Toronto transit riders are going to return to a much-improved network, TTC says
April 6, 2021
When the city hopefully gets a handle on the COVID-19 crisis later this year and more Torontonians start using the TTC again, the transit system they return to should be in better shape than the one they left last spring.
The pandemic has decimated TTC ridership, and at its lowest point last April, passenger volumes dropped to just 14 per cent of normal. Ridership is still only about 30 per cent of what it used to be, and the agency expects boardings and fare revenue won’t return to pre-pandemic levels until after 2023.
While those projections appear grim, the TTC is taking advantage of this period of low ridership to accelerate important maintenance and upgrades to tracks, stations, and vehicles that would have been harder to execute if the system were still crowded.
Agency spokesperson Stuart Green said CEO Rick Leary “put out the call to all areas of the organization” to find ways to expedite capital work when it became apparent the pandemic would devastate ridership.
“Basically, any projects that could be done, have gone ahead,” he said.
Probably the most important gains have been made on two of the TTC’s biggest subway projects: the installation on Line 1 of the automatic train control (ATC) signalling system, and the ongoing remediation of toxic asbestos in subway tunnels.
It’s normally difficult to find time to perform such intensive work. TTC subways run from about 6 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. most days, and there is only a short window each night during which crews can fan out across the network and do their jobs.
To get the work done, the TTC has instituted a significant number of weekend or early weeknight subway closures in recent years, which has frustrated riders.
But with fewer transit users to inconvenience during COVID-19, the TTC has increased the number of closures, and extended them--in December and March it instituted its first ever 10-day shutdowns of sections of Line 1.
The closures helped speed up the installation of ATC on Line 1 by about five months, roughly equivalent to 20 weekend closures. Once installed the signalling system is expected to significantly increase capacity on the normally busy subway.
By mid-March the agency had also removed more than 50,000 square feet of asbestos from the subway, up from the scheduled 15,000 square feet.
Additionally, as of last month the TTC had replaced 33,500 feet of subway track as opposed to the 10,000 to 20,000 feet that had been planned before the pandemic. It had also completed about 535 station and tunnel leak repairs instead of the planned 370, and used a rare two-week closure of Chester station to speed up the installation of elevators by three months.
The agency also began pulling streetcars out of service in greater numbers than planned so more of them could be shipped to Quebec for vehicle manufacturer Alstom (formerly Bombardier) to perform critical weld repairs. The program, which will affect close to 70 streetcars, was supposed to take until 2023 but is now scheduled to be done this year.
Green said the work completed on the subway during the pandemic will make the network more reliable and reduce the need for closures once riders return.
“We will always need weekend closures... but the number we immediately require will go down,” he said.
Work in the tunnels can require crews to operate in close quarters, but Green said the TTC takes steps to protect them from COVID-19. The agency supplies personal protective equipment and workers are required to observe social distancing protocols.
Carlos Santos, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113, said the union “closely monitors and ensures the TTC lives up to its health and safety commitments.”
But whether on the accelerated projects or not, “some TTC workers have been working in close quarters for the entire pandemic. It’s been a tough year for all TTC workers, who continue to put their health and well-being at risk to keep Toronto moving.”
As of Apr. 1, about 640 TTC employees had contracted COVID-19 and one had died from the virus, out of workforce of about 16,000.