TransLink talks about their "go get a coffee" solution to SkyTrain service distruptions

Dec 19 2017, 8:20 pm

A TransLink spokesperson’s suggestion that passengers put out by SkyTrain service disruptions kill their time by spending money around the station on food and drinks was not well received. We talked to the man helping TransLink get back on track after disruptions about what the agency is dealing with when it comes to SkyTrain service outages.

Gary McNeil is working with TransLink as an independent reviewer, tasked with aiding the agency on recovering more swiftly from system outages.

McNeil said in a phone interview that the crux of TransLink spokesperson Cheryl Ziola’s message was that while some disruptions are only a few minutes long, “during these more significant outages it would be best if people stayed away from the station” in order to reduce crowding and congestion.

While some riders tapped into social media can use TransLink’s social network updates to keep apprised of delays and outages that might affect their commute, others showing up at the station and learning the system is down become part of a snowball of bodies there. Even if just ten percent of the people were able to be somewhere else, that would alleviate some of the congestion at an affected station, says McNeil.

Here’s what Ziola said to the media last week, following the most recent lengthy service disruption:

“All [TransLink] can say is, you know, we empathize. We do understand. But perhaps in the future, it would be good to take a little rest break, go for a coffee, go have a bite to eat until we can get things back under control again. That would be a good way of avoiding some of the congestion in the stations as well. And it would be good for our local economy, too.”

Although not employed in any supervisory way to Ziola, McNeil admits that her remarking that passengers bolster the “local economy” during system outages was “not necessarily the wisest comment to make, in retrospect.” McNeil says Ziola’s “heart was in the right place,” and that she was “trying to make a comment on the fly,” in response to the most recent SkyTrain service disruption. Ultimately, the take away for riders is to know that “it’s going to take a little time” to get things running again, and “if there’s something else that you can do in this time period, stay at work, stay in a local park,” you’ll be part of the solution and not the problem.

Solving the TransLink service problem comes with a complex set of considerations.

First, TransLink does not believe they have an actual service problem. “It’s not really an issue,” McNeil affirms.

With a oft-cited 95% reliability rate, TransLink really suffers from the ridership’s high expectations. So basically, they’ve set their own bar so high the let-down is amplified with any failure. With trains running every couple of minutes, riders have become accustomed to TransLink taking them where and when they need to go. But, says McNeil “when it fails, people are disappointed.”

So here’s the other problem. The public is not disappointed enough to support increasing TransLink’s funding, and with the agency working within its budget and keeping fares low, McNeil says the agency is limited in the amount of personal presence they can have during an outage.


While announcements about outages are made using the PA and originating from TransLink’s Burnaby control station, the agency doesn’t have the budget to regularly employ people to work at the stations. “Most people would love to have somebody readily available [at a station during an outage], but that costs millions of dollars in salaries and benefits,” points out McNeil.

TransLink does send personnel out to the area of a disruption, but McNeil says it will take those people time to get there. Their primary transit response is to set up a bus bridge when possible and necessary, but the logistics are daunting.

It may sound like one of those horrible math exam word problems, but with about 500 people per train, that’s about 10 bus loads, and a train comes every two minutes…that is a lot of resources to coordinate and deploy quickly to move people out of a station.

“A bus bridge acts a bit of a relief valve–but it’s never as good as getting the system back up and running,” points out McNeil.

McNeil’s primary concern with TransLink is how the agency can “speed up the recovery process” following an outage. This is some pretty rigorous behind-the-scenes stuff that perhaps the riders don’t consider.

For example, prior to a new module being introduced in the SkyTrain operating software, when there was a major power disruption, once the system was back up, all of the trains in the network had to be manually re-introduced into the computer–a process that could take 10 to 15 minutes per train. The new module, however, allows for an autoload of all the trains, which can cut the time to resume full service from a few hours to a few minutes.

Overall, McNeil says that he’s met with a number of “hardcore dedicated group of people,” working at TransLink and “when something goes wrong, they take it personally.” McNeil also believes that many TransLink workers, including executives, use the service themselves.

It’s not clear based on our talk with McNeil if Ziola is among those riders, but he counts her among the TransLink employees who do their job while “trying the best as they can to see things through the eyes of the customer.”

TransLink may have gotten a heavy dose of hearing their customers’ thoughts after Ziola’s “coffee break” proclamation. McNeil says it’s going to be a learning experience for TransLink, and they’ll likely get a chance to show their riders they’ve put some thought into it the next time there’s a delay and they need to make a public statement. And “there always will be a next time,” reminds McNeil, since trains and operating systems will forever face problems.

Maybe, just maybe, their spokesperson will think more about the broad spectrum of TransLink’s ridership before suggesting they turn a system outage into a pricey coffee break.

“I’m sure they’re looking at what other messaging they can use that resonates more,” says McNeil.

Featured image: SkyTrain/Shutterstock

DH Vancouver StaffDH Vancouver Staff

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