With much of "SkyTrain" running underground, should it be renamed?

Feb 6 2021, 6:27 pm

This is Part 2 of a two-part exit interview series with TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond, who left the public transit authority at the end of this week, after five years in the role.

There are at least nine train systems around the world called “SkyTrain.”

Two of those systems are urban metros — the 80-km-long Metro Vancouver SkyTrain, and the 68-km-long BTS SkyTrain in Bangkok. The remaining systems are people movers, and all but one are used to shuttle people around major international airports.

Metro Vancouver’s system was the first to use the name for a train system, and it has since become the branding identity of the regional backbone rapid transit rail network for its key traits of full grade separation and full automation. (Yes, TransLink technically deems the Canada Line to be SkyTrain, too.)

But how much of “SkyTrain” is actually in the sky? As in, how much of it is above ground vs. underground?

expo line skytrain stadium chinatown station

Stadium-Chinatown Station on SkyTrain’s Expo Line in downtown Vancouver. (Shutterstock)

When the first phase of the Expo Line opened in 1985, it had a length of about 21 kms between Waterfront Station and the eastern terminus at the time at New Westminster Station. There is 1.4 kms of underground track (7% of the entire system at the time) in downtown Vancouver using the former Dunsmuir freight train tunnel, while the remaining route either runs at ground level or above ground.

Upon the 2016 opening of the Millennium Line’s Evergreen Extension, the length of route that is underground grew to over 13 kms (16%), including two kms on the Evergreen Extension, nine kms on the Canada Line, and roughly one km in New Westminster.

The proportion of tunnelled route will increase to 22% when the six-km-long Broadway Extension of the Millennium Line opens in 2025, but this will be offset by the planned 16-km elevated Surrey-Langley extension of the Expo Line, bringing down the figure to 19%. However, this figure is still likely to increase in the future, given the amount of tunnelling that can be expected for the Millennium Line extension reaching the UBC campus, and potentially for any extension to the North Shore.

SkyTrain Millennium Line Broadway Extension Subway Broadway-City Hall Station

October 2019 preliminary conceptual cross-section artistic rendering of Broadway-City Hall Station’s interchange between the Millennium Line and existing Canada Line. (Government of BC)

So, should there be a consideration for renaming SkyTrain? We put this very serious, all-important, extremely timely, certainly widely pondered question to the test by asking outgoing TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond. If he answered in the affirmative, we promised this article would not be published until he is stateside.

“I think it’s a great brand and name, I don’t see it changing. As I’ve ridden around the system, if I’m going back and forth on Sapperton Station to downtown, the stretch in New Westminster, and on the way to Metrotown, what great views. The first time I rode the Evergreen Line before and after it opened, what great views,” he said.

“I think it’s a great tourist ride. Much of it is underground, but much of it is also above ground… SkyTrain is a fun name, why not? Everyone knows what SkyTrain is in our region, there’s no reason to change that.”

translink ceo kevin desmond

TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond. (TransLink)

As it turns out, some systems with a name that suggest their complete subterranean condition are complete lies, too. About 40% of the “New York City Subway” is above ground, and 55% of the “London Underground” runs on the surface.

Even if it only came down to using a measuring tape for classifying systems based on their vertical alignment (underground, surface, or elevated), Metro Vancouver is probably fine with keeping “SkyTrain.”

As for a common alternative, the vast majority of major urban rail systems — especially in Asia and Europe — are simply branded as the “Metro,” but we will have to blame Metro Vancouver Regional District for taking that generic option away, after it renamed itself from Greater Vancouver Regional District in 2007.

Desmond then suggested, only half-jokingly, maybe the proposed SFU Burnaby Mountain Gondola should be called the “SkyBus.”

When asked if there is any weak point with existing SkyTrain infrastructure, Desmond stated the automated system is “wonderful except when it doesn’t work,” adding that TransLink has made great strides to get the system’s reliability up after the technical glitches that caused major service disruptions in 2014.

He wishes the system had been built with more track switches, crossovers, and pocket tracks, so that it would be easier to perform overnight maintenance work and maneuver around service disruptions.

Under Desmond’s watch, TransLink conducted a study on determining the feasibility of extending SkyTrain service later into the night. The lack of switches is one of the reasons why extended hours, interfering with the critical overnight maintenance window, is unfeasible, unlike the Copenhagen Metro, which is a similar fully-automated rail system built with enough redundancy switches to enable 24/7 service.

“That’s probably the weakest point, and it’s also just continuing the expansion. We need to continue to Langley, there are other key corridors where we need to think about when their turn is next, and build it with a 50-year time horizon,” he continued.

One of those corridors, he says, is the Newton-Guildford corridor in Surrey. He wishes the street-level light rail project had went ahead.

Artistic rendering of the cancelled Surrey Newton-Guildford LRT. (TransLink)

“We were ready to go with light rail, we worked really hard on that, but with the municipal election change, we moved quickly to get the business case ready for SkyTrain to at least Fleetwood for the first stage of the reimagined project. We had a timeline to get SkyTrain approved by senior governments last summer, but COVID-19 stopped it,” said Desmond.

At the same time, he believes in building for the future growth of the region given the increasing emphasis on high-density, transit-oriented developments. Much of what has been said about the Canada Line’s shortcomings, due to its short platforms, is justified, he reiterated.

“When the Canada Line was designed, it was designed maybe not thinking long term. We under-built the line somewhat. I hope that in future designs, we manage around that. We build longer platforms, it makes it easier to accommodate longer trains,” said Desmond.

“I think those lessons have been learnt, because the system is a terrific system. When we see the cities through their official community plans and the development community seeing the new dense activity around SkyTrain stations pay off, it just shows that more people will demand the system. So let’s build the system big enough to accommodate those future demands so that 30 years from now, people won’t say we under-built and we now need to spend a lot more money to maximize capacity.”

Future development within Oakridge Municipal Town Centre. (City of Vancouver)

Over the next 20 years, he would like to see more high-capacity transit, possibly in the form of fixed rail, “and definitely more in the streets.”

He suggested rubber-tired transit such as automated buses, and automated bus rapid transit.

“The big issue for this region, like in many others worldwide, is how we use the right-of-way — how our streets will evolve, and the different uses of the streets, prioritizing buses,” he said.

This perhaps offers some hints on the directions of TransLink’s forthcoming Transport 2050 plan that will outline the expansion priorities for the next 30 years.

“Over the longer term, I’m absolutely convinced that, since this is a region that believes in sustainable growth, that the region needs more mobility options. People want to be able to get around the easiest way, they want transit. When they don’t need to drive, they’d rather get on transit. They want abundant transit options, which just frees up space for people who have to drive,” said Desmond.

“I think we’ve got to make sure we are agile enough to understand the potential new trends and be able to adjust our system plans accordingly, but the need for high capacity transit will certainly remain. We need to continue to keep thinking about the next big moves.”

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

+ News
+ Transportation
+ Urbanized