TransLink Podcast: How are we prepping for winter?

TransLink Podcast: How are we prepping for winter?

A four-car train operating on the Millennium Line during snowy weather

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, we have the “T” on how buses are prepped for winter weather. Plus, why do we position attendants at the front of the SkyTrain during snow? We reveal the answers.

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HOST JAWN JANG: Hey, welcome to What’s the T: the Translink Podcast. I’m your host, Jang. Here’s what we’re checking out on this episode.

[SNIPPET OF FRANK SINATRA’S LET IT SNOW PLAYS]: Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!


VOICE 1: No!!

JAWN: How do we prepare for the winter? Let’s tap in to what’s the T?


VOICE 2: The next station is…

VOICE 3: Welcome to What’s the T, the TransLink podcast.

JAWN: Here’s a true story. Metro Vancouver is a temperate rainforest. You’ve probably heard the nickname, Raincouver at least a few times by now. And yes, while we have beautiful spring, spectacular summers and gorgeous falls with a lot of rain in between, our winters can still be pretty nasty and we’re prone to some big snowstorms that can really slow things down or simply shut down the very idea of wanting to go outside.

But public transportation is an essential service. And during these severe weather events, people depend on us more than ever so that they can reliably get to work, to school appointments, or to just get back home. Ensuring that our system can reliably and safely perform in these weather conditions is an ongoing challenge because no two snowstorms are the same.

So many variable factors are at play. Things like how cold is the temperature, what time is the storm going to hit, how much snow is expected to fall, and will there be a period of sunlight afterwards? Our hard, hardworking teams across the Coast Mountain Bus Company and the BC Rapid Transit Company are constantly learning from previous experiences while making adjustments to put themselves in the best position possible when a storm is expected to arrive.

But enough out of me. Let’s hear directly from the experts who get the job done. Simon Agnew is a maintenance engineer at Coast Mountain Bus Company. He and his team are constantly strategizing the best ways for our busses to perform during the winter season.

My first question to you, sir, whenever winter eventually arrives in Metro Vancouver, we know busses get stuck. What are some of the things that TransLink and Coast Mountain does preemptively maybe to try and avoid those those situations?

SIMON AGNEW: Starting in late summer, we start a program called our Winter Tire Change Out, where we will go out and measure the tread depth on every single one of our tires we have and then ones that are found to be below a certain value, which is still way above what regulatory we actually need to follow. So any of those tires are taken off proactively and replaced with ones with tire tread depths.

That in itself is a monumental effort. Like if you look at how many tires we have in service and on all our busses combined, it’s over 10,000. Just doing that tread depth program is a lot for us, but it’s something we think is worth it because, you know, having more tread depth that is a way to help push water and snow out.

So we do that. We replace 60-foot busses with 40-foot busses on some of our routes. So, you know, forties do handle better in the snow than sixties do. So we do that we have our T-Comm centre, our transit communications in regular contact with supervisors and operators out on the roads. So they’re always, you know, they’re getting live updates on what the conditions are like and making adjustments there.

We work with the municipalities to try to address key corridors that they should prioritize for snow removal. Then the other thing is the use of tire socks on some of those key locations that we have that we have identified to to kind of at least maintain some level of service for some of those routes.

JAWN: What are some of the more common issues that our busses face when there is snow and ice on the ground across Metro Vancouver? What are some of those really common elements that seem to pop up year in, year out?

SIMON: First of all, topography here in Vancouver, I mean, obviously it’s it’s a pretty unique environment in terms of  the terrain that we have to work on. It’s like the hills here are, you know, much more difficult to operate on than pretty much any other Canadian city.

I would say for the most part, I think the type of snow we get here is different. I come from Ontario and I definitely would say like the snow here is much, much wetter. And generally the temperatures that are kind of right around that freezing mark where it’s really easy to compact that really wet snow and slush and it almost turns into like ice. So could have just a few inches of snow. But it as soon as it compacts, it it just becomes so slippery to work on. You know you can be trying to sort of feather the throttle and provide just like a nice steady input and even still like the tires can slip. They do have traction control, which helps a little bit. But I think definitely like the just the idea of driving busses in general, this they’re not like super well designed for driving in like really slippery, challenging conditions.

That’s why we pick the tires that we do is to try to give them the best chance that they that they can have to be able to maintain service and and keep moving.

JAWN: Yeah. You know, we’ll get into the tires here in just a second. But I wanted to back up to what you said about the different type of snow you coming from Ontario. Maybe you can just explain, like, is it easier to drive in certain parts of Ontario because it gets drier? And what’s the key difference for how a bus performs out there versus what we have to deal with here?

SIMON: Yeah, I mean, like I think just anecdotally, I mean, I grew up in Sudbury, Ontario, which I mean, that’s there’s snow all winter long. Like, you know, everybody has outdoor hockey rinks in their neighborhood because it’s just that’s the kind of winters we would get, I think, because it’s colder and it’s it’s drier. It doesn’t turn into ice as slushy or as slippery as it is know.

JAWN: I think I can imagine that difference. But I guess until you’ve had that real life experience driving there versus driving here, yeah, it could be difficult to just kind of get that perspective. So I’m sure there’s others listening right now who are like myself, who haven’t lived out in the East or, you know, in places like that in Sudbury, Ontario.

SIMON: Yeah. And like, we we we keep in touch with other Canadian transits. And when it’s when it snows and even say, for example, like in Ontario, some of the major transits, like when they get a big dumping of snow, I mean they’re they’re struggling too like it’s it’s not easy. Like I think there is a couple of times last year where TTC just canceled their service and as they weren’t able to keep up because, I mean, if you send busses out when the conditions are so bad like that, the last thing you want to have to do is the bus becomes stranded and then you’ve got to go send out a tow truck to pick it up or somehow move it or wait till it can can move on its own or, you know, so when we do get weather, like we’re talking about, like they’re they’re definitely like just monitoring the conditions.

Like we have weather stations through Metro Vancouver. They’re talking operators that are talking to T-Comm supervisors or road supervisors out on the road and, you know, get in kind of like live updates from them of how the busses are doing and then they’re trying to kind of adjust based on that.

JAWN: Moving to the tires, then I’m sure you get this a lot. Simon, people that maybe say, look, I know what it’s like driving in the snow in Metro Vancouver. I have snow tires from my car when it’s, you know, the end of October. I know I got to go and switch my tires out so that I can handle driving in the snow in these wet conditions. So why can’t Translink busses do the same darn thing? What is the answer to something like that?

SIMON: There’s a number of different factors that are that I’ll try to kind of help explain and and hopefully will kind of clarify some things. But I mean, for starters, like a transit tire isn’t a normal tire or a truck tire. So like transit tires are specifically made for busses. So they’ve they’ve got things like increased sidewall protection because the busses drive off and on curbs. So often you need to have extra rubber on the sidewall. And then even the size, it’s it’s mainly just the size that we use is is for a bus application. So if you’re if you’re a tire manufacturer, I mean you’re trying to design and manufacture tire that’s suitable for all seasons because that’s really the only thing that transits can do.

Like we can’t we can’t switch to like a quote unquote snow tire every every fall and then back to summer one. So like the tire we run is designed to be used throughout the four seasons. So when we look for a tire that has some sort of winter or snow rating, the only available test standard that that we can go by is the three peak mountain snowflake.

So technically the tire we run is a winter rated tire because the testing it’s gone through is the industry standard for testing tires in winter, basically where things can differ a little bit as is in the tread design and that’s why we’re testing the tire that we are now. So it also has a three peak mountain snowflake. It’s the same kind of general construction as our current tire.

It’s from the same supplier, but it has a different tread design. And that’s what we’re interested in seeing is is how it performs in the snow and in the slush, but then also how it performs in the rain, because obviously, like the majority of our winter operation is in rain and then in the summer too, because like I mentioned, the tire we run is the tire that we use all year round.

So yeah, we’re going to be monitoring things like the snow/ice performance, slush/rain performance, tread wear, fuel economy, just any maintenance issues that may come up from running these tires over the course of the next year. And then yeah, we’ll just see how they do compared to our current tire.

JAWN: Simon, I’ll ask you this because, you know, when it comes to traversing your vehicle in winter time, in winter seasons, some folks are still you know, they’re very passionate about using tire chains and some people believe, like this is the number one way you can get around town. Now, putting a tire chain on a car is different than putting tire chains on a bus. So maybe you can explain to us why tire chains are not really a standard operating procedure for us at TransLink and CMBC.

SIMON: We were assigned the task from Coast Mountain to see what sort of add on devices are out there that can help improve traction on on ice and snow. So obviously the first thing we thought was chains or cable chains. And so we did we did order some in, we tested them. There’s a few things.  Our buses, there’s not enough clearance between the tire and the wheel housing.

So when we do our testing, even at low speeds, you could hear the chains hitting the inside of the wheel. Well, there’s a few issues with that. One, you’re going to cause a lot of damage to the to the bus, also the tires, because we found even the tires were getting like gouges. And the other thing was like the ride quality was just terrible.

It was like really bad, really loud, super rough. And yeah, who knows what it would be doing other the roads as well. So I don’t think the municipalities would like it if we were running chains on all of our busses. They’re also pretty awkward to install. Like if you look at a bus, like there’s not a lot of room to kind of reach your arms around and place a chain and then secure it properly. So, that can be difficult.

It was actually a co-op student who found the tire socks that we now use. They install so quickly, like it takes just a couple of minutes and for the driver and the passenger, there’s no perceived difference. Like you can’t tell you’re driving on them. We have a couple of different places in Metro Vancouver that we that we install them on and we tried to take routes that are just kind of like the most problematic when it comes to busses getting stuck.

So that’s why we’ve got like a UBC route, a route up to SFU and then two routes on the North Shore. Whenever we think it’s necessary, like our Transit Communications group will give a direction to the garage to send their people out and then they, they go out and they’re stationed at specific locations and then they’ll install the tire socks on and off busses that are just doing kind of like short trips up and down the route that they need to.

So every time the bus goes and comes back, we have the technician take a look at the sock, make sure it’s still intact and looks okay and replace them as needed. We had a few considerations that make it a little harder to like more widespread use those. So the main one being just safety of our technicians that are out there doing the install.

So we had to find areas that had like wide enough, like shoulders or pull ins or were it like protected so that, you know, the last thing you want is to have like people working on the road where it’s already slippery to begin with. And you’ve got like, you know, people driving by. So yeah, finding the right locations was was definitely a bit of a challenge. So that’s another reason why we kind of just do them in on a couple key routes.

JAWN: Maybe just like final thoughts. Is there anything that people should know when it comes to like all the work that kind of goes on behind the scenes, your team in preparation for winter. I mean, in an ideal, perfect world, like we would want busses to perform 100% all the time, but we know that’s not the reality of things. So what is the one message you would want to share to customers who understandably get frustrated when busses are delayed? And of course, Mother Nature throws a wrench in our plans.

SIMON: Yeah, I know for sure. I mean, I’m a transit user too, so like I definitely understand. I mean, we we do everything we can, but we’re also still always looking for new technology, new products out there that can help us even more. So, yeah, that’s why we’re doing the tire testing that we’re doing now. That’s why we use the tire socks.

We talk to other Canadian transits regularly and ask them what they’re doing to see if there’s anything we can learn from them. But yeah, really, when like, like you said, when Mother Nature still comes down with a lot of snow, I mean, yeah, it’s, it’s never going to be, it’s never going to be perfect. But you know, we definitely try to try to do what we can to, to keep the busses running.

JAWN: Busses remain the workhorse of our transit system here in Metro Vancouver. But the SkyTrain also requires special planning and preparation during extreme winter conditions. When we come back, we’ll hear all about how SkyTrain prepares for winter.

You’re listening to What’s the T: the TransLink Podcast.


Welcome back to What’s the T: the TransLink Podcast. We’re now in conversation with Mo Hassabou, Field Operations Manager at BC Rapid Transit Company, and Jen Byrne, a SkyTrain Attendant, on how SkyTrain prepares for winter.

Before I started working at TransLink, I used to really get excited about winter. You know just like every kid – oh snow, we love that.

JEN: Oh yeah!

JAWN: It’s the holiday season. All these things. But Mo, you’re shaking your head because when we say winter. Now working – what we do here, you know, at TransLink and BCRTC — winters, it’s a tough time.

MO HASSABOU: It is not our favorite time of the year. Winter is not.

JAWN: So you were describing what STAs have to do. And you know, on a hot summer day, there’s a lot to do. But then you add winter and mother nature on top of that, it’s a whole lot more. So just dispel for us. True or false – SkyTrain Attendants can manually drive SkyTrains when it’s wintertime.

MO: That is true. They can drive the trains, but we’d run it in automatic until it gets really bad and then the STA will take over. And it happens during winter and during summer too, when we have an issue with the train. We’ll be called on the radio saying, “Hey, we have a train that lost communication with the computer and you will need to go and rescue it,” and meaning that the STA will have to walk.

And if sometimes there’s like huge distance between two stations, for example, New West and 22nd, the distance between those two stations are like and it is uphill too – similar to Moody Center and Burquitlam. That tunnel, the hike of that tunnel is quite the workout to the train. So now you are walking in the tracks all the way up to the train.

You get on a train and now you have few people that been  on a train for quite some time, depending on where you were at.

JAWN: Right.

MO: And now you have to make them feel like, “Hey, everything will be okay. I’m here to help you” on the train, and now you have to drive the train. Not only drive the train and drop people off to the next station, but also drive the train and trying to reconnect the train to the computer system again to control, so they can automatically run the system.

In the wintertime, it’s totally a different story because during winter when it snows, there is no track intrusion alarms. The majority of track intrusions, we shut them down because we get false alerts because of the snow.

JAWN: Right.

MO: Block the laser or it’s too heavy on guideway so like trips the system. So we shut them all down and when we shut them all down, we cannot physically watch every guideway in the winter. It requires a lot of resources and we don’t have. Let me rephrase that. In order for us to to do that, that means a skater, SkyTrain Attendant will be standing on a platform watching each individual guideway, which is physically demanding in the middle when it is minus-10 and minus-12.

It is not fun, right? So what we end up doing is we put the SkyTrain in front of the train and they are responsible now for that train.

JAWN: The SkyTrain Attendant in front of the train.

MO: That’s right. So they will be in the hostler panel where they can drive the trains and usually run it in automatic until it gets really bad and then the STA will take over. But yes, people love winter. It’s Christmas time, holidays.

JAWN: Most people, most people

MO: For us, because we also leave so early. The system opens at five, so our staff don’t usually take transit to get to their report location.

JAWN: It’s a good point.

MO: They will drive and in order for you to drive to make it to your report location at 5:00 in the morning, a few people are leaving their house at three. Sometimes we don’t get the staff we want because they’re all stuck. Yeah, depending on where they live. You get to work, you’ll start your job. You standing in front of the train, or not in front of the train, but in a hostler panel to drive the train.

And it is a very mentally and physically demanding job because you want to be focused. Make sure. Because it’s not only anything in the guideway now you have snow and you want to make sure that when the trains and we reduce the speed of the trains during winter as well, that’s why you’ll find a little bit of gaps in the in the service what not, because the reduced speed because we don’t want the trains to run the same speed during snow events. That is a SkyTrain Attendant call.

Because they are the one monitoring this and you watching the front of that train for about an hour and 45 minutes. An hour and 45 minutes, your eyes on the track. You know, it’s quite… you can see the SkyTrain Attendant when they take their break, getting off the train, they you can tell they’re like drained. They need a break.

JEN BYRNE: We’re exhausted, yeah.

MO: They’re exhausted and they did not run a marathon.

JAWN: Right.

MO: They were just watching the tracks for an hour and 45 minutes. And because you understand that you got hundreds of people on that train, they’re totally your responsibility.

JAWN: Of course.

MO: And those are, that we want to like I said, that the customer service, you want to get them from A to B regardless of what the weather look like. So it is stressful. Like I used to do it as a Skytrain Attendant and I’ll be like, I don’t know how I can come here to do a ten hour shift. And the majority of my ten hour shift is just to stare at the track, going back and forth on a train. And that, plus whatever issues that happened on that train, of course I’m responsible to deal with it as well.So that train basically is my responsibility during winter.

But going back to the fact like, yeah, winter events are not our favorite. Vancouver is. I understand like the weather and that the climate is changing and what end up happening is we used to have more episodes now of severe winter weather and we are prepared every year to deal with that. But sometimes Mother Nature will win regardless of what you try to do. So, my advice for customers and passengers who are trying to get to work. Well, they can’t drive, so they’re trying to use the system. The system will be open, but be cautious that sometimes we will ask you to like, you’re going to take, it is not going to be the same as July.

JAWN: Right.

MO: We’ll try to get you where you want to go, but it may take a little bit longer when it’s snowing than a regular day.

JAWN: Exactly. Because I think the message there is, trying to get everyone there safely is more important than trying to get there as quickly as possible.

MO: That’s correct.

JAWN: Because when you put things to manual, you just don’t want to risk anything happening.

JEN: Mhmm.

JAWN: So, Jen, take us through what it’s like for you when you have to be at the front of the SkyTrain. And keep in mind, the average customer doesn’t see this happening very often, right?

JEN: That’s right.

JAWN: So when you’re suddenly you’ve got that board panel open and you’re, in essence to the public, you’re driving the SkyTrain.

JEN: Correct.

JAWN: People take photos, they take videos, and.

JEN: They ask a lot of questions.

JAWN: It’s not just a stressful job, but now you’re under the spotlight.

JEN: Exactly.

JAWN: Right? Yeah, so walk us through that experience.

JEN: It can be pretty stressful at times, not only because you’re so focused on the guideway and making sure there’s no trees, no, you know, objects that are going to harm the train or the tracks or when you’re coming into the station, you have to really watch and make sure nobody is going to fall right? Because we do have that.

Sometimes there’s medical situations where a person faints and falls into the tracks. So when the train’s pulling into the station, that’s the most stressful time for us, is because we’re watching every single second. Because if somebody does fall in, we have to turn the train to manual and stop the train.

JAWN: Right.

JEN: Right? So that’s a scary situation to be in. But also, like Mo said, we’re responsible for the train. So if there’s door issues, which happens a lot in the winter, the doors freeze so the train can’t go unless the door issues are fixed. So we have to go through a process and try to find which door it is, and then we have to isolate it. And there’s been times where we’ve been on a train and we’ve had to isolate six doors, right? And to the point where there’s so many of them, it’s just crazy. You’re stopping at every station. It’s like main line saying to you, you can’t go, you have a train fault, right? So you have to go and find the door.

JAWN: Right.

JEN: That’s the problem. So, we’re dealing with all that. But then, like you said, there’s people asking me questions and when I’m doing it, we call it sweeping. When I’m in sweep position, I cannot turn around. I have to face the guideway constantly. And it’s hard to answer questions for people when you can’t look at them.

JAWN: Human nature, we want to make eye contact.

JEN: Exactly. And they think that I that, you know, maybe I’m being rude or something like that. But I just say to them, I’m sorry, I’m doing something safety critical so I can’t look at you, but I’ll try to answer the question as best I can. Right?

JAWN: It’s tough.

JEN: It is. It’s tough. Yeah.

JAAWN: Well, I’m glad you brought up the door issue, too, because during winter…this is a very Canadiana aspect of the way that we use hockey sticks to clear out some of the ice and snow that that build up on those doors.

JEN: Yes, that’s right. So it’s a very small gap in between the door and the train. So it’s not the SkyTrain attendants that do it. We have guideway people out there that are helping us out.

JAWN: Okay.

JEN: So they’ll be on the platform and they’ll go with the hockey sticks and run it in between the doors so it prevents them from getting stuck. So that is a huge help to us because then we don’t have to worry about as many door issues. But it’s a great tool out there and very Canadian.

JAWN: Mo, why is it a hockey stick? Like isn’t there some sort of professional tool that is designed to do this exact job?

MO: I honestly don’t know the background. I think there is a vehicle person in our company that came up with the idea of the hockey stick, and I think it was the fastest and the best way of doing it. It is the perfect size for the gap between the door and the train. Like it fits there perfectly. It takes about 10 seconds to do the job for one door and then move on.

And I guess it is easier to transfer too because you don’t require any training to use a hockey stick unless you want to go professional.

JAWN: Sure.

MO: So we have a few in every report location.

JAWN: Interesting.

MO: You walk into a supervisor office and you’ll have you..,like if you’re a stranger, you’ll be like, why do you have hockey sticks in the back here? But we use them for the winter. And I think who came up with the idea, it’s a brilliant idea. Because each individual can just have one hockey stick and run on one side of the train to clear the ice. Like I said, it is it is very easy to transfer. It is not a tool that you need to be getting any training on and it is the perfect size.

I don’t know how that worked, but whoever came up with that idea, I give them big credit.

JEN: Lifesavers.

MO: They’re all lifesavers because they come and they clear the ice and that will keep the trains running, right? They’ll keep the trains running. And you don’t have to worry about where to store them because you can just go to the store and get another one.

JAWN: There you go. Yeah. And I think it adds a moment of levity for customers, too. Like they probably aren’t expecting to see you know, a SkyTrain employee with a hockey stick. But it works. And it’s Canadian. We live in Vancouver. Why not?

JEN: Yeah, exactly.

JAWN: The truth is there’s really no such thing as perfect performance during extreme winter events. But the work that goes into putting ourselves in the best possible position to avoid significant delays is truly remarkable. It’s a all hands on deck approach between our frontline staff, our maintenance teams, engineering planning operations control everyone to ensure that we can get you home safely.

Now, it may take longer to get that done and it may not be easy and at times it can be very frustrating. But it’s important to remember that during times like these, we’re all in this together. After all, we want to go home too. My thanks to Simon Agnew, Mo Hassabou and Jen Byrne for providing us with their insight on winter preparations.

Our friends and colleagues at Coast Mountain Bus Company, BC Rapid Transit Company and the maintenance teams working hard behind the scenes to ensure reliable service. A special thanks to producer Allen for shoveling my driveway. And you as always, for listening and subscribing. My name is Jawn Jang and until next time, have a safe trip.