Monday, March 29, 2010

Tunnel Visions: The Toronto Subway and RT

Every once in a while, Acts of Minor Treason hops out of Toronto, lands in some other city with some other light- or heavy-rail transit system, and looks at different ways of getting around on two rails, whether it's on the ground, under it, or above it all.

Every once in a while, I also stay right where I am.

I began the Tunnel Visions series out of a desire to understand, and out of a recognition that true understanding is impossible without a knowledge of alternatives. So I've travelled to Montreal, to Chicago, and to Los Angeles, and will continue to do so - to Buffalo, to Vancouver, to Cleveland, to places even further afield as opportunities permit - ultimately so that I can have a better understanding of my own transit system. For more than twenty years I've been riding the rails in Toronto, and for much of my life they were the only ones I'd ever known. Still, nothing can be truly comprehended in isolation. To paraphrase Robert A. Heinlein: "A person who knows only his own transit system does not even know his own transit system."

On the Montreal Metro, the Chicago 'L', and the Los Angeles County Metro Rail, I had the advantage of foreignness, so that everything was completely new. When I take that same eye to what Frederik Pohl has called our "shiny streamliners," I'm distilling twenty years of experience with procedures and traditions that I had, until recently, taken for granted. This time I'm on my own turf, and the regrettable truth is that it's extremely difficult to see the flaws in something you're pressing your nose against. The Toronto subway system was my first subway system, and for better or worse it will always be the main subconscious yardstick I use when evaluating mass transit.

I know that the subway system has issues. In the end, there's nothing that doesn't. It's underfunded, crowded, skeletal and a bit dirty, but I still love it anyway.


A train waits for passengers at Union Station

Toronto's was the first rapid transit system in Canada, opening for service with one line and twelve stations in 1954. Over the next twenty years it expanded quickly, displacing a great deal of the city's existing streetcar system in the process, though major expansion stalled after the 1970s. While the system is anchored in the old city of Toronto, it extends east into Scarborough, west into Etobicoke, and north into North York, linking with bus and streetcar lines along the way. Nearly a million people ride it every day, and it is operated and administered by the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC).

The system today is comprised of four lines and sixty-nine stations. The Yonge-University-Spadina Line, colored yellow on maps, is laid out in a broad U-shape running between its two northern termini at Finch and Downsview stations via Union Station in the downtown core. The green Bloor-Danforth Line, which replaced the city's most heavily used streetcar line, reaches as far west as Kipling station in Etobicoke, connects with the YUS Line at Spadina, St. George, and Bloor-Yonge stations, and continues to Kennedy station in Scarborough. The Sheppard Line's magenta strip is the newest to be added to the map, consisting of five stations beneath Sheppard Avenue East in North York.

A Scarborough RT train departs Kennedy station, turning north

The fourth line, the Scarborough RT (short for "Rapid Transit"), isn't a subway at all. Branching from Kennedy station at the Bloor-Danforth Line's eastern terminus, it follows hydro corridors and industrial back lanes into central Scarborough. It's probably the closest thing to modern light rail, as other cities practice it, that Toronto has. It's the same technology as was originally used on Vancouver's SkyTrain, and was built because the government of Ontario wanted something that could demonstrate the capabilities of its ICTS technology. As it's entirely incompatible with the remainder of the subway system, there have been plans afoot recently to convert it to the same kind of light rail technology planned for the Transit City network - although this is in limbo thanks to the state of Ontario's latest budget.

One system expansion is currently underway - an extension of the University-Spadina branch of the Yonge-University-Spadina Line, north from Downsview to the city of Vaughan in York Region, scheduled to be completed around 2015. The usefulness of this extension is up for debate, particularly considering how stressed the existing lines are - but this is what the provincial and federal governments provided funds for, so this is what gets built. Still, in some ways it's unfortunate that the newest portions of the system are the most removed from downtown. Most of the city's tourist attractions are in the central core, and so if you're not one of the few people like me for whom a transit system is a tourist attraction in and of itself, it's easy to get a skewed view of the system based on the oldest parts of the network.

There are certainly plans for other expansion - there are plenty of plans. What's always been lacking is the political will to back their implementation. One planned expansion, an Eglinton West subway line, was actually in the beginning phase of construction when it was cancelled by the provincial government in 1995. Right now, there are two great hopes of subway expansion in the city. One, the Eglinton subway, is being championed by fellow mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson, as she believes that demand along that corridor is enough to justify a full subway and not the light rail line currently planned for it. The other, which I think is far more necessary, is the Downtown Relief Line - another U-shaped line, but shorter and wider, connecting Pape and Dundas West stations on the Bloor-Danforth Line with the downtown core. This would have the effect of providing commuters from Scarborough and Etobicoke a route to downtown that would not involve a transfer at Bloor-Yonge station, which was not designed for its current passenger numbers - for purposes of comparison, it sees more traffic than all of the Chicago 'L' stations in the Loop combined - and is thus horribly overstressed during rush hours. It was originally proposed in 1985, as part of the "Network 2011" plan that was almost entirely unrealized due to quailing politicians and cost issues, but mostly quailing politicians.

A pass vending machine at Bloor station

Nevertheless, cost issues remain the system's biggest bugbear. The TTC operates the most self-funded urban transit system in North America - 73.8% of its revenues came from fares in 2008. Historically, the province of Ontario provided a generous operational subsidy to keep the system stable, but the election of a Progressive Conservative provincial government in 1995 led to the elimination of this support. The Toronto subway is what it is despite the TTC's financial resources, and not because of them.

As a result, it's hardly a surprise that fares are somewhat higher than other cities. The latest fare increase was in January, increasing the cost of a ride to $3.00 CDN from $2.75. Unlike systems such as the Los Angeles County Metro Rail, there are a great deal more opportunities to get around in Toronto on one fare - once you've dropped your coins in the slot, so long as you remain in fare-paid areas you can stay on the system pretty much indefinitely, surface transit included. This is considerably easier than in other cities for reasons I'll elaborate on later. Myself, I get around with a Metropass, which allows unlimited use of the system over the course of a month for the low, low price of $121. At least it's tax deductible.


Two trains meet at Old Mill station

What I've come to realize is that there is no single unifying aesthetic across the whole of the Toronto subway system. The TTC doesn't even use its own font consistently.1 This owes a lot to its age and the piece-by-piece nature of its construction. The downtown core stations represent a 1950s design philosophy, something that has been referred to as a mid-20th century bathroom aesthetic, and it's only as one approaches the fringes of the city that more modern influences come to the fore. Admittedly, though, designers in the 1940s seem to have been interested in purely utilitarian designs - many of Toronto's downtown stations resemble Chicago 'L' stations in the State Street Subway.

Granted, they weren't always this way. When the system first opened in 1954, the platform walls were tiled with Vitrolite - a type of reflective glass that was common in the era but has since fallen out of use, and and which has been removed from all stations except Eglinton. There, I think, the reflective tiles help make the station feel brighter and more open. The Sheppard Line stations, with their generally unadorned concrete walls, tend to reflect more closely the aesthetic prevalent in the Los Angeles subway system.

Non-reflective tiles are used through much of the rest of the system, with differing designs to differing effect - though the low ceilings and long platforms contribute to a kind of "shoebox" effect. This has the effect of making it extremely obvious when a train is approaching, thanks to the wind kicked up by tunnel air displacement. As much of Toronto's subway was built with the cut-and-cover method, rather than the deep bored tunnels of Los Angeles, the high roofs universal there aren't as easily usable here. Some underground portions of the system are so close to the surface that there has been at least one high-profile incident where a road repair crew accidentally broke through the tunnel roof without realizing it was there.

Downsview station, opened in 1996, was designed with a high-roofed aesthetic uncommon on the Toronto subway

Like the systems in Montreal and Chicago, there's no consistency in Toronto with regard to the orientation of the platforms. Aside from Union and Eglinton, which originally served as terminal stations, the oldest stations are all side platforms. Center platform stations, where both tracks are accessible from a single platform, are generally restricted to the newer segments of the line.2 A sense of where the lines shift from side-platform to center-platform is useful to subway surfers like me who tend to stand next to the doors that won't be opening at the next stop.

Doors that do open easily, though, are those belonging to bus and streetcar routes that connect to subway stations. Of all the systems I've experienced, Toronto is apparently unique in the degree to which its surface transit routes are tied into the fare-paid areas of subway stations. While the subway-to-bus transfers I've experienced in Montreal, Chicago, and Los Angeles generally involve waiting at a stop right outside a subway station, in Toronto the buses and streetcars come right into the station, to load and unload passengers at bays beyond the turnstiles. For the most part it's only the downtown stations - and even then, only some of the downtown stations - as well as some of the Scarborough RT stations that require travellers to depart the system to make connections.

The bus bay at Eglinton station allows passengers to access the subway directly, with no fare barriers

Still, the state of the stations is not pristine. I imagine that it's due to the system's age, the high traffic levels, and the TTC's shaky financial situation. Particularly in downtown stations, there's more garbage lying around than a lot of people would prefer - much of it tends to accumulate at track level, which causes its own problems when it comes in contact with the electrified third rail and starts to smoke, which necessitates the shutdown of that section of the subway pending a safety inspection. This tends to happen most frequently during rush hours.

It's easy to get a "bare-bones operation" vibe from some Toronto subway stations, and that's not an entirely inaccurate assessment. It's not uncommon for roof facades, like the artificial planking in the previous photograph of the Union Station platform, to have been partially removed. The same is true of wall covers - in some cases, the original Vitrolite tiles in older stations are returning to the surface, albeit covered in the assorted grime of decades. I don't see as many buckets catching roof leaks as I used to, but to encounter one tomorrow wouldn't surprise me.


A Bombardier T1 car brings up the rear of a train in Sheppard-Yonge station

"Rocket" is a recurring motif within the Toronto transit system, both within the subway and without. One of the agency's most well-known slogans is "Ride the Rocket." The new subway train model, which will hopefully be delivered at some point in the next few years, is called the Toronto Rocket. It ultimately derives from the first vehicles operated on the subway, the G-series "Gloucester" models, which ran on the system until 1991. Today, the bulk of the system's rolling stock is made up of the Bombardier-made T-series, dating from the mid-1990s, though some of the vehicles date back to 1974. The modernity of Toronto's rolling stock was really brought into clarity for me after I visited Montreal, a city where the newest trains were built in 1976.

Unlike Montreal, but like Chicago and Los Angeles, Toronto's trains are steel-wheeled and run on rails - like those other cities, they're powered by an electrified third rail rather than overhead wires. One disadvantage to this - which, to be honest, I don't recall noticing in Chicago or Los Angeles - is that when they brake, they can squeal considerably loudly, and the way the stations are designed can magnify this. Nevertheless, it's not too bad; I personally didn't even pick up on it until I saw someone from Montreal commenting about it. When they accelerate, they sound exactly like the Siemens P2000 light rail vehicles used on the Gold Line in Los Angeles - or should that be the other way around?

Nevertheless, they're comfortable and air conditioned, which is an absolute necessity considering (a) the kind of crowding they experience during rush hours, and (b) the heat of an average Toronto summer. The Mark I ICTS trains on the Scarborough RT are significantly smaller than the subway cars - they are, in fact, almost precisely the same size as the rolling stock on the Chicago 'L' - and have only back-to-the-wall "bench" seating of the sort you also get on the London Underground's Piccadilly Line. The seat layout on Toronto subway trains is considerably more varied, though they lack the open spaces for bicycles, wheelchairs, luggage, or whatever else that the Los Angeles subway trains feature. Six-car trains run on the Yonge-University-Spadina and Bloor-Danforth lines, while Sheppard and Scarborough RT trains are restricted to four cars.

The vehicles are generally, in my experience, kept to a high standard of cleanliness. Still, they also spend a long time on the rails before heading back to the yard, and so every once in a while I'll come across a spilled drink or a bunch of discarded orange peels or abandoned coat hangers or something on or under one of the seats.3 Unlike the Los Angeles County Metro Rail or the Washington Metro, food and drink are allowed on board TTC vehicles, and because there are plenty of people out there who act as if they have no concept of cleanliness or propriety. It's a grumble.

Automated announcements are universal throughout the subway and Scarborough RT - when the train leaves a station the name of the next will be announced, and it's repeated just before the train enters its destination station. Compared to other cities I've been in, they're pretty threadbare - there's no notification of line transfers when they're available, no regulation reminders like on the Chicago 'L,' not even reminders at the terminus stations. Things could definitely be improved here.

Ease of Access and Ease of Use

A rush-hour only collector booth at King station

I've mentioned this in every single Tunnel Visions post previously, and with good reason - for all the complaints you may have against it, the Toronto subway system is at least scheduled to run very frequently. No matter what time it is, so long as the subway isn't actually closed, if you have to wait more than six minutes for a train then something has gone off the rails.4 Service during the day is even more frequent, and during rush hour on the Yonge-University-Spadina and Bloor-Danforth lines, trains arrive every two or three minutes. On the other hand, depending where you are, you may have to wait for two or three or four trains to go by before you can actually find a space on one. I don't use the system during rush hour myself, but I've heard horror stories.

Bicycles are permitted on the TTC. Outside of rush hour, there's no restriction against taking bikes onto the trains. I'd recommend going for the first car if you're bringing your own wheels along - they tend not to be quite as busy as the rest of the train, owing to the manner in which passengers are funneled to the platform in many stations.

All Toronto subway and RT stations are staffed. Generally, this is in the form of one or two collectors, TTC employees who sit in booths like the one pictured above who monitor the fareboxes, process transactions, and generally keep an eye on the station. Their booths are adjacent to the turnstiles - the closest one, meant for people who drop their money or token in the farebox, spins freely, but the others need to be unlocked with a token or scannable pass. A few of the stations have been refitted with wide, arm-blocked gates for accessibility. Some high-traffic stations also have secondary, unstaffed entrances, generally marked along the lines of "TOKEN/METROPASS ENTRANCE ONLY" and equipped with turnstiles that will only unlock when a token is deposited or a card swiped.

Once you're in, though, getting around isn't quite as simple as one might hope, particularly if unfamiliarity is an issue. Signage within the system varies widely and wildly - from original black steel signs from the 1950s and 1960s to modern, roof-mounted information displays and, on occasion, handwritten notes. They're not particularly colorful, and can be easy to miss if you're not looking for them. There are also oddities here and there, like Dundas station's northbound and southbound platforms both existing in separate fare-paid zones - the sort of thing that really has to be learned by trial and error.


The Toronto subway, and the TTC as a whole, have had a bad rap recently. It's only to be expected with a system that's only recently recovered from the funding hammerblow it took during the 1990s, and it's far from being out of the woods. Nevertheless, its present issues distract from a deeper stability. Despite it all, the subway has soldiered on. While transit systems across North America are reducing service, those kind of cutbacks have been taken off the table in Toronto. People can complain, fulminate and bluster - and though I might grumble at the prospect of a long wait as well, I'll always forgive. Whenever I hear the three chimes of the closing doors or the echo of those shiny streamliners and their squealing wheels, I know that I'm home.

POSTSCRIPT: What you've just read was written on Sunday. When I woke up this morning, the first news I encountered was that of the suicide bombings on the Moscow Metro. Attacks and deaths on a transit system are always a horrible business - the prospect is particularly shaking personally, because I've come to view transit systems as sanctuaries when I'm in other cities. It's just a lot of blood that will accomplish nothing except more blood. My heart goes out to the people of Moscow today, but what I really regret is that this sort of thing will, somewhere and somewhen, happen again. Human nature - human madness.

1 The Joe Clark who was not Prime Minister of Canada has written on this issue extensively, so I won't belabor it here.

2 To my knowledge, the stations under University Avenue from St. Andrew to St. George are the only center-platform stations built before 1973 that were not originally built as terminal stations. I have no idea why side platforming was so popular at the time; I can only guess it owed to ease of construction, because there's a lot of duplication when you take stairways and under-track passageways into account.

3 I have encountered all of these things on subways at one point or another.

4 Fortunately, this is almost always a figure of speech. The last serious incident on the subway system, the Russel Hill accident, happened in August 1995.

Previous Tunnel Visions


  1. Interesting. It's a good topic because it's all about Tunnel Visions series and new ideas to improve the cities. By the way, I did not understood the point about the bicycles on the tunnel.

  2. fuck torondo

  3. Wow, were you awake all night coming up with that witty rejoinder?