July 23, 2014
On Thursday July 17th, the SkyTrain system was shut down during the evening peak travel period due to a failed computer component. This left many passengers stranded both at SkyTrain stations and in SkyTrain cars for many hours. Then on Monday July 21th the skytrain system was brought to halt due to a tripped electric breaker protecting the SkyTrain’s operations centre. The power outage also halted the public announcement system
Having two skytrain melt down in a row is statistically improbable. Improbable but not impossible…drawing some hasty conclusions on the general state of the system based on exceptional event shouldn’t be done at this stage:
Some observers have been quick to link the skytrain glitches to lack of funding. We notice that the latest meltdown is linked to the extension of the Skytrain (Evergreen line work)…
Identifying the root cause of the trouble is a good step. Translink, which seems to have learnt how to manage crisis in Pyonyang, thinks it has then took the adequate measure: suspend the electrician whose is alledgely responsible for the tripping of the breaker.
We will note that if a breaker exists in the first place, it is to allow it to trip, and the consequence of a tripping should be known as well. so a first question
- Does the risk of accidental tripping of a critical breaker due to electrical work was properly assessed? and its corollary: Does the electrical work was appropriately scheduled to minimize risks on skytrain operation?
The handling of a crisis communication
A tripping breaker or something else shutting down a whole transit system is a rare occurence, but not something unprecedented:
During the great 2003 North east blackout, whole transit systems, in cities such as Toronto or New York, grind to a complete halt…
In such occurence, The question is: What is the response of the Transit authority and is it adequate?
- Does Translink expect people to roast in trains for hours without any information?
If a train evacation plan was in place, something one could have excepted to be decided in the minutes following the skytrain halt (a tripping breaker is a priori something quick and easy to troubleshoot, and the consequence on the time to “reboot” the system should be well know).
- Why Translink didn’t inform its customers about it?
Thought the passenger announcement system was down, medium like twitter was available (but used only to mention an unspecified “technical issue”). That brings us another aspect of the issue.
Is the Skytrain system rightly designed?
- In crisis situation, more than ever, communication is key: the passenger information system should be insulated of other control systems (be able to run on onboard battery…)
Wrong per design, is also the fact that a Skytrain “glitch”, seems always to bring the whole Skytrain system on its knees. The system seems to be too much centralized. The corollary of it:
The more the system expand, hence add complexity (be by mile of trackage or by number of trains in operation), the more the chance to have catastrophic glitches.
The occurence of it can be reduced by increasing the reliability of the system as is (that can be typically achieved by providing redundancy on key part …but eventually that will not prevent embarassing issues where the whole skytrain system break down, due to a too centralized management of it.
Better overall resilience could be achieved by a more decentralized system: having the different lines operated as much as independently as possible is a step in that direction . That could not necessarily means less over-all break down, but a break down could be of much minor consequence on the system (typically confined to one line). In that regard:
- With the advent of the Evergreen line (VCC-Douglas college), the Millenium line should be shortened to be (Watefront-Lougheed) which should reduce catastrophic break-down effect
- the poor design of the Lougheed station which can be already criticized for the lack of same platform transfer between future Evergreen line train (VCC-Douglas) and Millenium train (Waterfront-Lougheed), can also be blamed, for preventing to operate one line in total disconnection of the other in normal operation (excluding OMC access)
- We have to celebrate as an an eventually uninentended advantage, the fact that the Canada line is operated totally independently from the rest of the skytrain network
The Skytrain reliability is touted at 95%: that measures the % of train running no later than 2mn of its schedule.
A measure providing little meaning for the customer:
- train can run late, but as long as speed and frequency is maintained, the level of service for the customer is maintained.
The measure of the skytrain reliability doesn’t provide us with a good idea of how “late” or “slow” the 5% of trains not “on time” are.
The problem is that when a Skytrain is “running late”, it can very quikly means hour delay for the customer. In that light, 5% trains “running late” could be then considered as way too much (a bit like if a driver was facing incident like flat tire or engine break down once a month, but should feel content because the rest of the month, or 95% of the time, the drive is unevenfull…).
For matter of comparison, the reliability of french driverless subways is usually north of 99% 
To the risk to be at odd with Translink, a review to all of the above question is necessary: the findings could eventually help to reduce the occurence of skytrain systemic issues and more certainly will provide some guidance to help to improve the handling of such occurence in the future
 see Twenty Years of Experiences with driverless metros in France, J.M. Erbina and C. Soulas. As an example, the Paris automated line 14 reliability (percentage of passengers who waited less than 3mn during peak hour or less than 6mn during off-peak hours) is at 99.8% on the Paris automated line 14
 Per definition a “back-up” system is not working when the main system is…and back up system issue are typically discovered when we need it if not thoroughly and recuurently tested what involve significantly ongoing maintenance cost.
 As an example in Paris, each automated subway lines (taht is line 1 and 14 has its own central command center. That is also true of the Lille VAL system, which has 2 lines opened in 1983 and 1989
July 2, 2013
At a time when “both TransLink and the City of Vancouver are aiming to establish a common vision for bus service in downtown Vancouver“, it is still interesting to have a look at what has been done in past in that respect
In 1975, the Bureau of Transit Services, then depending from the Minister of municipal affairs prepared a transit service plan to complement the City land plan :
This plan is important in many aspects, and mainly the adopted methodology
It lays down the general picture in which a downtown plan can take shape
Thought not in service in 1975, the West Coast Express concept were already discussed, and the terminals and vessels, for the seabus, were under construction. The skytrain was still a quite distant concept , but the LRT discussed in the plan is clearly considered as a pre-metro, aimed to be underground in the Core Business district.
But More importantly,
It lays down 7 principles guiding the plan
Those principle are subdivized into 3 common service characteristics:
- Direct Routing
- Minimize unecessary transfers
- Minimal walking distance to final destinations
(1) Don’t divert routes to serve specific needs: Diversion means a less attractive service for most of the travellers
(2) Use secondary services connecting to main ones, to serve “out of the way” area (rather than divert main routes)
(3) Use the downtown grid for “random schedule” transfers
(4) Go Straight thru the “center of gravity” of an area, and not its periphery, which increases the total walking distance by half.
(5) Transit and pedestrians: the concept of pedestrianization and transit must not be treated independently.
The study cites Jane Jacobs  to support the idea of bringing together the transit network with the pedestrian area 
(6) Prefer two way operations over one way, since it offers the maximum coverage
(7) Prefer nearside bus stop over farside, sinec it allows the passengers to alight before have to wait at a traffic light.
Many, if not all, of this principles are what Jarret Walker calls the geometry of Transit, and that is the reason why they are still as valid in 2013 as they were in 1975:
- Principle (7): Thought some cities like Montreal and Toronto, have bus stopa on the nearside, most of the cities adopt a farside model, since it usually allows a better general traffic output, and modern LRT/trams use also farside bus stops, since it allows a more efficient signal preemption
- Principle (1), (4) and (6): They are very strong transit geometry principles which have justified the conversion of Manners Mall in Wellington New Zealand, from a pedestrian only street to a transit mall.
- Principle (4) and (5) are why transit needs to be considered as part of the urban fabric
Some comments on the DT plan
The geometry of transit largely comfort the relevance of the historic streetcar grid:
- The choice of the streets is guided by principle (4)
- The streetcar service along Hornby, was expected to use the Arbutus line outside the DT core: the routing thru Hornby plan is consistent with the 1972 Erickson plan developped for the court house complex.
- The Robson square is envisioned to be a pedestrian oriented area, serviced by transit in full accordance with principle (4), and the Arthur Erickson’s vision for Robson square:
The only traffic through the square will be inner city buses, linking the West and and False Creek. Since buses function as people movers, they are seen as a compliment or enhancement to the pedestrian activity of the civic square [...]
- At the time of drafting the plan the Robson bus was using the couplet of one way streets Smythe/Robson: a two way service along Robson is clearly the privilegied choice.
The advent of the Canada line kind of fullfill this vision.
The underlying philosophy leading to the plan, articulating pedestrian areas around transit, and not the reverse, illustrates the dramatic shift of the current Vancouver council approach, which dismiss the transit geometry, as illustrates the Robson bus circling the square to serve a “specific need”.
At the end a transit service is envisioned on Nelson to complement the planned development of the westend, as well as a pheripheral line, to serve the “social and recreational” place on the pheriphery of downtown:
Remarkably, they are echoing recurring wishes for Transit in downtown, but the plan warms that “…there really is not much to be gained in professing support for programmes to get more people to use public transit without commitment to actions to give transit priority use of streets in Downtown Vancouver and in other urban centres in the metropolitan area.”
Alas, the current Vancouver council policies could not be farther apart of this commitment to transit.
 Draft memorandum on transit service planning to complement downtown peninsula plans of the City of Vancouver, Bureau of Transit Services, BC Minister of Municipal affairs, Sept 19, 1975. (13.6MB file)
 the underlying concept had been drafted by Harry Rankin by 1970, see The Case for Rapid Transit…in 1970
 The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs, Random House, New York, 1961
 51-61-71 Project, block 71 Schematics, Arthur Erickson Architects, 1974
 Vancouver’s 1975 downtown transit plan, John Calimenete, April 7, 2010
 This view is echoed by Jan Gehl, among others, providing rational for Transit on Sydney’s George Street.
December 5, 2011
This post refers to the Vancouver viaduct competition occurred in November 2011
The Jury, adverses to any viaduct views, choose some other entries which if not eliminating the viaduct like 71, or building a crypt to its remnants (nice attention from entry 113), was either burrying them-and all the local street network-under a huge tumulus segregating the historic precinct of False Creek (entry 111), or hidding it away in an canvas like composition, seen from an improbable point from the sky (entry 72), or not showing at all what could be done with them or their land (entry 138) – N.B. the goal of the competition was to “visualize the viaducts or the land they occupied” … The only rewarded entry showing a viaduct is the entry 72:
An unsuccesful entry
Entry 109 , focusing more at removing the barrier effect, than the viaduct themselves- the real physical barrier being obviously the Skytrain guideway-reflects my previously stated position on the viaducts.
Entry 109 put the traffic (“blood” of the city) front and center, and emphasis on the following values:
- Reconnect Chinatown to the rest of the urban Fabric
- Open Gastown and Chinatown to the False Creek shore
- And more generally, keep the seawall open to the city by locating the development on the edge of the site
- …and respect the View cone policy
- Develop Georgia street as a “ceremonial” street ending on the false creek basin in the Science world axis.
- Provide a pleasant urban street feeling basically everywhere
- Don’t compromise East West connection
Currently Chinatown is cut from the rest of the city, West by the Andy Livingstone park, and South by the bridges (as well as Thornton park and the Skytrain viaduct…it is simply too much of urban discontinuity to invite people to Chinatown), the entry suggests building lined streets along Keefer and more importantly Main. That motivates the removal of the Main overpass.
The entry introduces a canal in the Carral street axis to that purpose (then people can go straight toward the shore, passing below the skytrain guideway, along the Canal). other North/South streets are extended up to pacific Boulevard.
rather than along the shore
In the case of the viaducts area, the view cone policy mainly protects perspectives from South East False Creek which also can help to prevent a disastrous “toilet bowl” effect on the False creek basin
That certainly motivates the removal of the Georgia viaduct, if you want Georgia street to be an urban boulevard with traffic going down to Pacific Street what is advisable to preserve its urban feel
That motivates a realignment of the Expo boulevard, to enable it to be lined by building on its south side rather than to be defined by the Skytrain guideway, avoiding the problem seen on Lougheed Boulevard in Burnaby or Number 3 road in Richmond.
There is no clear motivation to remove the Dunsmuir viaduct. From an urban viewpoint it basically adds nothing, since you are still left with the Skytrain guideway barrier, and eventually have even a negative outcome, since you end up to have at best a very clumsy landing of Dunsmuir somwehere either on Expo or Pacific boulevard, (which also end-up to relocate the viaduct structure more than removing it)…or worst, a dead end Dunsmuir street accompanied by a lost of a gentle grade access to downtown. At the end you have to consider the positive side of a viaduct asset: it can be seen as a balcony on the “urban theatre” as described in the entry 109…and a treatment of this asset under this light is suggested in this entry.
Unfortunately, the values expressed by entry 109 were not shared by the jury which had another motivation in mind.