My Thoughts – Re: Transportation and the July 2014 SkyTrain meltdowns

The July 2014 SkyTrain meltdowns have probably perplexed a lot of people. In the past week, a lot of us bore witness to a level of chaos that I think had yet to be seen on the SkyTrain system in 28 years of operation.

We enjoy our SkyTrain service so much that I think that we have developed a collective expectation that things will always work out the way they’re supposed to.

Here are some of the responses I spotted on Twitter regarding the breakdown:

You can clearly see that there’s a lot of frustration; there’s a record of the incovenience. There’s an aura of madness that goes up in the air, as no one wants to be made late.

We’re tempted to question the SkyTrain system. Bus drivers’ union leader Nathan Wood – who, on CKNW, raised an issue that Light Rail systems have outnumbered SkyTrain-type systems in terms of construction around the world, is just a bit concerned that our main rapid transit backbone can have trouble fostering a busy transit network. While his numbers on the amount of SkyTrain systems in existence are slightly off of the actual amount, I can see why people would want to raise those questions after a series of unique, 5-hour closures.

How much service was actually disrupted?

Reliability chart - SkyTrain vs other systems
Reliability chart – SkyTrain vs other systems. CLICK TO ENLARGE

You might have already seen this graphic, actually. I was wanted for a guest post on the Vancity Buzz, and had just finished creating this chart when the second consecutive major SkyTrain issue hit commuters Monday mid-day for what was unfortunately the second time in under 7 days.

SEE ALSO: Vancouverites are spoiled with SkyTrain – Vancity Buzz guest post by Daryl

Usually SkyTrain is operating for 20 hours daily – and while it’s absolutely unfortunate that the recent issues that plagued SkyTrain commuters hit during busier times of day,  a 5.5 hour meltdown constitutes just over 25% of that service – meaning service was fine for the rest of the day. This is a far better record than what was achieved during the Portland transit meltdown of 3 weeks ago, where more than 60% of service fpr the day was not on time.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s a 132 hour work-week for the SkyTrain. 5.5 hours represents approximately 4% of service provided for the week, and well under 1% of service provided for the entire year. We had this twice in one week – meaning 11 hours of service were not operated on time – but that still represents less than 0.2% of all service provided throughout the year.

SEE ALSO: Reality Check – Why is SkyTrain breaking down so frequently? – Vancity Buzz

For the rest of the year, SkyTrain is operating normally – 99.4% of service is provided, with a 94.7% on-time performance rate. SkyTrain lets us down sometimes, but this isn’t actually happening a lot of the time. We enjoy reliable, rapid service that gets us where we need to go.

On most days, we get a reliable service out of the SkyTrain system for the duration of the day.
On most days, we get a reliable service out of the SkyTrain system for the duration of the day.

What should we do about this

There’s no question that issues and system shutdowns like this can be inevitable – so is there something that we can do about it? I think that there absolutely is – and looking at these issues, it seems that there’s a lot we can learn from this. For example – a lot of the time SkyTrain will fail, it impacts all riders because many bus lines connect to SkyTrain stations. A strategy to minimize delays during system shutdowns could involve the redirection or extension of bus routes to key areas to serve riders where they already are.

Normally, the best transit agencies can do when this happens is implement a shuttle bus bridge to repace the rapid transit service. This was the same procedure in Toronto and Portland, as pointed out above. The bus bridges are released as demand allows, but there’s no specific protocol that is followed in the event of a failure – meaning it can take some time before the bus bridges actually start, with passengers delayed until then.

PHOTO: Shuttle buses line up to board passengers at Metrotown
No one llikes to deal with slower shuttle buses replacing SkyTrain service!

But, it’s important to be prepared.

So, here’s an important disclaimer: I was lucky enough to not be there for both of these recent SkyTrain disruptions.

But, before you lambast me with comments of “you don’t know what we face!” or “try being on a train when it happened”, I would like to comment that I have seen my share of SkyTrain delays and disruptions before.

Prominent was the one that hit our system in April 2013, when a power rail issue in New Westminster halted trains on the system for close to an hour and required the deployment of shuttle bus bridges. I was on the problem train, and remember what it felt like as my train was passing the problem area and the electricity was suddenly cut. I remember how staff restarted the train and tried to move it past the area again, only for it to once again come to a grinding halt. I was heading from Surrey to the last showing of the theatre play at Windermere Secondary School, to see the performance and meet some friends in a yearly event that I consider to be something of a tradition. With the level of delays, I was unfortunately not able to make it to Windermere until the play ended.

It’s important to remember that transit isn’t the only form of transportation that isn’t always reliable. Accidents on key arterials or bridges can disrupt the flow of traffic in the region, especially when there are two or more bridges blocked at the same time. As a driver, you might know an alternate route that might be slower but will get you there with less congestion and less time waste. I think the same needs to be true for riders of transit.

Sometimes, there’s just no way to make it on time. Regardless, I still think it’s important to be somewhat prepared for when there are issues – and handle ourselves calmly and responsibly in times of crisis.

Gas prices of late are reaching all-time highs in Metro Vancouver. Source: Vancity Buzz
Gas prices of late are reaching all-time highs in Metro Vancouver. Source: Vancity Buzz

There’s an important message that can be had from the recent issues, one of which is a need for all of us to step back and realize that every possible way to get around has some sort of volatility. Even as we walk, we risk tripping on something that can temporarily impair our most basic ability to get around. The reality is, no matter how we choose to get around, we may run into issues. And, with the amount of money we sink into our demand to get around, it’s understandable why there’s such a high level of frustration when a transportation service you must rely on does not work out – not just on the SkyTrain but everywhere else.

Think about it. It’s true, right? So much of the money we earn goes towards the basic function of getting around. Transportation defines the way all of us live – so much that I think we don’t realize that it costs a lot of money to get around in this society. We take our transportation for granted – and for the younger ones, who may have benefited from the subsidized and discounted U-PASS, it’s especially not easy to realize this. However, this is the reality of the life we live. An average suburban household might spend more than 60% of income on the house and car – dealing with gas prices at all-time highs and ownership costs.

But where do I start?

It all starts with looking at where you live and where you might be going, and looking at your alternatives well in advance. For example: what are the bus routes near your house, and where can they take you. Which routes are your best options (accounting for frequency, speed, etc.) Or, if you live in Surrey and you tend to need to get across the Fraser River a lot, how much money can you set aside in case you need to pay for a cab to get across? If you vaule your money, what are the alternate bus routes to get you around once you do get across? (for example: the 123 from New West Station goes to Brentwood, or the 100 22nd St Station goes to South Vancouver).

As a society, we have to be anticipative of issues and have the knowledge to deal with it in real time – because often, transit authorities have limited resources and can’t always do that.


Anyway, to conclude this, I’ve seen the comments to the Vancity Buzz post on Facebook, etc. and some of you asked for the sources for my on-time performance numbers – which I have listed below.

I know it’s questionable given I have omitted certain systems, so to clarify – if there’s a system I omitted, it may be because of the difficulty in actually finding the numbers (the internet, in a limited time frame, can only get you so far!) or due to measurement standards that weren’t too comparable (I was looking at adding some Light Rail systems in New Jersey to the list, but NJ Transit’s stats measure with poor standards that consider runs on-time even if they are 6 minutes early or late, so I chose to omit). Listed below: