TTC on verge of being top in North America, Byford says
CEO paints a rosy picture of final year of five-year plan.
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Andy Byford is counting down the days until the end of 2017. That’s when he believes Toronto transit riders will be able to enjoy what he calls the “utopian journey of the future on the TTC.”
The upcoming year is a pivotal one for the TTC CEO and the organization he oversees. It’s the final chapter of the five-year plan that Byford launched to completely modernize an agency he says was “stuck in the 70s” when he took over in 2012.
He paints a rosypicture of the experience of riding the transit system once the plan is complete. He vows that by year’s end the Toronto-York Spadina subway extension, the first addition to the city’s subway network in over a decade, will be open.
Customers will be able to access each of its six “stunning” stations with the tap of a Presto fare card, and inside they will be greeted by a roving TTC employee — no longer confined to a collection booth — who will offer directions and schedule information at the touch of a tablet computer.
Taking the fully accessible station’s elevator down to the platform, customers will be able to browse the internet on a wifi network that extends across the subway system, as they wait for a train that will be faster and more efficient thanks to the implementation of the automatic train control (ATC) system on a portion of Line 1.
“That ladies and gentleman, that sounds like utopia,” Byford said during the TTC’s annual customer town hall in November.
In an interview, he said he believes the improvements slated for 2017 will restore the TTC’s reputation. “I think we will meet that objective of being back to number one in North America by the end of this year,” he said.
The five-year plan laid out a road map for improving virtually every aspect of the TTC, from public safety, employee relations, financial stability, and public reputation. The agency has met some of the targets, which are regularly updated, but missed others.
Achievements Byford points to include the rollout of new subway cars and articulated buses, the ongoing overhaul of the woefully outdated communication system on surface vehicles, and the continued cost-saving modernization of the agency’s back office systems.
He’s also overseen an update of employee uniforms, restructured station staffing to be more customer-focused, and attempted to address the cleanliness of what he says was once a “squalid” subway system.
Short turns, long the bane of subway and bus riders, have been drastically reduced since 2014, and according to Byford subway delays caused by infrastructure failures are down 21 per cent since that year thanks to a proactive maintenance regime.
Last October the TTC eliminated the guard position on subways on Line 4 (Sheppard), which Byford said is the “the biggest change to TTC working practices in a generation” and will eventually save close to $19 million annually.
Yet by several important measures the TTC has so far failed to meet the goals of the modernization plan.
While delays caused by infrastructure failures have been reduced, delays attributed to other factors persist. Last month the TTC reported that all three subway lines were failing to meet reliability targets.
“There are also cases where there simply isn’t enough service on the street,” said Steve Munro, a local transit expert. He argued that TTC management needs to be more vocal in pushing the agency’s political masters to provide funding for improved bus and streetcar service. A recent Star analysis found that more than a quarter of surface routes exceed crowding standards at some point during the week because there aren’t enough vehicles running.
(Byford argues that he’s gone to bat for TTC funding in the past, citing as one example his public release during the highly charged 2014 mayoral election of a wish list of unfunded transit improvements.)
On the plan’s goal to improve the relationship between employees and management, there is much room for improvement, according to the head of the TTC’s largest union. The switch to one person train operation and the pending introduction of random drug testing, both opposed by the union, have soured relations, said Bob Kinnear, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113. He said employees “feel that their value is not supported by upper levels of management.”
The TTC also hasn’t met the plan’s goal of reducing lost time from employee injuries, and has made no progress on reducing worker absenteeism.
To Byford’s professed frustration, progress on some of the TTC’s highest-profile modernization efforts remains slow, through factors that are not entirely within the agency’s control.
Bombardier’s failure to deliver the badly-needed new streetcar fleet on time has infuriated TTC leaders and passengers alike.
Meanwhile the pivotal Presto card system has been dogged by technical problems that have helped pushed back the date for the TTC’s phase out of other payment methods until sometime in 2018, at least several months later than the agency had hoped.
Although the TTC bears the brunt of customer complaints about Presto, most of the fare card technology is ultimately the responsibility of Metrolinx, the province’s transit agency for the region.
Ed Levy, a transportation planner and transit historian, said that in the past four years the TTC has done its best to improve transit service, with limited resources.
By the standard of other North American transit agencies the TTC receives little government funding for operations, and is forced to rely on the fare box for a much higher portion of its costs.
Levy also says that for decades politicians have failed to invest in building out the subway system, meaning a delay on one line can affect the whole network and have a big impact on customers.
“The big thing is that we’ve still got a totally inadequate system for the size and pace of development in the city,” Levy said.
Although Byford says he’s proud of progress to date, there is one issue he admits he’s still kicking himself over — the “hot car” problem that saw broken air conditioning units induce sweltering conditions on Line 2 subways last summer. He calls the TTC’s failure to foresee the issue “the biggest disappointment of my tenure.”
Byford’s team is already drafting the next five-year plan, which will guide the agency as it undertakes important work like instituting the automatic train control across Line 1, making the whole system fully accessible, and integrating the new Eglinton Crosstown LRT into the existing network.
Asked whether he will stay on as CEO once the current five-year plan is up, Byford, who is a permanent TTC employee and isn’t on contract, claims that he has yet to decide.
“I haven’t really given it any thought,” he said. “I have so much to do.”
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