REALITY CHECK: Why is SkyTrain breaking down so frequently?

SkyTrain Mayhem

There is no question that SkyTrain breakdowns have been happening far more frequently over the last few weeks and months, particularly with the Expo Line. Yesterday morning’s failure was the second time this month a malfunction led to major delays across the SkyTrain network.

Anger and frustration towards TransLink, Metro Vancouver’s transportation authority, peaked again yesterday over social media when tens of thousands were stranded and late for work. Obviously, on the point of view of transit passengers, reliability of the system is becoming a issue.

TransLink and its SkyTrain subsidiary, the BC Rapid Transit Company, are responsible for maintaining and operating the Expo and Millennium Lines (ProTransBC operates the Canada Line), and SkyTrain’s performance record over the decades (apart from accidents, suicides, and foul winter snowfalls) has been impeccable until recently. However, there is only so much that can be done on a system that is clearly wearing down with age and restrained from undergoing the improvements necessary with its severe lack in funding.

As of this year, the Expo Line is nearing 30 years of age. If you are still driving a car that you bought brand new from 1984, and since then you have been driving it everyday non-stop for nearly 19 hours a day, it would be a miracle if your car were still working and fully reliable today without a major refit. 

So, with that said, why would you expect any different from the Expo Line? At the end of the day, this is all machinery. Similarly, you also would not logically expect public transit to be in top notch operating shape during a snowstorm when you could not even pull your car out of your snow and ice covered driveway. Hypocrisy to the extreme, is it not?

Granted, the recent cluster of problems and breakdowns have not been the result of faulty trains but rather with the system’s aging power rails that supply trains with electricity as well as the heavily used and worn down track switches. With your own car, you would not expect those sets of rubber tires to last forever either – eventually, parts wear out and need replacement.

With SkyTrain, regular wear and tear is further compounded by how the system is largely elevated or at-grade. Exposure to the elements will cause track switches, lengths of rail or any building materials to wear down much more quickly.

Wear and tear happens to every system in the world, and so do the associated service breakdowns; every system encounters a phase when it needs to begin to replace the parts that have reached life expectancy.

In addition to replacement costs for worn out and aged parts, as the system gets older over time the amount of regular maintenance required increases geometrically. So does the cost to undergo this increased maintenance. Just ask London and New York.

Several major SkyTrain service disruptions earlier this year were caused by aging power rails along the oldest stretches of the Expo Line. For instance, the memorable service failure of April 25, 2013 in New Westminster was due to an power rail expansion joint dislocation when a train passed by. This section of the Expo Line between 22nd Avenue and New Westminster Stations opened for service in January 1986.

Prior to the recent strings of power rail service disruption incidents, TransLink already recognized that a major replacement of the Expo Line’s aging power rails was needed. In November 2012, TransLink began a $33-million project to replace 34-kms of power rails on the Expo Line between Nanaimo and Scott Road Stations.

The replacement project is well underway and occurs during off-peak and weekend service hours. It is scheduled for a late-2014 completion given the limited timeframe available for construction to be done. When complete, power rail related service disruptions should disappear along this route.

Another component of the Expo Line that is receiving a great share of wear and tear are its vital track switches. This month’s service disruptions revolved around the failure of a very important track switch at Columbia Station: the all-important track switch between the Millennium Line and the Expo Line. In fact, this particular switch is used 500 times a day. Whether this track switch is in need of replacement in the near future is unknown, however, following yesterday’s incident TransLink has stated it will step-up maintenance for this section of the Expo Line.

You might be wondering why has there been so much wear and tear? Why has “proper maintenance” not been done?

First of all, bear in mind that all three SkyTrain lines are automated driverless systems, and automation comes with a big benefit we often grossly under appreciate about our SkyTrain network: high service frequency. The general idea is, as a theoretical example, that it is better to have a 4-car train come every 2 minutes rather than a 12-car train at longer 6 minute intervals.

Automation takes away the manually driven aspect of running the trains. Unless you are a city with exceedingly high ridership (Tokyo, Hong Kong, New York, and London), the high cost of labour is the most significant obstacle to providing regular high frequencies and it is also problematic for providing extra service during special events. Instead of using drivers, it is as simple as a flick of a few buttons in the SkyTrain control room.

For a system of the Expo Line’s size and ridership, its high frequencies (made possible by automation) of every 2-3 minutes during most operating hours are rare. And when there is higher usage, there is more wear and tear. Plainly explained, Vancouverites are spoiled when it comes to frequency, whereas many American and Australian rapid transit rail systems run manually driven trains that come every 10-30 minutes during the day (with longer trains to compensate, of course). This would be unacceptable in Vancouver.

But wait, on that note of trains and the issue of wear and tear, do we not have almost 30-year old trains running on SkyTrain? Why have those not broken down? Well actually, the original SkyTrain vehicles from 1984 and 1986 are nearing their life expectancy. More importantly, TransLink acknowledged this and announced last year that $36.6-million would be spent on refurbishing these 114 original SkyTrain vehicles to allow for another 15 years of reliable service before expensive replacement. The process to refit the original “Mark I” vehicles began earlier this spring.

Secondly, few might realize how much of a pioneer Vancouver was with its SkyTrain technology. It is not a conventional system. Not only is Vancouver’s system computer driven (the longest in the automated system in the world for decades until the recent opening of Dubai Metro), it is also one of the first in the world to build a rapid transit rail system that is propelled by linear induction motors. Essentially, the Expo and Millennium Line trains are pushed along a continuous rail strip of magnets on the train tracks. The Canada Line on the other hand uses the same type of conventional motor technology you might find in an everyday electric automobile.

Being that this was ground breaking technology, the BC Rapid Transit Company arguably did not exactly have much of a ‘playbook’ to follow. Vancouver, Scarborough (Ontario), and Detroit were the first systems to utilize “ALRT” in the 1980s, and Kuala Lumpur, New York, Beijing, and Yongin (South Korea) opened their own systems in the decades that followed.

Thirdly, SkyTrain station platforms utilize a track intrusion system that the detects movement of foreign objects as small and light as newspapers on the tracks. If triggered, these infrared, laser and pressure/weight sensors will cause approaching trains to come to a halt as soon as possible.

Such intrusions are responsible for delays that usually last no longer between 10 to 15 minutes. In these instances, SkyTrain attendants present at the station must provide the all-clear to control room operators in order for train service to resume.

In May 2010, TransLink recorded 231 track intrusion incidents for that single month – an average of about 8 frequent service disruptions on SkyTrain per day. Some cases are minor, while other incidents such as accidental falls or even suicides cause much more lengthy shutdowns.

Passengers who hold train doors from closing also contribute negatively to SkyTrain’s reliability. This causes delays in the computer system, which could lead to systemwide issues.

Finally, and most important of all, there is the issue of a cash strapped TransLink. While most public transit agencies are just responsible for public transit, TransLink’s mandate covers far beyond simply regional public transit but also major arterial roads and bridges. Case in point, TransLink is currently under public pressure to find a solution to replace the dangerous and seismically unsafe 1937-built Pattullo Bridge. The estimated cost? $1.2-billion.

Despite what many might think, when TransLink was founded in 1999 it was never given a steady, reliable, nor sufficient source of revenue to carry out its large mandate. In 2001, shortly after BC Transit handed over Metro Vancouver’s transportation responsibilities to TransLink, the BC NDP provincial government canceled the implementation of a crucial component of the agency’s revenue source – a $60.00 annual vehicle levy on the region’s motor vehicles to help fund the agency’s large mandate. This would have raised well over $1-billion in revenue for TransLink had the levy been collected by ICBC since 2001.

Fast forward to 2013, both the region’s public transit and road network are severely strained by high demand, congestion, and aging systems in certain areas. Apart from the SkyTrain Evergreen Line, which is currently well under construction, transit expansion has been put to a halt since 2009 when TransLink’s budget issues became a forefront issue. At the time, the public was warned that not only would expansion would be halted but existing service levels would be strained for funding as well.

TransLink’s primary revenue sources of property taxes and fares (some of the highest in the country) are now maxed out. TransLink’s fuel tax on the region’s vehicles has also reached its peak potential given the prevalence of fuel efficient vehicles. Record high fuel prices, in addition to fuel taxes, also act as a further deterrent to driving.

The only solution towards more and better public transit and roads is with provincial government leadership. Only the provincial government can grant TransLink new and additional revenue collection sources.

Rather than real provincial leadership, political posturing through the usage of efficiency reviews to find non-existent “problem-solving” major savings in TransLink’s books has failed to live up to its political hype. Critics have also lamented over “high” TransLink salaries as a major causal reason to its funding shortages, despite the fact that TransLink’s shortages are in the hundreds of millions if not billions to continue its large mandate with operating and expanding transportation infrastructure in the region. The issue of salaries is a drop in the bucket within the bigger picture.

And now, as part of an election promise (a.k.a. delaying tactic) made by the BC Liberals, Lower Mainlanders will be facing a referendum over TransLink’s funding, opening a pandoras box of dangerous precedent towards how we decide investments in transportation infrastructure and potentially further delaying much-needed improvements for many more years.

Just like British Columbia’s last NDP led provincial government in 2001, the current BC Liberal government is currently unwilling to make an unpopular and bold decision for the public’s interest – for the greater good of Metro Vancouver for decades to come. Leaders lead, they do not delay.

If you want more reliable and better SkyTrain service, say YES to leadership and NO against the referendum. It is time for the provincial government to take real and direct leadership to fix TransLink’s revenue shortcomings once and for all.

Of high relevance, read Peter Ladner’s 13 reasons why “the proposed November 2014 referendum on new funding for TransLink is a devastatingly bad idea.”

And as a parting note: if you happen to be a driver and are against an increase in TransLink funding for transit improvements and expansion, think twice. The roads you drive on would be much more congested if it were not for the 1.2-million trips made everyday in this region on buses, trains, and ferries.

Featured image: Kill Matilda

About the author

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Kenneth Chan Deputy Editor & Social Media Manager at Vancity Buzz. He covers stories pertaining to local architecture, urban issues, politics, business, retail, economic development, transportation, infrastructure, and anything else that makes a difference in the lives of Vancouverites. Kenneth is also a Co-Founder of New Year's Eve Vancouver. Connect with him at kenneth[at]

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