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TransLink Podcast: What’s the role of SkyTrain Attendants?

TransLink Podcast: What’s the role of SkyTrain Attendants?

Jen Byrne and Mo Hassabou
Jen Byrne, SkyTrain Attendant, and Mo Hassabou, Manager, Field Operations at SkyTrain

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, you’re invited to ride the rails with a SkyTrain Attendant to discover what it really entails. It will surprise you as there’s truly more than what meets the eye. Don’t believe us? Listen to find out.


HOST JAWN JANG: Hey, welcome to What’s the T, the TransLink podcast. I’m your host, Jawn Jang. And on this episode, we’re going to ask this question…

[SCENE FROM OFFICE SPACE]: What would you say you do here?

JAWN: What’s the role of SkyTrain attendants? 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: Every job has something in common. No matter what you do for work, there are visible and invisible responsibilities. For example, if your job requires a lot of driving, the physical act of getting behind the wheel is visible while understanding that you have to follow the rules of the road is invisible, there’s always more than meets the eye.

And that very same principle applies when talking about the work that our SkyTrain attendants do every single day. They have visible and invisible responsibilities. In fact, let’s take a closer look and really examine what being an SD is all about.

CHERI COGMAN: My name is Cheri Cogman. I’m a SkyTrain attendant. My job is important because give us a chance to serve the people in a personal way. Greet them with a smile and a handshake and give them customer service to show them directions. And also, standby medical response if and when that is needed as well. The best part of my job is making a difference in everybody’s day.

Just being there with a positive attitude and a smile really makes a difference. I love my job because I love people. When I was a little girl, I had three choices. I wanted to be either a nurse, a social worker or a counselor, and I find here at SkyTrain I get to wear all three hats and I love it.

JAWN: Customer service is a huge part of being a SkyTrain attendant, but that’s really not the only thing they’re responsible for. In fact, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg.

MO: Sometimes they confuse us with security. Some other times, like you said, they think that we’re there just to make sure that people are tapping in or are we there to give directions.

JAWN: Let’s talk to the people who know exactly what it’s like to walk a mile in those shoes. Mo Hassabou is the manager of field operations at BC Rapid Transit Company, and Jen Byrne is a real life SkyTrain attendant. Meaning if you take the SkyTrain often, you’ve probably stood just a few feet away from her at least once before.

If you were to describe the work you do as a SkyTrain attendant to a friend or family member who maybe has never had this conversation with you before, how do you describe your job?

JEN BYRNE: I would describe it as very dynamic. No two days are ever the same. There’s always something different going on and there is a lot of information to know and you have to pull from your toolbox every day something different that you’ve learned, and you have to go with.

JAWN: Versatility being a key part of the job. I think that makes a lot of sense because now Mo, we’ll go to you, like talking about, you know, some of the misconceptions people have about SkyTrain attendants. I have conversations sometimes, and people just make the assumption incorrectly, they think, STAs are there standing around the SkyTrain stations, making sure that people tap in correctly so that they don’t just sneak in.

But that’s not true, is it, Mo? Maybe you can elaborate a little further.

MO: Absolutely. There’s few misconception when it comes to SkyTrain attendant. SkyTrain attendants are standing on the platform. And I know that when you riding the train, you’re looking to be like, “Why are they standing there doing nothing?” But there’s a lot that happen within the station, within the system that the SkyTrain attendants look after. So, our main job is customer service, but customer service is a very broad word, customer service.

JAWN: Anything can be customer service in a lot of ways.

MO: And our job is customer service, is to get the customers from A to B. That’s the number one job, is to make sure that the customer is having a fantastic trip from where they started until where they end. And that can include making sure they get there on time. Our system is one of the fewest and the biggest automated system in the world.

And when you have a computer running the system, sometimes you’ll have the glitches, or sometimes will have a maintenance issue. And that’s when the SkyTrain attendant comes into play. So SkyTrain tends not only get there to give directions and make sure that you know how to use your Compass Card. But we do also we drive the trains when like I said, when a computer doesn’t want to cooperate, then we drive trains.

JAWN: Right.

MO: We troubleshoot sometimes door issues on a train or because those trains are not going to go unless all doors are closed. And few times customers will keep the doors open because they can’t wait for a minute and a half or the next one. So, we’ll have problems with the doors and that way the SkyTrain attendant will try to fix that problem in order to get the trains going. To go back again to my original point, to get the customers from A to B.

There’s a few issues, too, that we deal with. Sometimes we have medicals and we are qualified to deal with medicals or at least start first aid until the experts show up at the scene. A few things that happen within the station that customers usually don’t see. So when you don’t see a SkyTrain attendant on a platform, there’s few things that we do.

So, we do walk around the station to make sure that everything around the station is in good order. Gates…

JAWN: That’s the first thing they do?

JEN: Yes.

MO: That’s the first thing they do every single time they start their shift. And during their shift, they want to make sure there is no graffiti, there is no broken glass. So, we walk around the station, and this is just a small part of what we do. SkyTrain attendant they will deal with mental health, and try to like, which is unfortunately because we saw an increase in mental health after COVID during COVID too. And I understand that customer sometimes, you’ll have somebody on the system yelling and just yelling and they will look at the STA saying, “You’re going to do something about it?” And the SkyTrain attendant is there just to inform, not to enforce. So, when it comes to enforcement, that means people pushing through the gate or doing something on a system they shouldn’t be doing.

We usually go to Transit Police or Transit Security in order to ask them to help us, as our job is not mainly security. So we carry radios and those radios are to communicate among ourselves to our control centre and also with other companies like Transit Police and Transit Security in order to bring them in to help us. Yeah, so this is just a small thing of what we actually do. And I will be honest, I was also with the same mindset before I applied to SkyTrain. I used to say, “Well, why? Why would I stand on a platform, like doing nothing all day? I can look at Google, tell me exactly what time the train is coming and where I need to go and what train I need to take, what bus I need to ride.”

But when I joined the SkyTrain and I did my training, which is an intense six weeks and then two weeks on job training, I realized that, oh my goodness, this is this is different than what I thought. This is way more complicated than just customer service. So, I’m happy that I’m joining you to explain why what we do, because the idea of just being a customer service is not really the proper idea. It is customer service, but the definition is way broader than just tell you where to go for how to buy a ticket.

JAWN: And I think that’s the maybe the challenge because the average customer, they’re only at a SkyTrain station for just a few minutes before they get in the train and then they’re going off and they don’t think twice about the STA, or what’s happening at the station that they just left. But for the STA, like you see hundreds, probably thousands of people coming through, especially during the morning rush hour, afternoon rush hour.

The job, is that, it’s about safety and security for everybody. So, Jen, maybe take us into some of the things that Mo sort of started explaining there.


Yeah, so…

JAWN: What’s an average day like for you when you get to work?

JEN: Okay. So as Mo mentioned, the first thing we do, we have a briefing in the morning and we go over what might be going on, on the system. If we have any alarm systems that are down, any escalators that are not working, all those sorts of things. And then we go to our stations, and we open up the stations.

So we’re making sure that all the grills are out. We’re checking the machines to make sure they’re working the fare gates, make sure they’re working. We’re checking the tracks to make sure there’s no items in there that somebody could potentially want to go in there and get and cause track alarms. We’re checking our equipment and making sure that we’re having our medical supplies all up to date in case we have a medical.

What else we do? [CHUCKLES] So many things in the mornings. And then making sure everything’s tidy and clear for the customers when they come through. So that’s how the morning starts,


JEN: And then when rush hour is happening, we, you’re generally going to see us on the platform because we’re there to watch everything going on. So, we’re watching the people, watching, making sure everybody standing behind the yellow line, making sure nobody looks lost, making sure nobody looks like they’re going to harm themselves.

And then we’re watching the trains. So, when a train comes in, I look at the front of the train and I’m like, “Okay, are the electrical heads out?” Because that’s a problem. So, I check that. Then we watch all the doors open and close, right? We’re watching all the lights, seeing if there’s any faults.

On the outside of the train, there’s two lights. There’s a red and yellow one. If there’s a yellow light, it tells you that there’s a fault on the train. If there’s a red light, that can indicate a door problem. So, we’re watching the doors open and close. We’re watching the train leave. We’re also listening to the train. Does it sound normal?

JAWN: That’s fascinating, yeah.

JEN: Does something sound off, which I have caught a few times where the train’s been leaving, I said, “Hm, the train doesn’t sound right. So, is it the train or is it the track?” So, then I’ll stand and I’ll watch a few more trains go by and I’ll determine.

JAWN: I’m so sorry. I want to dive into that a little bit because that sounds like a skill that you just kind of have to learn over time.

JEN: You do.

JAWN: Because I think of, the SkyTrain sound. It’s that hum as it starts to leave the station, but you’re seeing that there’s actually differences,

JEN: There is. Yeah, yeah. It’s kind of hard to explain, but if it sounds more like it’s clunking more when it’s leaving, or I can tell if a train is doing a VOBC hand over like there’s certain sounds if it’s squeaking more, things like that. So, there are things that you pick up while you’re there because you’re there so often, right?

JAWN: Right, right.

JEN: And me personally, I’m constantly at Broadway Station. So, the fact that I’m there so often I can pick up when something’s wrong with the track because it sounds different.

JAWN: See, that skill reminds me of like, when, this is a silly anecdote, but like when my parents would go grocery shopping with me and my son, my sister and my dad’s trying to buy the perfect watermelon. Like, he’s knocking on the watermelon and he just has this ear over, too. I don’t know what that skill is, but that’s kind of what you’re describing because it’s little differences. So that’s really fascinating.

JEN: Yeah. So we’re looking, we’re smelling, we’re listening, We’re using all our senses when we’re up there. And it’s not just, we’re looking at the passengers, we’re looking at trains, we’re looking at the tracks, we’re everything, is swirling around. So, we’re constantly looking for things that might become a problem.

JAWN: And Mo, you know, I’ve visited SkyTrain control, seeing how busy it is. There’s so many different monitors and screens. Everyone’s trying to make sure that the train is and the system in its entirety, is working as perfectly as possible. So if we say that the SkyTrain control is the brain of how everything works, would you say that the STAs are kind of like the eyes and ears, making sure that, you know, if you need something quality checked, they’re there, boots on the ground to be able to do that for you?

MO: 100%, 100%. So usually control rely, rely on STAs to ask questions like, “Hey, what kind of sound are you hearing? What about now?” So, yes, we are the eyes and ears for control. So they are the brain. They run the trains. They’re trying to make sure that the trains are running on time and their spacing between the trains are perfectly spaced.

And our job in field, is to make sure that their job is met, like that we are on time. Our on time performance is meeting goals. That’s what the STA’s are doing. And like Jen was saying, this is just like we stand there and we listening, but at the same time, while we standing there listening to trains, we are answering questions, right?

So you’re like you multitasking while you’re just standing there, people are asking for directions or people asking when the next bus that I need to catch will be outside of the station. Even though you’re inside the station, they asking you how I can catch the next bus. You know, what time is the next bus, or how I can get to UBC.

So you doing all this multitasking. And if you’re lucky, there is nothing else happening in your stations. But sometimes also we have alarms that goes down. For example, we have those intrusion alarms that alert control. If anything is in the guideway, sometimes they go down and I understand that we have customers that will come and ask an STA, “Hey, could you please help me with this?” Because these seeing those two standing on one side of the platform, just staring at the guideway and they still will say, “Well, I’m so sorry, I can’t really help you right now. My partner, who’s in the same station can help you. Let me call them.” But they get really upset because they think the individual standing on a platform is not trying to help.

But what they don’t understand that he got a really big safety critical job to do, which is he’s on alarm system right now. So, control basically rely on the SkyTrain attendant to let them know if there is anything in the guideway. And it is a very, very important job. Like during the hot summer, during the winter, when he’s standing on the platform for quite a few hours, it is not fun. And you cannot like look at your phone or talk to anybody. Your focus is guideway and guideway only because it can happen in a second where something goes in a guideway and it will become a disaster.

JAWN: Yeah.

MO: So yes, they are the brains are the eyes and ears and I will say eyes, ears, hands and legs too. Like it gets quite, quite busy. Like Jen was saying, not two days look the same. It’s quite the job. You use your brain, use your ears, you use your eyes. You have to be aware of your awareness of everything around you. So, you talk to people, but at the same time you watching everything happening around you. So, you’re not fully engaged in one conversation.

You may be engage in several conversation as well, as talking on radio at the same time as you’re talking to a customer. It’s quite, quite the job.

JAWN: You know, listening to both of you talk about the job, like obviously it’s not easy and there’s so much more than meets the eye. Like there is the invisible sort of, duties that Mo, Jen you’ve both sort of explained and elaborated on. So, I want to ask you and maybe I’ll start with you, Jen. What makes you want to stay as an STA? Like, there’s got to be good things about the job too.

JEN: Oh my goodness, there’s so many good things. First and foremost, is the people I work with. Everybody is really kind. We’re like a big family. We spend a lot of time together, right? We work ten hour shifts, four days a week. So, we’re together a lot of the time. So those bonds that you build with your coworkers is really strong. And I love the sense of, sort of, adventure that I get everyday, because no two days are the same, like I said. So, every day you’re walking and going, okay, what’s today going to throw at me, right? And it’s fun going to drive a train. I enjoy driving trains. I enjoy fixing faults and getting things going, right. That’s what I personally like to do. But, definitely the people and the fun of the job.

JAWN: I love that. You know, I think it’s it probably speaks to, again, like the versatility of the skill set that you need.

JEN: Absolutely.

JAWN: And makes me think that we kind of need like a reality TV show like of what life is like as an idea or I guess.

JEN: Oh my goodness, it would be very entertaining.

JAWN: Yeah, because they have reality TV shows about people that work at airports and border security. Like, maybe we’ll get a petition going for.

JEN: There you go.

MO: That’d be awesome, yes.

JAWN: Mo, when you’re looking to hire an STA, like what are some of the traits that would really stand out as a good strong candidate for a job like this?

MO: Usually we like, yes, customer service is important, but the important part of the job is working under stress. And you want to show us that you can handle working under stress. When I say stress, meaning multitasking, being able to make the decision, confident. You need to be super confident because you make the final decision. Like you mentioned, control is a brain, but we still in field. We make the final call, meaning control can say I can route the train, but the SkyTrain attendant need to be really confident that it shouldn’t be moved. So, you have to have that, you’ll be brave to mention, “No, control. This is not going to happen. This train need to get out of service.” And this is something that you need to be assertive, making very good judgment calls and a same time like having the customer service aspect of it, but for sure, working under stress.

It is like, I’ll call them like there are pilots, and you’ll have to make that split second decision from time to time. They’re standing there. They can assess like, believe it or not, like Jen was saying about the noises of the train, leaving the station, reading people, too, before they commit anything that they shouldn’t be doing. Like you can see an individual walking on the platform and I’ll tell you right now, the majority of the STAs will be like, they will keep an eye on that person because it’s not behaving as it should be. And this is a skill that you gain over the time. But you have to have, we can see if we have an individual that we think is breaking the law before they even leave the station, we’ll be communicating to Transit Police, “Hey, I have a feeling this is a person that the description mentioned a couple of days.” Even finding people, elderly people who lost for a few days, like, we had that as well.

JAWN: Yeah.

MO: Where we be told that there’s somebody who’s left the house and never been located for the last two days and we’ll find them on a system.

So can you imagine? It is like how being a police officer. So, you have to have that memory of the description that you like you were told about two days ago. Right. So, all those kind of things I put in perspective when I’m interviewing somebody for a SkyTrain attendant and it is unfortunate because I think, like I said, as you mentioned, the misperception of what the SkyTrain attendant, they do, when we have people applying for the job, they don’t see all of this.

And so, yes, I need somebody who is assertive. I also need somebody who, like got the guts to say, hey, this is not going to happen. Make the judgment like, make a judge call that saying that this is not going to happen, as well as customer service, driving the train, answering questions all at the same time.

JAWN: We know that customers like to say thank you when they get off the bus.

JEN: Mhm.

JAWN: Would you like to see customers saying thank you to STAs, as they leave the station? Would that be something that we should start trying to do more?

JEN: Yeah, sure, absolutely. Or even, you know, if I’m on the platform, like I said, I’m looking at things my, you know, my senses are going crazy and sometimes somebody will just come up and say, “Good morning!” And it snaps me out of it for that one second. I’m like, “Oh, yes, hi, morning, How are you?” Right? So, it’s nice to have that conversation sometimes. Or we actually do have people come up to us and say, “Hey, you’re doing a good job!”

JAWN: Awesome.

JEN: Which means the world to us, right? Because it’s we’re working hard, even though it might not appear.

JAWN: It’s a public facing job. So, you know, it does make an impact, I’m sure, when the public recognizes that, “Hey, I have to say thank you.”

JEN: So yeah, or we’ve had a few train rescues where a SkyTrain attendant has gone out to rescue a train and the whole train was clapping.

JAWN: Aw yeah. Okay, alright.

JEN: So things like that, they really make it worth it.

JAWN: SkyTrain attendants are some of the most visible transit employees on our system, but a lot of the work they do is invisible. The next time you’re at a SkyTrain station, test yourself and see if you can listen to the train the way they can. You might appreciate all of the subtle nuances to the work they do every single day.

My thanks to Mo Hassabou and Jen Byrne for sharing their stories and experiences with me on this episode. Adrian Yee and Alex Jackson for their help in putting this together. Producer Allen, for his leadership, and you, for listening and subscribing. My name is Jawn Jang and until next time, have a safe trip.


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