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However, over the same period the unpublished reliability figures didn’t improve.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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TTC 2019 Fleet and Capacity Plans Part II: Streetcars and Buses

Streetcars

There are several related projects in the 2019-2028 Capital Budget and in the 2019-2033 Capital Investment Plan. These include:

  • Completion of the 204 car Flexity order now in progress
  • Purchase of 100 additional cars for growth and expansion
  • Renovation of Russell Carhouse for maintenance of new streetcars
  • Major renovation of Harvey Shops for maintenance of new streetcars, and as the operating carhouse for (at least) 512 St. Clair

Allocation of the New Flexity Streetcar Fleet

As I write this on March 20, 2019, the TTC has received cars 4400-4535 from the Thunder Bay plant and 4572-4573 from Kingston. Of these, prototype 4401 is at Bombardier for production refits, and a pool of four to six cars will be out for major repairs for the next few years.

CEO Rick Leary has stated on a few occasions that the buses now on streetcar routes will come free for service on the bus network by year end when all new cars have arrived, and that all of the legacy CLRV/ALRV (standard sized and two-section articulated cars respectively) will also be retired this year. This directly contradicts his own Capital Investment Plan which shows that buses will still be required into the mid-2020s when, in theory, a further order of 100 streetcars would arrive.

However, even assuming that Bombardier does deliver the last of its order up to car 4603, there will not be enough new cars to cover service on all of the lines. The table below compares service as it existed back in 2006 before the new cars were ordered, the TTC’s plans for Flexity implementation in 2013, the current schedule requirements, and the number of streetcars needed if all routes return to rail operation.

The numbers above are divided into six sets:

  • The 2006 AM peak service requirement for all streetcar routes assuming that there are no construction projects underway. This is a blend of sources to avoid diversions and substitutions.
  • The actual service in March 2019 (current).
  • The streetcar service operated a few years ago on routes that now have full or partial bus operation.
  • A hypothetical March 2019 service assuming that the five routes now with buses (511 Bathurst, etc) were operated using streetcars.
  • The TTC’s June 2013 deployment plan for the new cars.
  • A hypothetical March 2019 service assuming current Flexity service for routes that have already converted such as King, and the 2013 deployment numbers for routes that have not.

For the purpose of this discussion, the ALRV fleet is assumed to have been retired even though, officially, schedules still call for five of them to run on 501 Queen. In practice these, and some CLRV runs, are operating with Flexitys.

The total fleet requirement including spares at 20% would be 216 cars, and this is 12 more than the TTC will actually have without allowing for a half-dozen cars undergoing major repairs. This means that it is impossible to operate the streetcar system without either trimming service or leaving buses on some routes. When there are construction projects that block streetcar service (such as the work by Toronto Water now underway on Dundas), there would be enough cars operate the rest of the network. Otherwise, the most likely candidates for buses are the perennial targets, the Kingston Road services 502/503.

Some routes – King, Spadina and St. Clair – have more service today than the 2013 deployment plan provided, but this means that there are not enough cars to handle the rest of the network as originally planned. Service improvements on the streetcar system are limited to the added capacity that Flexitys will provide on routes still using old cars (e.g. Queen), but there is no headroom from 2020 onward.

Expanding the Fleet

In the 2018 Capital Budget, the TTC planned to acquire 60 more streetcars in 2019-20 for ridership growth, and 15 in 2020-21 for new Waterfront service. In 2019, this has changed to a larger order in the mid-2020s. However, the budget is inconsistent in its presentation of needs and timing.

The chart below is adapted from the fleet plan as it appears in the budget. (The copy I have is in black and white muddying some details depending on colour.) This shows a proposed purchase of 95 cars in 2025-28. It is already out of date because the CLRV and ALRV fleets will be retired sooner than planned. This creates a shortage that prevents full return to streetcar service at the end of 2019 when the Flexity deliveries are supposed to be complete.

Projections out to 2043 show a very substantial increase in the streetcar fleet to almost double the planned fleet in the early 2020s. That’s a lot more streetcar service than we have today. However good this might look, it does not address the challenge that there are not enough cars for the lines and service levels today, and this will not change in the near future.

A few pages later in the budget is a project to purchase 60 new cars which clearly shows the need for 60 cars starting in 2020, with even more in the future. Of particular note is the text about the effect of deferral on service. This project description is obviously out of date, but that is a common problem with the budget.

The actual spending has been moved to 2024-27. It goes without saying that whatever the date, this is an unfunded project.

Adding to the inconsistency is the statement in the 15 year Capital Investment Plan that the TTC would purchase “approximately 100 additional streetcars from 2025 to 2028 to meet demand, at a cost of $510 million”. [p. 54]

A further problem lies in the planned renovation of Russell Carhouse to handle Flexity maintenance similar to the work now underway at Roncesvalles. This will take that site out of operation for two years. Without Russell’s capacity, there would not be enough room to accommodate the extra 60 streetcars if they were procured as originally planned.

The TTC is also considering major changes at Harvey Shops which, as currently configured, can only be used for a small number of Flexitys. The scheme is to revise the layout of tracks and service areas, and to make this an operating site for, at least, the fleet needed on 512 St. Clair. This would very substantially reduce the dead head mileage for 512 St. Clair cars that shifted to Roncesvalles Division from the carhouse at Wychwood, only a short distance north of Hillcrest, in 1978. However, this capacity would not be available until 2028, and the Fleet Plan shown above does not include it. That site would also substantially increase storage capacity on the streetcar system because, in another project, the TTC proposes shifting bus maintenance operations to a new as yet unknown location. This is separate from the construction of another bus garage in the 2020s.

All of this assumes that money will be found to pay for the larger fleet and facility changes needed to accommodate it. In the chart below, all figures are in billions of dollars including inflation. Note that the $370 million for the current 204-car purchase is the remaining money to be spent in years that are part of the Capital Investment Plan, not the total project cost.

The TTC clearly has plans to improve and expand the streetcar system, but there is a deadly combination of constrained capacity growth and rising demand which will not be addressed in the short-to-medium term. That drives potential riders away from transit and adds traffic that streets cannot absorb more demand.

Buses

For many years, growth in bus service has been limited because the TTC has no place to put more buses even if they bought them. This allowed TTC management to avoid the basic issue of how much service was really needed, and budget hawks on Council to avoid increasing TTC subsidies to pay for this.

The chart below is adapted from the fleet plan in the capital budget. The first column shows the fleet makeup before 2014 and then shows the procurements and retirements over the period to 2034.

  • The “Net” column is a check on the arithmetic to ensure that the numbers actually net out. There is an error highlighted in red where the TTC claims it will retire more buses than it actually owns. This has only a small effect on the future fleet size (five out of two thousand buses).
  • There are 200 hybrids and 60 electric buses in the 2019 budget, followed by a pause for one year in 2020 when there will be no purchases. This is partly a result of timing pressure to spend federal PTIF dollars within the required window, and partly to provide an evaluation process for the electric buses.
  • Electric bus purchases will begin in earnest in 2021 with the last of the existing diesel and hybrid fleet being retired by 2033.

The projected service requirements have changed since the 2018 version of the plan, and both versions are shown in the chart. Four planned major events will reduce bus requirements:

  • The Eglinton Crosstown LRT opens in 2021 replacing frequent bus services on several routes.
  • The Finch LRT opens in 2023 replacing bus service west of Keele Street.
  • The Scarborough Subway Extension opens in 2026 shifting the termini of many routes to STC station.
  • The planned expansion of the streetcar fleet in the mid 2020s eliminates the need for buses to supplement/replace streetcar services.

The use of articulated 18m buses will increase by 68 vehicles in 2021 if this plan holds. The next round of artic purchase in 2025-26 will replace the 153 diesel artics now in the fleet, but there are no net additions.

With the shift of the bus fleet to electric operation, the TTC plans to convert its garages at a rate of two per year. However, they have not produced a plan that aligns this conversion with the rate at which electric vehicles will replace diesels and hybrids.

Garage space continues to be an issue. The current capacity across seven garages is 1,631 buses compared to a total fleet of 2,012, a shortfall of 381. Even when McNicoll Garage opens in 2020 adding capacity for 250 buses, there will still be a shortfall with system capacity of only 1,881. A ninth garage to add a further 250 spaces is not planned to open until 2031. That garage, like many projects, sits in the “out years” of the capital plans so that it does not contribute to the shortfall in available funding over the 10-year span of the budget.

This puts the TTC and its would-be customers in a long-standing box when looking at service improvements. For another decade, Toronto will be told that there is no room for more buses beyond the current fleet plans. The planned growth in peak service from 2026 onward is under one per cent per year.

TTC management plans to bring forward a service plan later in 2019 which will examine future demand. A vital part of such a report will be to look not just at minimal ridership and fleet growth, but to consider what happens if service improves at a substantial rate. Oddly, there is provision for this in the streetcar fleet plan, but not in the bus plan.

The 15-year Capital Improvement Plan includes construction of a collision centre and heavy overhaul facility for the bus fleet. This would release space now used at Hillcrest allowing it to be repurposed as a new streetcar shops and depot. The engine shops now at Hillcrest would become obsolete with the migration to an all-electric bus fleet.

 

TTC 2019 Fleet and Capacity Plans Part I: Subway (Updated)

Note: At the time of publication (Noon on Monday, March 18, 2019), I await a response from the TTC to several questions on issues raised in this article. When the responses arrive, I will update the article.

Updated March 20, 2019 at 6:40 am: The spreadsheet of major project costs has been revised to show the correct final cost for the Line 2 Platform Edge Doors project. The value under “post 2028” was correct, but the EFC originally contained the value for the Bloor-Yonge project. This change does not affect the text of the article as PEDs were cited only in that table.

The TTC’s Capital Budget and Plan exist in a summary form in reports to the TTC Board and City Council, but there is a much more detailed version commonly known as the “blue books”. These are two large binders packed with information about capital projects.

For years, I have been reading them to sniff out issues that the general reports don’t cover or acknowledge. The 2019 edition became available at the beginning of March, and as I dove into it, many questions began to fill notes especially where there are direct conflicts between materials in the books themselves, and between these details and public statements and reports. Combing through this material may look like the height of transit nerdishness, but there is a crucial underlying issue here.

Cost-cutting politicians, not to mention ambitious transit managers, think that everything can be solved with a quick takeover of ownership and decision-making responsibilities. The temptation is to appear to do much while spending as little as possible. TTC and City practices chronically understate the capital needs of the transit system, and this makes a takeover appear cheaper than it really should be. Couple that with a government and its agency, Metrolinx, where detailed, long-range spending plans never appear in public, and we have a recipe for a system that will crumble from underfunding.

I cannot help but feel that project timings and overall plans for the system have been shuffled around without a thorough review of the effects especially where related plans overlap. Indeed, some project descriptions contain text that does not match the timing implied by the annual budget allocations. TTC management is supposed to be working on consolidated plans for both major subway lines, although the one for Line 2 was promised two years ago when Andy Byford was still the CEO.

A long-standing problem with capital budgets in Toronto, and not just at the TTC, is the overriding concern with the City’s debt ceiling. Toronto sets a target that the cost of debt should not exceed 15 per cent of tax revenue. Originally this was a hard cap for each year in a ten-year projection, but major projects in the near future made this impossible to achieve. Now the target is to stay at or below the ceiling on average. With a bulge in spending, and hence an increase in debt, in the mid 2020s, debt costs go over the line and this is “fixed” only by having years at less than 15% to make the average work out.

For a capital-hungry agency like the TTC there is a problem: future projects have requirements that simply do not fit into the City’s plans. The severity of this shortfall has been understated for over a decade by three simple expedients.

  • Project schedules in the budget are pushed beyond the ten-year mark where the related debt pressure would appear in City projections.
  • Projects are shown “below the line” in unfunded status with a hope that revenue sources such as new subsidies from other governments will appear.
  • Projects are omitted from from the budget completely.

The result is familiar to city-watchers with annual hand-wringing about the sky falling tomorrow, while somehow we manage to pay for today’s projects. In January 2019, the TTC knocked the legs out from this with the publication of a 15 year Capital Investment Plan revealing capital needs far greater than any numbers used in past projections. What had been a ten year, $9 billion plan that was roughly two-thirds funded (i.e. had known or likely monies available) went to a fifteen year, $33.5 billion plan with only one-third funded. This is just for “state of good repair”, and any system expansion sits on top.

In all of this lies a more subtle problem than simple financing. Years of shuffling projects made projected spending fit within City targets, and this served political needs to make key projects appear manageable. Overall planning, including the relationships between line items in the budget, took second place, if it was considered at all.

Capital planning requires a long-term view of the city and its transit system, and decisions made today have effects reaching more than a decade into the future. Toronto continues to suffer from delays in provision of new fleets for the surface system, including the garage space needed to hold a larger bus fleet, that go back at least to the era of Mayor Rob Ford. For years, the standard response to pleas for better transit service is that there are no buses and streetcars to provide more service, and even if we had them, we would have no place to put them. This flows directly from decisions to throttle spending.

Toronto faces the same challenge on its subway where decisions about the timing of spending, even of acknowledging the scope of requirements, limit the ability to address capacity problems.

This is a long article focusing on matters related to fleet planning, although there are related issues with infrastructure and facilities. Key points are summarized first, with details in following sections.

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$33 Billion and Counting (Part II)

In the first article in this series, I reviewed the Capital Budget and Plan that covers the years 2019-2033 for the TTC. There are three reports on the January 24 Board agenda related to this subject:

This article concentrates on the “Making Headway” report which is a glossy overview of the 15 Year Capital Plan. It is a generally good report, although there are annoying omissions of detail that would flesh out its argument.

This report deals mainly with “state of good repair” (SOGR) projects that involve rejuvenation of existing infrastructure and expansion necessary to handle growing demand. New lines are not, for the most part, included in the report although plans for them are reflected in SOGR planning where they trigger expansion of existing capacity. Leaving out new projects like the Richmond Hill extension may be a political decision, but this means that the context for some recommendations is incomplete. A useful update would be to produce a consolidated plan showing the “new” projects and the time-critical events they trigger (such as fleet expansion or replacement and station capacity issues).

For many years, the TTC, the City of Toronto and its so-called funding partners have been content for the official SOGR backlog to stay out of sight. This has the triple benefit of reducing the projected borrowing TTC projects will require, making the benefit of capital funding the TTC does receive (mainly from gas tax) appear larger than what is needed, and avoiding difficult questions about spending on new projects in the face of a gaping hole for existing maintenance. This must stop, and the “Making Headway” report certainly puts the TTC’s needs in a different, and far more critical, light.

A backlog of deferred maintenance has grown, putting the safety, accessibility and sustainability of our transit system at risk despite the need to move more customers more reliably than ever before. [p. 7]

One cannot help remembering the soothing words of TTC management in the early 1990s when recession-starved governments cut back on transit maintenance, and the TTC said they could get by on the money they received without compromising the system. Then there was the fatal crash at Russell Hill and, bit by bit, Toronto learned just how badly the TTC’s condition had fallen. The CEO at the time (a position then called “Chief General Manager”) went on to become a Minister in the Harris government that slashed provincial transit funding completely. Things appear to be different today with the TTC calling out for better funding, although at a time when the last thing any politician wants to hear is a plea for more spending.

One page should be burned into the souls of anyone who claims to support transit’s vital role:

It is easy for the need to invest in our base transit system to be overshadowed by the need to fund transit expansion. But investing to properly maintain and increase the capacity of our current system is arguably even more important.

Population growth and planned transit expansion projects such as SmartTrack, the Relief Line South, the Line 2 East Extension to Scarborough and new LRT lines on Eglinton and Finch West will add hundreds of thousands more customers to Toronto’s transit network.

The result will dramatically increase pressure on a system already grappling with an aging fleet, outdated signals on key subway lines, inadequate maintenance and storage capacity, and tracks and infrastructure in need of constant repair.

Without the investments outlined in this Plan, service reliability and crowding will worsen, as the maintenance backlog grows and becomes more difficult and costlier to fix. This is the fate now faced by some other major transit systems in North America that allowed their assets to badly deteriorate.

Our customers, our city, our province and our nation can’t afford to let that happen. [p. 8]

This is not the message recent and current leaders in Toronto and Ontario wanted to hear, and they collectively are to blame for the mess we are in today.

Although some items, particularly those in the second decade of the plan, are not fully costed, the items are included to raise awareness that they exist.

Given the scale of the investment required, however, it would be irresponsible to delay conversations about funding until estimates are exact. [p. 9]

There is a mythology about transit assets, particularly subways, that they last a century. This is nowhere near the truth, and those who push such claims as a justification for subways as a preferred mode are flat out liars. Only the physical structure lasts many decades, and even that requires ongoing repair. Components such as trains, track, escalators, electrical systems, signals, tunnels, pumps and station buildings require repair and replacement at regular intervals. The Yonge subway, now over 60 years old, is on its third set of trains, and the Bloor-Danforth line on its second. All of the track has been replaced two or three times. Stations do not have their original escalators, and the ones now in place are coming due for major overhaul or replacement. The list is endless. A subway is not a “build it and forget it” project any more than a new car or a new house.

When the existing system is asked to carry far more riders, more is needed than a new coat of paint. More trains and bigger stations are just a start, and the analogy would be trading up to a family SUV or moving to a bigger house. If Toronto were a stagnant city with little population or job growth, this would be less of an issue, but Toronto is instead a booming area facing problems of growth it cannot serve or chooses not to serve adequately.

The chart below shows how many aspects of a transit system are linked together. We cannot simply say “buy more buses” or “run more trains” and think that every problem is solved. This problem is compounded when any “improvement” we make vanishes into the black hole of deferred maintenance, making up for what we should have done years ago.

Seen from a high level, the $33.5 billion plan breaks down like this:

Of the “funded” portion, about one third depends on assumptions regarding available funds from various sources in the second decade of the plan, and the remainder is based on the current known commitments of various government. This is less than certain with provincial plans to take over ownership of the subway system and responsibility for funding its capital maintenance. Note that in the chart above, 65% of the total is subway related. This would leave Queen’s Park on the hook for $22 billion over 15 years, and that does not pay for system expansion.

(For clarity, some of the spending included above is on works in progress such as the ATC signalling on Line 1 YUS, and the delivery of new streetcars. Only the costs in 2019 and forward are included in the figures here.)

Funding vs Financing

This report deals with the funding needs of the transit system. The distinction is often blurred between getting the money (funding) and paying for it (financing). The distinction is that if you buy a car, somebody (you, or more likely your bank) pays for the vehicle. The dealer and the automaker are happy, but you now have a debt. That’s “financing”. A slightly more creative scheme would be for you to rent the car so that someone else (a leasing company) actually owns it, but this is still “financing”. Real money changed hands somewhere, although the leasing company would get a better price on a fleet purchase, and they have tax write-off opportunities that you probably don’t.

Money could come from outside investors who may simply provide financing secured by future revenues (taxes on new development, for example), or might build or buy and even operate assets on our behalf. But one way or another, we have to pay for them unless new money with no strings attached appears out of thin air. That’s how one-time grants for major projects like subway extensions work. Governments give the TTC money with which to build new lines, but the cost stays on the government’s books and is not a future charge against the transit system. That’s a system the province doesn’t like one bit, and that is why Ontario wants to own and finance projects if only because the accounting looks better without that “gift” to Toronto.

There is a great debate over where we will find $33.5 billion, but there is no way to make that number vanish short of simply not undertaking the projects it will fund.

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$33 Billion and Counting

A political tremour ran through the transit world in Toronto recently with the TTC’s release of a 15-year projection of capital spending requirements at $33.5 billion. This does not include funding for most system expansion projects beyond the already-approved Scarborough Subway.

That number is big, but it’s no surprise to those who have been following TTC budgets for years. A major issue has been that “unfunded” or “below the line” projects don’t get the attention they deserve and are deliberately kept off of the books to reduce the apparent size of the City’s financial problems. Common tactics included omitting projects from the overall budget, or projecting their spending in a period just beyond the rolling ten-year horizon of capital planning.

Transit planning in Toronto and at Queen’s Park is reckless when it downplays the backlog of spending and associated subsidies facing public agencies. New spending and the inevitable photo ops for grinning, back-patting politicians are easier to fit into plans when you can ignore the transit system crumbling in the background.

Several budget reports will be before the TTC Board (and later at City Council) at its next meeting on January 24, 2019.

There is far too much material here to review in a single article, and so I will break this up over multiple posts. Some of the details behind individual projects will not be available until I obtain the full version of the Capital Budget known as the “Blue Books” which expand the line items from the “Blue Pages” into project descriptions and schedules.

A vital part of the new reports is a shift to a longer time frame (15 years) and the inclusion of all projects in the Capital Plan whether they have funding or not. The extent of the problem is quite evident in the following chart. The purple hatched area shows the requirements for coming years while the sold areas show known funding amounts in the medium term and hoped-for income thereafter.

The big drop in the City’s funding share in the early 2020s arises from the lack of borrowing headroom in the overall City budget. A big problem here is the crowding by major projects such as the Scarborough Subway Extension and the Gardiner Expressway rebuild within the overall borrowing plan. Current City policy dictates that the average debt servicing cost should not exceed 15% of City tax revenue over a ten year period. Planned spending in the next few years will eliminate the headroom for additional borrowing. This exactly coincides with the bulge in TTC capital requirements beginning in 2022. To put it another way, if funding continued at 2019 levels across the chart, there would still be a shortfall, but against a much higher base.

Even this chart does not tell the full story because the Capital Plan continues to push major projects beyond the ten-year line, and the financial pressures from system expansion are not fully accounted for here. As things stand today, less than 30% of the ten-year program is funded. Beyond 2028, the level of assumed funding is still well below historical levels.

($ billion) 2019-2028 2029-2033 Total 2019-2033
Funded $6.4 $3.4 $9.8
Unfunded $17.5 $6.2 $23.7
Total $23.9 $9.6 $33.5

System expansion projects will add a further $3.8 billion over the first ten years of the plan:

  • Line 2 Extension (formerly known as the SSE): $3.4 billion (subject to revision when an updated cost report is presented to Council in April 2019).
    • “While the 10-Year Capital Plan includes $3.360 billion in funding for this project (between 2019 to 2028), this project has an overall budget of $3.560 billion. This estimate, which includes $132 million to extend the life of the SRT until the Line 2 East Extension commences operation and a further $123 million to decommission and demolish the SRT, was based on 0% design. The project budget and schedule will be re-baselined in Stage Gate 3 report to City Council in April 2019, factoring in delivery strategy and schedule risk analysis.”
  • Relief Line South: $385 million will be spent in 2019-20 to support early works on this project. Some of this is already funded, but $325 million is being advanced into the current ten-year budget. Of this, the City proposes to provide half and looks to other levels of government for a contribution. The actual RL construction project is a separate entity which is not yet in the budget.
    • “The 10-Year Capital Plan includes funding of $385 million to complete current work only, which includes completing the preliminary design and engineering to between 15% and 30% complete, including developing a project budget and schedule.”
  • Waterfront Transit: The ten-year budget includes only $27 million in 2019-21 for design work on the planned extension from Exhibition Loop to the Dufferin Gate. Design work on any other Waterfront projects, let alone any construction, remains beyond the ten-year window.
  • Spadina Vaughan extension: Outstanding work on this project including close-out costs amount to $60 million in 2019, but this will be funded within the existing project.

[Quotations above are from the 15 Year Capital Investment Plan and 2019-2028 Budget, pp 12-13.]

The Relief Line work includes tasks such as property acquisition, utility relocation and design for the tunnel boring equipment. Now that the line has political support, spending sooner rather than later is on the agenda, and about two years can be shaved from the original project schedule by doing the preliminary work now. This is a major change from the position taken by Mayor Tory during the election campaign, and the need to “do something” as soon as possible is now evident.

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TTC Board Meeting: January 10, 2019

The January 10 meeting of the TTC Board was primarily an organizational one with introduction of new members, plus a few management presentations on Board responsibilities and an overview of the system today.

Alan Heisey was re-elected as Vice-Chair of the Board continuing a role he has held ever since May 2015. This position is earmarked for so-called “citizen members” who are not also Councillors.

Most Board members, speaking of why they wanted to be at the TTC, cited an interest in transit and its role, but one, Councillor Karygiannis, was quite brief in saying “Sheppard Subway”. It will be ironic if Premier Ford is successful in taking over subway planning and construction because this project will no longer be one for the TTC or City Council to approve or build. Subway parochialism is alive and well at the TTC.

The Board discussed revisions to its meeting procedure including a proposal from the Vice-Chair that public deputations be limited. Anyone wishing to speak on multiple agenda items would get only five minutes in total, not five minutes per item. The idea has been referred to staff for review. Because any change in the meeting procedure would amend a bylaw that must obtain Council approval, this cannot take effect immediately.

The idea arises from frustration with a few regular deputants who address multiple reports, sometimes contentiously. However, it would be a short step from this scheme to one in which organized groups were only given five minutes in total rather than for each member wishing to address the Board.

A related procedural problem is that some reports where debate and action should be the order of the day, notably the CEO’s regular update, are classified as “Information” items. This hogties not just public deputations who can speak only to reports where the Board will approve some action, but even Board members who cannot make motions. The very report which should be the focus of each month’s review of operations and plans is insulated from substantive debate, criticism and action by the Board which is supposed to provide strategic guidance and policy.

At a time when “transparency” is the watchword and the sense that governments and their agencies should listen more, not less, to the public, this is a counterproductive proposal. If TTC Board  members don’t want to hear deputations, they should get themselves appointed to the Metrolinx Board where self-congratulation is the primary order of business and pesky members of the public sit quietly in the gallery if they bother attending at all.

CEO Rick Leary presented a system overview “Advancing to the Next Level”. This goal will be a real challenge for the TTC where just making do with existing resources has hamstrung real growth and improvement on the transit system. This presentation contains substantial errors of fact about the degree to which service has improved from 2017 to 2018. As an introduction for the new Board, it implies that the past year has been better than actual experience. TTC management spends too much time “polishing their halos” and this gets in the way of substantive discussion about real system needs.

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Challenges Ahead For The 2019 TTC Board

January 10, 2019 brings the first meeting of a new TTC Board with a new crop of Councillors and a new Chair while, for now, three non-Council or “citizen” members carry over from 2018.

Jaye Robinson, formerly Chair of Toronto’s Public Works and Infrastructure, was appointed as the new Chair of the TTC replacing Josh Colle who did not stand for re-election. She will be joined by Councillors Brad Bradford, Shelley Carroll, Jim Karygiannis, Jennifer McKelvie, and Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong. Of these, only Carroll and Minnan-Wong have sat on the TTC Board before, and two members, Bradford and McKelvie, are new to Council in this term. The geographic distribution of members is unusual in that none of them represents a ward west of Yonge Street.

Three citizen members remain pending a review of these appointments by Council: Alan Heisey (who was Vice-Chair in the previous term), Joanne De Laurentiis and Ron Lalonde.

The first meeting includes housekeeping activities of selecting a Vice-Chair (who must be picked from the citizen members) and setting up the Audit & Risk Management Committee. Two previous committees will be disbanded in the interest of reducing the call on Councillors’ time:

  • Human Resources and Labour Relations: The TTC is at the beginning of a four year labour contract and does not foresee the need for a standing committee to deal with these matters. Any related matters would be brought either to the full Board, or to a committee struck for the purpose.
  • Budget: Although the TTC had a Budget Committee in the past term, it hardly ever met. For the new term a two-member “Working Group” is proposed, and this means that any budget meetings will take place in private except when the finished product comes to the Board for approval.

Also on the agenda for January 10 are:

  • “Richard J. Leary, CEO will give a presentation to the Board about the TTC, its accomplishments, challenges, vision and next steps.” [This presentation is not yet online.]
  • “Brian M. Leck, TTC General Counsel and John O’Grady, Chief Safety Officer will give a presentation to the Board about Member Legal, Safety & Environmental Responsibilities.”

The legal background emphasizes the Board’s role in providing oversight, general direction and strategy, as opposed to micromanagement of the system. However, this does not make for a completely hands-off arrangement as the Board has specific responsibilities and liabilities under legislation notably relating to worker safety and the environment.

Sadly, there is no legislative requirement to ensure high quality transit service.

The Board will meet again on January 24 with a meatier agenda including the Capital and Operating budgets. They are both huge documents, and the Board is unlikely to understand how their components fit together.

With the increased workload for members of the 2019 Council, moves are afoot to trim agendas and shift decisions to lower levels. In the case of the TTC:

In order to manage the number of items being presented to the Board for consideration while simultaneously seeking opportunities to improve decision making efficiency, it is recommended that staff begin to review options where delegated authority from the Board to staff is feasible. [TTC Board Governance at p. 5]

Staff will report on this in the next few months, but it is important that changes do not stifle public debate and that new “policy” does not appear out of thin air from a delegated responsibility.

Important Board roles are strategic planning and oversight of management. For the past two terms, TTC Boards have been less than engaged with overall strategy and the potential future of transit in Toronto. There are the inevitable debates about a few subway lines, but the larger question of the TTC’s purpose goes unanswered. One might argue that Council (or at least the Mayor and his allies) don’t want ideas that will add to costs getting a full airing at the TTC.

The political direction might well be to limit growth in fares and subsidies, but this should not prevent the Board from engaging in “what if” discussions to gauge the possibilities and implications for service levels, fare structures and technology, and large scale planning for system growth and maintenance.

One past example of TTC advocacy was the August 2014 “Opportunities” report produced by former CEO Andy Byford and staff. It contained many proposals including the Two Hour Fare which has only recently been implemented. The 2018 Ridership Growth Strategy contains many principles, but is lighter on specifics.

We cannot, as a city, understand what transit might do if the agency and Board charged with this are content to avoid discussions of what transit could be if only we had the will to pursue a more aggressive outlook on system improvement. The Board needs to actually do its job – be informed and make strategic plans for transit even if, in the short term, we cannot “afford” some options.

This will be a difficult term for the TTC Board who must wrestle with the proposed provincial takeover of the subway system, but this should not divert attention from several major issues affecting the transit system.

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Brill Bus Fantrip July 29, 1972

As a holiday gift to the fans of old buses (and I know you’re out there even if you think this is really a streetcar blog), a photo gallery from a fantrip I organized many years ago using one of the TTC’s Brill coaches. Bus 1935 dates from 1955, and was retired in the mid 1970s.

For more information on the TTC’s fleet before the arrival of the GM “New Look” buses, see Before the New Looks on Transit Toronto.