SkyTrain operates with high standards, transporting passengers with a remarkable 95% on-time performance rate and doing better at providing rapid public transit than other cities our size. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s immune to system-stopping failures that can require the use of shuttle buses and inconvenience thousands of transit passengers.

Our SkyTrain system managed to suffer from two major system meltdowns within seven days, and it has perplexed everyone. It’s raised questions of accountability and competence within TransLink, and of the versatility of how SkyTrain is operated. It’s raised questions of whether there could be a better plan for emergencies, so as to prevent frustration and inconvenience.

By far, a lot of the comments I’ve seen point fingers at TransLink. Provincial Minister Todd Stone was quick to deny responsibility, and looking through social media reveals an aura of madness from inconvenienced customers. All of this creates a dangerous precedent: a dissent at the idea of putting more money into our transit system is created, as people begin to believe that proactively investing in it isn’t worth it.

With the province putting TransLink through audit after audit as part of a mandate to increase the system’s efficiency, it’s become more difficult to justify investments to keep the transit system and its employees running – with everything from a provincially-funded park & ride expansion to the provision of coffee for employees to public art being put through questions and a high-level of scrutiny.

However, some of the problems we faced in these past 7 days could have been mitigated by just that – with investments into good maintenance of our transit system.

What went wrong?

TransLink didn’t purchase a $20 million backup system that would have assisted SkyTrain in the event of computer failures. This would have spared riders from service meltdown incidents like the one on Thursday, July 17th.

To compound the issue, as part of the recommendations of several efficiency audits, TransLink has tightened up the amount of spare buses and staffing on the bus network. This means that when bus bridges are needed to deal with SkyTrain emergencies, there are fewer staff available to drive buses, and few buses available – which was an issue on both Thursday and on Monday, July 21st during the second, human-error-triggered meltdown.

It’s a no-win scenario for TransLink. A seamlessly-integrated backup system would not even require riders to be notified if SkyTrain were to have computer issues. Had the potential of installing the backup system have been made known, an inevitable sensation surrounding the choice to invest – driven by anti-TransLink critics – is what we would be hearing about from the media instead. That would be the news item of the day, instead of a SkyTrain failure. So, in a way, the chaos that we witnessed during SkyTrain’s recent shutdowns can be directly attributed to a devaluation of transit funding lead by anti-TransLink campaigners.

Meanwhile, continuing to provide adequate staff and buses to handle emergencies like the recent ones would go flat out against recommendations in recent audits – which could have triggered a harsh reaction from the provincial government, as they do directly control TransLink’s governance and some funding for transit.

PHOTO: Shuttle buses line up to board passengers at Metrotown
No one likes to ride a bus bridge – but it’s as important to have funding so that drivers and buses can be ready when we do need these.

Comments that put pressure on TransLink and portray them excessively negatively as an organization could result in more “NO” votes in the upcoming referendum next year. It may have become one of the reasons that TransLink has not undertaken investments proactively, spending money to prevent issues before they actually happen. As long as the public has yet to know of the real value of proactive transit investments, it’s difficult to do so without endangering long-term transit funding.

It’s a concern that has been raised by transit advocates and decision-makers, as they work hard to promote the value of transit investment in advance of this referendum. As a “NO” vote has been confirmed to be an option, there is nothing that can stop voters from using their vote to ‘send TransLink a message’ – something that would do commuters on all transportation modes no good whatsoever.

Last month, on Thursday and again on Monday, critics were quick to rush to mediums such as Twitter, radio and news to lambast TransLink and remind us of past issues that have been raised. The resulting negative attitude that surrounds our transit system won’t just affect how people vote in the upcoming referendum – it may have numerous negative shorter-term impacts such as the reduction of fare revenue, as less people choose transit and more believe that it is not worth doing so. Less fare revenue can mean more service cuts and even worse rider satisfaction throughout the system.

I have a strong feeling that there would be a backup computer system in place today, giving riders a more reliable SkyTrain system, were it not for the persistence of the anti-TransLink critic.

“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.”


Nathan Pachal, who operates South Fraser Blog and is running for Council in Langley Township, raised this issue on his blog in his response to the recent incidents.

What do we do about this?

Right now, we’re surrounded by comments on how TransLink is “mismanaged”. In order to effectively combat the issues that this creates, it’s important to bring into light whether this level of scrutiny and demand for cost-efficiency is actually necessary.

In a previous blog article, I brought into light how it’s questionable if TransLink was being audited correctly, pointing out a discrepancy between how cost-efficiency has been portrayed and how it’s actually supposed to be measured – noting that between the transit operators in Canada’s three major cities, TransLink is the most efficient – providing the most service at the lowest operating cost.

It’s also important to bring into light what we should already know about TransLink’s efforts to be a better organization. We should know that TransLink is following up on the recommendations in the audits, and that those efforts are working – TransLink ended financial year 2013 with a $43 million surplus.

One of the most important changes that needs to be made is in public attitudes on transit spending. We can’t be ignorant to the fact that it is necessary to spend some money to keep our system in good repair.

For SkyTrain riders, the worst part of this devaluation of transit funding is that it has a major implication on our SkyTrain system that extends beyond $20 million.

As rail lines age and ridership grows, upgrades are needed to maintain efficiency and reliability long-term, and ensure the maintenance of the benefits provided by the system. TransLink has yet to secure a long-term funding commitment to pay for the over $1 billion in upgrades that will be required to keep the SkyTrain from becoming overcrowded and unreliable as it continues to age. These upgrades will improve station facilities with new entrances and amenities, as well as prepare the system for longer 5-car trains. Some of these upgrades are ongoing, but the majority of them have yet to be started.

Just as TransLink is looking for long-term funding to upgrade our SkyTrain system, so have other transit operators in Canada with their rapid transit systems. Calgary has made significant investments to extend C-Train platforms across the system for longer trains and refurbish old light-rail vehicles. Montreal is taking delivery of the first new subway vehicles to replace a fleet that is almost 40 years old. Toronto has been working to replace an aging 60-year-old subway signalling system and rebuild its busy downtown transit hub – Union Station – on the Yonge-University-Spadina subway line. Both projects have even required planned closures of the subway there.

Long-term funding to be committed to this upgrade is what will be decided in the provincially-mandated referendum, and it is imperative that voters do approve a funding option to keep our transit system in a good state of repair.

As costly as infrastructure like the Canada Line SkyTrain is, the investment has been proven worthy by the benefits to the tens of thousands of people using the system daily. The investment confidence that has resulted in our SkyTrain system expansions needs to be applied to the whole system.
As costly as expanding and building infrastructure like the Canada Line SkyTrain is, the investments have been proven worthy by the benefits to the tens of thousands of people using the system daily. The investment confidence that has resulted in our SkyTrain system expansions needs to be applied to the whole system.

TransLink is in trouble

Some of the issues we faced in the recent SkyTrain meltdowns definitely had to do with more than funding, and perhaps they could have been addressed through better plans and higher competence within branches of TransLink.

However, the fact remains: if we want to maintain a high or higher standard of reliability, there’s going to be an inevitable cost to it. On the other hand, if we devalue the taxes and fares that keep people moving, we don’t get a reliable system as the penalty for our ineptitude.

As stakeholders, if we want to enjoy more reliable transit, we need to realize that TransLink is in trouble and change our attitudes on transit and funding. We need to value our transit, value TransLink, and consider the good value of the services it provides to us.

22, KPU Geography, J-POP enthusiast. Founding director of SkyTrain for Surrey.

SkyTrain meltdowns a consequence of devaluing transit investment
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