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If you want to hear TransLink spokesperson Drew Snider’s golden voice turn to brass, try actually getting to the bottom of why the region’s rapid-transit system doesn’t run 24 hours.
“You’re going to hate me by the time this is done,” I chuckle.
“Oh well,” he replies, exhausted. The laugh I’m expecting never comes.
TransLink, and poor Snider, have been responding to media inquiries like this one since the days of Sam Sullivan. Kevin Falcon, flanked by Barwatch chairman John Teti, pledged extended SkyTrain service on weekends during Falcon’s B.C. Liberal leadership bid. More recently, our handsome mayor promoted extended bus and rail hours during his November 2011 municipal campaign. For Snider it’s a tired old question – though it still lingers on the breath of many a Granville-fleeing suburbanite.
The gripe: while rapid transit winds down at 1:15 a.m., the bars close at 3. Night buses, intended as the stop-gap, generally run until only 3:08 a.m., so if you don’t make your stop inside eight minutes of last call, well, your hour-and-a-half commute to Surrey Central just became a 2-hour-and-40-minute pilgrimage. And in the province with the “toughest drunk-driving laws in Canada” (albeit temporarily suspended), critics, bar owners, politicians and journalists are quick to point out the problem.
So, why does the region’s rapid-transit system shut down before the city itself? Unable to find a satisfying reply, The Dependent decided to compile its own.
Dollars seem the obvious, unsexy factor limiting SkyTrain’s hours of service. TranksLink operates at a $150-million annual deficit and the appetite for increasing cost in existing service lanes is nonexistant. But a quick analysis of the company’s operating metrics yields some surprising results.
According to the ever-patient Snider, a 40-foot city bus costs TransLink $117 an hour to operate. That figure applied to the venerable N19 night bus (that hour-and-a-half saviour of the Surrey-bound night-owl) works out to $175.50 per trip.
And key indicators in TransLink’s 2010 Financial and Performance Report, show SkyTrain runs at $1.98 per kilometer.
Let’s compare, shall we? The section of track running from Waterfront to King George, and mirroring the route of the N19, is 28.9 kms, suggesting an impressive cost per trip of $57.22 by train – less than a third of the price of the equivalent night bus, while taking less than half the time.
In other words, it appears TransLink could extend its eastbound SkyTrain service until 3:30 a.m., running trains every 15 minutes and halving the transit time, for the same price as the three existing N19 night buses running the exact same route.
Seeking to confirm our figures, we emailed our favourite local spokesman.
“No. We cannot endorse a cost figure or lead you to a number that could be used in the future,” he finally replied. “We’ve stated before that the cost issue, weighed against the need for the maintenance, is a non-starter. You have the publicly stated cost we talked about and if you want to speculate on that in your story, that’s your prerogative.”
In hindsight, we think we know why the effervescent Snider grew short with our requests to confirm figures: according to TransLink, the cost of operating late into the night is irrelevant compared to the issue Snider kept trying to focus on:
Maintenance, Maintenance, Maintenance
“One of the things that people need to remember is that SkyTrain goes through extensive maintenance every night,” Snider explained, back when he laughed at our jokes, and responded promptly to our emails. “During that downtime we shut the system down and go over a prescribed area of track and we check splices, we check the switches – anything else that needs maintaining gets worked on. At the same time the cars get cleaned and prepped for the next day. That’s during a three to three-and-a-half-hour window each night.”
Under the cover of darkness, work crews shut off power to the linear induction propulsion system and acquire clearance to enter the track. With the trains safely sleeping, crews pile into diesel-powered speeder cars and begin regularly scheduled maintenance, including:
According to Snider, the maintenance regime has been finely tuned to fit into the 3.5 hours available, and is critical in preventing costly service interruptions. But if economics are an unsexy explanation for SkyTrain’s slumber, maintenance is downright disappointing. The question on everyone’s wine-stained lips? “How do other cities do it then?”
The short answer is: they don’t.
The campaign to extend San Francisco rapid-transit service to 24 hours has over 25,000 likes on Facebook, and BART has a whole webpage dedicated to explaining its position. Boston’s rail system shuts down at about 1 a.m. In Washington, D.C., trains run until 3 a.m., but only on weekends. Closer to home, and size, Calgary’s C-Train runs until 1:30, resuming sporadic service at 4:00, and finally rolling in earnest again around 6:30 a.m.
But there are exceptions.
The Few, The Brave
Deirdre Parker, press liaison for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, gets no media calls about 24-hour rail service. New York operates all night.
“We’re sorta like the lifeblood of the city,” she explains. “It’s a 24-hour city.”
According to Parker, running 24 hours requires extensive infrastructure, coordination, and, occasionally, daring. The MTA recently began a new maintenance program dubbed “FastTrack”, wherein full portions of the subway are shut down while hordes of maintenance staff move in. Parker, and her many press releases, says it’s been incredibly successful, dramatically improving system efficiency and workplace safety – particularly since, before the days of FastTrack, maintenance crews would be working on active sections of track, and, when a train was coming, would simply get out of the way.
Chicago is the only other North American city we could find operating 24 hours. Even then, only two of their 19 rail lines run around the clock, with maintenance completed using that same impressive “listen and leap” strategy. But beyond their unique maintenance programs, the CTA and MTA also take advantage of extensive networks of rail infrastructure developed over centuries for re-routing trains and keeping their systems in constant motion.
“If you have the infrastructure you can provide alternate service,” Deirdre explains.
The infrastructure here in Vancouver, with its lonely tendrils of rapid transit, simply doesn’t support this level of service.
Fine – Just Give Us an Hour, Then!
Transit service levels are a balance of infrastructure, demand and priority.
Not long ago, Bay Area Rapid Transit completed a study on the impact of extending service on Friday nights and beginning later on Saturday mornings, thus maintaining the maintenance window and providing late-night revelers with a rapid route home.
“What we found in our surveys is that the people who use our service on Saturday morning were disproportionately people of colour who were going to service industry jobs in downtown San Francisco, and BART was the only way for them to go to work,” Jim Allison, BART spokesperson explains. “Our board determined that the negative impacts on those people – who need the transit system to get to work – outweighed the convenience factor for people who simply wanted to go to the bars and not have a designated driver or take a taxi.”
TransLink shares a similar view:
“Planning a trip right now with the existing service has to involve people looking at their own particular needs – their own particular time – and saying ‘Okay, I’m going to cut myself off at 2:30 instead of 3, and assume that I’ve got to get an earlier bus,” Snider suggests.
“It’s getting back to owning some of the responsibility for getting yourself home. You see the schedule, you make your plan, you stick to it as best you can, and don’t expect that a public agency is going to be there all the time. Because we’re responsible to taxpayers, we’re responsible to our customers, and the vast, vast majority are people who rely on it first thing in the morning to get to work and school.”
“So, what I’m hearing is that the coverage is adequate,” we reply, “and you’re not leaving people totally stranded, and frankly, the drunks can wait an extra hour for getting home.”
“Well, that’s one way of putting it,” Snider says. “I might be a bit more diplomatic than referring to the drunks finding another way of getting home, or waiting an extra hour. We’re not doing it because we’re myopic or we want people to drive drunk – we’re doing it because we need to maintain the service.”