A Last Minute Ten, Nine, Eight ... Point Transit Plan
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A Last Minute Ten, Nine, Eight … Point Transit Plan

The mayor's list of ideas to alleviate crowding offers little relief in the short term.

Torontoist file photo.

Mayor John Tory announced a ten-point plan to fight congestion and delays on the TTC at a press conference just before Toronto Council began its final debates on the 2018 budget.

Through the entire budget process, starting with Tory’s cohort on the TTC Board and continuing through the City Budget and Executive committees, transit has received passing, but certainly not enthusiastic support. The most expensive items in the Operating budget (the one that pays for service and maintenance) were the fare freeze for 2018, the introduction of the two-hour transfer in August 2018, and the extra subsidy required to operate the subway extension to York University and Vaughan.

As for actual service that would carry more riders, the TTC budget contained no provision for any until it reached the Executive committee where a paltry $1 million was added to fix the worst of the worst overcrowded bus routes. A further $3 million was suggested during the press conference, but it is not part of the ten-point plan.

What will Toronto get from Tory’s last-minute recognition that congestion is a big issue for transit riders?

Immediate changes include:

1) Two additional subway trains have been added to Line 1 service during the AM peak period. That’s on top of the 61 trains that currently operate during the morning rush and makes sure the TTC is able to move 2,400 more people.

After the Bloor-Yonge congestion crisis on January 30, the TTC announced that it would restore “gap” trains on the subway. This was among the measures listed in a January 18 subway crowding report to the TTC board. Gap trains are on standby for addition to service in case there is a delay causing a gap south toward downtown in the morning peak, or northbound from Union in the afternoon peak. In past years, trains were stationed at Davisville and Union for this purpose, but they were gradually cut from the schedule with the last of them disappearing in November 2017.

The claim that this will allow the TTC to carry more riders is false. Yes, the capacity of each train is about 1,200 riders, but these trains replace runs that are missing due to the delay and gap they are filling. It is not possible for following trains to “make up” the lost capacity because the signal system limits the throughput of trains at key locations like Bloor Station.

As only two gap trains are mentioned, this change will only apply to Line 1 Yonge-University-Spadina in the morning peak. This does nothing for Line 2 Bloor-Danforth, nor for either route in the afternoon peak.

The press release speaks of the restored gap trains as if they are already in place, while the TTC’s crowding report shows them as a future addition. The TTC advises that they were added on the day of the announcement (February 12) and will be funded by reallocating money from other accounts.

2) Overnight maintenance schedules have been adjusted to ensure better system reliability.

A problem with operations at Wilson Yard was discovered shortly after service to Vaughan began in 2017. There is a conflict between work trains returning to the yard after overnight maintenance and regular service trains leaving the yard to be in place for the start of service for the morning peak.

The TTC will change its scheduling at Wilson Yard, and a new north connection from the yard to the mainline, expected to be in service soon, will give more options to move trains into and out of service.

3) The TTC will do more proactive checks on operating equipment, especially during periods of extreme cold or inclement weather so we’re not surprised by a broken heater on a switch.

This is an important procedural change to ensure that service can be sent out of subway yards when it is scheduled. The problem was flagged in the TTC CEO’s Report published on February 8.

4) More platform staff have been deployed at Yonge/Bloor and St. George stations to manage crowding and help better communicate with the travelling public.

5) There will be improved monitoring system-wide with additional personnel at the Transit Operations Centre so the TTC can react faster to problems as they arise.

Managing crowding and communicating with riders are important, although by themselves, these steps do not provide additional capacity.

Changes to come include:

6) The TTC will be enhancing its communications with riders and announcements across the system.

Exactly what this will entail beyond points 4 and 5 is unclear, not to mention why this is an item for the future rather than simply doing a better job today. One pending change is an upgrade of the system for transmitting announcements to trains, but this cannot happen quickly because existing technology must be replaced.

7) The TTC will be studying possible options for lower fares during off-peak hours to give people real financial incentives to take transit outside of the rush hours.

Off-peak fares have been considered before by the TTC, and during the 2016 budget discussions, this option was among the recommended options for consideration during the 2018 budget. The decision to freeze fares for 2018 effectively sidelined any talk of a new fare structure, at least until the two-hour transfer scheme gained political support.

The January 18 crowding report recommends this is an item for further study. However, the January 25 Ridership Growth Strategy is silent on the subject. Many issues must be settled in order to have an off-peak fare including:

  • How will off-peak fares relate to the wider questions of fare equity on the TTC system including their effect on different types of riders?
  • Will this apply only to Presto card holders paying a full adult fare (as is the case for the GO Transit discount) or will discounted single fares be included as well?
  • How would discounts be provided for pass holders who have prepaid for unlimited riding, and who represent over half of the adult rides on the system?
  • Would off-peak fares go down or peak fares go up, or some combination of these? What would be the effect on riders who cannot adjust their travel times due to work or school schedules, or other personal commitments?
  • Will the change require additional subsidy, and if so, where will this come from?
  • Will additional service be required on the shoulders of peak periods to handle riding shifted away from the peaks?

The Yonge subway is already over capacity for an extended period in the morning peak, and there is a substantial backlog of latent demand that simply cannot board the trains.  A very large shift in travel to periods either side of the peak will be needed to have a visible effect on crowding problems.

This is clearly not an issue to be settled in the immediate future, but should be part of TTC budget options for 2019 and beyond.

8) The TTC will be bringing forward a plan on how to use enhanced express bus service to help ease overcrowding on the Yonge Line during peak periods.

The TTC has explicitly rejected express buses in the crowding report:

To be truly effective, dedicated lanes along Yonge Street and a much larger fleet of articulated buses would be required. Unfortunately, this is still an unattractive option as the trip times would be considerably longer than we can achieve on the subway already.

Whenever there are calls for better transit service, not just in the Yonge Street corridor but across the city, the standard refrain goes, “We have no buses, we have no garage space, and we have no budget for either of them.” If the expansion of bus service is really on the table as a subway relief measure, this begs the question of why it could not also be part of a system-wide review of route capacity and crowding.

From a cost point of view, relief buses would operate peak only, the lowest utilization rate for transit vehicles.

9) The Mayor will be meeting with the Minister of Transportation and the Premier to propose ways the City and the Province can work together to ease overcrowding city and region-wide.

Toronto already has a plan to work together with the Province of Ontario. It is called “SmartTrack” and according to the city budget presentation, it will consume $3.765 billion over the next ten years simply for capital construction and provision of equipment. This is more than the current cost estimate for the Scarborough Subway Extension at $3.365 billion.

There will be added costs to the city for operations and, probably, for a joint Toronto/Ontario SmartTrack fare discount. Until now, SmartTrack has been spoken of only with respect to the GO corridors to Markham and to Weston, but there are five others where Toronto riders might be shifted to GO Transit.

How much is Toronto willing to pay Ontario to make up for poor transit planning over past years?

10) Just as the Mayor has done with road closures in the city, he will be chairing a regular monthly meeting with senior city, TTC and Metrolinx transit officials to track the progress of our transit expansion projects, including but not limited to the Relief Line, with an eye to doing everything possible to speed them up.

There is already a body that meets monthly and should, in theory, track major transit projects. It is called the Toronto Transit Commission. Too often that body has provided cover for Mayor Tory’s transit policies (and Mayor Ford’s before him) by downplaying the need for additional spending on day-to-day operations, capital maintenance and expansion. The TTC has a long list of projects that do not have committed funding, and even that list is incomplete.

If the Board were regularly reviewing project schedules and issues in public, the recently revealed conflict between the SRT and the planned GO/SmartTrack Lawrence East station would have been known long ago, embarrassing though that might have been. Transparency and informed debate can have a political cost.

On service quality, some members of the TTC board and Council would pack more riders into buses rather than address overcrowding, or would raise fares to reduce the subsidy call on Toronto’s budget. During the TTC debate on its Ridership Growth Strategy, Chair Josh Colle mused that just adding buses is an out-of-date way to entice more riders onto the system.

Suddenly, the Relief Line is a big issue because we have discovered that the subway is full. This was no secret to any regular rider, but the routine claim was that incremental improvements–new trains, diversion of riders to the Vaughan Extension, automatic train control, SmartTrack and GO/RER–would siphon riders off of the subway fast enough to keep up with growth. The TTC’s own subway crowding report is quite clear that the peak period is no longer a short event that clears quickly, but one that lasts 90 minutes and stretches over many stations.

The problem is not recent, only the long-overdue acknowledgment that it exists.

Many bullets in the ten point program will offer little relief in the short term, and much of the goal appears to manage, as best as the TTC can, to muddle through until real improvement is possible years in the future.

That is what happens when a city makes do by squeezing the capability of its transit network to handle growing population and travel demand. It is one of many costs of having the lowest taxes of anywhere in the GTHA.