated would read every page, and the report accomplished its objective of appearing to inform while overwhelming with raw detail. Much more information was available about capital project status than day-to-day operations.

At the other extreme, performance data are consolidated to a level where Board members can digest them, but with a loss of detail.

In our time of Big Data, there is a danger of information overload. Readers who follow my route performance analyses know of the volume of charts and data published here, and those are only the tip of a very large iceberg. Nobody would read a monthly description of every route.

The point should not be to read all of the detail, but to have a summary that flags problem areas with the detailed information as a backup. If the same problems show up every day, they are systemic issues, not ones caused by occasional disruptions. The Board should know about them and about what management is doing to correct and improve affected areas. This is Management 101.

From an accountability viewpoint, riders and politicians are interested in their route, in their wards, but those responsibile for the entire system should be able to verify that overall behaviour is not consolidated beyond recognition into a meaningless average. This requires two important changes in how performance data are presented:

  • The granularity of analyses in time and space (e.g. by route and location) must be sufficient that it can be related to the experience of a rider making a specific trip at a specific time.
  • Exception reporting of problem areas should flag these for action and be tracked in overviews like the CEO Report, but the detail should be available online on a timely basis.

Those points as written are aimed at service reliability, but can easily apply with modifications to areas such as equipment and infrastructure.

Why Do We Measure?

The reasons for measuring things are summed up in this quotation from an extensve report on the subject that is now close to two decades old:

Agencies collect … measures to help identify how well service is being provided to their customers, the areas where improvement may be needed, and the effects of actions previously taken to improve performance. In these cases, agencies use performance measures to help provide service as efficiently as possible, monitor whether agency and community goals are being met, and—over time—improve service so that it attracts new riders. Changes in policy, procedures, and planning can result from an understanding and appraisal of certain measures.

… [D]ecision-making bodies, such as transit boards and funding bodies, need to have access to accurate information to help them make decisions on where and when service should be provided and to support actions designed to improve performance. The public is also interested in knowing how well service is being provided and may need convincing that transit provides a valuable service, for them, for someone they know, or for the community as a whole.

Performance measurement data provide transit agency management with objective assessments of current circumstances, past trends, existing concerns, and unmet needs.

A Guidebook for Developing a Transit Performance-Measurement System, Transportation Research Board, 2003, p. 4

Eagle-eyed readers will notice that I have not mentioned financial issues like fares, subsidies, cost control and “efficiency”. Too many transit discussions start with the question “how can we reduce costs” before asking “what quality do we want and are we providing it”. However, if the publicly reported data are spotty and do not address specifics rather than general averages, any political discussion of funding will be hobbled.

What might be “efficient” transit service depends on our goals, and use of that term typically implies that there is some way to do more with less, and that we should aim lower. “Good service” may not be viewed as a public good in some political circles except when the time comes to woo voters.

Finally, we must beware of metrics that allow management to “game the system” by hitting easy targets, or by measuring and reporting in a way that puts them in the best possible light.

Objectivity is another aspect of reliability. Those involved in developing measures, obtaining data, and analyzing performance should not permit their self-interests to affect the accuracy of the results. Performance measures should not be selected on the basis of which measures will make the agency look good and avoided where those performance measures make an agency look bad. Rather, selection of performance measures should be based on how accurately and fairly those measures assess agency performance and whether they can be used as a tool to measure goal achievement.

TRB, op. cit., p. 13
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