Many of our readers have suggested that the TTC go back to providing a phone number attached to a transit stop. When you called the number, an automated service would tell you when the next bus or streetcar was to arrive. The TTC’s system was known as Timeline which went out of service on Dec. 31, 1999. Bob Brent, a former TTC senior manager, sent us a little history lesson on Timeline.
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Timeline was introduced around 1989 at a cost of $3.3 million with the Provincial government paying 75% of its cost (along with all other TTC capital spending).
For those of you unfamiliar with Timeline, you called a unique phone number found on the TTC sign pole at transfer stops and it would give you a digitized voice of the current time and the scheduled arrival time of the next three vehicles.
When I joined the TTC as a senior manager in January 1997, Timeline was an established service (about 1,000,000 calls/month) but the writing was already on the wall. It was running on obsolete technology that was literally falling apart with frequent outages and increasingly expensive service calls.
In 1998 an IT company, whose principals had been involved in the original Timeline implementation, came in to give a beta demonstration of a new Y2K-compliant Timeline customer information system running on a MS NT server. It was a mere shell than a mature application. It crashed a few minutes into their demonstration.
The alarm bells went off and tough questions were asked if it was ready for prime time. They admitted it was just a prototype shell to demonstrate what was possible. In fact, they wanted the TTC to be the guinea pig first installation and fund its commercial development in â€œpartnership.â€ They estimate a stripped down version would cost $2 million.
It was known that Timeline could not operate after Y2K, without substantial reprogramming. Unfortunately, it was written in one of the more esoteric programming languages. TTC IT therefore advised it would be hard to find a consultant to make Timeline Y2K compatible, notwithstanding the fact they would be extremely expensive given there was such desperate demand for freelance IT contractors to make mission-critical corporate applications Y2K compatible — with money no object.
The icing on the cake for Timeline, however, was that even after being made Y2K-compliant (if possible), it was operating on only one-half of the in-bound telephone lines, as one of the two analog â€œphone banksâ€ or cards had failed completely and no spares were available anywhere — new or used — at any price.
In fairness, given the popularity of Timeline I prepared a presentation to Chief General Manager David Gunn. Mr. Gunn and his GMs objectively outlined the TTC’s options. They rejected spending $2 million on Timeline Y2K software development, especially on speculative software. This was not unreasonable given their own sorry history with internal TTC IT projects like ATOS and CIS that were millions of dollars and years over budget and never delivered as promised.
The timing, however, couldn’t have been worse as Timeline Y2K would have to proceed without the 75% provincial capital subsidy — the cancellation of the subsidy having just been announced by the Harris Tories in 1998. As a result the once proud TTC was forced into rebuilding 18-year old GM â€œcarcasses,â€ to quote CGM David Gunn, who was immensely proud of the rebuild program that delivered the most reliable TTC bus — the driver’s favourite — for half the cost of a new Orion carbon frame bus that was rusting after just 7 years. In this context, spending $2 million-plus on Timeline, not surprisingly, was seen as an unaffordable extravagance and went over like a lead balloon.
In June 1999 I made a similar presentation to the Commission. They reluctantly supported Staff’s recommendation on the understanding that customer information would be radically changed and expanded to soften the loss of Timeline (via the website, a new Nortel ACD switch to better route info and complaint calls, new state-of-art voicemail software that allowed route-specific information, plus a faxback capability: all for about $225K in total). We had 18 months to plan and carry out the upgrade, hoping for the best, preparing for the worst!
January 2000 was the first month of Y2K and the first without Timeline. We held our breath, anticipating a deluge of complaints calls. We received 182 complaints that first month. Frankly, we were amazed the Complaints hadn’t gone through the roof, given Timeline’s popularity! January was the complaint peak after which they steadily declined to virtually nothing within a year.
The website was really the unsung hero. It seemed to come of age at just the right time, tripling from 1 million hits/month in Dec. 1999 to 3 million hits/month in Sept. 2000. Thanks to the website and other new info offerings, the TTC dodged a bullet by developing a more diversified, expansive offering of customer information.
That being said, it was probably the most unpleasant decision I had to implement as TTC CMO. Internally, I was viewed as the uncaring â€œTimeline Assassinâ€. In fact, it would have been much easier to fork over the money to the developers and blame them if Timeline didn’t work as promised.
In truth, I was neutral on the issue. While I wasn’t emotionally tied to Timeline, if Timeline Y2K was affordable, I was more than willing to recommend it. With the province having just cancelled the TTC’s 75% capital subsidy in 1998, and capital dollars so scarce, developing Timeline Y2K was really a non-starter.
Fast-forward to today. Yes, it would be nice to still have Timeline’s capability. With traffic congestion so bad, however, I think “scheduled” stop announcements are passé. We need a not only a vastly improved TTC website but real-time next vehicle information by stop and real time delays by route and mode and system (take a trip on YRT’s ViVA to see real-time next bus information in action).
I think in retrospect, the Timeline Y2K decision benefited the TTC in the long term as it forced a major rethink of customer information on the organization.
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Read the comments section for clarification on some of the acronyms used in this post.
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photo from Toronto Archives: series 71, item 7085