Skytrain System Needs $71-million Overhaul: Report

The entire SkyTrain system screeched to a halt twice in July under the burden of nearly three decades of questionable decisions. Now, with public confidence shaken in the once-state-of-the-art system, TransLink will have to spend $71 million to fix errors, omissions and operational faults identified by an independent review.

The system has long been cited for its reliability and computerized technology, carrying upwards of 250,000 passengers a day. But that history of stability was derailed by back-to-back catastrophic failures caused by decisions that went all the way back to the birth of the system in 1986, when its architects did not build in redundant electrical backups.

Upon that faulty ground other decisions were layered as the system was expanded from a 20-train, 15-station line to 58 trains, 33 stations and 49 kilometres. In 1994, TransLink's predecessor upgraded the SELTRAC automated control system that is the backbone of the system but decided not to add a new option that would automatically insert trains back into the grid in case of a failure. Instead, workers were expected to manually insert every one of the trains one-by-one onto zoned tracks, an hours-long chore in a business where public tempers are frayed at even the slightest delay of a minute or two.

When new circuit boards with updated connector cables were bought as spares for the control centre, the original boards, which were as old as North America's first analog cellular telephones, were left in service with their non-matching connections, creating a ticking time bomb the first time one of them failed.

Along the way, maintenance manuals and troubleshooting guides for how to deal with the increasingly old technology were misplaced, lost or never updated. An adequate inventory of spare parts was not kept. And when the system's guideway intrusion system - those red plates and optical sensors between the tracks that are supposed to stop trains if someone falls in front of them - began to show their age, instead of replacing them TransLink reset their sensitivity settings, causing the number of emergency-activated stops to double. From pop cans to flying birds and blowing newspapers, the intrusion system recorded as many as 450 false alarms a month, causing cars to lurch to a halt with increasing frequency.

As TransLink struggled with a growing operations budget that nonetheless didn't keep pace with the actual growth of the SkyTrain system, it didn't train or equip staff enough to deal with the effects of a major failure, including having the right number of people to manually move trains into stations within a reasonable time.

And even if they could have reached the stranded trains in time, the employees were operating under a "line of sight" safety rule other transit systems don't use and which prevented trains from being moved simultaneously into stations where passengers could disembark.

These and many other issues all factored into why the very backbone of TransLink's people-moving system collapsed on July 17 when a circuit board failed, and again on July 21 when an electrician, using an uninsulated screwdriver, shorted out the system, including the backup power supply that should have kept it all running. When passengers then evacuated stranded trains on their own, they automatically caused power to be shut off along the guideway, resulting in delays of up to five hours as staff manually had to enter every train back into the system.

On Tuesday a contrite Ian Jarvis, the president of TransLink, said the public-owned company will adopt all 20 recommendations former Toronto GO Transit president Gary McNeil issued in his $100,000 review of the two July failures. But it will not be cheap. Over the next five years TransLink, will pull $71 million from various places in its already skin-tight budget to make sure such accidents never happen again.

Every one of the failings identified will be fixed. TransLink will install new emergency power supply systems to independently back up critical operational systems. It will also go ahead and buy the auto-restart system it put off 20 years ago. And nearly half of the money, $30 million, will be spent on communicating better with the public by improving the public address system and installing programmable message boards and speakers at the front of stations to tell passengers what to do when the system is closed.

Another $28 million will be spent to upgrade the SkyTrain system itself, including replacement of that hyper-sensitive and old guideway intrusion system, production of the missing troubleshooting guides, "decoupling" of systems to prevent a cascade failure, and a new closed-circuit television. Even the old line-of-sight rules will be scrapped, allowing stranded trains to be moved simultaneously.

Jarvis said the most critical upgrades will be done first and the company has already undertaken some changes. One of the primary goals, he said, is to make sure that attendants get to all stranded trains within 20 minutes in order to move them manually to stations.

"The outages and particularly the way the outages were handled were not acceptable for customers, and unacceptable to ourselves," Jarvis said. "We are fully accepting and intend to act on each of Gary McNeil's recommendations." McNeil also found a system so dysfunctional that staff didn't have troubleshooting manuals or an accurate inventory of spare parts. When the first major failure took place on July 17 staff finally identified a failed 20-year-old circuit board in the control centre. But when they went to replace it with a new one, the wiring connections were different. They eventually got the system back up after cadging an old circuit board from a spare simulator.

The failures occurred against the backdrop of a SkyTrain system increasingly pressured by maintenance costs and a growing number of alarms of the automated guideway intrusion system. Since it began operating in 1986, the operating budget has increased from $55 million to $107 million. But in the same period the system has more than doubled in length. The number of operating kilometres has gone up by 349 per cent, while the budget has increased by 195 per cent.

In his report McNeil pointed out that major failures occur on every transit system in the world. But what made the two SkyTrain failures unique was that impatient passengers exacerbated the problems by leaving the trains and walking on the tracks. Passengers who had to wait in sweltering cars on a hot summer day took matters into their own hands, jamming open doors and exiting the cars to walk back to stations. As a result, power to the guideway was automatically shut off, causing delays of several hours while attendants had to manually evacuate the line.

Asked by reporters if the failures might not have been so damaging if the company had installed the re-entry component when first offered it 20 years ago, Jarvis said he didn't think so.

"We are constantly reviewing our technology and our components. That component of self-start in SELTRAC (the computer operating system) is something we have examined in the past and the functionality has improved significantly," he said. "We are now at a place where it makes sense to add it and implement it as we upgrade the entire automated train control system." He also defended the decision to spend $30 million on public communications upgrades.

"With respect to communications, that was our biggest failure. On any transportation system, things happen, things break. Our customers want to know what is going on," he said. "To me, that is a good expenditure of resources." Transportation Minister Todd Stone said the provincial government is reviewing the report but he doesn't accept that TransLink has been underfunded. Instead, he said it is up to the transportation agency to best decide where it spends its money.

"I don't think it's a question of is there not enough money in the system, I think it's a question of making sure that the dollars that are there are being spent wisely," he said. "I think the specifics of which of the recommendations they embrace, and in what order, and how they go about ensuring that there are no further disruptions are really decisions that TransLink needs to make." NDP TransLink critic George Heyman said the findings show the province needs to put more money into the system. But he also said TransLink engineered some of its own problems, too.

"I think in the end this goes back to a funding choice made by Transklink, which generally doesn't have the money to upgrade its system as it gets older," he said. "When you make a decision to gamble and not purchase a backup system for the system that keeps the trains running on time, that is asking for trouble." /sunciviclee Jeff Lee, Vancouver Sun

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