Saturday, November 12, 2011

What Is Your Major Malfunction, SkyTrain?

Maybe it's the wintry weather that's doing it. Whatever the cause, it hasn't even been a week since the last major SkyTrain delay that I'm aware of; this morning, as I write this, the entire Expo Line from Waterfront to King George is totally non-functional, with service maintained only through bus bridges and transfers along the Millennium Line. Until things get fixed, those rails aren't exactly where I'd want to be - visiting SkyTrain stations during system delays just reinforces how important the system is to Metro Vancouver, through the sheer number of people that get marooned on the platforms. It's a good thing this didn't happen on a weekday, or the chaos would be total - the system just doesn't have that much flex in it.

Information on what the problem actually is is spotty - News1130's tweet just speaks of "major delays," and while TransLink has announced through its Twitter feed that they're working on fixing it, they don't have any estimated time of repair for... whatever it is. And that's just it - the nature of the problem is purely a matter for speculation. I don't know, and TransLink doesn't really tell. I mean, at least earlier in the week they mentioned that the problem had to do with a busted switch, presumably one of the ones governing the junctions around Columbia Station - yet that only delayed service until SkyTrain Control organized the short turns at New Westminster.

What kind of problem could be bad enough to shut down the entire line?

A Mark I SkyTrain after crossing the SkyBridge, on a day when the Expo Line was actually running.

Information is power, and that applies equally to transit riders as it does to transit operators. Knowing where you're going is important, yes - but knowing why things break has relevance too. It irks me when I hear SkyTrain Control come on the loudspeakers about system delays or timed-out trains or whatever, but when the situation's all resolved, we hear no more about it. That's missing the most important points: namely, why did the delay occur to begin with, and what is TransLink doing to ensure, to the best of its abilities, that it doesn't happen again?

I mean, if you were a motorist and your car suddenly started making loud grinding noises with smoke rising from underneath the hood, you'd want to take it to a mechanic pretty quick, wouldn't you? And once everything was fixed, would you be satisfied with the mechanic only telling you just that - that everything was fixed? Isn't it even more important to know what the problem is, so that it can be avoided in the future?

Things are a bit different for SkyTrain passengers, yes - maintenance of the trackage and the rolling stock is not our responsibility. Nevertheless, the SkyTrain is how hundreds of thousands of people get around every day. Personally, I want for TransLink to publicly acknowledge and take stock of its problems, and demonstrate what it's doing to fix them. That's the mark of a good transit operator - otherwise, there's the risk of falling into a situation like the Toronto Transit Commission, where massive and unexplained delays are a simple fact of life.

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