Customers cause the most delays on the Toronto subway

On the subway, there's always going to be delays. Trains could break down or doors could fail to close, causing passengers to wait while the issue is fixed. However, there's lots of customer-caused delays too, such as a customer becoming ill, the passenger assistance alarm being falsely pushed or disorderly patrons.

Throughout last year Toronto's four subway lines were delayed a staggering 20,496 times, but of that number only 5,303 resulted in an actual delay (defined as lasting one minute or more). Most people will only experience a couple delays each year, but all those delays add up to 24 full day's worth of service disruptions, which makes managing the transit system a bit more difficult.

There can be numerous reasons why the subway might become delayed: an unauthorized person on the tracks, people who become ill on trains, air conditioning equipment malfunctioning and a lack of staff members available to drive the trains. Each year, the Toronto Transit Commission compiles a database of every delay on the system, no matter how it was caused.

Delays on the Toronto Subway

“The longer delay the bigger the issues become because there’s platform overcrowding,” explains Mike Hazlett, head of subway transportation at the Toronto Transit Commission. “In some cases we’re really reliant on emergency services,” which make up four out of the top ten delays in the system.

In order to combat the amount of delays due to medical issues, the city’s paramedic services station medics around the system during rush hour to increase the response time.

“We actually have a transit medic program where we have two or three medics, depending on the rush hour (in the morning rush hour we use three and in the afternoon we use two) but they’re positioned quickly around the system so that we get a quick response to people that aren’t feeling well.”

Terminal and interchange stations usually have a higher amount of delays than stations in the middle of a subway line. Bloor-Yonge station saw a total of 279 delays, while Kipling had 263, Finch had 237 and Downsview had 229.

When there is a delay, shuttle buses are sometimes called. But this inconveniences some passengers to benefit others, since the bus has to be pulled off a different, active route.

“What we do is take a bus off an active route to put it on as a subway shuttle, so we’re making people wait longer on other bus routes while we cover the subway,” Mike says. When you’ve got a train that can hold 1,200 people and you’re trying to put them on a 40-seat bus, it doesn’t work very well.”

According to the TTC the Yonge-University subway line first opened in 1954 and initially only ran from Union to Eglinton Station. Though numerous extensions to the line were added on, most of the original track on the Yonge-University and Bloor-Danforth lines dates back to between the 1950s and 1970s when the subway lines opened.

The leading cause of delays on the network is due to faulty track-level tags, which tell the operator how fast to go and when they can proceed (similar to a traffic light). The next most common delay is injured passengers on the train, followed by operators speeding. Delays caused by passengers make up the largest number of delays in minutes.

Many of the delays on the subway are because of track issues and problems with older trains. The TTC is preventing these delays in several different ways: weekend closures to install automatic train control and systematically coming up with solutions once issues are isolated to a certain part of the system.

“What automatic train control will do is basically drive the train from one station to the next,” Mike tells me. “You’re not relying on an operator who might drive too fast or too slow and the trains will actually be able to operate more closely together. With the re-signaling, what it does is it gets rid of the moving parts that are prone to breaking and turns everything into a radio component that constantly communicates with the trains.”

Deep at work in the TTC’s headquarters above Davisville Station there’s a team of engineering staff at work systematically resolving or eliminating problems on the transit network. In the fall when the leaves from trees are on the ground they may have more track fires, but during the winter when the cold is going around they may have more delays because of passengers who are sick.

“We’ve had a lot of success with our track department with reducing a lot of maintenance because we’ve been really getting out there to do a lot of preventative maintenance.”

Programs have been implemented to curb the amount of delays due to vehicles. All subway trains go through a major inspection once every 30-60 days where they are fully inspected, and everyday before they enter service their breaks, doors and other basic systems  are checked. It’s not always possible to get to the bottom of an issue, however, because of the electronic components in trains.

“A driver might report a problem with a train, like the train is braking or accelerating improperly, and then when the carhouse goes through all their checks to see what’s going on, they can’t recreate the issue so they never find out what the problem was. In some cases, because of all the electronic components, it’s not easy to recreate.”

Mike is also quick to point out that buying new trains, something that the TTC is in the process of doing for the Bloor-Danforth line, is the best way to prevent service disruptions.