TTC using ‘gap trains’ to improve service on busiest subway line

TTC using ‘gap trains’ to improve service on busiest subway line

The TTC says it’s making progress in its ongoing battle to improve capacity on its busiest subway line.

The thousands of riders who use the network’s two most-trafficked stations are all too familiar with having to wait for one or two full trains to bypass them until one with enough room to board arrives.

Riders crowd a TTC subway platform at Bloor-Yonge station in February. The TTC has managed to ease some crowding by deploying “gap” trains during peak times.
Riders crowd a TTC subway platform at Bloor-Yonge station in February. The TTC has managed to ease some crowding by deploying “gap” trains during peak times.  (Randy Risling / Toronto Star File Photo)

More than 135,000 passengers squeeze on or off Line 1 (Yonge-University-Spadina) trains at St. George every day, while more than 215,000 use Bloor-Yonge.

But according to TTC acting chief operating officer Jim Ross, riders at those two stops should have seen an improvement to their morning commute over the past month as the agency exceeded an important service target on several occasions.

The agency schedules 25.5 southbound Line 1 subways per hour at St. George and Bloor-Yonge during the morning rush. But in October, the agency managed to run 28 trains through St. George on eight mornings. At Bloor-Yonge, it managed 28 trains on three mornings.

Running 28 trains in an hour instead of 25 can mean the difference between customers boarding the first train that arrives or having to wait for another until there’s enough room to get on.

“It’s a pretty dramatic improvement,” said Ross, who was appointed acting COO in April. “It shows that we’re doing really, really well.”

He attributed the increased service to three factors, including the use of so-called “gap trains” — empty subways that are stashed along Line 1 and pressed into service in the event of a disruption.

The trains, each of which can carry more than 1,300 passengers, sit ready at storage or “pocket” tracks, usually near Davisville, Eglinton, and York Mills stations, and are inserted into the southbound flow of subways on the Yonge side of Line 1 as required.

“You can pretty much clear a platform with one empty train,” said Ross.

The TTC used to keep four gap trains ready during morning rush hour. But as a result of what Ross described as a “change in operating philosophy” at the TTC before he took over as acting COO, the agency started reducing their use in 2015, before eliminating them altogether near the end of last year.

The agency reconsidered that decision after Jan. 30, 2018, when a major overcrowding incident at Bloor-Yonge sparked concerns about passenger safety.

The agency decided to redeploy two gap trains, along with other measures spelled out in a 10-point plan to tackle crowding put forward by Mayor John Tory.

“I’m proud that we are starting to see the results of this decisive action that put relief in place where possible, as soon as possible,” said Tory in a statement.

The agency now has three gap trains each morning rush. It plans to add a fourth, plus one gap train for the afternoon peak period, this month.

Another change that has improved service is the opening in September of an additional track called a “hostler” at Wilson Yard, which provides a second point of entry to and exit from the yard.

Before it opened, work cars returning to Wilson after a night shift often delayed subways entering service on time in the morning. Since the hostler was commissioned, there has been a 44 per cent reduction in the average number of minutes trains are delayed leaving the yard.

The TTC has also increased the number of staff on station platforms to manage crowds, which Ross said has reduced trains’ “dwell time” at stops.

The recent improvements have hardly solved Line 1’s crowding problems.

Bloor-Yonge regularly operates above its scheduled capacity of 28,000 passengers per hour, and service delays still cause serious crowding.

As recently as Tuesday afternoon, agency staff had to restrict access to the Line 2 platforms at Bloor-Yonge due to potentially dangerous overcrowding.

A new $562-million signalling system called automatic train control that’s scheduled to be operational by next year and would allow the TTC to run trains closer together is expected to provide more permanent relief, although the transit agency recently placed the program under review.

Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation. Reach him by email at or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr

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