SkyTrain shutdowns review spawns $71 million in planned upgrades

TransLink is committing to carry out all recommendations from Gary McNeil after major rapid transit stoppages in July.

Dozens of passengers exited along an elevated guideway in Vancouver July 21 amid a long shutdown of the SkyTrain system.

TransLink is committing to $71 million in SkyTrain upgrades spread over next five years in response to 20 recommendations from an independent review into major system shutdowns during the summer.

The transportation authority says the changes aim to reduce the frequency and length of disruptions, quickly evacuate passengers and provide better communications to those affected.

The major multi-hour shutdowns July 17 and 21 stranded thousands of passengers for hours, prompting dozens to force open SkyTrain doors and walk unescorted on elevated guideways after about 30 minutes, causing even longer delays.

Gary McNeil, a retired Toronto transit executive, said it’s critical the staff response and system upgrades give passengers confidence any shutdown will be quickly resolved so they won’t self-evacuate.

A key promise announced by TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis on McNeil’s recommendation is that SkyTrain staff reach stranded cars within 20 minutes of a shutdown and that there be much better communications with passengers to assure them help is on the way – a key failure in July.

“We failed our customers last summer,” Jarvis said. “We can do better.”

Jarvis said the extra money will be found from within TransLink’s existing revenues for capital maintenance and won’t affect the proposed transit expansion plan of area mayors that is to go to referendum in the spring.

The biggest expenditures include $15 million for an improved public address system and another $15 million digital signboards and speakers outside all stations to inform passengers when entrances are closed or lines spill outside the stations.

McNeil said the lack of information for crowds outside stations in July caused “more aggravation and inconvenience.”

Another $10 million would go to upgrade SkyTrain’s guideway intrusion system so false alarms like a newspaper blowing around in front of a train or a bird flying by no longer force a stoppage.

Half of the delay incidents on SkyTrain are caused by guideway intrusion alarms, regularly halting trains for three to 15 minutes, and McNeil predicts augmenting the system with CCTV video and optical imaging technology should eliminate most of those stoppages.

“You’ve got to get rid of those false alarms so that when there there is an alarm it’s really for a legitimate reason,” he said.

His report noted are 450 guideway intrusion alarms and 275 emergency brakings each month, numbers that have risen sharply since the system’s sensitivity was increased a year ago as a safety precaution.

It warns so many minor delays make the public less tolerant of major ones.

An auto-restart function that TransLink opted not to get in the last upgrade of its train control system in 1994 will also be added at a cost of $5 million to help speed up the redeployment of halted trains, which can now take five hours.

McNeil also found TransLink didn’t have enough staff on shift to handle huge crowds at stations during the shutdowns.

Major problems will still exist and officials hope the promise of faster staff response times to clear halted trains will deter passengers from forcing open doors.

Jarvis acknowledged that has become a pattern since the July incidents, with passengers forcing doors less than five minutes after a train comes to a halt.

He said TransLink is acting on all McNeil’s recommendations and predicts better SkyTrain service will result.

TransLink has already taken some steps, such as ensuring work on the central power supply or command and control systems happens only when passengers aren’t being transported.

The July 21 failure happened when the control centre was shorted out by an electrician working on it and another recommended upgrade is an uninterruptible power supply that ensures trains and communications don’t lose power.

Other changes include notifying bus drivers – who in July learned of SkyTrain shutdowns from passengers – so they can help inform riders of the situation and their options.

McNeil said the challenges are somewhat unique for the driverless SkyTrain system, because most other rapid transit systems have drivers who escort passengers out when they must evacuate.

SkyTrain shutdowns review by Gary McNeil

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