London’s Exiles: Chris Upfold and Toronto’s Second Design Age


At the dawn of the millennium, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) had a problem. The TTC had been a transit world leader in the 1970s, building fare integrated, barrier-free surface transit terminals at most of its subway stations. That was in the past, however, and now the system was a mess.

Things had started well for Toronto. In the seventies, thanks to a rare outbreak of mass-transport-focused leadership, the city had bucked the trend on the American continent and built a suburban subway extension to a large mall on a major highway, instead of constructing expressways into the heart of the city. But then, over the next 30 years, the TTC had stagnated. Politicians were distracted by issues elsewhere and avoided dealing with transit, despite the rapidly expanding metropolis and record condominium construction.

TTC St Clair station rendering showing the integrated streetcar platform. Toronto Archives

The neglect of the public transport system… the act of taking it for granted… all paralleled the running down of London Underground in the 1970s and 1980s. It wasn’t the only similarity between the two systems and cities.

Due to its success, the TTC typically promoted senior and general managers from within. As in London, this had led to a strong reluctance to accept ‘not invented here’ ideas. Inevitably this led to the rejection of worldwide best practices, falling morale and slipping standards.

Rock bottom

At 1800hrs on Friday, 11th August 11, 1995, a subway train running southbound on Toronto’s Line 1 slammed into the rear of another train, stationary in the tunnel ahead. Three people were killed and many more of the hundreds of passengers involved were injured. Worse, it took hours to get to some survivors, trapped deep below ground in the twisted wreckage and days to disentangle the trains.

The accident shook the TTC to the core. It had been caused by a combination of driver inexperience and a badly designed and implemented signal system. It could have been avoided.

At the time, David Gunn, a veteran General Manager of several large US transit systems (including New York City’s subway) had only recently been brought on board as the TTC’s General Manager. He took charge of the post-incident investigation which revealed that safety had simply not been a high priority. Many of the tripcocks designed to stop a runaway or overspeed train were not functioning, for example, which was a direct factor in the crash.

Gunn instituted and obtained ongoing funding for a State of Good Repair programme, bringing in new training and safety staff. The process of dealing with the city’s political class and entrenched middle managers within the TTC, however, took a heavy toll on Gunn. Once the programme had been implemented he retired to a farm in Nova Scotia.

Whilst understandable, that retirement had left a gap at the top of the organisation. Over subsequent years, the TTC largely returned to its practice of promoting from within. Some lessons had been retained and safety was still a top priority, but on the political stage transit planning had become decidedly short term. This meant that goals changed with every city and provincial government, and so did leadership within the TTC. On average, it had a new political boss every two years.

Customer Service needed

The political whims were almost always accompanied by operational funding cuts – ribbon cutting for extensions has always been much more glamourous politically than funding system maintenance. This is true throughout the world and Toronto was no exception.

The funding cutbacks and fare hikes meant that the TTC’s farebox recovery ratio had continued to hover at around 75% for almost four decades – double the rate of most other major cities worldwide – whilst employee and rider experience and morale continued to decline.

It took internationally reported photos of a sleeping subway fare collector in January 2010 to awaken the TTC to the customer relations problems it faced. Once a world leader in building fully integrated transit systems in the 1970s, it was now a laughing stock.

Having a nap

In response, the TTC formed a Customer Service Advisory Panel shorty thereafter. In 2011 they hired their very first Chief Customer Service Officer, Chris Upfold. Upfield came to the TTC from London Underground – not the first Underground exile brought to Toronto, nor the last.

Chris Upfold

Toronto had a long history of looking to London for expertise. The TTC had first consulted London Underground in the late 1940s when planning and building Canada’s first subway line. Indeed the line’s first trains were even British built. After Toronto officials experienced the smooth ride of Gloucester Railway Carriage & Wagon Co. (of Gloucester, UK) trains on the London Underground, the company won the tender for Toronto’s first subway trains.

London Underground’s new beachhead

Upfold was the third of four key London exiles to cross the pond and take up the transport cause in Toronto. The first had been ex-Underground manager Mike Palmer, and the second engineer Pete Tomlin who was hired for his expertise in implementing CBTC on London’s Jubilee line. Indeed Upfold would end up being responsible for the fourth – it was he who recommended that fellow Underground manager Andy Byford be hired for the Chief Operating Officer position.

Over a ten year career in London, Upfold had held a variety of customer service posts at TfL. Starting as a Revenue Analysis Manager he was soon promoted to lead and implement the Tube’s accessibility expansion program as Accessibility and Inclusion Manager, in charge of installing platform humps for level train access, retrofitting lifts to stations, and developing the Step Free Tube map. This led to the Customer Environment and Experience Manager post, then a position as Head of Revenue and Inclusion.

To the TTC, this experience was desperately needed, but there was one other quality that made him stand out: Upfold wasn’t just Canadian, but a former Torontonian. Indeed Upfold later admitted that he had been watching the decline of the transport system in his old home from afar with some sadness. The system on which he had commuted to work in his first job, was now a shadow of what it once was, as it increasingly suffered from old and unreliable streetcars and buses, and wildcat strikes.

The customer experience was lacking

When Upfold started at the TTC in 2011 he instantly recognised that the customer experience needed to be improved.

As a London exile, Upfold understood the main goal of a transport system is to push large numbers of people through pipes in the ground, and metal vehicles in traffic. Both are tough things to do. At London Undergound he had learnt that the cumulative impact of small improvements can be as impactful as a single, large one. These combine to improve the passenger’s trip and – in a commuting city – set the tone for their day.

One of the often-overlooked factors in the passenger experience was the placement of ticket machines. As had been internationally demonstrated, when it came to ticket sales and collection, Toronto had a problem.

For a start, the ticket-selling collector booths regularly had handwritten and inconsistent passenger notices taped to them. Not only did this create noise and dilute what were often critical messages, but it left customers with the perception that nobody was in control.

A menagerie of handmade and discordant notices

Upfold set about shifting the network to a better, more regimented model of customer interaction and support. On an engineering level, passengers were already starting to benefit from the arrival of new rolling stock in the form of the Toronto Rocket (TR) subway trains by Bombardier, but without a matching uplift in the wider experience the impact these would have on the passenger experience would be muted.

The TTC, Upfold insisted, needed to look across the Atlantic and embrace the TfL model, with a focus on unifying and simplifying the customer experience wherever practical. That didn’t require Toronto’s transport network to forget what made it special, despite suggestions that this is what it would entail. Far from it, it meant remembering and embracing the history and tradition of good design and service the system had been built on.

And, like London, there was one thing that both symbolised that history and could help improve customer experience better than anything else:

The Toronto Subway had its own typeface, too.

Font of inspiration

The TTC Subway Font was created in-house for the opening of the Canada’s first subway in 1954. Its designer remains unknown after 65 years, although draughtsman Philip Butt is a possible candidate.

TTC Subway Font, updated 2013

The lineage of this crisp lettering to Edward Johnston’s Underground typeface is clear, as can be seen in our previous delving into the origins and updating of the London Underground font. Indeed like Edward Johnston’s legendary typeface for the London Underground, it was originally only delivered as a capital letter set. Indeed it would have to wait fifty years to acquire an official lowercase, this being created by designer David Vereschagin in 2004 during his efforts to digitise the typeface to enable its future use.

That gap between lower and uppercase letter design highlights just how much the TTC had neglected one of the design jewels in the city’s crown. In the early years of the network it had been consistently used across all new lines, but from the seventies onwards its usage had been patchy at best. Indeed the decline of TTC Subway almost exactly paralleled the decline of the TTC itself. By 2011 the network was a patchwork of typefaces.

Old stations still wore the faded glory of TTC Subway in places where they hadn’t been touched, or efforts had been made to restore things sympathetically. Elsewhere, however, passengers were just as likely to encounter Univers 55 or the elegant sledgehammer that is Helvetica. Worse, in places where these typefaces had replaced TTC Subway the process had rarely been elegantly done. The letterspacing on all three typefaces is different, for example, and this meant that when tiles were replaced letterforms would often be compressed to fit the available space.

Upfold, the London exile, was looking to create a new, simplified design language for signage and communications to provide a consistent customer experience. In hindsight, it is no surprise that to do so he both recognised and embraced Toronto’s golden age.

And so it was that in 2013, the Toronto Transport Commission announced that TTC Subway, updated and once again treated with love, would become the only typeface that passengers would see once again.

An excerpt from the TTC Subway announcement and brand rules

A modern transport network does not change its design overnight. Nor, for Upfold and Toronto, was it ever the plan. Indeed since that announcement adoption has been an ongoing process, often aligned with construction or refurbishment works on the network. But it was never just about the typeface, it was typeface as part of a wider unified field theory of system communications.

Some of the more subtle elements of that process have only either recently been implemented or are still underway. With three new lines coming to the network by 2024, it was clearly critical to simplify the often long and unwieldy line names, such as ‘Yonge – University – Spadina line’, to much simpler line numbers, i.e. ‘Line 1’.

Graphically consistent signs and service notices for collector booths to replace handwritten notes were another improvement. As were clearer and more timely announcements and improved station signage to alert passengers of service disruptions and planned closures. Simple stuff, but things that hadn’t previously been done regularly, if at all.

TTC platform signs, before and after

Culture shift

Design in and of itself cannot solve underlying cultural issues. Upfold’s early success led to his promotion to Deputy Chief Executive Officer of the TTC in 2014, however, opened the door to deeper improvements.

Upfold instigated regular customer satisfaction surveys to provide data on how much riders cared about dozens of factors related to their experience. These efforts became (and remain) crucial components of the TTC’s modernization, and reflect the growing amount of data available to transit agencies trying to constantly adjust service to their customers’ travel patterns.

A recent survey sampled transit riders in Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary, and five U.S. cities determined that less than a third use printed transit information to plan their trips. Computers, tablets and phones are much more popular.

Those surveys, and a wider cultural shift to the collection of good data, also enabled a process of deprioritising the opinions of transit managers over analysis and decisions based on near real performance and maintenance data and tools.

Planning pays off

The value of all of these factors – design, data and their impact on delivery paid off. In November 2015 Upfold was awarded the Individual Leadership Award of Excellence from the Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA) for his work leading the TTC’s transit plan for the 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games held in Toronto.

As with the Olympics in London, this had placed an enormous amount of pressure on Toronto’s transport network. The games are the world’s third-largest multi-sport event, and this meant accommodating more than 250,000 Games attendees in addition to the TTC’s 1.5 million daily trips.

Under Upfold’s leadership, more than 1,600 TTC staff were trained and deployed as Games Ambassadors at 28 transit hubs, helping customers and spectators travel to events across the city without major delay.

Carpe data – Seize the data

‎Thanks to the processes that Upfold established, the TTC now keeps a close eye on its data to understand ridership and service trends, by surface route and subway line. Surface route timetables are revised every 6 weeks to react quickly to ridership changes, much more frequently than every six months or yearly as seen elsewhere in the world.

The TTC also determined that system ridership fluctuations are correlated with part-time employment. And that TTC ridership is robust overall, not as affected by transport network companies like Uber to the same level as most North American transit systems.

Customer contact data (complaints, concerns, and commendations / complements) are now tracked and analysed. Even a passenger telling an employee in a station of issues or commendations is captured. The scale of the issue is assessed and the relevant individuals in the organization informed as to what customers are talking about. With that link, everybody in the organisation is thinking about what customers care about, putting everyone on the same path. ‎ Optimisation and economies of scale become possible and these efforts also allow the TTC to tailor service to their customers.

Upgrading to modern transit technology

In conjunction with the other improvements, in the last decade the TTC finally started replacing subway signalling from the 1950s, surface fleet communications kit from the 1960s, processes from the 1970s, and computers from the 1990s. Whilst the intervening period was not a pleasant one for travellers, this gap in upgrades has allowed the TTC to leapfrog technologies right into the digital age.

The new technology also allows near real-time transmission of vehicle status and component data to warn of impending failure, ideally avoiding having a vehicle break down in service and blocking the line.

Hard constraints

Long Branch streetcar loop of 501 Queen line is at lower left

Communications-based train control (CBTC) is being installed on Line 1 which will increase frequency to up 30tph, but with this throughput improvement, the next constraint will become acutely evident.

The stations at the core of the network, the downtown ‘U’ of Line 1, were designed and constructed with assistance from London Transport in the 1950s and early 1960s. Some of these stations still only have one escalator and one narrow staircase per platform, and the concourse areas are accordingly small as well. As a result, these stations are increasingly cramped, slowing passenger flow and creating network chokepoints. More frequent trains will exacerbate the situation and will result in overcrowding station closures as seen in London and other major metropolises.

To date, the TTC has provided little indication on how they plan to expand key station capacity, beyond the second exit programme for some stations to provide a legally mandated egress alternative in case of emergency. With many other upgrades already in the pipeline, such as retrofitting lifts to older stations to meet the Canadian 2024 rapid transit accessibility deadline, enlarging older stations has been put on ice.

Upfold left the TTC in June 2017 but in the way it manages its network his influence remains. There is also another small leaf that the TTC have since taken from TfL’s book of wisdom, however, and one that highlights his longterm impact in a more subtle way.

The TTC have completely revamped their gift shop, much of it based on the TTC Subway typeface. For the TTC it is some much-needed income. For Toronto, it is a symbol that it can hold its head up high as a top transport city once again.

Cover image by EuroCarGT.

Written by Long Branch Mike