Toronto’s relief line still nowhere in sight as crowding sparks safety concerns on TTC
Mayor John Tory says city is doing everything possible to advance new subway line, but former chief planner says planning for projects like SmartTrack and Scarborough subway risk getting in the way.
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Paul Taylor didn’t think much of it when the subway was delayed during his commute home one evening last month. A regular TTC user, he’s accustomed to the occasional transit hiccup.
But by the time he got from Bloor-Yonge station to his stop at St. George, the delay had caused the waiting crowds to swell and the platform was full. As he exited the train, a throng of people pushed to get on, and he had to jostle his way out.
He made a beeline for the centre of the platform and as he did, he didn’t notice a low bench in his path that was obscured by the milling crowd.
“I catapulted right over the thing and landed on my left side,” Taylor, 62, said in an interview. “It was incredibly painful.”
Taylor, who works as a patient navigation adviser at Sunnybrook Hospital, was later diagnosed with a broken elbow.
He said he often feels unsafe at St. George “because there are so many people there,” and he expects the crowds will only get bigger in the coming years as the downtown population grows.
“This is just one small example of a person getting injured. But it’s only going to get worse,” he said.
Subway crowding is a common complaint for TTC riders, but the problem took on renewed urgency last Tuesday when a cascading series of failures during morning rush hour caused delays that risked creating dangerous conditions at stations across Line 1 (Yonge-University-Spadina).
The problems included a disabled train that began emitting smoke as it was being hauled to a yard, signal and switch malfunctions, and a door problem followed by an emergency alarm that paralyzed a train at Museum station for 21 minutes at the height of rush hour.
Crowds grew as new customers arrived and had nowhere to go, and stranded passengers began to tweet about “chaos” underground and “scary” conditions on platforms.
In an interview, TTC spokesperson Brad Ross asserted that the subway system is safe. He noted the agency has protocols to deal with overcrowding, including slowing trains as they enter a station and shutting down escalators.
But he acknowledged that on Tuesday the TTC was “very, very close” to closing Bloor-Yonge, its busiest station, and evacuating passengers, something he said he has never seen the agency have to do as a result of crowding. The TTC is reviewing what caused the delays and will report to its board later this month.
Tuesday’s crowding may have been alarming, but it was not unforeseeable. The section of the Yonge subway south of Bloor has been over capacity during morning rush hour for a decade.
On a typical morning the section carries between 28,000 and 30,000 people southbound from Bloor-Yonge every hour, more than its scheduled capacity of about 28,000.
The TTC is installing a new signalling system called automatic train control (ATC) on Line 1, and once it’s fully operational in 2020, the line’s capacity will increase to about 32,500 passengers per hour per direction, according to Ross.
But even with ATC, the line is expected to reach capacity again by 2031. And ATC will help address crowding only when trains are moving, not during a service shutdown like Tuesday’s. The Achilles heel of the TTC’s three-line subway network is that there is no redundancy built in. If a breakdown on Line 1 stops service, rapid transit access downtown is completely cut off.
That problem would be addressed by a relief line subway, the first phase of which would connect the eastern end of Line 2 (Bloor-Danforth) at Pape station to Line 1 downtown at Queen and Osgoode stations, and would cost at least $6.8 billion.
But despite city planners identifying the relief line as an urgent need decades ago, the only additions to Toronto’s subway network in the past 20 years have been in its suburbs, away from the crowded core.
Line 4 (Sheppard) opened in 2002 and the new Spadina subway extension to Vaughan followed late last year. Next in line is the planned one-stop Scarborough subway extension, which is being funded by all three levels of government and will cost more than $3.35 billion.
Since John Tory’s election as mayor in 2014, another project has been added to the city’s priority list: SmartTrack, a $3.7-billion plan to use existing GO Transit corridors to serve people within Toronto. The project, which has shrunk drastically from the version Tory pitched on the campaign trail, is expected to divert some riders away from Line 1, but not nearly as many as would the relief line.
At a press conference at city hall Thursday, Tory insisted that the city’s pursuit of the Scarborough subway extension and SmartTrack haven’t impeded progress on the relief line.
“The relief line remains front and centre in our approach and in our funding,” he said.
He argued that after years of inaction, his administration had secured money to advance planning for the relief line. The work to take the project to the 15- to-30-per-cent design stage will cost $100 million and is being funded by the city and province.
However, no level of government has allocated any money to actually build the relief line.
Tory argued Thursday that was not yet a problem because even if the money were in place, construction couldn’t start until the planning work had been done. The federal government has pledged money to help fund Toronto’s next wave of transit projects and the mayor said he was confident the provincial government would also agree to contribute to the relief line.
Tory added that staff have repeatedly advised him “there was nothing to be done” to accelerate the relief line.
But Jennifer Keesmaat, who was Toronto’s chief planner for five years before resigning last September, believes the city hasn’t done everything it could.
She pointed out the relief line’s transit project assessment process (TPAP), a government-mandated study that must be completed before a transit project can be built, was supposed to begin last fall but instead has been delayed until later this year.
According to Keesmaat, the problem is that neither the city’s planning department nor the TTC has a team dedicated solely to the relief line. Instead, a small group of staff split their time between the city’s priority transit projects, which include the relief line, Eglinton East LRT, Waterfront LRT, SmartTrack, and the Scarborough subway extension.
“There are moments when nobody is working on the relief line because they’re working on SmartTrack. There are moments when less people are working on SmartTrack because they’re working on Waterfront LRT,” she said.
She argued the city should create a dedicated team and its “first task” should be to find ways to start constructing the relief line within three or four years.
Current city estimates indicate the line could be complete by 2031, with construction taking eight to 10 years.
“That timeline actually needs to be truncated,” Keesmaat said. “It’s just too long.”
The city and the TTC confirmed the transit project assessment process has been delayed, but said they were still on track to report back to council on the next stage of the design process by the end of 2019, as scheduled.
In an email, the city’s director of transportation planning, James Perttula, said there is a team assigned to work on all of council’s transit priorities, and “staff from that team are assigned to the relief line, as well as the other projects, in order to best address project demands.”
“The number of staff on each transit project varies as demands change and deadlines for the various projects approach.”
He said consultants are also being hired this year to complement staff from the TTC, the city and Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency, who are working on the project.
Don Peat, the mayor’s spokesperson, said Tory will be meeting with city staff in the next two weeks “to ask, yet again, if there are any possible options to speed up work on the relief line.”
“Mayor Tory made it clear this week that the only thing that has slowed the relief line down is the fact that no one did anything about it for years,” he said.