Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Vancouver’s winter weather nightmare raises questions about Olympic readiness

with 13 comments

Canadian Press

The last two weeks have been a winter weather nightmare for Vancouver, with huge dumps of snow followed by rain, heavy slush and flooding. All over the city, people are griping about the toll storm after storm has taken on their holiday season.

But they’re asking another question, too: what if it happens during the 2010 Winter Olympics?

Really? Was that top of mind when you were stuck for an hour waiting for a SkyTrain at metrotown? Or when you were unable to get around on the North Shore because of bus reroutes?

I suppose at least it is welcome that there is some acknolweldgement that some organisations are admitting they were not that well prepared.The airport for example – “We have already ordered a couple of extra pieces of snow-clearing equipment for 2010” – tho0ugh I am not sure that a couple of pieces is quite enough. I think some variable sign messages at the east end of  Sea Island would be useful too, to divert people to lots where there are parking spots instead of wasting time in line ups trying to get out of lots that have no space available.

The city’s transit system will be different in 2010, with more buses and a new subway line that won’t be affected by weather because most of it runs underground, said Ken Hardie,

But that new subway emerges from its tunnel at Marine Drive and then is in the open all the way to both Richmond Centre and the airport. And the short platform lengths mean the SkyTrain method of operating longer trains with a driver are not an option for the Canada Line.And while they may be more new buses, will there actually be funding in place to ensure that they will be operating

But my real point is that Olympic readiness is frankly a minor headache. We can expect the weather to get steadily worse. Yes we came near to breaking records this year – but the idea that this is exceptional is wrong headed. When climate changes, precedents are no longer a guide as to how to proceed. Steering the ship by staring at its wake is pretty stupid. Because the planet is warmer now, there is more energy driving the weather systems. Because the ocean is warmer, currents are changing. This means that more severe weather events are inevitable – and they will of progressively greater severity. We have done nothing very much to reduce our contribution to this process, and failed this year to agree to do anything different. And the scientists are now admitting that their earlier forecasts were far too conservative as they left out a number of feedback mechanisms.

It is now too late to stop this process. But it does mean we have to revisit our contingency plans and get ready for a different weather pattern than the ones we have been using for event planning. And I for one have very little confidence in organsiations which admit that  their plans are dependent on divine intervention. But mostly planning should not be what to do for the Olympics but what to do to make sure the place does not come to a grinding standstill for days on end when confronted by entriely predictable worsening weather conditions.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 30, 2008 at 11:15 am

13 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. The problem with SkyTrain in the snow has four main issues:

    a) The Linear Induction Motors are only 1 cm. above the reaction rail and are prone to snow and ice damage.

    b) The outside sliding doors fail due to ice build up.

    c) The switches (movable frog switches) and switch motors are prone to ice and snow damage and cannot be operated manually, unlike failed switches on a at-grade LRT system which can be operates manually safely in case of problems.

    d)Poorly designed stations allows falling snow onto the tracks and sets of the anti-intrusion alarms.

    RAV doesn’t have issues a, b, or d – but the issue of (c) switch motors is endemic with automatic transit systems. LRT doesn’t have a great issue with this because if a switch fails a switchman (pointsman for Stephen) is stationed at the failed switch to safely operate it manually. If that fails, the driver can operate the switch manually as well (I have seen it done in Portland).

    Some years ago, during a snow storm, operators tried to ram a SkyTrain through a snow drift, but the ice and snow under the LIM built up to such a degree that it derailed the train.

    RAV being a conventional metro doesn’t have LIM’s and its associated problems, but switching problems will plague the system in the snow, just like SkyTrain.

    Another problem with a metro like RAV in the snow, is that it may operate quite well but if the rest of the transit system is at a standstill, no one can get to it to use it.

    In Denver, with their blizzard last winter, the LRT system operated throughout the Blizzard, only to be shut down because no one could get to it to use it!

    I’ll wager that VANOC types pray every night that there will be no snow in Vancouver for the 2010 games – a winter Olympics, without snow.

    Malcolm J.

    December 30, 2008 at 4:33 pm

  2. There is absolutely nothing wrong with anything/ anyone called Frog something.. all joking aside YES I did think about 2010 while I was waiting last Friday at Broadway and Commercial–for well over 40 minutes– for a bendy bus (quite a few of the UBC buses were regular short buses at that time!). But it looks like many people are suffering from collective amnesia or have no clue about even the most recent history.. Heavy snowfalls are a given in Canada–even in B.C. and even in the Lower Mainland.Not every year but..We aren’t in the tropics! When I lived in Toronto the first bad snow fall ALWAYS took everyone by surprise! and this is true not just in Canada. In my college years I lived in the Auvergne region of France, a region with an average altitude of 500 metres, a few high enough mountains and severe winters. We had snow from mid-December to mid-March and, in these days before freeways and a army of snowplows, driving any country roads wasn’t fun and often deadly (some people actually froze to death in their car every so often) but obviously we managed. This year an heavier snow fall than usual fell and it was like the end of the world! what!! we got snow??? yet just looking at all the old houses, with thick stone walls, a steeply sloped roof, with often an outside DOOR and staircase at roof level, should mean something. Back to TransLink: how ironic that so many people who wouldn’t dream of using public transit most of the time flock to it at the first sign of snow and EXPECT that the SkyTrain and the buses will run like magic! if you can’t drive your SUV up a snowy road what makes you think the bus can? Congratulations to all the bus drivers, especially the one on the 99 B line last Friday, who had to put up with a woman who kept complaining that SHE WAS LATE for ..

    Red frog

    December 30, 2008 at 10:44 pm

  3. On Christmas Eve afternoon I waited forty minutes at Broadway for a train (which got as far as the Slocan Street overpass before stopping for one of the fallen trees – good thing I just needed to get to 29th which was an easy walk).

    While waiting I got talking to a couple of Skytrain attendants, and one other passenger whose husband is a bus driver. Apparently the bus he was driving was put out of commission by an irate passenger who decided to show his anger at his long wait by smashing the front windows of the bus! Nice move, idiot. I bet the rest of the passengers who were waiting for that bus were really impressed.

    Bill Kinkaid

    December 30, 2008 at 11:00 pm

  4. The Canada Line does not use moveable frogs for their switches. The switches are of a simpler design. Track switch heaters should keep most of the snow and ice at bay on Canada Line switches and allow the points to move freely.

    The story about the SkyTrain derailing over plowing through heavy snow is about 20 years old and has not occurred since.

    Trains can be run manually over switches that are plugged by ice, however it does slow the system down considerably. Automatic train control systems are much safer and provide much more reliable operation than systems using humans to operate trains. Of course, money must be spent to keep the system separated from road traffic and pedestrians for an automated system to work.


    December 30, 2008 at 11:38 pm

  5. John, sorry, your claim that, “Automatic train control systems are much safer and provide much more reliable operation than systems using humans to operate trains.” is a myth. (See Gerald Fox’s AGT/LRT study) SkyTrain’s annual death rate is about twice of that of Calgary’s; also there is no validity that automatic transit systems are more reliable, in fact studies have shown that they are less reliable.

    Your claim that,”Trains can be run manually over switches that are plugged by ice…”, is also not true. If a switch is frozen in the wrong direction, it will derail the train. It happened to a VIA Rail passenger train at Vancouver Central Station, which was widely reported on the news.

    As for the snow derailing SkyTrain, of course is not happened again because transit authorities know what the result will be and have to hand clear large show drifts. There are no snow plows or snow brooms on SkyTrain.

    Note to Stephen ‘taxpayer’ is a name I use infrequently on a US blog, this new computer remebers everything and forgets nothing, unless I completely clear the cookies – appologies! Just delete my previous post.


    Malcolm J.

    December 31, 2008 at 7:14 am

  6. Had a chuckle this morning about Corrigan’s comments re snow clearing.

    I find it funny that people complain about the City not doing enough to clear the snow, yet one look out my window tells me that most Vancouver residents aren’t shoveling much – if at all – around Vancouver’s streets either.

    When I lived in Japan there was a voluntary phone list I was on for snow days. In the evening on any day it snowed, one member of the group would be responsible for calling all those on the (voluntary) list and we would all go out and clear the snow. We brought out own shovels, and kept a small amount of money for purchasing hot sake for the group after. No better way to get to know your neighbours, and with 10 guys it’s amazing how much of the neighbourhood you can clear of snow!


    December 31, 2008 at 8:25 am

  7. I recall a couple of years ago Portland’s LRT system was shut down because of ice building up on the overhead wires – like Vnacouver’s trolley system was shut down last week because of a miscimmunication on dispatching the deicing trucks.

    I understand that Portland now deices wires to address this LRT problem.

    Dec 23, 2008 Oregon News:

    The MAX light rail system fared slightly better. Blue Line trains were running at 15 to 30 minute intervals throughout Monday, but had to turn around before reaching Gresham because of the weather.

    Also frozen were the entire Yellow Line through north Portland and Red Line to Portland International Airport. The latter reopened Tuesday morning.

    Several problems hampered the trains. Ice sometimes collected on overhead wires that power the trains, snow got stuck in the grooves for train wheels on street-side segments and switches became frozen shut.

    TriMet spokeswoman Peggy LaPoint said Portland’s light rail system was designed for the city’s typical weather, and that doesn’t include accumulations of ice.

    Ron C.

    December 31, 2008 at 1:22 pm

  8. Malcolm, I am tired of your slanting the facts to keep building your eerily odd obsession with the slander of SkyTrain. You truly do yourself a disservice.

    SkyTrain has NEVER had a collision between two automatic trains. Every collision has involved human error with a manually operated train. SkyTrain has suffered NO fatalities due to trains colliding, in fact not even any serious injuries. The fatalities on SkyTrain are attributed SOLEY to suicides, people willfully trespassing, or those with physical disabilities who unfortunately fall into the track at the right time. Unfortunately, no statistics are kept on how many times the train control system stops the train in time to prevent these incidents, but it is quite often. When these incidents do happen, often the laws of physics are at play. If you jump in front of a moving train, it often cannot stop in time regardless as to who or what is driving it. SkyTrain cannot be blamed for that. Even when measuring suicide statistics, SkyTrain fares much better than systems like the TTC subway, even if you accounted for the vastly different ridership numbers.

    As for reliability, we can throw quotes at each other saying studies say this or that. All studies are not created equal and many a study have been slanted to support a preconceived view. Our own Provincial Government is one of the biggest culprits of this tactic as is evidenced with the Gateway project. A study means nothing unless it is peer reviewed and accepted by the peers in the industry or technical discipline. Perhaps you can provide some links or post these studies. I don’t have access to them.

    Yes, a train can run manually over a switch that is not operating properly. A switch can have faults that affect the signaling system but do not mean that it is jammed in the wrong direction. Of course, a train cannot run over a switch that cannot be restored to the proper direction of travel. Unless it is mechanically broken, moving a switch over that is blocked due to ice is a matter of having an ice pick or chisel, perhaps a portable heating source of some sort and some elbow grease.

    No, there are no snow plows and snow booms on SkyTrain because WE LIVE IN VANCOUVER!!!! Climate change could of course make equipment like this necessary, but we’ll need a few more winters like this before the equipment is purchased. In SkyTrain’s early days, the people who ran the system did not know much about running rail rapid transit and made some mistakes. Much has been learned since then and now snow trains are run at night to prevent such significant snow build ups. I should note, that these snow trains can be run at minimal cost because there are no operators required to drive the trains.

    After seeing many posts from you Malcolm, it seems that you are incapable of seeing a single positive point about SkyTrain which is a shame. You have let your utter hate for SkyTrain consume you and affect your balance of judgement. SkyTrain is not perfect, but it does have a lot going for it. Conventional LRT certainly has its place. It can be cheaper if people are willing to give up sufficient public road space to accommodate it or there are existing rights of way that make sense in the context of what makes a logical route. It is my belief that the reluctance to give up road space to make way for public transit priority, whether it be bus or rail priority, is what is really holding up more cost effective transit expansion in the Metro Vancouver area.

    Computers will not replace human operated LRT altogether, but if you are going for the expense of a completely grade separated system, they make a lot of sense. I would welcome conventional LRT in the Metro Vancouver area, but its up to the “powers that be” to decide whether the road space afforded conventional LRT should be given up to make conventional LRT as cost effective as it is capable of being. Should the public decide that a fully grade separated system is what they want, the automatic train control makes an abundant amount of sense. It provide unparalleled flexibility. It is very safe indeed, just as safe as a human operated system if not safer and just as reliable if not more reliable. I would like to check these studies you refer to in depth. It would make very interesting reading if they are done well.


    December 31, 2008 at 10:54 pm

  9. I read somewhere–and will try to find it–that in a couple of towns, Paris for one, subways are already semi-automated on normal runs, though the driver still “drives”. However at peak times the computer takes over to ensure that trains run as close behind one another as safely possible. What is definitely a fact is that the RATP (Paris transit company) is slowly retrofitting platforms with platform screen doors to prevent “jumpers”. Paris already has one line fully automated–and with screen doors–line 14. The goal is to have all the metros lines automated. Of course a few other cities around the world are also doing the same thing. It is strange that the SkyTrain was built without platform screen doors as they were already used on several other automated light rail systems built before 1986.

    Red frog

    January 1, 2009 at 12:06 am

  10. John – so where do LRT trains collide on a regular basis? Your facts are so slanted that they cease to become fact. The fact is, on a per km. basis, LRT is the safest public transit mode around. Don’t like it, then complain to the LRTA, not me. The cost of running SkyTrain is not the drivers, but all the technicians and maintenance men needed to keep the metro operating. It is a fallacy to believe that a few trains can be run at little cost; I’ll wager it would be cheaper to operate LRT to clear snow.

    Quote: “No, there are no snow plows and snow booms on SkyTrain because WE LIVE IN VANCOUVER!!!!”

    Sorry, not true – plows and especially brooms may damage the sensitive inductive loops under the track and are not used. Isn’t funny that every-time it snows, SkyTrain comes to grief?

    Actually not all deaths on SkyTrain are attributed to suicide, as with Calgary’s LRT, which still has a lower death rate than SkyTrain.

    Ron – Portland’s LRT had problems with ice twice. The first time, an ice storm brought down the overhead because the tensioning device wasn’t set up for the weight of ice on the line. (1 cm of ice on the reaction rail would bring SkyTrain to a halt). The second time (and I was in Portland at the time) an ice storm filled the flange-ways with ice, lifting the wheels and preventing the electrical connection from wheel to rail. Again, not faced with this problem before the LRT system was down until the flange-ways in the city were cleared by hand.

    Portland now has flanger for use on both the LRT line when it runs on girder rail and on the streetcar. Calgary has had little problems in the snow and I repeat this again, Denver’s LRT system was the only public transit available during the great blizzard last year.

    Red Frog – the EEC law demands platform doors on automatic transit system stations and has given many older metro systems a time table to accomplish this. This edict was the last nail in the coffin for VAL for domestic French sales.

    Malcolm J.

    January 2, 2009 at 10:12 am

  11. I would expect that both Denver and Salt Lake City’s LRT systems would be built with systems to handle heavy snow loads given their locations and typical winter weather.
    In Portland and Vancouver, it can be seen that “extreme” weather causes glitches to service on both types of systems.

    Ron C.

    January 2, 2009 at 1:11 pm

  12. Ok, I try not to get involved in the “Transit Wars” on Stephen’s Blog, it’s akin to being guests in someone’s front parlour and engaging in a shouting match, but I will take exception to “every-time it snows, SkyTrain comes to grief”.

    There were at least 3 snowfalls prior to Christmas Eve, culminating with this large 8-10 inch dump we woke up to on Dec 22

    and from a commuter’s point of view, SkyTrain performed admirably during this time, the longer, semi-automatic trains had little problem delivering North Burnaby residents to work and back.

    It wasn’t until late on the 24th, when yet another 8-10 inches fell, that trees started coming down on the tracks which sent the service down the tubes.

    (I’m surprised no-one’s mentioned the door incident… note to Translink: in the future, never run a train in revenue service with the door alarm disabled…

    Corey, I hear you w.r.t unshovelled sidewalks. I always do it, so on day’s like today my walk is perfectly passable when others are a bumpy sheet of ice… the neighbors on either side and I took turns during the storms on the 24th and 26th, every couple of hours someone would do all of us; one time I just kept going until I got to the next clear patch… of course there’s always a few that don’t; the guy with the nicest house on the block did his own walk, but not his sidewalk… I couln’t even walk on it yesterday.


    January 2, 2009 at 11:42 pm

  13. Whatever Malcolm. You are a “true believer” and there is nothing I could ever say that would change your mind. I am open minded. I unfortunately don’t think you are. Its a wonder that you continue to live in the Lower Mainland considering how much you seem to detest it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say anything positive about anything in the region which is too bad.

    Our public transit system isn’t perfect, but its not too shabby either. Its certainly a lot better than many places, and I know you will vehemently disagree with me on that…go ahead. You are always right and everyone else is always wrong unless they agree with you perceptions. Every other place out there is better than Vancouver according to you. You know all and everyone else knows nothing. Not a terribly great way to make friends or influence people.

    You are one of the ones who stifles public debate instead of encouraging it. That is a shame. You won’t get anywhere promoting the cause of LRT in this region by constantly trashing SkyTrain. Whether you like it or not, the politicians make all the big decisions. The public by and large likes SkyTrain, and they know that. You have to work that into your arguments, but you won’t.

    One last point, as for collisions, I was referring more to various subway systems that have had several high profile crashes over the years that invariably were due to operator error and cost many lives. You don’t get many collisions with conventional LRT although there can be a significant potential for serious accidents with automobiles depending on how the system is designed. Often the motorists are at fault, but the results can often be fatal.

    And your charge that SkyTrain has deaths not attributable to suicide….you really should back that statement up. What exactly are you referring to? What does it matter though. You won’t change your mind and SkyTrain is perennially evil and unsafe. You will take that to your grave no matter what.


    January 8, 2009 at 11:10 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: