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Buzzer in Chicago: TransLink presents at the conference, plus updates on other light rail lines

Cloud Gate in Millennium Park (also known as the bean).

Cloud Gate in Millennium Park (also known as the bean).

Just thought I’d kick this post off with a picture of something that isn’t a train or in a hotel this time!

Chicago’s Millennium Park is very near the hotel, and the Cloud Gate sculpture is enormously popular. As you can tell, people were all over it.

To recap, for those who don’t know: I’m at the APTA rail conference in Chicago this week, and I’m promoting the 2010 rail conference in Vancouver to our colleagues.

Yesterday the conference officially opened, and here’s what the TransLink and SkyTrain staff were up to at the sessions. (Nope, they’re not at Cloud Gate above!)

TransLink CEO Tom Prendergast chairs a luncheon session on safety at the APTA rail conference.

TransLink CEO Tom Prendergast chairs a luncheon session on safety at the APTA rail conference.

The audience of roughly 800 people listening to Tom at the luncheon session on safety.

The audience of roughly 800 people listening to Tom at the luncheon session on safety.

Tom Prendergast, TransLink’s CEO, chaired a panel at lunch called “CEOs Who Get It.” It was actually all about safety practices, and how organizations can tightly incorporate safety awareness into their work.

Talks from five leaders in the transportation industry showed how leadership from the top, encouraging safe behaviour as an integral part of an organization’s culture, can be one of the most powerful tools to encourage safety.

Safety is a huge concern for public transportation agencies—we care for so many people on our vehicles, and we also have so many staff doing risky work to keep our vehicles and trackwork going. For example, the speakers talked about how workers can be killed doing delicate work on train tracks. Safety is so important!

SkyTrain CEO Doug Kelsey presents at the Update on Light Rail session.

SkyTrain CEO Doug Kelsey presents at the Update on Light Rail session.

Doug Kelsey, CEO of SkyTrain, gave a presentation at the Updates on Light Rail session. He talked about SkyTrain’s sky-high cost recovery rate, how we’re bringing more retail into stations, and how we’re working hard to improve the customer experience.

And if you don’t know this already, Doug is one of the most passionate advocates for the customer experience in our organization. I’m not kidding! Here’s a quote I scribbled down from his talk: “At the root of everything we do is the customer. The journey’s not finished if the customer’s not taken care of.”

And here’s another quote on what he thinks the public transportation system should aspire to: “The customer can get to where they want on their terms, not ours.”

Doug’s session also featured updates on light rail from systems in Pittsburgh, L.A., Phoenix, and Seattle. Damn, these were interesting talks. I can’t really cover it all here (also I missed most of the Pittsburgh talk), but here’s some bullet points:


  • Phoenix opened their new light rail system in December 2008 – it connects three cities and has thus far exceeded ridership projections
  • The opening of the Phoenix line featured a performance by Grand Funk Railroad in Mesa, Arizona! And Todd McFarlane drew their souvenir opening pass!
  • The Phoenix line crosses 129 signalled intersections and has thus far had 24 collisions since opening – none of them the operators’ fault so far, lots were due to cell phone usage
  • You can take up to 4 bikes per car but they’re seeing way more demand
  • Future improvements include shade for ticket vending machines and park and rides. That Arizona sun is hot!

Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (a lot like TransLink but for L.A.!)

  • LA Metro is having a renaissance of rail transit: they are the densest metro area in the U.S. with the worst traffic congestion—but they’re working very aggressively to combat it
  • They have the 3rd biggest transit system in America, but the second biggest bus fleet (2,600 buses!)
  • There’s a $1 billion eastside extension and an $800 million Exposition Line being built—their capital programs budget is $3.9 billion for 2009
  • Major challenges: maintaining the old while adding the new – they’re struggling to maintain their 20-year old system, plus integrating it with the new lines being built
  • Another major challenge is finding a place to build a maintenance facility – they have lots of trains and nowhere to put them!
  • Ridership is soaring! And they’re 98.8% on time for all of their trains. Well done!

Seattle (Sound Transit)

  • Sound Transit is opening their new light rail system on July 18, and that coincides with the launch of their Orca smartcard – two challenges at once!
  • They are currently going to spend $813M to build a two-stop extension to their light rail line through the University of Washington – the extension will triple the existing ridership

Also, if you can’t tell from all these dollar figures, btw, rapid transit is expensive. Apparently Honolulu is spending $5 billion to build its new rapid transit line. And the cost to bring Chicago’s rail transit into a state of good repair is tagged at $7 billion!

Okay, let’s end this with a non-train photo:

The bean, from a slightly different angle!

The bean, from a slightly different angle!

It’s more bean! That thing is amazing!


  • By Shane, June 18, 2009 @ 1:17 am

    Chicago’s rapid transit staff are the most friendly and helpful transit employees I have ever come across. They actually SEEK OUT customer contact by volunteering to help people at the ticket machines, and smiling at customers. I am always amazed with the consistency of the service too.
    This isn’t the forum for being overly critical, but I will say that I’d love to have that calibre of customer service on our trains.

  • By Jhenifer Pabillano, June 18, 2009 @ 7:53 am

    I have to say I agree wholeheartedly—the CTA’s staff have been amazing and the station attendants are incredibly friendly. TWO staff helped me out at a ticket machine in a not-very-busy station!

    And definitely, it certainly would be a level of service to aspire to, for any service or business in general. I know Doug Kelsey is adamant about bringing really good customer service to people at SkyTrain :)

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