TTC streetcars bunched at Spadina northbound at Queen
There is a problem of intentional bunching of streetcars and buses by a small few, but a very obvious few, TTC employees. In TTC-speak, this is called “soaking” — where one driver intentionally follows another vehicle closely in order to “soak” the lead bus or streetcar of passengers while having a very easy, passenger-free run.
After a very blatant display of soaking last week (for which, to its credit, the TTC has promised to look into), I finally found the impetus to bring this little-known, yet infuriating, practice out into the open. Bus and streetcar bunching is common, and a very old problem for transit systems everywhere. (The old joke about the Montreal Tramways Company is that their streetcars were like bananas: green and yellow and come in bunches.) In most instances, bunching is an unintended consequence of passive route management, traffic congestion and road conditions, uneven passenger loads due to ridership surges (such as high school dismissals), uneven loads on converging route branches, and/or poor scheduling. It is frustrating to the average TTC passenger because it makes a mockery of posted schedules and increases travel times. Bunching is most common on long, busy suburban bus routes, but sometimes even occurs on lightly travelled or short routes as well.
However, bunched buses on a busy, frequent route such as the 29 Dufferin will often “leapfrog” each other, and it generally works. Once in a while, other ad-hoc measures by frontline TTC employees are taken to mitigate the effect. I have seen two drivers decide to let the first bus at the start of a busy rush-hour trip run “doors closed” for a few stops and start picking up passengers further downstream, allowing the second bus, running “local,” to make the initial pick ups. This reduces crowding and waiting times down the line.
Short turns can be an effective way to reduce long gaps between vehicles and to address bunching, and are one of the only on-the-ground tools for managing a streetcar route (though unscheduled short-turns have drawbacks as well, just ask TTC customers in Long Branch or the Beaches). But attentive operators can make an extra effort, too. I have been on late streetcars on which the driver opens the rear door to anyone with a valid pass or transfer in order to speed loading times; at other times, operators of crowded, late vehicles encourage waiting passengers to wait a minute longer to get the next streetcar, which will offer a more less crowded, more comfortable ride.
This is where soaking, that special sort of bunching, comes in. A few bus drivers will obviously stay glued to the bumpers of the buses before them, taking on as few passengers as possible, leaving the bus in front to become a packed sweat box. Some drivers on shorter routes will pay little heed to the posted schedules to accomplish the same goal. This was a common problem a few years ago on the 90 Vaughan route. Instead of the posted 15-minute schedule during the evenings and weekends, buses would run 10 minutes apart, then 20 minutes apart, as one of the two drivers consistently ran “hot” (early), resulting in a reduced passenger load.
An experience last week Friday compelled me to finally write about this issue, which has been in the back of my mind for months.
My new regular commute is on the 506 Carlton Car. Eastbound in the AM peak, service on the 506 can be a bit spotty, but not by any means intolerable. In fact, I enjoy the slower streetcar ride over the multiple bus and subway transfers I used to rely on for my commute.
The diversion of the 505 Dundas Cars on College between Lansdowne and Spadina has been a blessing and a curse – the additional streetcars supplement the 506, but slow all traffic down, particularly at Spadina Avenue eastbound as they make the switch to head south.
On that Friday morning, I dashed out of my home, about 15 minutes late and found that I had just missed the previous eastbound 506 at Dufferin Street. According to NextBus, the next car from High Park will not arrive for over 10 minutes.
But before the next car from High Park arrived, two streetcars simultaneously emerged from the short-turn loop at Lansdowne (something that NextBus has yet to be able to predict). The first car, #4078, was already half full arriving at Dufferin. I could see the other streetcar right behind, and decided to wait to board that streetcar.
The first car loaded up, closed its doors and proceeded through the transit-held green light. But instead of stopping for an amber light turning red, the next car, #4021, accelerated through the amber/red light, leaving me to wait another seven minutes for the next car — which was of course, standing-room-only by the time the car reached Bathurst.
Along the way to work, I periodically checked Darwin O’Connor’s “Trans See” website, which is more detailed than the basic NextBus site, as it accurately lists vehicle fleet numbers and run numbers as well as the GPS arrival time estimates for each stop.
Incredibly, car 4021 kept within 60 seconds of 4078 all the way to Gerrard and Coxwell, when 4021 was finally sent for short-turn at the loop at Coxwell and Queen. I found it frustrating that up to that point, there was no attempt to even out service, causing a headache for riders and for the operator of #4078.
The solution is simple: the operator of the second car should have been instructed to wait at Lansdowne and College for two or three minutes after the first car left the short turn loop. It isn’t, pardon the pun, rocket science.
Transit advocate Steve Munro told me that he has seen many cases of soaking show up on his detailed route analyses, and it is not uncommon that the same vehicle and/or run number pulls the same stunt at the same time several days in a week, or gets away with it for consecutive trips in the same run.
Thankfully, TTC head office is aware of this problem this small minority of operators cause. I contacted TTC Communications Director Brad Ross while writing this post, and he assured me that the practice “is not acceptable and we work hard to stop it when we see it.” Furthermore, he promised to look into my specific example above, for which I provided additional information.
I do not understand the reasons why an operator would engage in such blatant soaking, apart from a strange sense of selfishness or apathy. It is certainly a problem only amongst a small group of operators, but it looks terrible from a customer service standpoint.
My hope for this post is that the TTC will rise up to the challenge to end soaking altogether, and that passengers themselves will be made better aware of this practice and call it out. That’s probably the only way things will change.