Torontoist Explains: Short Turns

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Torontoist Explains: Short Turns

How short turns happen, and why they're decreasing.

Short turns have long been one of the biggest frustrations of riding local transit. You’re halfway to where you need to be and then you’re told you need to exit the bus or streetcar. Everyone groans, and impatiently waits for the next vehicle to arrive, and no one is happy.

Here we explain how short turns occur, what the TTC is doing about the issue, and how the transit agency is getting dramatic results.


What are short turns?


Simply speaking, a short turn is where a transit vehicle is turned back and taken out of service before reaching the terminus of the route. In a transit system as complex as the TTC, some short turns are inevitable; major disruptions such as a collision blocking a route will require backed-up vehicles to be turned around. But thanks to simple traffic congestion or poor route management, they’re a common frustration for many riders.

Sometimes, short turns are deliberate and planned: for example, during morning rush hours, every second subway train on Line 1 is turned back at St. Clair West Station. This provides for extra train service on the busier Yonge and University sections of the subway line, but reduces service north of St. Clair West. Buses or streetcars might run in service along a part of their route on the way to the garage or carhouse.

In most cases, short turns are unplanned. Traffic and weather conditions, vehicle crowding, poor scheduling, mechanical problems, or other delays will often cause buses and streetcars to fall behind schedule, sometimes resulting in bunching, as other vehicles catch up to the delayed bus or streetcar. Buses are often able to leap-frog each other, but streetcars are stuck. If delays are bad enough, it can create long waits for passengers waiting further down the line, eventually affecting passengers in the opposite direction. Transit control or route supervisors can instruct operators to turn-around early in an attempt to maintain the posted schedule.

The 501 Queen Streetcar, for example, can short turn at several points along the route. A Queen car headed eastbound from Long Branch to Neville Park can turn around at Humber Loop, Roncesvalles Carhouse, Dufferin/Shaw, Bathurst, Church, Parliament/Broadview, Connaught (Russell Carhouse), or Kingston Road. Kingston Road is an especially common short-turn location, frustrating passengers trying to get to the Beach(es).


Why do passengers hate short turns?


According to Rick Leary, the TTC’s Chief Service Officer, short turns are the number one complaint made by passengers.

Short turns are a blunt instrument intended to maintain route schedules but it’s done at the expense of consistent service along the length of the route. On long bus and streetcar lines, relying on short turns to meet scheduling often results in particularly unreliable service near the ends of the route. Transit advocate and Torontoist contributor Steve Munro noted this in a 2013 study of operations on the Queen Car, noting particularly long gaps in service to Neville Park and Long Branch as cars are frequently turned back at Kingston Road, Humber Loop, or at Kipling Loop.

Short turns are disliked because they require passengers to leave the vehicle and wait for the next one to arrive to continue to their destination, hoping that the next bus or streetcar isn’t too crowded or short-turning itself. Many operators, when informing their passengers that the vehicle will short-turn will be considerate and apologetic, while others might show less courtesy when asking riders to exit the vehicle. And sometimes, for no inexplicable reason, transit control will instruct the second or third vehicle in a bunch to short turn; those unfortunate passengers could be left waiting for 10-20 minutes for the next vehicle to arrive. Short turns might keep the TTC running on time, but they don’t do anything for passengers in a hurry.


What is the TTC doing about short turns?


There is some good news: in the past year, the number of short turns has dropped considerably, according to a December 2015 TTC report. This was accomplished by adding more time to schedules to give vehicles more time to reach their terminals, a practice known within transportation circles as “padding” schedules. The new schedules were first tried on the 29 Dufferin bus and 512 St. Clair streetcar in 2014; this was expanded to six more troublesome routes in 2015.

Previously, the TTC didn’t measure service performance at the route terminals, instead focusing on waypoints mid-route. The target set by the TTC was that 65-70 per cent of all vehicles were on time passing these waypoints. This approach encouraged the use of short-turns. New performance standards focus on departure and arrival times at the terminals; short-turns are discouraged under these new standards as they would negatively affect vehicle arrival targets (set at 60-80 per cent one-time performance). Within a year, there were major reductions in the number of short turns.

Streetcar short turns by week, 2014 (red) and 2015 (green)  From TTC report, December 2015

Streetcar short turns by week, 2014 (red) and 2015 (green). From TTC report, December 2015 .

As for the Queen Car, the service was split into two distinct sections: one route between Humber Loop and Neville Park, and one route between Humber Loop and Long Branch, a de facto resurrection of the 507 Long Branch Streetcar. This improved route reliability for long-suffering south Etobicoke commuters while reducing the need for articulated streetcars on Queen Street.

During the first week of January 2016, TTC spokesperson Brad Ross stated that the Queen Car was short-turned 48 times, compared to 600 during the same period the year prior. The following week, beginning January 1, there were 299 short turns system wide, compared to 3,500 during the same week in 2015.

The new route performance standards require additional resources (drivers, vehicles), at a time when the TTC’s budget is limited as Mayor John Tory’s administration seeks to cut costs in every city department (well, except one). It also remains to be seen whether the TTC will stick to the new performance standards, or whether it will quietly return to old habits. But for now, TTC customers can have more confidence that they will actually get to their destination without the dreaded short turn.

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