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Vehicle bunching has been slashed on the St. Clair streetcar route.

Kevin Van Paassen

Tackling two of riders' greatest frustrations, Toronto's transit agency has been experimenting with new approaches it says have slashed short turns and vehicle bunching on a pair of routes.

TTC figures show dramatic improvements in reliability from using extra vehicles, adjusting schedules, putting on more supervisors and placing a much greater focus on timing. For example, the streetcar on St. Clair Avenue has gone from about 60-per-cent on-time performance to as much as 95 per cent since October.

"I call it truth in advertising," Rick Leary, the TTC's chief service officer, said in an interview on Monday afternoon. "When you tell somebody you're going to be there to pick them up, you damn well better be there to pick them up."

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The successful pilot project on the Dufferin Street and St. Clair routes was recently mentioned in passing by TTC head Andy Byford during a speech. But it received little attention amid other efforts to speed transit and other traffic.

Among them, the TTC confirmed on Monday that it will adopt all-door boarding on the King Street streetcar next month in a bid to improve service. And later the same day, Police Chief Bill Blair announced a greater focus on traffic enforcement, also beginning in January.

The TTC's new approach to Dufferin and St. Clair cannot be replicated across the system without additional staff and vehicles. A new computer system that will help manage vehicles is on the distant horizon, though, and is expected to be in service in several years. And the lessons of these two routes may be useful elsewhere.

Mr. Leary said that one key thing he tried to instill was that it should be a last resort to do a short turn, which he characterized as having become routine. On Dufferin and St. Clair, instead of short turning (going back before reaching the end of the route) to fill a gap in the other direction – which forces passengers to get off and wait for the next bus or streetcar – the TTC had extra vehicles that could slip into action.

The approach is paying dividends. TTC figures show that short turns on the 512 St. Clair streetcar are down from highs of more than 500 a week earlier this year to no more than 30 a week since the experiment started. The 29 Dufferin bus has dropped from around 350 a week to less than 30, Mr. Leary said.

There have also been significant improvements in keeping vehicles spaced out along the route.

Although figures for Dufferin were not available on Monday, bunching and gapping had been cut at least in half on the St. Clair route, partly by using extra vehicles to even out the flow.

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Bunching and gapping can occur when a vehicle faces a slight delay, perhaps because of an unlucky red light or from waiting for a passenger to run up. Falling behind means more time is left at the next stop for passengers to gather, meaning the group is bigger and takes longer to load. The vehicle behind it, meanwhile, is a bit closer and has fewer passengers to pick up because there is less time for them to accumulate at the stop after the first vehicle has moved on.

This process feeds on itself, slowing the lead vehicle, speeding the trailing one and moving them closer and closer together.

The old transit joke about waiting 20 minutes for a bus and then having three show up is less funny to the person fuming at the stop. But Mr. Leary said the bigger problem is when vehicles run too far apart.

"I always say to people the bunching is less of a complaint than the gapping," he said.

"When you see bunching, at least you see vehicles coming to you that you can get on. Maybe not the first one, but likely the second or third, right? It's when you stand in the cold in the minus-10 weather and you're supposed to have a vehicle coming every three or four minutes and you don't see anything for a while.

"That's what I always consider is the biggest irritant to individuals."

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