With a decision looming on whether to place a new streetcar order, the frustrated politicians who oversee Toronto’s transit agency say they can’t accept a bid process that inadvertently favours Bombardier Inc.
The revelation of new flaws plaguing the streetcars Bombardier is building for Toronto has rekindled frustrations at city hall, where some politicians are musing about avoiding the order entirely by shifting buses to less-used routes while others are keen to look to new suppliers.
In his latest monthly report, issued on Wednesday, Toronto Transit Commission acting chief executive Rick Leary stated that 67 of the 89 new streetcars so far delivered will have to be sent to a Bombardier factory to repair substandard welding. The recall will be done over a number of years and the company is pledging to minimize inconvenience to TTC customers.
Bombardier spokesman Eric Prud’Homme said welding issues are not uncommon in the industry and suggested that the company’s well-documented history of delays getting streetcars to Toronto was spurring interest in this recall.
“Let’s say that this incident would happen without the background that Bombardier has and the level of scrutiny that Bombardier has in the [Toronto] market for the reasons we all know; this probably would not be a story that we’d be talking about,” he said.
Still, revelation of the problem comes at an awkward time for Bombardier, which has repeatedly revised downward its production schedule. The TTC has the option of extending the original 204-vehicle order by at least 60 more vehicles and is planning to make the decision early next year.
A TTC staff report from last month stated that any supplier other than Bombardier would take years longer to produce these additional vehicles, which would appear to give the company a leg up for getting the order. But frustration with Bombardier is such that several politicians who sit on the TTC board say they would insist on other bidders matching its timeline.
“There are other vendors that have presented information to the [TTC board] that suggests that, upon signing an agreement, that there can be quite a compressed manufacturing time frame,” TTC commissioner and deputy mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong said.
“Those bona fides have to be checked and validated,” he added. “But … some of these manufacturers have stated that they can do it much quicker than was previously anticipated.”
The question of credibility hangs heavy over this debate, with Toronto politicians having been repeatedly caught out by production delays and broken promises at Bombardier.
“I’m just so skeptical now, and you know maybe unfairly skeptical, of the entire industry because of the way one player in the industry has performed,” TTC chair and Councillor Josh Colle said.
“Certainly, the work, the research I’ve done, the work done by our staff, still suggests a long timeline. Certain manufacturers are suggesting they can beat that timeline, which is great, but I’m still very skeptical.”
The original 204-vehicle order from Bombardier is due to be delivered in full by the end of 2019. The company continues to say it can meet that target, although doing so would require it to speed up production considerably in the next 18 months.
“I’m very confident that by the end of 2019, we’ll deliver all the [streetcars] to the TTC,” Bombardier CEO Alain Bellemare said at an aerospace event in Mirabel, Que.
Even if the company does manage to deliver the 204 vehicles on time, the city’s booming downtown will mean they will be filled almost immediately. The 60 extra streetcars – whatever their source – would satisfy projected demand only through 2023.
As the streetcar network becomes stretched, buses will inevitably be used to supplement some routes. This has become a habit in recent years and two downtown routes where streetcars traditionally ran are now being served exclusively by buses, freeing up streetcars for the heavily used King line.
This practice has renewed the decades-old streetcar-versus-bus debate in Toronto. However, one councillor who sits on the TTC board argues the answer may be less simplistic.
“Fewer streetcars and only certain heavily travelled routes for streetcars, and less-travelled routes for buses … I definitely think it’s worth a discussion,” John Campbell said. “Instead of ordering those other 60, maybe we should be looking at reducing the number of routes on which streetcars are running.”
With a report from Nicolas Van Praet in Mirabel, Que.