TransLink Podcast: Step inside the SkyTrain Control Centre

TransLink Podcast: Step inside the SkyTrain Control Centre

Man at SkyTrain control room, a room filled with monitors

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 visit the brains of the SkyTrain operations, the air traffic control of SkyTrain. There’s so much more than meets the eye when it comes to making SkyTrain go. Tune in to find out.


HOST JAWN JANG: Hey, welcome to What’s the T, the TransLink podcast. My name is Jawn Jang, here’s what we’re doing on this episode.

[WE’RE OFF TO SEE THE WIZARD FROM THE WIZARD OF OZ]: We’re off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz, we hear he is a whiz of a wiz, if ever a wiz there was…

JAWN: We’re stepping inside SkyTrain control. So, let’s step into What’s the T.


VOICEOVER 1: The next station is…

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

JAWN: Okay, here’s something that always shocks out-of-town visitors. The SkyTrain is a fully automated driverless system. It’s been that way since 1985 when the SkyTrain originally launched. I mean, just to put things into perspective, the Internet wasn’t even publicly available until 1993,


JAWN: And the world’s first cell phone, which weighed a whopping two and a half pounds, had only just come out in 1983.

[THEME SONG FROM SAVED BY THE BELL]: It’s all right, ‘cause I’m saved by the bell.

[LINE FROM SAVED BY THE BELL]: Hello, Zack Morris’ phone.

JAWN: So, an entirely automated train moving thousands of people daily was a marvel then, and still is today. But it still takes teams of trained professionals to make sure that the system is running as smoothly as possible every single day. The metaphorical brain of the SkyTrain system exists in the Operations and Maintenance Centre at BC Rapid Transit Company in Burnaby. Inside the room known as SkyTrain Control, dozens and dozens of monitors are constantly reading the latest information on how the system is running. Information is steadily flowing in each and every second, and the humans working this control room analyze and interpret that information to know what’s exactly happening across the network. Inside that control room is where I met with Ron Wainwright, the Manager for Rail Operations Support at SkyTrain, to learn more about the important work that goes on behind these doors.

JAWN: Okay, Ron, so here we are inside what I would call, like, the “brain” of SkyTrain and the entire system. So how does this whole place work? I see a lot of monitors going through.

RON WAINWRIGHT: Right, the room is basically divided into, I would say three sections, is an ATC, which stands for automatic train control. As you know, our trains are run by, or, controlled by the computers, and we have a skate area where we control the power and propulsion. That’s the electricity that feeds the power to our trains, makes them go. And then we have an area over here called the communications workstation, it’s probably the one that the public have the most interaction with. We make announcements from here during delays, rare delays that we have, but we make the announcements there. All the doors in our system are monitored. So, if you go through a door, causes an alarm and they respond to that, make sure the right person is going in that door.

JAWN: Right.

RON: And then we have over 2000 cameras in the stations and they can have access to all of them spring up if somebody falls on an escalator or something like that.

JAWN: I see it, and see like that’s the first thing you notice when you walk in here. So many monitors laid out. Now, some of them are for the systems you mentioned, but a lot of them are for the security cameras.

RON: They are, well, the mainline operators, the ones that are running the trains, there’s two main line operators, one run, three actually. One runs the Expo Line waterfront King George, another from Clark to Lougheed and then down through Sapperton and Braid, and then the other person is responsible for operating the section that was introduced as the Evergreen Line, so from Lougheed out to Lafarge and then the storage facility that we have out near Lafarge. So, they, then the mainline operators, the ATC operators only get the platform cameras on the cameras. This one at each end of the platform looking in, and they can see pretty well the whole camera, the whole platform on that camera. It’s very useful because they quite often see people have collapsed on the platform or, or at times at night. We have people sit on the platform edge with their legs hanging in, and they don’t activate the emergency stop system. So, the operators are able to respond to that and the trains from coming into the area.

JAWN: Just making sure you’re on top of safety, which is of course, like the number one thing that we’re trying to work towards. You mentioned ATC, which I know stands for automatic train control, but it also stands for air traffic control. This reminds me of like one of those ATC towers, you know.

RON: It does, it is similar that way. And just like air traffic control, they have a lot of procedures that they have to follow to ensure safety. And we’re the same way. Our procedure manual is very thick.

JAWN: There’s a lot of people working here on the floor right now. It’s in the middle of the day. Like, is this usually how many people it requires for the system to run?

RON: We carry the same number of people 24 hours a day. Each one has a, each workstation has to be attended during the day, during the night. As a matter of fact, during the night we’re busier from about 12:30 until about 4:30 in the morning. We’re, passengers aren’t on the system, but we are certainly busy because all the maintenance is done during the night.

So, we have railway equipment, trucks that drive out on the tracks. So, we have sometimes over 100 people in the tracks during work. So we have to make sure that they’re protected from it, from others, from trains and that they’re not electrocuted. And that’s where the skater person would be taking the power down for certain time.

JAWN: In fact, in one of the cameras right now, I can see there are maintenance teams on the tracks doing some kind of work. Now, you don’t need to divulge too much into the work they’re doing. But clearly, it also happens in the middle of the day. So, you got to make sure, again, safety is the number one thing.

RON: Yes, it does. Yes. So, they are Guideway Technicians and they’re doing an inspection. And a lot of inspection is easier to do at night, and, sorry, in the daytime, and is better to it in the daytime, obviously, for optics. So, what they are doing is they’re going in and they’re greasing the switch. You can see they are pouring a lubricant in between the switches so that when the switch moves, it has no problem.

Any moving part, it needs a lubricant. So, the control operator will find a location that they want to go in. They’ll put in ATC protection in there so that no train can come through. Or in the case of them being in a switch, they use a different type of command for the switch. And that way a train cannot go over the switch or another operator in the room could not try and move the switch while the people are standing in.

JAWN: There is the visuals I’m seeing of each SkyTrain…

RON: Moving off the tracks, yes.

JAWN: Yeah, and it’s all laid out so you can see exactly how they’re moving, which switch they’re on and…

RON: They’re colour, colour coded. The yellow ones indicate that they’re going the full length of the line. So, from Waterfront to King George and blue ones, er, turning off and going up to Production Way and turning around there. So different colours mean different things. During, at the end of peak service, when we’re going from 69 trains down to about 45, there will be different coloured ones indicating what station that train is going to come out of service at, so it’s a good visual for the operators.

JAWN: Sorry, you mentioned that the communications department, the team here, are usually the ones that the public will, will maybe…

RON: Hear the announcements during a delay, will be the ones if they pick up an emergency telephone on a, in a station, or if they push the intercoms located by the doors, it will be the person here that responds.

JAWN: Ron, obviously, you know, the original SkyTrain line opened up in the late eighties for Expo 86, this system feels pretty modern to me. So, what is that process been like to try and upgrade to make sure that technology is keeping up with what you need it to?

RON: It’s just the problem too, is the technology goes so quickly that by the time you get it in, it’s almost getting obsolete, right? So, we’re always looking for new technology. The Thales system that we have for controlling the trains has been around since, since day one for us.

We’ve been told, we’re part of an organization called COMET (Community of Metros) and we gather information from other systems around the world, learn from their mistakes, pass on stuff that we know that’s good and, and it’s a good relationship. One of those things they’ve said is Thales is an excellent provider, probably the best provider of automatic train control service.

Some of the stations that monitor all the door alarms is about five years old. So, we went for a system that we could customize, that was better for us, because the now we get a door alarm from a station, we can actually go on to the map and see which actual door it was. And some systems don’t have that sort of technology. And a lot of it is just upgrading systems that have been around for a long time.

Our next one to come out is the system that replaces, that makes, that we use to make announcements.

JAWN: I see.

RON: That’s in the process of being replaced. That’s going to be replaced probably in January.

JAWN: Okay.

RON: Customers will probably notice a better quality type of announcement and they’ll also notice a bit more different type of announcement because, we also, as well as the operators making them, since we will also be using them, text to talk and things like that which will be coming along.

JAWN: And just that’s again for more like customer convenience and making sure that we’re just trying to make sure that they get all the information.

RON: They get as much information as possible. Yeah, yeah.

JAWN: So, it really feels like, you know, when you’re here, you’re just, communication has to be such a strong point, like get in the middle of, you know, talking up and observing just how the team is functioning and everyone has to really pull together.

RON: A lot of communication is very important, especially with safety related stuff, because you find that over the years, safety incidents, communication, was a big thing, or lack of communication was a big thing. So, the operators know that. Operators I mean, they work as a group, they’re here 12 hours a day, you know, three on, three off.


So they become kind of like a family after a while. So, you know, get to know each other well. So there’s, there’s no problems with communications. We are this room, as you’ll notice, is quite small. We’re moving across the street to a new control centre in a couple of years. Twice as, twice as wide, twice as long.

So that will accommodate expansions that we’re expecting and not just to Langley and to Broadway, but also to UBC and other further extensions of, past 2050 that we’re going to have the room to do.

JAWN: Right, Right. Yeah. Just future-proofing and…

RON: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah. When we built it, we knew that there would be no point in having a room that would, you know, did all this work on and to develop, and it’s obsolete by the time you build it, right? So, we’ve left room for expansion.

JAWN: It’s that race against time, at all times.

RON: Always.

JAWN: You know, because things are changing, things are growing, things are improving. So, it’s always trying to make sure you got a good handle on it. But it’s good to know, like this room has gone through many decades of servicing the public dutifully. So, it’s still doing its job.

RON: It is, yes. Yes. Operators find it a little bit cramped, but that will disappear in two years time. And…


RON: Okay, so the alarm that you heard her yelling out is a GIMS alarm. So, at our stations at the end of the platforms there are posts. So if anybody walks off the platform and starts to walk down the tracks, we get an alarm at the communications desk. Communications Operator acknowledges it and yells out to the mainline operator because the mainline operator’s the person controlling the trains.

JAWN: Right.

RON: So, she announced to make sure that that mainline operator knew. That mainline operator saw that there was a train approaching that area. So, he set the emergency brakes on the train, just in case a person had gone out there.

JAWN: I see.

RON: So now the Communications Operator might be able to hear behind us now making announcement to the train because it emergency braked. So, letting them know the apology, the emergency brake, we’re aware of it, and that the train’s going to be moving.

JAWN: And that announcement is only to that one train?

RON: Just to that one train. If there were more trains involved, then it would be to more trains.

JAWN: Okay. And sorry, what is the GIMS? It’s an acronym.

RON: Guideway Intrusion Monitoring System. So, there are metal posts at the end of each platform edge. We used to have, and we actually do still have end gates at the platforms, but the wind would blow them open. So, this now detects any motion, it has to break four beams before, before they’ll set off. So, and you see, she also brought the camera up to see the location. And actually we spotted that it was birds going through it at the time.

JAWN: Okay. So, crisis…

RON: Crisis averted, yes. So, we still even though we saw birds go through the camera, we still send an attendant to check there to make sure that that is that there wasn’t something else, right?

JAWN: Does Mother Nature do these things quite often?

RON: Yes, yes. The Millennium Line has a different type of emergency stop system. We have the beams in the tracks. So, we’re coming towards October, November now, we’ve got a lot of leaves falling off on the tracks which set those things off. So, the guideway staff get out at this time of the year in the nighttime and they go and clean up those tracks to cut down on the number of trips we get from that.

JAWN: But of course, one cannot make assumptions. So, each time this thing happens…

RON: Everything.

JAWN: That has to be taken seriously right?

RON: That’s right. We still always check it just in case it’s someone in trouble and someone else has come on and saying, “No, it’s fine, it’s fine.” So, we still check it out.

JAWN: Now, as you heard, the control room is busy, for a good reason. An automated system still requires that human touch to ensure that the service is safe for you, our customer. Now, when we come back, we’ll sit down with Ron in the comfort of his own office to learn more about the secrets to running the SkyTrain. You’re listening to What’s the T, the TransLink podcast.


JAWN: Welcome back to What’s the T, the TransLink podcast. My name’s Jawn Jang, in conversation with Ron Wainwright, the Manager for Rail Operations Support at SkyTrain.

So Ron, we just finished in the in the control room there, with SkyTrain. Busy, but it was fun to kind of be a part of that experience. Now we get a chance to be a bit more in a quiet environment, which is nice. When you mentioned that you’re moving to a brand new OMC (Operations and Maintenance Centre), brand new control centre, it feels like a brand new phone, and each phone has its own little new innovations.

RON: Yes.

JAWN: So, my idea of what a new innovation is like, is like if you’re moving to a brand new control centre, how does the system benefit? Like what are the changes are you going to see in system if you’re a customer, for example, and maybe you want to just take the SkyTrain?

RON: I think efficiency and how we’ll be able to handle service delays will be improved in the new control room. Certainly, it’s needed for expansion regardless.

JAWN: Since we’re talking about delays and you know, in the event that maybe it does happen, what is happening in the control room and how does it kind of trickle down where the train does eventually arrive. But what needs to happen in order for that to kind of get to that point?

RON: It so much depends on the nature of the delay there. We get a lot of medical delays now since COVID, they seem to have gone up, which we have a person on the train is having a seizure or something like that, and they can’t be moved. So, we’re out of luck with that right away. We have to keep that train of that location and work around it.

So, immediately the Communications Operator’s making first contact in the ambulance, get the ambulance there and then making announcements to the trains, telling them that they’re going to be held for a few minutes while we decide what the alternate service is. There are some alternate services that we can do that will run. But the, the passengers would be completely confused as to what was going on.

So, we have to make it workable for the customer as well. So once that’s done, we set that that thing up and then we start letting the trains go. Single tracking is the big one where trains run on the same track on both directions, is usually what it reverts to. And so, communications will be making the announcements. We’ll be sending out the information to the other stakeholders that TransLink, Customer Information, needs to know. T-Comm if we need a Bus Bridge, that sort of thing too. So, it’s, it’s establishing, part of the room, is establishing the, the site where the incident is going on and ensuring that it’s safe for the staff and any customers that might still be there. And the rest of it is working on getting the rest of the trains moving as quickly as possible.

JAWN: And then STAs (SkyTrain Attendants), they play a role as well?

RON: They’re usually the first ones to tell us of in a medical emergency. We, it’s an intercom. And if someone tells us on the intercom there’s a medical emergency, we still don’t know the nature of it and we can try and get some information. But by the time we get that, the STAs already been dispatched is on the train and giving us the real information that we need to know, that we need to tell the ambulance.

JAWN: I’m glad you mentioned stays because I think you know in the big picture and how everything sort of operates and how it all works, they play a crucial role. They do the operations of all this. So, control room, we were in there, we saw how the team was working and the kind of environment that they’re working at, and I kind of would describe it as the control room is the brains of the operation and the stays are the eyes and ears, would you say that’s about right?

RON: Yeah, the STAs are the eyes and ears. We rely on information from them on a situation. We can look on the cameras, but you can’t see everything that’s going on completely. And if an attendant tells us that something is not safe for them to do, then we will listen to them and follow that. You know, they are they are, the face of SkyTrain to the customer as well.

So, and I think public doesn’t really realize all the different things they do. It’s not just a security, it’s only a minor one of it, but information, first aid. They can operate the trains if we need to, train fails, and quite often they drive them and they do a lot of troubleshooting on the trains as well on the systems running.

JAWN: So, they’re the first line of customer like and for information, interaction, and also the first line of safety.

RON: Yes, they are right. Yeah.

JAWN: So, it’s a it’s a very crucial role. And one thing that we’re trying to accomplish maybe with, by people listening to this podcast is, you know, how people when they get off the bus, they’ll say thank you to the bus driver.

RON: Yes.

JAWN: Let’s try and get into motion people saying thank you when they get off the SkyTrain.

RON: They would certainly be appreciated.

JAWN: Yes, I think so. And so, we’re just trying to get that movement started. If there is any potential. If you were just standing at a SkyTrain station, what you see is different from what the average customer see, the average customer is just going to see train, rail, stairs, tap in, tap out.

RON: Right.

JAWN: What are you seeing and what are some of the changes that you could anticipate in the future?

RON: Okay, well, you know, looking at the platform at the end of the tracks is standard rail, like all trains have. In the middle of that, there’s a wide metal rail that is called, we call it the LIM reaction rail. So, our trains have linear induction motors and they create a magnetic force that pushes against that rail either to propel the train or to slow the train down.

But, that is that is what we use for propulsion. The linear induction motor has some wonderful benefits for us. First of all, apart from the fan to keep it cool, there’s no moving parts on it. So, failure rate is way lower, and maintenance is a lot lower on it. The second thing is because unlike a car or a regular train, the wheels turn the vehicle and make it go on with the train system because it’s a metal wheel on a metal rail, it slips a lot. So, they can only go up a certain amount of grade, whereas the linear induction motor, those wheels just run freely. And so, we can go for a steeper grade than most conventional rail systems.

JAWN: Is that what makes the iconic sound when the SkyTrain goes on the Expo Line

RON: Phase motors, of them changing. Yeah, yeah. And, and because of that, linear induction motor, our trains are a bit, I’m going to call, “sportier”. They’ve got a faster acceleration and deceleration than most railways do. If you know, Canada Line’s, great system, but you’ll notice their trains accelerate out a lot more slowly than ours do. And that’s just the difference in a linear induction motor.

JAWN: I see. Okay. And then when you mentioned like the GIMS, we are going to have to obviously move those, as you sort of mentioned. Why is that?

RON: Well, the new trains, are five meters longer, so two and a half meters on each end of the platform will stick out and if anything blocks those GIMS, they will send an alarm to the control room saying that someone’s going out into the tracks. So, we have to reposition them so they’re not doing that continually.

JAWN: And will the stations change themselves? I know that there is going to be work done on stations to, to eventually be able to handle longer train cars when the Mark V eventually comes.

RON: Most of the stations are having the GIM posts removed, or moved further, further out. There are a few emergency exits, probably about five or six stations that have to have the emergency exits moved a bit further away, for access for the trains.

JAWN: And you know, there’s something because I need you to tell me what this is. But people keep mentioning PIES when it comes to how SkyTrain stations are working. What is PIES? Because I just I get hungry when I hear it and I’m sure that’s not the case.

RON: PIES is actually more than, it stands for, platform intrusion emergency stop. So, it’s the emergency stop systems that if something falls into the track or somebody falls into the track, it will emergency brake a train that’s near the station, or if it’s coming towards a station a distance away, it’ll stop outside the station. It will, when the PIES are activated, it will close the track, that ATC protection we talked about, the track will go red, and if a train is nearby it, it’ll emergency brake. PIES are different depending on which line you ride on. If you ride on the Expo line, you’ll notice when you look into the track, there are some red plates in there and around the red plates there is cabling. And so, if somebody falls into the track, that cable gets moved and it changes the resistance and the cable and sends off a signal to the to the emergency stop system to activate. On the Millennium Line, you have light beams that go the length of the track inside the station. And if anything breaks that light beam, then it sends a message to the emergency stop system to activate an emergency stop.

JAWN: I know during the winter this system can be a little tricky because there’s a lot of things that get on to the, to the railway that honestly, it triggers the system. But we don’t want that happening.

RON: No. In the winter, both the systems are affected by GIMS, is affected by snow falling. If the snow gets, the flakes get big enough and heavy enough, we start to get trips of the GIMS system. And if we get enough, then we start getting the platforms attended and we tell the STAs, “call us if you get a real GIMS alarm.” And the STAs know when they get a real GIMS alarm because a horn goes off in the station, it’s a different sounding horn when the PIES go off, so they know the difference between the two. The PIES system is usually a build up of snow. It’s our problem on both the Expo and the Millennium. This time of year, though, Millennium Line, leaves can be a problem, so it’s extra maintenance needed by our staff to go out and clear the leaves out of those stations.

JAWN: Right, Right. And again, safety, so you can’t ignore even when it happens once during the winter, you know, you’ve got to go and check it, make it all clear.

RON: That’s right. Yeah. Some of the systems around the world will rely on cameras to if they get an intrusion, they will look on the camera and go, okay, I saw somebody go in, they’ve climbed out. It’s obviously clear. We won’t do that. We’ll accept a slightly longer delay just to ensure that we didn’t miss. Nobody wants to say the track is clear and it’s not right. They’ll live with that on their…

JAWN: Right. What’s your favorite thing about working at SkyTrain?

RON: People, great bunch of people. People in the control room now, you know, everyone works together as a team. Yeah, I just I haven’t worked in the control room for a while, but I still see guideway technicians out there and who, who know be my name and, you know, will greet me and come over and chat to me and things like that. So, as much as we’ve expanded, we’re still very tight knit group. Yeah.

JAWN: And what’s one takeaway you wish listeners would leave this conversation with, listening to what you’ve had to say about how the SkyTrain control room works, how the whole operations really comes down.

RON: Like this sort of thing is, is that everyone, you know, if we have a big delay, it’s frustrating to the customer. But I can guarantee you that everyone in that room and everyone out on the line is doing their very best to get that situation resolved as quickly as possible. We would much prefer to be where there’s nothing going on and the trains are running normally, then having to deal with an emergency or a problem with a piece of equipment. And so, everyone is working to get it cleared up. We’re very conscious of, you know, how delays affect people. That’s, you know, a three-minute delay on the SkyTrain, you could miss your bus by 3 minutes. And if your bus runs every hour or half hour, then we’ve affected you more than that. Right?

JAWN: Right. Yeah. So just understanding and patience that we’re all sort of in the same boat.

RON: Yeah, that’s right. And just about, about all the people that work in the control room are SkyTrain attendants. So, they’re used to dealing with understanding how failures on the system can affect the public.

JAWN: People may not realize how good we actually have it here in Vancouver until you leave, and then you go somewhere. Maybe it’s for school or for work or whoever, but whatever it may be. And then you realize, “Dang, I kind of missed that SkyTrain because it just performed.”

RON: Yes. And I think a lot of the, the some of the criticism maybe of SkyTrain is when it has the delays because we’ve got such lofty expectations of it. We expected in rush hour, a train is going to come every 2 minutes. And if it’s 3 minutes and there’s no train, we’re going, well, “What’s wrong with SkyTrain?” Right? Know that we have a on time performance, is over 96%. So, from North America and Europe, that’s huge. In Asia, that’s not so great because they, they go all out and they overstaffed to make sure that sort of stuff doesn’t happen. But by European standards and North American standards, it’s ridiculous, New York is at 75% on time performance.

JAWN: So, and people always talk about the New York Subway as like one of the more iconic systems. And maybe it’s iconic for different reasons. But yeah, 75 to 96 is a big step.

RON: A big step, yeah. So yeah, and you know, and then I remember working on as an STA and people would say, well, “Where’s the train?” And I go, “Yeah, it’s coming.” And you can hear it coming and, “Oh it’s late!” It’s 30 seconds later. Yeah, things happen.

JAWN: It is late by definition. Like, come on.

RON: I know. Yeah, yeah. And we used to, we used to measure delays anything more than 2 minutes and we went to other systems around the world when we joined this, this COMET group and they, you know, they were saying 2 minutes, that’s a bit tight. We don’t usually measure that that closely. So, we’ve gone up to 3 minutes. So okay, so that we can at least compare our statistics with them a bit better.

JAWN: We are standing at the precipice of major growth and change for the SkyTrain system, rail expansion, new maintenance facilities and control rooms, even brand new SkyTrains. All of it will require hard work, proper funding and support and patience as these changes are implemented over time. But it’s very clear that the future for SkyTrain is a bright one.

My thanks to our friends at BC Rapid Transit Company for helping us with this interview, the incredible team working at SkyTrain Control, Ron Wainright and the entire team at SkyTrain for allowing us to visit. My thanks to producer Allen for technical and logistic support, and you as always, for listening and subscribing. My name is Jawn Jang, and until next time, have a safe trip.