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Pulling the curtain back on who keeps SkyTrain operating

Pulling the curtain back on who keeps SkyTrain operating

SkyTrain staff Andrew Ferguson and Annaliese Hunt
SkyTrain’s Andrew Ferguson, a vehicle technician, and Annaliese Hunt, a control operator.

As night descends, SkyTrain’s Operations and Maintenance Centre in Burnaby becomes a hive of activity, as staff complete critical maintenance, both on the tracks and in the shop, to ensure there’s a full complement of service in the morning.

It’s a race against the clock that takes a host of characters working together to complete.

On the SkyTrain tracks, the tasks change every day. They include everything from grinding rail to smooth them out for a more comfortable ride for our customers and replacing aging tracks as part of our Expo Line Rail and Rail Pad Replacement program, to retrieving dropped cellphones and cameras for customers.

A guideway technician replaces a piece of rail on the SkyTrain tracks
A guideway technician replaces a piece of rail on the SkyTrain tracks.

And back in the shop, as we reduce service after the evening peak, every SkyTrain car starts going through the Vehicle Cleaning and Inspection Facility to receive a disinfectant wipe down of poles, seats, ceilings, handles, windows, sills and other surfaces within the cars from cleaners.

While each SkyTrain car is cleaned, vehicle technicians like Andrew Ferguson are on the lookout for seats, lights and doors that need repairs. Andrew, who has worked at SkyTrain for five years, explains how vehicle technicians are trying to clear out as many of these faults that have been registered on the onboard computer throughout the day.

Vehicles needing more extensive repairs or are due for routine maintenance are queued up outside the shop and removed from where the automatic trains can go by SkyTrain Control. One-by-one, they’re manually driven inside by vehicle technicians to be looked at. This includes things like routine maintenance for HVAC and propulsion systems, or changing out the “shoe” that the train uses to draw power from the rails.

“There’s a bigger window at night to take care of it, especially after they’ve reduced the service for the evening,” says Andrew, “so a lot of the work is done at night when we have access to more of the trains and more time to work.”

Vehicle technicians working on a SkyTrain car
Vehicle technicians working on a SkyTrain car

Even though the trains only carry passengers for about 20 hours a day, it’s a 24-hour operation at SkyTrain for both vehicle technicians and control operators, like Annaliese Hunt, who has worked for the company for about 26 years. Annaliese not only helps to keep the trains moving, but also has a very important safety role as a control operator.

“A control operator conducts safety critical work 24 hours a day, not just during revenue service,” Annaliese explains. “We ensure maintenance staff are given safe access to the track area where they’re working, otherwise they could be in danger of an automatic train.”

For example, staff who are performing nightly track maintenance, cannot enter without what’s called an “occupancy permit” from the control room, which they can only grant after the tracks have been powered down and the area where they’re working is removed from where the automatic trains go.

And during the daytime, control operators are monitoring the tracks and trains even though they’re operating automatically, responding to everything from a lost child on the system with SkyTrain Attendants, to system delays.

Photo of SkyTrain's control room
The SkyTrain Control Room, which is the nerve centre for all of its operations.

“SkyTrains are known as being automated but in actuality, they are remote controlled,” explains Annaliese. “The trains don’t move without a control operator providing commands to the computer interfaces.”

This is critical when SkyTrain has to run alternative service for example. During a system delay, like a medical emergency, a control operator would have to make on-board announcements to keep our customers informed, re-route trains so they use the same track in both directions (called “single tracking”) and help maintain system safety, powering down track sections if necessary.

Needless to say, SkyTrain’s vehicle technicians and control operators are integral to a safe and reliable service for our customers. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s not lost on Andrew or Annaliese how important their work is in ensuring the region can keep moving for essential workers.

“There’s lots of important people such as the healthcare workers, grocery workers and elderly that depend on transit to get around, so our job is to keep it running and keep it safe,” says Andrew.

Annaliese adds, “The working class needs us so they can be the backbone of this crisis and of our economy. Janitors, hospital workers, CareAids, daycare workers, grocery clerks, gas station attendants, etcetera need transit. We need to be there for them.”

“I am proud to be an integral part of keeping transit moving.”

Annnaliese Hunt, a control operator at SkyTrain.
Annnaliese Hunt, a control operator at SkyTrain.