The SkyTrain is the rapid transit rail system serving Metro Vancouver, British Columbia. It uses mostly Advanced Light Rapid Transit (ALRT) technology, an automated rail system that operates primarily on an elevated guideway, but with some sections running underground and others at street level. Regular operations began 3 January 1986, timed to coincide with Expo 86, the world’s fair hosted by Vancouver as part of its centenary celebrations. The SkyTrain is run by TransLink, the provincial transit authority for the South Coast of British Columbia, and was the world’s first driverless urban rail system. It currently has three lines connecting 47 stations in five municipalities. A new line is under construction and another is in the planning stages.

History

Vancouver lost its public transit rail system when the British Columbia Electric Railway Company (BCER) switched from “rails to rubber,” discontinuing rail service in favour of buses in the 1950s. Streetcar ridership had been declining for years due to the increasing number of buses and private automobiles. After decades of use, including years of depression and war when upgrades and maintenance were minimal, BCER ended streetcar service in 1955. Similarly, the interurban rail network that connected Vancouver to other Lower Mainland municipalities ceased operations in 1958.

In Vancouver and other North American cities in the post-war years, urban planners preferred freeways as the solution to traffic problems. Vancouver’s freeway plans were never realized however, due to protests from affected communities and a general public backlash. The only pieces of the freeway network that were built are the Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaducts connecting downtown to East Vancouver, bridging an area that once divided the city by a section of False Creek and later by rail yards. The viaducts were completed in 1972 and in 2015, City Council voted in favour of their demolition.

With more cars and no rail networks or freeways, Vancouver’s traffic congestion was getting worse in the 1960s and 1970s. Numerous studies tackled the problem, but, beginning with a 1968 report, they now looked to rapid transit as the solution rather than increasing capacity for automobiles. A conventional heavy rail system like the subways or metros in other cities was proposed in one study, but ultimately rejected as too costly. Conventional rail would have too much capacity for Vancouver’s relatively low population density and would not address the needs of the suburbs. With lower operating and construction costs, by 1975 planners considered Light Rapid Transit (LRT) to be the most appropriate option for Vancouver. LRT systems are similar to streetcars in that they are at street level, are slower, and have less capacity than conventional subways.

In 1980, the provincial government decided on a new and relatively untested technology, Advanced Light Rail Transit (ALRT). After years of studies and discussions about the need for rapid transit, the impetus for building the SkyTrain was the world’s fair planned for Vancouver in 1986. Originally to be called “Transpo 86,” the fair had a transportation theme that was later broadened to “World in Motion, World in Touch” and was renamed Expo 86, with the SkyTrain as its centrepiece. Tying the construction of the SkyTrain to a major international event made it a priority for all levels of government.

The political reason for choosing ALRT was that it was proprietary Canadian technology, developed by Urban Transportation Development Corporation (UTDC), an Ontario government Crown agency set up after the Spadina Expressway in Toronto failed to get approval. A small ALRT line was built in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, but the technology had not been used on a city-wide scale. The risks of the system being relatively untested was offset financially by the federal government, which hoped that showcasing the SkyTrain as fully functional and state-of-the-art would induce non-Canadian cities to buy their own Canadian-made ALRT transit systems. An added advantage for British Columbia’s Social Credit government, which frequently clashed with organized labour, was that the driverless ALRT would add fewer unionized public sector workers than other options.

Network


The current network consists of the original Expo Line, the Millennium Line, and the Canada Line. A new Evergreen Line is under construction in the northeast sector of Metro Vancouver and another line on the Broadway corridor is in the planning stages.

Expo Line

The original SkyTrain line cost approximately $854 million and ran 21.4 km through Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster, mostly on the old Central Park Line interurban and downtown through the Dunsmuir Tunnel, an old rail tunnel built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1930s. The line was extended in 1990 and again in 1994, adding 7 km and bringing the total number of stations to 20. The 1990 phase crossed the Fraser River into Surrey and included the construction of the SkyBridge, a dedicated 616 metre-long cable-stayed bridge. The line was named Expo Line in 2002 when the Millennium Line opened.

Millennium Line

The Millennium Line shares the Expo Line track from Waterfront Station to Columbia Station in New Westminster, then loops back on a separate track to VCC-Clark Station. It began operations in 2002 and added 12 new stations from Commercial-Broadway Station to Braid Station in New Westminster. Critics called it the “SkyTrain to nowhere” both because it did not connect to either Richmond or Coquitlam where there was greater demand for rapid transit, and because the current terminus, VCC-Clark Station, sat empty until it became operational in 2006. The VCC-Clark Station was chosen for its proximity to a proposed hi-tech park that was never built.

Canada Line

The Canada Line opened in 2009 in the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics, connecting Vancouver to Richmond. By 2010, it was carrying over 100,000 passengers a day, exceeding ridership projections by three years. Although Canada Line is also fully automated and driverless, it is a conventional heavy rail train and therefore not integrated with the other SkyTrain lines. The line is 19.2 km with 16 stations running from Vancouver International Airport to Waterfront Station, where passengers can transfer to the Expo and Millennium lines, the SeaBus ferry to cross Burrard Inlet, and the West Coast Express commuter train. Two bridges were built for the Canada Line: the North Arm Bridge connecting Vancouver and Richmond, and the Middle Arm Bridge crossing from Richmond to Sea Island where Vancouver International Airport is located.

Canada Line cars were built by Hyundai Rotem of South Korea. They use conventional electric motors and are more spacious than the Bombardier cars used on the other lines, but are noisier than ALRT cars. The Canada Line also differs from the other SkyTrain lines in that it is a public-private partnership, the largest in Canadian history. The line was built and is operated by InTransitBC, a joint venture company owned by engineering firm SNC-Lavalin, the Investment Management Corporation of BC, and investment firm Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec. InTransitBC is independent from TransLink and is contracted to run the line for 35 years. Bombardier claims that it lost the bid because it proposed to bore a tunnel beneath Cambie Street rather than the much more disruptive but cheaper and quicker cut-and-cover method used by InTransitBC.

Evergreen Line

When complete, the Evergreen Line will be a six station, 11 km line connecting the Lougheed Town Centre SkyTrain Station on the Millennium Line in Burnaby to Port Moody, Coquitlam, and Port Coquitlam. Two kilometres of the line will be underground, with the rest running on an elevated guideway. Initially TransLink chose LRT for the Evergreen Line because it was cheaper and fit the limited budget TransLink had been given for the project. The BC government announced in 2008 that it would increase its funding to allow Evergreen to be ALRT so that it will integrate seamlessly with the existing SkyTrain network and because ALRT has two-and-a-half times the capacity of LRT. The Evergreen Line is expected to be completed in 2017 at a cost of $1.4 billion. It is also a public-private partnership and is being built by Montréal-based SNC-Lavalin.

Design

ALRT was conceived as an Intermediate Capacity Transit System (ICTS), a middle option between heavy rail and Light Rapid Transit (“heavy” and “light” refers to carrying capacity, not train weight). The capacity of ALRT cars is less than conventional trains, but ALRT can run more frequently during peak hours. During slower periods, capacity can be reduced by running fewer trains with fewer cars, making ALRT flexible and economical. Compared to LRT, the SkyTrain is faster and does not require any street level crossings that would impact other traffic, but it costs significantly more to build.

ALRT uses Linear Induction Motors (LIM) and steerable axle trucks. LIMs have no moving parts and the wheels move with the curve of the tracks so that friction, noise, and wear-and-tear are minimized. LIMs use electrified magnets and a “third rail” on the track that pulls or decelerates the train. Compared to conventional trains in which propulsion is generated in the cars themselves, LIMs have superior braking and all-weather performance.

Expo Line stations were designed to be inexpensive to build and maintain, using a “kit of parts” modular system with steel hoop trusses that hold up the station roofs and the concrete box beams carrying the tracks. Metal mesh was used instead of glass because it was cheaper and less vulnerable to vandals. In contrast, the Millennium Line stations were designed by different architects using a community consultation process in each neighbourhood. The architects agreed to incorporate standard features and use the same materials to give the stations an aesthetic consistency and to minimize costs.

Beginning with the Millennium Line, SkyTrain stations have incorporated crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) principles to minimize criminal opportunities, including features such as good lighting and clear sightlines to allow commuters to better see and watch out for one another. Some Expo Line stations have been upgraded using CPTED principles, and seven more are undergoing extensive upgrades to improve capacity, accessibility, and CPTED security features, to be completed in 2016. Security was further enhanced in 2005 when the SkyTrain became the only urban transportation system in Canada to introduce its own fully armed police force.

Canada Line stations are relatively uniform, using glass and timber roof canopies and reinforced concrete for the platforms and track supports. Each station includes space for curated public art installations as part of TransLink’s public art program, and permanent art installations are included in Expo Line upgrades. TransLink partners with fine art institutions to curate its art spaces and has also directly funded public art on SkyTrain lines, but has been criticized for prioritizing aesthetics while being unable to find funding to improve and expand transit services.

Current Debates

As a large, expensive infrastructure project funded by three levels of government, decisions regarding SkyTrain expansion and funding generate considerable debate.

The Broadway Corridor between Commercial Drive and the University of British Columbia in Point Grey is North America’s busiest bus corridor. It is serviced by B-Line express and city buses which carry over 100,000 passengers daily. Moreover, the population along the route is expected to grow in the coming decades. In 1999, the City of Vancouver and TransLink identified the corridor as a priority and recommended extending the Millennium SkyTrain Line to central Broadway, with express buses linking to the university. Since then, transit demand along the corridor has increased dramatically, and further studies have recommended an underground extension from VCC-Clark Clark Station along Broadway to Arbutus Street, with a possible second phase continuing to UBC.

A 2015 plebiscite seeking approval for a 0.5 per cent provincial sales tax increase to finance $7.5 billion worth of transportation upgrades including the Broadway line failed to pass and no funding commitments have yet been made. Despite a general consensus that transportation improvements are necessary, the “No” campaign emphasized TransLink’s overall performance and high executive salaries to win 62 per cent of the vote. Commentators criticized the plebiscite itself as an expensive political maneuver by a government abandoning their responsibility for public transit in order to keep taxes low.

A 10 km rapid transit line is being planned for the City of Surrey, and although funding was part of the failed plebiscite, federal and provincial governments have since made commitments. The SkyTrain already connects Vancouver to Surrey, but city planners are proposing Light Rapid Transit rather than ALRT. Surrey’s population is rapidly growing and it is the major hub south of the Fraser River, but it is primarily a suburban and rural area with a low population density that therefore requires less transit capacity than Vancouver, but more than a bus system alone can handle. Until the plan is finalized, there remains a possibility that the provincial government could insist that it be integrated with the SkyTrain system and use ALRT technology, as was the case with the Evergreen Line.

As part of being fully automated, the SkyTrain was designed without fare collectors, turnstiles, or gates, with periodic ticket checks as the only method to enforce fare payment. To reduce fare evasion, TransLink retrofitted stations with fare gates and has begun implementing a new smartcard fare system called Compass for a total cost of $194.7 million, $23 million over the original budget. The new system was implemented two years behind schedule because of technical problems such as slow and inaccurate card readers. Compass replaced paper tickets and monthly passes on 1 January 2016.

The choice of Montréal-based SNC-Lavalin — a donor to the governing BC Liberal Party — as the Canada Line’s private sector partner was criticized because at the time the company was being investigated for corruption in some of its projects abroad. On the Evergreen Line, there have been issues with SNC-Lavalin’s Italian tunneling subcontractor, SELI, using temporary foreign workers who could not communicate with English-speaking workers and who lacked proper certification. Evergreen construction has been plagued by health and safety problems and has been delayed by sinkholes and other geological issues that slowed and at times halted tunnel boring.

Impact

Like the streetcar and interurban systems before it, the SkyTrain has helped shape Vancouver's development. Urban planners view rapid transit as a means of stimulating development and densification in target areas and managing growth by, for example, creating small commercial hubs throughout the city to reduce the need for travelling long distances to shop and work, thus alleviating congestion on the city’s road and transit networks. But while the SkyTrain has spurred development in some neighbourhoods, it has failed to stimulate or revitalize others as expected.

Despite the touted advantages of ALRT and claims in the 1980s that it was the future of public transit, the technology failed to see large-scale adoption. With few exceptions, other cities did not choose ALRT for their own rapid transit systems. Meanwhile, UTDC, the agency that developed ALRT, was acquired by Québec-based Bombardier, and the latest addition to the SkyTrain system, the Canada Line, uses conventional heavy rail technology. Nevertheless, the Canada Line is also fully automated, and driverless systems are increasingly popular for new rapid transit systems. Some experts argue that ALRT is simply a variation of a heavy rail system rather than a separate, intermediate category between light and heavy rail.

Bombardier, meanwhile, rebranded the technology Advanced Rapid Transit (ART), and then Innovia ART, which it has continued to advance and produce in part to service Vancouver’s SkyTrain, but also for smaller systems in other cities, often to service airports.

Expo 86 was a milestone event in Vancouver’s history and the SkyTrain is its most significant and enduring legacy. Ridership on the three existing lines averaged 378,000 passengers per weekday in 2014, and only the Toronto and New York systems are used more per capita in North America. With the SkyTrain expansion and Metro Vancouver’s growing population — expected to increase by over one million people by 2040 — ridership will undoubtedly skyrocket. As Vancouver increasingly strives towards environmental sustainability, density, and livability, the SkyTrain’s place in the region’s transportation infrastructure will only become more prominent in the foreseeable future.