Vancouver councillor claims SkyTrain is a 'proprietary technology,' but this is not true

Mar 9 2019, 7:39 am

A motion written by Non-Partisan Association city councillor Colleen Hardwick that seeks a “Review of the SNC-Lavalin Relationship with the City of Vancouver” is scheduled to be deliberated by Vancouver City Council next week, although nearly all of its details relate directly to TransLink and the provincial government.

More importantly, many of the assertions and claims that are used to support the motion’s goals and intents are simply markedly untrue or irrelevant to SkyTrain.

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The motion ultimately calls for the suspension of both phases of the Millennium Line’s Broadway Extension — the fully-funded project to Arbutus Street that will begin construction next year, and the planned unfunded project to continue from Arbutus Street to the UBC campus — until the “matters [questioned in the motion] have been fully reviewed and confirmed to the City of Vancouver’s satisfaction.”

SkyTrain is not a proprietary technology

In her motion, Hardwick wrote that the “Expo and Millennium lines are a proprietary unconventional railway called SkyTrain, which the technical patents are owned by Bombardier Inc. and the engineering patents owned by SNC-Lavalin.”

While SkyTrain is certainly the name of Metro Vancouver’s backbone rail transit system, in the same way London’s subway is called the Underground, it is not a propriety technology nor do these two companies hold any patents to it.

“SkyTrain technology is not proprietary,” TransLink spokesperson Jill Drews told Daily Hive. “While the vehicles and technology must be tailored to each agency’s system, the automated technology at the heart of our SkyTrain system is not unique or proprietary – several companies can deliver rapid transit infrastructure and fleet.”

“The benefits of automated rapid transit technology are being recognized around the globe. A number of agencies are choosing automated train-control systems while many agencies with established systems – including the London Underground and Paris Metro – are retrofitting them.”


The platform level of SkyTrain’s Joyce-Collingwood Station. (Gerry Kichok / Flickr)

This was also echoed by the provincial government, which owns the region’s SkyTrain system and allocates TransLink with the responsibility to oversee it. As it is the owner of SkyTrain, the provincial government is also leading the charge with the Broadway Extension project on behalf of TransLink.

“SkyTrain is a brand name for the automated rail system in Vancouver and is not a technology. There are several types of equipment and components used on SkyTrain that can be supplied by any number of companies,” said the BC Ministry of Transportation in a statement to Daily Hive.

“This includes the guideway structure, the rail, trains, communications equipment and other subsystems. SNC Lavalin and Bombardier do not hold patents on equipment or components that could not be supplied by others. Automated train lines are popular around the world and that growth has brought more choice in the market. Many companies can deliver rapid transit infrastructure and fleets.”

The only “unique” aspect about the Expo and Millennium lines is the use of linear induction motors (LIM), which propels the train forward on a continuous aluminum magnetic strip, reduces the amount of moving parts found inside a train, reduces the required height of a train, and even reduces the maintenance required.

The aluminum metallic strip on the centre of the SkyTrain tracks supports the functions of linear induction motors on the underside of train cars. (Bill Kingsland / YouTube screenshot)

Trains with LIMs, instead of conventional rotary motors (depends on the friction between the steel wheels and rails for movement and stoppage), can also travel on steeper slopes and have a faster acceleration and deceleration. The Canada Line is an example of a system that uses conventional rotary motors.

A quick online search even produced a few results of global train manufacturers that produce trains with linear induction motors (LIM), which is the only “unique” aspect about the Expo and Millennium lines. LIM trains are clearly manufactured by multinational Japanese firms Hitachi and Kawasaki Heavy Industries in volume; for instance, in 2016, the Tokyo Metropolitan Bureau of Transportation confirmed a ¥16 billion (CAD$193 million) order of 88 subway cars with LIMs from Kawasaki to be used on the Oedo Subway Line.

TransLink certainly has a propensity to order SkyTrain cars from Bombardier (all SkyTrain cars to date have been built by Bombardier), but this likely has more to do with economic nationalism (prioritizing domestic job creation and economic growth), given the use of public funds to acquire the trains — especially when the federal government is involved in funding — and the existence of a Canadian company that builds trains with LIMs. Similarly, the continued push from some interests to have BC Ferries’ new vessels built in local shipyards is also a practice of economic nationalism.

Later this year, TransLink will be issuing a request for proposals (RFP) to manufacturers around the world to build an order of 203 new LIM cars that will be needed in the 2020s. It has stated that it has received significant interest from various manufacturers, not just Bombardier, to build these trains to SkyTrain’s specifications.

Linear Induction Motors

Diagram showing the differences between linear induction motors (TOP: non-adhesion drive system) and conventional rotary motors (BOTTOM: adhesion drive system). (Kawasaki Heavy Industries)

Automation is becoming the new norm for subways

Moreover, when it comes to the fully-driverless automation element of SkyTrain, dozens of subway networks around the world are fully automated, including major systems in Copenhagen, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Paris, Lyon, Turin, Dubai, Seoul, Incheon, and Busan.

The benefits of automation on fully-grade separated train lines include higher on-time reliability, faster safe traveling speeds, and higher safe frequencies, which effectively creates more passenger capacity.

And increasingly, existing subway systems facing strains in capacity and reliability are being modified to run on some form of automation.

Toronto recently is currently in the process of retrofitting the block signal system for the Yonge-University Subway Line — Canada’s busiest subway line — into automatic train control at a cost of $563 million. With trains driven automatically on this TTC subway line, the maximum number of trains that can be operated per hour will be 36 trains — up from the previous maximum of 25 trains per hour.

The London Underground’s application is even more extensive: under the ‘New Tube for London’ program, sweeping plans are being rolled out to fully automate the Central, Piccadilly, Waterloo and City, and Bakerloo lines with new automatic train control signalling systems and introduce 250 new driverless trains between 2023 and 2033. On the Piccadilly line, for instance, automation will increase the train system’s capacity by 60%.

Simply put, SkyTrain has been ahead of the curve with a train system that is fully automated.

When it comes to the notion of patents, the name “SkyTrain” is listed in the federal government’s trademark registry as the property of BC Transit, the local predecessor to TransLink.

Future SkyTrain projects do not depend on SNC-Lavalin’s future

According to Hardwick, “SNC-Lavalin built the existing SkyTrain system in Vancouver” and it “was awarded a contract for the total engineering, procurement, construction, partial financing, and operations and maintenance of the project until 2040.”

This is not true either.

Yes, the Canada Line was designed, built, and partially-funded by a private sector consortium led by SNC-Lavalin, and the company also holds a 35-year operating and maintenance contract for this particular line.

SNC-Lavalin was also selected as the main construction contractor of the Millennium Line’s Evergreen Extension, and it served in various consulting, engineering design, and construction capacities for the original Expo and Millennium lines in the same way it has been involved in many rail transit projects around the world.

But the Expo and Millennium lines are entirely operated and maintained by TransLink public subsidiary BC Rapid Transit Company.

“SNC-Lavalin does not have an exclusive contract for engineering, procurement, construction, partial financing and operations and maintenance of the existing SkyTrain system,” said Drews.

“We believe Councillor Hardwick is referring to the concessionaire agreement in place for the operation of the Canada Line. InTransit BC, a consortium partly owned by SNC-Lavalin, is contracted to provide these services for the Canada Line until 2040.”

Construction of the tunnel for the Millennium Line’s Evergreen Extension. (Evergreen Line Project Office)

Hardwick’s motion also brought forward concerns over the Quebec-based engineering and construction giant’s criminal investigation for its bribery and fraud practices, and the potential resulting impact criminal charges on the company could have on future SkyTrain projects, under the assumption that SNC-Lavalin owns engineering patents for SkyTrain.

“The criminal trial for corruption charges for SNC-Lavalin could impact the ability for SkyTrain to be used on both the Phase 1 Broadway subway Millennium Line extension from VCC to Arbutus and the Phase 2 extension from Arbutus to UBC,” wrote Hardwick.

But Drews says this is completely false: “SkyTrain use is not subject to any outcome of prosecution of SNC-Lavalin. There are many other companies around the world building automated rapid transit technology.”

In a recent Mayors’ Council meeting on the future UBC SkyTrain extension, several mayors also brought forward their concerns over any possible involvement SNC-Lavalin could have on future transit projects in the region, and they ended the discussions by requesting TransLink staff to examine the procurement process and find ways to encourage as many companies as possible to bid for future SkyTrain contracts.

“The Mayors’ Council has directed TransLink staff to report back on procurement options for an extension to UBC,” said Drews. “We will have a detailed picture of what the market can offer once the report is finished. To be clear, SkyTrain technology is not proprietary and there is no reason why SkyTrain extensions can’t be built by another company.”

The provincial government, which traditionally oversees the procurement for SkyTrain projects, says it is confident with its own safeguards and practices for ensuring a fair bidding process.

“It’s government’s responsibility to do extensive due diligence when it comes to procurement and selecting a short-list of companies that can deliver the project on-time and on-budget,” reads the Ministry of Transportation’s statement.

“We use open procurement processes and are dedicated to getting the best value for people in BC. There are many checkpoints in the procurement process, including the procurement team, project board or steering committees, legal counsel, fairness advisor, and a relationship review committee.”

Canada Line

Canada Line in Richmond. (Shutterstock)

Hardwick is known to be a skeptic of the region’s SkyTrain system. She called for the cancellation of the Broadway Extension to Arbutus Street in favour of street-level LRT during last fall’s civic election campaign, and more recently she voted against the City of Vancouver’s official support for a continuous SkyTrain extension to the UBC campus.

Her motion also requests the municipal government and the landowners of the Jericho Lands to “not make any assumptions of a Broadway subway extension to UBC unless the subway is approved and fully funded without using development on the Jericho Lands to pay for a subway or onsite station.”

The Jericho Lands in West Point Grey is currently undergoing a process to create a site master plan that will guide the redevelopment’s future rezoning. The property’s owners, Canada Lands Company and several First Nations, have expressed significant interest in working with the municipal government and TransLink to identify options to have a subway station on the site to help support the new density.

“The planning program for the Jericho Lands will be impacted by the type of transit used west of Arbutus Street for a potential station on Jericho and the potential that development from the site may be required to pay for a station rather than Community Amenity Contributions (CACs) going to pay for civic amenities,” said Hardwick.

Daily Hive reached out to Hardwick for further commentary, but she did not respond to the inquiry.

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