Vancouver SkyTrain – A Review

I have to rank the Vancouver SkyTrain as one of my favourite urban rail transit systems.  Why?  Three key reasons – frequency, speed, and the view.

The original Expo/Millennium Line corridor provides amazing views of downtown and the mountains as it speeds toward the city centre.

First, though – and hopefully briefly – what is SkyTrain?  In their own words, it is an “automated driverless light rapid transit system” – and in fact it is currently the world’s longest, at about 43 miles long (to be eclipsed by the growing Dubai Metro any day now).  There are three lines: Expo, Millennium, and Canada.  The “true” SkyTrain refers to the Expo and Millennium Lines, which are connected and share the same trains (Bombardier Mark I and Mark II), same technology (linear induction motors of Bombardier’s ART-Advanced Rapid Transit-system), and even the same 13-mile core segment between Waterfront and Columbia stations.

The original Mark I cars, many of which date to 1985, feel pretty dated and tiny. These are almost identical to those on the Scarborough RT in Toronto.

The newer cars are much better - much more open with circulation space, and therefore higher total capacity. These do remind you a bit of the JFK AirTrain cars, albeit smaller.

The Expo Line is the original SkyTrain line, the core of which opened in 1985 in advance of Expo 86, the world’s fair held in Vancouver.  It was extended in 1989, 1990, and finally in 1994 to cross the Fraser River on the SkyBridge.

The SkyBridge is quite impressive, out toward the end of the Expo Line (pictures from "15 Goliath Steel Bridges article at

Another view in fog of the SkyBridge...the short trains are really dwarfed by the size of the bridge!

The Millennium Line opened in 2002 and is really an extension of the Expo Line; it forms a somewhat odd loop-de-loop around the Expo Line, as it crosses itself at the Commercial-Broadway station where it actually stops twice on each trip in each direction.  It was last extended by one station in 2006, to the middle-of-nowhere terminal at VCC-Clark.  This does, however, point the line in the direction of the Canada Line, and in a direction parallel to Vancouver’s busiest bus route, which is a corridor being considered for a rail extension.

Here's a schematic of the two lines from the mezzanine at Commercial-Broadway Station, where they come together.

The system looks and feels a bit like a urban version of an airport people mover system, which makes sense given the technology and the scale.  Comparison to systems like the Docklands Light Railway here in London would not be out of line either.  Finally, the Canada Line is the third line in the network but uses different incompatible technology and is (therefore) isolated from the other two lines – I’ll make a separate post about that.  So, back to my three pillars of frequency, speed, and the view…

Frequency – You Never Have to Wait!

In many respects, frequency is what it is all about.  I value frequency above pretty much all else (at least, within reason), as do most transit riders if you look at customer surveys.  The main reason is due to the corollary – how much we hate waiting, and that is particularly important when you have to transfer.   The most important aspect of SkyTrain is the frequency, which is possible because of the automation.  In other words, the separation of operating cost from service levels by not having to pay drivers (which are by far the largest operating cost component for any transportation) makes it feasible.  Sure, any type of transit with drivers can also be very frequent, such as the B46 local and limited-stop bus service in Brooklyn (approximately every 90 seconds during the busiest morning hour, and about to actually be increased to about every minute), or any of the busy tube lines here in London (all around every 2 to 2.5 minutes during peak hours).  But that only makes sense financially because of very high demand – all of those services are going to be very, very crowded – and what happens off-peak?    SkyTrain’s automation means that trains can run very frequently all day, and the marginal cost of running more frequent service is pretty low (just electricity, and the maintenance associated with running more miles).

Where else do you get trains as frequently as every 4 minutes all day, every day - including after Midnight?

Of course, by minimizing waiting time, the high service frequency also makes total journey times shorter, making a variety of trips more feasible (like, say, lunchtime trips around downtown, or quick errands).  I would also argue that high frequency can actually help the operation work better; passengers are less likely to run (and fall), hold doors, etc. if they know that the next train is not far behind.

People do seem less hurried about running for trains when they know their are others close behind...but maybe that is just the West Coast Canadian demeanor!

Speed – Some of the Fastest Average Speeds for Urban Rapid Transit in the World

That leads nicely into the second attribute I want to highlight, which is speed.  The SkyTrain is pretty fast, which not only feels good (which is worth something – to feel like you’re getting somewhere!) but also further helps make journey times shorter.  Although the top speed is just 50mph, the relatively small and light trains accelerate very quickly; the Expo Line averages 27.6mph, while the Millennium Line manages about 27mph.

That might not sound so great if you compare it to car speeds, but let’s look at a couple of comparisons.  The Victoria Line, which is one of the fastest urban rapid transit lines I’ve come across, with average station spacing of nearly 0.9 miles, does about 22.3mph during less-busy times (it is slower in the peaks due to longer station dwell times).   If you consider some New York lines, a couple of representative express routes are much worse; the D’s best time (midday and late evening) between West 4th Street and 145th Street of 21 minutes is only about 21mph, and the 4’s best time of 19 minutes between 125th Street and Brooklyn Bridge is only about 23mph.

Two Mark I trains at Main Street-Science World Station.

The View – SkyTrain Shows the Sky and the Landscape

Frequency and speed certainly make for good transit, but what really makes it an enjoyable experience (as opposed to just a convenient one) is the view.  The line starts underground at Waterfront and passes through an old train tunnel under downtown Vancouver (with bi-level stations at Burrard and Granville), but then comes outside and up onto an elevated structure for most of the rest of the way.

Straight ahead is Stadium-Chinatown Station, after which the line immediately enters the tunnel under downtown Vancouver.

SKYtrain, indeed!

The view out of the front is a bit like a roller-coaster, especially given the good speed and acceleration and the curves.

This is where the combined Expo/Millennium Lines cross over the Millennium Line and, incidentally, the Amtrak line that I used on the way south to Seattle.

The best view, of course, is out the front window - the newer trains have a nice big window and even have a perfectly situated single seat for the purpose!

There is a lot of discussion out there about the pros and cons of automated technology like this.  I’ve just discussed some of the primary advantages – frequency and speed – but of course that comes at high capital construction costs.  The system by definition has to be fully grade-separated, which raises costs (compared to, say, light rail, bus rapid transit, etc.).  In addition, the technology powering the driverless operation – and especially the somewhat proprietary linear induction system of the Expo and Millennium Lines – is not cheap either.  But I think it is really critical that people consider the long-term costs here – not having to pay a driver for every train trip forever is a huge savings, although of course it is amassed in small increments over a long time vs. the huge initial payout to build the line.  It is important to note, I think, that the only incidents that have occurred over the 26 years of operation have been when trains were manually controlled/operated – there has never been a collision of any kind with the automated system.

One very surprising problem is the lack of real-time information.  I mean, the computer knows where the trains are (hopefully!), so why can’t it tell us?  Likewise, there are no visual announcements (i.e. LCD screens) inside the trains – even the new ones – which I find quite surprising too.  What about the hearing impaired?  That seems like if nothing else it would be a requirement (I’m sure the Canadians have their own very-similar version of ADA, after all!).

Overall, though, I have to say I like this type of transit a lot.  It is fun and cool – and I actually think in the right applications it can be cost effective too, if you take the long-term view.  I’ll have to compare this to the Copenhagen Metro (which we’ll see in a few weeks), which is also a driverless automated metro.

They are not shy about promoting themselves as the best place on earth, are they? I wouldn't go that far, but the place is better with SkyTrain than without!


Posted on 24/07/2011, in Transit, travel and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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