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The many faces of Toronto

27 min

With Brexit on our doorstep, it would be easy to forget that other countries around the world are blighted by their own political turmoil. In Toronto, it just so happens that this tension spills over onto its transport network. Take a journey through the Ontarian capital to find out how its many levels of government work together to move rail projects forward – and what the UK can learn from its more innovative outlook on rail transit

It was a breezy summer’s day in Oakland, California, when 28-year-old Kawhi Leonard scored the 114th and final point in this year’s jaw-clenching National Basketball Association championship final against the Golden State Warriors, sealing his fate as the most valuable player in the team and securing a momentous 4-2 victory for the Toronto Raptors. This was the first-ever NBA Finals appearance for the red-clad Raptors, who also made history as the first Canadian team to pin down the prestigious title despite facing the American team at home in their last-ever game in Oakland’s Oracle Arena.

The city of Toronto erupted in celebration in response to the unexpected win. On 14 June, millions of residents and tourists poured onto the streets downtown in a day-long parade and victory rally that was later rounded off by prime minister Justin Trudeau, who delivered the event’s closing remarks alongside players and dignitaries.

But behind the scenes, transport bosses were having their own private celebration: on one of the most historic days in Canadian history, the city’s network successfully managed to carry almost three million people – the highest-ever number of travellers in a single day in Toronto.

“The best part of it was that everybody got around the city safely, so there were no incidents related to the Toronto Transit Commission [TTC],” said Cllr Jaye Robinson, chair of the organisation. “It was a great day in the city, because the Toronto Raptors won for the first time. And we made some extra revenue, so that was great!”

While that fateful day in June was definitely one of the busiest for Toronto’s transport network, it certainly speaks truth to a wider trend that has been hindering the city in recent years. Unprecedented levels of growth have thrusted the Canadian city into the limelight as having one of the most heavily used transit systems in the continent. According to Jaye, TTC services regularly carry huge volumes of passengers, with 18 of its surface transit routes driving around 30,000 people every single day. The 504 King streetcar alone – which traverses the city east to west – carries 84,000 people daily.

For the most part, this is a reflection of the fact that Toronto is thriving. A multicultural and multiracial haven, the city’s population stood at 2.7 million in the official census of 2016, making it the largest city in Canada and the fastest-growing in all of North America – and it’s expected to grow further, by 33% to around 3.9 million people by 2041. Anecdotally, Jaye says that Toronto boasts more cranes than any other city in the continent, even beating cosmopolitan giants New York and Chicago.

I’m not trying to exaggerate when I say that we’re at a crisis point, where we need to not just enhance the current transport system we’re running, but we also need to build more. We need to expand.

“A couple of days ago, I was in the north-west part of the city – so not even downtown, but in the suburbs – and I saw four cranes in just one street. The population is booming,” she told Quadrant Transport. “That is exciting, but at the same time, we’re behind in our capital investments. I’m not trying to exaggerate when I say that we’re at a crisis point, where we need to not just enhance the current transport system we’re running, but we also need to build more. We need to expand. We can’t accommodate – or we can’t handle – any more delays. The city is growing in leaps and bounds; we need to be able to accommodate our current and projected riders.”

Despite a clear-cut need to evolve and adapt to this fast-paced growth, the city’s transport network is often hoisted with its own petard: it is so large, so integrated, and so complex that any effort to expand beyond current boundaries can be set back by political disagreements and funding delays. If you thought the rail network in the UK was complex enough, you haven’t seen anything yet.

Tricky relationships

According to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, transit in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) is delivered by nine local service providers, all of whom are responsible for planning, funding, and operating their services. The province of Ontario, through its agency Metrolinx, is then tasked with delivering regional passenger rail services across GTHA, connecting riders to all municipal transit systems within the area. New capital projects in the region are usually jointly financed between the federal, provincial, and municipal governments, but municipalities are entirely responsible for all aspects of operating local services, including the funding itself (most of which comes from fare revenue). Needless to say, relationships between these different levels of government can often be marred by conflict.

Take Metrolinx and the TTC, for example: the former is a provincial agency that brings together road and rail in the Golden Horseshoe region, which includes the cities of Toronto and Hamilton, while the latter oversees bus, subway, streetcar, and paratransit operations in the city of Toronto. While the two organisations are not rivals, per se – they aim to work as collaboratively as possible for the benefit of integration between the province and the municipality – it’s not exactly a faultless relationship.

“There are lots of bumps along the road, and sometimes we don’t really get along perfectly. But for the greater good of the system, we do our best to get on,” admitted Jaye, who commands Ward 15 Don Valley West as city councillor alongside her chairmanship at the TTC.

Pressed for details, she said Presto – Ontario’s take on the Oyster – is what immediately comes to mind. According to the city councillor, the fare system developed by the province was “outdated before it even hit the ground.” Inflexibility in implementing off-peak pricing and the inability to use an open payment system which allows riders to tap their cards on electronic readers are just two of the issues Cllr Jaye pointed out – but the problem actually runs much deeper.

An in-depth review by the Auditor General in February this year found that, in addition to $3m allegedly lost from malfunctioning Metrolinx equipment, the TTC lost at least $61m in passenger revenue in 2018 due to fare evasion. A staggering 15.2% of journeys on tram services, for example, were carried out for free, amounting to a massive $12.2m revenue loss. However, despite lower evasion rates on buses (5.1%) and the subway (3.7%), these were responsible for even worse losses of $30.1m and $18.4m respectively.

There are lots of bumps along the road, and sometimes we don’t really get along perfectly. But for the greater good of the system, we do our best to get on

According to the auditor report, fare-dodgers were helped by the lack of interaction between passengers and streetcar drivers – similar to what we see in place in UK cities such as Manchester – as well as the multiple-door design of the new trams, making illegal entry much easier. There was also a significant surge in passengers fraudulently taking advantage of the Presto Child card, which offers unlimited free rides for kids below the age of 12. While TTC fare inspectors didn’t come across any youngster using the card, they did catch almost 80 adults in the act, child smartcard in hand. It sounds too simple to be true, but one of the biggest enablers of this ticketing fraud comes down to the fact that the adult and the child Prestos are visually identical.

“The impact that Presto has on our finances is quite substantial,” lamented Cllr Jaye. “Rolling it out was bumpy in the first place, and then before it hit the ground running, it was already outdated. It’s card-based technology, which is very inflexible compared to an account-based technology.

“We were forced to use Presto as a city because they [Metrolinx] were already using it for other lines. I could rattle on for hours about Presto, but what I would say is that the fare system that they really, in a sense, forced us to use is very outdated and challenging, and affects our revenue in a major way. I don’t want to sound overly negative, but we’d like these things to be addressed, and it’s happening very slowly. Like most transit systems, we are cash-strapped, so to lose that revenue because the system isn’t great is frustrating.”

Her remarks echo a TTC report from last year which argued that the organisation would have to spend millions of dollars more on fare collection each year as a result of rolling out Presto. In the report, the transit agency estimated that by 2020, once the Presto system is fully implemented, collection costs would rise to almost $120m – compared to $110.8m in 2018.

What good looks like

Yet Metrolinx believes that the integrated system is the right way forward. In fact, Presto features prominently in the provincial agency’s wide-spanning 2041 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) for the GTHA, a successor to 2008’s The Big Move, the region’s first-ever long-term transportation blueprint. Developed in coordination with regional partners, the RTP is being implemented not just by Metrolinx, but by all of the partners “with a stake in its success.”

“The RTP sets out what good looks like,” said Phil Verster, president and CEO of Metrolinx. “Here’s the interesting thing: because Metrolinx has integrated responsibilities and is vertically integrated, it’s significantly more real to integrate not only the plans for the infrastructure, but also the fare policies and the customer experience, which affects everything: how you put a service design together, what frequencies you operate, what light-rail transit services you prioritise for build, what you do with bus services in the region, and so on. There is also something similar to the control period in the UK: funding must be secured for each of the projects for every four- or five-yearly cycle.”

If there is one person who is qualified to draw comparisons between the transport networks in Toronto and the UK, it’s Phil. Before he left to lead the Canadian agency, he held a plethora of high-ranking senior roles over here: as managing director for the East West Railway Company and ScotRail Alliance, as MD of Network Rail’s London North Eastern route, and as deputy CEO at Iarnród Éireann/Irish Rail. He’s also had stints at Southeastern as its engineering operations director in 2003 and at Bombardier UK as production director in 2001.

“The Big Move was very much the inception of thinking about transit and rail transit in a regional sense,” Phil continued, reminiscing about the Metrolinx achievements since its first integrated plan in 2008. “We are now way beyond that.”

Riding around the Golden Horseshoe

The eight-year, multibillion-dollar ‘GO Expansion’ programme is the centrepiece of Toronto’s transport future. Led by GO Transit, the Metrolinx-owned regional operator in the Greater Golden Horseshoe region of Ontario, the proposal will see a major increase in the number of services on offer: more all-day, two-way services; trains at least every 15 minutes; a faster and more efficient fleet; more accessible stations; and an expanded Union Station in Toronto, where GO Transit itself is headquartered. In mid-August, Phil joined transportation minister Caroline Mulroney to announce a raft of even further improvements which will ensure that from 31 August, customers benefit from almost 100 new weekly journeys in the region.

We’re building a transportation system that puts people first by offering them transit options that fit their schedule

“We’re delivering on our promise to expand transit in Ontario by offering more services, more trains, and more choice for GO customers,” said Mulroney, standing next to Phil in a formal government announcement broadcasted across social media. Her colleague Kinga Surma, associate minister of transportation in GTA, added: “We’re building a transportation system that puts people first by offering them transit options that fit their schedule, whether they’re meeting up with family and friends, staying late at the office, or wanting to get home early.”

According to Phil, who told Quadrant Transport that the programme is currently in the market with four different consortia bidding for work under a public-private partnership (PPP) structure, the GO expansion is a “hugely exciting programme that supersedes The Big Move in a big way.” But beyond that, Metrolinx is currently knee-deep in ongoing plans to build new subway lines as part of the Ontario Government’s $28.5bn commitment to grow the mostly underground network.

Decades in the making

Announced by Conservative Premier Doug Ford in April this year, the multibillion-dollar ambition to get shovels in the ground will feature four headline projects: the new Ontario Line, which will cost $10.9bn ahead of a 2027 delivery; the Yonge North subway extension, at a price tag of $5.6bn and due to open soon after the first scheme; the three-stop Scarborough subway extension, coming in at $5.5bn by the time it’s finished in 2030; and the Eglinton Crosstown West extension, expected to cost $4.7bn and which will be delivered before 2031. Of the $28.5bn required, the province intends to contribute $11.2bn.

The news is undoubtedly well received by local players such as the TTC. Chairwoman Jaye has been personally campaigning for the opening of the Ontario Line – previously known as the Relief Line – for eight years, while Phil said the previously stagnant project has been decades in the making (some say even longer, with initial plans for an east-west downtown subway dating back to the early 20th century.) “For nearly 50 years, Toronto has been talking about building a downtown Relief Line South, which was basically connecting Line 2 – the Danforth subway line – with Line 1, because of heavy loadings on Line 1,” he explained.

“This is a solution which would’ve been great 25 years ago, but the city was still planning to build it now. Our Ontario Line project is basically replacing the downtown Relief Line; it has a business case of around twice the economic benefit and it’s twice as long, but still has the same cost, because we are using driverless signalling and train technology together with lighter vehicles. We’re also using some underground and some overground subway routes, very similarly to what’s used in London.”

Some people say this is all happening on the back of a napkin. I’m not sure that’s the case, but there is a lack of detail

This does mean the project was drafted at provincial level rather than municipal, but the TTC chairwoman doesn’t mind; she just wants to see it happen. “We just want to get it moving. From my perspective as TTC chair, there’s no line that is more critical to the future of Toronto than the Relief Line,” she emphasised. “They have now passed legislation for it, and it will be extended beyond our original Relief Line. Our Relief Line is the central piece of the recent line, but they have extended it north and west, so they made it much bigger. I’m not an engineer by any means, but I think in this case, bigger is probably better and will serve more neighbourhoods. I just want to see it get built.”

But that’s not to say that the political tension sandwiched between the many levels of government involved didn’t rear its ugly head. In February, the TTC announced a new plan to fast-track construction of the Relief Line by two to three years. At that point, the municipal agency had already completed “quite a substantial piece” of the planning work, with Jaye estimating that it was around 15% designed. “We’d also done a lot of the estimating, the procurement work, the planning for construction, and even looked at expropriating lands,” she explained. “So the negative would be that the province’s plan is at less than 1% designed, and ours was at 15%.”

Worse yet, the TTC still doesn’t fully understand the finer details in the province’s plan, including the technology they intend on using. “They’re talking about a lighter, smaller vehicle that they can build faster, but it may not be appropriate for such a high-traffic route – so I do worry about that. You don’t want to build something and then learn that it’s not fit for purpose,” the chairwoman noted. “There’s been a lot of talk, but it’s not been really clear.” These concerns remain in line with a blog post she penned in May, which argued that while the extra cash was welcome, “we still have many questions about the costs, plans, and timelines” for the proposed project.

“I think there’s a lack of information,” she told Quadrant Transport. “I don’t want to be critical, because they’re committing a substantial amount of money – that’s very exciting and we’re very happy about that. But there is a lack of details. Some people say this is all happening on the back of a napkin. I’m not sure that’s the case, but there is a lack of detail. When we ask questions, we’re not getting comprehensive answers.

“It’s our job to make sure that we’re providing transit to meet the needs of the city both as it is currently and as it grows; we need to be doing that as city councillors, and me in the capacity of TTC chair. Politicians are supposed to have the vision for the future of the city. You don’t have to be a genius to know that Toronto is growing in leaps and bounds, and that work has to speed up.”

Phil, however, remains positive that Metrolinx is on the right track and that the technologies are fairly standard, though he made no mention of the vehicles themselves. “Automated signalling systems aren’t really that novel – they’re used in Vancouver’s SkyTrain and the London DLR, for example. We’ve worked very closely with the bidders and technology partners that have already delivered this before. It’s really important to get a solution that works really well,” the Metrolinx boss clarified.

Buy smarter to live better

His organisation has also moved away from TTC’s traditions when it comes to procurement. Rather than carrying out most of the design work and then searching for a bidder against that – a strategy Mr Verster says is “commercially fraught” and “very old-fashioned” – Metrolinx is procuring under a PPP model. “,” he explained. “We then hold them to deliver that and achieve outcomes over a 35-year period. It’s a very different model, one that isn’t as widely used in the UK, but one which I wanted to use in the East West Rail programme. We have several of these PPP contracts currently in delivery.”

Metrolinx is also adopting a transit-oriented development strategy approach: the operator has been working with property designers to develop solutions around the new transport infrastructure they build. “For example, picture a station that has significant condominiums built on top of it, but also a retail area and facilities such as a gym and the like,” Phil stated. “It’s a very significant integration of city development opportunities with a transit solution.”

But whatever the differences in procurement, one thing both Metrolinx and the TTC can agree on is that the clock is ticking, and the four subway projects must get built. Jaye recounted an especially concerning situation where a resident in her ward – which would dramatically benefit from the Ontario Line, given its position in the network – revealed that they had gone back to using their car because it’s become more reliable. Jaye herself is an avid user of the public rail network (she doesn’t even know where her reserved parking spot is in the TTC building) and has experienced first-hand the frustration of waiting for two, three, even four trains pass by before she can physically fit inside the vehicle. Worse yet, once onboard, passengers are packed like sardines.

Take the Bloor-Yonge station, for example. Ridership at the busy station, located at the heart of Line 1 of the subway network, is expected to surpass 34,000 travellers per hour during morning peak time by 2023 – which isn’t exactly far off. According to a Metrolinx initial business case, if the Ontario Line is built as planned, it will divert around 6,000 people per hour, per direction, in the peak period – meaning Line 1 could finally experience some much-needed relief as passenger numbers fall by 14%. But given Toronto’s forecasted population growth, even this success will be short-lived if no other improvements measures are put in place beyond 2041.

A tale of two governments

Of course, much like in the UK, financial help from higher levels of government tends to come with strings attached. In the case of the Ontario Government’s $28.5bn transportation vision, it’s no different. Just days after Premier Ford announced the GTA extension masterplan, the province announced the brand-new Getting Ontario Moving Act, which was introduced in the legislature in early May. Under the guise of getting subway lines built quicker, the government is hoping to transfer control of components of Toronto’s transit system over to the province, alongside a more long-term plan of taking responsibility for the existing subway network. In effect, the proposal shifts the balance of powers from local to regional level in direct contrast to the devolution trend that is taking the UK’s rail sector by storm.

Needless to say, the city council is not a fan of the idea. While a joint public review of the transit responsibilities is ongoing alongside an assessment by an expert advisory panel, the City of Toronto has indicated that the TTC should continue to own, operate, and maintain Toronto’s public transport network, including the subway system and the light rail lines planned for the future.

The Ontario Ministry of Transportation is adamant that the takeover, first unveiled by transportation minister Jeff Yurek, will satisfy the public’s desire for an expanded network that is delivered quickly and efficiently. “The government is moving forward with its plan to upload new subway builds to the province to ensure subway lines get built faster,” said ministry spokesperson and senior issues advisor Courtney Anderson. “The legislation marks an important step in the largest expansion of Ontario’s transit network in our province’s history – bringing real relief to transit users that includes expanding options for Scarborough residents, moving forward with the desperately needed Ontario Line, extending the TTC’s Yonge subway line north into York Region, and extending the Eglinton Crosstown light rail transit westward and mostly underground.

“The province is working with the City of Toronto in good faith and under a Terms of Reference that commits both parties to assess options that move past the status quo. In moving forward with the upload, we will turn priorities into projects, and deliver an expanded, modern and integrated transit network of which we can all be proud. In doing so, we’re open to new ideas and technologies that will help us to deliver subway lines better and faster than has been done in the past.”

More power would go a long way. Some days you feel very exasperated by some of the limitations

When asked whether there was sufficient basis to allegations that the province could move forward with subway plans faster than the city itself, Cllr Jaye once again touched on the issue of clarity. “Their ability to finance things is much stronger than ours, because they can be a bit more creative whereas we, as a municipality, are more limited. But there’s still a lot of questions marks out there,” she explained. The TTC chair also suggested that the province could fall into the trap of being overambitious, planning for too many new stations without fully considering the extra time this could add to the design process and inadvertently creating even more delays.

One potential solution that could go some way in mending the rift between the province and the city is giving the TTC more power. For some, the business case for this could write itself: despite being limited to the boundaries of the city of Toronto, the TTC carries around 530 million people a year compared to just 70 million across Metrolinx services. “Even though they are in a sense a bigger agency, if you look at the scale of TTC operations, what they’re doing [at Metrolinx] is just equivalent to the ridership on our streetcar network. Our operation is much bigger than Metrolinx – I think a lot of people don’t really understand that,” the councillor said.

“If we had more power, we could be more effective, we could get more done, and we could accelerate a lot of these timelines and deadlines. Because the network is so integrated, it’s very complex; I don’t think people fully appreciate how complex it is, and how underfunded and cash-strapped it is. More power would go a long way. Some days you feel very exasperated by some of the limitations.”

And this is all without bringing the federal government into the mix. That in itself can often be the source of significant tension in the city, especially as the Liberal government in control of the country clashes with the Conservative party in charge of the Ontario province. This could all be about to change, of course, as the 2019 Canadian federal elections are just around the corner – but for now, it’s amounted to a lot of to-and-fro between the two different colours in charge.

“There’s been a lot of back-and-forth between the two levels of government over the last six weeks. The federal government keeps saying, ‘We want to see a business plan for what you’re proposing, where’s the business case?’ We’re watching it like a ping pong game – a very aggressive ping pong game – from the municipality standpoint,” revealed Jaye.

From the perspective of the public, though, none of that matters in the slightest: they just want to be able to go to work and come back home without all the frustration of a jam-packed train. As a councillor representing residents on the east side of the overcrowded Line 1, Jaye hears about this every single day.

“It’s essential that we’re able to maintain and improve our network to meet the future demand. Regardless of the configuration, all three levels of government must work together to deliver new transit projects,” she stressed. “When residents see the posturing and the fighting between the three levels of government, they’re not impressed. They’re frustrated by that. I think they’d like to see the TTC remain in the hands of the City of Toronto, but on the expansion projects, they just want to get on with it. People are tired of all the talk and inaction; they’re tired of transit being a political football. They want the system to be operated effectively and the money to be put into the capital needs to keep trains running. We have to keep our hands on the wheel.”

Toronto meets the UK

The future of Toronto’s transport network is as yet unclear, to say the least; even though specific projects have been announced and ambitions laid out in the 2041 Plan, countless questions continue to hamper the speedy evolution of the system. But not all is as dire as it seems: there are some key things that the Ontario capital has mastered over the years which will work to its advantage no matter who is in charge.

According to Phil Verster, the city is filled to the brim with a thirst and willingness to try new things. “There’s a huge commitment to commit funds to the development of infrastructure which is now seen as crucial for the development of the GTHA, and to do it in ways which are different to how it’s been done before,” he added.

“I think that’s really important. Sometimes, in the existing or traditional conventional markets such as in the UK, innovation is not really as promoted as it is in Toronto today. Very structured, methodological methods from years before are stuck for a very long time and change is slow in places like the UK. Here, we are moving really fast to implement solutions that will get us results as quickly as possible. There’s a sense of urgency, and I think that’s very exciting.”

That’s not to say the UK rail industry is incapable of innovation. In fact, East West Railway Company, which Phil used to lead, was created off the back of a desire to do things differently in the hopes of accelerating a project that had for too long been relegated to the sidelines.

“But the real room for innovation is not in the technical or in the operational space,” argued Phil. “The room for innovation is in the commercial space. It’s about how to do city and regional developments in a transit-oriented way. It’s about the procurement and division of responsibilities and obligations between the suppliers and the TOCs and the infrastructure managers. The commercial opportunities we’ve seen here, such as in terms of applying PPP contracts, are actually very significant. I’ve always been surprised at how little of that has really found its way into Network Rail’s methodology of procurement and delivery. There’s a real opportunity to experiment with that.”

That said, Phil affirmed that the UK is one of the world leaders in the transport arena. “The deep rail culture that is in the UK is a fantastic source of knowledge and information for us,” he added. “We really enjoy working with colleagues within Network Rail. I recently had three of my engineers spend a month with Rob McIntosh’s people up in the London North Eastern [route], and it’s fantastic for us to be able to do that. We appreciate our UK colleagues very much.”

But the real room for innovation is not in the technical or in the operational space,

The Ontario Ministry of Transportation agreed that the UK, much like other nations around the globe, is a valuable asset to their region. “Our government is committed to building infrastructure projects across the province that reduce congestion and get people moving. The ministry is working with Metrolinx to deliver an exciting transit programme by drawing on lessons learned from other projects internationally, using proven international best practices and technologies and lessons learned locally,” said spokeswoman Courtney Anderson.

The future is now

The city of Toronto is on an uphill battle to accommodate itself. It’s not just that it’s the fastest-growing city in North America – it’s the rate at which it’s all happening. As it stands, Toronto is growing at three times the speed of the second-fastest growing city in the continent, Phoenix. The situation is so critical that urban planning experts believe Torontonians may have to start shacking up with friends and family in the foreseeable future so that they’re not locked out of the housing market. The scale of the challenge ahead is immense.

An NBA triumph might just do the trick for now, but let’s hope that in the years to come, the city’s success is in itself enough reason to celebrate.