As I noted in this recent post, Vancouver has had spectacular success with its public transport system over the past 20 years – generating huge growth in patronage, which has helped contribute to Vancouver generally performing extremely well in world liveability rankings. The comments on that post highlighted a surprising number of people who had lived in Vancouver, with two really strong themes coming through around why people thought Vancouver had been so successful:

  • A really simple fare system that allowed easy transfers and offered really good value for money
  • The Skytrain system

For this post I’m going to look at the Skytrain system, wrapped around the question of whether it offers almost the perfect solution for high volume public transport routes. Here’s the Translink description of the Skytrain system:

Launched in 1986, SkyTrain is the oldest and one of the longest fully-automated, driverless, rapid transit systems in the world. The Expo and Millennium SkyTrain Lines connect downtown Vancouver with the cities of Burnaby, New Westminster and Surrey. The Canada Line connects downtown Vancouver to the Vancouver International Airport (YVR) and the city of Richmond.

SkyTrain runs on a mostly elevated guideway, high above city streets, though there are a few stations located underground. The name SkyTrain is derived from the first SkyTrain line, the Expo Line.

British Columbia Rapid Transit Company Ltd. (BCRTC), on behalf of TransLink, maintains and operates two of the three SkyTrain lines in Metro Vancouver.

Both the Expo and the Millennium lines are operated out of BCRTC’s Operations and Maintenance Centre in Burnaby, BC where more than 630 dedicated staff work in the areas of administration, engineering, elevator and escalator maintenance, field operations, vehicle maintenance and wayside maintenance.

BCRTC currently serves about 250,000 passengers per weekday and has an on-time service delivery performance rating of 95.46 per cent.

Although the name refers to the elevation of the line, and much of the Skytrain system is elevated, this isn’t really a defining characteristic of the system in my mind. Furthermore, a very large portion of the most recent line to open, the Canada Line, is actually underground.

The three lines of the Skytrain are shown in the network map below: With only three lines, the Skytrain system certainly doesn’t have a huge amount of coverage, compared to many rail networks around the world. In fact it quite possibly has fewer route kilometres than Auckland’s rail network – which is an interesting rejoinder to those who say rail will never work in Auckland because the system isn’t extensive enough. So how successful has the Skytrain system been? Well let’s have a look at its patronage over the past 20 years: Some of the big jumps are obviously associated with the openings or extensions of lines, but it’s pretty remarkable to see a rail system which has gone from 25 million rail trips a year to 120 million trips in the space of just a couple of decades. It puts Auckland’s otherwise impressive leap from 2.5 million rail trips in 2003 to 10.5 million today into a bit of sobering perspective.

What’s the key to this success? Why is the Skytrain system used so much? How can it attract so many trips when it’s a relatively limited system in terms of its reach? Well I’d offer three main reasons for the success – although once again I’m keen to hear from those who have lived in Vancouver to see whether there’s anything else worth mentioning:

1) Convenience and Frequency

This effectively relates to the quality of service provided by the Skytrain and the usefulness that it provides for those wanting to travel around Vancouver. Obviously the system is fully grade separated, which means fast travel times even along fairly lengthy (distance wise) trips. The system is built to a high quality, well maintained and so forth.

Photo Credit: Bombardier

But the main attractiveness, I think, is the frequency of service. Because the Skytrain vehicles are driverless, the connection between adding frequency and adding operating cost has been broken – so instead of running less frequent long trains in the peak, we have extremely frequent but relatively short trains. Missed one, well that’s OK because the next train is just a minute or two away. First train full, well that’s OK because the next one will be here extremely soon. From the customer’s perspective, having a two carriage train arrive every 2 minutes is much more convenient than a 10 carriage train arriving every 10 minutes – and the driverless operation of the Skytrain enables that to happen.

But perhaps even more brilliantly, driverless operation allows for extremely good off-peak frequencies. If the main cost in operating the trains just sits in their purchase, then it makes sense to keep those train in service as much as possible. So even during off-peak times, the service frequency of the Skytrain remains exceptionally good. This is shown in the table below from WikipediaSo on the combined section of the Expo-Millennium lines we have a train every 108 seconds at peak times (a frequency that’s extremely difficult to achieve with non-automated trains) and during off-peak a train every 3-4 minutes. So even at 10.30pm on a Sunday night, the longest you’re going to have to wait for a train on this section is 4 minutes. The longest you’ll ever have to wait for a train on combined sections of track is 10 minutes on the Canada Line. This is frequency you can live your life around and is utterly critical to the success of the system – and completely dependent on its driverless operation as otherwise it would be impossibly expensive to run such high frequencies, especially off-peak.

2) Land-Use Integration

As I previously detailed in this post, Vancouver has a number of superb examples of best-practice integration between land-use and rapid transit. Put simply, while the Skytrain system doesn’t serve a lot of Vancouver’s area, because intensification has been concentrated around the system’s stations so effectively, the Skytrain certainly does serve a big proportion of Vancouver’s population.

Not only has Vancouver located so much of its residential intensification around the Skytrain network, but also employment opportunities – and not just downtown. By having a large downtown population and many employment locations around suburban Skytrain stations, Vancouver sees really strong two-way flows of passengers, further enhancing the efficiency of the system. Major attractions, such as shopping centres, are often located next to stations. Metrotown is a classic example of this integration (both photos taken very near Metrotown station):

3) Bus Integration

The clever integration of Vancouver’s extensive and very effective bus network with the Skytrain system has, I think, been utterly critical to its success. Because the Skytrain system is not extensive, it cannot reach everywhere and therefore relies heavily on feeder bus services to deliver its passengers – so it can then operate as railways do best: doing the heavy duty, backbone of the system, work.

The bus network interchanges with the Skytrain system regularly, allowing for the Skytrain to do extremely high capacity radial journeys while the cross-town buses combined with the Skytrain enable pretty easy “anywhere to anywhere” travel with just one transfer. The network is shown in the map below: Vancouver’s excellent fares system, based around a very simple zoned-based fare structure, make transferring between services extremely simple and attractive – meaning that in total there is a much higher number of “boardings” on Vancouver’s PT network (354 million in 2011) than there are “trips” (231 million in 2011). This indicates that a very significant proportion of PT trips in Vancouver involve a transfer.

By looking at Skytrain I think we can gather some really useful learnings which are applicable around the world, including Auckland. In my mind they are:

  • If at all possible, try to make your rail system go driverless. It enables such excellent frequencies without prohibitively high operating costs both at peak times and off-peak times.
  • Developing high density residential and employment areas around the rail network is both possible and clearly market attractive in Vancouver. Find out what makes it work there and apply to Auckland.
  • Integrate the bus system, using rail as the backbone. Don’t worry if the rail system isn’t massively extensive, just make sure it has many many feeder buses to keep those trains full.
  • Ensure there’s a fare system in place which is simple and easy to understand, and which encourages transfers between services.
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  1. Great post, the SkyTrain is wonderful.

    One attribute that is frequently overlooked is that the SkyTrain runs at an operating profit. i.e. fare revenue covers operating costs. This means that once the upfront capital costs are covered the system pays for itself. That’s a very good reason why Auckland should be looking at driverless light metro style systems on some of its future rail lines, especially where there is no need to provide for freight trains.

    Cue Nick R …

    1. I think my work is done here 🙂

      Indeed, if we are planning rapid transit lines that aren’t going to carry any freight we should have a good hard think about whether we need to design them for anything but cheap and extremely efficient automated metro operation.

  2. Would the raised sections of a system like this mean much extra cost of construction while still being visually appealing?

    I’m definitely sold on the driverless operation and grade separation, would you envisage a system like this replacing Auckland’s arterial buslanes at some point in the future? It would appear to have great advantages over say trams (my current day-dream for Dominion Road).

    1. Personally I would say this has the most potential being used in lieu of new heavy rail lines or busways in Auckland, rather than replacing buses on arterial roads.

      There isn’t anything inherent in this sort of system that requires it to be elevated, only grade separated. We can easily do that at ground level the same way as the northern busway or any of the existing rail lines or motorways are, although elevate might have applications in particular areas (Albany, Westgate and Botany spring to mind). Vancouver has sections elevated, in tunnel and at ground level.

  3. Interesting that it can move so many people with such poor line coverage. It gives Auckland hope.

  4. I’m in Vancouver at the moment, the sky train in from the airport certainly was well patronised even at 10 in the evening, I’m looking forward to see first hand how I find the system whilst I’m here. First thoughts are that it seems much more expensive that transit systems in the US, although admittedly $7.50 from the airport into the city is hardly a bad deal.

  5. @rtc
    The airport fare is essentially a $5 tax on non residents or one trip inward users, if you buy a book of 10 fares saver tickets from the 7-11 on level one of the domestic airport for $31.50, you do not pay the surcharge ( translink call it the yvr addfare)

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