An old joke out of Western Canada has a farmer returning to his spread to see that a hail storm has destroyed his crop. Glowering at the heavens, he shouts "Goddamn the CPR."
Today the Toronto Transit Commission fills the same role for city dwellers that the railways did for prairie farmers. The TTC is their favourite whipping boy. Torontonians love to talk about its failures. Short-turning streetcars; buses that come in packs, then not at all; sudden closures of busy subway lines; subway cars that turn into saunas in the summer heat; grumpy bus drivers; packed transit vehicles – all of these things drive TTC riders round the twist.
That's natural enough. The TTC has suffered decades of neglect and underinvestment. It shows. While other major cities built spiderwebs of modern transit lines, Toronto's system grew shabby and outdated.
But TTC chief Andy Byford is asking transit riders to entertain what is, for Toronto, a radical notion: the TTC is actually getting better. In a lunchtime speech, he ticked off a list of improvements in everything from safety to reliability to cleanliness. Believe it or not, he says, even customer satisfaction is on the rise.
The TTC came through on its promise to equip all buses and streetcars with Presto electronic-payment-card readers. At least one subway entrance at every station has them. All stations will soon have WiFi service, too.
After letting the state of its infrastructure decline for years, the TTC is spending many millions repairing subway tracks and upgrading its signalling system. More of those sleek modern new streetcars are finally on the way. Eight hundred new buses are coming over the next three years.
Subway delays are in fact becoming fewer and shorter. A second subway platform has opened at Union Station. Construction on the Crosstown light-rail line on Eglinton Avenue is progressing. A new streetcar barn at Leslie Street opened last year. By the end of this year, the much-delayed northwestern subway extension is supposed to open, stretching all the way to Vaughan. Mr. Byford says it will be "simply stunning."
Much more is in the works, he says. New light-rail lines on Finch Avenue and the waterfront. SmartTrack stations on the GO lines, as promised by Mayor John Tory. The Scarborough subway extension. The TTC is pushing ahead with its planning for that project despite all the controversy. The future, Mr. Byford insists, is bright.
If so, he deserves much of the credit. The TTC was a shambling, hidebound, discouraged organization when he took over in 2012 after a career in transit in Australia and his native England. He immediately set about dragging it into the 21st century.
He has professionalized its management. He has tried to introduce a "customer-first ethos." Like all good bosses, he set a vision – "a transit system that makes Toronto proud" – and urged everyone on his team to embrace it. Forthright, dynamic, open, always the first to field criticism when something goes wrong, he is the most impressive leader this city has.
Mr. Byford is the first to admit the TTC has a long way to go. "Are we there yet?" he said on Tuesday. "Clearly not."
As he puts it, "we still seem to have a remarkable propensity to shoot ourselves in the foot with embarrassing incidents."
Life on the TTC still disappoints in many ways. Those new Presto card readers seem to break down a lot. Those maddening subway delays still happen more often than they should. The delays in delivering those new streetcars were annoying, too. Every commuter has a gripe about the TTC. Many are well-founded. It will takes years, perhaps decades, for the system to recover from its long era of stagnation.
Still, Mr. Byford's optimism is refreshing. For all its faults, the vast transportation system he oversees – third-biggest in North America after New York's and Mexico City's – still gets millions of people from A to B. When he argues things are getting better, Toronto should stop cursing the TTC, at least for a moment, and accept his invitation to look on the bright side.