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REALITY CHECK: Why is SkyTrain breaking down so frequently?

By Kenneth Chan | 7:56 am PST, Thu July 18, 2013 | Speak Up

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

Speak Up

  • Gary Kinsley

    The system is not meant for the weather we have, where you have rain and snow. This might be why major City’s like Toronto and Montreal have a Subway. Mind you, Toronto does have a small Skytrain line but it’s just a short distance.

  • Josh Hall

    If your ride is more than one zone, you pay more than that.

  • Jack

    Maybe because Translink is paying their CEO’s big dollars with lots of big bonus’ when the money should be going back into the company for repairs, growth, expansions etc…

  • Quentin Armbruster

    They did not spend any money on upgrades for 20 years, did not put any money aside for future repairs, lined the executives salary, and now want to build everything all at once. I thought these people were educated enough to manage this project? I guess what the educated people do best is line their own pockets.

  • Sarah O’Donnell

    yeah and how old is the train system in paris !? why don’t they have similar problems?

  • R Dunc

    Hey I have an idea. Let’s get translink to stop paying assholes on a power trip to ride back on forth on transit all day and harass underpaid service employees who rely on transit to get to their min. wage jobs so they can barely scrape a meal together every day. Or lets go back in time and get translink to pay for overdue maintenance on the skytrain tracks instead of spending all that money on the compass system. Worried about people skipping fares? Pay a few attendants to take transfers at the skytrain station. Pay them hourly.

  • KM

    Recent projects/upgrades (many of which are “repairs”):
    - new Mark 2 trains (the black/blue ones) 2 years ago for Expo line

    - complete renovations and upgrades of several Expo line stations (Main / Broadway / Scott Road / Royal Oak, etc)
    - Compass Card project – every station / bus required upgrading

    - nightly track maintenance (running rail, power rail, switches) on all lines
    - nightly repairs and maintenance of almost every SkyTrain vehicle

    - current replacement of all Expo line power rail
    - live bus location feed to mobile devices
    - Golden Ears bridge

    - new series of trains for Expo line currently in production to add even more service
    - nightly SeaBus servicing

    Oh, plus an entire line from Waterfront to the Airport / Richmond, the Evergreen Line well under way, planning still underway for UBC line,

    All of this in the last 3 years, and many of these things ongoing from the start.

    I won’t disagree about the executive pay – but they are constantly repairing / expanding and budgeting for repairs / expansion.

  • Quentin Armbruster

    So what repairs or upgrades were made from 1986-2006? Why didn’t they put money aside for future projects? Like I said, they did nothing, or minimal, aside from purchasing busses that were too wide for the windy North/West Vancouver busses? Now they want to do everything in the next 10 years.

  • Julia Lee

    Oh really? So cheap! Fares for a 20 minute ride from Vancouver to Surrey
    is $5.00 one way, and the ticket lasts only an hour. Or it might be
    more; it was $5.00 a year ago and recently they upped fares by 25 cents
    or so. I wish fares were only 3.40.

  • Poutine Queen

    $5.50***

  • http://www.gmtdev.com/ Gav

    Surely Translink have budgeted for replacement and refitting as would any other organisation and this is happening all the time?! This “30 year” statement is just baloney to make the article sound interesting.

  • VanMan

    Yup…last I checked one of those Skytrain “security” employees make close to 6 digits.

  • Kevin C

    Not only is our train systems failing, our entire Western infrastructure is slow in progression in terms of modern technology. The West needs to learn more from the East!!!!!!

  • Ka

    London Underground – 3 times older than the skytrain and runs 10 times as efficiently and on time.

  • unbiased

    I feel like you went off on a tangent about the Liberals and your own political opinions. Journalism is supposed to be unbiased and I would like to see every side to every story so I can make my own decisions.

  • Ba

    You may have missed the point in the article where maintenance costs increase exponentially as a system gets older. The difference with the London Underground is maintenance costs have probably kept up with the demands of the system and inflation and that the tracks/power rails are replaced every few decades. The writer mentions that in his article— replacement is currently underway.

  • praxis

    In-depth and balanced article. This is the second time I’ve scrolled to the bottom wondering ‘who wrote this incisive article on a two-bit blog?’ This is better reporting than the Sun or the Straight would offer on a local issue. Kudos for raising the profile of Vancity Buzz. Much more than click-bait. I’ll be watching for Ken Chan’s byline from now on.

  • Nataku4ca

    Yap, Translink is no where near where it needs to be for ppl to give up cars, transit system in Japan and Taiwan made sense for ppl to give up cars or the least translink could do is be on time for once :(

  • Scott Evelyn

    Lol you do realize that there are zero 86 year old trains running on the Tokyo system right? After they reach their life expectancy they make new trains and the old ones are scrapped……….kind of like when your car gets old and you have to get a new one. Pretty dumb analysis on your part

  • Scott

    Do some homework before posting please. The trains come about every 3 minutes on the expo like off peak and every minute or slightly over during rush hour(time it and see for yourself). On the millennium line during off peak the train comes every 7 minutes and thats because the trains aren’t very full so you have less service because of less demand and trains run on electricity not love. Ive travelled all over the world and been on many systems and we have the shortest waits. Get out and travel and see the world then you’ll have a much greater appreciation for our system

  • Christa

    Population in Tulsa: 393K. Population of GVRD: 2.5 million. We have a lot more people to sling around, and your example isn’t well suited.

  • Jason

    London trains come every 1 min in rush hour…and that system is over 80 yrs old…the Canada Line Trains come every 6-7 mins because they do not have enough staff on the platforms…for what reason I have no idea…but human driven trains in London come every 1 min at peak times but here in the greatest city in the world…they come every 3mins…makes no sense to me…

  • Figure it out

    Wtf do we pay for on transit then you guys raise the prices all the time for unreliable bulkshit transit. Use the money wisely you fucks.. Pay the bus drivers less if it helps make better trains the buses breakdown left and right too .. Figure it out idiots

  • Jacob

    This article is very well written. Well done, Kenneth Chan.

    That said, isn’t Translink in the process of installing a fare-gate system which analysts had concluded would cost significantly more money than it would generate by reducing free ridership?

  • Garth

    I’d like to see Translink broken into two. Put the public transit back into BC Transit’s hands, and put the regional road back to Metro Vancouver. As for the bridges, they should be taken care of by the province. Most bridges are alternate provincial highway routes anyways. As for the over paid executives? Why do we need to pay to get “the best”? I think any average user couldn’t do any worse than these guys now; and they’d do it for a fraction of the cost. Not that this will save a billion dollars. Is it going to cost a lot to fix? Yes. But thanks to inaction by politicians in the past 50 years we’re stuck with this problem, and it’s not going away anytime soon. And one more thing… why isn’t there one regional transit authority for both the Fraser Valley (past Langley) and Metro Vancouver? Have you seen how many people commute from Abbotsford to Langley/Vancouver? There is one bus running a mere 11 times a day that connects Abbotsford’s Central Fraser Valley Transit system to Translinks’s Coast Mountain Bus Company buses, nothing a commuter could come close to relying on; not to mention the 2h 28m it would take to get from Abbotsford to Downtown Vancouver on transit. We’ve got a corridor roughly 100km long and 20km wide; and you’re telling me we can’t figure out how to get people from here to there and back again?

  • Chris

    And they’re all staying, even after their main role (catching fare evaders) has been taken over by the fancy new compass card system (will will pay for itself in a mere, what, 20 years ?)

  • Dennis

    TransLink is funded plenty well. The problem is that it’s unionized.

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