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TransLink Podcast: How do we plan SkyTrain service for events and track maintenance?

TransLink Podcast: How do we plan SkyTrain service for events and track maintenance?

A portrait of Ian Fisher, who's the manager of operations planning at British Columbia Rapid Transit Company
Ian Fisher, manager of operations planning at British Columbia Rapid Transit Company (BCRTC). The company maintains and operates the SkyTrain’s Expo Line and Millennium Line, as well as the West Coast Express commuter rail service.

“My name is Taylor!” It’s been a long time coming as Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour comes to Vancouver in December. How does SkyTrain plan extra service on the Expo and Millennium Lines for large events like this? What about when there’s single tracking or shuttle trains for track maintenance? Explaining it all is Ian Fisher, manager of operations planning for 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 Podcasts, and Pocket Casts!


HOST JAWN JANG: Hey, welcome to What’s the T: the TransLink Podcast. I’m your host, Jawn Jang. Here’s what’s coming up on this episode.

PERSON 1: My name is Taylor!

JAWN: How do we plan extra SkyTrain service during big concerts or events and when there are service changes for track maintenance? 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: Vancouver is no stranger to hosting large, significant, and sometimes multinational events. Whether that’s Expo ‘86….

[SINGING] PERSON 2: Something’s happening, something’s happening here! Can you feel the magic?

JAWN: The twenty ten Winter games…

[CHANTING] PERSON 3: …the True North strong and free!

JAWN: Rugby 7s…


JAWN: …or major concerts, Vancouver is often a premier destination for gatherings both large and small. And when those events or shows are happening, life in the city and across the region can look and feel different. There’s a heavier presence of people in and around the downtown core. More folks want to experience the action and will travel to the venue where the event might be taking place, and all of that means…


JAWN: The SkyTrain schedule is going to need to be adjusted. On a typical weekday, the SkyTrain system is at its busiest during the two rush periods: there’s the morning rush and then the afternoon rush, which obviously makes sense. You’re going to school or work in the morning and then eventually need to get back home. Operations staff at SkyTrain can plan and prepare for higher frequencies and a higher volume of SkyTrain cars, because this is very normal behaviour.

So, when large events like the Olympics or a Taylor Swift concert might be coming to town, this will require a different game plan, a specific playbook that’s going to require planning ahead of time. While concerts, for example, are typically happening in the evening and in just one specific location, large sporting events can sometimes be all over the map and take place all throughout the day.

So, what does that playbook look like?

Ian Fisher is the manager of operations planning for SkyTrain, and he helps orchestrate the schedule and strategy for moments just like this.

JAWN: Ian, maybe just explain a little bit about the work you do every day at BC Rapid Transit Company and why you are the person to speak to when it comes to these topics here today.

IAN FISHER: Sure, yeah, I’m the manager of operations and planning, so I have a small team and we do the planning and scheduling of service. So, developing all the timetables, most for regular service, single tracking, special events, developing special event plans, as well. So how we’re going to manage the crowds, we work very closely with our field staff—

JAWN: Right.

IAN: —on that. We’re also involved in a lot of the automatic train control sort of coming up with features that we would like. We work closely with the train operations people who are in the control centre on that. We do a fair bit of, well, I do a fair bit of statistical analysis as well as getting good data. We’re part of an international group of metros called CoMET. So, some people might have heard the bus company CMBC is part of the International Bus Benchmarking Group.

CoMET is the rail transit equivalent of that for metro systems. So, you participate in that, get a lot of useful case studies, learn best practices from other systems, share our experience. That’s a very interesting role that I’ve had in last few years. Yeah, those are the main things. We also do the service plan for the budgets, and also long-range service plans.

So, TransLink will send us information about how many people they expect to ride a particular segment of the system. And up to 2050 currently. And then we’ll develop a service plan to try to meet that demand. We’ll see how many, how many cars we need, how many car kilometers will be required to support that service. That helps understand what the maintenance requirements for the fleet are and so forth.

So, it’s quite a wide-ranging set of roles.

JAWN: No doubt, yeah. So today, we’re going to get into the wonderful world of single tracking. Now this is a term that you and I are very familiar with, those that work in transit are very familiar with, but for the customers, they might not always know, like what is single tracking?

What does that really mean? So, my first question to you, sir, and I’ll lay it on you; What is single tracking and how does it actually matter? Why does it matter to customers?

IAN: Yeah, single tracking is when we have only one track available to operate the revenue trains. So obviously our system is mostly based around having two tracks, one for each direction, typically.

So, when we have maintenance projects, especially maintenance projects, sometimes station upgrade projects, that require access to the track, sometimes we have to do some of that work during the revenue service hours, so when trains are normally routing for customers, and then we’ll close one track and then the remaining track is open for service in both directions.

And then that’s what we call “single tracking”, it’s just when we have one track instead of two available. And it typically means that we have trains operating two directions on one track.

JAWN: So typically when you hear that you’re going from two to one, that’s a fifty percent reduction. But, that doesn’t mean a fifty percent service reduction for customers, not necessarily.

Single tracking is an important topic, though, because we look out at the Expo Line near Braid Station, there’s a significant single tracking, for the next couple of years. So how do we maybe explain the impacts that it would have on a customer who might have to go through that area every single day? Like, what are some of the typical delays that they might see as a result of what’s happening there?

IAN: Typically, yeah, we’ll see it headway of the interval between trains of, say, twelve to twenty minutes, depending on the particular part of the network that’s affected. So it really depends on where the track switches are. It’s where we can go from having two tracks to one track and then back to two tracks again. And it can also be affected by where the power isolation is because the workers have to be protected from live electricity, obviously.

So we have to be able to shut down the power and work area as well. And most of our system is pretty well designed so that we can do the best possible service without having to worry about the power isolation, fortunately. Those are the two big factors, it’s just where the track switches are, what the power is and then determining how frequently the trains can operate and it’s really a factor of, what is the length of that area in terms of its distance?

How many platforms do we have to stop and serve while we’re just using that one track? And that’s all that plays into it. So, for the Braid, Sapperton area, for the OMC 4 construction, obviously we have single tracking at both Braid and Sapperton. There, we’d be able to use kind of a creative solution to try and keep the service as normal as possible at Braid and Sapperton.

So really it’s all nature going from Braid to Lougheed that you have and ride, significant service reduction, otherwise. Provided you’re checking the signs when you enter the station, you shouldn’t have too much of a longer wait than you normally would.

JAWN: Right.

IAN: So, that’s, that’s a good case. Usually, single tracking means capacity is down by, at least fifty percent, if not more, just because of you can only have trains using that track in one direction at a time.

And usually we can have trains, you know, close as seventy-five seconds apart when they’re traveling in the same direction. But when you have to reserve the track for one direction at a time, that’s not the case.

JAWN: Yeah. It’s a complicated procedure, but we try to make it as efficient as possible for customers knowing that, you know, thousands and thousands of people take the SkyTrain every single day.

SFU students, of course, they get off at Production Way—University. So that’s a major sort of connector that they have to get on and have to deal with the single tracking. But a question someone might have is like, well, why do you need all the single tracking during the day? Surely there’s enough time when you aren’t running the SkyTrain at night to get this work done, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, obviously.

IAN: No. Yeah, that’s just I guess about two thirds of the year we have single tracking in the evening in some part of the network. So usually, it’s Sunday to Thursday evenings because the ridership, those nights is about half what it is Friday, Saturday at the busiest point. So, we do try concentrated Saturday to Thursday. Obviously some projects like this OMC 4 work it’s just not possible because you’re dismantling the track entirely in a way that you can’t restore it in time.

Yeah. And we only have a very short window overnight, otherwise, where trains are not running. So our last train finishes about two in the morning and on weekdays the first train starts up about five in the morning. So, it’s like three hours. It’s a little bit longer, depending on where you are because, the last train comes off a different track than the first train starts on, but it’s a very short window.

So, in order to get any productive time to do work and the maintenance, we try and extend that window by starting single tracking in the middle of the evening, usually about ten o’clock, because their ridership really drops off after about nine. And that way we can give the workers a seven- or eight-hour productive maintenance window.

Otherwise, they lose a lot of time just by going, getting to the worksite, because they have to take their RealWear equipment out to the worksite,

JAWN: Right.

IAN: Get set up. And then, of course, they have to do the reverse at the end of the shift. So that’s kind of a fixed amount of time at each end of their work window.

Leaving the actual productive time on tools in the middle can be very short.

JAWN: Right.

IAN: So the more we lengthen the window, the more productive it is. And the fewer nights we have to do this kind of work. And we did find, generally, it’s better to do it in the evenings. A few years ago, we did do some work to replace, track curves around the Home Depot off Terminal Avenue in Vancouver.

And we did that over a weekend. And the assessment after that, was it was generally better to do it weeknights just because the volumes were lower for customers.

JAWN: Right, right.

IAN: Because weekend ridership is, is actually remarkably high.

JAWN: Right. And I would imagine even in the evening, too, as people are trying to get home from a night out with friends, for example, right?

IAN: Yes. Yeah. For sure. And, seasonality also is remarkably insignificant for our system. And we don’t see a large decline in ridership in the peaks, in the summer, for example. But the only time of the year where it really drops off is December. And that’s often not the best time for doing work that involves setting concrete or anything that’s outside because the weather is just not cooperative.

JAWN: Okay.

IAN: So some things have to be done when the weather is better. So it’s always switch replacements. If you’re doing it out in Surrey where they have to pour out the concrete and then pour grout and let that set, it can only be done when the weather is more fair.

JAWN: Make sense. A different service that could be offered sometimes, depending on the circumstances of what might be happening on a given day or a give a situation, is a shuttle train. By definition, what is a shuttle train on the system?

IAN: Yeah. So, a shuttle train would just be a train that’s operating between two, or maybe three or four stations. So historically in the downtown area we would often do a shuttle train from Waterfront to Stadium during some kinds of maintenance. That works when the volumes aren’t too high. But in the downtown, we found that the big problem there was that this train would get full and we get to stadium. So you have to unload a full train out on the platform, and then you have a full train worth of people waiting there, and then they have to get on the next train to arrive that’s going to take them further out.

And it takes a lot of time to unload a train that’s full and to load a train to full. So, the benefits of those shuttle trains, sometimes they don’t make sense and sometimes they do. So, every single tracking plan, we look at the options and see what’s the best fit. So we can do some very high-quality simulations and build up mock timetables and see just what kind of service we can provide given the limitations on each area.

Simulate those, compare that against the demand, because we have really good data from the compass system to understand how

JAWN: Right.

IAN: People are traveling in each section. And then we’ll try and identify the best service plan. And if we see that the service won’t provide enough capacity to meet the demand, then we’ll raise that a bit higher in the decision-making process, because there’s sort of a run of the mill single tracking that we do regularly.

What’s happening most Sunday to Thursday nights, where it’s going to cause people some longer journeys, but it’s not going to usually leave them on the platform for an extended period of time just because there aren’t enough trains running. But if we do see a case like that, then it does get raised up higher so that executives and TransLink and everyone’s aware of a really robust communications plan.

It can be developed to make sure that people have proper notice and aren’t surprised.

JAWN: Taking again like a bigger picture perspective, alternative service planning. We talked a lot about single tracking. There are occasionally things that you have to plan for because we know it’s coming up on the calendar.

Taylor Swift, she is quite significant. She is a, well, I mean, dare I say, Ian, she might be the biggest name in music right now, today. I’ll debate with somebody on that. But assuming that people believe me, Taylor Swift comes to Vancouver, her concert is going to cause a significant amount of people to want to get down to BC Place where the show is happening.

So when you know something like that’s happening, do you start thinking ahead of time like, okay, we’re going to have to increase frequency some way, or we just need to supplement service because this is going to give us above average ridership levels for that night or the series of nights that she might be playing in Vancouver, yeah.

IAN: Yeah, so we have a bit of a playbook. So, for smaller events like your run of the mill sports games or smaller concerts, about twenty thousand people, we won’t do a special timetable. What we’ll do is have the trade operations in the control centre, they will insert additional trains between the regularly scheduled trains and to help get people mostly away from the event, because usually the load in is a little more spread out than the departure time.

JAWN: Sure.

IAN: Everyone’s getting out at once. For these really large events, though, we will look at a different timetable to boost the whole service level for that whole period. And so this was done for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Did that. We’ll do it for Celebration of Light, New Year’s Eve.

JAWN: Yeah.

IAN: And then these really large concert events, the big unknown. Oh, it’s not totally unknown, I guess because there’s some precedent in the US, is for Taylor Swift is just the number of people who come down who don’t have tickets but merely hanging around outside the venue.

JAWN: Yeah.

IAN: For various reasons.

JAWN: That’s not a common practice in Vancouver. Yeah. Maybe you’ve been in Canada, right? Like, it’s very bizarre.

Maybe not bizarre. I don’t want Swifties to come at me, but the fact that you can have a party outside the venue in the parking lot, it’s like tailgating for American college football games. Basically, there’s a huge culture south of the border. Again, it doesn’t really exist here.

IAN: Yeah, yeah, maybe we don’t have as much space for that to happen around BC Place might be around some of these U.S venues, but I heard in Seattle, too their stadium is pretty close to downtown, as well. There’s really large crowds coming in for that. So we will definitely factor that in. And as we do our service plan, obviously we can’t run more service for a concert than we can run at rush hour because it’s limited by the number of trains that we have. But we will, you know, schedule that for the duration of the concert, or at least what we expect the concert to be leaving. So the people are covered on their way home.

JAWN: I think that makes a lot of sense. And again, I don’t have tickets, but I might just go and just try to see what that experience is like. And I’m sure that the transit systems will be running as smoothly as possible given the circumstances. But again, one of those very unique experiences that you just kind of have to witness for yourself.

You mentioned 2010. I, basically…Okay, so, going back in time into this time machine that we have called the memory. I lived in Langley at the time of the 2010 Olympics. So coming downtown every day for me was such a great adventure because every step along the way, getting picked up along Fraser Highway, taking the 502 to Surrey Central, people decked out in Team Canada gear singing O Canada!

You get on the SkyTrain, people are singing O Canada like every two minutes. It was the most wonderful experience ever. The amount of service planning that had to have gone into 2010. I wasn’t thinking about that. I was like a 19, 20-year-old kid. I was just trying to have fun with basically the whole world arriving in our city.

The 2026 World Cup is coming, Ian, and it’s going to offer a very similar, maybe condensed version of what the Olympics were like. What exactly are you planning for during a major event like that? And do you use the 2010 skeletal frame as kind of like the…essentially the playbook, as you mentioned, moving towards 2026 when, again, the world is going to be here for those series of games at BC Place.

IAN: Yeah. So we’ll be looking at the game schedule for the local games, identifying, you know, when the games are or what we need to do to increase service. Unfortunately, some of the games overlap with our peak service, so people going to the game will be using the trains that are heading downtown to take office workers home.

JAWN: Right.

IAN: So that works very efficiently. But sometimes we’ll have to extend our peak service to just accommodate those volumes. We’ll work closely with our field staff to come up with the plan to queue people up. If there are stations where we’re expecting, you know, large number of people to arrive at once, and usually that’s more, sort of a post-fireworks kind of scenario, but might be happening for some of the World Cup games as well.

We’ll look at what we should be doing in the midday as well, just in case there’s a general increase in basal activity.

JAWN: Sure.

IAN: Because of those events.

JAWN: That’s fair. And I think one of the differences between, let’s say, a Taylor Swift concert and the 2026 FIFA World Cup is that it’s spread out. Obviously the matches take place at BC Place, but, and we don’t know this for certain, but I’m assuming that when the World Cup is happening in Vancouver, there’s going to be different locations spread out throughout Metro Vancouver, where it’s either going to be a public viewing party or little plazas to celebrate different ethnicities, groups, cultures, backgrounds, communities.

And I think that kind of replicates the 2010 Olympics experience, because, again, it wasn’t just at Rogers Arena where the Olympics were happening. It was in Whistler, it was in Richmond. It was kind of spread out. So, it will be kind of interesting just to see what kind of service planning will have to be in preparation for something like that.

It’s not just funneling people to the stadium, although that will be the majority of the focus, I’m sure, but making sure the system is robust and strong all throughout the network.

IAN: Yeah. And it certainly focuses into our budget planning for 2026.

JAWN: Right.

IAN: I want to make sure we’ve got extra allowance there for that service that goes into the maintenance planning as well, because the fleet is going to be run harder for those periods in transit, accumulating more kilometers.

So the maintenance has to be ready for that. Also all the systems that might deal with the power supply. All those things have to be in a good state of repair. Escalators, elevators, just to make sure that we don’t have failures during service. When the system is under heavy load.

JAWN: A strong transit system must complement a busy and growing region.

That means being dependable and flexible when customers need it the most. From concerts to sporting events to just getting to work or school, the SkyTrain has to plan and prepare for all of life’s events. Big or small. And now you know some of the work that goes into making sure that we’ve got your back, whether you’re a Swiftie or not.

My thanks to Ian Fisher and the entire SkyTrain team for the work they do. Producer Allen, for being the biggest Swifty that I know. Producer Sophie, for all of the hard work behind the scenes, and of course, you, for listening and subscribing.

I’ve been your host, Jawn Jang. And until next time, have a safe trip.


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