The TTC is about to run out of streetcars.
As ridership continues to grow, the commission announced on Tuesday that it is increasing service on three dozen of its busiest bus and streetcar lines.
The changes necessitate putting eight more streetcars on the road during morning peak periods, and according to TTC planner Scott Haskill, that means that every operable streetcar in the aging fleet will now be in service during morning rush hour.
"We've used up all the streetcars we have," Haskill says.
"We have no more streetcars that we can add... until our new streetcars enter service next year."
The commission is awaiting the delivery of 204 high-capacity light rail vehicles, which are expected to start entering fare service in 2014. If streetcar lines require more frequent service before the new trams can be rolled out, the TTC will add buses along those routes instead. Haskill predicts that will start happening before the end of this year.
Ridership across the system is projected to reach a record-breaking 528 million in 2013, up from 514 million in 2012.
Normally, buses are only used on streetcar routes to cope with construction or other service disruptions.
While some people might take the shortage of streetcars as a sign that Toronto's transit system is stretched to the limit, Haskill says it's no cause for alarm.
"Most transit agencies, including us, run pretty tight on that sort of thing and that's not a surprise," he says.
"We don't have a lot of spare buses either. We can't afford to own lots of spare vehicles, nor do we have lots of extra operators hanging around who could run them."
He does concede that the new streetcars, which are 20 per cent longer than the biggest vehicles in the current fleet, will be more efficient than using buses to carry some of the load on busy streetcar lines.
"We need the high capacity vehicles on our streetcar routes, plain and simple. A bus helps out absolutely, but it doesn't carry nearly as many people as a streetcar," Haskill says.
Transit blogger Steve Munro believes the streetcar shortage is a sign that the commission is "hanging on by the skin of its teeth" as it waits for the new fleet to arrive.
"They can kind of just squeeze by," he says, "but it's awfully tight."
At a cost of $1.2 billion, plus millions more in curb alterations and other infrastructure work, the purchase of the new vehicles has been controversial ever since council ordered them from Bombardier in 2009. But the TTC maintains that they're needed to cope with ever-increasing ridership growth.
Most of the service improvements announced Tuesday came into effect on March 31, and will ease crowding on five streetcar and 30 bus lines, including busy routes like the 501 Queen, 504 King, 29 Dufferin, and the 45 Kipling. Most of the changes impact off-peak service only.
In each instance, changes have been made after passenger counts determined the routes were at or exceeding the commission's loading standards. The TTC sets targets of 36 and 54 passengers per bus during off-peak and peak hours, respectively. On its longest streetcars, the standard is 61 riders during off-peak times, and 108 during peak times.
A TTC spokesperson could not immediately tell NOW the cost of the increased service, but said it had been accounted for in the commission's 2013 budget.