Saturday, April 30, 2011

SkyTrain is not the limit

Written by  Douglas John Bowen, Managing Editor
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Vancouver's TransLink incentive to expand, and market, rail and transit options. The momentum is likely to continue. TransLink, part of British Columbia Rapid Transit Co., by almost all accounts performed admirably during the 2010 Winter Olympics, held Feb. 12-28 in Vancouver, British Columbia,

handling bulging customer volumes with few problems (as opposed to other early and sometimes high-profile snafus in other arenas). But it wasn't just coping with the crowds; TransLink excelled at managing customers, assisting them, and encouraging them on all its modal choices, be it bus, trolleybus, regional rail, or its iconic SkyTrain service. Marketing triumphed as a result of good planning.

For Doug Kelsey, named president of BCRTC last month and also serving as executive vice president of TransLink, the results and benefits are ongoing, fruit generated from more than nine years of preparation.

TransLink's Winter Olympics performance was, he says, "a great example of strategy; you better make sure your gear is maintained, and that you are very pro-active." He points out that "one of our lines carried 600,000 people in one day," while the regional network handled between 1.6 million and 1.8 million boardings every day for the 17-day Olympic event span—roughly equivalent to a Chicago. "For a smaller system, that was a lot for us." Moreover, it meant a new game plan for each of 17 days, as venues changed, riders surged to different points of the system, and the inevitable glitches arose. Kelsey says TransLink staff, based on customer feedback, met the challenge.

It also spurred within TransLink itself. "It got our staff out of the offices; to me that was cultural," Kelsey says. "It gives you an appreciation for standing on your feet, even if only for 17 days. It gave staff a whole new appreciation" for the customer's point of view. Kelsey hopes to institutionalize this on-site approach.

Still, he cautions, for all that went smoothly, "You have to be humble about this; things don't always click. You're dealing with human nature, electronics. In our case, we were fortunate. Everything worked out pretty well."

Mixing and matching transit parts

TransLink may see itself as small, but its operations are as complex as some other larger North American transit properties. Established in 1999, it oversees SkyTrain, the automated rapid transit system synonymous with Vancouver itself. Skytrain includes the original Expo Line, established in 1986 with Mark I equipment from UTDC, and the newer Millenium Line which opened in 2002. Both are operated by TransLink subsidiary British Columbia Rapid Transit Company Ltd. Both lines also are served by Mark II equipment provided by Bombardier Transportation.

TransLink in 2009 opened its Canada Line, serving the city's waterfront, running underground through Vancouver and then along an elevated guideway, branching into two and serving Vancouver International Airport, among other locales. Rolling stock, while similar to SkyTrain, is slightly larger, built by Rotem. The Canada Line is operated by ProTrans BC, a private concessionaire.

West Coast Express is TransLink's regional ("commuter") line, roughly 43 miles long, with eight stations linking Vancouver with southeastern suburbs; it is operated by a separate TransLink subsidiary.

Still to come: the Evergreen Line, set to debut in 2014. The roughly 7-mile line, once planned as a direct extension of the Millennium Line, will link Lougheed Town Centre (Burnaby) and Douglas College, using SkyTrain technology.

And while TransLink doesn't ignore bus, unlike many North American cities it never gave up on electric trolleybus operations, Kelsey says. "We have a relatively new fleet or electric trolleybuses, part of the carbon footprint we're leaving."

Reaping residual rewards

The Olympians and their entourages are gone now, but other visitors and transit users will continue to reap the customer and marketing benefits—including those attending the American Public Transporation Association's 2010 Rail Conference June 6-9.

Kelsey cites one example established systemwide during the Olympics. "We integrated the Olympic event ticket prices right into the tickets, themselves," he says. "And we merged public transit information together with the venues—virtually a 'one-stop-shopping' experience for train or boat or bus. At key points, we had personnel stationed to assist, to ask, 'Where do you want to go?'" He adds, "We're going to continue to do this for special events."

On a more tangible level, APTA visitors "will see more buses on the road, 48 new SkyTrain cars, and the new Canada Line," Kelsey says. West Coast Express service also is in the offing.

Perhaps mindful of SkyTrain's allure, however, TransLink has a demonstration on tap for APTA attendees. "We're also going to do a pilot test, 'SkyTour,' the world's first automated transit tour on a headset." SkyTour will be offered initially in English, but eventually will be available in six languages.

Missing from the picture will be the demonstration streetcar, the "Olympic Line," that connected the Canada Line to Granville Island during the 2010 Games. The line, a joint effort by Bombardier Transportation and the city of Vancouver, has since been discontinued. Kelsey stresses the positives a demonstration offers, even if only on a (for now) temporary basis. "Any time you do that, it's a great thing. It was a terrific success. But it's going to have to compete for funding ,so it's not in the plan right now. That doesn't mean it doesn't have a future." Lest anyone doubt such potential, he points out, SkyTrain's debut in 1986 was in fact a demonstration project.

By contrast, Amtrak service to Vancouver still holds at two trains per day, bolstered in part by anticipated ridership during the Olympics. TransLink, not directly involved in such service enhancement, worked to encourage the link as much as it could, sometimes in seemingly small ways, Kelsey said. "Outside the train station, there was no washroom; we had to find ways to amend that," he says.

Properly encouraged, Amtrak service may be just the start of increased U.S.-Canada passenger rail frequencies, including high speed rail, Kelsey says. "Any time you can open avenues up, those are great things."

Looking ahead

Kelsey doesn't want TransLink to rest on its accomplishments. Told Vancouver is often touted as an environmental model of good rail and public transit, even within the environmentally conscious Pacific Northwest, he responds, "Leadership is a relative thing." Noting progress in nearby Seattle and Portland, Ore., he adds, "We all can learn from each other; no one has the full exclusive rights to be a leader."

TransLink officials talk regularly to Portland and Seattle counterparts "as needed," he says, and TransLink's West Coast Express crews helped train their Seattle Sound Transit counterparts. "And we lease cars back and forth, as well. We do have an ongoing relationship, and I think a very good relationship." A regional culture shared by the three cities does help, he allows.

But TransLink would pursue its goals solo if it had to. "Our system is 100% sustainable," and "people feel very strongly about having a long-term livable place, in which transit is one component," Kelsey says.

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