A Complex Algorithm in Transformation

Nov. 16, 2015
OC Transpo is the transportation backbone of Canada's capital and it's getting more complex as it undergoes the largest transformation in its 150 year history.

When it comes to seeing the challenges OC Transpo faces in moving the city of Ottawa, all you need are five minutes at Hurdman Station.

On a sunny September Monday morning, hundreds of people pour out of articulated New Flyer and Orion buses and Alexander Dennis double decker buses onto a cement platform in the middle of the city’s transitway. Every 15 to 20 seconds another bus arrives brimming with passengers. Four hundred to 500 buses per hour arrive at the station, each weaving past one another to reach their designated spot on the platform while a crush of waiting passengers move aside as dozens more pour off of each bus. As they file off, just as many — if not more — file onto each bus.

The old Hurdman Station and shelter sits cordoned off and a few yards away, while construction workers dart between towering concrete posts set to hold up a new light rail line.

As OC Transpo General Manager John Manconi watches the buses weave between each other and riders transfer, he has a simple explanation on how the system moves.
“It’s like a complex ballet I call it,” he said.

Manconi sees the complexity of the system and some OC Transpo employees even jokingly call him “maestro” as he walks by on his way into the office, but they’re all getting tested on a new level of moving Canada’s capital as the system undertakes its biggest transformation in its 150-year history.

Moving Canada's Capital

Ottawa boasts a population of more than 800,000 people with, a metro population of about 1.2 million. OC Transpo services the region in concert with Société de Transport de l'Outaouais (STO), based out of Gatineau, Quebec, and a handful of other small area agencies.

“People want to live in Ottawa. Very low crime rate, recession-proof…when you compare quality of life, crime rate, recession-proof, I think compared to places like Boston housing prices one-tenth of what you would pay in Boston,” Manconi said.

It’s not most populous city in Canada, but its size creates challenges.

“The way we always describe it is Ottawa is the size of Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Vancouver all combined,” Manconi said. “So geographically, we’re very, very large.”

OC Transpo has been around for 150 years, but the agency enjoys having one of the youngest bus fleets in North America at an average of five years old. It’s an interlined system with more than 900 buses in the fleet, carrying 100 million passengers per year, which doesn’t include transfers.

“The complexity of it,” Manconi said about the system when asked what surprised him when he became general manager. “Transit looks so simple when that bus arrives or that train arrives and yet behind it is this highly complex algorithm and it’s a business that never sleeps. It’s just continuous.

“And the touchpoints and the sensitivity to the algorithm are amazing in terms of what it takes to pull off the bus arriving at your stop on time. It’s very, very complicated.”

The system runs one diesel commuter line called the O-Train, which initially started as a pilot project more than a decade ago on an abandoned railroad right-of-way. It was so popular, the agency decided to keep it running and even purchased Alstom diesel trains for the corridor.

Manconi said it currently has a 52 percent fare box recovery, but once the Confederation Line light rail system is operational, it’s expected to jump to 55 percent.

On top of farebox revenues, OC Transpo gets funding from property taxes and gas taxes, along with some federal funds and a small amount from advertising revenues.

“If you just look at the tight definition of downtown, transit carries about 70 percent or more of everyone who goes down there,” said Pat Scrimgeour, assistant general manager of customer systems and planning for OC Transpo. “We’ve for over 30 years with the Transitway and now light rail, we kept adding transit capacity and there hasn’t been any more road capacity built into downtown since 1973.

“And Ottawa since ‘73 is almost twice as large as it was.”

The agency is actually in a three-year ridership decline. In 2011-2012, the agency saw 103 million riders board the system, but the federal government has downsized and some of the population has migrated outside of the core area of the city, so ridership has dropped the past two years. Manconi said the drop to 97 million might be OC Transpo’s new base as the slide has stopped and has since gone flat.

“We fundamentally believe as an organization that the No. 1 thing you can do to drive ridership up is have outstanding service,” he said. “It’s all the little things that come together. That algorithm I talked about -- having a clean bus, having a smile when you board the bus, being on time, communicating really well with customers.”

Manconi said OC Transpo has strong requirements to become a bus operator. It takes two years from application through the whole process to become and operator, with intense training on customer service, defensive driving and a lot of road assessments. Of applicants who make it through the initial screening process, another 30 percent fail to pass the agency’s training process.

OC Transpo operates on the Presto Card, which is used by several transit agencies in Ontario. The common fare means riders can use the card in Ottawa or any of the other systems on the same card. It will also apply to the Confederation Line and the new gated system put in place.

Manconi said about 82 percent of OC Transpo customers are on the Presto Card, but adjacent to the high tech Presto Card readers are fare boxes more than 30 years old, which OC Transpo says is by design.

“When you bring technology in, sometimes it’s a good and it’s a bad, so these keep them out on the road,” said Mark Westphal, superintendent of maintenance service for OC Transpo. “It’s a simple entry system right down into the bottom. There are two lights. That’s all that can go wrong with this box.”

OC Transpo uses Clever Devices on its system to monitor buses and find which are running on time, where the hotspots in the system to keep buses on time.

“Basically this tracks everything that this fine gentleman is doing,” Westphal said while pointing at an OC Transpo operator aboard a double decker bus. “Is he on-time, behind time, or so anything else.”

Manconi said the agency keeps on top of questions and concerns to keep customer satisfaction up along with adding technology to supplement riders. It was an early adopter of 100 percent real time texting at bus stops and an app that allows riders to even set an alarm for their bus arrival.

“Eight hundred and three buses have to be ready for the morning rush hour, 6 a.m. They All leave,” Manconi said. “That service you saw at Hurdman, citywide they have to have 803 buses out — 930-something ready. And then over half of them come back at 9:30 because our peak is higher than Los Angeles in terms of peak surge.”

Dirty buses used to be a concern for riders. Wesphal said they used to “basically fire hose,” buses before electronics were prevalent, but the agency came up with a deep cleaning system to keep on top of buses outside of regular cleaning schedules.

The top complaint is late bus arrivals, which generally is a concern during winter storms in Ottawa.

“High satisfaction level, high confidence level in our operators in being able to assist customers, high uptake on things such as open data real time data, social feeds, and just positive discussions with the community even when things don’t go well. We respond to it,” Manconi said.

The buses are all diesels and some Orion hybrid buses. Manconi said they plan to stay with an all diesel fleet, which also added double decker buses to run express routes in order to fit more passengers and run more efficiently than articulated buses.

The addition of Alexander Dennis double decker buses made the agency more efficient. After they were put in place three years ago, OC Transpo saw operating costs drop by $10 million per year.

“So we can put them on the more frequent express routes, widen the headways, carry 90 people on every bus instead of 70 people on every bus,” Scrimgeour said. “So instead of 12 minute service they get a 15 minute service and instead of an 8 minute service they get a 10 minute service, but we took that money out of the operating budget.”

OC Transpo is adding another 37 double decker buses to the fleet, which will have wi-fi. The O-Train, the LRT will be cellular enabled including in the tunnel.

“The public just loves them,” Manconi said about the double decker buses.

Keeping the System rolling

OC Transpo faces unique challenges operating in a cold climate city, but plans for winter storms and using facilities wisely keeps buses on the roads in an efficient manner.

“On the Transitway, even in the winter storm, we’re fine,” Manconi said. “It’s the mixed-use roads if the plowing services are down or slowed down because of the intensity of the storm.”

Cold winters cause issues with storing buses overnight, the agency already spends $40 million in fuel costs per year, so idling buses to keep them warm isn’t a good option and building more garages is too expensive, so the agency built a system where 120 buses are kept outdoors, but their Spheros heaters are plugged in. The project has saved the agency millions.

The 380,000 square feet maintenance facility next to the parking area is a LEED design is built around the environment and energy savings.

“A lot of the roofspace in here, it’s a white space to reduce the amount the heat,” Westphal said. “And it’s actually a grass membrane roof.”

Inside OC Transpo’s operations center, information is integrated where employees monitor everyday actions of operators and field about 1,000 calls per day from operators.

“Each controller has about 150 routes or runs that they have to monitor,” said Al Drisdelle, program manager of conventional transit operations.

“We have extra extras on the road as well that we put out every day on the road at 6 a.m.; we put eight extras so they go to certain areas then get calls ‘do this trip at a certain time,’ and usually it’s because a bus is broken down or is very late,” Drisdelle said. “Not too many cities have that.”

The city also works with the agency to keep traffic flowing with the information it collects.

“They can change any signal light sequencing from a laptop anywhere in the world,” Manconi added. “It’s the most advanced traffic control signal in the world. When I was over there we had people from around the world: China, Paris come over and take a look.”

Drisdelle said OC Transpo works with the city’s traffic operations department on issues, with that agency’s 475 cameras position around Ottawa.

“We work very closely because our operators are kind of the eyes and ears out there for traffic, so if they see something that our traffic folks don’t see, they’ll message into these controllers and then they’ll pick up the phone and call them and say there’s a situation here, turn around the camera and then, bang, there it is,” he said. “Same with them. They’ll see something and they’ll let us know.”

OC Transpos police officers are also in the operations center and keep their lines of coordination read with the city police for large events and to tackle issues.

“All our major train stations have cameras,” said Gord Robinson, transit law superintendent for OC Transpo. “At Trillium, those platforms also have PA on scene something, especially if it’s minor like someome smoking, these guys can talk to the person tell them please put it out.”

Transforming the backbone of Ottawa

OC Transpo runs its buses on Ottawa’s 35.4km Transitway, one of the world’s first bus rapid transit systems, which was built in the 1980s. The system moves buses through the city on a mostly grade separated system. However, crowding and physical restraints have given way for the need to build the Confederation Line LRT.

“It was state-of-the-art 30 years ago and it did exactly what it was supposed to,” Manconi said. “It was planned to be converted to light rail and you know, the other key piece on that is Ottawa, enjoys one of the highest ridership’s per capita in the bus systems of North America. Ridership per capita here is incredible.”

Manconi, 49, is an Ottawa native who spent the past three years as the general manager of OC Transpo, but didn’t start his career in transit. He worked for the city of Ottawa for 26 years prior to taking the helm of the transit agency and most recently was general manager of the city’s public works department.

Not being a transit person, Manconi said leaders saw something different in him they felt was needed for the job when asked to take over OC Transpo while the Confederation LRT line is built and fundamentally transforms the entire organization.

Manconi said he likes doing transformational work and since taking over he has created a greater appreciation for the job that transit has in serving Ottawa.

“Well I like doing change. I actually enjoy it because I like organizations to be successful,” Manconi said. “I like the opportunities it creates for people in the organization and what I brought to it was a structured approach to it. We have a transformational program called On Track 2018, which is a series of projects that touch on all of the critical and strategic transformation that needs to occur.

“So that’s training, it’s organizational structure, it’s how we’re going to operate the system, the safety protocols, all those things that are necessary to get the organization to go from a bus company to a multimodal. And that’s the shift really. We’re going to go from a predominantly a bus company to a true multimodal because we’ve got bus, LRT electrified rail, we’ve already got the diesel line.”

The Confederation Line is currently in Stage I of construction, which is converting 13-14 km of the Transitway into LRT along with 13 stations. The stage also includes the core tunnel being bored under downtown Ottawa.
Stage II will expand the line further east and west, and expand the O-Line further south.

“We’re just going to have to keep watching how the city grows,” Scrimgeour said. “Is it going to grow differently? We don’t know because there’s no other experience with converting rapid transit to light rail rapid transit. Every other city you look at or operation, will their city grow a differently? Will people’s behavior’s change? We don’t know and we’ve got to keep operating a complete system within an operating budget restrained enough to fund the capital budget.”

Manconi said the Transitway was designed to convert to light rail, so engineers placed all road curves and conditions to eventually serve as rail corridors. Some segments along Scott Street were old rail corridors, but the rest was built solely for transit.

“It’s just the way they did it,” Manconi said. “They said we’re going to go bus rapid transit and then when you reach the capacity, which we’ve done in the core, you can’t push anymore buses through, you then can covert to light rail.
“And our light rail is expandable as well.”

Hurdman Station is an important stop along the Transitway with about 80 bus routes entering it and will continue to be a key cog when the LRT opens. Scrimgeour said Hurdman keeps getting busier, so there have been changes over the years to keep up with the volume, but with construction underway, they now have to fit the same traffic in the smaller temporary station.

“We’re also not building park-and-ride lots in the center of the city because we want to encourage people to drop their cars before they leave the suburban areas, so they’re all no park-and-ride lots along the first stage of the rail line,” he said. “It’s different. We want to get people before they get on the highway to go downtown.”

Scrimgeour said the biggest challenge with buses is getting them through the downtown core. OC Transpo can’t run more than 180 buses per hour per direction, which is causing issues.

“Even if we converted over entirely to high capacity buses, we couldn’t find a way of getting past 12,000 people an hour through downtown and 10 years ago or 8 years ago, we didn’t know when that would happen, so that’s why that’s under construction,” he said. “It’s about 24,000 people an hour, which allows the size of the city to double really.”

The $2.1 billion Confederation Line is a design-build-maintain P3, which will be operated by OC Transpo. The consortium Rideau Transit Group (RTG) is building the Confederation Line and upon completion, the Rideau Transit Maintenance (RTM) will handle maintenance of the line for a 30-year period. It was financed via $600 million from government sources, with the rest is supplied via taxes.

“We’re the planners and the operators for 30 years,” Manconi said. “Quite often, in a P3 you design-build-operate and maintain, the operating piece stays with us. We wanted that to have control of the service so we throttle up, throttle down we plan the service, the frequency and so forth so we got our own destiny in that regard.”

When the Confederation Line is open, it will have 16 double trains carrying 600 passengers each with a lead time of 3.5 minutes through the corridor.

“I just want to make sure on day one we’re consistent,” said Michael Morgan, director of rail operations. “I don’t what two years of growing pains while we work out the bugs and reliability. We want it to work right out of the box.”
The lines opening means OC Transpo will be able to eliminate around one-third of its bus fleet, which means $16 million in savings with less operators, mechanics and vehicles.

“It’s going to be the busiest LRT in North America when it opens,” Manconi said. “There will be 10,500 passengers per hour, per direction, which is unheard of. And it has the ability to go up to 25,000 per hour.”

Troy Charter, assistant general manager of transit operations for OC Transpo, said Ottawa averages five to eight significant snowfalls per year, and articulated buses struggle in these conditions while being the workhorses of the system. The LRT can address some of these issues.

“It’s not going to be much faster, but the gains in reliability are huge,” he said.

Manconi said the challenge with transitioning to the new multimodal is doing it seamlessly.

“Whenever you introduce change into someone else’s routine, it doesn’t matter what it is — what time you get up, bus you take, where you work, your office location — you’re managing someone’s environment,” he said. “So, going from ‘that’s your bus stop, that’s your bus that’s going to show up,’ to ‘no, your trip is going to change,’ we’ve got to help the customers through that change.”

OC Transpo is journey mapping the new system for riders, Manconi said and working with them the next 18 months in preparation for the new system in order to get them on board with the changes.

“What’s fascinating about that is we had focus groups of our customers, they said ‘wow, we really like that, but have you thought about this and what’s it going to be like in the station,’ and when they heard some were worried about the scheduling, ‘you’re changing my routine I know when my bus comes now,’ but we say no, in the morning, in the peak, it’s 3-2 ½ minute service If you miss your train don’t worry about it because another one is going to show up,” he said. “That relieves some contention.”

The 18-month countdown is underway, so Manconi said the agency will start informing the public about their new train, how fare gates work, what transfer points they’ll need for their daily routines and relieve some of the tension coming with the change, so it’s not a “big bang,” but changes riders knew were coming.

“That I think will be the biggest change,” Manconi said. “You can get new equipment, new stations, training, you can manage all those. What you need to keep a focus on is the change to your employees and customers. That’s that delicate balance. That whole relationship piece needs to be supported really well.”

About the Author

Joe Petrie | Associate Editor

I came to Mass Transit in 2013 after spending seven years on the daily newsbeat in southeastern Wisconsin.

Based in Milwaukee, I worked as a daily newspaper reporter with the Waukesha Freeman from 2006-2011, where I covered education, county and state government. I went on to cover courts for Patch.com, where I was the main courts reporter in the Metro Milwaukee cluster of websites.

I’ve won multiple awards during the course of my career and have covered some of the biggest political events in the past decade and have appeared on national programs.

Having covered local government and social issues, I discovered the importance of transit and the impact it can have on communities when implemented, supported and funded.