TransLink executives keep using the same word to describe Monday's system-wide shut down — unprecedented. That may be, but in the world of crisis communications, worst-case scenarios are exactly the situations for which corporations should be prepared.

Alyn Edwards — who specializes in crisis communications for Vancouver firm Peak Communicators — says it's unacceptable for people in charge of transportation to be unprepared.

"Anybody with that responsibility would know that the dark day is coming. The day when the system crashes. It's inevitable that this type of thing is going to happen," said Edwards.

Yet TransLink did look unprepared. At 12:20 p.m. PT Monday, the SkyTrain in which I was a passenger suddenly lost power, and by 12:45 p.m. — a minute after my train limped into Commercial-Broadway station, and a flustered attendant told passengers to get out without explanation — I realized TransLink had a major problem: a failure to communicate.

Commuters were hustled out of the station, and gates were pulled down. No SkyTrain or TransLink staff were on the public's side of the gate to explain what was happening, or offer advice on which bus to take. Two transit police officers and two transit supervisors eventually arrived at the station to take questions from the public, but there were no staff posted at three of the four entrances to Commercial-Broadway — the busiest transit hub in the Lower Mainland.

Non-existent communication

At Stadium station the communication was non-existent. The CBC crew did not see a single TransLink employee, bulletin or notice in the hour and a half spent outside the Beatty Street entrance.

TransLink was communicating on Twitter, but used the social media platform to ask for patience. Tweets directed people to its trip planning website, and then informed people the website was down because of too much traffic.

It wasn't until four hours after the shutdown that chief operating officer Doug Kelsey spoke, and then, only to select media outlets.

By far the biggest complaint heard from the public was about a lack of information from TransLink, and a lack of people on the ground who could help them get on their way.

Ryan O'Connell, acting president of CUPE local 7000, the union representing SkyTrain workers, pointed out that the 40 or so attendants on shift were focused on getting people off trains and manually driving trains to where they needed to be.

"We don't have the staffing level to handle [a crisis] like this," O'Connell said.

A fundamental mistake

But that doesn't explain why other TransLink staff weren't positioned outside train stations to help commuters. Alyn Edwards says a fundamental rule in a crisis, is for a company to give as much information to its employees, as soon as possible, so they can fan out and inform the public.

"They are the ambassadors. They are the first line of information from clients, customers and in this case, commuters, and I believe that was a fundamental mistake that was made yesterday," said Edwards.

Today, Translink revealed its latest communication challenge: offering to compensate the public by making transit free on B.C. Day. It's an offer that has fallen flat on social media, and a reminder that in in the world of crisis communications there is always room for improvement.

CBC