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Are Toronto's "new" streetcars as reliable as we'd hoped?


BY SHELLEY CARROLL

Up here in Don Valley North, we don't often think of streetcars as an essential part of our commute. Until the Eglinton Crosstown LRT opens, surface rail is something only a subset of us need for travel. When it comes to buying new streetcars, however, each one carries a hefty price tag and it becomes a city-wide budget issue.

Even now, years after they first debuted, you can't help but look up as a majestic "new" Toronto streetcar glides past. On King Street they hold more people than we could ever carry on buses, even if we ran them bumper to bumper. When the troubled order of new streetcars first started to arrive, you had to be at King and Spadina and cross your fingers to see one rolling down the track. Now, they're everywhere. And as much as they carry, we actually need more — at least 60 more, in fact, to handle some line expansions and increase passenger volume where needed. Background Back in 2009 when the cars were first ordered, there was controversy. Transit vehicles are manufactured by only a few very large interests from around the world, all of which employ aggressive lobbying tactics when they sniff a big order coming. In a large city government like ours, the lobbyists circle like buzzards for a year or two in advance of a big order. Pretty soon you start to sense who has picked their favourite supplier by the questions they ask in TTC Commission meetings or even in Council committees.

Fortunately, modern public procurement law and ethics commissioners have have worked hard to keep political preference out of the process. Lawyers and engineers write up tender documents and follow rigorous procedures to determine which bids are worthy and compliant with the contract terms. Finally, they find the lowest bid and bring it to City Council to check their work and award the contract. That's how Council chose to have the new streetcars manufactured in Thunder Bay by Bombardier. It's known as a Canadian firm, but Bombardier has rail transport vehicles all over the world. The Flexity in Berlin is a standout example.

A bump in the road Toronto ran into trouble with its Bombardier vehicles initially. Council imposed a strict Canadian content rule and a lowest bidder process. Bombardier bid well below other manufacturers (by half a billion dollars) by planning to have its major parts manufactured in Mexico, then shipped and assembled in Thunder Bay. They encountered problems with this two-part process, which they had not experienced in their European operations — there, vehicles are built on one site and issues are resolved more easily. Delivery was slow in Toronto and came close to becoming a major crisis. The old streetcars are now being retired just as the last of the new order is delivered. Despite this, last week the TTC received exciting statistics that indicated the new cars were performing exceptionally well, and released these numbers to the public. But the Toronto Star painted another picture which made it necessary for me to call TTC executives into my office.

Apples to oranges The senior executives explained to me that The Star was comparing apples to oranges. The publicly-released statistics reflect only the mechanical reliability of the new streetcars. This is done for good reason — to allow the TTC to decide whether they should order from Bombardier again or not, now that the kinks have been worked out and we are receiving good products. But there is another set of statistics that isn't so peachy. This other set of stats takes in more than just mechanical failures — it also calculates service indicators such as Presto reader failures, short-turns, road construction, route disruptions, preventative scheduled maintenance and more. As you can imagine, the results were much lower than a pure measurement of mechanical failure.

Because of this explanation, I am prepared to keep an open mind and let staff provide a full report on whether we should order from Bombardier again. And as part of that report, I expect to see TTC staff be very forthcoming about these discrepancies noted by The Star. You deserve an explanation, as well — after all, it's your $360 million the City will be spending to get those 60 new streetcars.

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