SkyTrain shutdown review from 20 years ago ignored, expert says

1993 review recommended on-board attendants who could drive cars during outages

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      SkyTrain disruptions like the July 17 and 21 outages have happened in the past.

      Indeed, a report addressed this issue 21 years ago. That’s why Ron Stromberg, who was the one who initiated a review back then, wants to know what happened.

      In 1992, B.C. Transit ordered an independent safety assessment of SkyTrain cars stranded on the tracks because of a system failure. At that time, it was B.C. Transit that operated transit in Metro Vancouver, which is now run by TransLink.

      About seven months later, the Toronto Transit Commission handed in its report.

      Whatever happened to that report is a mystery to Stromberg.

      “That’s the question TransLink should be answering,” Stromberg told the Georgia Straight today (July 31) in an interview at his Vancouver home.

      Stromberg is familiar with the review commissioned by B.C. Transit. It was he who made a case for it when the transportation agency’s board met on August 21, 1992.

      At that time, Stromberg carried the title “Special Projects – Transit Specialist” with the Crown Corporations Secretariat, which oversaw provincial government corporations.

      In his presentation before the B.C. Transit board, Stromberg noted that at “various times” during the six years of SkyTrain operations, its computerized Automatic Train Control has “failed”.

      According to the minutes of the meeting, Stromberg explained that failures were due to computer malfunctions and “other service interruptions leading to the system halting”, which are basically the same as those related to this year’s July 17 and 21 shutdowns.

      “This normally leaves as many as 26 trains loaded with passengers randomly spread out along the trackway and unable to move,” Stromberg told the board.

      Like what happened on July 21, passengers had also opened the doors of stranded SkyTrain cars, and walked to the nearest station on service walkways.

      “As frustration sets in, passengers have been known to force the doors and exit onto the maintenance walkway,” Stromberg told the B.C. Transit board in 1992. “This is a highly dangerous situation and is even worse at night during winter weather conditions, inviting electrocution or impact with a moving train.”

      Stromberg suggested that the Toronto Transit Commission be hired to do the review because it also operates a SkyTrain system. (He was referring to the Scarborough RT.)

      The Toronto Transit Commission, through its wholly owned Toronto Transit Consultants Limited, was asked to assess the safety of passengers exiting stranded trains, and measures to minimize customer delays during a shutdown.

      In March 1993, the Toronto agency submitted its report.

      According to Stromberg, the consultants made one key recommendation that B.C. Transit, and its successor, TransLink, has ignored: put SkyTrain attendants on board all trains during peak hours, or during all operating hours, if possible, who can drive the cars when the system fails.

      “What you do is when it goes down, there’s a man or a woman there that can move the train,” Stromberg said in the interview.

      In the report, the Toronto consultants noted that the presence of a SkyTrain attendant on board would not only reduce delays.

      According to them, the attendant’s presence would be a “major deterrent to unauthorized egress”.

      “There is no documented evidence on either the Vancouver SkyTrain or the Toronto SRT [Scarborough RT] during their relatively brief operating life that an On Board Attendant is essential for a life threatening emergency,” the report stated. “However, the On Board presence on the SRT has undoubtedly provided better reliability, reduced recovery time and enhanced the perception of security for passengers.

      “This recommendation is based on both our extensive TTC subway experience since 1954 and our knowledge of high capacity rapid transit systems throughout North America and Europe,” the report continued.

      “Over the past 39 years on the Toronto system their [sic] have been a number of incidents which had the potential to be life threatening except for the On Board presence of TTC personnel,” the document went on.

      The report continued: “It is the combination of many years of rapid transit experience and what we consider to be statistical evidence which establishes our conclusion that SkyTrain will not be able to achieve minimum recovery time, together with maximum safety and security without the availability of an On Board Attendant.”

      Stromberg can only guess why the report’s recommendation was ignored.

      “I think they didn’t want to get and have to put money on that,” Stromberg said.

      TransLink has hired former Toronto GO Transit CEO Gary McNeil to review the July 17 and 21 Expo and Millennium line disruptions. McNeil will be paid $1,200 a day. He will provide a report by the end of October.

      Stromberg doesn’t doubt that the 1990s-era review he initiated remains relevant.


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      Jul 31, 2014 at 6:08pm

      >Stromberg can only guess why the report’s recommendation was ignored.

      Uh, here's a pretty obvious one: the whole point of having a computerized system is so you can save on the cost of having drivers, allowing you to have a high-frequency service in a low-density city like Metro Vancouver. If you were to have an attendant on every train, that pretty much completely nullifies that benefit, drastically increasing costs and making that 90-second rush hour or 5-minute weekend/night service untenable.


      Jul 31, 2014 at 6:11pm

      The whole point of Skytrain is it's automation - drivers are not required. It's union-busting technology, get rid of drivers and you get rid of strikes. Attendants of any kind would foil this plan, that's why the only attendants you see on Skytrain are members of the policemens union.

      400 ppm

      Jul 31, 2014 at 7:02pm

      excellent journalism


      Jul 31, 2014 at 9:05pm

      Doesn't staffing each and every train with a live person kind of defeat the purpose of having an automated system? Driver salaries are usually a pretty big chunk of a transit system's operating budget, aren't they?

      Lee L

      Aug 1, 2014 at 6:56am

      If media reports can be believed, this last shutdown event was caused by an electrician tripping a main breaker which killed all electric power to the tracks and to the communications system. A 'driver' cannot drive a train on a dead track. This differs from a situation where the track can be made live and only the computer controls for the system are faulty.

      Operations people could not just close the breaker again, lighting up the trains and track because they couldnt risk electrocuting some fools who had forced the doors and were walking on trackway outside the train.

      Perhaps a 'driver' could have walked the train and attempted to dissuade the fools until communications were restored, but an operating communication/PA system could also have warned passengers of the danger in jimmying doors as well. The 'driver' without an operating communications system would have been of no real use.

      That serious shortcoming (communications going dead) needs to be addressed immediately. How else could Translink prioritize restarting each train or attending to a medical emergency in the middle of a shutdown?


      Aug 1, 2014 at 9:22am

      If the Scarborough RT is so great, why is the TTC scrapping it? And if automation is so bad, why are so many systems across the world now driverless? Why is Toronto the only place we go to for advice? Why not European or Asian cities with massive driverless systems? Surely they know more than the TTC or GO Transit about how to safely run large driverless systems.

      at our peril

      Aug 1, 2014 at 10:15am

      ok, so they want to save money. then the trains stop. then people become hostages & break out of the cars. then translink blames people breaking out of the cars for creating more delays. catch 22 at our peril. safety first, not budgets. idiots. they have always known there have been problems forever with sudden stops, software glitches. NEVER rely on digitization, it is always doomed to failure & is unreliable - subject to breakdowns due to temperature changes, environment, any physical disturbances like bumping, shaking, power surges. false sense of security.
      btw, basic electricity safety rules dictate you should never work on a 'live' panel. can't believe they are blaming a worker for causing a short when it was live. how dangerous is that? the union should bust translink's balls for ordering work that jeopardizes someone's life. attempted murder? perhaps no, perhaps yes.


      Aug 1, 2014 at 11:36am

      $1200 a day? I'll do it for $10,000!

      at out peril

      Aug 1, 2014 at 12:21pm

      oh yes, before we even get started on having a proper communication system in place, how's about updating the speakers? whenever an announcement comes on it is so garbled you can't understand a damned thing they are saying. people on the trains raise their heads up and look at the speakers before asking others 'what the hell were they saying?' & shooting looks & eye rolls to each other every time it happens. what a joke. advice to translink: get to know your customers & ride the trains/buses yourselves before you say another word about service & what a great job you did speaking to the people through social media during the shutdowns. someone with a car & bullhorn would've been more effective addressing stranded riders during the system failure. another thought - what are the first aid options if there is a medical emergency on a train that is stuck above ground in the middle of the tracks? call skytrain officials with your cell if you have one? call for the fire department ourselves? bring your own emergency rope ladder & food supplies just in case? i smell a class action lawsuit.


      Aug 1, 2014 at 1:43pm

      The TTC runs their system with drivers because their union requires it. They are scrapping the SRT because:
      1) They don't want to make modifications to it to support the Mark II cars. The SRT was originally designed to be a LRT and has track characteristics of one.
      2) They don't want to buy Vancouver's Mark I's and modify them for driver cabs
      3) The SRT is awful in the winter from heavy snow
      4) The high maintenance costs of removing the Mark I trains and trucking them somewhere for maintenance.

      Vancouver does not have any of these problems. If SRT was the alpha test, Vancouver's Expo line was the Beta test and the Release version. The only difference between Bombardier's version of the Innovia Metro and Vancouver's version is the Signaling technology, which Vancouver used a pre-WiFi version of Seltrac, and Bombardier offers their own signalling.

      The thing people quickly forget is that each transit system is unique and each system needs to be considered by:
      1) Geographic grades (7% max for rotary motors,LIM can climb steeper grades and turn sharper) Contrast with Calgary or Edmonton which are completely flat.
      2) Population density. Surrey makes more sense to have the Skytrain extended to Langley, and BRT run on the less dense routes, not LRT which would trap everyone in Surrey at the expense of Langley
      3) Available technology: We have Skytrain, we save more money by staying with the existing technology and not caving to train unions to have drivers on all trains
      4) Distance to cover and traffic impact. Calgary has a dozen collisions per year with cars, Skytrain has none. This is because grade separation and automated drivers for the Skytrain is safer. Every LRT system in North America spends half an average of half a million dollars per collision. That cost is not factored into operation costs when they are built.

      Once something is built, it costs more to tear it down and replace it with something else. Especially in the case of subways where those tunnels have to be maintained regardless of anything running in them, otherwise they collapse and take the city block with it. So let's quit suggesting building LRT's just for the sake of employing a driver to push a button at 60,000$ a year.