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Tunnel Vision in Toronto -- November 1, 1999 Editorial

By James Bow.

Ying Tan gave me the idea of an editorial page for the Toronto Streetcar section of Transit Toronto. I like it! So, once a month, I will endeavour to ramble on about something I feel strongly about, and you are free to agree with me, disagree with me, or ignore me entirely. You may also respond to individual editorials by e-mailing me and I will run a sample of your responses at the bottom of each editorial. If you don't want your comments put online for all to see, please say so in your e-mail.

Please note that the opinions expressed below are my own, and do not reflect the viewpoint of Transit Toronto in general. Also note that what I say below is my opinion, and that it is okay to disagree with me.

What I'd like to talk about today is Toronto's tunnel vision. By this I mean the inability of certain planners, engineers and politicians to push needed transit infrastructure without gold plating the projects. For the longest while, it seemed as though if a proposed transit line didn't run through a tunnel, politicians weren't interested.

An example of this problem is the reluctance to consider streetcars as the vehicles of choice for new rapid transit corridors. From the 1950s through to the 1970s, there was a lot of subway development in Toronto, and it's easy to see why: to move large loads of people, there is no more efficient mode of transportation. However, in the mid 1970s, the TTC backed off new subway development. The costs per mile of construction were huge, and Toronto was running out of dense neighbourhoods suited for supporting such major rapid transit infrastructure.

Subways are designed to handle between 20000 and 40000 passengers per peak hour. Above 40000 passengers, and the subway has trouble meeting demand and such things as relief-lines or double tracking must be considered. Below 20000 passengers, and the subway ceases to be an economic mover of people. Buses in mixed traffic serve up to 3000 passengers per peak hour. Above that total, streetcars in mixed traffic become economically feasible. Put buses on private right-of-way, and the capacity of a bus route increases to 10000 passengers per hour. This leaves a gap between 10000 and 20000 passengers per hour. The neighbourhoods in Toronto that still required rapid transit were built to densities that would likely generate these loads -- too high for buses to handle, and too low to justify construction of a subway.

To serve such lower density neighbourhoods in Scarborough with an equally rapid (but cheaper) form of transit, the TTC proposed the construction of the Scarborough LRT (essentially a streetcar line on private right-of-way). CLRVs would operate on a grade separated route between the end of the Bloor-Danforth subway line to the Scarborough Town Centre. It would effectively move the number of people who would use the service, and it would be cheaper to build than an extension of the subway.

The Scarborough LRT became today's Scarborough RT when the Province of Ontario convinced the TTC to modify the project to use newfangled Intermediate Capacity Transit System (ICTS) vehicles, with electromagnetic motors and the possibility of automatic train control. To convince the TTC to make this change, the Province agreed to pay for all cost overruns. In the end, the Province kept their word, and supplied the TTC with an additional $100 million to complete the line.

The ICTS technology has been a modest success, with systems sold to Detroit, Vancouver and elsewhere. However, the TTC has been less than impressed with the operation of the Scarborough RT. An additional $27 million was required to improve its reliability, and the service has generally not met expectations. The twenty-eight vehicles which service the line are unique to the TTC fleet, and there is little prospect of extending the line east or west, or adding new ICTS lines elsewhere in the system.

My beef with ICTS is that it is doing everything that streetcars on private right-of-way can do, and it is doing it with a significantly higher price tag. The ICTS system was designed to bridge the "intermediate capacity" of 10000 to 20000 passengers per peak hour. Streetcars on private right-of-way also bridge that gap. ICTS cars can be coupled together for increased capacity. So can streetcars. ICTS cars can load passengers from high level platforms, speeding up operations. So can streetcars (with modifications). ICTS cars can run automatically, although the TTC does not make use of this feature. So can streetcars (with modifications).

It all prompts me to ask, why are we attempting to reinvent the wheel, here? It seems to me that we already have an Intermediate Capacity Transit System vehicle at our fingertips: it's called a streetcar on private right-of-way.

The failure of ICTS technology, in the eyes of the TTC at least, was confirmed by their unwillingness to use this technology when they moved forward on their newest rapid transit expansion projects. Early plans called for ICTS to be used for the Sheppard subway, but quickly the TTC turned back to the 'tried and true' subway technology. The fact that they again did not consider streetcars on private right-of-way again suggests that planners or politicians don't consider streetcars worthy of major infrastructure.

There are many who argue that the Sheppard Subway is overbuilt, that an LRT would carry the required passenger loads as effectively, and for less. True, the Sheppard Subway currently under construction is less than what should be built, but for the cost of the line under construction, the whole of the line from Downsview Station to the Scarborough Town Centre could have been built if the line was built as an LRT. Mayor Mel Lastman wouldn't even consider it, just as Scarborough got upset when the TTC dared consider streetcars for the Scarborough RT, rather than an extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway. The argument that streetcars could not support or spark the desired development along the route is shot down when one looks at Portland and the success of its LRT, or the fact that the TTC thinks that an extension of the Harbourfront streetcar is sufficient to support a massive development boom taking place on Queens Quay.

There is an perception out there that streetcars are yesterday's news, that they're low tech and they easily get caught up in traffic, or that they're slow. Well, put a streetcar on private right-of-way, and it's as fast as any ICTS vehicle. And, yes, they are low tech, but that also means that less goes wrong with them. Why dump a century year-old piece of proven technology to chase an unreliable high-tech dream?

I'm not sure if I should blame engineers, planners or politicians or all of the above (and I should point out, not every engineer, planner or politician is covered by the above statement), but it seems that people who build major pieces of infrastructure never miss an opportunity to plate it in gold. Politicians did not really get behind the Spadina Streetcar line until it was repackaged as a 'high-tech' LRT. A streetcar line was yesterday's news, whereas an LRT was a great photo opportunity to show the city how progressive it was. Ironically, the LRT moniker ended up intimidating the local community. Opposition to the Spadina LRT only really started to fade when the project was re-repackaged as the community friendly Spadina Streetcar line.

Many politicians like spending money and investing in big new projects. It makes them visible and it gets them votes. A new subway line adds prestige to Toronto, while maintaining old subway tracks does not. It took David Gunn and the fatal subway accident of 1995 to shake that perception out of our politicians, at least temporarily. The unwillingness to go with the cheaper, but equally effective, technology is the main reason why Toronto has fallen behind on its rapid transit infrastructure. This problem is hardly unique to Toronto, or to public transit, but Toronto has suffered because of gold plating. A lot of money has been poured into projects when less could be spent to do just as much. Even today, we are considering spending hundreds of millions of dollars building a subway to the Airport when perhaps a busway could do.

Perhaps today's climate of increased belt-tightening will convince the engineers, planners and politicians in Toronto to look carefully for the best value. The extension of the Harbourfront streetcar line is an example of the good things that can be done with less drain on the public purse (in 1988, the TTC priced an extension to the CNE at $68 million; today's extension is being completed for only $20 million). However, I fear that it is human nature to try and build the biggest and most expensive toy. Failure to look beyond this will doom the expansion of Toronto's infrastructure.