A Slow Trip to Express Buses (Updated)

Updated June 19, 2017 at 3:30 pm: The TTC has clarified that the hourly costs shown for various routes are net costs, not gross costs, and this addresses my concern that some of these values were understated. The text of this article has been updated where appropriate.

Updated June 20, 2017 at 10:30 am: A section has been added on gross operating costs (the TTC study includes only net costs) to illustrate how these vary from route to route.

The TTC Board recently approved an Express Bus Network Study that proposes several new and enhanced express routes in Toronto. The premise of the study – improving the bus network’s attractiveness and convenience to riders – is a good one addressing the basic function of any transit system. However, thanks to the TTC’s severe constraints on capital and operating funding, the actual implementation of these proposals drags out for the better part of a decade. Bus planning in Toronto is converging with new subways for a lengthy gestation period.

There are three types of “express” route in Toronto:

  • The (mainly) peak period services usually signified by an “E” suffix on the route number. Typically, buses will run express over part of a route stopping only at major transfer points or destinations, and will continue as local service on the outer part of the route. These services are useful for riders who would otherwise face a long stop-and-go trip on a local bus for their entire journey. By carrying the long-distance riders express for part of the trip, the cost of route operations is reduced from that of an all-local service and provides a more attractive service overall.
  • The Rocket services (route numbers in the 18x-19x series) operate for most of the day on weekdays and weekends, and provide a more limited stop service, end-to-end, than the “E” branches. Some are designed around major endpoints such as the 192 Airport Rocket from Kipling Station to Pearson Airport, while others more closely resemble the stopping pattern of “E” services. Unlike the “E” branches, the Rockets do not necessarily duplicate the route of a local service.
  • The five Downtown Premium Express services (route numbers 14x) charge an extra fare for the privilege of avoiding the crowded Yonge subway and the 501 Queen car.

The TTC proposes an interim classification of the first two of these as Tier 1 (Rockets) and Tier 2 (“E” branches) with the intent of coming up with some sort of branding that could be used to market them. Some cities have special bus services with their own names such as Hamilton’s B Line Express and Vancouver’s 99 B-Line. Given that there already is an established name for Tier 1 with a strong Toronto reference, it is hard to understand why a new brand is required. As for the Tier 2 services, riders are well acquainted with the “E” convention (broken in rare cases such as 60F Steeles West).

The first recommendation of this study is that a marketing effort is required to brand these services. That says a lot about where the TTC’s focus has been in recent years – selling the “pizzazz”, to quote a former TTC Chair, while the system gradually declines thanks to penny-pinching by two successive City administrations.

Summary

This is a long article. Here are the highlights:

  • Growth of express services is limited as much by the political question of transit funding as it is by planning and resource constraints within the TTC.
  • The TTC’s bus fleet plan should be thoroughly reviewed to determine how more buses can be made available for service sooner than 2019/20 when McNicoll Garage opens.
  • TTC budgets should reflect a return to full streetcar service on the streetcar lines in 2018 and the redeployment of replacement buses back to the bus network.
  • Express bus routes that were added in 2016 have performed better than expected showing that these are popular services and should be expanded as soon as possible.
  • New Rocket and express routes are proposed in two waves, one for 2019-21 and the second with a tentative date of 2026.
  • Costs and revenues allocated to existing and proposed routes should be verified.
    • Update (text deleted): The costs shown for some routes appear to be in error if the methodology for costing used by the TTC is to be believed. (This issue has been referred to the TTC for comment.)
    • Revenue allocation in a flat fare system can distort the benefit of a route, and the measure of value should be based on usage not on a misleading allocation of fare revenue.
  • Express buses provide a means of carrying riders on a route with a mix of short and long haul demand more efficiently and attractively than an all-local service.
    • Riders on express services travel further than on local services taking advantage of the faster trip between major points on the route. There are fewer riders per bus kilometre because there is less turnover of the passenger load on express services.
    • Express buses cost more per ride than local buses because of their lower turnover (i.e. more riders), but the overall route cost is lower with a mix of services.
    • A proposal by one member of the TTC Board to charge extra for express routes would be counterproductive.
  • The Premium Express buses to downtown operate at a very high cost per passenger, although this needs to be verified in light of the issue with cost calculations. Demand on these routes is relatively light, and they contribute only trivially to reducing demand on parallel services. The TTC proposes to leave them in place at least until 2021, but this should be reviewed even though removing the services will be politically challenging.
  • Transit Signal Priority is not just an issue for an Express network, but for transit in general. It should be pursued on major routes whether or not they include express operations.
  • Route supervision will be essential to maintaining reliable service not just on express routes, but on the transit system overall.
  • The staff proposal to “brand” services continues the TTC’s focus on marketing when what is needed is service. The “Rocket” name is already well-established as a service type in Toronto, as are the “E” express branches of various routes. In a few cases, the “wrong” name is associated with a service (some “rockets” are really just “E” services in terms of their service patterns), but this does not justify a complete rebranding exercise.

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The Fords’ Fascination With Streetcars

At a recent meeting of Toronto’s Public Works and Infrastructure Committee (PWIC), a motion was approved asking for reports on the comparative cost of streetcar and bus operations on Queen Street. The author of this was Councillor Michael Ford, although it was actually placed by his colleague, Councillor Holyday because Ford is not a member of PWIC.

1.  City Council request the Toronto Transit Commission, upon completion of the construction projects that have resulted in the removal of the 501 Queen Streetcar route from service for Summer 2017, to defer reintroduction of streetcar service for a period of two weeks, to permit the collection of data for the comparison study.

2.  City Council request the General Manager, Transportation Services, in consultation with the Toronto Police Service and the Toronto Transit Commission, to conduct a comparison study of the efficacy of streetcar service versus bus service on Queen Street, specifically looking at:

a. Schedule reliability of transit vehicles
b. Delays to other users of the road
c. Collisions at transit stops involving transit vehicles and cars, pedestrians, or cyclists
d. Collisions at transit stops between cars, pedestrians and cyclists not including transit vehicles
e. Ridership satisfaction
f. Fleet maintenance costs
g. Fleet operator and operation costs
h. Incidences of driver assault
i. Incidences of passenger disputes
j. Traffic volumes in peak period and off-peak periods

using bus data collected during the two week delayed streetcar re-implementation period, followed by the subsequent two weeks once they have been re-implemented, in order to get a clear and direct comparison during non-construction periods, and report back to the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee in the first quarter of 2018.

The request received little debate coming as it did as an add-on motion to a Friday meeting. Nobody from the TTC was present, nor were there any interventions by downtown Councillors or members of the public. PWIC, although it deals with many issues affecting downtown, contains no members from that area thanks to the gerrymandering of committees by Mayor Tory.

An amendment to this motion by Councillor Lee asked the Deputy City Manager to report to Council with additional information such as the cost and feasibility of such a study.

The package passed on a 3-2 vote and the request goes to the July 2017 Council meeting for approval.

My recent series of articles on bus vs streetcar operations on Queen was already “in the works” when this motion was approved, although this request triggered somewhat more urgency to producing them than I had planned.

Part I: A comparison of travel times for streetcars in April vs buses in May 2017
Part II: An historical review of travel times September 2013 to May 2017
Part III: Capacity of service scheduled and operated
Part IV: Comparative operating speeds in May 2017

One important point flowing through these article is that “comparison” can be challenging when the underlying conditions vary. From the analysis I have published, it is already clear that buses tend to fare better than streetcars where traffic is light and demand is low, but they lose this advantage in busy areas. A further problem is that TTC operating practices for each vehicle type differ and buses tend to be driven more aggressively. Streetcars could be too, but in an attempt to manage service, various practices have resulted in streetcars being forced to drive more slowly than actual road conditions dictate. The longer this goes on, the more it is assumed to be an inherent part of streetcar operations, while those of us who have ridden the TTC for some years know what streetcars can actually do given the chance.

The motion proposes that buses stay in operation for two weeks beyond the point that streetcars would have returned (Labour Day weekend) and that data be collected to compare operations. To be fair to the buses, this may not be an ideal period because early September sees much traffic displaced from King to Queen thanks to TIFF. Other planned construction work will disrupt the street: in September, track will be replaced at Queen & Coxwell, and in October/November at Queen & McCaul. Coxwell, at least, is well out of the core an work there will not affect streetcar service (a bus shuttle will run to Neville). There is also the question of whether the TTC will have enough buses to spare for Queen once the summer service cutbacks end in September.

One issue raised by the motion and by some media reports is that riders feel they are getting a faster trip with buses. My analysis shows that for some times and parts of the route this is true, but not for the most congested areas. Moreover, as already noted, we are seeing buses unconstrained by a “go slow” operating policy compared with streetcars that limp along the route to avoid running early. This is not an apples-to-apples comparison.

We have been down this road before when former Councillor Rob Ford, later Mayor, posed a series of questions to the TTC in 2010. My thanks to Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam for providing the exchange. For the purposes of this article, I have divided up the material so that I can comment on each section, and reordered the sections to provide a better thread in the current context.

It is no secret that I support the retention and expansion of the streetcar network. Although new suburban lines such as 5 Crosstown and 7 Finch West will use the “Metrolinx” Toronto car, whatever it might be, new lines in the waterfront west to Humber Bay and east to the Port Lands will be part of the “legacy” network. Waterfront plans depend on the capacity that an LRT  link to Union Station can bring.

The question of articulated buses as a streetcar replacement comes up from time to time. My response is that there are suburban routes where these are appropriate, but that in the congested core area, streetcars are the best vehicles for traffic conditions and they have the ability to operate underground where needed. Buses might be made to work, but only if Toronto is prepared to devote much more road space and time to transit vehicles. They are not a panacea for suburban motorists fighting their way through traffic in an oversized SUV.

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TTC Board Meeting April 20, 2017 (Updated)

The TTC Board will meet on April 20, 2017. Items of interest on the agenda include:

  • The monthly CEO’s Report
  • Repair of SRT Vehicles
  • Disposition of Bay Street Bus Terminal

This article has been updated with a commentary on subway and surface route performance statistics presented at the Board meeting. (Scroll down to the end of the CEO’s Report.)

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TTC Vehicle Reliability

Delays in the arrival of the new Bombardier Flexity streetcars, together with last summer’s sauna conditions on the Bloor-Danforth subway, make for ongoing concern about the condition of the TTC’s fleet. Statistics in the January 2017 CEO’s Report triggered media reports and a discussion at the recent TTC Board Meeting.

The numbers, although presented in what is supposed to be an “industry standard” format, lead to much confusion for a variety of reasons:

  • The basic standard is that any fault causing a delay of five minutes or greater counts, while all others do not.
    • A fault that might delay a bus or streetcar (doors not working) may not count against the subway because there is so much redundancy.
    • There is no distinction between a fault that represents a severe failure of a component or a minor annoyance that simply caused a long enough delay to be counted. Similarly, the cost and effort needed to repair faults does not contribute to the metric.
  • Faults are reported “per vehicle kilometre”, but many subsystems fail more on the basis of hours in operation (how long has an air conditioner been running), or number of cycles (how many times did doors open and close).
    • For a specific fleet and type of operation, hours and kilometres are interchangeable because the fleet operates at a consistent average speed within its frame of reference.
    • Fleets (or even subsets of fleets) operating under different conditions (average speed, frequency of stops, loads and grades) will not have the same ratio of hourly-based to distance-based faults. Direct comparison of distance-based statistics between these conditions is meaningless. For example, a well known problem in comparing streetcars with buses is that bus routes tend to operate in suburban conditions at relatively high average speeds. When they shift to more congested, densely used routes, their operating characteristics change. (It is self-evident that fuel consumption is affected by route conditions, and operator wages are paid per hour, not per kilometre. Slower buses run fewer kilometres. Time-based wear and tear, and associated reliability stats will rise when expressed on the basis of distance.)
  • Some fleets are a uniform age, while others are diverse.
    • Toronto’s rail fleets have major vehicle groups each of which was sourced as a single large order: The T1 (BD) and TR (YUS) subway car fleets; the CLRV, ALRV and Flexity streetcar fleets; and the SRT.
    • The bus fleet has a wider range of ages and technologies, and so its statistics are the combined effect of vehicles over a range of ages and conditions.
    • For a list of the TTC fleet by type, see the last page of any Scheduled Service Summary such as the one for January 2017. These are available on the TTC’s Planning webpage.

In the figures reported by the CEO, these issues are not explored in detail, but are at best mentioned in a few footnotes. Unsurprisingly, the media and politicians (even transit pundits) can jump to the wrong conclusion about what the stats actually mean.

To ensure that even without taking these factors into account, we are dealing with similar methodologies for each fleet, I asked the TTC whether the same principles apply across the system.

SM: Is it correct that there is a different set of criteria for a “defect” charged to the streetcar fleets and to the subway fleet? Are the criteria used for buses yet another way of measuring defect rates, or are they the same as for streetcars?

TTC: Same principle applies.  In principle, the calculation of MKBD is the same for each mode.   Overall vehicle reliability is dependent upon component and systems reliability. 

MKBD is calculated from the number of chargeable Road Calls and Change Offs (RCCO) during service.  The definition of a chargeable RCCO is any disruption to revenue service caused by a preventable equipment failure.  This definition is applied to all modes of operation.  It should, however, be noted that there are slight differences to the criteria of RCCO for each mode.   For example, a failure to a set of doors on a subway train may not cause a disruption or a delay to service.  Line mechanics may respond to the failure and barricade the inoperable doors. This may happen with no impact to customer or to service. This is due to the fact that subways have multiple sets of doors that customers can enter or egress from. Transit Control, therefore,  may decide not to remove a train from service if one set of doors is inoperable.  For a 40’ bus, however, the option to continue in service with a set of inoperable doors is not an option. Passenger flow on and off the bus will be significantly impacted.  Therefore, in this case … the same equipment failure may be handled differently on buses, streetcars and subways.   Differences in types of equipment, life cycles of these equipment and operating environments will also contribute to the differences in calculating RCCO and MKBD between modes. [Email of January 16, 2017]

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TTC Board Meeting: November 30, 2016

The TTC Board will meet on November 30, 2016 at 1 pm in the Council Chamber at City Hall. This is not a budget meeting, but the agenda contains a number of items of interest.

  • CEO’s Report for November 2016
  • Purchase of Air Conditioning Parts for T1 Subway Cars
  • Purchase of land to expand bus storage capacity
  • Reports related to the Hillcrest Complex including a review of property usage, approval of new equipment for Duncan Shops, and approval of a new Streetcar Way Building.
  • Expansion of Davisville Carhouse
  • St. Patrick Station Easier Access Elevators

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TTC Board Meeting: May 31, 2016

The TTC Board will hold its regular meeting at 1:00 pm on May 31, 2016 in Committee Room 1 at City Hall.

Items of note on the agenda include:

  • The monthly CEO’s Report
  • Purchase of 97 diesel buses
  • Metrolinx response to a request for additional parking in the Kipling Terminal project

The agenda also includes the draft financial statements which I covered in a separate article.

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TTC Board Meeting March 23, 2016

The TTC Board will meet on March 23, 2016 at 1:00 pm in Committee Room 1 at City Hall. The agenda includes many items of interest:

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TTC Fleet Plans 2016

This is the first article in a series reviewing the details of the TTC’s 2016-2025 Capital Plan. The topic here is the plan for the TTC’s three “conventional service” fleets: subway cars, streetcars and buses.

The Capital Plan provides for two types of spending: vehicle acquisition and major overhauls. No transit vehicle lasts until its design life without overhauls, and these are a substantial portion of the annual budget

The fleet plans for each mode are summarized in the charts linked from each section of the article. The information in them has been adapted from the TTC’s Capital Plan “Blue Books” which contain details on every project. In some cases, the numbers have been reformatted for clarity, and information has been consolidated from multiple charts.

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TTC Proposes Major Changes to Bus Fleet Plans (Updated)

Updated October 29, 2015 at 7:00 pm: Additional material based on the presentation and debate at the TTC Board meeting has been added at the end of this article.

At its meeting on October 28, 2015, the TTC Board will receive a presentation about bus fleet and garage planning. This combines many threads that have been discussed separately in the past into one overview and co-ordinated long-range planning, something missing from Board-level debates at the TTC for many years.

Four important changes in the TTC’s fleet planning lead to one common goal: an increase in bus reliability.

  • Steady-state procurement. TTC bus purchase quantities fluctuated wildly over past decades. In the late 1960s, there was a major system expansion into the suburbs concurrent with the subway extensions to Kennedy and Kipling, and later north to Finch. This produced a big spike in bus purchases which echoed through the system every 18 years or so as this generation of vehicles (and its successors) came due for replacement. Other ebbs and flows arose from political decisions such as service increases beyond “typical” requirements, or service freezes imposed through declining standards. This plays havoc with maintenance planning and with the City’s capital plans.
  • Increase the spare ratio. Historically, transit spare ratios have been set at about 12% (even lower values can be found decades ago on the TTC), but this only worked when vehicles were considerably simpler than they are today. It is worth noting that the PCC streetcar was designed from the outset to be a low-maintenance vehicle with roughly a monthly trip into the shops for preventative maintenance. The onset of vehicles with much more complex technology, and especially with technology at the “bleeding edge” of implementation, did nothing to improve transit maintenance costs. Higher spare ratios also require more capital to be tied up in buses under repair. Higher failure rates affect service.
  • Early retirement of the hybrid bus fleet. The hybrids were one of those nice “green” ideas where the technology simply did not perform as expected, but for a time government policy forced the TTC into buying nothing else. The fleet is less reliable than the diesels it supplanted, and the extra capital cost is not offset by lower operating cost.
  • Re-align diesel bus overhaul schedule. Various subsystems on a bus go through major overhauls or replacement on a planned cycle through the vehicle’s life. The schedule for this work will be adjusted to better match needs and to fit well with a planned 18-year bus lifespan. Equally important will be a change in the approach to routine maintenance with a shift from “fix on fail” that accounts for 80% of work today to a proactive, preventative replacement of parts before their expected in service failure disrupts service.

An additional issue still under study is the question of just how long a bus should stay in service. The 18-year span typical in Toronto (and previously in many other cities) arose from a combination of vehicle quality (the GM New Looks lasted forever) and of limited subsidy funding. However, a longer lifespan demands that transit systems have the capability to perform major overhauls that will keep a bus running that long, and this is not practical for smaller systems. Long ago, the USA standard dropped to 12 years as the funding cycle for federal subsidies to bus purchases. A still unanswered question is whether this should be Toronto’s policy.

Finally, there is the matter of garage space for a fleet that will continue to grow before the combined effect of subway and LRT line openings will see a drop in total fleet requirements.

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