More trains, fewer delays: Meet the man trying to fix Toronto subways
There were on average 16 delays every day on Toronto’s subway last year, adding up to about 7 hours lost per week.
The TTC’s Mike Palmer is in charge of bringing that number down.
The Toronto Transit Commission hired him three months ago, after he’d spent 29 years working on the London Underground. Now, he’s Deputy Manager of TTC Operations, in charge of the system’s aging subway.
In those three months, he said, “I saw assets which are not as reliable as they could be. A lot of them need replacing. I saw a lot of people who were trying really hard, in quite difficult circumstances.”
Asset reliability is a problem.
A recent Global News investigation found the second most-common reason for delays was door problems – when doors fail to close, or are stuck closed, and the train can’t proceed.
The new Bombardier-made Toronto Rocket trains, in particular, had a number of problems – door functionality among them.
“We have a lot of mods to do with Bombardier, our train provider,” he said.
“A lot of it is about pragmatic experience.”
Problems are identified as the trains are introduced to normal subway service, and repairs or modifications are made as they go along.
“We now have Train 56 in service, and it’s fair to say that Train 56 is a lot more reliable than Train 1, but you would expect that.”
But those modifications get expensive: While Bombardier covered the cost of fixing doors and other such technical problems, the TTC has spent $400,000 so far to modify its brand-new fleet of subway trains. Although the costs would go up if the TTC were to request more modifications, Palmer said he is confident that no further changes are needed.
But it’s not just the trains that are causing delays – it’s the tracks and other equipment too. “A lot of it goes to aging infrastructure,” Palmer said. “So if we tell you we have a signal failure, often it’s because the track’s flooded.”
Some of the pumps and drainage systems are blocked, which causes problems whenever there is heavy rain.
“It’s tunnels that are 50 years old, with sewers that are 50 years old, which aren’t as clear as we would like.”
“Some of it is simple housekeeping and catching up with good repair, and some of it is about asset replacement.”
Finding time to do the work can be tough: Crews often only have a couple of hours every night to make repairs before the trains start their morning runs.
“If this was a road, I could shut it down for four weeks,” he said. The TTC is considering doing more repairs like they did recently near Davisville station, where they stopped the trains until noon on Saturday, giving crews eight hours to complete 16 repair projects all at once.
Staffing is another major source of delays, according to Global News’ analysis. The third most-frequent reason for a delay in 2013 was unavailable crew or operators. The number of such delays jumped in the middle of July and in the week of Christmas – popular times for taking holidays.
Palmer admits holiday staffing is a problem.
“We have a contingency of spares and we only allow so many people off,” Palmer said. But like many people at Christmas, “All of our staff have families and friends they want to be with and we have to find the middle ground.”
The TTC is also hiring new drivers, at the rate of about 6 a week. He wouldn’t say how many drivers in total they want to hire, as plans aren’t yet finalized.
And Palmer says subway service will be increased this October.
“Customers should notice a more frequent service,” he said, though he did not give specifics on how many trains will be added, but said that the cost of new drivers and more trains is coming out of this year’s existing budget.
(Right now, rush-hour service on the Yonge-University-Spadina line is one train every 2 minutes and 21 seconds. The added service will improve on that)
As for the delays due to missing drivers: “We haven’t cancelled a train for a driver now for three or four weeks.”
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