TTC prepares ‘Plan B’ after delays to Bombardier streetcar order
Acting CEO Rick Leary breaks with the TTC's former boss and suggests Bombardier's 2019 deadline is unrealistic.
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The new acting head of the TTC has split with his former boss and admitted the transit agency is preparing for the possibility Bombardier will be unable to deliver the entirety of the city’s new streetcar fleet by the end of next year.
In a wide-ranging interview in the seventh-floor corner office at TTC headquarters recently vacated by former chief executive officer Andy Byford, acting CEO Rick Leary said he was “putting a Plan B together” in the event the streetcar order is not completed as scheduled.
Under the original terms of the $1-billion purchase, Bombardier was supposed to deliver all 204 new vehicles by the end of 2019. But the company has consistently blown deadlines; it was supposed to have supplied a total of 148 cars by the end of 2017, but instead managed just 59.
Byford, who left the TTC in December for New York City Transit, insisted throughout his tenure that despite repeated setbacks he wouldn’t allow Bombardier to miss the 2019 end-date.
But in a break from that stance, Leary suggested the original timeline is no longer realistic and said the TTC can’t afford to be unprepared if the fleet isn’t delivered on time. The agency is currently making up the shortage by running buses on some streetcar routes and keeping streetcars that are more than 30 years old in service for longer than intended.
“There’s no doubt it’s in jeopardy. I probably shouldn’t go that far, but it’s in jeopardy,” Leary said of the 2019 target.
“I’ve been buying trains and streetcars and buses for 15, 18 years. I don’t want to say that (Bombardier is) not going to make the end of ’19, but I would say I have asked them for a real, true realistic schedule.”
In an email Friday, a spokesperson for the company insisted it remains “on track to deliver all 204 streetcars by the end of the original contract deadline.”
Leary, 54, was appointed acting CEO by the TTC board in November. The board is conducting an international search for Byford’s permanent successor and board Chair Josh Colle has said he hopes to have a new boss in place by July.
Leary intends to apply for the job, and if the board opts to promote someone internally he’s in pole position to take over the country’s largest transit system. He already has Byford’s endorsement — the highly respected former CEO told the Toronto Star he commended him to the board.
Regardless of whether Leary gets the permanent job, he will have to stickhandle some vital files in the first half of this year, including a ridership growth strategy launching later this month, negotiations for a new contract for transit workers after the current one expires Mar. 31, and the ongoing transition to the Presto fare card system.
A native of Boston, Mass., Leary began his career as a train attendant at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), the fifth-largest transit system in North America. He eventually worked his way up to chief operating officer.
After he retired from the MBTA in 2009, he came north to work as general manager of York Region Transit. Five years later, he was hired as the TTC’s chief service officer, a job in which he was in charge of day-to-day operations.
His signal achievement in the TTC role has been a dramatic reduction in short turns, which is when a vehicle reverses direction or is taken out of service before it’s reached its destination. They’re often ordered when vehicles fall off schedule and have to be reorganized to prevent bunching or gapping, and have long been a major complaint for inconvenienced TTC riders.
Leary said he was able to reduce the problem by adding time to schedules to make them more achievable, and focusing on maintenance to prevent breakdowns that caused service gaps. According to TTC stats, between 2014 and 2017 short turns on bus and streetcar routes were slashed by 75 and 89 per cent respectively.
Leary wouldn’t reveal details of what will be in the TTC’s ridership growth strategy, which will be debated by the board Jan. 25 and is aimed at attracting more passengers after three years of stagnating growth. But he hinted one proposal will involve greater use of “micro-transit,” which could see the TTC contract private taxis for subsidized trips on low-demand routes.
On the contentious one-stop Scarborough subway extension, unlike Byford, who said the project should be reconsidered if it exceeds the current $3.56-billion funding envelope, Leary wouldn’t say whether it should proceed if its cost continues to rise. City officials are expected to have an updated estimate by late 2018, but it may not be made public until 2019.
“I wouldn’t want to speculate until we get a true number,” he said.
Although Leary believes his time at MBTA gave him the experience required to run the TTC, he left the agency amid controversy. According to news reports from the time, some MBTA board members were angered when Leary failed to show up to an October 2009 meeting at which he was expected to give the agency’s response to a damning federal report about a fatal train accident.
Leary told the Star he missed the meeting because he had already taken the York Region job and was in Canada settling his family. He said he had told the MBTA’s general manager he wouldn’t attend and blamed the ensuing controversy on “confusion with a couple of the board members (who) didn’t know that I was away.”