Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The dangers of having a too efficient transit system: the SkyTrain meltdown

It has been a rough few days for transit riders in Metro Vancouver. On Thursday, the SkyTrain system was shut down during the evening peak travel period due to a failed computer component. This left many passengers stranded both at SkyTrain stations and in SkyTrain cars for up to five hours. This was really bad, but the system was repaired and service restore.

I don’t say this lightly; I’m very grateful that no one died due to the failures that shut down the SkyTrain system on Thursday and Monday. Other transit agencies, like Toronto’s TTC, have had people died when system failures occurred.

The SkyTrain system is very reliable —TransLink claims the system has 95 on-time performance— who could have predicted that there would be two system meltdowns within four days?

Luckily on Monday, the failure occurred during lunch, and TransLink was able to have service restored for the majority of the evening peak travel period. I was impacted by both Thursday’s and yesterday’s shutdown, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

During the system failure yesterday, I saw some truly silly comments from the anti-tax, anti-transit crowd saying that if TransLink didn’t have a new head office, executive staff, public arts, police, or a facility to refurbish old SkyTrain cars, there wouldn’t have been a system failure on Thursday or Monday. The implication was that TransLink was spending money on these items instead of keeping the system in a state of good repair; this couldn’t be further from the truth.

I take the SkyTrain from Surrey to Main Street Station at least five days a week, and sometime after 8pm. Because TransLink is replacing the power rails along the entire Expo Line to keep the system a state of good repair, it takes me an extra 15 minutes to get home if I’m working the late shift.

On top of that, TransLink is also rebuilding Main Street – Science World SkyTrain station due to its age. This means that I have to transfer to a special shuttle train which adds another 10 minutes to my commute.

I’ve also ridden in the refurbished older SkyTrain cars. TransLink is refurbishing, and not replacing, the older SkyTrain cars to extend their service life. This costs less than buying new cars while still improving the reliability of the system.

I have certainly been impacted as TransLink works to keep the SkyTrain running, so when I hear people claim that the SkyTrain failures of the last few days are due mismanaged priorities, I have the question the creditably of the people making these claims.

Ironically, the people campaigning to strip TransLink of funding in the name of efficiency may be responsible for the time it took to get service restored and get people moving over the last few days.

What should be apparent from the last few days is that having a resilient transit system is important.

When the SkyTrain was shut down on Thursday, I was able to take the West Coast Express to get back to Langley.

During yesterday’s SkyTrain shutdown, I was able to take the new B Line from Surrey Central to Netwon, catch a bus on the frequent transit network to the new South Surrey Park and Ride, then take an express bus to the Canada Line. I was only 30 minutes late for my work which is near the Olympic Village in Vancouver.

Due to the provincially mandated requirement to become more efficient, TransLink has reduced the resiliency of the system.

For example, TransLink didn’t purchase a $20 million backup system that may have allowed SkyTrain service to be restored faster on Thursday. Also, TransLink doesn’t have the long-term funding to pay for the over $1 billion in upgrades that will be required to keep the SkyTrain from becoming overcrowded and running as reliably as possible over the coming decades.

TransLink has tightened up the amount of spare buses and staffing on the bus network. This means that when emergency bus service is needed, there are fewer people available to drive these buses, and few buses available.

Running an efficiency transit system is important, but should transit service be optimized at the expense of reliability?

I will say that TranLink does need to review how it communicates information to customers during a SkyTrain shutdown. I have posted about this in the past, and moving forward, I hope TransLink will work to improve how it communicates to customers during a discontinuation of SkyTrain service. This includes simple things like providing information about where to catch a bus bridge.

Over the last week, the whole region has been made aware of the important role that transit plays in getting people around Metro Vancouver. A well-funded transit system is critical for the livability of people who live in our region.


Anonymous said...

Ummm, not sure how many times you use Skytrain but these last two, now three, recent instances are not remote. I have been on the train, and am not a regular user, two other times this year (2014) when "switching" issues delayed the train's movements inching us to station after station. Your feeble attempt to marginalize those who have had their patience tested more than two times, or three now, this year is not helpful and just adds more fuel on the fire to get rid of those responsible. It's not just breakdowns its questionable spending at a time when Translink knew it was heading for red ink. A new office tower with expensive art commissions, salary increases and bonuses, a fare gate system now 18 months behind operating schedule costing $200 million. Anywhere else in the real world and heads would roll! Stop making excuses!

Nathan Pachal said...

You are entitled to your opinion on TransLink.

I don't own a car, and transit is my primary mode of transportation. As I work in Downtown Vancouver and live in Langley, I was impacted by the SkyTrain issues over the last week.

I usually take about 12 trips on SkyTrain per week.

Anonymous said...


FYI: Fare Gates were pushed onto Translink by the province.

Unknown said...

@ Nathan
It would be helpful to point out to some TransLink critics that the new headquarters near Sapperton Station are saving taxpayers $2.6 million a year.