What is SkyTrain?


Provincial politicians since 1980 have forced SkyTrain construction on the Expo Line, the Millennium Line, the Evergreen Line, and now a billion dollar plus extension in Surrey, yet very few people clearly understand what SkyTrain is, or why SkyTrain is built. Even fewer know that SkyTrain is a light-metro and able to give a definition of the transit mode. If the rest of the world builds with LRT, why then do we build with something different.

A little history lesson.

In the late 1970’s, Ontario’s Crown Corporation, the Urban Transportation Development Corporation (UTDC), developed a proprietary transit system, based around Linear Induction Motors (LIM’s), from an earlier failed MAGLEV monorail system, which was notable for not being able to turn corners. The result was Intermediate Capacity Transit System (ICTS) which carried more passengers and was faster than a Toronto Streetcar but costing less to build than a heavy-rail subway. There were few takers for the automatic railway, which fell into the light-metro family of transportation, with only one sale to Detroit. The UTDC lobbied the Ontario provincial government to force the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) to build with ICTS and abandon the streetcar system. This resulted in the TTC building the orphan ICTS system on the proposed Scarborough Line.

The last straw for ICTS came from the 1983  TTC/IBI which found that, “ICTS costs anything up to ten times as much as a conventional  light-rail line to install for about the same capacity; or put another way, ICTS costs more than a heavy-rail subway with four times its capacity.” ICTS was dead, but not the UDTC, which quietly changed the name from ICTS to Advanced Light Rail Transit (ALRT) to try to get into the light-rail market, which ICTS/ALRT was definitely not as the mode still was a light-metro.

Again, the newly named ALRT failed to find a market except for Vancouver, where the then Social Credit Government, in a crass political deal which included the much vaunted Ontario conservative ‘Blue-machine’, bought the now obsolete light-metro. Instead of the originally planned for Vancouver to Lougheed Mall, Wally, and Richmond Centre light rail system, the region was forced to build SkyTrain from downtown Vancouver to New Westminster. No transit system had as much hype and hoopla as ALRT and a local name was born for the light-metro – SkyTrain. There were still no takers as SkyTrain cost at least twice as much to build as Calgary’s LRT and four times more to build than Portland’s light rail line. The Advanced Light Rail Transit moniker did not fool anyone and the name was slightly changed in the late 80’s to Advanced Light Rapid Transit.

The UTDC was wound up and the ALRT division was sold to Lavalin and again the name was changed to Automated Light-Metro but was still called SkyTrain, which most elevated railways are called. Lavalin went into receivership in the early 90’s trying to build ALM in Bangkok Thailand. Soon Bombardier bought the rights to ALM or SkyTrain and promptly renamed the light-metro to ART (Advanced Rapid Transit) and re-bodied the original ICTS cars with the largest metro body shell that the LIM’s could handle and what the Vancouver Expo Line could handle, with the result of a more metro looking vehicle.

There have been four sales of ART.

1) JFK Airport/Port authority – In a privately financed deal (financed by the Canadian Government) ART is used as an airport people mover to connect JFK with parking facilities and the New York metro system. It is funded by a $7.00 departure fee.

2) Kuala Lumpor – Already building with an elevated LRT line (STAR), senior politicians wanted something that was perceived to be ultra modern and ordered that an automatic transit system was to be built instead of extending the STAR line. Politicians went so far has to exclude LRT, even an automatic LRT and eventually ART beat out the French rubber tired VAL system for the new automatic line. The same politicians who forced an automatic railway were aghast that the ART line (called PUTRA) was a railway and not very futuristic at all. The third transit line built in Kuala Lumpor is a monorail, which was wanted by politico’s in the first place.

3) Korea – Another airport people mover.

4) China – built a LIM powered rapid transit system to gain technology, as Chinese planners stung by the excessive costs of the Shanghai MAGLEV, want to build with conventional rail instead of unconventional rail system.

To date there are seven ICTS/ALRT/ART systems in operation with Detroit’s single track ICTS and Toronto’s Scarborough Line soon to be life expired and dismantled, there will only be five remaining SkyTrain type light-metros. Discounting the airport ART people movers, Vancouver is the only city that continues to plan for SkyTrain or light-metro for regional rapid transit, yet during the same time ICTS/ALRT/ALM/ART have been on the market over 100 new light-rail systems have been built and a further 100 light-rail systems are either under construction or are in advanced stages of planning.

But what is ICTS or ALRT or ART? They are all light-metro, a transit mode that was supposed to be faster than a streetcar but cost less than a heavy-rail metro. To date there are less than 30 light-metros in operation around the world of which seven are in the SkyTrain family. SkyTrain, like its French cousin VAL have been made obsolete by modern LRT which introduced the articulate car and the concept of the reserved rights-of-way, which enabled light-rail to carry as many passengers and achieve the same commercial speeds as light-metro at a far less cost.

It should be noted, in the present SkyTrain/LRT debate, no mention of this is made by government appointed planners, TransLink or the Ministry of Transportation. No wonder that TransLink is on the verge of Bankruptcy!


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6 Responses to “What is SkyTrain?”

  1. ngwright Says:

    You admit that skytrain is not light rail, but you continue to debate it vs. light rail. Wouldn’t it make more sense to debate vs. other forms of light metro. How about skytrain and light rail for Vancouver? I think that makes more sense, but I do appreciate the detailed history of it.

  2. zweisystem Says:

    I think not. Many politicians in the metro area think SkyTrain is LRT. What has happened is that light rail, operating with articulated cars on reserved rights-of-ways has largely made SkyTrain obsolete; notice the last three ART system sold are airport people movers and not regional transit systems. The same is true of the VAL automatic metro. Stay tuned as this just laying the groundwork for the SkyTrain/LRT debate. You can’t plan for the future without understanding the past.

  3. Paul Hughes Says:

    taking into account long term impact and zero access to the footprint of LRT, many in Calgary think Vancouver got it right with the SkyTrain concept.

  4. zweisystem Says:

    I think not. When one compares the actual cost of both systems, SkyTrain’s huge capital costs and debt servicing charges, negate any desire of Calgary’s transit official to build with it. Calgary’s LRT consistently has carried more customers than SkyTrain at a far cheaper cost and transit official scoff at any notion that SkyTrain could provide a superior service. SkyTrain, despite two decades of unprecedented growth in rapid transit construction in North America and Europe, has failed to secure a market. What Vancouver has become is a study on not how to plan for public transit and certainly not been used as an example of providing a good rapid transit system.

  5. Paul Hughes Says:

    again, the concept. implementation and execution may be flawed, but the concept remains superior in many ways, not least of which is access to the footprint below the line.

  6. zweisystem Says:

    Elevated railways have been rejected by transit planners and politicians almost 100 years ago. Simply put, they are ugly. I’m afraid you overuse the term ‘footprint’ for if you compare a SkyTrain R-O-W with a light rail R-O-W, they take the same space. Now, with the concept of the lawned R-O-W, the light rail route becomes a linear park, complete with grass, trees, statuary, etc., a very desirable feature in many urban settings. The only way to make an elevated guide-way look anything close to acceptable is to have hanging flower baskets. I am not being flip, some portions of elevated guideway in Kuala Lumpor have hanging flower baskets!

    The benefits of at-grade operation are too numerous to mention, but the main consideration is that the customer wants his transit on the pavement, close at hand, ready to use. Elevated systems can’t offer this kind of service and is one of the main reasons subways and elevated transit systems have lost favour with planners unless there is the ridership (in excess of 15,000 pphpd) to sustain them.

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