Thursday, September 9, 2010

Tunnel Visions: Vancouver's SkyTrain

Every once in a while, Acts of Minor Treason hops out of Toronto, lands in some other city with some other light- or heavy-rail transit system, and looks at different ways of getting around on two rails, whether it's on the ground, under it, or above it all.

The other day, a friend of mine summed up one of the problems Canada faces, and continues to face - at some point in the recent past, it's as if this country decided that it was totally awesome, and as such didn't need to do anything anymore. This attitude on the part of our leadership is particularly obvious in spheres like transportation. While there are a number of cities that could support transit systems more extensive than bus-only operations, rail-based transit is limited in the lands of the Maple Leaf. In fact, there's only one significant system that wasn't around when I was born (1982). In previous Tunnel Visions installments I've taken you through the Toronto subway and the Montreal Metro. Today, I'll give you a look at the country's most recent rapid transit network1, the SkyTrain in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Like the Montreal Metro, I actually had some brief measure of experience with this system before I set out to review it earlier this year. Back in 1991, my grandfather and I travelled to Vancouver on what was to be our last significant vacation together, and I still have some vague memories of my eight-year-old self riding Vancouver's elevated rails. Going back there and riding the SkyTrain again was familiar and comfortable, not only because of that experience but thanks to the very nature of the system. It uses the same ICTS technology as the Scarborough RT here in Toronto, but unlike the Scarborough RT, the SkyTrain forms the backbone of rapid transit service in metropolitan Vancouver. With the opening of the Canada Line in 2009, the country's most recent commitment to higher-order transit, the SkyTrain is working to make the city work.

It doesn't spend very much time underground, either. Aside from the downtown component of the Expo/Millennium shared trackage and the first half of the new Canada Line, it runs on the elevated rails that give the system its name - and all the better for it. Between the mountains and the endless sea, Vancouver's a city that's meant to be seen and appreciated and not just tunneled under.

Really - it's a train, in the sky. Don't you want to know more?


A Mark I train pulls west out of Commercial-Broadway Station in the Grandview Cut, with cars in old BC Transit and modern SkyTrain liveries. Considering the amount of people still on the platform, it may well be a Millennium Line train bound for VCC-Clark.

Like so many other things I have an inexplicable fondness for, the SkyTrain is a product of the 1980s. While it's been the anchor of the Canadian West for a while - though Calgary may disagree - for decades after Vancouver ripped up its streetcar network and while Toronto and Montreal built and ran their own metro systems, it made do with buses alone. This changed with Expo 86, held in Vancouver from May 2 to October 13, 1986, based on the theme "Transportation and Communication: World in Motion." In other words, the perfect excuse for the Urban Transportation Development Corporation, the maker of Toronto's streetcars, to show off the Intermediate Capacity Transit System it had been polishing since the 1970s. The original spine of the system, beginning in downtown Vancouver and terminating in New Westminster, was finished in 1985 with six months to spare before the Expo crowds arrived, and nine months after the same trains had started to run in Scarborough.

Unlike its neglected sibling in Scarborough, the SkyTrain is an extensive rapid transit network befitting a major city - 68.7 kilometers of track, just a stone's throw on Phobos2 shorter than the Toronto subway and RT. While Toronto's system has sixty-nine stations spread across the city, SkyTrain stops tend to be more widely spaced - forty-seven in total provide service in the cities of Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster, Richmond, and Surrey. It's divided into three lines - the Expo Line from Waterfront Station to King George Station in Surrey; the Millennium Line, which shares track with the Expo Line as far east as Columbia Station in New Westminster, and then curves north and back west to VCC-Clark Station in Vancouver; and the Canada Line, opened in 2009 in anticipation of the 2010 Winter Olympics, which runs south from downtown Vancouver to Vancouver International Airpoirt and the city of Richmond.

The Canada Line service to the airport was an excellent way to be re-introduced to the system. Chicago is the only other city I've written about that had a direct rapid transit connection with the airport by way of the Orange Line to Midway or the Blue Line to O'Hare - Los Angeles, Toronto, and Montreal all rely on bus connections to subway or light rail lines. From the arrivals terminal at YVR, it's only a short walk to the platform of YVR-Airport station - there's only one platform, and considering that the airport itself is directly behind it, they'd have to do some funky planning in order to extend it any further.

Indubitably, this is the end of the line.

While it's all officially considered one SkyTrain, the lines aren't all interchangeable. The Canada Line stands particularly apart from the remainder of the system; its only physical connection with the Expo and Millennium Lines, through Waterfront Station, is in its own fare-paid zone, and the Expo and Millennium trains are incapable of running on Canada Line track. This even extends as far as signage - whether it's the stations or the jackets of on-duty personnel, there's only the Canada Line logo. The in-station announcements remind you that there is no smoking on the Canada Line - it's doubtful the implication is that smoking is acceptable on the Expo and Millennium Lines, but the specificity struck me as a bit odd when other systems have system-wide announcements. The only time I ever heard "SkyTrain" officially applied to the line was by a bus automated stop announcement. It seems more like a confederacy of lines than a single, unified system - almost like the Philadelphia subway.

As far as fares go, they weren't exactly bank-breaking, but I did have to pay more attention to them than in the other cities I've visited. TransLink, the agency in charge of the SkyTrain, SeaBus, and Metro Vancouver bus network, divides Metro Vancouver into three fare zones: the city of Vancouver itself is zone 1, the inner-ring suburbs of Richmond, New Westminster, Burnaby, North Vancouver, and West Vancouver are zone 2, and the areas beyond are in zone 3. What's important to note is that the SkyTrain is also subject to the fare zones, rather than being in its own unified fare zone - such as the Toronto subway before the elimination of fare boundaries in the 1970s. Thankfully, if you're holding a DayPass you won't have to worry about stumbling over a fare boundary; they cost $9 ($10 if you're paying cash, for some damn reason), and the fare zone system itself is only in force before 6:30 PM on non-holiday weekdays. One-zone and multiple-zone tickets are available for purchase at ticket vending machines within the stations.

An important note, though, to anyone flying into Vancouver International Airport and taking the SkyTrain out: it is most likely worth your while to purchase a DayPass outside YVR-Airport station, because of the wonderful thing called the "Airport AddFare," which puts an extra $5 charge on fares other than prepaid tickets and passes bought at any of the three Canada Line stations in the Airport Zone.
A selection of SkyTrain ticket receipts from August 1991. Adjusted for inflation - it's actually not that much more expensive today.

Despite the poor economic climate, the system remains primed for further expansion. Recent comments from the British Columbia government suggest that the Evergreen Line, extending from Burnaby to Port Coquitlam via Port Moody and Coquitlam, will along with an extension of the Expo Line deeper into Surrey be the next construction priority. Where the money will come from for this hasn't really been specified - though considering that construction is to begin in "early 2011," I suppose we'll find out soon whether or not there's any feasibility behind the government projections. After all, wasn't Transit City supposed to be totally done by 2018 at one point?


The kiosk of Burrard Station in downtown Vancouver. Many bus and trolley routes begin and end here.

Appropriately enough, considering the nature of its origins, there's a pervasive '80s style throughout the original SkyTrain network - or at least that's what I picked up on, and I can't be sure if it was just that I knew it had been built then. Something about the original stations speaks to that era for me, though, and it's an aesthetic that I don't recall encountering in other cities. Maybe it's the style of the signage or the smooth white walls or something else I never consciously picked up on. I don't know what it is, but it's there, I swear it.

It could be the art. Public art, though not ubiquitous, is common throughout the SkyTrain system, though much of it takes the shape of sculpture and statuary immediately outside the station rather than the "art on the platforms" style that's more common in Toronto, Montreal, or Los Angeles. From the leaping dolphin outside the greenhouse-like kiosk of Burrard Station to the huge, hollow bronze heads under the elevated track at Lansdowne Station - presumably the bodily remains of the vengeful gods that TransLink had to defeat in order to build the Canada Line - it combines well with the large public art program Vancouver is currently running. Though those laughing statues they've got at Denman and Davie seriously creep me the hell out.

Much like in Los Angeles, the relatively salubrious climate of Vancouver appears to have greatly influenced the design of its stations - but, then again, many of the elevated stations are obvious cousins of Chicago 'L' stops, to degrees open to the environment and on occasion with roofs that don't cover the entire platform. Many stations on the SkyTrain and Canada Lines lack doors altogether, and if it wasn't for the rarity of snow - indeed, the rarity of below-freezing days - in Vancouver, they might not be the most pleasant places to wait for a train. Indeed, I hear that on those rare occasions where Vancouver gets a significant snowfall, the SkyTrain has a tendency to shut down until the flakes can be cleared.

Not that, from appearances, the entire system would be affected by a minor obstruction in one particular area. There look to be multiple cross-switches across the system by which trains would be able to switch from one set of tracks to the other - at least, this is what they look like. I can't be sure if they actually can be used for that, but it wouldn't really make much sense otherwise, would it? In any event, during my eight days in Vancouver I never found myself on a short-turned SkyTrain, itself a welcome break from my Toronto experiences.

What really struck me as odd were the split platforms, a setup where each track feeds into a platform on a separate level. Though it's not like I've never seen them - Wilshire/Vermont Station on the Los Angeles County Metro Rail is set up like this, and Montreal Metro transfer stations use an adaptation of the underlying philosophy - their frequency in Vancouver is what I found odd. Granville, Burrard, and King Edward all have split platforms, and those are just the ones I remember.3 Really, I wonder why they were built like this - these are all underground stations. Would it really be cheaper, or geologically necessary, to do them that way? It'd have to be, otherwise it'd make no sense at all.

More sensible was what I found in most of the Canada Line stations - remote check-in terminals for airport departures, assumping you're flying Air Canada, American Airlines, Delta, Horizon Air, Korean Air, Lufthansa, United, US Airways, or WestJet. There was a similar terminal in the lobby of the hotel I stayed at, and while I did my check-in online, I can see the convenience factor there. The machines do stand as a reminder, though, that if not for the airport and the impetus of the Olympics, the Canada Line might have been pushed back into the uncertain future.

A Vancouver International Airport check-in kiosk in Broadway-City Hall station on the Canada Line, a convenience for passengers hurrying to catch their flights. You had better find this photograph worthwhile, since I was (briefly) questioned by a South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority Police Service officer as to why I was taking it.

On the whole, I got the impression that the stations tend to stand slightly apart from their surroundings - in that there's very little integration. Take, for example, the situation of Granville Station and Vancouver City Centre station, the latter serving Canada Line trains. They are literally right across an intersection from one another, and yet there's no physical connection between them - anyone wanting to transfer between lines there would have to leave the station, cross Granville Street, descend into the second station and cross another fare boundary. Coming from Toronto, where there's an in-station transfer so long that it was originally envisioned as two separate stations, it seems odd. That's not to say that it doesn't happen - it's certainly the case at Commercial-Broadway, for transfers between eastbound Expo and Millennium trains and westbound Millennium trains.


A Canada Line train at Marine Drive Station takes in the last bit of sky before diving into the tunnel that will take it the rest of the way to Waterfront.

No matter how you want to phrase it, regardless of the degree to which it's concealed behind technical bafflegab like "automatic train operation" or the like, there's one thing you need to know - the SkyTrain is driven by robots. In fact, you could go so far as to say that the trains themselves are robots. In this, as in so many other aspects of the place, Vancouver more than lives up to its appearance as the world-renowned city of the future. It is, in fact, the longest driverless rail system on Earth, and the only one of its kind in Canada.

There are three different types of rolling stock in use on the SkyTrain, split between the Expo/Millennium Lines and the Canada Line. On the original network you'll find Mark I and Mark II ICTS trains - the Mark Is will be familiar to anyone who's used the Scarborough RT, and in fact some of Vancouver's current Mark Is are slated to be sold to Toronto in the near future to shore up service on the RT until it can be converted to LRT, and the Mark IIs are larger, roomier, more streamlined and futuristic-looking improvements on that standard. On the Canada Line trains are comprised of Hyundai Rotem EMU cars, and they're considerably larger than individual ICTS cars - this is the reason why there's no intercompatibility between the Canada Line and the remainder of the system. Their internal dimensions are far closer to traditional heavy rail - advantageous when you consider how many luggage-toting folk are using it to get to the airport.

All of the trains, as a result of being automated, are totally open. In my opinion this openness is used to the best degree on Mark II ICTS trains, where a single "railfan seat" is installed in front of the window providing an operator's-eye view of the track - on the other models, you'd just have to stand in front of the window, but the concept remains the same. Compare this to Toronto, where the new Toronto Rocket subway cars will have their fronts entirely enclosed by the operator's cabin, denying passengers a view ahead. Because god forbid anyone ever get excited about the prospect of riding a rapid transit vehicle.

The forward view from the "railfan seat" on a Millennium Line train, somewhere in Coquitlam.

Vancouver's geography means that, among other things, its summers do not tend to be as punishing as those visited on Toronto, Montreal, and other cities in the humid continental climate zone. This may be why newer trains have air conditioning within, while the Mark Is do not. Still, I never really encountered horrible overcrowding within the trains in the time I was there; particularly between Vancouver and New Westminster, the interlining between the Expo and Millennium Lines west of Columbia Station would have a great deal to do with that. Since one or the other ends up coming about every two minutes, Waterfront-bound, the SkyTrain manages to regularly outdo the Toronto subway in that regard. The only particularly long headways in the system are found toward the ends of the Canada Line, where as a result of the line branching at Bridgeport Station, trains may only come every ten minutes or so.

Ease of Access and Ease of Use

Ticket vending machines and a ticket validator at the Lonsdale Quay SeaBus terminal in North Vancouver - technically speaking, not a SkyTrain station.

As befitting its architecture and the general cultural vibe I got from Vancouver as a whole, SkyTrain stations are open in terms of access - there are no physical fare barriers, and the only turnstiles I found in the whole system were those regulating access to the SeaBus terminals at Lonsdale Quay and Waterfront Station, and even those are meant to ensure that the ferries don't exceed safe capacity. While Canada Line and Millennium Line stations were built so that fare gates could easily be installed, for now it looks like there's no push to actually switch from the proof-of-payment honor system.

Unlike Los Angeles, the other proof-of-payment system I'm familiar with, fare enforcement is far more hidden. The only time I really encountered transit police was the time I had to justify taking photos of the airline check-in terminal, and I never saw them actually conducting inspections - whereas in LA, I crossed paths with a Sheriff pretty much every other day. Personally, I was never too certain about how the validators worked, and so even though I carried DayPasses I would feed it into those blue machines whenever I crossed a new fare boundary. Best, I figured, to establish a habit - though I did notice that no one else seemed to do it. They probably knew better than me.

Metrotown Station - your bikes are not welcome here.

As Vancouver is somewhat more of a bicycling city - in that, unlike Toronto, it actually recognizes the bicycle as a legitimate transit mode, and not just a recreational tool - it should come as no surprise that the SkyTrain integrates bikes into its operation. At least some stations have bicycle lockers for the use of patrons, and bikes are permitted around the clock on Canada Line trains. The only system-wide restriction is on the Expo and Millennium Lines, the standard rush-hour limitations depending on time and direction. Also, you can't bring them on or off at Metrotown Station in Burnaby. The TransLink website says it's for "safety reasons."

Presumably it's for cleanliness reasons that food and drink is not allowed on the SkyTrain system - and, to be true, it is a far cleaner system than the Toronto subway. Still, the lids and discarded McDonald's bags I found on some trains demonstrate that not all riders abide by these rules. I mean, I know that every once in a while we just get a jonesing - is it really too hard to clean up after yourself?


Guttering light upon a Mark I ICTS SkyTrain in, I believe, Main Street-Science World Station.

The most important factor to be considered in any transit system is whether it's easy to navigate a city with it. I'd say that the SkyTrain does work as a rapid transit network for Metro Vancouver in that regard, but there are still many more opportunities for extension. I had to wonder, for example, why there was no service through the West End or to Kitsilano - presumably it has a lot to do with economics and people who don't want to see a SkyTrain in their backyard. Still, it's taken a technology that was neglected here and really put it to worthwhile use.

If anything, riding the SkyTrain flung light on the roads - or, rather, the rails not taken. Look at the Scarborough RT and the manners in which it hasn't lived up to its potential, or the concept of the Hamilton SkyTrain - wherein ICTS technology was offered to the city of Hamilton, Ontario by the provincial government back in the early 1980s even with the provincial government willing to pay for construction. It's a big sky out West, and the SkyTrain is a good place to watch it go by.

1 I know that Ottawa's O-Train is newer, having commenced service in 2001 as opposed to 1985, but the O-Train also only has five stations. I've been on zoo monorails and airport peoplemovers with a similiar depth of service. If Ottawa wants to be taken seriously, it can build a subway befitting the fourth-largest city in the country.

2 As Phobos has an escape velocity of 40 kilometers per hour, I strongly suggest you throw the stone lightly if you ever want to see it again.

3 Even if those are in fact the only ones, three split-platform stations in a forty-seven station network is pretty large considering the unconventional nature of the design in North America.

Previous Tunnel Visions


  1. Yeah, be careful around the skytrain taking pictures. The transit police is where fired Mounties and other substandard cops end up. They love power-tripping.

  2. The reason the downtown underground stations are stacked is because they use an old railway tunnel, which is tall and narrow. Thus, they decided to simply excavate the floor, increasing the height of the tunnel, and stacked the two lines.

    1. and the reason King Edward is stacked is because there is a major water line (read: massive) along Cambie Street, and in that location, stacking the platforms was a cheaper option than moving the water line.

  3. You can also use three-zone fares in the same manner as DayPasses, except that they don't last all day; they expire after 90 minutes like any other ticket. They're $5 last I checked. Which one is better depends on what you intend to do; if you need more than 90 minutes to run between the different fare zones, a DayPass probably is a better idea.

    You can also use a West Coast Express ticket (that'd be the commuter rail line that TransLink also operates) like a three-zone fare, up until it expires. This doesn't work in reverse.

    Or you can do what I do and do 85% of your travelling after 6:30 pm and/or on weekends. :D

    I've never been hassled taking pictures on and around the Skytrain, but my pictures weren't of airport-things, so that may be a meaningful difference. (I also constantly disregard the food and drink rules, especially when I'm in a hurry and need to eat fast. But I don't throw my trash on the floor, at least.)

  4. Your photo above of a train at Commercial-Broadway incorrectly describes it as pulling westbound out of the station TOWARDS VCC-Clark. The train is actually arriving at the station, FROM VCC-Clark.

  5. When I saw post like this I feel happy 'cause these means of transportation are functional with clean energy.

  6. You also asked if the cross-overs you see along the network are usable. Yes they are. If there is a problem, the automatic train control can reroute trains onto the opposite tracks as necessary. Trains are also stored during the day and overnight on pocket tracks - ready to be brought into service as a replacement or additional train to help with overcrowding. Beauty of Skytrain is trains can be dispatched at a flick of a switch to handle unexpected crowding conditions. Right now, there is a power rail replacement project requiring single tracking after 8pm and this uses the cross-overs. There is also a shuttle running between Waterfront and Commercial-Broadway it uses a cross-over pocket track east of Commercial-Broadway to reverse.

  7. The system to ride by this Skytrain is sounds easy and I think people would like to travel by Skytrain to reach their destination.
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  8. The system to ride by this Skytrain is sounds easy and I think people would like to travel by Skytrain to reach their destination.
    airport parking deals