Why Can’t I Get On My Bus (II)

Correction August 15, 2018: Off peak service for the Westway branch of 52 Lawrence has been corrected.

In Part I of this article, I reviewed the evolution of bus and streetcar fleet capacity measured by scheduled service over the period from 2006 to 2018. The central point was that there has been little improvement in the overall peak period capacity operated on the bus network for much of the past decade. On the streetcar network, two recent changes – the addition of buses to supplement streetcars and the replacement of old cars by new, larger ones – have provided some peak period capacity growth. However, in both cases, this growth is small seen over the long run. Off-peak service has improved more because the system is not fleet-constrained outside of the rush hours, but there is still a budgetary limitation which affects how much staff are available to operate these vehicles.

In this article, I will review several major suburban bus routes to compare service in January 2009 when the benefits of the Miller-era Ridership Growth Strategy had kicked in with service operated in January 2018. Given the results seen in Part I, it was no surprise that when I compiled this information, many routes have less capacity today than they did a decade ago and improvements where they do exist are not major. That is not a recipe for system growth. How did this happen?

First off, when Rob Ford became Mayor, he rolled back the RGS Service Standards and service just stopped improving. Several off-peak improvements were undone, but these affected periods outside of the range reviewed in Part I (mainly evenings and weekends). Ironically, the streetcar system suffered less because, thanks to the vehicle shortage (even a decade ago), the loading standards for streetcars in the peak period had not changed. There were few RGS improvements to unwind. When John Tory reinstated some of the RGS standards, this allowed growth to resume, but almost entirely in the off-peak period because neither the bus nor the streetcar fleets had spare vehicles.

Another more subtle problem lies in TTC scheduling. As congestion built up on routes, the reaction was to stretch existing headways (the space between vehicles) rather than adding more buses to a route. This responded to the vehicle crunch, but it gradually trimmed service levels across the system. Even though the same number of buses were in service, with fewer passing a point per hour the capacity of service riders saw declined. The TTC made excuses for this practice as simply running buses to the conditions, but the long term effect was to cut service to keep operational demands within the available fleet size.

The balance of this post summarizes the data for each route. The full set of tables is linked below as a PDF.

2009_2018_ServiceComparisons_V2

A few notes about these tables:

  • Services are grouped by corridor because, in some cases, more than one route operates along a street. For example, Lawrence Avenue West has been served by 52 Lawrence, 59 Maple Leaf and 58 Malton (now folded into the 52).
  • Service capacity is shown as buses/hour. The only adjustment for vehicle size is that articulated buses count as 1.5 so that 6 artics per hour is the same, from a capacity point of view, as 9 regular-sized buses. Where a headway is followed by the letter “A” in the tables, this means that artics are operated.
  • In some cases, routes have a branch where every “nth” vehicle takes a longer trip. For example, some of the services running through to York Region have every 3rd, 4th or 5th bus going beyond the “standard” destination. These do not provide net additional service where the branches rejoin in the same way as a branching route where half of the buses go one way and half the other. In other words, if a 5 minute service runs to Steeles and every 4th bus runs beyond on a 20 minute headway, the headway to Steeles is still only 5 minutes, or 12 buses per hour. These cases are noted with an asterisk “*” in the tables.
  • Some routes were affected by the opening of the Vaughan extension. In these cases, data are shown for November 2017, the last set of schedules before the routes changed, so that the evolution of service right up to that point is clear.

The information for these comparisons is from the TTC Scheduled Service Summaries:

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Why Can’t I Get On My Bus?

Recent years brought much hand-wringing from TTC Board members and management about falling ridership numbers. One oft-cited source for this is the combination of fare evasion and the under-reporting of fare payments by Presto. These are linked in that the multiplicity of fares and rules create situations where a rider can validly enter a vehicle without showing a pass or tapping a card. Indeed, there are a number of cases where Presto users are explicitly told not to tap to avoid double charging by software that cannot distinguish many types of valid transfer movements.

Riders, on the other hand, might be forgiven for wondering whether there is enough service actually on the street to carry them. There are two aspects to this problem. One is vehicle bunching, a topic I will explore in coming weeks in detail for several major suburban bus routes, and the other is the actual amount of service.

An important factor in the provision of TTC service is that, in general, it lags demand growth rather than leading it. When the buses and streetcars are full, the TTC runs more of them provided that there is headroom in the budget, enough vehicles and enough operators to actually field more service. City Councillors have a fetish for controlling headcount, and this is one major problem at the TTC – more service requires more drivers (not to mention other staff), but increases to the approved staffing levels are only grudgingly approved. The other big problem for both the streetcar and bus fleets is that the TTC does not have enough vehicles thanks to constraints on capital spending and increases in garage capacity.

I wrote about the TTC’s capacity crisis in an earlier post, but here I will turn to the long-term trends in service provision. This is of particular interest in an election year when competing claims will be made about the actions and policies of current and previous administrations.

All of the charts included in this article as well as the underlying data are consolidated in one PDF linked at the end.

All data here comes from the TTC Scheduled Service Summaries. An archive of these is available on this site.

Scheduled Fleet Capacity

When tracking and comparing capacity for the bus and streetcar fleet, simply looking at the number of vehicles or the distance they travel is not enough. Other factors are at play including the capacity of each vehicle type, and the degree to which schedule changes are in the peak of off-peak periods. Maintenance factors come into play as well because the size of each fleet is larger than the scheduled service.

As a starting point, I converted the scheduled service to a fleet capacity by taking the “standard” vehicle as “1” and scaling up for larger vehicles. Note that the intent is only to track the ratio within each mode and the associated routes, and therefore a basis of “1” can be used for both fleets.

  • Standard 12m low floor bus: 1
  • Articulated low floor bus: 1.5
  • Canadian Light Rail Vehicle (CLRV): 1
  • Articulated Light Rail Vehicle (ALRV): 1.5
  • Flexity Low Floor Streetcar: 2
  • Bus running on a streetcar route: 0.7

Therefore, for the purpose of the chart which follows below, if a Flexity is scheduled to operate, it counts as twice the capacity of a CLRV. One immediate problem with this is that the TTC does not actually operate as many ALRVs as the schedules call for. Recently, although nearly 30 ALRVs are supposed to operate at peak, one is lucky to find a dozen of them on the road. Conversely, where a conversion of a route from old to new streetcars is in progress, there may be more Flexitys in service than scheduled. Similarly, one can find cases where bus trips that are supposed to be provided by longer artics are actually operated by standard length vehicles. The discrepancy between TTC schedules and the real world cannot be helped, and we must take the scheduled numbers as the intended service for an historical review.

To put this in a political context, in January 2007 David Miller beginning his second term as Mayor. He was replaced by Rob Ford in the election in fall 2010. John Tory was elected in fall 2014. The effect of a new administration is not visible in the January schedules which are generally in place before the election is determined.

The increase in bus service capacity in 2009 is the result of the Ridership Growth Strategy which changed the crowding standards to allow for less crowded vehicles. There is some growth in off-peak streetcar service capacity, but little for peak periods because there were no spare vehicles.

Peak capacity on the streetcar network begins to grow in 2013 with the substitution of buses on Queens Quay during its reconstruction while the displaced streetcars went to other routes. A few years later the arrival of the first Flexity cars and the continued substitution of buses on streetcar routes allowed more service to be provided on the streetcar network. The 514 Cherry route began operating in June 2016, but its requirements were absorbed within the available fleet.

Peak capacity on the bus network has not grown much in recent years. The downturn in January 2018 was caused partly by the opening of the subway extension to Vaughan and partly by changes in TTC spare ratio policies that reduced the number of vehicles available for service.

The big changes in recent years came in the off-peak period when there are spare vehicles in both fleets to provide better service.

In brief, there has been little improvement in the peak capacity operated on the TTC network for several years. For streetcar routes, there is some improvement, but for bus routes, not much for almost a decade.

There are a few caveats that must be included here:

  • The bus fleet capacity has not been adjusted for the migration from high floor to low floor buses which reduced capacity by up to 10%. This was already well underway in 2006, but there were still over 800 high floor buses in scheduled service in January 2006. Conversion to low floor buses represents a loss of a substantial capacity which is not reflected in the chart above.
  • In the mid 2000’s, the TTC operated more contract service than they do today. The decline in buses running outside of the city boundary is around two dozen (AM peak) counted as fractional vehicles where the service inside of Toronto is part of TTC routes that continue to exist. The capacity of these vehicles is included in the total.
  • These numbers represent vehicles in service. TTC maintenance practices have increased the spare ratio in recent years causing the total fleet size and garage requirements to rise while the actual amount of service does not. Some recent bus purchases made in the name of service improvements actually went into enlarging the pool of maintenance spares. These spares do not contribute to in service capacity and therefore do not affect the charts.
  • As traffic congestion increases, routes overall slow down, and the amount of service (counted as passenger kilometres) a vehicle can provide goes down. More buses are needed to carry the same number of trips. This factor is not included in the charts which only look at how many buses are in service, not how far they actually carry riders. The net effect is that service from a rider’s point of view does not go up as fast as the fleet capacity. Although this varies by route, there is a system wide effect that slower travel times “eat” buses and streetcars that might otherwise be adding to service.

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TTC Board Meeting July 10, 2018: Part I

The July 10, 2018 meeting of the TTC was its last before the October 22 municipal election. When the new Council meets in early December, it will update the Councillor appointments to this Board and select a new Chair. Whether the existing Chair Josh Colle will return in that role remains to be seen, although he did not sound averse to the idea in his closing remarks. The political balance of the Board will depend on the new Council and on whether the Mayor feels more disposed to a better representation of the centre-left. The new Board’s first meeting will be on December 12, 2018.

The “Citizen” members of the Board (those who are not Councillors) will remain in place until Council deals with appointments to various boards and agencies early in 2019.

The TTC has appointed Rick Leary, who has been Acting CEO since Andy Byford’s departure, to the CEO’s position. Leary had strong support from the Board, and now he must deliver. It will be interesting to see how much of Byford’s style and work, if any, are carried over into this new era. [See Challenges For TTC’s New CEO].

A vital part of the Board’s responsibility (and through them, City Council’s) is a clear understanding of the future needs of transit in Toronto. This is not simply a case of planning a few subway lines, but of understanding how the network as a whole works and what its needs would be under various scenarios. This is especially true when addressing unmet needs of the existing system. From the CEO’s report:

In support of the City of Toronto’s ongoing focus on transformation, the TTC committed in the 2018-2022 Corporate Plan to undertake a comprehensive service review. In addition to assessing efficiency and effectiveness, the study will evaluate how best to provide services mindful of reliability, safety and system integration. Actioning this commitment will help inform deliberations of the newly-appointed Board in 2019. In tandem, as noted last month, we are also preparing an updated and comprehensive long-term Capital Plan that will provide full clarity on the TTC’s long-term capital requirements mindful of legislation, reliability, safety and service standards. The plan will be prepared over the course of 2018 and presented as part of the 2019 Budget process. [p. 8]

This woolly statement could be the basis for better understanding how the Capital Budget works and how its many projects fit together, or this could simply be a rehash of juggling costs back and forth to make the numbers come out right for City financial targets. If the TTC needs more money for bona fide projects, it should say so, and should make the spending levels and timing clear rather than hiding costs “below the line” or beyond the 10-year planning horizon.

Several items on the agenda bear on the TTC’s ability to carry riders, but they were not discussed or presented in that context. This is a fundamental problem for the TTC Board and for the new CEO.

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Bombardier Undermines Streetcar Credibility

Updated on July 5, 2018 at 8:00 am: Minor typos corrected. Explanation of replacement service as Flexitys displace older cars clarified.

Over the past day there have been a number of media comments, articles, tweets triggered by the announcement that 67 of Toronto’s new streetcars must return to Bombardier to repair bad welding. This started with an article by Ben Spurr in the Star, with a followup by Spurr and a Globe article by Oliver Moore. I’m sure there are others, but they will do for now.

The problem is described, briefly, in the TTC CEO’s Report released on July 4 as part of the agenda for the Board’s July 10 meeting.

As of June 25, the TTC has 80 Bombardier low-floor streetcars available for service. Unfortunately, we have learned that frame imperfections were found on assembled sections of the 67 vehicles manufactured before 2017 at Bombardier’s facility in Mexico. It is important to note that these welding deficiencies pose no safety threat. Bombardier has agreed to make the required repairs by removing cars from service and sending them to the Bombardier Welding Center of Excellence in La Pocatière, Quebec for repair.

We are working with Bombardier on a repair schedule that will have minimal to no impact on our service to customers. All vehicles will be repaired by the end of 2022.

[From “current issues” on p 6]

There is an inconsistency in the size of the fleet reported by Spurr and repeated by Moore. Although the CEO’s report says they have 80 cars, the number 89 has been used in media reports. This discrepancy is likely due to how Bombardier and the TTC count deliveries. Car 4488 was delivered to TTC Hillcrest today (July 4), and this makes a total of 88 cars in Toronto. (4401 was a prototype and is back at Bombardier for retrofits.) However, the highest car number actually in revenue service, and therefore formally accepted by the TTC, is 4482. This may seem like railfan trivia, but keeping track of just how deliveries are going is an important part of knowing how the roll out of new vehicles is actually progressing day-by-day, not in infrequent updates from the TTC.

The chronology of the problem has also been confused somewhat, and I have to own up to misinterpreting Spurr’s recounting of TTC information until this was sorted out in emails with TTC spokesperson Brad Ross.

  • 2015: TTC and Bombardier identify welding problems at the plant in Mexico where frames for the new cars are manufactured. This was one of the key problems that delayed the early shipments of cars to Toronto. TTC refused to accept cars whose parts would not fit together when they arrived at Thunder Bay for final assembly. In time, this manufacturing problem was corrected, or so it was thought.
  • June 2017 (quoting Spurr): “Company representatives said the problem is a “lack of fusion” in some of the welds on the car’s skeleton, particularly around bogie structures and the articulated portals where different sections of the articulated vehicle are joined. The company says it brought the issue “under control” last June and it won’t be repeated in future deliveries.”
  • October 2017: The TTC becomes aware that repairs would be required according to Ross as quoted by Spurr. One must ask what the TTC’s quality control inspectors were doing in Mexico between June and October.
  • February 2018: 4466, presumably the last car completed with bad parts, is delivered to the TTC. This is a rather long span after Bombardier’s claim that the issue was under control in June 2017.
  • July 2018: TTC and Bombardier announce the need to send the defective cars to a Bombardier plant in Québec which is their “world centre for excellence in welding”. In other words they are giving the job to people who should know what they’re doing.

There is a further inconsistency in that the TTC CEO’s report talks of 67 vehicles manufactured before 2017 in Mexico. This is clearly a typo and the date should be 2018.

If the problem finally escalated to TTC management in October 2017, this was during the Byford era, but there was no report of the problem publicly. If we are to believe tweets from members of the TTC Board, Councillor Mihevc in this case, he was unaware of the need for cars to return to Bombardier until this report broke a few days ago. This begs the question of how much the Board is actually in touch with critical issues on the system they govern.

Teething problems with new equipment are common, although Bombardier has a particularly checkered record in that regard and was dropped from a subway car bid by New York City due to problems with a previous batch of cars. In Toronto, the new TR subway trains continue to have problems, although the worst of these have been ironed out. On subway car orders, riders do not usually see the effect of equipment troubles because the TTC has its older fleet to fall back on, not to mention a generous pool of spare trains, and service gets out to the lines. The streetcar network, starved far too long for new cars, does not have this luxury, and Bombardier’s screwups are in plain sight affecting the transit network.

(One might also recall reliability problems with hybrid buses that could be regularly found parked around the city after going disabled. Again, the full effect is not visible to riders because the TTC maintains a large spare pool to cover for these failures.)

Both Bombardier and the TTC state that the problem is not a safety issue for existing cars, but that over time the poor welds would led to premature failure of cars that are supposed to last 30 years. In a particularly bizarre comment, Bombardier spokesman Eric Prud’Homme is quoted by Moore as saying that this recall spurs interest only because of previous problems with the order and that welding problems are “not uncommon” in the industry. Well, yes, maybe, but when they are on a scale requiring that cars be shipped back to the manufacturer, this is a different problem from minor corrections that can be performed at the customer’s site. And, of course, any retrofit that takes cars out of service reduces the pool available to replace the aging CLRV and ALRV streetcars.

The process is expected to require 19 weeks which is subdivided as:

… 19 weeks total for the repairs: 2 weeks to ship the cars to La Pocatière, 12 weeks for maintenance, 2 weeks to ship back to TO, and then 3 weeks for commissioning. [Tweet from @benspurr]

If the cycle time at Bombardier is 12 weeks (delivery each way and commissioning can take place in parallel with repair work), and there are 17 cycles (4 cars x 17 cycles = 68 cars), then this will take almost 4 years (204 weeks) and will complete in 2022. (I include this detail because the initial impression was that the repairs alone would take 19 weeks, not 12, leading to a mismatch between the proposed end date and the length of the project anyone could calculate.)

If there are only about ten cars out of the fleet at any time (in transit either way, or in commissioning activities when they return), the TTC will get by with the proviso that some of the older cars, likely the smaller CLRVs which although older are more reliable than the ALRVs, will stay in service longer. Ideally, they should be scheduled on peak-only runs so that most of the service is provided by the Flexitys on hand.

Politicians and others with their own agendas have seized on this latest setback to say “maybe we should bus some routes permanently” or just get rid of streetcars. With a hostile government in Queen’s Park, this could be a problem especially if Doug Ford decides to meddle in control of the TTC.

It is important to understand what is possible with the fleet the TTC should have available as well as the planning issues about the streetcar corridors in Toronto.

Buses are now operating on the 505 Dundas and 506 Carlton routes, as well as on a Broadview shuttle replacing a small part of 504 King during track work. Streetcars will return to Carlton in September, possibly with some bus trippers, and likely to Dundas sometime in the fall depending on car availability. 511 Bathurst will revert to bus operation in September because of major construction work on the bus roadway at Bathurst Station, and the 502/503 Kingston Road service will also go back to buses. It should be noted that between them, the peak requirement for streetcars on 502, 503 and 511 is only 28 CLRVs plus spares, and this makes these routes easy candidates for bus substitution because relatively few vehicles are needed for any one route.

The streetcar system has been fleet constrained since the mid 1990s. Ridership losses of the early 90s recession allowed service to be cut back to the point that the 510 Spadina line could open using existing spare cars in the fleet, and the planned rebuild of about 20 PCCs was not required. Since then, there has been no capacity for growing demand, and if anything this has fallen through added congestion on major routes and the gradual decline of fleet reliability and availability. The TTC would like to retire the last of its old cars in 2020, although that may not now be possible.

Toronto is fortunate in that the order for Flexitys represents a considerable addition to potential capacity over the fleet it will replace. The old fleet contained 196 CLRVs and 52 ALRVs. Counting the ALRVs as 1.5 cars, this is the equivalent of 274 CLRVs. The 204 Flexitys counting as 2.0 cars each represent 408 CLRVs. This means that the TTC can improve service capacity rather than simply replacing it one-for-one.

This has been a boon on King Street where the capacity of service provided is now considerably improved even though the number of cars operating has stayed almost unchanged.

The 204-car fleet (or 194 if one takes 10 out of the pool for rotation to Bombardier), can provide service improvements, but it cannot replace the full streetcar service on a 1:1 basis. The table below shows the vehicle requirements for all routes assuming streetcar operation at current service levels, or at a recent level when streetcars were in use. The total cars is 214 which clearly cannot be handled by the Flexity fleet if old cars are substituted 1:1. (Allowing for spares at 20%, the total fleet would have to be 257 cars, and this is roughly the level that an added 60 cars would provide.)

However, that would represent a doubling of capacity on the affected routes, and this is well above what is needed in the short-to-medium term. The tradeoff, if replacement is less than 1:1, is that headways (the time between cars) would widen.

For example, on a 2:3 basis (two new cars for three old ones, a capacity increase of 33%), the fleet requirement would go down by 50 cars (one third of the 153 CLRV/ALRV total below). This would bring the total requirement, just barely, within a 204-car fleet. Headways on affected routes would grow by one third. For example, the peak headway on 511 Bathurst would go from 4.5 to 6.0 minutes. This will inevitably affect ridership just as the replacement of CLRVs by ALRVs did years ago on Queen.

A more generous replacement rate of 3:4 (a capacity increase of 50%) lessens the effect on headways, but requires more cars than are available while maintaining a spare pool of 20%.

An important question is the degree to which additional peak service could be provided by the surviving CLRV fleet, or if bus trippers or replacements are the only viable solution. The smaller the replacement vehicle, the more are required. Moreover, if buses are used, this draws vehicles from an already-strained fleet that cannot meet demands on the bus network.

“Why use streetcars” is a question posed by some. A vital issue for City Planning is that growth in the population and in travel demand will occur disproportionately in the old city and along the streetcar corridors. Service will have to be substantially improved to handle future demand that is expected within the next decade.

The streetcar network once provided considerably more service on some routes than it does today. Demographic shifts and ridership lost to service cuts, not to mention a declining fleet of streetcars, have stretched peak headways in some cases quite substantially. But the capacity is there to carry more riders if only the TTC had the vehicles to operate and the City had the will to fund transit service at higher levels on key routes.  (This is also an issue on the bus network which has its own artificial, budget-driven limitations.)

Ed Keenan, writing recently in The Star, noted that the 506 Carlton car once carried 60,000 riders per day, but has fallen back by 2014, the last year for which the TTC has published ridership stats, to 39,700. In all the hand wringing about the effect of fare systems on ridership, the TTC has lost track of a basic driver of demand: the quality and quantity of service. The infrequent publication of stats does not help in tracking of demand, but even those numbers hide latent demand that simply does not show up out of frustration. The King Street Pilot has shown what can happen when service and capacity improve, and the TTC is proud of their success, but substantial movement beyond King is a political minefield.

Fortunately for Toronto, the streetcar infrastructure is in good shape unlike the situation years back when it declined through less-than-ideal maintenance from which the system has only recently recovered. Likewise, Toronto lost its trolley coaches (electric buses to those too young to remember) in part because the system was allowed to decay by management who wanted rid of this mode and colluded with alternate technology providers to bring this about.

Another requirement for new streetcars waiting in the wings comes from the proposed Waterfront extensions west to Humber Bay and east at least to Broadview. This perennial wallflower project has not attracted funding support, and Waterfront Toronto is reduced to planning for a BRT right-of-way that might, someday, mirror the Queens Quay West design with streetcars.

Toronto’s challenge now will be to decide whether Bombardier can be trusted with an extension to its existing Flexity order (the fastest way to get more cars and build up service), or if a delay to seek bids from other builders is the way to go. In the best political tradition, the Board will consider a recommendation from management that this decision be put off to early 2019 when the financial situation for new streetcars will be clearer.

This brings me to funding from Queen’s Park which is unlikely from an avowed streetcar hater, Doug Ford, now Premier. But, that said, Toronto needs to remember that many capital projects have little provincial money in them, and there is also funding from the Federal government. Toronto needs to decide what it needs, and cobble together funding for its many projects where this can be done. It won’t be easy with competing demands for subway expansion and for the renewal of the existing Line 2 Bloor-Danforth, a great deal of which is “below the line” in the unfunded portion of the City’s capital plans.

Expansion of streetcars or LRT, whatever one might want to call them, has always been an uphill battle in Toronto for various reasons including the idea that streetcars are old fashioned and just  get in the way. Tell that to major cities around the world running and expanding their networks. Toronto needs more capacity to move people on many corridors with easy access to transit, something a few subway lines alone can never achieve. Buses at the density required to replace streetcars will only worsen congestion, not relieve it.

Bombardier, through its ongoing cock-ups with provision of new streetcars, has been no friend to the Toronto system. We must get past this with, if need be, a new supplier of vehicles so that the system can grow. Bombardier’s incompetence should not be used as the justification to retrench and, by implication, eventually dismantle the streetcar network.

 

TTC Plans For a Zero-Emission Bus Fleet

Updated June 13, 2018: Discussion and motions from the TTC Board Meeting added.

At its meeting on June 12, 2018, the TTC board will consider a staff report which sets out in some detail the first stages of Toronto’s migration from diesel and diesel/hybrid buses to a zero-emission fleet.

The TTC’s abrupt shift from diesel to zero-emission followed a July 2017 motion adopting the TransformTO climate change plan which included a reduction target of 80% by 2050. After continued defense of “clean diesel” technology on the basis of cost and reliability, ongoing problems with Hybrid buses, and a view that new technologies were not yet mature enough for system-wide use, the TTC has reversed course and embraced a move to buying only zero-emission vehicles by the mid-2020s. As older vehicles reach end of life, the diesel and hybrid fleets would gradually disappear.

In September 2017 at an unusual Board meeting a vendor, BYD, was given the opportunity to make an extended product pitch as a “deputation”. This led to a more general interest in zero-emission vehicles from two other vendors (New Flyer and Proterra), as well as natural gas alternatives thanks to lobbying by Enbridge Gas.

In November, the Board approved a 30-bus trial with ten vehicles from each of the three vendors, as well as a less definitive study of the role of gaseous fuels.

A major problem through the entire process is that much of this is new technology, and there are many competing claims for its suitability that are not yet substantiated by real world experience. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times details problems with their battery buses and the gap between promises and actual performance.

Toronto is just beginning to learn the cost of moving to a greener fleet and the escalation not only in vehicle costs but in related infrastructure. $50 million has been allocated for those first 30 buses, and a further $88 million is on the table for another 30 plus associated infrastructure. The report is deliberately vague about specific prices for vehicles because negotiations with vendors are still underway.

Without extra investment by other governments, the technology change simply would not happen. In a November 2017 report, TTC staff noted that battery buses were “significantly less expensive” than other options based on the availability of PTIF funding.

Indeed, the current plan is structured to burn through as much of the Federal government’s Public Transit Infrastructure Fund Phase I money as possible. When PTIF was announced, all projects to be part of the first phase were required to be finished by March 2019. This is partly a political date given the election next year, and partly an accounting requirement so that spending occurs within a few fiscal years (government fiscal years start on April 1). The PTIF deadline was extended from 2019 to 2020 when it became obvious that actually spending the new money would not be possible for many cities.

Toronto found itself without projects either in the City or Transit budgets that could soak up the available money in only a few years, and initially the focus was on a massive replacement of the bus fleet to retire the worst of the older buses and, at the same time, shift from an 18-year to a 12-year replacement cycle.

In this context – a subsidy windfall plus an unusually large, multi-year bus order – the opportunity for a fast change in technology presented itself both to the politicians and to the would-be vendors. Whether this will work out remains to be seen, but the TTC is moving cautiously with a trial program that will determine whether the new technologies are credible replacements for what we have today. Meanwhile, the TTC will shift back to Hybrids from Clean Diesel on the premise that Hybrid technology has improved since the less-than-reliable generation of buses they are about to retire.

Recommended Action

The staff report recommends that:

  1. The quantity of electric buses will be increased from 30 to 60 with all vehicles to be delivered by March 31, 2020, and the TTC will work with Toronto Hydro on the design and installation of charging and energy storage systems; the project cost is increased from $50 to $120 million.
  2. The TTC will work with Toronto Hydro to modify one bus garage to accommodate up to 300 buses through the supply of a substation and backup generator at an estimated cost of $18 million.
  3. Staff will provide a project update in first quarter 2019 to the new TTC Board following the Council election in the fall of 2018.
  4. Staff will conduct a feasibility study of all garages and report in the fourth quarter of 2019 on “preliminary estimates for the total costs, benefits, and potential funding opportunities associated with the green bus plan”.

Separately from these reports, staff will present a plan in July 2018 feeding into the 2019 budget process with updated capital plans and tradeoffs necessary to free up money for the new bus infrastructure.

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Will Toronto Get More New Streetcars?

Updated June 13, 2018 at 10:00 am: The discussion and actions at the Board Meeting are reported at the end of this article.

Correction June 18, 2018 at 3:45 pm:

The section reporting the debate at the TTC Board meeting originally stated that Acting CEO Rick Leary was waiting to see if Bombardier could ship 20 cars/month by fall 2018 in order to hit the target for contract completion by the end of 2019. This should have read “20 cars/quarter”.

Original Article

Streetcar riders in Toronto are a long-suffering bunch. The size of the fleet has not changed since the mid-1990s despite the addition of a new streetcar line on Spadina in 1997 and the Harbourfront extension to Exhibition Loop in 2000. As the fleet wore out, its reliability dropped, and the now 40-year old CLRVs (single section) and 30-year old ALRVs (two section “articulateds”) are showing their age.

The TTC needed new cars some time ago, and the process of ordering the low floor Flexity fleet goes back to 2006. The first attempt, one that might have brought Toronto new cars about the same size as the ALRVs with a mixture of low and high level floors, was called off when the 100% low floor Flexitys (a design originally for Berlin) became available. That delay, combined with foot-dragging by incoming Mayor Rob Ford, and manufacturing incompetence by Bombardier, has left the TTC with a fleet far below its needs, and new cars straggling onto the property at a glacial rate.

During the past 20 years, population and employment downtown has grown far faster than in other parts of Toronto, and the residential density, once on a downward trend as family neighbourhoods gentrified, is growing. This is not confined to the new south-of-King areas, and is pushing north into the territory of other streetcar lines. The rate of growth is also changing. When the TTC ordered 204 Flexitys, these were expected to handle rising demand through 2027. This date has been revised much earlier to 2020

A major issue for the TTC, and for transit advocates in Toronto, has been the problem of “latent demand”. If the fleet stays the same size or declines, service and capacity follows the same path. The original plan for Flexity roll out onto the streetcar lines focused as much on reducing the number of operators required to carry demand little changed from then-current levels. Now, the TTC acknowledges that growth on streetcar lines went unmet for years.

The 1990s were a critical period because Toronto was coming out of a recession during which the TTC had lost 20% of its ridership, but the streetcar fleet, sized to mid-1990s demand, was unable to expand service as the system recovered. Many of the complaints about “bad streetcar service” come directly from the failure to add capacity as the economy rebounded, and then as the population along streetcar lines began to grow.

Much of the residential growth Downtown between 2012 and 2016 took place south of Queen Street. Almost 50% of all Downtown growth occurred in the King-Spadina and Waterfront West neighbourhoods. The Bay Corridor, King-Parliament and Waterfront Central saw moderate increases accounting for 36% of new residents. As a result of the increase in development in Toronto’s Downtown area, TTC streetcar ridership increased by 20% between 2008 and 2018 which is much higher than what was anticipated back in 2008. Transit mode share across the City has also increased from 23% (2006) to 27% (2016), putting additional pressure on the system.

Recent revision of the projected employment and population growth for Downtown Toronto has introduced higher forecasts which now extend to 2041. The revised estimate of number of new residents in the Downtown is 500% greater than originally projected. The revised estimate of new jobs in the Downtown is 200% greater than originally projected.

The size of the TTC’s streetcar fleet has been unchanged for almost 30 years, during a period of continuously-increasing ridership growth. This has resulted in streetcar capacity, during peak periods, being completely exhausted more than 10 years ago, with no ability to accommodate additional ridership during peak periods. Experience with deployment of the new LFLRVs on the first few streetcar routes has shown that there is an existing unmet, latent demand for peak-travel on the TTC’s streetcar routes. King Street is an excellent example of this. Over the first few months of operation the route experienced an increase of all-day weekday ridership of 16%. There are other factors that have contributed to the ridership increase (such as priority treatments and increased reliability); however, latent demand is one factor driving the ridership increase.

On King Street, the TTC has seen the combined effect of running more capacity (larger vehicles) and more reliable service (the King Street pilot). This number is still constrained by the capacity of service on the street.

On Queen Street, the shuffling of vehicles between routes and the retirement of most of the ALRVs has led, finally, to a schedule that reflects the equipment actually available to operate the route and a net increase in capacity provided, as opposed to scheduled.

Higher-density development is beginning on the Dundas, Carlton and St. Clair routes, and it is spreading away from the central part of the city where the subway is the primary mode.

Future new routes in the eastern waterfront as well as a new link to southern Etobicoke will require even more streetcars.

The TTC projects that by 2033, the peak service requirement will be 287 cars, (345 including spares), equivalent to about 570 (690) CLRVs. At their height, there were only 196 CLRVs and 52 of the larger ALRVs. This is a huge increase in the streetcar system’s capacity, almost to the level of the 745-strong PCC fleet which dominated the system through the 1950s and 60s.

At its meeting on June 12, 2018, the TTC Board will consider a report from staff that summarizes the result of a vendor survey to gauge interest in producing streetcars and proposes the following actions:

Over the coming months, staff will undertake the following:

  1. Request funding approval through 2019 budget process;
  2. Update contract documents based on stakeholder input, contract changes, and lessons learned;
  3. Engage consultant to validate RFI responses (e.g. technical and commercial performance, on-time delivery performance, etc.);
  4. Develop scope and budget for additional maintenance capacity at Hillcrest; and
  5. Report back to the TTC Board in Q1 2019 with recommendations.

The wild card in all of this will be the outcome of the provincial election on June 7, and the degree to which the incoming Premier will support or attempt to sabotage any expansion of streetcar service. Funding arrangements, especially under the federal PTIF scheme, depend on all three levels of government contributing. This effectively gives any one level the ability to veto a project unless there is a change in the rules.

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Track Replacement at Gerrard & Parliament Streets (Updated May 20, 2018)

Updated May 18, 2018: Photos added.

The first of three intersection renewals on the Carlton and Dundas routes began on May 14 at Gerrard and Parliament Streets. Intersections at Broadview/Dundas and Broadview/Gerrard will follow in June and July, as well as track renewal on Broadview between Dundas and Gerrard. Planned renewal of the track from north of Gerrard to Hogarth (the north end of Riverdale Park) has been deferred to a future year, as yet unknown.

Demolition of the intersection began on the morning of Monday, May 14, and by late afternoon Wednesday, May 16, the new foundation was in place and ready to receive track. I happened to drop by just as the first track panel was being unloaded and placed in the street.

Intersections are pre-assembled at Hillcrest before they are delivered to the site so that they can be installed in panels rather than individual parts, a much more labour intensive process once used by the TTC. Preassembly also allows pre-welding of all components in one panel, and the only on-site welding required is to join panels to each other and to odd pieces of track that individually complete the junction and approaches.

Day 4: May 17, 2018

At the time of my visit in the early afternoon, the south quadrant had been installed and assembly of the middle of the intersection was in progress.

 

Day 5: May 18, 2018

As of mid-day, most of the north-south trackage is in place including the run off tracks that will link to the existing track beyond the work site. Welding was in progress. The eastern quadrant appears ready to receive its track panels.

Day 6: May 19, 2018 (Rain day, no  photos)

Day 7: May 20, 2018

The intersection is now almost completely assembled. Concrete work will follow in two separate stages: one to the height of the ties, and another to the railhead. This arrangement makes repairs easier because only the top layer needs to be demolished.

A Beautiful But Confused Trolley Ride

The Trolley, directed by Stephen Low, Canada, 2017.

World Premiere at HotDocs, Cinesphere (Ontario Place), Saturday, May 5, 2018 at 3:00 pm. Free tickets available at the HotDocs Box Office while they last. A possible extended run has not yet been announced.

An IMAX film about streetcars! A railfan’s dream movie! No longer need we catch glimpses of streetcars in exotic locales making ever so brief cameo appearances. Here is a whole documentary about streetcars and how they were, almost, the lost solution to many transit problems.

If only it were that straightforward.

We open on a sad streetcar boneyard, aged cars piled up for scrap and almost certainly beyond recall even by dedicated restorers. They are relics of an era when the streetcar ruled transit systems, when they were the backbone of transit throughout North America and Europe. A time when some cities would even have fake streetcar lines in souvenir postcards showing what modern, up-to-date towns they hoped to be.

This film seeks to be both educational and a piece of transit advocacy showing how streetcars, or Light Rapid Transit as they are now called to disguise their plebeian past, could be the foundation for a transit renaissance. But The Trolley runs aground, so to speak, by jumping around in time and space without pursuing a single thread to its end.

The first problem is that it is Toronto-centric, and a bit out of date at that. There is lots of footage of our older cars, but almost none of the new Flexitys thanks to the age of the filming. I kept waiting for an elegant shot of Spadina or Queens Quay filled with new cars, but instead saw only a few of the prototypes, including one inexplicably in a distinctly non-Toronto colour scheme.

On the historical side, the film touches the expected high points of the rise and fall of streetcars from early electrification, the development of larger cars like the Peter Witts, the apex (at least for North America) of the PCC, and the decline as streetcars faced competition from subways, but far worse from the automobile which served growing suburbs beyond the reach of worn out systems. The change was helped along by the automotive industry, the subject of a Senate investigation back in the 1970s, but the damage had been done decades earlier.

Certainly, subways have been promoted as a way to get streetcars out of the way of motorists, notably in Toronto, but major networks such as in London and New York co-existed with streetcars for decades. The first subway in North America, in Boston, was for streetcars, and it remains in use as part of the “Green Line”.

Streetcars were central to the economies of cities moving people around in vast numbers before autos were widely affordable and especially in wartime when fuel was scarce. But so were subways in the cities that had them, and it is transit as a whole that deserves the credit. Some systems fared worse than others thanks to warfare, a common problem for all infrastructure. In a particularly tasteless voice-over, there is a picture of a Hiroshima car that is described as “paying the ultimate price”. (With luck or good sense, this may have been edited out since the version I saw at an early April press screening.)

As a long-time documentary viewer at cinemas and on television, there are certain basics I expect from this type of film, notably accuracy. One can advocate, but at least get the facts right, keep the timelines straight, and don’t claim causality where it does not exist.

The film’s bouncing time sequence does not help, and we do not trace the streetcar through one arc from birth, through rise, to near disappearance and then renaissance. That, plus the Toronto focus, sets up a fundamental factual error.

The Trolley implies that the streetcar renaissance began in North America and cites the Flexity as a recent example. In fact, Europe never completely lost its streetcars, despite widespread wartime damage and competition from automobiles. Surviving systems there modernized and showed what could be done both with vehicle design and the evolution of surface transit to provide higher capacity on protected rights-of-way without the cost of subways.

Toronto’s first renaissance began in 1972 with the City’s decision, one in which I was deeply involved as a young transit advocate, to keep its streetcars. At the time, the opposition came from still-strong auto-oriented thinking and the unexpected appearance of a new technology touted by Queens Park as the “missing link” between subways and buses. The politicians and the boffins didn’t want to hear about streetcars or LRT or any suggestion that their pet project was, politely speaking, misguided.

Indeed, the CLRV owes its existence to the demise of the provincial high-tech project and the desperate need of the then-government to produce something transit could actually use. A TTC design for new streetcars from the mid 1960s was dusted off and became, much changed, the CLRV.

This episode is completely absent from The Trolley, and yet it shows the depth of official ignorance of what LRT could do.

In fact, Toronto’s newest cars descend from European designs that have evolved over the decades independently of North American systems, and the LRT renaissance in North America owes its existence to off-the-shelf European cars.

An articulated Flexity tram in Marseille, France.

A few systems both in North America and in Europe kept some of their old cars (New Orleans and San Francisco are the best known on our side of the pond), but vintage cars can be found on systems like Lisbon’s and Milan’s. The latter’s Peter Witts date from the 1920s and about 100 (of the original 500) have, with much rebuilding, been kept alive and in regular service. But they are not the only cars in the fleet, contrary to the impression The Trolley might give.

Classic yellow Peter Witt trolleys designed in the 1920s still serve in Milan.

The strongest argument for LRT is the variety of uses this mode can see all the way from complete right-of-way segregation, including underground operation, to mixed traffic like a traditional streetcar. The fight is always over taking road space away from cars, a battle that is more successful in cities where public transit has an established presence.

There certainly was a streetcar renaissance in North America, and Toronto’s 1972 decision started the process which saw new systems in Edmonton and Calgary, as well as San Diego. Other lines followed, although an attitude that “only streetcars mean your city is up-to-date” from a century before led to rather odd decisions about where some new lines were built.

The Trolley ends with footage from the Easter Parade in The Beach a few years back, and plays the event as a celebration of the streetcar rather than the local parade it has always been. This, rather than a view of modern Toronto streetcars, is an odd place to end the story.

Is The Trolley worth seeing? Yes, if only for the glory of views from many cities splashed in high-definition across an IMAX screen. However, as advocacy and education, The Trolley falls short thanks to bad research and a confused story line.

Illustrations courtesy of The Trolley.

PTIF Phase 2: The Lottery Win Is Not As Big As It Seems (Updated)

Updated March 16, 2018 at 5:15 pm: The Fire Ventillation Project which includes second exits from several stations was omitted from the list of major projects in the original version of this post. It has been added.

Updated March 16, 2018 at 3:25 pm: The Ontario Ministry of Infrastructure has clarified that the Ontario funding for the Scarborough Subway is separate from the $4 billion in matching dollars shown in the table below.

On March 14, 2018, the Federal and Provincial governments announced the scale of the second phase of the Public Transit Infrastructure Fund (PTIF) to be spent over the next decade. Some of the details are in a backgrounder.

Funding allocations for the Toronto area are summarized in the table below. The amounts are based on transit ridership, not on population, and so Toronto gets by far the largest share of the pie.

Source: Infrastructure Canada Backgrounder

If one believed the ecstatic response of politicians and some media, one might think that all our transit prayers have been answered.

Not quite.

An additional $9 billion is not exactly small change, but Toronto has a huge appetite for transit spending and a daunting project backlog. The new money will help, but with it comes the requirement that Toronto pony up about $3 billion for projects that are not in the city’s long-term budget.

Capital planning for many years understated the infrastructure deficit by hiding projects “below the line” outside of the budget, and even more by leaving important work off of the list completely. The infrastructure deficit is much larger than the TTC reports and city financial plans indicate.

That, in turn, affects the city’s financial planning, subject of a recent report from the City Manager. Despite assurances from city staff that all known TTC costs have been included in their projections, there is a long history of the TTC leaving significant projects out of funding lists to keep their total “ask” down to a politically acceptable number.

Much needed work is not the sexy, photo-op rich stuff of subway extensions, but the mundane business of buying new equipment to replace old cars and buses, and to increase system capacity.

The new plan is to run for ten years. The money will not all land in Toronto’s hands this year, but will be parceled out as projects are approved and actual spending occurs. There is no guarantee that a future government will stick to any commitments especially if the “funded” projects are not the subject of a binding agreement. Toronto has its share of cancelled projects including the Sheppard Subway, cut back to Don Mills, and the Eglinton West Subway (both victims of Mike Harris), not to mention Transit City and the pliable attitude of various governments to the worth of a subway in Scarborough.

Updated March 16, 2018 at 3:25 pm:

Before we even start into the possible projects to be funded, some money is lopped off the top based on a past commitment.

  • Ottawa will provide “up to $660 million for the Scarborough Subway extension project, pending submission and approval”.
  • It is unclear how much of the provincial commitment to the SSE of nearly $2 billion is included in the $4 billion under the new program.

This brings the available federal funding down to about $4.237 billion.

Whether the total available from Queen’s Park is $6 billion ($4b new plus $2b for the Scarborough Subway), we do no know. I have a question in to the Ontario Ministry of Infrastructure to clarify this. They have acknowledged the question, but have not replied as of 11:45 am, March 16.

Update: The Ministry of Infrastructure has clarified how the previous SSE funding fits with the newly announced program:

Ontario is committed to cost-matching federal funding for municipal projects at 33 percent. This equates to $4 billion from the province to match the City of Toronto’s $4.9 billion federal allocation. No previously committed funding for Toronto projects is included in this allocation.

Ontario’s commitment to match this new federal funding at a 33 per cent share is separate from and above the province’s previous commitment of $1.48 billion in 2010 to the Scarborough Subway. [Email from Alex Benac, Press Secretary to the Minister]

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Problems With Trolley Shoes on Flexity Cars

Updated April 27, 2018 at 10:45 am: A table of planned conversion dates for pantograph operation has been added at the end of this article.

The streetcar system on Tuesday evening suffered a major outage when all Flexity cars were ordered to “stop and stay” on their routes following an overhead failure at King and Spadina. At the time, a problem with power surges was also reported.

Through comments and emails I received, I learned that there had been a developing problem with the carbon inserts on trolley “shoes” on the new Flexity streetcars, and I pursued this issue with the TTC. Following an investigation, their response arrived this morning.

Premature wear of carbons on pole configuration is normal during periods of high humidity and high precipitation.  The carbons absorb the moisture, become softer, and wear out faster.  Under dry conditions, the carbons are expected to last 4-5 days.  Under wet conditions, they are expected to last 1-2 days.  A review of maintenance records for the past 3-4 days indicate the latest carbons that were installed on the LFLRV fleet lasted less than 8 hours.  We believe this significant reduction in carbon life is due to a combination of factors that include:

  1. A potential quality problem with the material composition of the carbons.
  2. The use of pole configuration with the LFLRV design.  The LFLRV design requires a higher current draw through the power collection system.  Normally this higher current draw is handled through a pantograph system.  The pantograph system has a larger carbon strip which helps to dissipate heat and distribute wear.  On a trolley pole, the higher current draw through a smaller carbon generates more heat and wears quicker.

Due to the reduced carbon life, usage of these parts in the past 48-72 hours has more than doubled. Subsequently some vehicles burned through their carbons and started to run on the bare harp that resulted in numerous pole dewirements and the downed overhead on St Clair.

To conserve and maximize carbon life the following plans are being implemented:

  1. Immediately drop the 12 mm threshold for replacement to a nightly check of 7mm min. material remaining at the front, leading edge of the carbon.
  2. Strict control of carbon shoe counting and sign-out.
  3. Keep all replaced carbons for evaluation/recordkeeping.
  4. Sort through old, discarded stocks of carbons and retain those with more than 9mm depth remaining at the leading edge. Use these on a dedicated fleet of panto only cars for Harbourfront. We only need to use these carbons to get us to Exhibition and back each day. Save all new carbons for pole only routes.
  5. Expedite the testing and start-up of panto use on Spadina.
  6. Reserve “Seattle” carbons as a last resort. These carbons are thinner and our previous experience found they had a shorter service life. At best they should be used on the shortest mileage/time based runs. There is added risk of them wearing out mid-day, requiring more frequent road inspections.

In addition the above, staff will be expediting test runs of LFLRV on the pantograph system along the Spadina route.  Overhead crews are also expediting the conversion of the St Clair route.

[Email from Brad Ross, Executive Director Corporate and Customer Communications, February 22, 2018]

There have been several problems with overhead down in recent weeks, and events of the past few days are clearly connected with the long run of rainy weather.

The move to accelerate the conversion of Spadina and St. Clair to pantograph operation is welcome news, but this begs the question of the status of the King and Cherry routes which use a large and growing part of the Flexity fleet. Conversion to full pantograph capability of the overhead along them is still some time off, and the schedule for this work lies in 2019, notably at the King/Queen/Roncesvalles where replacement of the track is also planned. A further problem is that service on King routinely short turns and diverts via streets that are not planned for conversion until 2020.

This project has slipped by about a year from plans in earlier capital budgets with more work now in 2020 than in previous versions.

2017 Version

[Source: TTC 2017 Capital Budget Blue Books Page 57]

2018 Version

[Source: TTC 2018 Capital Budget Blue Books Page 61]

Updated: In response to a comment asking for an illustration of this problem, it turns out that I have an old trolley shoe with a broken carbon in my collection. This is from a Peter Witt car.

This shows what one does not want to see. The contact wire should run along the carbon surface, but instead here will drag against the metal. Also the shoe will ride higher on the overhead potentially contacting pieces of the suspension system.

Updated April 27, 2018

The following table of planned conversion dates to pantograph operation was provided by the TTC.