Sunday, October 16, 2011

Scheduled Track Chaos

It's a fact - rails get weathered, rails get old, rails need to be replaced. The SkyTrain, for all of its skyness, is still a train and thus is not immune to the necessity of maintenance. Generally speaking, though, in the year that I've been living here it's something that I didn't need to consider - presumably, the track got polished when it needed to, and the details were none of my concern.

Now, TransLink has gone and made it my concern - mine, and everyone in Metro Vancouver who uses the Expo Line. For this entire weekend, TransLink is undertaking what appears to be a substantial maintenance program between Edmonds Station and Metrotown Station. Through that portion of the system, eastbound and westbound trains are obligated to use a single track, and because head-on collisions would not reflect well on its transit boosting, the train frequency on the tracks between Waterfront and Columbia has been dialed down substantially - by about a factor of four - to accomodate the work. But throughout a Saturday?

"They are replacing rails. They cannot possibly do the work in a few hours." That's what TransLink representatives have been posting on the organization's Twitter feed again and again, but it only explains the question - it doesn't answer it, and poses more. For example, why couldn't the work be staggered over a longer period of time, focusing on individually shorter segments of track, with train frequencies being reduced in the evening and early morning but left as normal during the height of the day, and with shuttle buses helping to pick up the slack? This is how Toronto handles its tunnel maintenance - the extremes of the lines close a few hours earlier than usual, with buses substituted over the inactive portion. Is it that the ICTS design that was picked for SkyTrain back in the 80s can't be compartmentalized like this?

I understand the need to do the work; over the last twenty-five years, the SkyTrain has become an essential part of Metro Vancouver's transit infrastructure. It's critical that it remains able to handle the passenger loads placed on it without breaking, since that would be bad. What's also critical, however, is for TransLink to effectively communicate projects that disrupt such a massive swath of the network. In my opinion, it's really dropped the ball on this one.

Passengers wait for a westbound train at New Westminster Station on Saturday, October 15.

For a public transit operator, communication is essential. I'll grant that TransLink did do a good job keeping people informed about the delays... when they were already in the middle of them. What it didn't do was adequately inform people about what they were going to face in the weeks and days leading up to it. I mean, it's not as if this came out of nowhere. There are already notifications on the station update boards about how service will be running a Sunday schedule on Remembrance Day, but notifications of rail replacement? I didn't see so much as one. They did have the boards out yesterday that helpfully suggested adding ten or fifteen minutes to your regular commute time - which is laughably optimistic; when I was attempting to get to Vancouver yesterday my train was held up at 22nd Street Station for ten minutes alone.

"The signage [informing passengers of upcoming maintenance] has been up at all stations for a few weeks. There was the same maintenance last weekend too," dixitque TransLink. I remember that maintenance - I wouldn't exactly call it the same, not when it's out past Columbia in the Surrey bottleneck; with Columbia still able to act as a line terminus, last week's maintenance only effected Expo trains on their legs south of the Fraser. What's more, I ride the SkyTrain every day, and I don't remember any such signage - the first times I encountered any notification of last week's or this week's track maintenance were when I made it to the platforms of Columbia and New Westminster, respectively.

The platforms themselves are barely restrained chaos that underscore just how many people use the system. On an ordinary Saturday, you've got alternating Expo and Millennium Line trains passing through about once every two or three minutes, and that's enough to handle the passenger loads. The abbreviated Expo-only service isn't - and the station dwell times, for some damn reason, have not been adjusted in recognition of that fact. When my eastbound train passed through 22nd Street Station, passengers weren't able to finish alighting before the doors started chiming to close. Boarding? Forget it! We were just lucky the doors weren't pushed open enough times to trigger a train shutdown.

To me, this weekend's experiences with SkyTrain delays illustrates how vital it is to the region through all the people that rely on it to get where they're going... it also suggests that it wasn't necessarily designed with a great eye toward the future. I've said it before and I will say it again - the system is full of bottlenecks; the Surrey leg of the Expo Line is only the most visible. I have to wonder how many riders had yesterday as their first experience with the SkyTrain, and how many potential riders would be soured on it as a result.

The best part, though... the best part is that, for the track work scheduled for next weekend - this time, between Edmonds and Columbia Stations - is classed as being of "minor" severity. Because, you know, cascading delays throughout the system is just one of those things. Good one, TransLink - you should take that to Lafflines or something.

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