British Columbia

Most delays on SkyTrain due to false alarms

Metro Vancouver commuters lost a week due to train delays in 2016

Metro Vancouver commuters lost a week due to train delays in 2016

Overall transit ridership increased by 4.5 per cent in 2016. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

The next time you are on SkyTrain and hear the dreaded, "Attention all passengers" announcement, chances are it's actually nothing.

Of the one week's worth of time lost to delays last year for Expo and Millennium line commuters,  two days were due to what TransLink calls unconfirmed track intrusions — where the alarm is tripped for something on the track, but attendants don't find anything.

Whenever the track intrusion alarm is tripped, TransLink has to stop trains in the area and send officials to make sure there are no people, animals or objects on the tracks, said spokesperson Jill Drews. 

"It does take time to investigate in some cases. It's really an issue of customer safety and one that we can't ignore."

Delay times and their reasons

TransLink has made improvements to its intrusion alarm system in an effort to reduce false alarms, Drews said.

"Recently, we've made some upgrades on the Millennium Line which is a laser-based intrusion alarm system, meaning that if anything interrupts the laser beam, the alarm will be triggered. We have made adjustments to its sensitivity, which have reduced unconfirmed track intrusions by 55 per cent over the last few years."

CBC News analyzed stoppages on the Expo and Millennium lines that delayed customers for more than five minutes in 2016. There were 1,351, an average of 3.7 per day.

Taken together, these delays constituted seven days of lost time for Metro Vancouver commuters over the entire year. Two days were due to the above-mentioned false alarms and nearly two days of delays were caused by problems with doors being held or not closing and operations staff having to hold or manually drive trains to keep the system moving.

However, Drews said, that's out of hundreds of train trips each day, with as many as 67 trains running at once during the morning rush hour. Most of those trains — 95 per cent — are not delayed at all, she added.

Delays in the Gateway Station area caused the most delays to customers in 2016. (CBC)

'Problem station'

Of the stoppages that originated at stations, Gateway in Surrey had both the most delays and the ones that cost customers the most time — 12.5 hours — in 2016.

"We've noticed it's a problem station for customers throwing items on the tracks. Sometimes we can confirm that, sometimes not.

"But we want to just let our customers know to please keep any garbage, any items off the tracks. It delays all your fellow commuters, because we have to investigate every alarm triggered."

Other stations where delays cost customers significant amounts of time were 22nd Street (11.2 hours), Patterson (7.2 hours), Renfrew (6.5 hours) and Stadium (6.4 hours).

This map shows Expo and Millennium line outages originating at stations where customers were delayed for five minutes or more. Click on a dot for more details.

At most stations, the biggest cause of delays were track intrusion alarms where nothing was found. But there were also some exceptions. 

At busy transfer stations such as Broadway and Columbia, train doors caused the most delays, but these delays happened less frequently than other stations and didn't last as long.

At 29th Avenue, the site of a police-involved shooting in December that closed the station for several hours, security incidents caused the most delays. At Brentwood Town Centre, the main culprit was emergencies involving SkyTrain customers, often medical in nature.

The longest delays happened in December, which was the only month that had a significant number of stoppages due to weather. However, unconfirmed track intrusions which could also have been due to snow, as well as door problems and operational delays all accounted for more lost time that month.

Early morning commuters endured the longest waits in 2016, with the lengthiest delays between 5 and 6 a.m.  

The average amount of time lost per delay was 7.6 minutes.

What about the Canada Line?

CBC News requested the same data for the Canada Line, but was told by TransLink that Protrans B.C., the SNC-Lavalin subsidiary that operates the line, would not provide it.

CBC News has filed a freedom of information request to obtain this data. 

About the Author

Tara Carman

Data Journalist

Tara Carman is an investigative journalist who specializes in finding the stories buried in big data. She has more than a decade of experience reporting in B.C., across Canada and overseas. She joined CBC News in February 2017. You can reach her at tara.carman@cbc.ca or on Twitter @tarajcarman.

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