34 facts celebrating the 34th birthday of SkyTrain

Dec 13 2019, 4:03 pm

It was 34 years ago, on December 11, 1985, that Metro Vancouver’s first SkyTrain line, the Expo Line, officially opened for service.

SkyTrain opened just months ahead of the opening of the Expo ’86 World’s Fair, as a key legacy project to not only help the shuttle the influx of visitors during the World’s Fair but also to meet the growing transportation needs of the region.

The new pioneering, fully-automated, driverless system was on its own an attraction of the World’s Fair, which had a theme of “Transportation and Communication: World in Motion – World in Touch.”

Here are 34 factoids on the history of SkyTrain and how the system works:

1. The name “Expo Line”

The Expo Line, as we currently know it, was previously simply known as just “SkyTrain.” The original train system only acquired the name of Expo Line in 2002, when the Millennium Line opened and necessitated a differentiating name.

2. Flight attendant uniforms

Fancy Schmancy: SkyTrain attendants initially wore uniforms that resembled the uniforms of flight attendants. But this did not last long, as it only coincided with the World’s Fair.

SkyTrain attendant uniforms

SkyTrain attendant uniforms in 1986. (VinceMeatPie / Reddit)

3. Carpets seemed like a great idea at first

For years, all of the original Mark I cars had carpet flooring. To say the least, this was a cleanliness and maintenance nightmare.

4. There was a lot of button pushing

And for years, train riders actually had to push buttons on the exteriors and interiors of the train doors to embark and disembark a train. The doors on the Mark I cars did not automatically open when the train arrived at the station platforms.

Some of these buttons, which no longer work, are still visible today on the exterior of the original cars. The buttons were disabled in the early 1990s, after they were proven to be inefficient.

skytrain buttons

Old disabled buttons on the old SkyTrain Mark I cars. (MetroElfren / YouTube screenshot)

5. Honk honk

The concealed and locked manual driver dashboards at the front of each train have buttons that blare an electronic horn. And the dashboards of the newest trains have speedometers that show a maximum speed of 100 km/h, subject to track conditions and design.

6. Main Street demonstration line

A one-km-long section of the Expo Line was completed in 1983 as a demonstration line to build up public confidence on the major investment on building SkyTrain.

This section spanned Terminal Avenue and included the construction of what is now known today as Main Street-Science World Station.

7. Expo Line was built in three phases

When it opened in 1985, the Expo Line did not stretch from Waterfront Station to King George Station. It was actually built in three phases, with the first phase in time for the World’s Fair reaching New Westminster Station.

Construction on subsequent phases began right after the World’s Fair, reaching Scott Road Station — including the building of Skybridge across the Fraser River — in 1990 and King George Station in 1994.

8. Expo Line’s tunnel in downtown was built in 1933

The Dunsmuir Tunnel, largely running deep under Dunsmuir Street, used by the Expo Line in downtown Vancouver was originally completed in 1933 to overcome the downtown escarpment and connect the Canadian Pacific Railway’s railyards in Coal Harbour and False Creek.

Significant modifications were made to the 1.4-km-long tunnel in the early 1980s to accommodate SkyTrain infrastructure, which is why the downtown tunnel and station platforms are stacked.

skytrain dunsmuir tunnel

The north portal of the Dunsmuir Tunnel at Coal Harbour in downtown Vancouver, captured in 1983 during the construction of the Expo Line. This tunnel portal is currently obscured by road viaducts and buildings. (City of Vancouver Archives)

9. Stadium-Chinatown Station’s third platform

Stadium-Chinatown Station’s third platform has seen extremely little usage since the World’s Fair when it was operated to provide a shuttle train service between the main World’s Fair site at False Creek and the Canada Pavilion, now known as Canada Place, in Coal Harbour.

Stadium-Chinatown Station SkyTrain

Third side platform of SkyTrain’s Stadium-Chinatown Station. (Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

During the World’s Fair, Waterfront Station was physically divided in half with fencing to separate regular SkyTrain passengers from fairgoers, who had to use the Howe Street entrance to access the Canada Pavilion.

Since then, TransLink has refrained from using the third platform for regular service as it would actually complicate train operations more than it streamlines them.

canada place expo worlds fair

Lines into the World’s Fair’s Canada Pavilion (now Canada Place) from the Expo Line’s Waterfront Station’s Howe Street entrance. (Port of Vancouver)

10. Stadium-Chinatown Station’s Chinese sign

Originally known as Stadium Station for its close proximity to BC Place Stadium, the station was renamed in the middle of the 2000s to Stadium-Chinatown Station to help boost business in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown district.

The station name sign at the entrance that directly leads to Keefer Place and International Village also gained a new sign with Chinese characters that supplements the English text.

stadium chinatown sign

The Chinese/English sign at Stadium-Chinatown Station’s Keefer Place entrance. (Matthew5000 / public domain)

11. Stadium-Chinatown Station’s buried street entrance

Stadium-Chinatown Station originally had a fourth street entrance at the northwest corner of the intersection of Beatty Street and Dunsmuir Street. A long corridor beginning in the space currently occupied by the Lost Properties Office led to this street entrance.

However, this street entrance was eventually closed, with the northernmost end of this corridor filled in with sand and covered with concrete. Remnants of the entrance ramp structure at the intersection are still visible today.

Stadium-Chinatown Station SkyTrain

Sealed Stadium-Chinatown Station entrance at the northeast corner of Dunsmuir Street and Beatty Street. (Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

12. Commercial Station and Broadway Station

As we know it today, Commercial-Broadway Station consists of two station structures for the Expo Line and Millennium Line, constructed in 1985 and 2002, respectively. However, up until 2009, this interchange station had separate names — Commercial Station for the Millennium Line platforms, and Broadway Station for the Expo Line platforms.

The renaming reduced some of the confusion and followed the conventional naming standards of having a single name for interchange stations. It was also done to avoid some of the confusion that could be expected from the name of the Canada Line’s Broadway-City Hall Station.

13. Nearly street-level LRT

Up until the late 1990s, the Millennium Line had been planned as a street-level light rail transit (LRT) system. While it was cheaper to build, it would have had slower travel speeds, longer travel times, lower reliability, lower frequencies, lower capacities, and resulted in road traffic disruptions. There was also less public support for LRT over SkyTrain.

Construction on the second and third phases of the SkyTrain Millennium Line through the Broadway Corridor reaching Arbutus and the Tri-Cities (what is now known today as the Evergreen Extension) was supposed to have begun shortly after the 2002 opening of the first phase, but that did not materialize due to a change of government priorities.

14. 99 B-Line to Commercial-Broadway Station Lougheed Mall

Metro Vancouver’s original B-Line service, the 99 B-Line, was launched in 1996, and it initially operated a route that stretched from UBC to Lougheed Town Centre shopping mall, via Broadway and Lougheed Highway.

In 2002, when the Millennium Line opened, the 99 B-Line route was shortened to between UBC and Commercial-Broadway Station.

B-Line services have historically been a precursor to SkyTrain extensions, as was the case for the now-defunct 98 B-Line (replaced by the Canada Line) and the 97 B-Line (replaced by the Evergreen Extension).

15. Original Millennium Line was also built in phases

Not all of the original Millennium Line mainline opened in 2002. Lake City Way Station was completed in 2003, and the western terminus of the line was extended to VCC-Clark Station in 2006.

16. Woodlands Station

A straight and flat section of Expo Line track (originally built for the Millennium Line) at the eastern portal of the New Westminster tunnel — near the intersection of McBride Boulevard and East Columbia Street — was intentionally designed to allow for a future additional station.

This station was never built, and was dependent on the redevelopment of the now-demolished Woodlands School site, a psychiatric hospital for children.

woodlands station

Site of Woodlands Station in New Westminster. (Google Maps)

17. The dip at Lake City Way Station

The Millennium Line east of the Grandview Cut runs on an elevated guideway while it parallels Lougheed Highway in Burnaby — except for a very short 100-metre-long span that reaches ground level just east of Lake City Way Station.

lake city way station

The short section of ground-level track east of Lake City Way Station. (Google Maps)

This ground-level track was built to avoid impacting the all-important, south-oriented satellites of Global BC’s production hub. As well, this section of track right outside the studio property is covered with a concrete roof to further reduce the likelihood of interference.

Including the elevated-ground transitions, the entire dipping span runs a length of about 500 metres.

lake city way station

The short section of ground-level track east of Lake City Way Station. (Google Maps)

18. Less-than-spectacular Gilmore Station

The original Millennium Line stations were all designed with high-quality, placemaking, unique architecture. Some particularly notable examples include the curvatures of the wooden roof of Brentwood Town Centre Station and metallic tent-like structure of Lougheed Town Centre Station.

But one station stands out from the rest: Gilmore Station. The station platform’s roof uses lower-quality wood materials, and it is supported by a simple conventional structural frame.

This station carries a far simpler design so that its components can be easily dismantled, allowing for the station to be more flexibly integrated into a future redevelopment.

gilmore station

Gilmore Station on the Millennium Line. (Canada Road, 4K Virtual Tour / YouTube screenshot)

19. Evergreen LRT

The “Evergreen Line” is still perpetuated by some transit users, but it does not actually exist, as this was the name of the project when it was planned as a street-level light rail transit project. It is officially the “Evergreen Extension” of the Millennium Line, but over time this name is expected to fade away as well.

After receiving over 1,400 entries in a public naming competition, Port Coquitlam resident Marion Harmer’s entry of the “Evergreen Line” was selected as the winning name by TransLink in 2005. The two shortlisted names were “Spirit Line” and “Evergreen Line.”

In 2008, the provincial government reverted the project back to a seamless SkyTrain extension, after a business case found that SkyTrain provided greater capacity and speeds, lower travel times, lower operating costs, and higher ridership.

Moreover, the SkyTrain option was only marginally more expensive than LRT, but provided significantly more benefits; SkyTrain cost $1.4 billion, while LRT cost $1.25 billion.

20. Someday to Port Coquitlam

A short stub track and track switch at Coquitlam Central Station was constructed as part of the Evergreen Extension to allow the capability for a future seamless eastward extension of the Millennium Line towards Port Coquitlam.

There are four tracks on the Millennium Line west of Coquitlam Central Station, with two tracks (left) leading towards the existing station platforms and two other tracks (right) enabled by track switches allowing for a future extension to Port Coquitlam. (Canada Road, 4K Virtual Tour / YouTube screenshot)

21. Yes, the Canada Line is SkyTrain

  • “Canada Line isn’t SkyTrain.” Wrong.
  • “Canada Line uses different track technology, so it’s not SkyTrain.” Nope.
  • “I’m transferring between Canada Line and SkyTrain at Waterfront Station.” Uh-huh.

Canada Line is very much a part of the SkyTrain network, and it is officially branded by TransLink as under the umbrella of SkyTrain. The region has three SkyTrain lines — Expo Line, Millennium Line, and Canada Line.

While there are design and operational differences between the Expo/Millennium system and the Canada Line system, the key attributes that make the Canada Line a part of “SkyTrain” are its full automation and full grade separation. A manually-driven, street-level LRT is obviously not “SkyTrain.”

22. Nelson Station

Very early plans for the Canada Line contemplated a Nelson Station in downtown Vancouver, located near the intersection of Granville Street and Nelson Street. A station at this location would have certainly have revitalized this part of the Granville Strip.

However, this fourth Canada Line station for downtown Vancouver was axed over the added construction cost and concerns it would reduce the ridership catchment area of Yaletown-Roundhouse Station.

23. Public pathway under Canada Line bridge

There is a publicly-accessible walking and cycling pathway on the underside of the Canada Line bridge across the Fraser River.

During extended service disruptions between Marine Drive Station and Bridgeport Station, this pathway could be a feasible alternative option to get around. According to Google Maps, the complete end-to-end walking trip from Marine Drive Station to Bridgeport Station using the bridge’s pathway is 29 minutes over a 2.3-km-long distance.

Canada Line bridge public pathway. (Warren Wong / Instagram)

24. Future Canada Line stations

Certain sections of the Canada Line were built with flat and straight tracks to allow for up to four potential future stations. This includes future station locations at 33rd Avenue and 57th Avenue in Vancouver, and Capstan Way in Richmond, as well as a future station just before the dual-to-single track transition at Vancouver International Airport.

At the moment, only Capstan Way Station is funded and proceeding. The Vancouver stations are complicated and costly to build as they are underground, and the additional station on Sea Island is dependent on a future YVR terminal building expansion.

Canada Line Capstan Station

Artistic rendering depicting the location of the Canada Line’s new Capstan Way Station near the intersection of Capstan Way and No. 3 Road. This rendering depicts the general form and location of the station, not the actual design. (GBL Architects)

25. Canada Line LRT and single-tracking vision

During the Canada Line’s planning process, the City of Richmond expressed its desire for a separate manually-operated, street-level LRT system between Bridgeport Station and Richmond-Brighouse Station, largely over aesthetic reasons.

And when it was decided that the Canada Line would be built seamlessly on No. 3 Road as part of the main system, there was some consideration of single tracking not just the span between Lansdowne Station and Richmond-Brighouse Station but also Aberdeen Station and Lansdowne Station.

Ultimately, a decision was made to single-track the final 650-metre segments of both the Richmond and YVR spans of the Canada Line, including both terminus stations, to lower construction costs.

Canada Line single track

The single track of the Canada Line between Richmond-Brighouse Station and Lansdowne Station, looking north. (Geofferoski Transit / YouTube screenshot)

26. Infamous floppy drives will soon be a thing of the past

As a product of the 1980s, the computers that operate the Expo Line and Millennium Line at the control centre at the Edmonds Operations and Maintenance Centre (OMC) still use floppy drives, which gained notoriety in media coverage several years ago.

But TransLink has plans to build a new operations and control centre for both lines at another existing maintenance complex across the street. Combined with automatic train control improvements, the new modern control centre at OMC 2 will replace the existing 1980s-era control centre at a cost of $110 million by 2023.

There is a need for a modernized and expanded operations and control centre, with growing ridership and the future SkyTrain extension projects reaching Arbutus and Langley.

27. Equivalent to up to 28 lanes of roadway

SkyTrain provides a lot of capacity, moving thousands of passengers per hour per direction (pphpd).

With the addition of longer and highly frequent trains, the Expo Line and Millennium Line each have an ultimate capacity of 25,000 passengers per hour per direction (pphpd).

During the current busy peak hours, the Expo Line operates with a capacity of approximately 15,000 pphpd, while the Millennium Line operates with roughly 5,000 pphpd.

The Canada Line can reach an ultimate capacity of 15,000 pphpd, with higher frequencies and longer trains accommodated by adopting a 50-metre platform length standard for all stations. At the moment, the Canada Line runs a peak hour capacity of 6,100 pphpd.

To understand what this means in terms of road capacity terms, here are SkyTrain’s road capacity equivalents, based on the City of Vancouver’s determination that each lane of the Granville Street Bridge has a capacity of 1,750 vehicles per hour and the theoretical usage of single-occupancy vehicles:

  • Expo Line: ultimate capacity equivalent to 28 road lanes (14 lanes in each direction); currently uses a capacity equivalent of 18 road lanes
  • Millennium Line: ultimate capacity equivalent to 28 road lanes (14 lanes in each direction); currently uses a capacity equivalent of six road lanes
  • Canada Line: ultimate capacity equivalent to 18 road lanes (9 lanes in each direction); currently uses a capacity equivalent of seven road lanes

28. SkyTrain is a North American ridership king

With a ridership catchment of a mid-sized North American urban region, SkyTrain’s ridership levels punch above Metro Vancouver’s weight.

  • SkyTrain (Expo Line, Millennium Line, Canada Line)
    • Length of track: 80 km
    • Number of stations: 53
    • Average daily boardings: 514,000
      • Average boardings per km: 6,400
    • 2025 forecast with extensions to Arbutus and Langley:
      • Length of track: 102 km
      • Number of stations: 67
      • 2025 average daily boardings forecast: 700,000+ (6,900 boardings per km)

Here are a few comparisons:

  • Calgary CTrain
    • Length of track: 60 km
    • Number of stations: 45
    • Average daily boardings: 314,000
      • Average boardings per km: 5,200
  • Washington DC Metro
    • Length of track: 188 km
    • Number of stations: 91
    • Average daily boardings: 626,000
      • Average boardings per km: 3,300
  • Seattle Link LRT
    • Length of track: 35 km
    • Number of stations: 22
    • Average daily boardings: 75,000
      • Average boardings per km: 2,100
  • Portland MAX LRT
    • Length of track: 96 km
    • Number of stations: 97
    • Average daily boardings: 121,000
      • Average boardings per km: 1,300
  • Phoenix Valley Metro Rail
    • Length of track: 45 km
    • Number of stations: 38
    • Average daily boardings: 50,000
      • Average boardings per km: 1,100
  • Los Angeles Metro Rail
    • Length of track: 169 km
    • Number of stations: 93
    • Average daily boardings: 344,000
      • Average boardings per km: 2,000

29. Magnets push the trains on the track

The tracks on the Expo and Millennium lines uniquely have a metal plate down the centre of the entire length of the tracks. This is critical for the movements of the trains, which use a propulsion technology called linear induction motors (LIMs).

skytrain linear induction motors

The narrow air gap between a SkyTrain car’s linear induction motors and the aluminum plate on the tracks. (TransLink)

In layman’s terms, the resulting magnetic field in the narrow air gap between this plate and the LIMs on the underside of the cars pushes and slows down the train.

Seems complicated? Yes, but that means there are less moving mechanical parts, which means lower maintenance costs, and clear advantages over conventional propulsion technologies like what the Canada Line uses, including superior speed, acceleration, reliability, and the ability to travel on steeper grades.

The centre metal plate on the SkyTrain tracks for the linear induction motors. (Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

30. Made in Ontario

LIMs technology used by the Expo and Millennium lines was originally produced by the Urban Transportation Development Corporation, a now-defunct crown corporation of the provincial government of Ontario. This division of the corporation was eventually sold to Bombardier.

31. Not proprietary tech

While LIMs are a higher-tech solution, they are far from proprietary. Other than Bombardier, a number of other major global train manufacturers are also experts at building trains with LIMs — and this is to a level where TransLink is confident enough about considering other suppliers for future train orders.

There are train systems in Toronto, Detroit, New York City, Kuala Lumpur, Yongin (South Korea), Beijing, and across Japan that use LIMs.

As well, the automated, fully-driverless system of SkyTrain may seem unique to Vancouver. Well, it was unique to us: SkyTrain was a global pioneer for automating a public transit railway system, and for decades it held the title of the world’s longest automated train system.

But others are quickly catching up with automation for its benefits in safety, reliability, frequency, capacity, and lower operating cost. Automation has become the new norm; there are dozens of subway networks around the world are fully automated, including in Copenhagen, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Paris, Lyon, Turin, Dubai, Seoul, Incheon, and Busan. Existing subway systems in Toronto and London have also recently seen retrofits that enable automation.

Currently, with 69 km of track, SkyTrain is the third-longest automated train system in the world, behind Singapore MRT at 82 km and Dubai Metro at 80 km.

But in 2025, the opening of the Millennium Line Broadway Extension to Arbutus and the possible Expo Line Fraser Highway Extension reaching Langley will increase SkyTrain’s length to close to 91 km. During this same year, Montreal’s brand new automated REM train system currently under construction will reach full completion, with a length of 68 km — up from zero km today.

32. Weights and lasers

How do SkyTrain’s computers and automated programming know when to engage in an emergency stop when a foreign object has landed onto platform tracks?

The tracks of every SkyTrain station are outfitted with a track intrusion alarm system.

On the Expo Line, the track intrusion alarm system uses weight-pressure plate sensors to detect objects.

The Canada Line and Millennium Line systems are far more advanced, using a web of infrared sensors.

Currently on the Expo and Millennium lines, whenever the track intrusion alarm is triggered, SkyTrain attendants need to be deployed to the problem station to investigate the cause and give the control centre the green light to resume train service. This can be a time-consuming process, especially when false alarms occur or when the alarm is tripped by merely personal belongings and trash, including pop cans and newspapers.

To reduce the delays that result from a track intrusion alarm being triggered, over the coming years TransLink is installing 265 guideway cameras to cut down the response times from the control centre.

33. Retirement of the original cars

TransLink plans to retire and replace all 150 of the original Mark I cars, which entered service between the middle of the 1980s and the early 1990s. The retirement of the oldest cars dating back to the World’s Fair will begin in the middle of the 2020s, and by the end of the decade they will be completely phased out.

34. Jason Voorhees was once a SkyTrain passenger