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TransLink Podcast: What’s the T on taking care of business on SkyTrain

TransLink Podcast: What’s the T on taking care of business on SkyTrain

Rail grinding at Waterfront Station

Come behind the scenes with us as What’s the T: the TransLink Podcast with Jawn Jang reveals the voices and stories that drive Metro Vancouver’s transit system forward. Subscribe and listen everywhere you get your podcasts, including SpotifyApple PodcastsPocket Casts, and Google Podcasts!

On this episode, Jawn Jang takes a deep dive with experts at BC Rapid Transit Company to discuss what it takes to keep the SkyTrain system well-maintained and ready to roll.


HOST JAWN JANG: Hey, welcome to What’s the T, the TransLink podcast. I’m your host, Jawn Jang. And on this episode we’ll share how we take care of the SkyTrain system.


JAWN: Let’s tap in to What’s the T?


VOICEOVER 1: The next station is…

VOICEOVER 2: Welcome to What’s the T, the TransLink Podcast.

JAWN: Did you know that the Expo and Millennium lines are a combined 61.9 kilometers and route length? For context, if you were to stretch that out into a straight line, you could start at Canada Place in Downtown Vancouver and end up all the way over at the Mission Bridge, connecting Mission and Abbotsford.


JAWN: Another way to look at it is to consider that a full marathon route is exactly 42.1 kilometers long. So, you’re basically extending that marathon route by half.


TRACK FROM SPONGEBOB: “One eternity later”

ROBERT FROM SHARK TANK: “I hate it. I’m out. Wow.”

JAWN: But a strong and healthy SkyTrain system is just one way we help connect our region in metro Vancouver. And yet, when we’re talking about a fully electric and automated rail system constantly running throughout the day across all of that track, we’re also talking about a lot of wear and tear.

MATT DOYLE: Basically, as we operate, there’s imperfections that are inputted into the rail by the wheel, and traffic of the train.

JAWN: This is Matt Doyle, the Vice President of Maintenance and Engineering for BC Rapid Transit Company. Whenever the SkyTrain system needs upgrades or repairs, Matt and his teams are the ones making it happen.

Do you talk with maintenance teams from other transportation and rail networks? Do you look externally to see like what other companies are doing and say like, “Hey, that could be useful for us at some point?”

MATT: Yeah, we’ve got a really robust network that our staff have been able to foster over time. We are, you know, we have official membership to some benchmarking organizations that kind of provide that formal outreach. But we also have kind of the, you know, “pick up their Rolodex” and flip it to someone, you know, who to call.

So there is a lot of work and we are both happy to reach out to other folks and kind of see what people are doing, whether it’s, you know, MTA, and they have some really interesting stuff with inspection trains, again, trying to manage the maintenance in those in these tight windows or, you know, even down to San Francisco BART, where they’re doing some major grinding initiatives on trying to keep the, you know, the noise levels down to, you know, appropriate levels.

And then we also host people. So we invite you know, we are one of the older systems with the automated train control system. So we get to share our learnings in our 35 years of operation. And it is a yeah, there is a kind of, a family of all the operations and everyone’s, you know, sharing kind of what’s worked and also what doesn’t work.

Unfortunately, there are systems out there, we can actually see what happens when the maintenance is deferred. And you know, those are the things that we definitely want to avoid. But there is evidence both for what success looks like and potentially what the challenges look like. And we do our best to learn from not just our own trials and tribulations, but also what other folks are dealing with, including, you know, what some new exciting technology is to keep the system safe and reliable.

JAWN: When I have, you know, family members or friends who visit from out of town and I take them on the SkyTrain for the first time, they are in awe, first of all, because like our city, our region is just naturally beautiful. And being on an elevated gateway, to your point, you get to see the mountains, you get to see, you know, large bodies of forest and wooded areas.

And I think their always kind of consensus opinion is that the SkyTrain is just really nice. And you guys have something very special here in Metro Vancouver. What’s that like for you as the guy that’s in charge of making sure the system runs as smoothly as it can?

MATT: I appreciate the pride. You know, I have the same kind of pride in Vancouver, and I think of SkyTrain as part of, you know, the Metro Vancouver area. And, you know, one of the things, you kind of always have that picture of Science World with, you know, the trains coming by Main Street as has just, you know, an iconic, you know, picture of Vancouver.

It’s going to be really exciting to see the extension out towards Langley and out towards Arbutus and kind of see what the what that does to the region. And hopefully we can continue to be that pride of both the region, but also the envy of some of the folks that do come and visit.

JAWN: Matt, maybe we can talk a little bit more about switch replacement and maybe to start off by explaining to those who just don’t know the technical term, what is a switch and why is it so important for the SkyTrain?

MATT: Yeah, Thanks, Jawn. So basically a switch or a turnout is a, you know, a section of special track work through the rail that allows us to switch tracks. So you can basically, you know, switch from, we refer to as inbound outbound, but allows you to quite honestly, you know, move the train from one track to another. It’s made up of a bunch of mechanical components that are actually, you know, the running rail.

And then there are some electrohydraulic machines that actually move the rail, and that’s all controlled through our central control centre. So, we have what’s referred to as switch machines, which are, you know, the things that actually do the pushing, and, or pulling to to move the track to the right orientation. And then we have the turnout, which is actually the rail components, including the fastening systems that facilitate the train to basically move from one track to another.

There’s a kind of a double-edged sword with the trackwork work, the turnouts provide us the ability to provide alternative service and we have kind of things set in a way that there’s a certain headway or capacity that’s available for different areas of the track based on the turnouts that are available. If we’re replacing a turn out, that can have a dual impact because we have to do that work, but that can actually make the alternative service more impactful. So, less capacity available to put trains through. We’re doing some, you know, major work out in the Surrey area, near Gateway Station, and we’ll be doing, you know, the alternative service. And that’s, you know, that that’s going to be very impactful to folks that, you know, utilize that service there on a daily basis. Unfortunately, this is the most effective way for us to make sure we can do the proper replacement, get in there, do a high quality job, and then get out kind of as soon as possible.

But again, a lot of work, a lot of planning to try to minimize that time and minimize that impact to as low as possible.

JAWN: The way I might describe that is there’s a bit of short term pain, but the long term gain is really so beneficial that it’s hard not to think about that strategy. I mean, that’s really it.

MATT: Yeah. And this is, I think, you know, part of where our age of our system is going too, is that we are having to replace, it’s not just the rail steel, it’s not just the fasteners that are below that rail steel, but there’s, you know, basically sections underneath that even to connect with into the guideway, into the concrete, sort of the guideway that all needs to be refurbished and replaced. And that’s why, unfortunately, this particular area is such a complex work to do and having such a large impact on the traveling public.

JAWN: Let’s take a moment here to dive a little deeper on what running rail replacement actually means. And for this, we’ll take a trip down memory lane with Chris Morris, the retired Director of Engineering Assets for BCRTC.

ROBERT WILLIS: We’re here today to talk about running rail replacement and keeping our system in a state of good repair. SkyTrain is over 30 years old. The Expo Line, at least. What are we doing right now?

CHRIS: Indeed. Well, we’ve got some parts of the rail, as you say, 30 years old, they’re the original rail late in the eighties, and they’re rapidly nearing the end of their life and certain parts of the older system. So rather than wait till the very end, we’re starting to replace and put in both a head hardened rail that will last twice as long as this 30 year old rail. And we’re also putting in a resilient pad. The pad is this voltage structure that you see underneath supporting the running rail. The present ones use bolts to basically hold the rail down onto a rubber suspension element which is then attached to the concrete guide way. So, what we’re doing instead with the replacement, well, putting in a more maintenance-free design of pad and this pad uses spring clips instead. They’re very, very handy because they don’t lose their tension, they don’t require retorquing. And you’ll notice there’s a rubber section in here which gives the pad its resilience. You also notice there’s a slope on this and this gives us the one in twenty that we need to camp the rails in. That’s a standard railroad term there.

ROBERT: We’re doing what I would call rail pad replacement right now. And we’re doing the actual rail replacement later.


ROBERT: I guess the obvious question is why don’t we do this at the same time?

CHRIS: Very good question. And it’s all driven by our very, very limited window in the night for doing maintenance in order to get the most effective time out of the few hours that we have in the evening, late evening, we have a specialized crew that do nothing but change out the rail pad, leaving the old rail in place. And then about a month later, a different crew specialized in the long rail springs, comes along and pulls out the old rail and puts in a brand new one.

ROBERT: Question we’re getting online is why don’t we just squish all this work into the time that SkyTrain isn’t running, picking up passengers? Is that possible?

CHRIS: A fair question. But the answer, sadly, is no. We only have really from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. at night when the SkyTrain stops running and when the first sweep train starts going out in the morning. So, 3 hours, including set up time, probably only 2 hours work. But the idea is every night you finish a big section of work and the whole system is ready for full rush hour service in the morning.

ROBERT: It’s a Sunday to Thursday, I understand. Exactly 9:30 till about 4:30, excluding Fridays and Saturdays. And I know that sometimes we move them if there’s big Whitecaps games or different things like that.

CHRIS: Absolutely.

ROBERT: We put that work out at rest. What can customers expect during running rail replacement for service?

CHRIS: Well, after 9:30 at night, there will be the single tracking in the area.

ROBERT: What is single-tracking?

CHRIS: Single tracking means that we keep one of the two inbound or outbound tracks still open, untouched. And the other track we’re working on. But it does mean that all the trains will go in the inbound direction for a certain period of time. Then they’ll switch and all the outbound trains will come through. So, if you’re a passenger, you will have to wait a bit longer to get on your train going in your direction.

ROBERT: So, I guess the message is we’re keeping things in good repair. We’re obviously working as quickly as possible. And for customers, this is going to be in a few extra minutes in your transit commute. When you have a single track, you’ve got to put two different inbound and outbound trains on the same tracks. You’ve got to wait for that train to go by. You’re going to want to check the website’s alert section.

JAWN: And indeed, building extra travel time into your commute while single tracking is happening on the system is the best way to manage the necessary delays while work is being done, which will improve future performance. But rail replacement isn’t the only kind of critical work that impacts customers. So, let’s get back and address another issue with Matt.


JAWN: Track noise. People should know. It’s not like I’m breaking news here, but trains can be loud. That being said, if you do happen to live in a residential area where a SkyTrain track is somewhat nearby, people have been making observations that perhaps the noise has been getting louder in more recent months. Perhaps you can fill us in on why that’s happening and what is happening now to sort of remedy this issue.

MATT: Yeah, So track noise, unfortunately, is part of the nature of operating a rail system. It can definitely be managed and it’s something that we have invested a lot of resources into managing. There was a major noise study completed through 2016, 2017. We are implementing most of the recommendations in that in that study. The reality is some of those recommendations are very long term.

The types of things that we have been able to implement is procuring new rail grinders. So, these are, you know, as I spoke earlier, there’s equipment specially designed for our system to basically allow us to maintain the correct rail profile, which will reduce the noise of trains running over that system. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic and some supply chain issues, those machines were late in coming to our system. So, we do have this one machine in operation now. The other one, I believe, is due in operation imminently. You know, unfortunately, we do have a backlog or, you know, some catch up to do. We’ve done our best to support that with some contracted services. We’ve had just recently just finished a 8-week initiative with a contract rail grinder again to try to help us stay, keep that rail profile into the desired condition. But we do recognize that that is something that that is a reality of operating railway. We understand, you know, I happen to be a neighbor of the system, so I understand, you know, distinctly what that noise can do to people who are near to the system. And we are doing our best at the moment to address it.

We do appreciate it, it’s not an immediate fix, but it’s something that we are working towards managing that noise to be better neighbors.

JAWN: So that if we have like a brand new SkyTrain line, let’s take a look at Broadway Subway, for example. Are they theoretically going to be quieter simply because there is less wear and tear? And what does wear and tear actually mean when we’re talking about elevated guideways out in nature?

MATT: Yeah. So the new system is always going to start off being quieter. There is basically as we operate, there’s imperfections that are input into the into the rail, by the wheel, traffic of the train and those imperfections basically contribute to, you know, ringing, you know, the wheel and the rail as a bell. And that causes, you know, increased noise in areas. But there’s, you know, a lot of forces that they then basically contribute to wear and tear imperfections. So, the extreme version of this where it’s like a washboard on a logging road, so you actually have almost imperfections, like a wave formation in the rail, and that causes, you know, excessive noise. Those are the things that we will use our rail grinder to try to remove and kind of restore the rail to the target profile.

And then one of the things that I’m really excited about, you know, as an outcome of this noise study is we are installing equipment onto our trains and that’s going to basically allow us to maintain that desired rail condition much longer. So, the term is a friction modifier. It’s basically a way to control the forces between the train and the tracks and basically try to keep that target profile in a in a good condition for longer. Basically allows us both to, you know, kind of reduce our maintenance effort. You know, it allows us, again, to keep a safe, reliable system in the limited window that we have.

JAWN: People have commented, like all of the equipment that exists on the I guess like the railway tracks between Nanaimo and Commercial Drive there is like that, I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but perhaps you might know better, what is that all for? Because I’ve also been curious as I’ve sat on the Expo Line and I’m going down to work and maybe sometimes coming back and I see these things and I don’t actually know what I’m looking at.

MATT: Yeah, there’s a lot in that area, so that’s why you know, it’s quite, it’s actually quite an exciting area of our system. So, the primary thing that most people are likely to see in is our rail replacement train and what that is, is obviously what we refer to as a prime mover. So, you know, locomotive in the railway sense and then a bunch of carts that literally has, I think, we’re replacing 240-foot strings of rail.

And that was something that actually was introduced some years ago. We used to replace shorter sections of rail, but they would input imperfections every joint. So, by replacing the rail with the longer strings, which again reduces our maintenance effort moving forward. So, it’s just an example of kind of improved work. So that’s what you’re likely see and we refer to that area as the “Vanness Pocket”. So, there’s three tracks in that area. There’s the inbound track, there’s a center track, that’s the pocket track, and then there’s the outbound track. Due to the ability to try to provide a resilient service. When we do have equipment stored on the system, we actually store it on one of the mainline tracks. So, either the inbound track or the outbound track and then divert revenue service through the pocket.

What that does is it does add a little bit of travel time in the order of, you know, 30 to 40 seconds of travel time. But in the event that there is any type of service interruption, we have the ability to still utilize that pocket track for alternative service. And unfortunately, that was a lesson learned back, you know, early 2000 where we did have an issue. We had equipment in the pocket track and now our alternative service was, you know, very long was, you know, a five kilometer type single track. So those are the types of things that unfortunately we do our best to plan for and to try to mitigate. But some of the times that it is lessons are made and that ability to store the equipment on the on the mainline near the job site reduces that, you know, the logistics to get to site increasing tool time basically took and reduced the total amount of time on track. So, kind of that short term pain long term gain concept.

JAWN: Look I get it. Nobody likes delays and nobody enjoys slower service. But as mentioned, Matt and his team are constantly at work to mitigate these issues as much as possible. At short term pain for long term gain, leading to more reliable and consistent performance for years to come. As the SkyTrain expands, ensuring that our system can run as smoothly as possible will be instrumental in managing the public transportation needs of our region so that we can continue to connect residents of Metro Vancouver across all of the different communities. And we can continue to move Metro Vancouver forward. My thanks to Matt Doyle for speaking with me on this topic, producers Allen and Alex Jackson for their logistical support on this episode. And you for listening and subscribing. It’s been a pleasure to have you join us on What’s the T, the TransLink podcast. I’ve been your host, Jawn Jang, and until next time, have a safe trip.


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