The aging SkyTrain – Pitfalls of a gadgetbahnen



The major problem with automatic railways, is that they age poorly or should one say, the signaling and miles and miles of wiring needed for automatic operation, age poorly. A transit system that is well maintained, with lots of expensive preventative maintenance, preforms well as it ages, but if little or no preventive maintenance is done, service quality drops like a stone. The problem is not inherent with SkyTrain as evidence is now pointing to ‘signal failure, with the recent Washington metro accident. When signaling problems happen on SkyTrain, unlike the Washington metro, the system shuts down until the problem is rectified and/or an attendant drives the train (at a slower speed). The result of ongoing problems causing stoppages on SkyTrain means much lower capacities, car overcrowding, greater passenger discomfort and annoyance.

Noon, Monday, July 6

Trouble on SkyTrain right now. TransLink reports a communication problem between a section of track and the central control computer.  Trains will be staffed by SkyTrain attendants. But  there may be delays of up to 20 minutes at times.

And a little later…………………………….

SkyTrain update:
SkyTrain is currently experiencing delays due to communication problems between a section of track and the central control computer.  Trains will be staffed by SkyTrain Attendants, however, there may be delays up to 2-3 minutes at times.

When delays happen, capacity drops and transit customers are left with an inferior service and consider different transportation options. Maybe worn out signaling, causing almost daily delays is the real reason for a billion dollar upgrade to the Expo Line? One billion dollars is more than enough money to fund the valley interurban initiative!

With light rail, signaling issues, due to age, seldom arise and if they do, are fixed with little delay in service.


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7 Responses to “The aging SkyTrain – Pitfalls of a gadgetbahnen”

  1. Jim Says:

    This is just garbage. Sure when, and it is very rare when SkyTrain has a problem, they need to go back to manual operations which compared to the automated operation is very slow. But the reality is that SkyTrain operates more efficiently than any other system. There has never been an accident with SkyTrain on automatic control. Never a loss of life accident like in Washington. The trains are so close you can see the one in front some times. Try 5 – 10 minutes apart in other systems. Even Canada Line will be 7 min. apart.

    I have read this blog for a while and it is clear the author has a beef about SkyTrain, but it is unfounded. His facts are many times not correct, like one post states TransLink subsidizes SkyTrain to the tune of $200,000,000 well the total cost to run SkyTrain is more like under $100,000,000 and passenger fares cover 105% of the operation of SkyTrain. It is the bus company not SkyTrain getting a huge subsidy.

    Who can trust anything from a source so lacking in reality.

    Zweisystem replies: It is you sir, that lacks reality.

    FACT: The 1991 GVRD study, “The cost of Transporting People in the Lower Mainland”, put the annual SkyTrain subsidy at $157.6 million; by 2001, with the opening of the Millennium Line, the annual subsidy paid to SkyTrain was over $200 million.
    FACT: TransLink does not apportion fares between buses and SkyTrain, thus can’t claim any statistic that shows that SkyTrain recovers passenger fares. 80% of SkyTrain’s passengers first take a bus to the metro.
    FACT: According to Gerald Fox’s “A Comparison Between Light Rail and Automated Transit Systems”, found SkyTrain (and all automatic transit systems) less reliable than light rail.
    FACT: SkyTrain has an annual death rate of 5 to 10 people annually. True SkyTrain has never had a collision in revenue service, but the Washington Metro also operates under Automatic Train Control and it appears that one train was in automatic operation and the second train was being driven manually. SkyTrain are also driven manually if need be.
    FACT: SkyTrain is having ongoing signaling problems and delays are so bad that they are being reported on the radio on a weekly basis.
    FACT: Light Rail can operate safely at 30 second headways and does in daily service in cities around the world.
    FACT: The provincial government has never divulged the real cost to date of SkyTrain, yet in the USA, the public are told of the total cost, including debt servicing, of a transit project.
    FACT: Just the Expo Line cost 60% more to operate than the entire Calgary C-Train (LRT) and Calgary’s LRT carries more passengers.

  2. Justin Bernard Says:

    Jim: Do you have proof the Skytrain operates more efficiently than any other systems. Automated does not equal effeciency. The Moscow Metro is reported to run trains at 40 second interval, and they are driven.
    I have ridden the SKytrain and my experience was that yes, you can see a train in front of you. But that makes no difference, since it usually my train WAITING for the other train to leave the station.
    People seem to be mystified by the allure of “tight headways”. The reality is, most people do not care about waiting an extra 2-3minutes. The tight headways are required on SKytrain because the trains are so small! Running a 2 car Light Rail at 2 minute frequency will have higher capacity than Skytrain.

  3. mezzanine Says:

    Interestingly, the NYTA is moving to automate the subway system as a long term project. (

    “The new system will allow the transit authority to squeeze 20 percent more trains onto its tracks, running 30 to 31 trains per hour on a typical line instead of 26, and permit the trains to operate at higher speeds, meaning less waiting time and shorter rides for passengers. Stations will also have computer displays that will offer passengers real-time information about when the next train will arrive.”

    Quote from a NYTimes article:

    Zweisystem replies: Yes and here we have an example how automatic train operation works well on heavily used subway lines. Automatic operation was the ‘flavour of the decade’ in the 70’s & 80’s but high maintenance costs greatly increased operational costs. Studies have found that automatic railways are only economically viable when ridership exceeds 20,000 persons per hour per direction on a transit line. I believe the New York subway system meets this criteria.

    In Vancouver, SkyTrain’s peak hour ridership is a mere 10,000 persons per hour per direction, and the cost of automatic (driverless) operation isn’t justified; never has been. High operational costs has been the the Achilles heel of light metro, because for much less cash outlay, LRT tends to do a superior job.

    In France, simple GPS tracking of trams, gives rather cheap real time info on their many tramways.

    In the near future over $1 billion will be spent on the Expo Line to upgrade it and I believe to resignal it; $1 billion would provide a deluxe Vancouver to Chilliwack Interurban service!

  4. mezzanine Says:

    ^what is the source of those passenger numbers?

    The Expo Line has equivalent annual ridership (29.4 million pax in 2002) than the Canarsie Line (30.4 million pax in 2005).

    Vancouver stats:
    NYC Stats:

    Zweisystem replies: Figures come from TransLink reports in the newspapers and observation. The figures TransLink gives as official are not vetted, unlike American transit systems and they can claim what they wish. Here lies one of our great problems with TransLink, unlike most other transit systems, there is no annual or biannual audit of ridership or expenditures, thus one has to rely on other sources.

    If the Canarsie Line is going to be automated (driverless) and if it is carrying roughly what SkyTrain is, they will have greater operating costs, due to higher signaling maintenance. I would guess that automatic (driverless operation) is more for engineering prestige than anything else. The JFK ART Line was built for similar reasons.

    French transit officials have done a great deal of study on ATC and driverless transit systems, as the French made VAL was all the rage the same time as SkyTrain. It’s huge operating costs doomed the light-metro because of all the added maintenance costs of ATC. City after city rejected VAL (even after the central government offered free installation of the initial line) due to the high costs associated with automated transit systems. What is true in France is true here.

    There is no such thing as a free lunch and the more intensive and intricate the signaling system, the more expensive it becomes; the question is simple: “Is there the ridership to justify the cost of driverless operation?” “Is the line going to carry over 20,000 pphpd?”

    If it isn’t, expect higher maintenance cost, especially when the transit system ages.

  5. Maury Markowitz Says:

    “FACT: SkyTrain has an annual death rate of 5 to 10 people annually”

    Uhh, and? Toronto has about one a month and has drivers. SkyTrain’s had 55 in over 20 years, less than three a year.

    Your argument is specious.

    “huge operating costs doomed the light-metro”

    New VAL systems are being installed all over the world. Clearly your opinion is not widely held.

    “What is true in France is true here.”

    Ha! From the country that denounces all things French with every opportunity…

    “There is no such thing as a free lunch and the more intensive and intricate the signaling system, the more expensive it becomes”

    Ahh, but in the case of a driver you actually have to buy a real lunch. And dinner. And while operator salaries keep going up every year, technology costs keep going down. Even if the complaint you make was true (and I debate it), it won’t be at some time in the future. Are you building a system for the past, or the future?

    Your argument is specious.

    Zweisystem replies: Quote: “”FACT: SkyTrain has an annual death rate of 5 to 10 people annually. Uhh, and? Toronto has about one a month and has drivers. SkyTrain had 55 in over 20 years, less than three a year.” Actually SkyTrain has more deaths than you quote and I have not bothered to request a FOI on the number of SkyTrain deaths to date. The point of the original comment was that more people die per annum on SkyTrain than on Calgary’s LRT.”

    Quote: “New VAL systems are being installed all over the world. Clearly your opinion is not widely held.” Really? Where? In fact VAL is not being built all over the world and certainly not in France, where the central government offered cities such as Nantes, Grenoble, and Strasbourg the first VAL Line at no or minimal cost. VAL was rejected and is only built as a light-metro on routes that can sustain a light metro route.

    As for building for the future, the future is at-grade/on-street light rail, not expensive gadgetbahnen like VAL or SkyTrain.

    You also seem to forget that the more complicated and expensive a signaling system becomes, one must hire signaling engineers, with very high wages, to maintain the signaling system on a daily basis.

    Your ignorance of transit issues is telling and I would suggest reading a book on the subject, instead of making grand statements that lack any validity.

  6. xerxster Says:

    ^I think a new VAL system is being installed in Uijeongbu, Korea.
    Also, the NEihu Line in Taiwan which recently started service.

    Zweisystem replies: VAL systems with opening dates in brackets. Lille (1983), LRT (Mongy line) in use; Paris Orlyval (1991) Airport service; Toulouse metro (1993), LRT being planned; Rennes metro (2002); Paris CDGVAL (2007) Charles de Gaulle Airport people mover; Chicago O’Hare Airport VAL (1993); Taipei’s Muzha Line (1996) Larger metro version; Turin’s Metrotorino (2006), also operates LRT; Uijeongbu, South Korea (projected); and finally Jacksonville had a VAL line inaugurated in 1989, which was shut down in December 1996 and replaced by a monorail.

    Out of eight VAL systems in operation, three are airport people mover type systems, which hardly qualifies as “VAL being built all over the world”.

  7. Maury Markowitz Says:

    “Actually SkyTrain has more deaths than you quote and I have not bothered to request a FOI on the number of SkyTrain deaths to date.”

    So in other words, you admit to having no evidence for your statement.

    If you’re going to ignore published numbers, then we should, of course, ignore the published number for the C-Train too, right? No? Ok, then let’s compare the two numbers we can find.

    “The point of the original comment was that more people die per annum on SkyTrain than on Calgary’s LRT.”

    No, the point is that you made up a number

    And? More people die per annum on Toronto’s subways than the SkyTrain. Clearly the connection you’re trying to draw is not supported by the facts.

    “In fact VAL is not being built all over the world”

    And then in the very next message you agree that they are being built, but dismiss them because they’re people movers. Again, the evidence is clear, both the VAL and the ART are being actively built out as we speak in locations around the planet.

    “You also seem to forget that the more complicated and expensive a signaling system becomes, one must hire signaling engineers”

    Perhaps I did “seem to forget this”. So I’ll expand: the ratio of salaries in Toronto is about 1.3 to 1 in favor of the engineers, yet the entire SRT is operated by a team of three. The much larger SkyTrain has about seven at any given time. In comparison, the Toronto subways have a driver and conductor for every train, plus three local and one global operations centers. The passenger/worker ratio is far lower for the SRT, in spite of light ridership.

    But if we’re going to talk about what we “seem to forget”, you fail to note that every system has to install and maintain these very same signaling systems anyway. The London Underground just went through this process recently, at extremely high capital costs. Nevertheless, they are happy with the results – after the inevitable teething problems.

    “As for building for the future, the future is at-grade/on-street light rail, not expensive gadgetbahnen like VAL or SkyTrain”

    Ahh yes, the LRT. Well as someone who lives in a city that is currently in the process of building out an LRT system, a large one, let me tell you about the reality of the situation:

    It took well over a year to build the 1 km section of at-grade line on Bathurst St. from Bloor to Dupont last year. In that time, all of the businesses along that section were completely wiped out. The construction sent up massive plumes of dust from the concrete cutting that made cafe patios useless, and closed the road entirely for weeks at a time. Even with the system in place, the trams get stuck in traffic, and the speeds are about 8 km average. I can easily out-bike them, and during rush hour you can easily out-walk them. You want this like you want a hole in the head.

    Ahh, but the REAL idea is separated right-of-way, like the new lines on St. Clair. That construction has the road squeezed down to one lane (from three) for several years now, and is progressing at a snail’s pace. The result of all this work? The time to ride along St. Clair along the “Phase 1” corridor from Vaughn to Young, the densest portion, is predicted to fall by 1 minute. If your system runs at-grade, it stops at the lights, and then you’re right back in the traffic again. This is not some theoretical issue, we know from years of operation of the Spadina system (which is identical) that at-grade LRT is _not_ “rapid”.

    And while I agree that LRT is a wonderful system for moving short distances in a densely packed urban environment (and support the deployments in the Toronto core including St. Clair), I would also argue that the original reasons for the system are as valid today as they are when the ICTS Phase I contract tenders went out in 1970: at-grade LRT cannot safely move people rapidly over long distances. Period.

    If your goal is to move people around the downtown core to and from transit hubs, then LRT is a great solution. But if you’re trying to move people to and from suburbs, it’s completely useless. Transit times along the proposed Eglington East line, 14 km, are on the order of 45 minutes. The only way you could hope to get that into the 30 km/h range that you need is to have a system that does not run at-grade. And then you’re looking at subways or the ICTS. If you have density, you make a subway. If you don’t, ICTS.

    The only reason that Toronto abandoned it’s GO-Urban dreams is because we decided to abandon the suburbs (and vice versa). The TTC has given up on the out-of-town commuters and has a capital budget for the inner-city only. That’s fine with me, GO provides a fantastic service out of town, and the core was being ignored.

    “Your ignorance of transit issues is telling”

    So is your willingness to insult readers that disagree with you.


    Zweisystem responds: One tires of insults from the “light metro lobby”, a group who have continually confused the facts to suit their own ends.

    As for SkyTrain deaths, the last count was at least 55, as reported in various newspapers, what the death count is today, I admit, I do not know, but at least 4 people have been killed on the metro in 2009. The comment and statistics used was to counter the claim that “SkyTrain was safer than on-street LRT” and when compared to Calgary’s LRT system, a LRT system which carries more customers than SkyTrain, clearly wasn’t.

    As for VAL and SkyTrain, they both seem now to see employment by airport or funfair enterprises, because they can be sold privately and built without much public scrutiny. Both systems have been on the market for over 30 years and only managing 15 systems to be sold certainly defies the notion they are being built all over the world. When compared to the almost 150 new LRT systems built or nearing completion around the world, during the same period, shows light rail out selling VAL/SkyTrain by a ratio of 10 to 1! Also remember not one SkyTrain system has been allowed to compete against LRT for a new transit system.

    The problem in Toronto it seems is not modern LRT but rather a hide-bound transit bureaucracy stuck in the last century and continue to build and operate light rail/streetcar as they always had done so. In Nottingham England, during construction of their new LRT system, no shop front was to have been obstructed by light rail construction for more than two weeks or the consortium building the line were to be fined. Nottingham’s new LRT line also turns an operating profit – even after paying its debt servicing charges.

    As for the cost of operating SkyTrain, just the Expo Line costs about 60% more to operate than Calgary’s LRT system (both about being the same size); Calgary’s operating costs are publicized on their web site, while SkyTrain numbers have been published in the media. You wonder why no one buys SkyTrain? Compare operating costs.

    Before you accuse me of inventing figures, TransLink not and never has been forthcoming with operating costs and one wonders why; what do they want to hide?

    As for my last statement, “Read a book on the subject”, many years ago Zweisystem embarrassed himself at a debate on transit, where the chap on the other side quipped “he should read a book on the subject”. I did, in fact I read many. Some years later, at another debate on transit, I destroyed the same chap with fact after fact, so much so he refused to participate any further. I then said “some years ago, the shoe was on the other foot and I was pilloried over my stand on light rail and the gentleman here said I should read a book on the subject. I did, sadly he did not take his own advise!”

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