Although this is primarily a US West Coast trip, I took the chance to hop over to Vancouver for a few days (21-25 July 2012), as it is only a 4-hour train journey from Seattle, and a lovely boat trip back via Victoria on Vancouver Island.
Before I get started, Vancouver is a great city and quite unlike any other I have seen so far in North America. It is much denser with lots of 15-20-storey appartment blocks even in the downtown area, but also in many areas in the suburbs. There is no freeway cutting right through the central area, and many parts can be reached on foot, too. So all in all a mixture of Europe, North America and even Asia, just like the many different people living there.
Vancouver is (probably deservedly) often listed among the most livable cities in the world. Therefore I will have an even more critical look at its transportation system, which (for me) is a very important part for the quality of life in a big city. In this field, however, Vancouver gets a 'fail', I'm afraid. Not that trains are bad or buses old, but because the very insufficient information about the transport system. The responsible authority TransLink does not even provide a customer information centre anywhere, printed bus maps are not available anywhere, a few are posted rather at random and not even at the busiest downtown buss stops, and information at bus stops is very scarce, mostly only the bus number and its 'subtitle', i.e. generally the road it runs along, but not even the terminus! In some places, like the tourist office, you may find some schedule booklets, but for Vancouver alone you need to pick up two. They include a rather pathetic map, but it helps a bit. At some SkyTrain stations I spotted a London-style map “Buses from this station” showing a simplified diagram for onward journeys. By the way, like nearby Seattle, Vancouver also has quite a large network of trolleybuses.
Information within the SkyTrain system is generally o.k. Apparently for the 2010 Olympics they introduced a T-logo, a white T on a blue square, a bit like the German U sign, but this has been introduced very half-heartedly, mostly only in the central area and along the Canada Line (I will write about the many flaws of the Canada Line below!).
So if we assume that a transport system is designed to carry the same people on a workday to their jobs and back home again, then Vancouver's network can be qualified as sufficient. However, if we want a transport system that allows anybody, occasional riders and no-car users to move freely and spontaneously around the entire metropolitan area without the help of a smartphone, then Vancouver is far from being among the world's top cities when it comes to transport issues. Any major city in Western Europe (plus some others worldwide) will be ahead, I'm afraid.
It's good to see the SkyTrain system being handled as a uniform system, even though the Canada Line was once meant to be different (and it is different in many things). But effectively, there are two different metro systems, just like in New York City, Berlin, London or Madrid, with trains not interchangable between lines due to different loading gauge (car width) and also a different powering system.
Expo & Millennium Lines
Let's therefore start with the original SkyTrain, which now comprises the Expo and Millennium Lines, which share tracks along a long section. First opened in the 1980s, the driverless system seems to work perfectly. During my stay I didn't really oberve any disruptions, maybe one morning there was a longer gap between trains than expected, but otherwise each line operates every 7-8 minutes off-peak, so there is a train every 3-4 minutes between Waterfront and Columbia (where my hotel was); and during peak hours they add about all trains available, making them run at top headways, which is around 100 seconds. Sometimes a train enters a station right after the previous has left, a bit like Moscow, but with shorter trains.
The older Mark I trains, which operate in 4-car or 6-car formations, are a bit loud due to their age, but otherwise run well. The Mark II trains, of which there is a rather new batch in blue/black livery, are quite good. Having longer cars, they always run in 4-car formation as adding another married pair would exceed the current platform length. All are air-conditioned. The Mark I trains only have acoustic announcements, whereas the Mark II have visual indicators, too. Despite being driverless, there is no exaggerated warning message, just a few tones and the doors close. As people know that the next train is due within minutes, noone tries to force the doors. People seemed quite well-behaved anyway.
What makes the old SkyTrain routes so much better than the new Canada Line is the perfect track alignment with proper superelevation (cant) in curves, so the trains travel at a very continous speed all the time, which provides a very smooth ride. The Mark I trains look pretty ugly by today's standards. The have only a small front window, with no proper seat there, so it is hard to look out the front. Luckily train designers later realised that these seats would always be popular on driverless metros, not only among metro enthusiasts. The Mark I trains can either be seen in their original livery with their thick blue and red stripes, or in the deliverey adopted for the initial batch of Mark II car, basically in white with blue and yellow swung lines, the colours then assigned to the two lines. The Mark II trains have a slightly larger front window, but still much smaller than what you would mostly find on new driverless metros and even on the Canada Line trains. There is a funny single seat at that window, which makes the passenger sitting there appear to be the driver. During my stay I have never observed that a train had to be driven manually with the help of the driving console hidden there. With blue artificial leather seats, the original Mark II trains' interior reminded me of some French metros. The newer trains have a different plastic seat covering with slimmer seats altogether, making them appear more spacious.
If the initial sections of the Expo Line were opened in as early as the mid-1980s I wonder why the Canada Line built 25 years later is of such a bad design? I also wonder, why cities like Nuremberg or Copenhagen had to invent a completely new system of automatic driverless operation when the SkyTrain had been running for over 20 years? I guess the operational system could be applied to any other metro system, too.
The initial Expo Line, which largely follows a once-existing interurban tram corridor, seems to be where it belongs, and there are many high-density residential and commercial areas, notably Metrotown, along its route keeping the line busy at all times, and at capacity during peak hours. The later added Millennium Line, however, has a rather strange route. And to hear “Train to VCC-Clark” at Waterfront and other downtown stations is a bit strange as noone would go there this way. Maybe an announcement like “Lougheed Town Centre and then VCC-Clark” would be more logical. In fact, when the Evergreen Line opens, this problem will be solved, as the Millennium Line is supposed to end at Lougheed Town Centre and the Evergreen Line will instead take over the VCC-Clark branch. The VCC-Clark stub, which opened later, doesn't really make much sense to me, unless the line is finally extended westwards or the area around it (which is still a railyard) is developed into something useful. In any case, to create a perfect system, they would have had to rebuild the old Broadway station to provide for cross-platform interchange at this point. The two lines are currently at two different levels, but with a bit of effort, it would have been possible. The two routes actually run parallel for some stretch at this point, at two different levels, though. The current transfer at this point is rather long, considering that about 90% of all passengers coming from the Millennium Line change here to get into downtown. There is in fact a project to expand the old Commercial-Broadway station to add another platform and thus separate alighting from boarding passengers.
The second transfer station within the old SkyTrain system, that at Columbia, is not ideal either. The station was not planned to become an interchange and has side platforms. Since the Millennium Line was added, many passengers have changed here to go from Surrey towards Lougheed or in the opposite direction, so these passengers have to walk down a flight of stairs and up on the other side (there is only one up-escalator in the inbound direction).
Expo Line stations
I don't know if people in Vancouver are aware of this, but the stations on the older parts of the Expo Line were modelled after the Vienna U-Bahn, with a group of Viennese architects who designed the basic U-Bahn system in the Austrian capital having won the design competition in Vancouver. There are many similarities, especially the rounded forms you would also find on Vienna's U1 and U4. One basic element of the Viennese design was, however, not implemented fully in Vancouver, that's the colour-coding of each line, a colour found on hand rails, station signs and other finishings. In Vancouver, as probably in the beginning they didn't even think of having more than one line, the surface stations are mostly green (like Vienna's U4), but the station signs are blue! The downtown stations, however, are red (like Vienna's U1). Main Street station is different anyway, as it had been built earlier for a demonstration line.
Granville and Burrard stations are pretty deep, and in fact have their respective platforms on two different levels, as the line was built inside an existing freight rail tunnel. They appear like proper tube stations with rather narrow platforms, and they get very crowded despite the short headways during peak hours. From mezzanine level, these two city centre stations are connected directly to adjacent malls or office buildings. The station at Waterfront is actually at grade, on the same level as the adjacent West Coast Express platform, and the reversing tracks are actually in the open air. These seem to be used during peak, whereas during off-peak, trains change tracks before entering the station.
Millennium Line stations
Stations from Sapperton to VCC-Clark have more varied designs, although in a typical 1990s global style with concrete, stainless steel and glass dominating. Most stations have an impressive roof structure, generally using wood panels for the ceiling, which gives them a certain elegance. The most spectacular is Brentwood Town Centre station, which looks very good inside the station, but is not really convincing when seen from the outside. The rounded glass exterior is a good idea, but probably looks best when seen from the air, but in normal life you see the station from the ground, and it sits on an extremely high concrete viaduct, where the 'designed' part of the station seems rather lost, instead it is flanked by ugly staircases and a half-built footbridge across a major highway. So, while the design of the Vienna-type station includes everything from platform to street level, the Millennium Line stations are nice ideas floating on an otherwise massive concrete viaduct. Some stations are enhanced with artwork, in the case of Production Way/University or Sperling/Burnaby Lake sections of painted glass are displayed. The yellow line colour is present in all stations on large name signs, although this will become obsolete in many stations once they are served by the green Evergreen Line. There are reversing sidings also at VCC-Clark and King George. Stations on both the Expo and Millennium Line are equipped with digital indicators, but these do not show the remaining time for the next train, just the destination of the next train and other rider alerts.
All in all, the Expo & Millennium Lines have left a good impression, efficient operation and a smooth, fast ride. My proposal would be to extend the VCC-Clark branch westwards to the University of British Columbia as soon as possible and stop the present evaluations about what type of transport system is best to increase capacity to this destination. My second proposal would create a loop through downtown instead of the current terminus at Waterfront. A station further east would serve the booming Gastown district and another station would help to revamp the downtown's eastside, a visibly neglected area with lots of homeless people. The loop could be closed either between Main Street and Stadium/Chinatown (I read of intentions to tear down the elevated roadway in that area) or east of Main Street. The Expo Line could, for example, loop clockwise, and the Millennium Line anti-clockwise, passengers would more evenly be distributed this way and more areas would be served.
The Canada Line was a big disappointment. It is much newer, so you would expect both interesting architecture and a state-of-the-art rail system. While the first expectation was not fulfilled at all, the technical part did only partly: the ROTEM trains are state-of-the-art, they are wider than the original SkyTrain Bombardier stock and have a nice panorama window at the front. Like on the Mark II trains, you can walk from one car to the other. I still find the trains' side exterior a bit old-fashioned, mostly stainless steel with rather small rounded windows, they look like typical Asian metro trains, although with a pleasant front.
What struck me immediately when I entered the first Canada Line station, that called Vancouver City Centre, is the small size of the stations. The platforms are only long enough to take a 45 m two-car trains. I wonder how can someone design a full metro line without taking at least provisions to increase capacity by at least doubling it if required. But apparently, no real provisions were made, as the tube tunnels begin almost immediately at the end of the platform. I read that possibly a centre car could be added, and with the train fronts then actually inside the tunnel, the doors would still fit into the platform. Still, rather pathetic, considering the tremendous success of the older lines and considering that digging the running tunnels for a 45 m train costs the same as for a 90 m train. But this line was built with private money and had to be finished in time for the 2010 Olympics, so obviously many cuts in its design were made.
But one deficiency is just unforgiveable, and that's the lack of superelevation in the curves, instead the tracks seems to be flat on all sections, laid forever in a concrete bed. It seems to be the work of beginners, especially when you see how perfectly aligned the older lines are. On the Canada Line, however, trains need to reduce speed before getting into a curve, then make a horrible squeaking noise as they negotiate their way through the curve, before accelerating again. Luckily the route is quite straight, but between King Edward and Oakridge, the cut-and-cover tunnel follows the main road around Queen Elizabeth Park, so there is a series of curves and countercurves, resulting in this often unpleasant change of braking and accelerating. It is actually surprising that this long section wasn't built with TBMs straight under the park, as it would be at quite great depth to avoid the roots of the trees. Altogether the route shows some significant gradients, up from downtown to Oakridge and then down again. You can appreciate this even more if you take the same route on the surface, giving you a spectacular view of the downtown skyline.
Also the junction at Bridgeport is operated at a much lower speed than the comparable turnout at Columbia, where the Expo and Millennium Lines separate. Like on the older lines, trains now operate every 3-4 minutes on the main trunk, and every 7-8 minutes on each branch. At both southern termini, however, as another measure to cut costs, I suppose, the last section is only single-track, and trains reverse in the station. This way, it is hardly possible to increase capacity by adding extra trains, as the two bootlenecks at the outer ends wouldn't allow it. They might be able, maybe, to add extra trains on the trunk section. The Waterfront terminus has two tracks, but no reversing sidings, just short stubs in case trains run too far. So trains need to switch tracks to the south of the station, which also limits the capacity of the line. So, all in all, a very shortsighted way of planning a mass transit system. Another feature, which seemed to be a thing of the early metros built a 100 years ago, is the power collection from the top of the third rail without any protection.
Canada Line stations
The Canada Line has many more underground stations than the older SkyTrain system. Their visual design, however, is so disappointing that I would even refer to it as 'no-design option'. In case of island platforms, the pillars and sides of the stairs are clad in bluish and grey tiles. The walls behind the tracks are left in black, with adverts. Similarly the sidewalls are covered with tiles in stations with side platforms. The only exception is Waterfront station which features an interesting ondulated ceiling. Generally there are fixed staircases and an up-escalator (in some places you can see that there is space for a down-escalator). All stations are, of course, accessible with elevators (lifts), although as far as I have observed, you need to change elevators in the mezzanine (maybe in provision of future faregates). Unlike the older lines, the digital indicators announce the minutes for the next train to arrive, together with its destination, which is also announced acoustically. Except Waterfront, stations only have one exit, this is especially surprising at Vancouver City Centre, where the surface entrance is in fact a bit of a walk from the platform (not even at this busy station there is a down-escalator!). So if you want to get into the station at Granville/Robson (what I would consider the most central intersection of the city) you need to walk one block up to get into the station, although the platform is actually right under this intersection. I can only hope that the new building being erected at that point right now, will have a direct access to the mezzanine at least. From that mezzanine, there are in fact direct entrances into two adjacent shopping malls.
Looking at the map, one would, of course, expect a direct interchange between the Canada Line and the older SkyTrain lines, but this does not exist, although from one exit to the other it is only some 200 m. Apparently you could find your way through the malls, I haven't checked this out.
The interchange at Waterfront is far from satisfying, too: arriving on the Expo Line you need to come up to the main hall of the old railway station (a lovely building and well-restored) to walk down to the Canada Line again. I bet that a direct subterranean corridor would have been possible, too. With faregates being installed now, I guess you'll need to get out of the paid area and back in again in the future.
Several underground stations with side platforms don't have mezzanines, but have only one entrance, so to get to the second platform passengers have to walk through a foottunnel under the tracks. This appears to be a lack of consideration, as in most cases there is an emergency exit on the other side, which could have been converted into a proper exit. Most stations, however, feature a rather massive entrance building, which could have been reduced in size and a second entrance built on the opposite side of the road instead. The entrance buildings are quite pleasant and often feature a wooden ceiling. At busy intersections, like at Broadway/Cambie, I find it very inconvenient, that there is only one entrance on one corner, and you may need to cross two busy roads (often wait a while for a green light – which in Canada like in the U.S. is actually white at pedestrian crosswalks). I think, and underground distribution level with entrances from all corners would be a much passenger-friendly option.
The surface stations of the Canada Line have mostly pleasant designs, with predominantly white structures. Like the underground stations and the older SkyTrain stations there are no platform screen doors, I don't know whether there is a track surveillance system to stop trains in case anything or anybody falls onto the track.
The signage of the Canada Line is another weak point. First of all, it is very weird to choose this colour, which most of us would describe as a variant of blue, when there are only two more lines in the system, one of which is already dark blue! Worldwide experience has shown, that unless you live in Paris and love all shades of purple, pink and violet, line colours are an important means to help passengers find their way. And as long as there are only a few lines, only basic, clearly distinguishable colours should be used. With the line being called the Canada Line, red as in the national flag would have been a good option. Once you're inside a station, you will find out that the thing that is written in the smallest font size is actually the station name! Quite contrary to anything seen elsewhere. Unlike the bad track alignment, these things could actually be fixed easily.
WEST COAST EXPRESS
The WCE is really just a commuter railway, with a few trains coming into Vancouver in the morning and leaving for the eastern region in the afternoon. There is, however, a complementary bus running at other times. I was quite impressed how many people use this service. The train I watched departing at 17:30 (or 5.30 pm for them) was formed by 8 double-deck carriages and completely full. I wonder if an all-day kind of diesel light rail along these tracks would make sense to make better use of the existing infrastructure. Or would that limit existing freight services from the port? The Evergreen Line, the construction of which is just starting, will serve some areas in Coquitlam that are on the WCE route.
Fares are pretty simple and well integrated in Vancouver. The SkyTrain has a tiered 3-zone system, and I don't know whether this will be maintained now that faregates are being installed (2013?). A multi-zone fare system requires you to check your ticket also on the way out, which often leads to agglomerations at the exit gates especially during peak times. Whereas stations on the Millennium and Canada Lines were already designed for such faregates, the older Expo Line stations need a bit of rebuilding which has already been going on during my visit. With the new faregates, also a new smartcard system, the Compass Card, will be introduced.
Unlimited daypasses are currently available at 9 CAD (1 CAD = 1 USD), so slightly more expensive than in similar US cities, except Denver... A single ride from Surrey to downtown, however, costs 5 CAD! The daypass is also good for buses and the SeaBus, the frequent ferry to North Vancouver, but for the West Coast Express an addfare is required. An additional fare of 5 CAD is also charged when you buy a single ticket at the Airport and the two adjacent stations! Ticket machines are easy to handle, which is good as there is mostly no staff around to help you. There are occasional uniformed staff, but probably not when you need them. There are also some transit police patrolling. I haven't seen any ticket inspections, though (no wonder that fare evasion is high).