TTC subway oil spill reinforces state-of-good-repair problems, more action needed: advocates

A hydraulic oil spill brought TTC Line 2 trains to a stop for a large portion of the line for several hours. Advocates say it and several other issues so far in 2024 highlight a need for extra money. Nick Westoll reports.

As the TTC was forced to partially close part of the Line 2 Bloor-Danforth subway line due to a train hydraulic spill, advocates say the latest incident highlights the growing need to address state-of-good-repair issues facing the transit system.

The incident saw Line 2 closed between St. George and Broadview stations for nearly 12 hours when a work car leaked oil on the track between Bloor-Yonge and Castle Frank stations, creating “slippery track conditions” and it required manual track cleaning.

“Getting to work on time was close to impossible … people were trapped on trains, crushed on platforms,” Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow noted during a news conference on Tuesday.

Shelagh Pizey-Allen, the executive director of TTCriders, said she heard from many of the advocacy group’s volunteers who were impacted.

“My phone was blowing up with photos and videos people were sending of their experience. Someone on their way to a job interview was freaking out,” she said.

“The photos people were sharing were quite dangerous like the platforms in the subway stations totally packed to the edge and people spilling out onto the street because of too many people to stay on the sidewalk.”

Pizey-Allen said another major incident on the subway system is leaving commuters frustrated. It came after several slow-speed zones were issued this year due to various issues and in March a cracked rail switch forced a partial closure of Line 1 Yonge-University during a morning rush hour.

“Some subway shutdowns happen because of accidents that are outside of the TTC control, but you know a hydraulic fluid spill, a cracked switch rail, slow zones across the system for maintenance, these are maintenance issues,” she said.

“This is pointing to bigger issues around maintenance and funding for the TTC, but a better response plan when subway shutdowns happen communication with riders [and] also making sure that shuttle buses have their own lane on the streets so that at least they can move more smoothly.”

As the TTC continues its efforts to entice residents back to the transit system after COVID-19, Pizey-Allen said continued disruptions will make the task harder.

“Why does this keep happening and what’s the plan to fix it? Those are answers that haven’t been forthcoming,” she said.

“If you cannot count on the TTC to get you where you need to go, you will stop taking it. You will find another way. I think right now transit riders don’t feel confident that they can count on the TTC because of the number of shutdowns that have been happening recently.”

Councillor Jamaal Myers, who is also the chair of the TTC board of directors, said it is a concern he shares.

“It definitely hurts (the brand). You know I can say that we’re a reliable transit system and 80 per cent of the time we are, but at 20 per cent we’re not that’s just too high,” he told CityNews during an interview on Tuesday.

Myers said “it was really hard to watch” Monday’s closure.

“So many of our customers were really struggling to get where they were going. They were very frustrated. They were angry. I share their frustration. I share their anger. Our employees were doing the best they could, but we were dealing with a situation that unfortunately just caused that shutdown (to) that specific portion,” he said.

“Everyone on the commission is very frustrated and we will be asking some very direct questions as to what happened and making sure that stuff like this doesn’t happen again.”

When asked about the various disruptions experienced by riders so far in 2024, Myers said he has noticed it as someone who rides the system regularly.

“The TTC board is taking these issues very seriously,” he said, pointing to a board order for an independent peer review of the TTC’s state-of-good-repair and maintenance practices months after a Line 3 train derailed in Scarborough.

“It seems to be these maintenance issues are becoming more and more prominent, they’re ongoing, they’re more frequent, and they’re frustrating our customers, and it’s just not acceptable.

“We really need to get a handle on these if we’re going to win back customers.”

CityNews contacted TTC staff early Tuesday to ask for an interview about Monday’s incident and other issues seen this year. The request was ignored and a brief statement said “yesterday was not related to maintenance. It was a vehicle issue.”

Myers said while the provincial government has stepped up with extra funding, they still don’t have the extra dedicated, state-of-good-repair funding needed to address the growing list of issues. He and Pizey-Allen both singled out the federal government’s absence of funding.

“There is such a critical backlog of state of good repair in the TTC that we just don’t have the money to actually start making a significant dent in it, and the longer we wait the infrastructure becomes more and more expensive and harder to replace,” Myers said.

A City of Toronto report found that $26 billion is needed over the next 10 years to maintain the municipality’s existing infrastructure.

Matti Siemiatycki, director of the University of Toronto’s Infrastructure Institute, said more resources are needed to fix the existing system.

“People need to know that when they take public transit, they can depend on it, and that it will be there and that it will be safe and that it will get them where they need to go every time,” he said.

“As the system starts to break down more frequently, it chips away at public confidence.

“Funding transit systems are often provided by the local order of government and yet the scale of investment needed day after day, month after month, year after year. is far greater than what they could ever provide on their own.”

Siemiatycki also noted what’s being seen with the TTC in Toronto isn’t unique.

“Transit is an expensive business and … in North America, it is not recovering its full operating costs from the farebox. So it requires subsidies and those subsidies are too great to be paid for only by the municipality. It requires consistent investments from the province and the federal government,” he said.

Hindering progress in maintaining the existing system, Siemiatycki said, is a fixation by politicians on new transit lines versus protecting existing ones.

“This is the Toronto special. We love debating new lines on the map. We love trying to have these conversations about which new system will be better than the other, and really in its place we need to be focusing on the operations and maintenance,” he said.

“It’s not glamorous to cut a ribbon on a maintenance project, but it is really a big political moment when these new pieces of infrastructure come into being.

“I think we have to figure out how the politics work to make sure that a sufficient amount of money is being invested in the state of good repair of our transit system, and the transit system is a microcosm of what’s happening right across our city in terms of the civil and social infrastructure.”

Siemiatycki had a dire warning if maintenance issues aren’t tackled.

“It’s going to keep deteriorating and you’re going to keep seeing these delays. keep seeing people streaming out of the stations when they should be riding smoothly on transit, trying to find alternatives, and increasingly looking for other ways to get around,” he said.

“(It’s) really digging a hole deeper for a transit system that struggled through the pandemic, was on the brink of the death spiral, and is now trying to attract people back — that will only become more difficult.”

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