Streetcar woes not just Bombardier’s fault

Watching the TTC double-down after every Bombardier failure is like watching Charlie Brown ask Lucy to spot the football for him one more time.

Originally published in the Toronto Sun July 5, 2018

Most of Toronto’s shiny new streetcars have been recalled by Bombardier for critically-important repairs. Yes, those streetcars — the ones Bombardier has consistently failed to deliver on time. Of the 89 vehicles in use by the TTC today — there should be almost 200 — three-quarters of them will be pulled off the streets this fall for repairs to “inferior frame welds.”

How did we get here?

While Bombardier deserves most of the blame here, Toronto is not without its own shame.

Back in 2010, I worked for the late mayor Rob Ford at City Hall. He hated streetcars. He wasn’t alone.

But, he’d been saddled by the previous administration with a contract for even more, bigger, shinier, costlier streetcars from Bombardier. Cancelling the contract would be extremely expensive and getting rid of streetcars altogether would be politically difficult for a mayor who needed to spend his political capital on bigger priorities. It was a quandary. After many briefings with senior TTC executives, I eventually advised Ford to leave the program alone. It was far advanced and might very well kill itself anyway, due to engineering troubles.

The Flexity streetcar design chosen by the TTC seemed a poor fit for Toronto, where our existing tracks were narrower and turns much tighter than most places it had been used. The minimum turning radius on Toronto’s tracks is 11 meters, compared to 20-30 meters in most other cities.

Meanwhile, as part of their accessibility strategy, TTC executives recommended the new streetcars be 60% to 80% “low-floor,” to meet growing demands for wheelchair accessibility. City councillors disagreed. They demanded equal access for everyone, regardless of cost, and insisted the new vehicles be 100% low-floor. Wheelchair transit-users I spoke with pointed out they didn’t care how much of the streetcar was accessible — they didn’t want to wheel out into an active street to board a streetcar in the first place.

This posed an engineering challenge for Bombardier.

The wheels of Toronto’s older streetcars are mounted underneath the vehicle for a reason. It lets them turn sharply like a railcar. To meet the 100% low-floor requirement, new streetcars must have wheels that attach to their sides. This limits their ability to turn sharply, making it difficult to negotiate the tight turning radius on Toronto’s track system. In 2010, TTC managers were less than confident Bombardier would get this right.

Getting it right, and meeting other TTC-demanded requirements, added considerable time and cost to the project. Even so, Bombardier consistently failed to deliver on its own promises, proving to be a lousy corporate partner.

Despite Bombardier’s regular shortfalls, the TTC keeps doubling-down after every disappointment. At some point, sunk money cannot justify further expense. Toronto is well past that point. The TTC is now looking beyond this batch of cursed Bombardier lemons, to replace Toronto’s remaining streetcars. Unbelievably, they’ve invited Bombardier to bid.

Have they learned nothing?

It’s like Charlie Brown asking Lucy to spot the football for him one more time. Surely, Toronto cannot be that stupid.

— Mark Towhey is a trusted advisor to business and political leaders, host of #TheBestShowEver on NEWSTALK1010 Sundays in Toronto and author of Mayor Rob Ford: Uncontrollable