Do streetcars have a setting for ramming speed?
That's a question that hundreds of frustrated TTC riders may have found themselves asking this past weekend, when dozens of streetcars were stopped in their tracks by automobiles parked too close to the rails. On Friday, Toronto's biggest blizzard in five years had dumped 30 cm of snow on the roads, much of it piled in on-street parking spots that drivers evidently found unusable.
According to TTC spokesperson Brad Ross, between Friday and Sunday there were a whopping 102 incidents of cars parking "afoul of the rail," transit speak for blocking the tracks. Collectively, those incidents caused
2,961 2,691 minutes, or 49.35 44.85 hours, of service delays as TTC operators and passengers were forced to wait for tow trucks to arrive. At points throughout the weekend, streetcars traveling the same route were backed up four or five cars deep.
Ross says that the commission did everything it could to clear the obstructing vehicles as quickly as possible.
"We work very closely with Toronto Police Services parking enforcement unit when cars are blocking the route," he says.
The protocol for getting tow trucks to the scene of an ill-parked vehicle is hardly direct, however. When streetcar operators encounter an impassable car, they have to call in to central transit control, which then notifies a supervisor who is out on the road. Then a call is placed to the police, who in turn are responsible for calling a tow truck.
Ross says that depending on the availability of tow trucks, this weekend it took anywhere from five minutes to an hour for offending cars to be removed.
For some impatient passengers, instead of towing, a more satisfying solution would be to give streetcar operators the authority to drive into encroaching cars, even if it means knocking loose a side view mirror here and there.
Despite rumours suggesting that TTC operators were at one time authorized to do just that, Ross says it's not something he's seen during his time at the commission.
"It's certainly not something that we'd ever encourage our streetcar operators to do," he says, pointing out that ramming cars could also damage TTC vehicles. "There's all sorts of liabilities and issues around that."
But while Ross defends the commission's handling of the latest permutation of Toronto's long-running streetcar vs. automobile conflict, some transit watchers are blaming City Hall for not recognizing the extent of the problem.
Steve Munro, a blogger and public transit advocate, says that the city should have declared a snow emergency when the flakes started falling on Friday. Doing so would have made it illegal to park on downtown roads with streetcar tracks, giving city plows a chance to clear curb lanes.
"This is one of the biggest snowfalls the city has had in years, and for the city not to declare a snow emergency is ridiculous," says Munro.
There are no specific guidelines for calling a snow emergency, which are intended to last for at least 72 hours. But according to a transportation services spokesperson one can be declared any time "a significant amount of snow falls within an eight hour period."
Both transportation services and the mayor have the authority to declare a snow emergency.
Ross would not comment on whether the TTC's job would have been easier if an emergency had been called, saying doing so was up to the city's discretion. But there's no doubt in his mind who is at fault for the extensive delays this past weekend.
"This isn't a TTC or Toronto Police Services failing. This is a failing on the part of motorists parking illegally," Ross says.
"I don't want to play a blame game here, but quite frankly motorists have a responsibility to ensure that when they're parking, it's done in such a way that they're not inconveniencing thousands of people."
Streetcars blocked by cars this past weekend:
- Friday - 22 incidents, 444 minutes in total delay (average 20 minutes per incident)
- Saturday - 42 incidents, 927 minutes in total delay (average 22 minutes per incident)
- Sunday - 38 incidents, 1320 minutes in total delay (average 34 minutes per incident)