Starving the Bus Network for Service

My recent article for NOW Toronto, TTC Bus Service Losing Ground, reviewed the problem of passenger congestion on TTC bus routes and the long-standing failure of service to keep up with the rising population and employment in Toronto. This article presents the details and the wider context.

When Transit City was proposed back in 2007, the TTC expected that over the course of its implementation a large number of buses would be replaced by an LRT network that would, by today, be substantially complete. In turn, this would reduce the need for new bus storage and maintenance facilities because the growth would occur in suburban LRT barns at the Mount Dennis yard on the Eglinton line, on Finch near Highway 400, and on Sheppard East at Conlins Road.

One new garage was planned in Scarborough, although the project was delayed by Mayor Rob Ford. The garage on McNicoll will finally open late in 2020. However, the demand for storage space at existing overcrowded garages simply means that McNicoll will be full the day it opens and the TTC will be back in a situation where fleet expansion requires garages to have more buses than they were designed for. A ninth bus garage sits in the long term plans with a 2031 opening date, but there is no funding for it and the TTC has yet to identify a potential property. They will remain short of garage space for the coming decade.

This creates an odd sort of response to requests for more service: we have no place to store the buses. That, of course, is a chicken-and-egg situation where the TTC (and the City) can avoid the cost of providing more service by claiming that they couldn’t run more buses if they wanted to. Unfortunately, this does not accelerate the provision of more garage space, and the service vs storage deadlock remains.

The amount of service the TTC fields every day is affected by several factors:

  • the size of the fleet
  • the average capacity of a bus
  • the average age and reliability of the fleet
  • the proportion of the fleet needed for maintenance spares
  • the number of buses required to supplement the streetcar network
  • the number of buses reserved for extra service, especially to handle subway emergencies
  • the budget for service

As the TTC migrated from a fleet of high-floor to low-floor buses, the capacity of vehicles dropped by about ten percent. This meant that more buses were required to provide the same level of service, a process that occurred gradually until late 2015 when the last of the high-floor buses were retired. Conversely, low-floor two-section articulated buses can carry about 50% more passengers than a standard bus. These vehicles began to appear in the TTC’s fleet in 2014, but they make up less than 10% of the fleet today. The only planned expansion is for the TTC to buy 68 more in 2021.

Older buses tend not to work as reliably as young ones, and if a fleet is not regularly replaced, a higher proportion of it can fall into those “twilight years” when maintenance needs are higher and buses are more likely to fail in service. The TTC used to keep its buses for about 18 years and overhauled them twice during their lifespan. The argument for this was that the overhauls were cheaper than simply buying a new bus.

However, the bus building industry no longer produces vehicles with a long intended lifespan, and 12 years is a more common retirement age. This also avoids the need for that second overhaul to keep an older bus on the street.

The TTC has shifted to a 12 year replacement cycle for buses, and took advantage of federal “stimulus” funding to replace many older vehicles that otherwise would have remained in service. This gets over the one time “hump” of changing to a shorter life-cycle, but it also accelerates the need for ongoing spending because the annual replacement rate is now 50% higher – about 180 buses per year, rather than 120. This budget effect is compounded by the shift to more expensive hybrid or all-electric vehicles.

The newer generation of buses is also more technically complex, and a larger proportion of the fleet is required for spares to ensure that maintenance is preventative, fix-before-break work rather than gambling that a bus will continue to run even after it should have come into the shop for a check-up. A few years ago, the TTC changed its maintenance practices so that buses cycled through routine inspection and repair more frequently with the aim of reducing in-service failures. This had the desired effect, but at a cost of taking a larger maintenance pool from the fleet than in past years.

Finally, new buses often go through retrofit programs during their warranty period, and this further increases spare requirements if there is a sudden influx of new buses in a short time period.

That’s just the story on the maintenance side, but there is also the dreaded line whenever service is discussed: “subject to budget availability”. In other words, even if there are enough buses to improve service, there may not be the operating budget dollars (and the drivers this would pay) to actually field more vehicles.

Both the streetcar and subway networks make demands on the bus fleet.

It is no secret that the TTC has had problems with both its old and new streetcar fleets, but the biggest problem now is that growing demand on the streetcar routes exceeds the capacity of the new streetcar fleet.

  • When there were too few streetcars to operate that network, buses substituted to make up the difference.
  • Traffic congestion continues to worsen leading to slower service.
  • Construction projects shut down parts of the streetcar network from time to time.

At various times over recent years, there have been buses running on portions of Carlton, Dundas, Queen, King, Kingston Road and Bathurst. Some of these cases have been complete replacements while others are on portions of lines affected by construction.

With the streetcar shortage, construction work provided a rationale to bus a route and free up vehicles, but this grew beyond beyond construction season to semi-permanent replacements.

During the summer, the TTC has surplus vehicles and streetcar substitutions do not affect the availability of buses on bus routes.

Long-running projects (such as the water main reconstruction on Dundas) and route conversions due to a shortage of streetcars (such as on Kingston Road) are another matter. These take buses away from the bus network during the peak season. That said, the number of buses involved has been overplayed in some circles primarily as a way of carping about the Bombardier cars or about streetcars in general.

Subway shuttles place their greatest demand on the bus fleet when emergencies occur during the peak period. There are some vehicles at each garage that are “run as directed” buses, but these are nowhere near enough to make up for losing a busy part of the subway system. If there is a peak period shuttle, it requires not just the spare buses but vehicles and operators “borrowed” from other routes.

There is always a balancing act between having enough spare buses and staff to drive them for most emergencies, and the cost of having unused resources that are always a target for the budget hawks looking for “waste” in the TTC.

All of these factors affected and constrained the growth in bus service over the past decade, and will continue to do so without a significant change in TTC planning and funding policy.

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TTC Board Meeting: February 25, 2020

The TTC Board meets on February 25 to discuss several reports and proposals. Among items on the agenda are:

I will add to this article following the Board meeting with additional information from the discussions.

Notable by its absence from the CEO’s Report is any information on route crowding or improved metrics for service quality.

Trials of electric buses are in early days, and Toronto is a long way from seeing an entirely zero-emission fleet. My column this week in NOW Toronto present some of the history of evolving bus technology.

Commissioner Brad Bradford has a Notice of Motion which seeks to link spending on improved transit service to potential funding for new vehicles. While the recently improved City Building Fund provides more money for transit vehicles, this covers only one third of their cost and none of any future increase in operations. Bradford’s motion requests:

The TTC Board request that the TTC Chief Executive Officer, when engaging in negotiations with the provincial and federal governments for funding for the TTC’s vehicle procurement priorities, tie funding requests to the implementation of the TTC’s 5-Year Service Plan and service levels as prescribed by the strategy.

There are two problems with this stance.

First, if the TTC and Council choose not to actually fund the added service, this would imply that the capital funding should not come from other governments. I doubt that is Bradford’s intent, but the real issue is that there is no Council commitment to fund better TTC service. Other factors such as the jump in operating budgets to fund new lines such as Eglinton Crosstown and increased fare subsidies could crowd out spending on service.

Second, the scale of service increases proposed in the Service Plan is quite modest, and it really should be revisited. Sadly, the TTC chose not to include more aggressive options for expansion in the Plan even if only on an aspirational basis. Back in 2003, the strength of David Miller’s Ridership Growth Strategy was that it addressed what Toronto could do for modest increases in spending, but this approach has never been repeated.

Bradford also has a Notice of Motion that seeks to consolidate updates on two reports so that both sides of the revenue protection and enforcement issue can be seen by the Board together.

  • Auditor General’s Report – Review of Toronto Transit Commission’s Revenue Operations
  • Ombudsman Toronto Enquiry Report Review of the TTC’s Investigation of a February 18, 2018 Incident Involving Transit Fare Inspectors

Further discussion of fare issues and Presto are likely at the meeting.

TTC Announces Capital Spending Plan For City Building Fund (Update 2)

Updated January 23, 2020 at 12:10 pm: The TTC has responded to queries about the acquisition of land for new yards for subway lines 1 and 2. The updates are flagged within the text of the article.

Updated January 27, 2020 at 9:30 am: The section on new streetcars has been corrected to state that 60 more cars is the limit on what the TTC could handle, including the use of Exhibition Loop for storage and the renovation of Harvey Shops at Hillcrest as a carhouse for central routes like 512 St. Clair. Previous text stated that 20 was the limit on fleet growth.

The TTC has released a report detailing its planned spending of the newly-allocated funds from Toronto’s City Building Fund. This will be discussed at the TTC Board meeting on January 27, and will go to Toronto Council for incorporation in the 2020-2029 Capital Budget.

Major changes in capital spending include:

  • A return to renewing and upgrading Line 2 Bloor-Danforth as a project for the current decade. This work had been postponed thanks to a lack of funding and, until recently, was replaced with a proposed overhaul of the existing T1 fleet aimed at an eventual lifespan of 40 years. Replacement of the 1960s-era signal system with Automatic Train Control (ATC) has also been restored so that new trains, not to mention the Scarborough extension, can operate under modern technology within this decade.
  • Additional funding for capacity enhancement on Line 1 Yonge-University-Spadina.
  • A large commitment to bus purchases including electric vehicles.
  • Partial renewal of the Wheel-Trans bus fleet.
  • Purchase of 20 new streetcars.

Three quarters of the newly-available funding goes to subway renewal, and even then, the subway projects will require additional money to be completed. Many items in the TTC’s 15 Year Capital Plan remain unfunded, and there are obvious opportunities for generous governments to come to the table and fund aspects of the plan.

Line 2 Renewal

When the TTC deferred the projects associated with Line 2 Renewal, they created a potential collapse of that route thanks to aging vehicles and infrastructure. The T1 trains serving Line 2 were delivered between 1995 and 2001, and replacement of them should have begun in the mid-2020s corresponding to their 30 year design life. The alternative plan to extend this by 10-years depended on an as-yet unproven major overhaul. If the TTC has learned anything from its experience with the streetcar fleet, there are limits to the new life that can be breathed into old equipment especially if the overhaul is more cosmetic than a thorough replacement of technical components.

The other major component of Line 2 Renewal is the replacement of the signal system which dates from the mid 1960’s. If this did not get underway within the coming decade, the TTC could be left with a 65 year old signal system on Line 2 and all of the reliability problems that represents as we know from experience on Line 1. The non-ATC territory on Line 1 dates from the early 1950s (from Eglinton south) to the early 1970s (north to Finch), and problems with this technology are a common source of delays. (ATC will be extended “around the U” from St. Patrick to Queen Station within the first quarter of 2020, and the section from Queen to Rosedale will follow later in the year. Completion to Finch is scheduled for 2022.)

An important factor in plans for Line 2 is the timing of the Scarborough Extension originally planned for 2026, but now pushed out to 2029-30 in Provincial plans. This extension should be built and operated with modern trains and signalling technology, but deferral of the Line 2 Renewal would have meant that the extension to Sheppard would have to be built with provision for co-existence of old and new trains and signalling. This is precisely the sort of plan that complicated the Vaughan extension which, astoundingly, did not include ATC in its original design.

The plan now calls for 62 new trains for Line 2 for delivery between 2026 and 2030. This is a full replacement for the existing fleet and considerably exceeds the 46 peak trains now required for the line even allowing for 20% spares making provision for future growth. There is also the matter of additional trains for the Scarborough extension, although these should be funded by Ontario as part of that project. Whether they actually will be is another matter.

The money allocated from the City Building Fund will only pay for one third ($458 million) of the anticipated cost of the new trains. This is a clear invitation for joint funding from other governments.

The T1 fleet will receive a minor overhaul necessary to extend its life until the new trains arrive.

There is an odd description of this project in the report’s recommendations:

$458 million, representing approximately 1/3 of the 10-year cost for 62 trains, to replace the legacy fleet of T1 trains on Line 2 required for delivery in 2026 through 2030, and which will require an additional $122 million to fund the 1/3 cost between 2030 and 2034. [p 3]

It is not clear whether all of the trains are supposed to arrive in Toronto by 2030 (which would fit with the completion of ATC conversion and opening of the Scarborough extension), or in later years as the funding described above implies. The yearly spending breakdown clearly shows the majority of the spending on new Line 2 trains beyond 2029, and this does not fit with the renewal plans. (See chart at the end of the article.)

The ATC project for Line 2 now lies in the same period as the delivery of new Line 2 trains so that by 2030 the trains, the signals, and the extended subway are all running up-to-date technology.

Line 2 will also require a new carhouse on land that the City of Toronto is acquiring (or may already have bought) southwest of Kipling Station, the old Obico Yard. The plan provides for acquisition and design, but not yet construction which is unfunded.

Updated January 23, 2020: In response to a query about the status of the city’s acquisition of Obico Yard, the TTC replied:

Yes it has already been acquired by the City but the market value assessment is being contested so funds are being secured for potential settlement. We’re also in negotiations to secure a second parcel of land to maintain access to the site. [Email from Stuart Green, Jan. 23/20]

Greenwood Shops will require changes to host new 6-car trains similar to the TRs now operating on Line 1. Originally, the plan was for this yard to be the carhouse for the Relief Line as well as for some of the work car fleet. The detailed plans for Greenwood are not included in this report.

Other funding for Line 2 includes a variety of projects in the state of good repair category that were previously unfunded, but most importantly the upgrade of the power supply system which needs both modernization and additional capacity for projected extra load from more trains.

Even with all of the new money, there is still a funding gap to complete all of the work that has been identified.

Line 1 Renewal and Upgrades

The existing TR fleet serving Line 1 does not require replacement within the timeframe of the Capital Plan, but more trains are needed to provide additional capacity on the route. The report allocates $165 million to one third of the cost of 18 trains to be delivered in 2026-2027. Again, this is a clear budget provision for other governments to come to the table with funding.

The compete conversion to ATC in 2022 will allow a reduction in round trip time on Line 1 so that the existing fleet can provide slightly more frequent service, but the proposed additional trains will allow full exploitation of ATC’s capabilities.

This, however, triggers capacity problems with stations, notably at Bloor-Yonge but also at major stations downtown where the flow of passengers to and from platforms will increase with more frequent service. As on Line 2, there is a need to upgrade power supply systems both to bring infrastructure up-to-date and to provide added capacity for more frequent service.

Also, as on Line 2, there is a gap between the funding allocated and the total cost of various projects.

Line 1 will require a new subway yard, and the TTC proposes to acquire land for it in York Region and design the facility. Why this is part of the Toronto City Building Fund spending is a mystery.

Updated January 23, 2020: In response to a query about Toronto paying for a yard that would be on the Richmond Hill extension, a provincial project, the TTC replied:

Referring to page 14 of the report, it is projected that additional vehicles beyond the 18 trains required in 2026 will be needed for growth of TTC’s existing system. As pointed out, the additional trains serving the Line 1 extension into York Region will also require new facilities for storage and maintenance. The TTC and MX are working together to scope requirements both independently and for a joint solution that meets the needs for Line 1. Whether the land can be found to serve future needs of both Line 1 Extension and TTC’s future growth needs remains to be seen but either way we need to budget for land. [Email from Stuart Green, Jan. 23/20]

Line 4 ATC

The plan include provision of ATC on Line 4 Sheppard. The trains there are ATC-capable, but software changes are required for the 4-car consists to move over the rest of the subway system which is designed for 6-car trains. This becomes an issue once ATC on Line 1 extends north of Davisville Yard where Line 4 trains are serviced.

Buses

The plan allocates $772 million to the purchase of buses and associated infrastructure:

  • $686 million for the procurement of 614 of the estimated 1,575 new buses required over the next decade.
  • $64 million for eBus charging stations at garages.
  • $22 million for the purchase of 232 Wheel-Trans buses of the estimated 498 required.

As with the subway projects, the bus projects require additional funding. There is a further problem in that the existing fleet will reach its retirement age, and without full funding, the number of vehicles available for service will drop precipitously as shown in the chart below.

The TTC has not yet published a consolidated plan for the conversion of its bus garages and fleet from diesel/hybrid to full electric operation, and so we do not know what other capital requirements lurk in future years to complete this work.

Streetcars (Corrected)

The report retains the proposal from the 15 Year plan for 60 more streetcars, but as with many other aspects of the scheme, only allocated funding for one third of this project, or 20 cars. As with so much else in the report, this is a clear invitation for participation by other governments.

These 60 cars would take the TTC to the limit of what it can handle with existing carhouses, including conversion of Harvey Shops as a small carhouse for central routes and the overnight storage of cars at Exhibition Loop.

20 cars would bring the total fleet to 224 assuming that the warranty repairs on the existing fleet will be completed by the time new cars arrive. This would support a peak service of about 186 cars assuming 20% spares, or 26 cars more than the current peak streetcar service. This would allow full restoration of the streetcar system, but would not leave much room for improved service, and the remaining 40 cars in TTC plans should not be ignored, let alone another 40 projected for growth in the 2030 timeframe.

A related issue here is the status of the Waterfront LRT extensions east to Cherry and south to Villiers Island, as well as west to the Humber Bay. More cars will be required for these extensions and that will add to pressure for carhouse space.

Miscellaneous Subway Infrastructure

The plan includes considerable spending in the second half of the 2020s on state of good repair for subway infrastructure. This relieves a looming problem where the subway could begin to fall apart through lack of maintenance and the attempt to worn-out equipment in service. The plan also accelerates work such as asbestos removal as part of overall efforts to improve subway air quality and as a prelude to structural renewal for the aging tunnels.

Overall Spending Plans

The chart below shows the overall capital plan including the detail of the subway infrastructure spending. This is not the total budget, only those portions paid for through the City Building Fund. The TTC’s shopping list for additional contributions is quite clear with many of these lines only partly funded from the CBF.

Indeed, there is an implicit assumption that many of these works can be launched with the expectation of more funding to come, a lot of which is not even required until after election cycles at all level of government. Will our future masters will be more inclined to fund transit?

Toronto Budget 2020: More Transit Money, But How Will It Be Used?

The City of Toronto launched its 2020 budget process on January 10, 2020 with a presentation by senior management and a short question-and-answer session with some members of Toronto Council. At this point, the material was quite high level, including some management puffery, but the real meat of the budget lies in the departmental and agency Budget Notes to be discussed at meetings on January 15-17. The TTC budget will be discussed on January 17.

Useful links:

Major Issues

Much has been made of the City Building Fund and its rising property tax levy to finance substantial growth in the TTC and Housing capital budgets. The changes to the TTC’s ten year capital plan between its original launch in December 2019 and the version presented in the January 2020 Budget Note are detailed later in this article. Within those changes are two major categories:

  • It was only one year ago, that TTC management proposed, and the Board approved, a significant change in the timing of Line 2 Bloor-Danforth renewal pushing out the installation of Automatic Train Control, construction of a new yard and purchase of a new fleet by a decade. The new Capital Plan shifts this work back into the 2020s and better aligns with the timing of the Scarborough Subway Extension. It also removes a reliance on older technology whose longevity was uncertain, notably the signal system.
  • The original Capital Plan included no money for new vehicles beyond purchases now in progress. There is a new item for “Vehicles”, but this is not subdivided by mode. Significant spending is budgeted for 2022 and beyond. Expanding any of the fleets also triggers a need for garage/carhouse facilities and there is a substantial increase in the planned spending on facilities.

On the Operating budget, the changes are much more modest because the additional revenue mainly keeps up with inflationary pressures, but does not go beyond for an aggressive expansion of service.

The TTC plans to hire 88 more operators and has budgeted more service hours, but the purpose of this is described differently depending on which part of the budget report and presentation one reads/hears. In December 2019, the Operating Budget and its presentation talked of relieving overcrowding that placed some routes beyond the Service Standards. However, the same addition to the Service Budget is used to handle other factors and the list makes no mention of reduced crowding.

I await clarification from the TTC on this important issue – does the TTC plan to reduce crowding or not? Will they burn up new service hours mainly to pad schedules for better service “resiliency”, or will they actually add service on overcrowded routes?

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501 Queen: Streetcars vs Buses November 25-29, 2019

During the last week of November, the first to see streetcars return to The Beach after almost three months’ absence for construction at Kingston Road, the line had a major disruption thanks to a broken rail near Roncesvalles. This rail damaged the track brakes on 22 Flexity cars, and while the TTC searched for the problem, the line was completely switched to bus operation.

Streetcars ran on Monday and Tuesday, November 25-26, and on Wednesday November 27 until midday. Buses ran from the afternoon of November 27 to the end of service on Friday,November 29 (actually Saturday morning).

There have been calls from certain quarters on City Council for a comparison of the operation of both modes. I published an analysis of route 505 Dundas in May 2018. Broadly speaking, it showed that buses outrun streetcars only when there is no traffic in the way and operators can drive as if they are on the suburban streets they are used to.

The substitution on 501 Queen gave an opportunity to compare the two modes over the entire route, not just over a segment running with buses due to construction. This article reviews the data from November 25-29 for 501 Queen.

Methodology

The TTC has two vehicle tracking system, CIS and VISION. The streetcar fleet (and a small number of buses that often run on streetcar lines) is tracked by CIS, while most of the bus fleet is tracked by VISION. The entire system will be on VISION probably in a few years, but for the moment there are two data sources.

Until quite recently, I was unable to obtain finely-grain information about vehicle locations from VISION, but this changed in October 2019. It is now possible to get comparable data tracking vehicles from both systems. This meant that comparable data were available for both the streetcar and bus operations on 501 Queen.

The process for converting data from snapshots with GPS co-ordinates to a format suitable for analysis is described at length in Methodology For Analysis of TTC’s Vehicle Tracking Data.

In this case, we are interested in three aspects of streetcar and bus behaviour:

  • How long does each type of vehicle take to get from one point on the route to another?
  • What are the speed profiles for each vehicle type along the route?
  • What are the dwell times for each vehicle type along the route?

For the comparatively coarse measurement of travel times between points, the route is divided by screenlines. Tracking when each vehicle crosses a screenline gives both the headways at each line, and the travel times between them.

For fine measurement of vehicle speed, the tracking data are used to calculate each vehicle’s speed as it moved along a route. The route is subdivided into 10m segments, and the speeds of every vehicle passing through that segment in each hour are averaged. This reveals locations where vehicles spend a lot of time stopped or travelling slowly, and of course locations where they move much faster.

For dwell times, the points of interest are those where vehicles are stationary. The “tick” of the clock for tracking data is every 20 seconds, and so the length of a vehicle’s stay at a point can only be calculated to a multiple of that interval. This is a fairly coarse measurement relative to the length of time most vehicles take to serve stops, and the resulting data give only a broad outline of comparative dwell times. Note also that “dwell time” is not necessarily all “stop service time” because vehicles can be awaiting a green traffic signal, or be stuck in traffic at the stop.

The distance scale to which I convert GPS positions is measured in 10m increments. Given that vehicles will not necessarily stop at exactly the same place every time, the charts here give moving averages of dwell times over 30m.

All of the analyses presented here are subdivided into hourly intervals recognizing that a route’s behaviour at 6am is vary different from midday, the two peaks, and the evening. Far too much data presented by the TTC is summarized on an all-day basis, and even on an all-route basis. This masks variations in behaviour by location and time of day, and does not give a detailed picture of what is happening.

Summary

The data reveal various aspects of bus and streetcar operation on 501 Queen, and by extension, on other routes where a substitution might be contemplated. The results for 501 echo those seen in the 2018 article on the 505 Dundas route.

  • Across the entire route, buses travel faster than streetcars, but their performance varies from place to place, hour to hour.
  • On sections of the route where traffic is not free flowing, and where stops are busy, buses do no better than streetcars and during some periods they are worse.
  • Where traffic is free flowing, some of the advantage buses have arises from driving at above the speed limit which is 40 kph within the old City of Toronto, and 50 kph on the Lake Shore section west of the Humber River.
  • The effect of streetcar slow orders at numerous locations is clearly evident in the data.
  • Dwell time for buses appears to be slightly longer than for streetcars. This could be due to loading delays, but in turn that could be caused by the bus service being overwhelmed by streetcar-level demand. (There were complaints about the quality and capacity of the replacement service.) Also, buses lose time getting to and from curbside stops, but this is not necessarily reflected in “dwell times” because they are merely slow, not stopped during these moves.
  • I am unable to comment on service quality with buses because many vehicles were not logged on to VISION with the 501 route number. Therefore, their data do not appear in the extract I received. However, there were enough vehicles to get a sample of their behaviour and determine travel times.

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TTC Capital Budget 2020-2029 and 15 Year Plan (Updated)

Updated December 17, 2019 at 12:00 nn

This item has been updated to reflect actions taken at the TTC Board meeting of December 16 to accelerate decisions on priority projects in light of new funding that will be available through the Mayor’s proposed City Building Fund. The new information is in a postscript at the end of this article.

The link to the “Blue Pages” has been updated to point to a revised version that corrects formatting problems with some amounts in the table, and corrects the names of several budget lines. Among these was a line called “Purch 496 LF 40 ft Diesel Buses”. This has been revised to “Purchase Conventional Buses”. The section on “Buses” within the “Fleet Plan” has been revised to reflect this and include some information from discussion at the meeting

Introduction

At its meeting on December 16, 2019, the TTC Board will consider its Operating and Capital budgets for 2020. The Operating Budget was my subject in a previous article, and here I turn to the Capital Budget and 15 Year Plan. There are two related documents on the TTC’s website:

The TTC has various ways of presenting its capital budget and plans, and navigating these can be tricky for the uninitiated. There are:

  • The 15 Year Capital Investment Plan (CIP)
  • The 10 Year Capital Plan
  • The current year Capital Budget
  • Variations on the budget and plan that do not include “below the line” projects that have no committed funding
  • Estimated Final Costs (EFCs) for projects beginning within the 10 or 15 year window, but stretching beyond

For anyone making comparisons with the opaque budgets and plans at Metrolinx, that agency does not include inflation over a project’s life in cost projections, while the TTC does. The simple fact is that Toronto borrows real dollars to fund projects at then-current prices, not a some years-old notional cost. City financing plans must be based on future year spending at future prices.

The Capital Investment Plan

The Capital Investment Plan was introduced in January 2019 to bring some reality into capital planning that had been absent at the TTC, City and Provincial levels for years. In an attempt to make its future exposure to large capital expenses and possible borrowing look better than it really was, the TTC and City produced 10-year capital budgets that omitted a growing list of critical and expensive projects essential to the health of the system. The CIP pulled up the rug, so to speak, under which all of these had been hiding, and revealed officially what anyone following the TTC already knew – the difference between available funding and needed investment was an ever-deepening hole.

This arrangement suited many parties because the City could make its future debt problems look less intimidating that they really were, and advocates of big spending on new projects did not have to contend with needed spending on repairs and renewal for funding. At the Provincial level, the cost of taking over the TTC, and especially the subway network, looked manageable, but that myth exploded when the real exposure to system renewal costs emerged. Toronto, now happily back in charge of all existing TTC assets, faces the bill for a mountain of projects that Ontario might otherwise have taken off their hands.

The 2019 CIP showed that there was a $33.5 billion investment requirement over the 15 years to 2033, of which over $20 billion had no identified source of funding. A gap that incoming City Manager Chris Murray though was a few billion exploded by an order of magnitude as he noted at a recent speech at the Munk Centre. This was not something that could be fixed with a nip here and a tuck there in the City and TTC budgets.

We must now have faith that the total amount shown in the CIP really is an exhaustive tally of needed spending. However, this could be subject to upheavals such as changes in policy about renewal cycles for equipment, service levels affecting fleet size, technology selections affecting vehicle costs and the timing of major projects paid for by others but affecting the existing network such as the Scarborough and North Yonge subway extensions.

Until quite recently, future spending on TTC capital projects other than rapid transit expansion faced a big downturn in the mid 2020s corresponding to the point where the City’s ability to borrow net new funds crashed into the City’s debt ceiling. In order to maintain a good credit rating and thereby save on borrowing costs, the City limits its debt service charges (interest) to no more than 15% of the revenue stream from property taxes. Other sources of revenue do not count toward this calculation either because they are earmarked (e.g. TTC fares or targeted subsidies from other governments), or because they cannot be counted on to survive as long as the debt they might pay for (government transfers that come and go with a Premier’s whim).

Mayor John Tory has proposed a substantial increase in the City Building Levy, an extra property tax just like Rob Ford’s Scarborough Subway Tax, that will allow the City to borrow $6.6 billion more to cover its share of transit and housing projects. There is a catch, of course, in that we have no idea what other governments might contribute, if anything. Toronto has already burned through its infrastructure stimulus money from Phase I of the federal government’s PTIF (Public Transit Infrastructure Fund), and the Phase II money will go substantially to a few major rapid transit projects as approved by Council. Asking for more effectively opens up the question of better support nationally for public transit, not just for Toronto. As for Queen’s Park, Ontario’s Ford government, not exactly a friend of Toronto, could well say “we are paying for your new subway lines, but you want more”, and dismiss any request. Both Toronto and Ontario are guilty of wasteful spending on big ticket projects while underfunding basic maintenance.

When the 2019 CIP was approved by the TTC Board, it included a recommendation that the Board:

Direct the CEO to begin steps required to prioritize critical base capital needs in advance of the Board’s consideration of the 2020 Capital Budget [Minutes of January 24, 2019, Item 10, point 3]

There is no sign of prioritization among the various projects as an indication of what any new funding, should it appear, would be spent on.

The 2020 CIP includes a recommendation that the Board:

Direct the CEO to update the Capital Investment Plan on an annual basis based on refined cost and schedule estimates as projects progress through stage gates and to prioritize critical base capital needs in advance of the Board’s consideration of the 2021 budget process

The situation with the budget is too critical, and the need for action now by Council and the TTC to identify critical projects that should be first in line for funding cannot be overstated. Without a priority list that identifies the core requirements, Toronto risks losing at least another year to debate and indecision, hallmarks of the City’s transit planning.

In the intervening year, the CIP has grown by about eight percent to $36.1 billion. This is a troubling development because a good chunk of the recently announced “new” money for transit could vanish into supporting cost overruns, not to building and renewing the system.

This growth is summarized in a chart from the TTC’s report. The top portion shows the original CIP presented in January 2019 with $9.7 billion in funded projects and $23.8 billion unfunded.

The bottom portion shows the changes moving forward one year:

  • The project to add capacity at Bloor-Yonge Station has grown by 45% with an additional $500 million above the $1.1 billion shown for this item in the 2019 CIP.
  • SAP ERP is a project to replace legacy IT systems with a modern, integrated suite of software. The added $200 million arises from a combination of scope change and higher estimated cost for the work already committed.
  • ATC resignalling has grown by $900 million due to a scope change in the Line 1 project, and a rise in the estimated cost of Line 2 ATC from $420 million cited in the 2019 CIP. It is not clear whether this includes funding for the retrofit of the T1 fleet that will, under current plans, continue to operate during the ATC era on Line 2, notably on the Scarborough extension (assuming it is built with ATC from day 1, unlike the Spadina Vaughan extension where this was an afterthought). Line 4 has been added to the scope of this project.
  • Lighting in Open Cut refers to the replacement of existing lighting along the above-grade portions of the subway much of which is decades old. This item was included in the 2019 CIP as part of a bundle of subway upgrades, and at a much lower cost.
  • It is not clear from the report just what is involved in the $300 million for “Subway Signal System Alterations” beyond the work under other projects to implement ATC.
  • The last line moves year 2029, originally part of years 11-15, into the years 1-10 column.

This should be a cautionary example that the full cost of maintaining and renewing the system is not written in stone, and increases are inevitable. This also does not include potential changes related to a fleet plan that focuses on replacing vehicles and expansion rather than making do with rebuilds of existing buses and trains.

The original CIP did not include funding for the major expansion projects such as the Scarborough Subway Extension even though in January 2019 this was a City project not yet assumed by Metrolinx. The reason for this is that the major projects have their own, separate budgets and funding streams and, therefore, they were not part of the CIP to begin with. This can lead to confusion when other major projects such as Waterfront Transit show up in the TTC/City project list, even though they are not in the CIP which, therefore, understates total future funding requirements.

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A Potpourri of TTC Items

Several items have languished unreported here for a while, and it’s time to push them all out of the door in preparation for the deluge of budget information and the new Service Plan that will come in December. My apologies for not keeping you as up to date as I might have.

The items covered here are:

  • Ridership and revenue
  • Vehicle reliability
  • Service quality (briefly)
  • Automatic train control
  • eBuses (electric buses)
  • Fare evasion

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How Reliable Are TTC Statistics?

Ben Spurr in the Toronto Star published an article on September 30 about the mis-reporting of vehicle reliability for the fleet of Bombardier Flexity streetcars.

In brief, the TTC reports defects for the new cars on a different basis than for the old ones (the CLRVs and the recently retired ALRVs), and this has two effects:

  • The reliability of the old cars looks worse by comparison to the new ones, and this supports the argument that the old cars should be retired as soon as possible.
  • The new cars have recently crested the performance specification from the Bombardier contract, but this is based on the way the failure rate is calculated.

The September 2019 CEO’s Report contains Mean Distance Between Failure (MDBF) charts for both types of streetcars still in active service. August 2019 saw the new fleet’s reliability go about the 35,000 km MDBF, and CEO Rick Leary reported at the TTC Board meeting of September 24 that the current number was running above 50,000 km.

By contrast, the CLRVs have failed roughly every 4,000 to 6,000 km for much of the past three years with problems more common during the cold months. Note that the scales of the charts below are not the same.

However, according to Spurr’s article, the basis of calculation is different for the two fleets. In the case of the new cars, only failures chargeable against Bombardier’s contracted reliability level are counted while for the old cars any failure counts. This makes a big difference when one considers how many of the in service failures were not included in the calculation for the new fleet.

Spurr writes:

The vehicle contract the TTC and Bombardier signed in 2009 set a MDBF target of 35,000 km. The cars were supposed to reach that figure by the time the 60th vehicle was delivered. That car arrived in January 2018, but the new fleet failed to hit the target then or in subsequent months.

That changed this summer. As Bombardier edged closer to completing its delivery of the 204-car fleet, and the TTC weighed the option of placing an order for additional streetcars with the company, the publicly reported reliability figures shot up.

They showed the cars had an MDBF of 36,500 km in July, and 51,500 km in August, the best the fleet has recorded since the early days of the order. CEO Leary cited that most recent figure at last Tuesday’s meeting as evidence the cars are “performing exceptionally well.”

However, over the same period the unpublished reliability figures didn’t improve. The “legacy” numbers showed an MDBF of just 16,400 km in August, which while much better than the early months of the year, was virtually unchanged from the mark set in May.

The unpublished “legacy” figures are consistently significantly worse than those the contractual numbers.

He goes on to write:

Internal TTC documents reviewed by the Star show that in [August] the new streetcars experienced dozens of delays related to faulty brakes, malfunctioning doors, broken HVAC units, and short circuit warnings. The agency tabulated 43 significant delays during that period, but only 15 were deemed Bombardier’s responsibility and included in the version of the stats that are made public.

That lower delay figure led to the contractual number of the cars running more than 51,500 km without a failure.

Readers can judge for themselves the type of delay that is omitted from the TTC’s reliability numbers from the following table which is compiled from TTC delay reports.

TTC_201908_LFLRV_DelaySummary

There are 56 items in the list and several patterns are immediately obvious:

  • Problems with the power collection system are common including pantograph failures, lost trolley poles or defective shoes, and dewirements snagging poles and/or damaging the overhead.
  • Brake problems
  • Mobility ramp problems
  • Failures early in the morning on cars that are probably just entering service

Many of the problems have nothing to do with Bombardier reliability stats and are not included in the calculation included in the CEO’s Report. If they were, the numbers would not look anywhere near as good.

Something that is evident in reported reliability stats is that there can be large variations in MDBF values from month to month. The TTC does not make huge changes in the mileage operated by its fleet each month, and so the large swings must be due to a relatively low number of incidents. For example, if there were typically 100 incidents per month and this swings up or down by 10%, then the MDBF would not change much. However, if there were typically only 20 incidents per month, a small change in the month-to-month numbers would produce a big swing in the MDBF. This is evident in the Flexity reliability values and in those cited for the subway fleet, notably the newer TR trains on Lines 1 and 4.

Even if all types of failure were counted, the service delay it causes must be five minutes or more. This is a standard adopted from the NOVA group of rapid transit operators and really is more appropriate for rapid transit lines.

An important distinction is that vehicles that run in trains have the capability of “getting home” even if one unit is disabled under most circumstances, and reliability stats for this type of operation will be higher than for single vehicles on a streetcar system. Also, rapid transit lines operate at higher average speeds, and failures that are affected more by hours of service than by mileage are spread over a larger distance operated. This is quite evident in TTC subway stats where the MDBF is much higher than for streetcars.

By contrast, it is difficult to imagine how a bus breakdown can cause a significant service delay except in comparatively rare circumstances, and the five minute delay screen for a chargeable delay makes no sense for the bus fleet.

The question of just how reliable various vehicle types might be is part of a larger issue with the selective, and possibly misleading reporting of statistics by TTC management.

Delays to service, especially on the subway, are caused not just by equipment failures, but by a raft of other subsystems and problems such as signals, track, power supply, fires, passenger assistance alarms and track level incidents. The TTC tracks the various types of delay, but reports on them only rarely in public. This means that sources of service delay that might be under the TTC’s control are not tracked in a report that is routinely seen by the TTC Board, nor is there any tracking of the effects of preventative maintenance or capital works to reduce this type of delay. One obvious example is the new Automatic Train Control system which is now operating on about half of Line 1 YUS, but we know nothing of service reliability on that section, Vaughan to St. Patrick, compared to the old signals still in use from St. Patrick to Finch.

Bus reliability is reported in the aggregate for a fleet that ranges in age from brand new to over twelve years old. The TTC used to keep buses for at least 18 years, but now chooses to replace rather than rebuild old vehicles. Retiring a large tranche of 12-20 year old buses in recent years has had three effects:

  • The average age of the fleet is now quite low, and it will continue to drop. Half of the fleet is less than five years old, but as the “bulge” of new buses ages, the fleet reliability will fall.
  • With many new buses coming on stream, the TTC can keep old buses in service and maintain a high ratio of spares to service requirements. The situation is very different for the streetcar fleet where with the retirement of old cars, the fleet is too small to provide service on all routes with an adequate number of spares for maintenance.
  • The large order of buses soaked up the then-available funding for transit infrastructure as it was the only way Toronto could spend its allocation within the short timeframe dictated by the federal government.

For reasons best known to the TTC, the chart above is clipped at 20,000 km rather than showing the actual variation, and this has been the case since early 2018. It is unclear whether the actual numbers are rising or falling over the past two years. Moreover, the values average the reliability for the entire fleet rather than showing subsets such as diesel and hybrid buses, or buses of varying ages or manufacture. This type of breakdown is vital in understanding fleet planning, not to mention tracking the benefits (or not) of technology changes such as the move to an all-electric fleet which is only just beginning.

The TTC fleet of buses is much larger than its requirement for service. In total, as of the September 2019 vehicle list (taken from the Scheduled Service Summary, last page) shows a total of 2,076 vehicles as compared to a peak service requirement of 1,626 (p. 63 of the same document). This is a generous spare factor of over 27%, or one spare bus for every four in service. It is easy to get very good performance from your fleet with such a high ratio, but this also means that, in effect, the TTC operates one garage worth of spares for every four garages worth of regular service. This is far higher than the target spare ratio for rail vehicles.

In a separate post, I will turn to the question of service reliability, scheduling and the way in which service quality is presented by management to the TTC Board. This is another area where there has been a lot of work to make the numbers “look good” but with detrimental effects on the system.

Questions for the TTC:

I have posed a series of questions to the TTC and await answers from them. This article will be updated when they reply.

1. Has the Flexity reliability number always been quoted on the basis of failures chargeable to Bombardier, or was there a change in the methodology somewhere along the way? To put it another way, was there a change in what counted as a failure that created an artificial improvement in the reported numbers?

2. What is the situation with subway delays and MDBF numbers? Are all failures counted (at least those producing a 5 minute or greater delay) or only those considered to be the manufacturer’s fault? Is the calculation done the same way for the TR and T1 fleets?

3. The NOVA metric which the TTC uses is based on the idea of a failure that causes a delay to service. This only makes sense in the case of rail modes where a car/train failure can block the line. For buses, only a rare and well-positioned failure could actually block service. How is a chargeable failure calculated for the bus fleet?

4. Are numbers available for subsets of the bus fleet (e.g. all buses from the same order, age, technology) so that reliability figures can be compared as they have been with rail modes?

5. The CEO’s Report includes only stats for delays caused by vehicle faults, not from other sources such as infrastructure failure. Why is this info not also tracked in the report so that the effects are clear on a proportionate basis? In particular, there is no tracking of signal failures on various parts of the subway with older and newer technologies.

Summary:

TTC management should report vehicle reliability numbers on a consistent basis for all types of vehicles.

The calculation of service interruption rates should reflect what riders experience, not simply numbers to establish contract performance for suppliers or to artificially enhance the reported performance of some vehicle types.

The reliability statistics for the bus fleet should be broken down by major vehicle groups (manufacturer, propulsion technology, age) to allow meaningful comparisons and to ensure tracking of maintenance/reliability as parts of the fleet age.

The very large spare ratio for the bus fleet should be reviewed to determine whether this size of fleet is actually required, or if more service could be operated if only the TTC would budget for the cost of its operation.

Delays caused by infrastructure issues and other interruptions should be tracked and reported so that their effect on service quality can be seen in comparison to vehicle related problems.

TTC CEO’s Report: August 2019

Although the TTC Board takes a long siesta through the summer, the CEO produces a monthly report even in months when the Board does not meet. The August 2019 edition was recently posted on the TTC’s site.

This report continues a format established some time ago by CEO Rick Leary in which the focus is on measures of system performance. There is no financial information here, and only summary ridership numbers with no sense of the associated revenue. All of the financial reporting was hived off of the CEO’s report into a quarterly CFO’s report, but we have not seen one of those since April 2019, and that covered the year ending December 2018. One might have expected an update at the July Board meeting, but the abrupt and unexpected departure of CFO Dan Wright in early June appears to have iced the short-lived report.

I spoke with Wright at the Audit & Risk Management Committee meeting the day before he left the TTC, and he gave no indication of his impending departure. We spoke about the problems of counting “rides” in an environment where there is only a tenuous link between fare payment and the actual number of trips (or trip segments) taken.

The TTC has been wrestling with the possibility that ridership has been over-reported for some time, and the situation is further complicated by Metropasses, the move to Presto and the two-hour fare. Just what is a “ride” for statistical purposes? I had planned to follow this up with Wright for an article here, but alas he vanished like so many other senior TTC staff in the past year. The problem is summarized in the CEO’s Report:

Higher PRESTO adoption appears to have affected measured ridership in two ways. First, we now have more precise ridership data compared to counting tokens and weighing paper tickets. Second, more than 25% of our former monthly pass customers have converted to PRESTO pay-as-you-go e-purse each month in 2019, likely to take advantage of the two hour transfer and for some, the TTC/GO discounted co-fare. This would affect measured ridership to the extent that these customers may ride less often than the monthly average of 71 rides per adult monthly pass. [p 25]

Josie La Vita, the Executive Director of Financial Planning for the City of Toronto, replaced Wright on an acting basis pending recruitment of a new CFO, a process expected to take 12-24 months.

The CEO no longer reports financial data on operations or capital projects, and the absence of a CFO’s report leaves a major gap in information available to the TTC Board and Council on the system’s actual performance.

Moreover, riding counts (i.e. vehicle occupancy) are only rarely reported at a route level, and a “crowding report” has not recently seen the light of day. When crowding data are released, they are averaged and this gives no indication of the effects of bunching and gapping on individual vehicle loads. Performance metrics that do appear in the CEO’s Report do not fully describe the service quality actually experienced by riders particularly on surface routes.

Ridership for 2019 to the end of June is reported as 267.8 million as against a target of 271.9m and a 2018 figure of 270.3m (down 1.5% and 0.9% respectively). For the month of June itself, ridership is on target. As the chart below shows, the shortfall in 2019 came primarily in the winter months which were unusually cold. June’s ridership was boosted by the Toronto Raptors Championship Parade without which the number would have been down 0.6% compared to 2018.

Weekend ridership is down, and this is thought to be due to various factors including the number of subway shutdowns. These are not going to end any time soon with the ongoing signalling projects and other infrastructure upgrades, and at some point the TTC cannot treat their effects as unexpected. A follow-on problem for the TTC is the perception by riders that “the subway is always closed” and this can affect ridership as much as the actual shutdowns.

Presto fare card usage continues to increase and by June 2019 the adoption rate reached about 80%. Presto ridership for the first half of 2019 was 214.2 million out of the total reported ridership of 267.8m.

Vehicle Reliability

The fleet benefits from improved preventative maintenance and from the retirement of older vehicles. Before the onset of hot weather, there was a concerted effort to get air conditioning systems in good order, and AC failures were rare even with the particularly hot weather in 2019. (Personally, I never encountered a “hot car” on the subway, a first for several years running.)

On the streetcar fleet, the decline in the proportion of service provided by the nearly 40-year old CLRVs and the disappearance of their ALRV cousins (of which a few are still officially active but never seen in revenue service) contributes to a reduction of in service failures. The Flexity fleet has its ups and downs for reliability, but even running below its target, these cars are much more reliable than those they replace.

On the bus fleet, the retirement of old buses and the recent purchases of hundreds of new vehicles has substantially lowered the average age of a bus and increased the proportion of buses that are “spare” relative to service needs. The fleet is over 2,000 vehicles, but the peak requirement in June was 1,641 including buses used on streetcar lines. This generous spare ratio has benefits in service reliability but also a cost in both capital and in garaging.

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TTC 2019 Fleet and Capacity Plans Part III: The TTC Responds

In the first two installments of this series, I reviewed plans for the subway system and the surface bus and streetcar networks. These reviews triggered many questions which I sent off to the TTC.

We have all been a little pre-occupied with other matters recently, and it took a while for the TTC to reply. Thanks to Stuart Green and the staff at TTC who pulled this together.

Each question is formatted with two or three sections:

  • My original question
  • The TTC’s reply
  • My observations on the reply, if any

The text has been lightly edited for formatting purposes.

Apologies to readers seeing this post with no background. It is based on information in two previous articles as well as a general review of the TTC’s Capital Budget detailed briefing books, known as the “Blue Books”. This article covers a variety of issues some of more interest to general readers than others. If you need clarification, please leave a comment.

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