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Longer Cars, Longer Gaps?

The TTC's new streetcars are physically much longer than the existing ones. Is that a problem, or is it an opportunity?

The TTC’s new streetcar, on its second-ever test run.

The first of Toronto’s newest streetcars roams the city during nighttime test runs, but by day controversies brew over whether it and its ilk are the right vehicles for our transit network.

Councillor Adam Vaughan (Ward 21, Trinity-Spadina) argues that the new vehicles are “too big” for our streets, and that the rollout of the new, longer streetcars will bring service cuts. This position has been echoed by Councillor Gord Perks (Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park) and others.

At 30 metres, the Low Floor Light Rail Vehicles (LFLRVs) are double the size of the mainstay of the current fleet, the Canadian Light Rail Vehicles (CLRVs). Even the two-section versions of the current streetcars (the ALRVs) are only 23 metres long. Are the new cars “too big” for Toronto? The answer depends on how you ask the question.

Physically, the cars were designed as replacements for all of the current stock. They should be compatible with Toronto’s existing rail network. Recent publicity about platform heights and stop arrangements relates to accessibility of the new cars, not to their ability to fit through tracks and stations. In any case, retirement is a must for the CLRVs. They are over 30 years old. The younger ALRVs will also be older than 30 before last of the new streetcars arrives.


Toronto’s New Streetcar Takes its Maiden Voyage

Long streetcars are not new to Toronto, but they haven’t been around for many years. Two-car trains operated on the Bloor-Danforth line until the subway opened in 1966, and then on Queen Street from 1967 until early 1977. Thirty-metre-long units have not been seen in Toronto since then.

A two-car streetcar passes Queen Street East and Munro Street, in August 1972. Photo by Steve Munro.

Far more important than the physical size of the new streetcars is the question of how frequently they will arrive at stops. Because the new streetcars are longer and hold more people, the TTC could choose to have them arrive half as often at stops on routes like Spadina or St. Clair, which now use the CLRVs. Total passenger capacity on those routes would be about the same, but riders would face longer waits. On routes like Queen Street, which now use the larger ALRVs, the new streetcars could come about 50 per cent less often and still carry about the same amount of passengers.

Budget hawks see the savings in carrying twice as many passengers per operator, but should savings be the goal? By running more than the required amount of the new streetcars, the TTC could add badly needed capacity to already-crowded routes.

This is not just a question for riders on a handful of downtown streetcar routes, but for users of busy bus routes too. The TTC has 153 new “articulated” (two-section) buses on order, and expects to use them on routes like 29 Dufferin, 36 Finch West, and 25 Don Mills. The new buses have roughly one-third more capacity than the ones now on these routes. As with the streetcars, it is unclear how much of the added bus size will be used to increase service capacity, and how much will be used to reduce the number of operators on affected routes. [UPDATE: March 27, 2013, 2:15 PM At today's TTC meeting, management is proposing to run Dufferin's articulated buses every three minutes and 30 seconds apart, rather than the current two minutes and 38 seconds. Comparable changes are planned for 12 candidate routes. This is entirely to reduce operating costs, not to provide more capacity.]

Any transit rider knows that there is only a slight resemblance between the service advertised on busy bus and streetcar routes and what they actually see. If streetcars now arrive every five minutes in theory, in practice they arrive in bunches of two or three, and many do not reach the end of the line thanks to short turns. Running fewer cars will make things worse unless the TTC makes large improvements in the reliability of its service.

Outside of peak periods, transit vehicles run less frequently, and any reduction in schedules will bring even worse problems with unreliable service, gaps, and short turns. The effect of this is well known to riders on 511 Bathurst and 501 Queen streetcar routes, where the longer ALRVs replaced regular-sized cars in the early ’90s, just as the TTC was embarking on an era of budget cuts. These routes lost more riders than other streetcar routes that were not subject to the “efficiency” of larger cars and less-frequent service.

The TTC is now in an era of growing ridership, and should encourage this with more, not less, service. This would absorb today’s demand and provide room for more people to shift to transit.

But recent political history is not encouraging.

Back in 2003, the TTC’s Ridership Growth Strategy proposed that crowding standards on surface routes be relaxed so that more people could ride. This was intended, in part, to lure new transit users. Buses would run more often during peak and off-peak periods. Streetcars would run more frequently only during off-peak hours, because there were not enough spare vehicles.

This strategy survived until Mayor Rob Ford, supported by TTC Chair Karen Stintz, flatlined the TTC’s annual subsidy from the City. In 2012, the TTC absorbed its budget cuts by rolling back to the pre-2003 standards, even while demand continued to increase across the system.

Another scheme, the Transit City Bus Plan, came out in August 2009. This would have brought express bus service to some parts of the city, and would have guaranteed ten-minute-or-better wait times on some core routes.

The plan fell victim to a tug-of-war over budget control between Adam Giambrone’s TTC and David Miller’s city council. The ideas in it are still worth attention as a short-term, low-cost way to improve transit in many parts of Toronto.

The TTC argues that running fewer transit vehicles will actually improve traffic congestion problems on major routes, and they even have a study to prove it. However, this study only applies to very busy, peak-period operations. The situation is completely different on less-frequent routes—particularly during off-peak periods when there is less service. During these times, a reduction in the number of TTC vehicles on the street doesn’t seem as though it will have much of an effect on congestion. Passengers, meanwhile, will still experience longer wait times.

TTC CEO Andy Byford acknowledges the need for greater capacity on streetcar lines. “The whole point of this new order is to get streetcars that have the additional capacity to deal with the ever-growing numbers that we’re carrying on the TTC,” he told the Post.

To alleviate capacity issues in the short term, the TTC could retain the best of its existing fleet so that, for example, putting the new streetcars on Spadina would free up some CLRVs for the overcrowded King route. By 2019, when the last of the new streetcars are expected to arrive, the challenge will be to balance growing demand and better service.

For its part, the TTC must increase the reliability of its service, rather than trotting out “congestion” as the root of all evil and washing its hands of responsibility for improvement. Better reliability is one of the cheapest ways to improve transit’s attractiveness and spread demand among vehicles already on the street.

Buying a separate set of shorter, new streetcars for the downtown routes, as Adam Vaughan suggests, is not an option. At best, Toronto would get low-floor cars comparable to the existing ALRVs, and would still face tradeoffs between capacity and “efficiency” on most routes. There would be costs to stop the current streetcar order and re-tender, and inevitable delays before new, reliable, accessible streetcars would appear in Toronto.

Streetcars will play an important role in moving people in the core and the “shoulders” of downtown, where populations will grow over coming decades in ways that cannot be handled by any of the proposed downtown rapid-transit schemes. The challenge for Toronto is to make its streetcars and its transit system work in this busy, 21st-century city, rather than finding endless ways to undermine them.

Council, including Vaughan, voted to order the new cars, and they should concentrate on making this fleet work.


  • Guest

    OK, perhaps I will sound ignorant but…How can anyone have such a conversation AFTER you plan producing streetcars for the Toronto? Shouldn’t that questions be part of an initial proposal?

    • hah

      Alluded to in the article: Budget hawks saw it as a way to immediately reduce costs instead of using them to improve service while the politicians ignorantly cheered it on. Some like Vaughan are chasing the wrong tail here. The problem isn’t the increased per vehicle capacity; the problem is ordering 204 streetcars to replace 250 streetcars.

      • hah

        Some might also note that 250 streetcars isn’t enough to meet demand that exists now.

      • Winkee

        Wasn’t it reduced to 189 in budget wrangling last year, or am I mistaken?

        • Steve Munro

          That was accounting trickery. The money for the last 15 cars was pushed off beyond the range of the multi-year budget plan.

    • Eric S. Smith

      “Shouldn’t that questions be part of an initial proposal?”

      Alert participants in this process, and indeed interested bystanders, were quite aware of this longer-cars/longer-waits issue from the beginning, and of course whether or not the vehicles would fit down the streets was an obvious point of interest. This last-minute “I know, let’s change our order!” outburst is just the usual uninformed waste of time that we’ve come to expect in municipal transit projects. Next, someone will demand that everything stop while we study running these new streetcars in tunnels.

      • rich1299

        I never expected they would cut service until they built the York U busway and then cut service since the drive became shorter but the wait became longer so while it may have saved the TTC money but at most times, except at rush hour when the roads were so clogged the buses could barely move, I had been under the naive impression they’d maintain bus numbers so we’d actually see a much improved service. At the York U end you usually have to wait for several buses before you can get on one and since they now come farther apart the total travel time is much longer going south at peak travel times. It seems that more people start at staggered time at York but many finish at around the same time making southbound travel worse than northbound.

  • Joe

    Isn’t there an option in the contract with Bombardier that will allow the TTC to order additional streetcars if they find they need more then they planned for?

    • OgtheDIm

      The issue isn’t Bombardier. Its getting the anti-streetcar crowd out of the way. If I had dime for every time I’ve seen one of them accuse the city of wasting money by buying new streetcars, I’d be able to afford a mickey of vodka.

      • Kate Roberts

        oh snap, I see what you did there ;)

  • Mark Jull

    TTC discussions have been dominated by speed of vehicle and capacity. However, frequency of service is most important. In most instances a ‘long’ TTC commute is the result of having to wait for vehicles. And in terms of making mass transit attractive to people, waiting for 10 minutes *feels* much longer than moving for 10 minutes.

    I am also concerned with how these new streetcars will work out in practice in stations like Spadina and Bathurst. Currently, one can unload while another is being boarded – I don’t think this will be possible with the new ones. So, I envision the Spadina platform even more crowded than it is, then we’ll have to wait as a car lets everyone off (making the platform even more crowded!), then we’ll all pile on and probably wait until departure.

    • rich1299

      I would imagine it’d possible to extend the platforms at both these stations though at Spadina that would mean loading/unloading on a curve and likely a pinch point for riders unless they excavated a fair bit more which would be expensive so unlikely any time soon, but if they removed the glass barrier at the west end of the platform and are able to expand the platform a bit into the current wall there it might be able to fit two if these streetcars, very tightly if even possible, or perhaps add a but of a walkway on the east end to allow for unloading before the actual platform. I’m less familiar with Bathurst station but since its open air and if I recall properly has some extra space it should be possible to extend the platform and track there as well or perhaps add a second track for cars whose drivers are going on break. But I expect things will have to get very bad and dangerous before any such measures are taken.

  • Frustrated Commuter

    Bigger streetcars arriving less often will be just as packed as the old ones, we’ll just be waiting longer for them. Sounds great!

    • Lloyd_Davis

      And people are touting Karen Stintz as mayoral material? WTF?

      • tyrannosaurus_rek

        Weren’t these street cars ordered while Miller was mayor?

        • Testu

          Yes, but Stintz backed moving the acceptable crowding levels back to pre-2003 levels. It was done to help meet the 10% across the board budget cuts in the first Ford administration budget.

      • dsmithhfx

        Stintz is a conservative, and that’s how she got on Ford’s executive committee in the first place. Like pretty much every other elected member of council, she’s also a political opportunist. Where most of her committee colleagues see political capital in public fealty to Rob Ford’s bizarre whims and antics, she has broken away from that sad pack by casting herself as a voice of reason, for example opposing his patently deranged subways in the suburbs fantasy, and generally trying to maintain some semblance of integrity and continuity in TTC administration. So, unlike most other members of council, she is a shrewd political opportunist. As Rob Ford’s polling position looks increasingly precarious (some recent polls show him losing in 4-way race scenarios), she has not openly discouraged speculation of throwing her hat into the ring.

        • IJustGotToBeMe

          Karen Stinkz can’t even wash her own hair, never mind open up a can of soup. She is going nowhere and fast.

          • dsmithhfx

            Can you try to post something intelligent? Just try. Thanks!

          • scottld

            Thats why she has been on council for 10 years and is TTC chair. Unlike you.

  • Christopher King

    Longer gaps would a be a waste of time. The City wants to encourage people to leave their cars at home, not discourage them.
    Also, sooner or later the City is going to have to take a good hard look at how some of downtown streets currently function and adjust accordingly to meet the increased density.
    Queen Street in the core should be one way, as should King with Adelaide, which has no street car tracks being two-way

  • Steveinto

    Is less vehicles and less service not a way of the TTC meeting the cuts inflicted by Rob Ford. Not to forget the raising of transit fairs to pay for the cancellation of the VRT.

  • iSkyscraper

    Length is not an issue. Frequency will be adjusted up or down as demand requires. Cutting the number of stops, adding the ROW restrictions (like preventing left turns from cars) and having ONLY off-vehicle payment are the items that will make or break the new fleet. If the TTC screws these up all is lost.

    • Testu

      No left turns on roads with non-dedicated ROWs would solve so many delays it’s not funny.

      I can see why it would be impractical on King and Queen St outside of the core but the difference that it would make to traffic flow in general would be huge.

    • scottld

      On some routes like Bathurst yo have to have left turns there is no way around it.

      • iSkyscraper

        Sure there is. It’s called three right turns. Happens on busy routes in NJ all the time. It’s not ideal, but the idea is to discourage private cars from using transit routes in the first place.

        • scottld

          In a world without one way streets you would be correct. Look at a map. There are whole sections along Bathurst where 3 right turns wont do it. Plus isnt the point to keep cars and transit on arterial roads? Advance greens solve this. Toronto has very few advance greens unlike other cities.

          • iSkyscraper

            I did look at a map before I made my comment; it’s not ideal, as I said. Some rethinking of street flow may be required to make this work better. And yes, you don’t want tons of traffic going down sidestreets. But advance greens aren’t entirely the answer either since they steal time from other flows. Most new streetcar systems put streetcar tracks on the curb lane to simplify loading and avoid left-turn issues and in all honesty a complete rebuild of Bathurst with no street parking and curbside tracks would probably work best. But we know that will never happen. So to keep a car with one person from holding up a huge streetcar with hundreds the left turns may have to go in most places. Traffic is elastic and will adapt. Streetcars are not and cannot. It’s for the greater good.

  • Walter Lis

    During the non-rush hours, the new LFLRV (Bombardier Flexity Outlook models) should replace the CLRV’s and ALRV’s one for one. During the rush hours, I will have to wait and see if passengers will no longer use the front doors to exit the streetcars, as they do currently on the buses and streetcars instead of using the other doors.

    The PCC MU trains were not the only l-o-n-g streetcar trains in Toronto. There were the Peter Witt streetcar and trailer trains that used to run on Yonge Street and other routes.

    Unlike the two people that were needed to operate the PCC streetcar trains, or the three people that were needed to operate the Peter Witt streetcar and trailer trains, only one person will be needed to operate the Outlook models (and Freedom models for Transit City), not counting the fare inspectors of course.

  • mjb

    Removing car traffic from King and Queen Street would be an interesting experiment. The City needs to take bolder steps.

    • Chris

      I’m going to take a guess and say you don’t drive? That’s a terrible idea and anyone with a car will tell you that traffic in this city is already hell. we need more streets, not less.

      • Facepalming_Brooklynite

        “we need more streets”

        That’s a funny one. Where would you like to put those extra streets?

      • mjb

        Adding streets is not possible. How would you propose to do that anyway? And they would be filled with cars within six months. We need less cars and we need to stop encouraging people from living in other cities and driving into downtown Toronto to work. Sprawl is the problem.

      • junctionist

        We need something that works. If getting around by car is hell, then it doesn’t work well. Why should we support something that doesn’t work well? We’re not going to start tearing down every building to widen the streets of the city. So let’s use the space we have to make one form of transportation work really well. We need to realize that if something doesn’t work, like getting around by car in many parts of Toronto, then we shouldn’t accommodate it at the expense of something that will work, like transit and cycling. So city hall, put in the transit ROWs on our streets like Queen, widen the sidewalks and paint bike lanes. We can have a better place to live, where getting around is simple, fast and easy.

    • Facepalming_Brooklynite

      Perhaps an alternative could be to make them one-way, e.g. have traffic on King run eastbound only, and traffic on Queen westbound-only. Truly getting rid of curb-side parking would help too.

      • mjb

        Perhaps but there is still the issue of streetcars sharing lanes with cars. The streetcars would function more efficiently if they were in truly separate lanes on King and Queen.

  • delumen

    TTC should replace the current CLRVs with the new ALRVs. Platforms and stations should be adjusted for the new vehicles and capacity. The issue here is the need for more capacity, then everything else should be adjusted for that. Also, maybe stop with the short turns?

  • Michael Provost

    I live in the Beach across from the Neville Park loop where the 501′s turn around to head back West. It’s a common sight to see two streetcars IN the loop, while two, three or more are lined up on the street waiting to navigate it. Basically everybody sits there waiting for the lead driver to return from getting his coffee. The traffic back-ups on some days are absolutely horrendous because cars can’t get past the streetcars due to the cars that are parked on the curbside of Queen St., and of course the streetcar drivers couldn’t care less. I can only imagine how bad it’s going to be when the lead streetcar is 30 metres long and only one of them can fit in the loop. Traffic is going to be backed up to Woodbine Ave.!

    • Facepalming_Brooklynite

      So wouldn’t one easy solution be to simply swap drivers at the terminals? Instead of having one driver parking “his” (or “her”) streetcar and having it sit there unused until the end of his break, couldn’t another driver take over right away? It really seems like a big waste of transit capacity – - I see this at Dundas West station when rush hour commuters have to wait for drivers to finish their breaks

  • scottld

    Think about Dundas and Bathurst when you are on a streetcar going in any direction. Think advance greens. For some reason advance greens just dont exist in Toronto’s transit language even though every other city has them everywhere.

  • EleanorB

    For its part, the TTC must increase the reliability of its service,
    rather than trotting out “congestion” as the root of all evil and
    washing its hands of responsibility for improvement. Better reliability
    is one of the cheapest ways to improve transit’s attractiveness and
    spread demand among vehicles already on the street.

    Word, a million times, word.

  • Chris

    We should bring back some of the vintage streetcars :D

  • William Grant

    If they were underground there would be no delays or gridlock.