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On August 11, 1995, a train heading south from St. Clair West station on the Spadina subway slipped past a red signal and continued towards the next station at speed. Rounding a blind curve, the driver found himself staring at the back of another subway train that was stopped in the tunnel. There was hardly time to apply the brakes. There was certainly no time to stop.
The resulting crash ballooned the subway cars into a plug that jammed the tunnel from floor to ceiling. The Spadina subway was taken offline for five days. Three people died, and 140 people were injured. It was the first subway crash in the history of the TTC to take the lives of passengers.
The Russell Hill subway crash technically happened during Mike Harris’ watch, but no one sensible would blame him for it. Harris was only two months in office when it happened, and clearly the policies which brought the disaster about began during Bob Rae and David Petersen’s times in office. The accident was, quite possibly, the low point for the city. It certainly was the low point for the Toronto Transit Commission, but it was also the wake-up call.
Months earlier, TTC General Manager David Gunn had committed sacrilege in the eyes of local politicians and public transit advocates. As the city struggled to pull together funding for the Sheppard subway, Gunn incurred the wrath of North York mayor Mel Lastman when he called the construction of the Sheppard subway an irresponsible waste of money. A few of my friends at the time thought he was crazy, frankly. For transit fans and for politicians, it was conventional wisdom that the Toronto subway needed to grow, and the focus of most new transit funding should have been towards making it grow.
But David Gunn highlighted a problem that had been growing in the background for the past decade. Politicians had little interest in paying to maintain the system that existed. There were no photo opportunities in doing so, and in this era of deficits and economic upheaval, the operating expenses and maintenance costs of public transit were easy items to trim down. We need to save money, say the politicians, so let’s remove one bus from a route and crowd people just a little bit tighter, no one will notice. Let’s defer maintenance by a month on tunnel trackwork. The infrastructure can handle it. No one will notice.
While David Petersen and Bob Rae were premiers of Ontario, the budgets of Toronto in general and the TTC in particular came under strain. The cuts mounted up. Toronto’s trolley bus network vanished within a year at the end of over a decade of neglect. Sloppy streetcar track construction almost did the same thing to the streetcars until David Gunn managed to pour additional money into restoring the tracks and overhead. Overall David Gunn was proven largely right when the Russell Hill crash happened, largely due to poor operator training and signal equipment failure. Similarly, the death of a thousand service cuts combined with the economic downturn to reduce TTC ridership by over 20% in just eight years.
The TTC’s problems were mirrored elsewhere in the city and continue to this day. Toronto has a $300 million backlog of road repairs that aren’t getting done. We still have combination storm and sanitary sewers polluting our beaches after every major storm. Bridges have been washed out.
In some ways, it is hard to blame Rae or Petersen for this. The economy was heading into a significant recession that was being made worse by the onset of the Free Trade Agreement. Bob Rae had to deal with a $10 Billion deficit that Petersen left behind. Cuts were probably inevitable, and Rae at least tried to ensure that everybody suffered equally.
And yet Bob Rae still managed to find $2 billion for new subway construction at the end of his term. Likewise, David Petersen commissioned a $5 billion “Lets Move” plan. Other politicians of the day, from Toronto mayor Art Eggleton to Paul Godfrey thought that what Toronto really needed was a $600 million domed stadium that was later sold for just $25 million. We spent hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars trying to chase down the Olympics and the Expo to highlight our “World Class” status. Premier Bill Davis invested hundreds of millions of dollars in unproven high-tech transit systems when streetcars on grade-separated right-of-way would have done. Where was that willingness to spend money when we saw our infrastructure age and collapse? Where was that willingness to spend money on ideas which were cheaper, less showy, but just as effective?
Following the Russell Hill subway accident, David Gunn poured every penny he could into system maintenance, instituting a program called “a state of good repair”. His attitude was, it might not look pretty, but it would work. Toronto politicians started to follow suit. Improvements to the TTC have been made incrementally. Money was found, not to expand the subway network, but to maintain a base level of service of five minutes or better on all subway lines. That stabilized ridership. Rather than campaign for new subway lines, David Miller was elected promoting the TTC’s Ridership Growth Strategy, which among other things suggested that increasing the Commission’s ridership by 80 million passengers per year could be achieved simply by operating more buses and streetcars on the street. The Commission is already halfway to its goal, with not a centimetre of subway construction since 2002.
But politicians continue to favour high-profile projects rather than the bread and butter decisions that keep the city running day to day. Until David Gunn’s sea change trickles out to other sectors of government, this is something we’ll have to continue to hammer our politicians on, reminding them what’s important.
Next (and last): Bill Davis