Veteran transit manager invited back to advise Toronto heading into its budget crunch, but gets the silent treatment from politicians and transit staff
This story first appeared July 5, 2011 in The Globe and Mail. Some readers misunderstood David Gunn’s comments on streetcars (and I’ll take the blame for that). Gunn is in favour of retaining streetcars in Toronto and knows the fleet must be replaced. But he says the buying 70% low-floor vehicles instead of 100% ones would have provided far better value for the money, with better accessibility and lower maintenance costs.
By STEPHEN WICKENS
“You’re headed for a cliff” and “this plan for a low-floor streetcar subway on Eglinton is insane,” were among the warnings given by Mr. Gunn to TTC staff, chair Karen Stintz and vice-chair Peter Milczyn in closed-door sessions.
Mr. Gunn, who has held top transit jobs in New York, Boston and Washington, as well as at Amtrak, the U.S. passenger rail service, said he is stunned by lack of response to his stern advice, given in May. “There was no reaction, no questions,” he said.
“They’re taking on huge financial and technological risks. There are serious safety implications. I think they’re headed for a cliff while people talk about new uniforms.”
Torontonians may remember Mr. Gunn as the man who got the TTC’s house in order with his emphasis on “state of good repair” after the fatal 1995 subway crash, which happened a few months after he arrived in town. Signal-systems neglect was deemed to be partly to blame and further examination revealed the entire TTC, once praised continent-wide, was imperilled by corner-cutting on maintenance and repair work.
Speaking from the notes he used on his visit, Mr. Gunn has provided Globe and Mail readers with a synopsis of his remarks, largely an analysis of the financial, technological, managerial and safety issues facing the TTC.
MAINTENANCE AND EFFICIENCY: These issues will never be as sexy as expansion announcements and ribbon cutting, but Mr. Gunn emphasized we “should stick with two priorities – state of good repair and improved cost recovery.”
On the former, he says the $4.2-billion in the long-term state-of-good repair budget, a small part of overall capital proposals, likely isn’t enough. “But as I told the commissioners, you better protect that 4.2 like your life depends on it.”
On cost recovery, he points out that in the past decade, the proportion of operating costs covered by fares has slipped to 70 per cent from 84. “It was a conscious decision by the previous commission. You had a 350 per cent rise in the deficit while ridership rose 15 per cent. You’ve got to get the economics back. A lot of the expansion was marginal service (increased frequency on existing routes). You can undo some of that, but it’s politically tough. Give a lower priority to expansion and the bells and whistles. The capital budget is chaotic. There are enough plans on the books to bankrupt the province,” he said.
SHEPPARD: Before he arrived in town this spring, Mr. Gunn made clear he believes the proposed subway extension to Scarborough will be a drain on operating funds, and the idea that the private sector would build it for the city is laughable. But he has another beef: “North-south capacity on Yonge is the TTC’s big problem. So, what are they doing? They’re planning extensions to feed the Yonge line.”
SPADINA: “The subway extension is basically on schedule and on budget, though they may be doing stuff you wouldn’t do if you had a rational commission. The stations and the line are not built to minimize costs because that previous commission (under chair Adam Giambrone) had the visions of grandeur. The stations are grandiose. They’re going to be way more expensive than necessary.”
EGLINTON: “Low-floor streetcars in a tunnel will cost you more than a subway while delivering less. I can’t for the life of me figure out how this decision was made.”
Cost is a big selling point for light rail, but Mr. Gunn said to put it underground requires tunnels bigger than for subways, while low-floor light-rail vehicles cost twice as much as subway cars and have less capacity. “It’s just crazy, it’s insane.” Metrolinx says that the smaller underground stations and reusing the Scarborough RT’s right of way make light rail the more cost-effective option. Mr. Gunn says “that’s such nonsense, but I guess if you can defend mixing the track gauges, you can defend anything.”
MIXING TRACK GAUGES: Claiming it will save money, Metrolinx has decided its rail projects will use North American standard gauge track, which is 60 millimetres narrower than the gauge used for the rest of the system. Mr. Gunn says Metrolinx doesn’t know what it’s talking about. “It won’t save you a nickel. Adding standard-gauge cars means a separate shop for heavy maintenance, and you don’t have the people to do the work. It reduces flexibility. It may seem obscure, but it really matters. It’ll go down in railway lore as one of the dumbest decisions ever.”
STREETCARS: “It makes no sense to replace the current fleet for $1.2-billion (plus $430-million minimum for a new storage and maintenance facility). It might cost $2-billion by the time you’re done. You could buy 200 articulated buses for less than $200-million.
“Maintenance costs will be horrific. There’ll be lots of bugs and they won’t be built like the CLRVs (current streetcars), which easily win all collisions with automobiles. “Oh, and they’re not accessible. The floor height is about a foot. You won’t be able to load a wheelchair on the street. There will be ramps, but the floor height is going to be about a foot. The ramps will be too steep. I’d cancel the order. They’ll eat you out of house and home.”
ROCKETS: The new subways rolling out this month “will probably be fine trains,” he said, with reservations. “When you go from married pairs [detachable two-car units] to a six-car permanently linked train, reliability needs skyrocket. [A minor problem on one car takes an entire train out of service.] You’ve also got to change your shops and you don’t have interchangeability.” He’s also not sold on the larger capacity argument, fearing that being able to move freely through the train may lead too many people to try exiting at the same doors. “A 10 or 15 second delay from this can have big effects. Let’s see how people really use the trains.”
SIGNALS: Long-term, the TTC is looking to automate subway train control and operations. In anticipation, it’s rebuilding an old signal system while installing a new one. “That’s really pushing it,” Mr. Gunn says. “They don’t have the people and they don’t have a general superintendent knowledgeable in this area who can arbitrate between competing projects. And the signal work will conflict with necessary station and track work. “The best risk on this signal stuff is you lose capacity from a screw-up and work trains get in the way. The worst is an accident. That’s what happened last time (with the fatal crash in 1995).
FRAGMENTATION: “You must fight this fragmentation of authority, I said. There’s Metrolinx and Toronto Transit Infrastructure Ltd., the mayor’s office. If you don’t go through the commission chain of command, you’ll end up with crazy decisions. ”Mr. Gunn, who had to endure the Sheppard subway project while heading the TTC, says he told current chief general manager Gary Webster: “Trust me, the last thing you want is to get tasked with a stupid project. Another thing I said was that if the province wants to take over parts of the TTC, give them the whole thing. The rail and the bus system are one. It’s the most integrated system, probably in the world, certainly the Western world. It’s brilliant.”
LABOUR COSTS: “Despite the rhetoric about trimming fat, (Mayor Rob Ford) struck a rich deal with the police, which will roll into the TTC. He also got the TTC put under essential services, which means you’re going to have a terrible labour settlement. I don’t like strikes, but at least the threat of one forces both sides to get real. “Then there’s absenteeism: It’s about four or five per cent, the equivalent of an extra 400 to 500 employees covering for people calling in sick. That’s at least $30 million, maybe a lot more.”
IMPRESSIONS: “Not that things were pristine in my day, but the system looks dirty. The platforms used to get cleaned, but I was getting on at St. Clair every day for a week and there was this same mud swirl the whole time I was in Toronto. The trains aren’t getting washed either. They look shabby. It’s kinda depressing.”