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Transit officials defend SkyTrain’s reliability

Sun Fang, VP, Maintenance at SkyTrain's operations and maintenance centre in Burnaby looks over the new tack switch controllers during a tour of the facility August 5, 2014.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Officials say 1992-era computer systems that run key aspects of the SkyTrain light-rail system are reliable despite a recent shutdown linked to the components that stranded thousands of passengers.

The issue came up on Tuesday as the B.C. Rapid Transit Company, which operates SkyTrain, opened up its operations centre for a media tour that the company deemed necessary after two unprecedented shutdowns last month of SkyTrain – a system launched in the 1980s.

"With the events, a lot of questions came to us about a better understanding, a better appreciation of the system itself," Fred Cummings, the president and general manager of the rapid transit company, told reporters. The tour took media through the system's control room, computer rooms and other areas of the high-security centre for running SkyTrain.

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Transit company officials were generally averse to speculating much about what went wrong on July 17, when a a computer glitch shut down SkyTrain, and on July 21, when modifications to a main control panel cut power across the system.

Both incidents, and emergency planning, are under investigation. A former Ontario transit executive will submit an independent review by the end of October.

When Sun Fang, maintenance vice-president for the transit company, brought the tour to the stack of computer-room processors that caused troubles on July 17, he gave out a few details.

"This was the one that caused us the grief on that particular day," Mr. Fang said, pointing to the processor, and opening a door so media could see its electronic guts.

Asked how things played out that day, Mr. Fang said it was pretty quiet. The veteran with SkyTrain, who is retiring next March, said he tried to remain calm so staff could "think straight" and find the problem component. He said things were more active in the SkyTrain control room. It took several reboot efforts to get the system working again.

The stack was among several that help control the movement of the driverless trains – although people in the control room have some latitude for guiding them. Mr. Fang noted their components dated back to 1992. "Old doesn't mean it's bad. It may be old, but it's very reliable," he said.

Later, Mr. Cummings was equally emphatic, suggesting the use of vintage but reliable equipment is common in transit systems in North America.

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"Some of the systems you would see in places like New York, Chicago and Boston are very old systems. You've got to take a look at the reliability of the system versus the age of the system," he told reporters in the vehicle maintenance facility, where SkyTrain cars are fixed and upgraded.

Mr. Cummings called the recent problems bad coincidences. "They happened back to back. The odds against that happening were enormous, but it did happen," he said, noting that passengers remain committed to SkyTrain.

He said the system moved about 750,000 people over the weekend, handling demand generated by the Celebration of Light fireworks show, Pride Day, and free transit organized to atone for the recent problems.

"That's a pretty good vote of confidence from our customers."

Tuesday's tour took media through five areas of the centre – home base for 670 people who operate and maintain SkyTrain. Staff is expected to grow when the new Evergreen Line to the northeastern suburbs begins running in 2016.

The tour included a stop in the control room where operators track individual trains on five giant TV screens. At the time of the late-morning tour, 46 trains were running across the system.

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SkyTrain officials noted 40 per cent of system delays are caused by passengers holding doors and even throwing such items as newspapers onto the tracks. Some are sensitive enough for a newspaper to stop trains.

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More


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