Skytrain system switch setback

Closed Skytrain station
Closed Skytrain station

Skytrain service between Edmonds and Nanaimo stations went down this evening (Monday 28 August). Too bad for you if you were planning to get on or off at any of the five stations in between (Royal Oak, Metrotown, Patterson, Joyce-Collingwood, 29th Avenue). The gates are closed; trains sit unmoving on the tracks; closed signs are up; staff mill around the shuttered entrances and blocked-off elevators directing people to the buses. The official reason is a switch problem.

Translink Special bus
Translink Special bus

Translink Police van
Translink Police van

A bus bridge has been set up: special buses are running in a route along the stricken stations, which is laudable, and useful to people stranded at one of them, but of doubtful comfort to anyone who was planning to make it to an appointment (“going home” counts) on time. (For some reason, there was also a Translink Police van outside the Metrotown station. Fear of rioting by furious commuters? Wouldn’t surprise me.)

This evening, I was meeting up with a group for dinner, but the transit breakdown disrupted it a little. Those with cars didn’t have a problem, nor those within walking distance or who had come by transit well ahead of time. But–two of the group arrived an hour late, after the rest of us had already eaten and were waiting for dessert. (They told a terrifying tale of waiting for ages on the packed station platform and seeing the train arrive packed even fuller, and of eventually take a bus down.) A third person met an even worse fate (we think). The last message we received from her was sent from a Skytrain stopped between stations. The last announcement she heard was that the train would go right through her destination station and not stop. We never saw her at dinner. She didn’t make it. Presumably, she gave up and went home in disgust. A commuter failed by the transit system.

And now, a rant.

My main gripe with Vancouver public transit–in a word: unreliable. As a friend said, It works great when it works. The problem is that it fails to work just a bit too frequently. You can’t rely on it to get you where you want to go on time. Skytrains stop at or in between stations for minutes just a bit too often. A bus zooming right past a bus stop (with would-be passengers waiting) because it’s already crammed full happens just a bit too often. Occasionally, a bus just goes missing, as if it had been beamed up by aliens en route (e.g. a bus that’s on a 15-minute schedule doesn’t show up for half an hour). Scheduled weekend track maintenance seems to happen a just a few too many weekends of the year.

Oh, certainly, the running of a public transit system is a hard thing to do. Track sections wear out and need to be replaced sometime, a few of the hundreds of buses running nearly continuously and with frequent starts and stops will break down each day, some idiot will step on the track and trigger an automatic shutdown of some kind every now and then, it’s in the nature of computer systems to just crash, and so on. But commuters (or would-be commuters) don’t care why the service has broken down, they just care that it has. Nor do they care how temporary the breakdown is. If the Skytrain stops for ten minutes, they’re ten minutes late at their destination station, which might mean missing a bus and waiting another twenty minutes for the next one. If their scheduled bus fails to show up and the next one that finally appears drives right past their bus stop without stopping because it’s sardine-packed full, it doesn’t matter to them why. It’s just a lesson that using transit is unreliable. And service breakdowns happen just a bit too often. Ask any regular transit user; they’ll have multiple stories of delays and missing buses and other strangeness. The Lower Mainland’s fondness for cars, even with the ever-rising gas prices, is partly due to the public transit system being not quite reliable enough. Just a little too flaky.

It works great when it works just about sums it up.

2 Comments so far

  1. Richard (unregistered) on August 28th, 2006 @ 11:55 pm

    This is why I bring reading material when riding public transit.

  2. Rebecca (unregistered) on August 29th, 2006 @ 11:09 am

    Completely unreliable – at least once a week a bus isn’t on time, and not just ‘late’ the bus actually slotted for a certain time never appears so you have to take the later bus.

    We were on the train (wall to wall people) on Saturday night (August 19th) at about 6pm when they were doing maintenance. There was a couple next to us that asked “is it like this ALL the time?” and we explained they’re doing maintenance. The woman just looked at her husband and replied “never again”

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