Less than one year after the TTC spent $26 million on what it billed as a major maintenance program to extend the life of 30 of its older streetcars, the vehicles remain so unreliable that the agency can only get two or three into service every day, the Star has learned.
The program began in 2015 and was supposed to help keep 30 of the aging streetcars on the road for up to an additional 10 years. But despite exceeding the program’s budget, the TTC fell far short of its target and did work on just 20 cars.
The work that was done failed to significantly extend the life of the cars, and as of this month on any given day the majority of the streetcars, which are known as articulated light rail vehicles (ALRV’s), are stuck in a garage in need of further repairs.
Although the ongoing poor reliability of the ALRV’s has been publicly disclosed, the TTC board, which provides civilian and council oversight of the transit agency, was never formally informed that the program had so badly failed to meet its initial objectives.
“That’s really bad,” said Councillor John Campbell (Ward 4, Etobicoke Centre), a TTC board member, when informed of the outcome of the program on Monday.
“I’m surprised that they would have spent so much money and gone ahead with that kind of expenditure without certain assurances that more of (the streetcars) could have been put on the road.”
Campbell said that “whenever there’s that kind of waste” it “raises a red flag,” and the TTC board should have been told the repair program hadn’t worked out as planned.
“At some point, somebody in the chain of command should have said, we’re wasting our money here,” he said.
Brad Ross, a spokesperson for the TTC, said the agency “did get some additional years out of the ALRV’s based on the work performed — more so than if we did nothing.”
But he stated that at the start of the overhaul program the vehicles had already reached the end of their intended service life and “the program’s intent was to keep them on the road, safely.”
He said that as the repairs progressed the TTC realized more work than anticipated was required, and the agency determined “it was better to work with Bombardier to get new streetcars in service here as quickly as possible and to rely on buses to supplement streetcar routes in the interim than to spend any additional money” fixing the ALRV’s.
The TTC has two types of older, so-called “legacy” streetcars: smaller vehicles called Canadian Light Rail Vehicles (CLRVs) and the larger ALRV’s, which are used on busier streetcar routes and are recognizable by their accordion-style middle sections.
The TTC bought 52 of the 23-metre ALRVs in 1984, and they were supposed to last about 30 years. In May of 2015, as Bombardier fell behind schedule in delivering new vehicles to replace the older fleet, the TTC secured approval to overhaul 30 of the old ALRV’s in order to extend their service life. The repairs began in June 2015, and were supposed to be complete by the end of 2017.
The life extension program was supposed to help ensure the cars could last another decade, although they would require additional work over that period as some streetcar components like wheels and trucks need to be revamped every five years.
The TTC trumpeted the return to service on the 501 Queen route of the first of the overhauled cars in an October 2015 press release, which described it as the initial ALRV to “undergo a major life-extension overhaul that will improve reliability and ensure continued, safe operation of the streetcar fleet.”
But an internal TTC tracking document obtained by the Star shows the agency quickly fell behind on the planned repairs. By the final months of 2017, the last year of the program, it had completed work on just 17 of the 30 cars.
By that time, the document shows, the agency had already burned through almost all of the $24.5-million program budget, having spent $22.8 million.
According to Ross, the TTC spokesperson, the agency eventually completed work on 20 cars, at a cost of $26 million, but decided at the end of 2017 not to do more work on the ALRV’s, including the remaining 10 vehicles that had been selected for the overhaul program.
Richard Wong, who was appointed the TTC’s head of streetcar maintenance in April 2017, midway through the repair program, said the overhaul work should never have been described as a life-extension program because the repairs it entailed didn’t include work on the electrical systems that was required to keep the cars operating in the long run.
Instead they focused on work like repainting and repairing corrosion on the streetcar bodies, replacing flooring, and refurbishing pneumatic air systems, propulsion motors and braking systems. Work was also done on the vehicles’ wheels and axles, suspension and structural beams.
Wong said that falls under the kind of more routine “state-of-good-repair” maintenance that keeps vehicles in good condition, but doesn’t extend their service life.
“I don’t know why it was advertised as a life extension,” he said.
“What you’re seeing (now) is that we have very low vehicle availability because they’re always breaking down on the electrical side of things.”
Copies of three of the TTC’s daily streetcar availability reports obtained by the Star and dated between Oct. 31 and Nov. 5 2018 show the agency planned to deploy 10 ALRV’s on each day, but only two or three were available for service each morning. Most of the remainder are listed as unavailable due to “corrective maintenance.” Wong acknowledged the numbers are typical of the current ALRV reliability.
Their unavailability means the TTC has even fewer vehicles to make up for the delays to the delivery of its new streetcar fleet, leading to worse service on the busy streetcar routes on which ALRVs are supposed to be deployed. The TTC has been supplementing some streetcar routes with buses, and now plans to retire all of the ALRV’s by around 2020.
Wong didn’t dispute the idea that the program wasn’t a good use of taxpayer money.
“We could have done a better job of planning this, to be honest,” he said. “Planning some more electrical work would have probably been prudent, but that would have also cost more money as well.”
In order to comply with provincial accessibility legislation, the TTC has to retire all of its old-model streetcars, which aren’t accessible, by 2025. The new low-floor streetcars supplied by Bombardier are accessible.
Under the terms of a 2012 agreement, the company was supposed to have delivered 148 of the cars by the end of last year. Due to well-documented production problems, it only delivered the 106th vehicle last month. Bombardier has met revised delivery targets this year, however, and says it will supply all 204 of the new cars by the end of 2019, as scheduled.
The TTC is suing Bombardier for costs the agency has incurred as a result of the delivery delays. It isn’t clear whether the $26 million spent on the ALRV repairs could be recouped as part of those claims.
Ross said the agency hopes to announce a settlement with the company “in the coming weeks.”
Don Peat, a spokesperson for Mayor John Tory, said the money spent on the ALRV repairs “is another example of the costs the TTC has incurred trying to keep streetcars on the road while we wait for Bombardier to deliver the streetcars we have ordered.
“This is why we need the new TTC streetcars and why the Mayor has pushed for them to be delivered as quickly as possible.”
Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr