Do streetcars have a setting for ramming speed?
That's a question hundreds of frustrated TTC riders may have found themselves asking this past weekend, when scores of streetcars were stopped in their tracks by cars parked too close to the rails.
After the city's biggest storm in five years, motorists, it seems, weren't thinking as they parked out in the street to avoid banks of ploughed snow at the curb.
Between Friday and Sunday, February 8-10, there were a whopping 102 incidents of cars parking "afoul of the rail," transit-speak for blocking the tracks. Collectively, those incidents caused 2,691 minutes, or 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 were backed up more than four or five cars deep.
Drivers thoughtless enough to leave their cars in the path of a Red Rocket understandably bore the brunt of transit riders' anger, but there's little indication those in charge at City Hall were thinking ahead either.
Steve Munro, a blogger and public transit advocate, argues that the city should have declared a snow emergency when the flakes started falling Friday. Doing so would have enacted a 72-hour parking ban on designated snow routes, many of which are downtown roads with streetcar tracks. "For the city not to declare a snow emergency was ridiculous," said Munro.
At a press conference at City Hall Tuesday, Public Works chair Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong conceded as much. "In hindsight, if we had the decision to make differently, we would have declared a snow emergency so we would have avoided the circumstances with the TTC," he told reporters.
The Works chair said he consulted transportation staff before the storm hit but was advised that no emergency was necessary because the blizzard was a one-day event expected to be followed by mild temperatures that would quickly melt any accumulated snow.
That turns out to have been rosy thinking. TTC chair Karen Stintz, who says she watched over the weekend as Twitter went "wild" with passengers' complaints, doesn't understand why an emergency wasn't called when the city knew what the weather was bringing well ahead of time.
The storm, she says, caused the largest service disruption she's seen in her time as chair of the commission, including the disabling of 45 buses.
TTC spokesperson Brad Ross says the commission did everything it could to clear obstructing vehicles as quickly as possible. 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 out on the road. Then a call is placed to the police, who in turn are responsible for calling a tow truck.
Depending on the availability of tow trucks, last weekend it took anywhere from five minutes to an hour for offending cars to be removed, according to Ross.
To avoid a repeat of the debacle, Minnan-Wong said Tuesday he's asked Transportation Services to review the snow emergency policy.
There are currently no clear criteria for calling an emergency, Minnan-Wong said, exceot that there has to be at least 5 centimetres of snow on the ground and the general manager of Transportation Services has to give his authorization.
The councillor hopes the review will better define the criteria that would trigger an alert, and also wants staff to consider a scaled-down response that would ban parking only on roads with streetcar tracks instead of snow routes city-wide.
He also suggests that the word "emergency" be dropped from the policy, because he believes it creates an undue "sense of hysteria," especially in light of Mel Lastman's infamous 1999 decision to call in the army in the wake of a blizzard.
"‘Emergency' is a pretty strong word," Minnan-Wong said. "If we could find language that conveys the importance of keeping streets clear without necessarily thinking we're going to have tanks rolling through the city, I think there's a middle ground to be reached."
Stintz welcomes the review, which is expected to take several months to complete and will be submitted to the Public Works committee.
"That's a positive step. We don't get these kinds of snowfalls often, but we need to be prepared. When there's 30 cm of accumulated snow, I think it justifies a snow emergency," she says.
444 minutes in total delays (average 20 minutes per incident)
927 minutes in total delays (average 22 minutes per incident)
1,320 minutes in total delays (average 34 minutes per incident)