Saturday 28 July 2012


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.

Canada Line

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.


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).



  1. Having just moved from Vancouver after a few months there, I'll share my thoughts:

    Expo and Millennium Lines, Mark I cars: You're right that the Mark I cars are really showing their age. TransLink probably isn't going to spend much money during anything about it though, because they probably have ten years or less before replacement.

    Expo and Millennium Lines, Mark II cars: These were actually built in two batches. The first ones (predominantly white) don't have any LED signs or visual station indicators, unlike the newer black cars. Really disappointing, especially since every other transit system I've been on has destination signs. If you're at Metrotown, for example, and want to go to a station on the Millennium Line, and a Mark I or early Mark II train pulls into the outboard track, you need to check the SMALL train direction indicator sign (that also has the occasional habit of displaying general announcements while the train is arriving), otherwise, you might be heading to Surrey instead.

    Bus signs: Absolutely agreed. The best signs I have seen so far are in Montreal, where the metro logo or train logo will appear with the station name if that bus services a station.

    Millennium Line after VCC-Clark: Definitely needs to happen. I took the current B-Line bus service to the UBC hospital once, and it sits in traffic for ages. The large bus terminal there by itself justifies the expansion. Unfortunately, TransLink is having some financial difficulty right now (Evergreen's funding was approved just before, so it's safe), and this probably won't happen for a while.

    Canada Line: Yeah, this line has a lot of flaws: relatively slow speed, different technology that will drive up costs, short platforms that would be extremely difficult to expand, and the same ability to extend the line. I'll disagree about the station aesthetics though; I find the stations more colorful and visually appealing than newer stations built elsewhere in North America (Boston's pathetic Silver Line being an example). They're also more functional, as the Canada Line also has large indicators, and even tell you how long before the next train. By the way, this line is the only one in the system with a track intrusion detection system (that also seems to have quite a few false detections); you can see the sensors at the ends of the platform. When it gets triggered, an announcement tells you you're in danger and must leave the track area immediately.

    West Coast Express: There is an off-peak bus service called TrainBus that makes a few runs. Expanding rail service would, unfortunately, be difficult because WCE is contracted out by Canadian Pacific- the contract doesn't have much for expansion provisions, and the contract isn't up until 2015.

    Pricing: I honestly don't know what the people who rank Vancouver as one of the world's most livable cities were smoking when the rated it, but another reason it isn't is because it's such an extremely expensive city (as demonstrated by its fares). Hopefully the new smart card system will even fares out to make it slightly more livable.

  2. Julie-Anne, thanks for adding your experience. Vancouver is indeed somewhat more expensive than US cities (my favourite Starbucks doppio espresso cost 2.52 as opposed to 1.95 here in Portland - where they don't have sales tax..., otherwise just over 2 dollars). And a daypass in Portland costs only 5 USD against 9 CAD in Vancouver, although this is very cheap even for US standards. I don't know, but maybe they also earn a bit more in Vancouver. People from Manitoba told me that prices were going up as they travelled west...

    I heard that warning message on the Canada Line once, but nothing happened. In other cities it would shut the system down until things are checked...

  3. Interesting about the track warning...why not use platform screen doors instead though - especially with the driver-less trains? Then there would not be any false alarms at least.

  4. The issues with the Canada line is what happens when you do a private-public thing on mass transit. The line was built with an idea of making money for the construction company, so you get what you get: badly engineered curves, single line termini for the south and airport termini, stations built for today's demand (and today's demand only) and the cheapest technology that can't even mix with what's around. Heck, Vancouver Transit didn't even want to do the Canada Line the way it ended up being done, and the Evergreen Line was used as a bribe to add the Canada line.

    1. The single track terminus at Richmond Brighouse is really the brainchild of Richmond City Council. Richmond wanted an at-grade LRT down the middle of the street (in the space previously occupied by the rapid bus lanes). Bombardier had proposed either a dual system (where a driver would board at Bridgeport) or a transfer to a streetcar at Bridgeport, but Bombardier's lost the bid. Since Richmond was aghast at the prospect of an elevated guideway in its downtown, it wanted the profile minimized. That led to the single tracking of the end of the line - and of course the project (looking for cost savigs) was all too happy to agree. At one time, the track around the future Capstan station was also slated to be single track, but that decision was reversed due to the impact on operations.
      See the "Branchline" issue linked below.

    2. Correction, InTransitBC (the successful bidder) proposed the expensive dual system, while Bombardier (unsuccessful bidder) had proposed the streetcar.

  5. Hi Robert,

    I live in Vancouver, so thanks for visiting our lovely city and posting this blog about our transit system.

    Having lived in Hong Kong & Toronto before settling in Vancouver, and having rode on subways in other cities around the world, Vancouver’s system is quite poor in my books. I totally agree with your comments regarding the platform length of the Canada Line platforms. That was my first observation when I took the Canada Line for the very first time back in 2009. It’s virtually impossible to expand and lengthen the platform, and if they decide to do this, it’ll be very expensive (to be fair, I’ve been on the Canada Line during non-busy hours, and the trains are never full because many people here use cars as their main mode of transportation, so maybe the planners had that in mind during the planning phase?). I also agree with your point about the lack of a proper interchange station between Canada Line & Expo/Millenium Line. Waterfront Station does not do it for me. Hong Kong’s interchange stations are the best ones that I’ve seen thus far.

    In my opinion, the poor design & running of our transit system is due to the inefficiency of Translink and the people behind it. This bureaucracy needs a major overhaul if it ever wants Vancouver to have a transit system that’s equal to those in other major cities of the world. It seems like they’re always cutting corners & taking shortcuts, and they tend to have a half-glass full mentality while trying to convince residents that their plans are fully sufficient for Vancouver. It also seems like they’re always short on funding even though everybody pays a lot of taxes to Translink already. Our system is always playing catch-up to other major cities' transit systems.

    The lack of fare gates is a prime example of lack of foresight & poor planning by Translink. Their main justification for not installing the gates is because the cost to install and maintain them far exceeds to amount of money lost due to fare evasion, even though it’s estimated that Translink loses $4-5 million per year due to fare evasion. Anyone will tell you that this is nonsense. Thankfully, it finally had enough smarts to install the gates by 2013.

    Also, regarding your comments about the track surveillance system, I heard the warning once before but the train still arrived on schedule. PSD will never be installed here because it costs too much money for Translink (everything costs too much money for them).

    Vancouver is a wonderful place to live in, but I’m not sure if I can afford to live here anymore. I don’t think we earn any more than people living in other Canadian cities.

    Again, thanks for your brilliant blog post. =)

    1. @ Sid

      TransLink is, in fact, a creature of the BC provincial government which is also responsible for the lion's share of its funding. In practice, the provincial government, which has been dominated by a party over the last 12 years whose electoral support is primarily in the car-dominated suburbs, starves the transit system in a metropolitan region with more than half the provincial population while concurrently spending orders of magnitude more public money on an extravagant and wasteful freeway system in the same area.

      The BC government also appoints the board members and has denied real decision making authority to local elected officials.

      Further, other than a few drops of crumbs here & there from Ottawa, our federal government, unlike almost every other national government in the industrialized world, does not fund transit to any measureable and stable, long-term level. We no longer have a federal Minister of Urban Affairs despite the fact 85% of the electorate live in our cities. A National Transit Plan remains a pipe dream to urbanists.

      Under these circumstances TransLink cannot be blamed for the situation they -- and we -- are in.

  6. I was thinking about this a bit more. Is the length of the Canada line platforms really a problem? I mean, of course it would be better if they were longer. Future expansion would be far easier. However, Vancouver is not a huge city. It is very dense - there is no doubt about it. The City is very dense, and the transit serves that pretty well (particularly the older lines). Outside the city proper (where the Canada Line primarily runs) it is not as dense. Is a larger train set needed? Would more frequent trains be better? Is the Canada Line capable of servicing the population for some time without much expansion? I would think so...but it has been a few years since I was in Vancouver and the Canada Line did not exist at the time.

    1. I was on the Richmond branch off-peak morning hours, and almost all seats were taken on the very first stop. And there is a lot of development expected especially on this branch which will bring the line to the limits of its capacity pretty soon, that's my prediction. And then everybody will say, if this wasn't foreseeable from the beginning?

  7. Many of the Canada Line deficiencies you've mentioned were, if you can believe it, deliberate design decisions. Complaints about single entrances were met by planners telling me they didn't want "octopus stations" and that there were "safety reasons" behind their decisions. Mechanical rooms were placed in such a way to make additional entrances virtually impossible.

    The under-the-track footpaths were justified by saying that the alternative would have required the cut-and-cover tunnels to be much deeper. I was told that shallower tunnels are "more accessible" despite the fact that mobility impaired passengers have to use 3 separate elevators to reach the far platform. A direct elevator was rejected because it would permit passengers to by-pass the forthcoming fare gates, something a little bit of creative design would have easily fixed.

    Rail transit in Vancouver has always been designed to meet a political need rather than a people moving one so while I was frustrated to see my tax dollars being misspent again I wasn't all that surprised.

    Richmond City Council wanted even more single track than actually got built because they felt the guideway was too imposing. A change order was needed to lengthen the double track to the current half-assed one.

    Way finding and signage are terrible. Finding the elevators seems to be a daily problem for many passengers. In some stations even if you know where the lift is you can't get there until the crowd around the escalator dissipates. In 2010 I watched the Swiss mens' wheelchair curling team follow the orange wheelchair signs to the emergency exit because they couldn't see the blue wheelchair ones pointing them toward the elevator. If I wasn't already running late I'd have jumped off the train to help them.

    Current capacity is barely above the dozen bus routes that Canada Line replaced yet both Vancouver and Richmond are planning 300% increases in the population around the line. During peak periods the trains are more crowded than I've ever experienced on the Expo line.

    The entire line was built under severe cost and time constraints. Local politicians twice rejected the project before some arms were twisted and a complex and mostly secret financing arrangement was worked out. One of the most significant parts of this deal was the shifting of capital costs into operating costs. The private operator of the line will, of course, be turning a healthy profit on both operations and their initial capital investment while the rest of the transit system receives cuts.

    I disagree with Sid. Translink has been audited a number of times already so there's not much fat left to cut. Close to 30% of their budget goes to debt servicing and much of that resulted from decisions made by senior levels of government like the Canada Line deal.

    Fare gates will only make the financial situation worse. They are estimated to cost $7 million per year, significantly more than system-wide losses to evasion. As a transit expert you know that fare gates only stop a fraction of evaders and will do nothing to thwart those who ride the #99 "free line" or other buses without a valid fare.

    I think you'll also agree that a certain amount of so-called fare evasion is in the public interest. Nobody wants the poor engaging in illegal activity in order to come up with a bus fare nor do we want more drunks on the road. There are also many non-monetary benefits to transit that many seem to forget when the time comes to pay the bill.

  8. It would be desirable to change the heading on the blog post to indicate that you visited Western North American sites--Canadians get so tired (yet are so used to) having Canada rolled into the United States by Europeans as if it were somehow not an independent country.

    1. Ms Anonymous, if you read carefully you may see that the post starts:
      "Although this is primarily a US West Coast trip, I took the chance to hop over to Vancouver for a few days"
      I think it gets pretty clear that I do not think that Vancouver is in the U.S. and so would most Europeans.... so don't get obsessed, most Europeans appreciate Canada for being slightly more European than the U.S., notably with the metric system and Celsius, even more than the U.K.! And they seem to have a Euro-style health care system .... Transport-wise (and that's what this blog is about) it is not much better than the average U.S., I'm afraid....

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    1. I should perhaps mention that the route colour for the Canada Line all through the planning stages and early maps and diagrams was indeed red. I have no idea why they ended up with a lighter blue as opposed to, say, pretty much any other colour at all...but I can imagine some brilliant individual in some meeting saying something dumb about "BUHHH RED MEANS DANGER ALERT" and groupthink heads began to nod.

    2. The Federal Conservative Party didn't want it red, because Red is the Federal Liberals. That is why we ended up with two blue lines in a four line system, even though one was already blue.

  10. Dang...I deleted my original post while trying to get my name to not be a link. Posted again below.


    Thanks for your insightful post. It's amazing how accurately you picked up on some of the deficiencies of Vancouver's mass transit system. An above poster wrote that its development is all about politics. This is so very true. It's all about politics and the pork barrel. It's frustrating to see the Canada Line Templeton Station out in the middle of a field, servicing a mostly-empty parking lot, when a station at 33rd Ave was dropped from the plans, which would have served QE Park, several hospitals, and a large RCMP facility. It was very exciting as details of the Canada Line emerged...but as I watched the plans develop, it was clear that it was more showpiece than functional, practical system; developed in haste for a strict interpretation of immediate need.

    The strangeness of the Millennium Line route can be explained by the fact that it, the Evergreen Line, and the future UBC Line were supposed to have been part of one line. Only the middle section was built, which also happened to be the cheapest and most politically expedient section, where rights-of-way and potential property expropriation would be less of a problem. The Evergreen Line is needed far less than the UBC extension, but the parochial nature of our municipal politics means that the screams of suburban taxpayers are heard louder than the complaints of commuters on the 99B bus, which runs between Commercial/Broadway Station and UBC and is completely inadequate to demand. I read a mind-boggling statistic that the 99B bus carries more riders in a week than the total number of residents of the two municipalities the Evergreen Line will serve. The possibility of a UBC Line also seems to be plagued with powerful NIMBYism, as it will run through a wealthy section of town. I've often thought that some of our problems could be solved by an intermediate extension...a first step to the construction of a UBC extending the Millennium Line to Broadway/City Hall with a Mount Pleasant station at the major intersection of Main/Broadway/Kingsway. I had never considered an additional downtown loop, but that is an interesting suggestion.

    You may be interested to know that some additional stations have recently been announced: one on the Richmond spoke of the Canada Line between Bridgeport and Aberdeen (I think it's to be called Capstan Station), and another on the Evergreen Line between Coquitlam City Centre and Douglas College: Lincoln Station. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both are being paid for by private interests: a real estate development and a shopping mall.

    Unfortunately you weren't here to see the "Olympic Line". A few million dollars were spent rehabilitating an old train track and building two stations for this "demonstration line" during the Olympics. It was free of charge and ran from Olympic Village station to the major tourist destination of Granville Island (also home to the main campus of Emily Carr University). A tram car was borrowed from the city of Brussels, but was sadly returned after the games. It was a great little service while it lasted, but it didn't seem to have drummed up anywhere close to the amount of support for the downtown streetcar plan that it was supposed to have been touting. The tracks sit unused today. Just the other night I saw them in a sci-fi show (Continuum, filmed here in Vancouver) with a CGI train running on them. Unfortunately I think that's all the train we're going to see on those tracks.

    Thanks again for your post. It's encouraging to see that a visitor can pick up on our shortcomings so quickly. If only our politicians could (or were willing to) do the same.

    1. Thanks, Robert. Great blog. very well written, and great analysis, considering your short visit. Many of the criticisms and questions that you raised are indeed explained by politics and local history, as other posters have written.

      Thanks, Matthew. Great post. I too love Continuum, but I have not seen that episode. As far as the Olympic Line is concerned, I believe that the new tram cars were leant to the City of Vancouver by Bombardier's division in Brusssels, not by the City of Brussels. Bombarier offerred to sell the streetcars to the city of Vancouver, but the city (read: city council) was not interested.

      This can be explained as follows. I would assume that the original decisions to establish the "Olympic Line" were made by the NPA council, prior to the November 2008 election. In 2008, the NPA council was rejected in favour of the current Vision council -- largely on the basis of the poorly understood and poorly analyzed Olympic Village financing scandal.

      In 2010, after the Olympics, the City (read: Vision council) did not act to buy the tram cars, and also showed no enthusiasm to pursue a more permanent streetcar line, beccause it was an NPA idea. This was bluntly explained by Geoff Meggs, the most powerful (vocal) member of City Council (after the mayor). He has stated publicly that he does not want the city doing anything which would lead the provincial government to think that the city will take responsibility for transit, that might reduce the chance of the UBC line being funded by the province. Wrong thinking, in my opinion.

      I, too, was very disappointed that Vancouver residents showed so little interest in the streetcar proposal. I would chalk it up to Olympics fatigue. Very short-signted, though. Now that Translink is in such a difficult financial position, 5 years later, there is a lot more public interest and enthusiasm for streetcar projects.

    2. Adam, the Downtown Streetcar project was rejected due to its cost as a tourist train (tens of millions) with seasonal ridership and a limited route. As proposed, it was not a viable public transit option. in my view it would probably have far better ridership if it the proposal extended up to Kerrisdale -- maybe even further down to Marpole and the Canada Line at the Marine Drive Station i.e. move beyond the sinkhole of summer tourist trade and become embedded into the year-round mass transit system.

      In addition, the particular Bombardier Flexity stock they chose was also very narrow (designed for narrow pre-car European streets) and without adequate ridership would have had a very high per rider operating cost, which would have greatly reduced its frequencies, something continuously ignored by those obsessed with the romance of trams.

      You are right that there was concern about the costs of the Olympic Village, and that affected this descision. With a $700+ million debt imposed solely on the residents of Vancouver (i.e. not on any other city or level of government), Meggs had every right as a councillor to decide to quash a tourist train and be concerned about provincial funding for future transit. You will note that the province didn't pay even one Canadian loonie to help save themselves from an international embarrassment if the Vision council failed to step in and assume the entire debt to finish building the village. Your portrayal of the 2008 council acting responsibly is rather unfair. Your criticism is better directed squarely where it belongs -- at the provincial government which originally applied to host the Olympics and which is primarily responsible for funding transit in BC.

    3. It should be noted, though, that the downtown streetcar allignment continues to be accommodated in planning for the Southeast False Creek (Olympic Village) area (a broad median down 1st Ave), around Northeast False Creek (near BC Place Stadium) and potential routes to the False Creek flats.
      Also of interest is that the 1st median allignment forms one of the UBC Line alternatives if that line uses LRT.

  11. The older UTDC (now Bombardier) trains are equipped with steerable trucks. They were designed from the outset for tight curves that might be needed in adding a metro to an existing built up city centre. That is why they are very quite on curves. As apposed to standard fixed trucks on the "newer" trains.

  12. I had heard that the reason for not using Red for the Canada Line was of those with colour-blindness. Apparently some aren't able to see red, hence going for the light blue. Not sure how true this is, but its what I've heard.

  13. Just a quick comment about the Canada expandability. The underground stations all have a 10 or 15m false wall section for future expansion to allow for an additional 'C' car. I also believe frequencies can still be increased on the single track sections over current usage. In theory it was supposed to have an ultimate capacity of 15,000pphpd although I assume that includes station expansion and double tracking the Richmond segment (I think they designed it to be doable). I agree with complaints about things like the canting.
    Some background to the Canada Line may help, it was not considered a priority for the regional government which did not consider Richmond an area they wanted to promote high growth in (flooding risk, farm land, more risk in an earthquake...) the line was imposed by the provincial government. From day one critics were extremely vocal in stating ridership numbers were hugely inflated and would never be achieved, the main consensus was that ridership on the line would underperform (so much for that). That said there is a logical existing parallel alternate route to the west (the Arbutus corridor) that would make a good LRT line to relieve pressure on the Canada Line.

    1. In fact, warts, inadequacies, deficiencies and all other things considered, the Canada Line is years ahead in ridership and helped open parochial minds to the benefits of metro lines.

      I would never suggest the same construction methodology and anemic design be used on Broadway, but I believe citizens are way ahead of the politicians in accepting the benefits of a high quality subway there. Broadway must be done better, and that means buiding it for tomorrow, not for today. The economic, institutional and residential density was already there decades ago, and it still awaits transit to catch up.

  14. Oh, on wayfinding. Again I agree with your critisms but the website is actually quite good and lets you find out how to get where you wish to go quite easily. There is also a good Frequent Transit Network map so if you just print out that map and are near the frequent network (most of Vancouver but not great coverage in the suburbs) you can use the map to get where you are going no schedule required because I believe the Frequent Transit Network is supposed to be less than 10min (15?) frequency all day.

  15. I just want to comment on Canada Line capacity. The line was built as a P3 partnership and the maximum design capacity was set by the government at I think 15,000 people per hour per direction. The stations are designed to be 50m (some are built at 40m but have knockout walls to allow expansion to 50m) - and this will allow 60m three-car trains to operate.

    Because the trains are automated, they can reverse direction quickly, just stop, unload, load and go. The single track on the branches isn't a problem - it takes the train 30 seconds to travel it, allow 1 minute, dwell and 30 seconds back, is two minute headway max. This isn't likely required on the branch at anytime to meet the maximum design capacity.

    I agree super elevation would have been better, but it wasn't necessary to meet the design speed and capacity objectives. Adding super elevation would have required a different tunnel geometry or trains with angled sides, both adding costs to the line.

    Driving straight under the park to avoid the turns was non-starter. The first reason is that the park is an extinct volcano and that would mean tunneling through extremely hard tube of larva; the second is that there is a planned future station at 33rd and Cambie and going under the park would have eliminated this option.

    All stations have track intrusion systems - on the old expo sections it is pressure sensors, on the rest of the system and inclouding Canada line it is laser based system. It first activates a warning and if the intrusion is not cleared, it stops trains entering the station. The system works well.

    I would add that in 26 years of operation, Skytrain has never had an accident while under automated control. Not one - no derailments, no crashes, nothing. And this is with trains operating as close as 75 seconds apart (the system can handle trains 45 seconds apart). Canada Line has the same signaling and train control system as the rest of the system.

    Finally - note that Expo and Millenium line use linear induction for propulsion, rather than conventional wheel driven as used on Canada line. Linear induction allows much faster acceleration and no wheel slip (as the wheels are not driving). Skytrain expo and millenium lines have the fasted end to end metro speeds in Canada.

    1. Yes, that's right - a bored tunnel under Queen Elizabeth Park would have required a TBM with different cutter heads than the TBM used under False Creek and downtown. That would have also meant a large launching pit and removal pit in a pretty high end neighbourhood.

      The future 33rd Ave. station also means that the speed of the trains around the curves at Queen Elizabeth Park will be too slow (entering and leaving the station) to require superelevation.

      See a good background summary in this railway magazine:

  16. And this issue has a good backgrounder on the Millennium Line:

  17. Thank you very much for this website - I use it to plan my world travels. It is often more useful than local information. In metro Vancouver there is a plebiscite planned to raise the provincial taxes by 1/2% to pay for transit expansion. However, early indications are that it will be voted down. One of the problems is that residents of suburban Surrey (500,000 pop), who only have 4 skytrain stations, feel that all their taxes will go to building an expensive tunnel expansion in Vancouver. Surrey is already growing much faster than Vancouver (600,000 pop) and will likely be the biggest city in B.C. soon. Another problem is that there is a view that Translink is mis-managed. They just fired their CEO.

  18. I agree with most of the comments. Metro Vancouver did not have a long term Rapid Transit plan in the 1980s and that was the main problem. The plans change as the
    provincial government change.

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