New SkyTrain changes hide drop in service (UPDATE: TransLink to reverse service drop)

New SkyTrain changes hide drop in service (UPDATE: TransLink to reverse service drop)
UPDATE Mon Oct. 3: It appears that TransLink has reversed the drop in service frequencies on the Expo Line as part of the upcoming changes. While retaining the lengthening of Mark I trains to 6 cars, Expo Line passengers will continue to have 6-minute service on each branch during off-peak periods, and peak period service will be increased versus the original proposal. The issues brought up in this blog post were cited by TransLink as having contributed to the decision to reverse the frequency changes.

The following reports have further confirmed the changes:

Original text below:

Yes, you read that headline correctly – this is not a joke, and not some mis-interpretation of the upcoming SkyTrain changes on October 22nd. TransLink is going to reduce Expo Line service frequencies, at all times of day, on October 22nd.

The SkyTrain as it will operate after October 22nd. The Expo Line is shown in blue.

The Expo Line, the original SkyTrain corridor extending to King George Station in Surrey, is the busiest line on our SkyTrain rapid transit system. After poking around on TransLink’s website along with forumers on discussion boards, I made a startling discovery about the upcoming October 22 SkyTrain changes. It appears that, for no apparent reason, TransLink is sneaking a reduction in service frequencies at all times of day on the Expo Line, and this is not being communicated with the public.

I initially confirmed this when I and some fellow online forumers on SkyscraperPage, CPTDB and others were looking into SkyTrain’s schedule changes. The operating schedules for SkyTrain, SeaBus and West Coast Express can be accessed through TransLink’s “bus schedules” page by typing in corresponding numbers in the 900s. The current Expo and Millennium Lines were using numbers 999 and 996, but we discovered that the numbers 992 and 991 were being utilized for a brand new schedule effective starting in October.

This schedule showed that SkyTrain frequencies were clearly being subject to a decrease at basically all times of day – not just the peak service hours. Mid-day and evening service (currently at every 6 minutes) and weekday day-time service (currently at every 7 minutes) would be operated less frequently at every 7.5 minutes. Some parts of the schedule have seen a minor service increase from 10 to 8 minutes, but this is happening at parts of the day where the issue of frequency is not as critical – such as late at night on weekdays and weekends.

Wait times at Surrey SkyTrain stations will be 7-8 minutes after October 22nd, compared to the current 6 minutes, during mid-day periods.

TransLink representatives at a recent media event had commented that passengers would be waiting an “extra 10 seconds at peak times” (see: report by Jeff Nagel on Surrey Leader), although trains would be consolidated into longer consists (i.e. 6-car Mark I, 4-car Mark II or Mark III) make up for this and ensure a high capacity.

However, the actual schedule change I have uncovered shows that the actual increase in wait time is closer to 25 seconds on the Expo main-line inbound from Columbia Station (108 -> 133 seconds), and will be as high as 38 seconds on average on the King George branch in Surrey (162 -> 200 seconds). In addition, in a move that has by far been completely unannounced, passengers will be waiting up to an additional 1.5 minutes on each branch during mid-days and other off-peak periods.

TransLink has never confirmed this explicitly during Q&A sessions for the October 22 changes, but has recently quietly confirmed the change on its SkyTrain schedules page, which are now showing a “Current” and “Oct. 22” schedule that reflects the proposed change on the “bus schedules” page. For more info, see the page:

TransLink > SkyTrain Schedules > Expo Line

Frequencies will change as follows, according to TransLink’s website:

Expo Line – Waterfront to King George
Time of Day Frequency before Oct 22nd Frequency after Oct 22nd
Peak Hours (6-9AM, 3-6PM) 2-4 min. 2-5 min.
Mid-day (9AM-3PM) 6 min. 7-8 min.
Evening (6PM onwards) 6 min. 7-8 min.
Late night 8-10 min. 8 min.
Early Sat/Sun 8-10 min. 8 min.
Sat, Sun/Holidays 7-10 min. 7-8 min.

The changes in service frequencies will mean longer waits for trains at almost all times of day, making the Expo Line less reliable and less versatile to its many riders. It will also result in more overcrowded SkyTrain platforms – as longer waits between trains means each platform will need to service up to 25% more waiting passengers than there are today with higher frequencies. Some of our stations – particularly ones in the middle of reconstruction, such as Metrotown Station – could have trouble having to accommodate for additional waiting passengers.

Today's higher frequencies prevent platform overcrowding because the train arrives sooner to allow passengers to be on their way. The service changes will mean more overcrowded SkyTrain platforms.
Today’s higher frequencies help prevent platform overcrowding because the train arrives sooner to allow passengers to be on their way. The service changes will mean more overcrowded SkyTrain platforms on the Expo Line, as platforms will have to handle as much as 25% more waiting passengers.

While train lengths are increasing, I do see the possibility that overall service capacities will come down as a result of the changes. Going from 6 to 7.5 minute service in the mid-day and on weekends is a substantial 20% reduction in service frequency, and while Mark I trains would be operated in longer 6-car formation, the Mark II trains currently operating in 4-car formation would be essentially the same as they are today.

SkyTrain passengers already swallowed a change in 2013 that saw weekend frequencies on the Expo Line drop from 6 to 7 minutes on each branch, as part of a package of cost reductions implemented throughout the entire system to improve cost-efficiency. This has resulted in substantially increased weekend overcrowding, with Saturday PM volumes between Commercial-Broadway and Main Street-Science World stations now nearly at the line’s practical capacity in both directions (see: 2015 Transit Service Performance Review, Appendix E).

Why this makes absolutely no sense, whatsoever.

Prior to an expansion order in 2009, Mark II trains in 2-car formation were operated alongside Mark I trains on the Expo Line. SkyTrain had the flexibility to offer higher frequencies with the smaller trains, as opposed to lower frequencies with all of the Mark II trains in a 4-car formation.

One of the big advantages to the driver-less, automatic train control technology we use on our SkyTrain system has always been our ability to maintain high frequencies at any time of day, without high operating costs. On our system, shorter trains at higher frequencies can provide the same capacities as longer trains and lower frequencies typically found on other light and heavy rail systems, but without the higher costs associated with needing extra drivers and conductors.

This has made us a continental leader in providing rail rapid transit services among North American cities. I have previously noted that Metro Vancouver is unmatched in its off-peak rail transit service frequencies, when compared to metro areas of similar sizes – in which off-peak service on the rail network is generally provided every 10 to 15 minutes on individual lines.

Portland, Denver, Pittsburgh and Cleveland are other metro areas similar in size to Metro Vancouver with rail transit systems, yet none of them are able to provide the kinds of service frequencies we have on our fully-automated SkyTrain system. Go [HERE] to see a comparison of our service frequencies against these cities’.

What can be done about this

TransLink is dealing with a public credibility problem and this is certainly not going to help their case. The entire service change on October 22nd is being made without a formal public consultation process, which wouldn’t really be so much of a problem if there weren’t going to be major changes in service frequencies on existing lines – but there are. And, there has been no indicated rationale as to why mid-day and weekend service frequencies are also being reduced.

I don’t see any barriers to continuing to provide a 6-minute service off-peak with the longer trains, or utilizing the existing schedule whereby peak service is operated at higher frequencies, with a mix of trains including shorter 4-car Mark I trains.

UPDATE Fri Sept. 23 @ 10:24AM: At the moment, the fabrics of how this decision went through are still unknown to me. However, I am now working on communicating with BCRTC and TransLink’s planning department to get some answers and gauge whether I could push to have this decision reversed.
UPDATE Mon Oct. 3: It appears that TransLink has reversed the drop in service frequencies on the Expo Line as part of the upcoming changes. While retaining the lengthening of Mark I trains to 6 cars, Expo Line passengers will continue to have 6-minute service on each branch during off-peak periods, and peak period service will be increased versus the original proposal. The issues brought up in this blog post were cited by TransLink as having contributed to the decision to reverse the frequency changes.

The following reports have further confirmed the changes:

The Problem with SkyTrain Critics – Denying the Benefits

I think I’ve pretty much seen it all: unfound claims on SkyTrain’s financial burden, claims that entire tram networks could be built at the same cost as a SkyTrain extension (ignoring the impracticalities of trying to conduct such a massive replacement of buses without ever improving transit speed), and other alternate light-rail transit (LRT) proposals that just don’t make any practical sense.

SkyTrain is constantly being challenged, and this contention has had a phenomenal effect in getting people involved with transit planning matters. Some of the biggest names we know in Metro Vancouver transit issues discussions – the ones you might hear about in newspapers; examples include: Paul Hillsdon, Nathan Pachal, Jordan Bateman, John Buker – are or at one point have been motivated by a criticism of SkyTrain rapid transit.

If there were no one to respond to these criticisms and unearth the problems with such a viewpoint – as I am doing so now – the quality of transit planning in Metro Vanouver would deteriorate to the point where perhaps no disagreement would be had on transit projects; and consequently, little progress would be made in changing communities and peoples’ lives for the better.

Denying the Benefits

SkyTrain critics deny SkyTrain’s potential as a high-quality rapid transit system. They don’t even want to see it acknowledged that SkyTrain generates billions of dollars in transportation, developmental and economic benefits. They clutter our blog-feeds, newsletter sections and comments with endlessly varied suggestions to perpetuate the belief that SkyTrain simply isn’t the best option for investment.

They’re often proponents of Light Rail Transit (LRT), an alternative option that could allow rail transit to be built in a somewhat more flexible manner (including at-grade and on-street), who are quick to bring forward the positives of community-building, lower capital cost and less obtrusive (at-grade) infrastructure as upsides when compared to SkyTrain.

Can LRT be an appropriate solution in the transit planning sense? Absolutely. That should be quite obvious: there’s a reason why light rail investments are so popular around the world, with hundreds of proposals to reference at any time. However, the versatility of LRT should not be resulting in the dismissal of SkyTrain as another great – and often better – solution to addressing transportation problems, especially here in Metro Vancouver.

And yet, the critics are relentless in their criticisms. . Worse – they’re ridiculing and, apparently, finding reasons to shame our system and the way we’ve built it. These are the worst kind – the kind that try to deny altogether that building SkyTrain has provided Metro Vancouver with any benefits – and the ones who should arguably be disallowed from participating in public policy debacles, because they seem to have no understanding of what has been happening here in Vancouver for the past 30 years.

Metrotown has been phenomenally influenced by the introduction of SkyTrain. In the past 9 months I have spent living in Burnaby, I have witnessed the growth of at least 6 new high-rises.
Metrotown has been phenomenally influenced positively by the introduction of SkyTrain. During the year I spent living in the Burnaby area, I witnessed the growth of at least 6 new high-rises. You can see many of them in this photo.

Sample contentions by SkyTrain critics that are incorrect

1. SkyTrain hasn’t gotten people out of their cars.

TransLink’s trip diary data is a difficulty: there is little bearing that can be had about the accuracy of the measurements (this is a sample size) and the types of commutes that were recorded (i.e. are they commutes to work, shopping, and at what time of day/day), but nevertheless, it is a valid source. It’s used by TransLink and Metro Vancouver in regional planning matters,  and is and often utilized by SkyTrain critics. As SkyTrain critics have been quick to point out, the 2011 value is only 3% higher than the valule recorded in 1994 – the year SkyTrain was expanded across the Fraser River and into Surrey. It’s tempting, when you look at this, to think that SkyTrain has failed us in serving its original purpose.

The problem with these numbers is that they really don’t tell the whole story.

The trip diary draws data from 22,000 households in the region, and is meant to take a “snapshot” of a day in Metro Vancouver transportation. It is a partial survey – it’s not the same as the much more accurate ‘journey-to-work mode-share’ numbers collected by Stats Canada from every household, which show that transit mode share in Metro Vancouver is a bit higher than that collected in the Trip Diary and – together with walking and cycling – has grown significantly since 1996.

Closer studies have suggested that the biggest impact in transit modal shift is coming from SkyTrain and SkyTrain expansion. The City of Vancouver has also collected more specific numbers [Vancouver Transportation Plan Update – CLICK HERE] that not only show a big increase in transit ridership from outside of the city (i.e. connected by SkyTrain) – but also that the amount of motor vehicle trips actually declined for the past decade, despite population growth.

An even closer 2009 study [Niko Juevic SFU study – LINK HERE] that more closely looked at households within both 400m and 1500m radii of Expo and Millennium SkyTrain stations showed even more significant changes – outpacing transit modal shift across the region. The opening of the Millennium Line SkyTrain had a phenomenal effect on the surrounding area: within a 1500m radius of each station, transit mode-share had nearly doubled 4 years after the line opened – growing at more than 4x the regional average rate.

I compiled a summary of these numbers in the graphic below:

Modal shift in Vancouver - data compiled from Statistics Canada, Metro Vancouver and 2009 study by Niko Juevic

2. 80% of SkyTrain riders are recycled bus riders

South Surrey Park and Ride's Expansion Lot. CC-BY; Photo credit: Tay.Freder on Flickr
351 buses at Bridgeport Station wait to depart for South Surrey Park & Ride. Photo credit: Flickr – Stephen Rees

While I’ve never really been able to track a definitive source for this statistic (I have seriously only ever heard it from one SkyTrain critic group), I see it repeated in discussion circles and used as justification that SkyTrain is weak at attracting ridership. SkyTrain critics have repeated this number to contend that the majority of riders on the SkyTrain were already taking transit before the line was built, claiming that this is “double the industry standard” – and were extremely vocal in certain situations where SkyTrain expansion replaced one or mutliple bus routes, especially in the case of the Canada Line (which replaced express segments for multiple south-of-Fraser bus routes heading into Vancouver).

Firsty, I have never understood why such a vague 80% number is being portrayed as a weakness. In the City of Calgary, a single centralized high-density core and the most expensive downtown parking in North America combine with free park-and-ride facilities along Light Rail Transit lines to give the Calgary C-Train the majority of its nearly 300,000 daily boardings. The Calgary C-Train is a versatile system and many of its riders have chosen to use transit, but not for their entire commute – the first segment of their trips is more often being done by car than by bus, walk or bike.

If the majority of SkyTrain riders are taking other transit to get there first, then that is at least as much a strength as much as it is a weakness (and, very likely, very much more a strength) – because this kind of transit commute coherency is simply not being replicated by other rail transit systems.

The versatile Calgary C-Train services nearly 300,000 boardings every day - but outside of the city core, Park'n'Rides such as this one contribute the majority of C-Train ridership. Image source: Calgary Transit website
The versatile Calgary C-Train services nearly 300,000 boardings every day – but outside of the city core, Park’n’Rides such as this one contribute the majority of C-Train ridership. Image source: Calgary Transit website

Secondly, this claim – at least in the case of the Canada Line – certainly doesn’t hold up to collected ridership numbers.

Passenger measurements by Canada Line operator ProTransBC collected by the Richmond Review were showing that Canada Line ridership in its first few weeks averaged 77,000 – meaning over 55% of today’s ridership numbers were already on board the Canada Line before September 7th, 2009 – when the 98 B-Line and 490-series express routes were terminated, and the many South-of-Fraser express buses (351, 601, etc) were terminated at Bridgeport rather than continuing to downtown Vancouver.

These bus routes make up only a small percent of the Canada Line’s total ridership – the vast majority were choosing to ride the Canada Line before any of these buses were transferred to terminate at Bridgeport or eliminated. A rider survey conducted in 2011 indicated that 40% of those surveyed were new to the system – that being, they previously drove and did not take transit at all for that commute – and that riders’ biggest vaues for the system were speed, frequency and reliabillity.

With the cancellation of the 98 B-Line and associated peak-hour express routes, it’s true that a number of the Canada Line’s passengers were riders of the previous bus-only system; however, this is something that needs to be expected from all rapid transit projects regardless of technology and alignment. Each and every SkyTrain line, C-Train Line, Portland MAX line, etc. replaced a previous bus service and took in riders from that bus service.

Claims like this also downpay the benefits being provided to any previous bus riders, whose faster commutes are fostering increased productivity, lower stress levels and better comfort. For most of the first month of operation, the 98 B-Line continued its operations alongside the new Canada Line until its termination on September 7th. Riders had the option of continuing to ride the 98 or take the new SkyTrain – and as evidenced by ridership numbers that averaged more than double what the 98 B-Line carried before the new SkyTrain opened, the majority of 98 riders were opting for the faster ride.

The proof is in the ridership

A Canada Line train pulls into Marine Dr Station - photo by Larry Chen, license obtained
A Canada Line train pulls into Marine Dr Station – photo by Larry Chen, license obtained

See also: Surrey’s Next Mayor should Push for SkyTrain – Surrey Leader letter

The Canada Line, which was introduced just 4 years ago, is already a Vancouver icon; a part of this city’s fabric of life. It’s hard to believe that less than 5 years ago, the link between downtown Vancouver and Richmond was a miserable bus trip that took as long as the SkyTrain’s Expo Line took to travel nearly twice the distance to Surrey. As a daily rider of the Canada Line to reach Kwantlen University in Richmond (and again later in the day to go from there to work downtown), the Canada Line’s benefits are evident to me in person. I don’t have to worry about potential traffic issues heading into Vancouver that can make buses (or even light rail trains) late – and neither do the 121,999 others who ride with me each and every day.

Riders, stakeholders and decision makers have been clamouring to build something similar and soon under Broadway between UBC and Commercial-Broadway Station. Support has been near unanimous, because previous experience with SkyTrain has shown us that we can be confident about the expanding the system.

Local mayors who were concerned that the expense of SkyTrain would make TransLink’s assets like electric trolleys “crash” were proved wrong when the Canada Line exceeded ridership expectations well ahead of time.

In walks of transit planning and provision, I have always thought that SkyTrain isn’t getting enough credit for what it does. SkyTrain has been part of why Metro Vancouver has lead North American cities in transit ridership. We rank third in transit trips per person per year, behind only New York and Toronto.  We’re ahead of Montreal, Boston, and Washington, D.C. – cities with full-size metro systems – and far ahead of cities with only LRT systems. This has grown from 4th in 2006.

We are achieving great things because we approved the construction and expansion of the SkyTrain system. Which is why making sure SkyTrain critics who mess up the facts do not get a grip on transit-planning decision makers is my top priority for this year.

REALITY CHECK: B.C. Liberal claims vs. the facts on The Millennium Line SkyTrain

2-car SkyTrain approaches Brentwood Station on the Millennium Line
2-car SkyTrain approaches Brentwood Station on the Millennium Line
Based on photo by sillygwalio on flickr – CC-BY

In a guest posting on the Vancity Buzz blog [CLICK HERE], B.C. Liberal spokesperson Simrath Grewal (Vice President of the Young Liberals) wrote that:

The Millennium Line commissioned by the NDP during the 1990s was delivered late, over budget and it only made stops in NDP held ridings.

And claimed that this was part of a line of a dismal record of transportation projects that was had with the B.C. NDP government of the 1990s.

In this election, the main opposition (the B.C. NDP) have often criticized the B.C. Liberals for inaccuracy, and it looks like they have a really good reason to. People can only be expected to believe what they’re told, and it seems they’re being told a lot of rhetoric. It’s showing in the above comment on the Millennium Line SkyTrain project.

Simrath Grewal is completely incorrect on claiming that the Millennium Line SkyTrain project was late and over budget. In fact, the team that oversaw the construction of the Millennium Line (Rapid Transit Project 2000, Ltd. or RTP2000) won a National Award for Engineering Achievement from Engineers Canada for completing the Millennium Line both on time and UNDER budget. Engineers Canada is the national organization of the 12 provincial and territorial associations that regulate the profession of engineering in Canada and license the country’s more than 250,000 members of the engineering profession. The award is viewable on the Engineers Canada website at [CLICK HERE]. Its message is pretty clear to me.

Engineers Canada award with link

The financial statements of RTP 2000 Ltd. [CLICK HERE for the latest] make it clear how much was spent on the Millennium Line: $1.1 billion, meaning that the line was well within budget. In terms of per-km cost, the Millennium Line was the least expensive SkyTrain project ever constructed, save for the SkyTrain section running from Scott Road to King George Station (see: Historical SkyTrain Costs, [CLICK HERE]). This is reflected in other claims on the project reference pages on websites of companies that helped work on the Millennium Line, such as the Cement Association of Canada [LINK HERE].

The other claim that interests me is the one that alleges that the Millennium Line was designed to cater only to NDP ridings, by only stopping in them.

This overlooks the fact that the Millennium Line was never fully completed. The current portion of the Millennium Line in service is a Phase I portion of the route. It was brought forward because it was the least expensive portion of a multi-phase project that would have integrated several kilometres of new SkyTrain with the existing SkyTrain system. Not a lot of people who then labelled the Millennium Line the “SkyTrain to nowhere” probably know that. The Millennium Line project came across a rather unfortunate turn of government: with the B.C. Liberals’ step up to power in 2001, the Phase II portion of the line (which was in planning & development) was cancelled.

The cancelled Phase II portion of the route would have extended the Millennium Line into Coquitlam (now moving forward as today’s Evergreen Line project) and westward into the Central Broadway district, building off of the inexpensive track infrastructure of the Phase I line and an expansion of the sole operations/maintenance facility in Burnaby. That would have made the entire Millennium Line a bargain, in the sense that with SkyTrain, better transit could be provided at a significant discount thanks to existing assets.

1998 SkyTrain plans for the Millennium Line
1998 SkyTrain plans for the Millennium Line

The cancellation of this had to do with a report released by a consultant named Alan Greer, which attempted to refute a revised study that lead to a change in decisions with the NDP government and the build-out of the current SkyTrain Millennium Line rather than an original at-grade LRT proposal, based on stakeholders’ wishes for more grade separation (for better transit). Greer used his report to claim that the new report endorsed by the NDP supporting SkyTrain was shady, but did so with an equally shady report.

In late 2012 I did a review of this report as part of my work with the SkyTrain for Surrey Initiative (now called Better Surrey Rapid Transit at and found several inaccuracies that were not reviewed at the time, because the report was kept confidential for two years. [READ MY FULL ANALYSIS – CLICK HERE]

From original PRESS RELEASE on “Debunking the Greer Report” [CLICK HERE to read]

In my analysis of the report, I found that Mr. Greer is significantly lacking in his knowledge of the SkyTrain system. For example: some of Mr. Greer’s assumptions completely exclude the ability of higher operating frequencies with driver-less systems compared to driver-manned systems such as at-grade Light Rail Transit. There are a lot of unsubstantiated claims, and there are also several places where the information in the document contradicts itself.

The “primary flaw” in the RTP’s new SkyTrain-favouring study that was outlined in Greer’s report was that the new cost estimates were only done for the part of the full project that was to go ahead (to allegedly “create the appearance of favourable costs for SkyTrain”), and that analysis for the remaining portions (Phase II) was neglected and put-off solely due to the expenses of building out those po rtions with the preferred SkyTrain technology. The new analysis by SkyTrain for Surrey points out that this contradicts the reasons (stated in the same document) that the RTP made the change: the neglect of an immediate and costly analysis for Phase II likely did not have to do with the high cost of SkyTrain, but with the high cost of a better LRT with more grade separations (as was requested and mandated by community stakeholders).

According to this report by CBC [LINK HERE], the B.C. Liberals during the 2001 election used Greer’s report to claim that the Millennium Line project was to be another “fast ferries” fiasco. This is completely untrue not only for the reasons I state in my counter-report (linked above), but also because the first phase of the Millennium Line was delivered under budget, meaning the tie-in second phase (which would have extended the Millennium Line to the big ridership centres) would have likely made both projects very successful if the B.C. Liberals had not cancelled it as they came into power after 2001.

Clearly, the B.C. Liberals will use rhetoric and forego reviewing the facts when criticizing transportation projects by other governments. It happened in 2001, and looks like it is happening again in 2013.

So, what do you think? Will you continue to believe in the Liberals’ lies?