Torontoist Explains: Subway Shutdowns
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Torontoist Explains: Subway Shutdowns

How does the TTC respond to subway delays in one of North America's busiest transit systems?

Subway shutdowns are a semi-regular source of annoyance in Toronto, and if you’ve ever been stuck in a prolonged delay—if you ride the rocket now and then, you probably have—then you might wonder what exactly causes these delays, and what the TTC does to respond. Making sure the TTC runs smoothly is a challenging task that is made more complicated by the limits of the transit agency’s technology and facilities.

We asked the TTC to walk us through a subway shutdown, why they occur, and the decision-making they use to get the city moving again.

What prompts a subway shutdown?

Shutdowns can be prompted by a number of different events, including suicides (called “priority ones” by the TTC), fire investigations, an ill passenger, suspicious packages, or leaks like the one that closed College Station in late March. The initial response to an incident sees a mix of TTC and emergency personnel sent to the location, depending on the nature of the event.

In the case of the St. Clair fire investigation in early April, a train called in a burning odour emanating from the tracks between Summerhill and St. Clair. This set in motion a “Plan B.” For fire investigations, the TTC has three plans—one for if the vehicle itself is the source of the fire, one for if it’s in the tunnel area, and the third one for if it’s somewhere else in the station, like an escalator.


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One of the TTC’s chief supervisors got on a train with the Toronto fire crew, and they drove through the tracks until they found the source of the fire, in the tunnel between St. Clair and Summerhill stations. To allow Toronto Fire to go down to track level, TTC cut the power. The fire crew identified the source as underneath a metal grate in the track, but high-voltage cables underneath that grate prevented them from removing it right away. The TTC’s electricians were called in to make sure the cables weren’t live.

As TTC and emergency personnel deal with the emergencies at track level, trains begin turning back at the nearest turn-back locations.

What are turn-back locations?

Turn-back locations are stations where there are crossover tracks that give the TTC’s Transit Control the ability to turn trains back. The tracks could come in the form of a diamond crossover, or a centre track. But the subway system only has a small number of them. On the Yonge-University-Spadina line, for example, there are only 14. There are less—just 12—on the Bloor-Danforth line. There are three more stations on the YUS line where crossovers have been physically installed, but haven’t yet been commissioned, at St. Clair, College, and King. They’ll be unveiled in 2018 and 2019 with the TTC’s re-signalling project, which will introduce automatic train control.


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“I can’t pick the place closest to [an emergency] and then reverse the trains. We have a fixed number of locations where we can do that,” says James Ross, the TTC’s head of subway transportation.

For St. Clair, the closest turn-back locations are Bloor and Eglinton. For College, they’re Union and Bloor. For obvious reasons, the limited number of turn-back stations makes it difficult for the TTC to localize the effects of a shutdown.

The TTC also has to take into consideration which turn-back locations work from a busing and customer perspective. For example, Chester Station is one of the Bloor-Danforth’s turn-back stations, but, Ross says, it’s “very much a part of the neighbourhood—it has no busing facility and it is very, very small.” If there was a shutdown at Broadview, the subway wouldn’t take passengers all the way to Chester, even though it’s the closest station; it would let them off at Pape instead, because of its busing capabilities, and then drive on to Chester to turn around.

As soon as the TTC knows the delay will be extended—the threshold is 15 minutes—buses are called to shuttle customers between the two turn-back locations.

Where do the shuttle buses come from?

The TTC has seven bus divisions around the city: at the Queensway, Arrow Road, Wilson (at Wilson and Allen), Mount Dennis, Eglinton (at Warden and Eglinton), Birchmount, and Malvern. As part of its default duties, the Malvern division is responsible for coordinating shuttle-bus requests.

When Transit Control makes the request for shuttle buses, Malvern division runs the request through a formula that factors in the time of day and the location of the request to come up with a fixed number of buses to send. For Eglinton to Bloor during rush hour, Malvern’s formula allows for 70 buses.

For a 70-bus shuttle, Malvern division will request 10 buses from each division, including its own. The shuttle buses are pulled from routes with lots of vehicles on them—like Dufferin, Don Mills, or Flemingdon Park—because those are the routes that can afford to lose a few. The buses won’t be pulled from their routes until they reach their final stop and drop off passengers.

If the delay is really sustained, Malvern will ask other divisions if they have any spare buses, and potentially put a standby operator on one, but a lot of the time spares are unavailable. “We don’t have a parking lot full of buses that are just idling and waiting to go,” Ross says. “Pretty much every bus we have in our fleet is on the road or on the hoist.”

When shuttle buses are on their way to the turn-back stations, the drivers log onto a route on their Transit Radio Unified MicroProcessor (TRUMP) unit so that Malvern division can track them. Transit Control sends Malvern periodic updates with how many buses have arrived at the route, but it’s not a fast process because the buses are coming from different parts of the city, and are restricted by traffic. Some don’t even make it before the emergency is over.

This is one of the reasons why, last December, the TTC decided to stop calling for shuttle buses between Union and Bloor, and Union to St. George, if the delay is less than two hours long. “We realized that we would pull 70 buses out of service all across the city and they almost never made it into service downtown,” Ross says. “So you’re harming customers all over the city, kicking them off buses, to provide no benefit to the people downtown.”

And even if every shuttle bus miraculously arrived on time, there would never be enough to make up for the subway. One shuttle bus can hold 50 people; a subway can hold about 1,000. To shuttle that many people in buses, the TTC would need 20 buses moving in each direction. At the subway’s morning peak, a subway comes every two minutes and 21 seconds.


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“You start adding it up, you need an unachievable number of buses to replace the subway. That’s why turn-back locations always look like a zoo,” Ross says. “They really do. It’s kind of embarrassing to see the photos, but at the end of the day there’s not a whole lot that can be done.”

Even if the TTC took every other bus out of service, Ross says, it would still be faced with the same problem. And putting much more than 70 buses on a stretch of a busy street like Yonge causes additional traffic issues. As is, the bus drivers work around that by sometimes using a secondary route to get where they’re going—for example, using Church Street instead of Yonge.

The City of Toronto also helps out, by adjusting signal timing to prolong green lights and help get shuttle buses along the route faster.

Why are some shutdowns better organized than others?

It’s all, Ross says, a matter of advanced warning. In the case of the mysterious leak at College, Ross says the final determination that it was not safe to go through the station was made around 4:30 a.m.—after changing several times throughout the night. With an hour and a half before subway service started, the TTC was able to get buses downtown before traffic got too busy, get people in place at the affected stations, and let media know the subway would be shut down. “Even though it’s a really high-traffic area, it still gave us the ability to get something in place,” he says, “and in my opinion I think that one was handled as well as it could be.”

Weeks later, the St. Clair shutdown was more challenging. Once Toronto Fire had found the source of the smoke, Ross says, everyone anticipated it would take only a few minutes to put out. When it continued to smoulder, and the high-voltage cables made it too dangerous to remove the grate without electricians present, the situation changed, and the shuttle buses were called at that point.

“The biggest difference is notice, from our perspective,” Ross says. “Even if we have an hour’s worth of notice, we can make a really big difference. When we have none at all, it’s tougher.”