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How ailing TTC turned corner

Deadly 1995 crash exposed weaknesses, retiring chief says

By Joseph Hall
Toronto Star Transportation Reporter

It was the deadly 1995 Toronto subway crash, says TTC general manager David Gunn, that allowed him to take control of a system drifting dangerously off course.

"If you had to have an accident, I guess a lot of good came out of it for the TTC," said Gunn, who leaves the Toronto Transit Commission on April 30, after four turbulent years.

The crash, which killed three people and injured 36, came eight months after Gunn took over the job as head of Canada's largest transit system. It could have sounded a short tenure for the highly touted American import - who ran transit agencies in Washington, New York, Philadelphia and Boston - but instead became the seminal event in a largely triumphant Toronto career.

"After that accident, we would have followed him anywhere," said TTC deputy general manager Lynn Hilborn, a 12-year commission veteran. "We would have followed David Gunn into hell and back."

The crash exposed three severe weaknesses in Toronto's transit system, which, behind a decades-old facade of safety and excellence, was quietly collapsing. Gunn, as he did when he took over New York's crumbling disgrace of a transit system a decade earlier, would move with breathtaking speed and decisiveness to turn things around.

The first of the three weaknesses was a financial one.

By 1995, municipal and provincial subsidies to the system had been falling steadily and steeply for a decade. At the same time, a lingering recession had cut deeply into ridership revenues.

`It became clear that the chain of command was not effective.'

- David Gunn

"This led to serious financial problems and these problems led directly to the second big problem, which was deferral of maintenance in the basic upkeep of the system," said Gunn, 62. "So you had a plant that was aging and we were in really serious financial trouble and that meant that basic maintenance schedules were being cut back at the worst possible time."

The postponement of scheduled maintenance, which saw the TTC lose an average of one bus a week to complete mechanical breakdowns, was not directly responsible for the Dupont station crash. An inquest identified a design flaw in an emergency trip-bar braking system and poor driver training practices as the main culprits.

The maintenance delays did point to what Gunn now sees as the system's third and biggest flaw at the time - a bloated and inefficient management team that was dreaming of future expansion while the system rotted.

"What had happened here, and it was obvious, was that the emphasis had been placed in senior management not on operations, but on people who could analyze, people who could plan and people who could work in a political environment rather than on people who knew how to maintain tracks and buses and so forth," Gunn said.

"They took for granted that down in the engine room you had these wonderful people and this wonderful machine that would go on forever no matter what you did to it."

Bogged down in a committee mentality and dedicated primarily to system expansion, TTC senior management then consisted of 59 people. Only six were were responsible for the system's actual operation.

When the accident occurred, many of the senior staff simply did not have a clue why it happened, Hilborn says.

"The difficulty the organization had responding to the accident highlighted what I think in many respects was the most serious problem we had," Gunn said. "It became clear that the chain of command was not effective in dealing with the problems this commission faced . . . and the most important thing that came out of that accident was the decision to completely restructure the TTC."

The ponderous nature of TTC management by the mid '90s is illustrated in Gunn's favourite story from the time. "I call it the case of the missing sign committee," he said.

With committees so numerous a thick, in-house book had to be printed to list them all, fast and determined decision-making was almost unheard of, Gunn said.

When a man was killed by a train after falling on to the tracks in early 1995, a Toronto coroner became concerned that the system's 250 emergency "blue light" boxes, which allow third-rail power to be cut from station platforms, did not have sufficiently clear instructions to allow passengers to use them. Taking matters into his own hands, Hilborn wrote up a sign, with two simple directions, which could be printed and stuck on to the boxes within days. He then presented the idea to Gunn, who okayed it.

"There was resistance and this person who will remain nameless came to me and said, `This is moving very fast. You have to run this by the sign committee,' " Gunn said. "So I said, `Who's on the sign committee?' and he said `Well, I'm not sure. I'll find out and get back to you.'

"I never heard from him again and these signs went up in less than a week."

Gunn then turned his attention to the other committees.

"The thing that happened in the fall of '95 is . . . I went around shooting committees . . . And you gave control of the commission back to the people who actually run it and maintain it."

The basic new management structure was put in place in a three-week period during the fall of 1995. It would take another nine months to fill the new executive positions with qualified staff. What would emerge, and what is in place today, is an undeniably talented senior management core that has become the envy of transit systems around North America.

Recruited largely from track and road level personnel, who had been virtually barred in the past from the TTC's Davisville Ave. headquarters, the new front-office team was augmented with engineering recruits from the Canadian military as well as the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railways.

Each of the new managers was placed in an area where they had proven expertise and told the buck stopped with them.

Gone was anything that was not directly applicable to the improvement and upkeep of the basic system.

"The functional things are really clear. It's not brain surgery," Gunn said. "For example, air conditioning on streetcars, which was millions and millions of dollars, was out and a lot of computer stuff was just gone from the capital budget."

"We had more money in the budget for computers than we had for track."

Instead, Gunn pegged such basic concerns as bus, subway car, track and tunnel replacement; electrical signal and communications renewal; station, elevator and escalator upkeep and transportation planning and scheduling as his priorities. He combined them in a capital package that would be know as "the state of good repair program."

Then he went to the TTC commission, Metro Hall and Queen's Park. After decades of transit expansion, the job of selling basic, boring upkeep to elected officials was bound to be a tough one. But here too, the accident would help Gunn.

"It was a wake-up call that they (the politicians) heard, so when we went in with a logical approach and a series of actions, they allowed themselves to be convinced," he said.

With a streamlined and responsive management structure and political backing for his plans, Gunn went into 1996 ready to tackle the system's major problems. They were two-fold. First, age - the original Yonge St. subway was 42 years old - and a lack of maintenance had deteriorated the TTC's once exceptional fleet and plant. Second, ridership losses and continued government cuts had exacerbated financial problems.

Gunn cut hundreds of jobs and extraneous expenses from the system, which is now the most financially efficient transit organization in North America. (The TTC gains 80 per cent of its operating revenues from fares, while most others rely on government subsidies of 50 per cent or more.)

Armed with a key crash inquest recommendation to fix the deteriorating system, Gunn was able to push through a $1.1 billion, five-year capital budget that would be dedicated to his state of good repair policy.

The good repair budget called for about $400 million in basic system repairs and another $700 million for new and rebuilt buses and subways.

It was on the buses that Gunn found his biggest success and one of his harshest political headaches.

"We're now to the point where sometime by the end of this year, three-quarters of the entire fleet will be new or rebuilt," he said.

Setting up assembly lines at the TTC's two bus shops, Gunn has taken vehicles that any other system would have scrapped and transformed them into what many drivers consider the best in the fleet.

For the politicians in this city, especially TTC chair Howard Moscoe, the main problem with the bus fleet is that it includes very few low-floored, accessible buses.

`It's really the politicians who have taken (low-floored buses) as a religious matter.'

- David Gunn

For Gunn, the biggest problem with the buses his political masters demand is that they have proven far too costly to maintain and carry too few passengers to function as efficient mass transit vehicles.

"I guess my biggest complaint has been that it's really the politicians who have taken this as a religious matter and said it's low-floor or nothing. . . . Well, that's fine, but the next step is how are you going to pay for them?"

A 1,500-vehicle fleet of low-floor buses would cost the TTC $50 million a year extra in added repair costs and lost passenger capacity, he said.

Senior TTC staff say political scraps such as the one over low-floored buses are the main reason Gunn is leaving his $150,000 post two years early. While Gunn himself remains mum on his reasons for going, the near-certain prospect of heated battles over further municipal funding cuts may well have pushed him to his quiet Cape Breton Island retreat.

Despite the battles, Gunn counts his time in Toronto as the most rewarding of his transit career. "I think this has been the most gratifying job I've ever had in my life, and I think first of all it's because I like the people I work with, it's a very strong and talented group right through.

"And this has been the toughest job from my point of view because I've never had as many problems thrown at me at the same time . . . and to deal with that and come through that with the system physically and financially in good condition, that was really rewarding."

Gunn also sends a warning to those who would further cut the TTC's subsidies. "The system is as lean financially as you can get and if you take any more money out of it, the maintenance will suffer and you're back on that dangerous downward spiral again."