TransLink Podcast: Doo doo doo you know the story of the SkyTrain chime? 

TransLink Podcast: Doo doo doo you know the story of the SkyTrain chime? 

A photo of the SkyTrain with doors open and a speech buble saying "Doo doo doo"

It’s arguably the most iconic sound in Metro Vancouver: the “doo doo doo” as the doors on the SkyTrain. But how did it come to be? We chat with both the retired and current manager of operations planning at SkyTrain to uncover the history of this iconic sound and how it has stood the test of time.

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 we’re checking out on this episode.


JAWN: What’s the story behind the famous SkyTrain chime? 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: All right, maybe you’ve realized this, but we live in a world full of chimes. And if you’re still not sure what that word means, a chime is described as a melodious ringing sound, as produced by striking a bell, typically to indicate the time. The most famous example of a chime would be this.


JAWN: Or maybe something like this.


JAWN: Or even something like this.


JAWN: The world is full of audio cues that specifically indicate something is happening. In the case of an incoming text message, you know that when you hear that sound, it can only mean a new text, and you’re not confusing it for another sound like your laundry machine letting you know the wash cycle has just ended. We’re so accustomed to hearing chimes in our daily lives that we rarely ever stop to think about how these sounds were originally thought up, or what the process was like behind the scenes to eventually arrive at that specific sound.

But there had to have been a process because certain sounds just make sense for certain things. Imagine. As an example, if this was the sound you heard every time a new text message came in.


JAWN: Oh yeah, that would be terrible. I would seriously never text anyone ever again. Subconsciously, there’s some kind of a mental process where we would associate certain tones to indicate certain messages with differing levels of urgency or caution. It’s a fascinating look into what makes our brains operate the way they do. But this is not a science podcast. This is a transit podcast. All of these little tidbits about chimes brings us to the most iconic chime that we have on our transit system: the SkyTrain chime.

With hundreds of thousands of people riding the SkyTrain daily, this is a sound that’s become synonymous with Metro Vancouver’s rapid transit. But how well do customers like yourself actually know the chime? Producer Vince, I hit the streets to find out the answer.

JAWN: There are few sounds in Metro Vancouver as iconic as the sound of the SkyTrain. It’s Jawn with What’s the T: the TransLink Podcast out on the system today, asking customers like yourself if you can imitate SkyTrain chime.

You know the sound when the SkyTrain leaves. There’s that three distinctive bells. Who wants to be bold enough to try and give us an imitation of that sound effect?

VOICE 1: I got it, I got it, yeah.

JAWN: All right, let’s go.


VOICE 1: Dong, dong, dong.


JAWN: This guy’s pretty good at what he’s what he’s doing here.

VOICE 3: How you do it, you know, it’s simple. Doo doo doo. You know?

JAWN: He knows it. That’s the beat. That’s that’s exactly perfect.

VOICE 4: Dun, dun, dun.

JAWN: That’s pretty good.


VOICE 4: Pretty much.

JAWN: That’s pretty good.

You’re about to get on the SkyTrain here in a few moments. When you do and as the SkyTrain takes off, you’re going to hear three distinctive bell sounds. You know what I’m talking about? The chime.

VOICE 5: Yeah.

JAWN: Can you give us your impression of the chime?

VOICE 5: Doo, doo, doo.

VOICE 6: Doo, doo, doo.

JAWN: It’s pretty good. I think he’s a natural.

VOICE 7: Doo, doo, doo.

JAWN: That’s good, that’s good dude.

How about they give us, like, a remix? If you could control that sound effect and just replace it with a different sound set, what would it be?

VOICE 2: Doo doo doo doo.


VOICE 2: I don’t know.

JAWN: We’re going to send that up to the suggestions. Doo doo doo doo doo. That was kind of right? Yeah okay. Yeah I like that a lot. Really appreciate. Some musicians here. I love their talents, so amazing. Thanks, guys.


JAWN: All right. It’s pretty clear that our customers are smart and very talented. But what’s the story behind the SkyTrain chime? How was it created? Who actually put these three notes together for this tale? Let me introduce Ian Graham, a retired Skytrain operations planner whose legacy includes the creation of this iconic sound.

You know, maybe you can take us into a little bit of the story about how that chime was created, designed, made — you were literally in the room when it was recorded. So maybe just take us into that moment.

IAN GRAHAM: Yes. well, in the, in the days when SkyTrain was being developed, it was developed right from the outset as an automated system with the intention that it be an unattended system. But without a train operator, there was a need certainly to provide some audible indication for door closing, but that was typical on a lot of systems. Some of them, Toronto for many years had the train guard using just a whistle, the sports whistle. Other systems did have a tone built in, so it became necessary to do some kind of an alert tone.

I think at the time what the project group wanted to do was to make something that was distinctive  and not too synthetic sounding. That was in the early days of synthesizers and that some of the tones were very, very different from an actual kind of musical tones.

So, we actually did — my boss, Tom Parkinson, the systems administrator, gave me this task to go and try and come up with a tone for the door chime, taking account of what other systems did. And so we looked at both what was was going to be provided from the supplier originally, which I can say was a very kind of synthetic sounding tone.

JAWN: Right.

IAN GRAHAM: Maybe futuristic, but in some ways we wanted to soften that a little bit.

JAWN: Sure.

IAN GRAHAM: We actually tried going out and trying to record some actual gongs…

JAWN: Oh, really?

IAN GRAHAM: …in studio.

JAWN: Okay.

IAN GRAHAM: It didn’t sort of work that well and, maybe we didn’t go far enough. So we ended up doing a session, or I ended up in the session at Little Mountain Sound Studios, which was an iconic recording studio back, back in the 80s.

JAWN: One of Vancouver’s like institutions.

IAN GRAHAM: Institutions at the time, which, I think is long gone.

JAWN: Right.

IAN GRAHAM: I’m not sure whether there are other real successors to it, but there’s certainly proliferations since then. This was in 1984 if I recall and it was getting time to put some of these things together for the delivery of vehicles and to package up this kind of audio tones and features into the system and get them done in time.

So, I guess I was in there with, a recording engineer, and, we kind of went through a number of, kind of options and tones on a digital synthesizer and  looking for something that that actually sounded a bit like a  gong and it would be something distinctive, knowing that people would be listening to this, you know, many times on a trip, thousands of times in a year.

JAWN: Right.

IAN GRAHAM: Want something that’s distinctive, people recognize, but isn’t too distracting and doesn’t become too annoying after repeated listening. I guess some systems use sort of an upwards sequence of tones. Some of them use downward. I guess the upward tone gave us sort of a sense of departure. I think in Toronto, the tones are downward and that sort of the impending door closing on you, so it could be either way.

And after going through, you know, a certain number of sequences, we kind of sent the results back to a small team of people to evaluate and decided, they came up with this decision to use this tone. And that’s what’s been was built into the audio devices on the trains.

JAWN: Right.

IAN GRAHAM: It was then actually adapted and put into the B-Line busses.

JAWN: Right.

IAN GRAHAM: Because of the all-door loading there. Used on the Canada Line trains. I guess that’s where it stands.

JAWN: From the creation of the chime to its current usage. This three tone alert has managed to stay relevant. But why do we need chimes in the first place?

For this, we meet Ian’s successor and a friend of the podcast, Ian Fisher, the manager of operations planning at BC Rapid Transit Company, or SkyTrain, and sort of our unofficial in-house chime expert.

IAN FISHER: It’s a real icon of Vancouver. That three chime, three tone ascending chime. Of course, most metros weren’t automated at the time. So you go to Toronto, a guard would blow a whistle. Same in New York, those kind of places that.

JAWN: Is that when they would say, like, “All aboard!”

IAN FISHER: Sometimes, yeah.

JAWN: All right.

IAN FISHER: I guess in New York you hear stand clear of the closing doors, please.

JAWN: That’s less fun than All aboard, in my opinion. Just a humble thought.



IAN FISHER: So they came up with this electronic chime because our system was gonna be automated. Obviously, there’d be playback equipment to record, or sort of play this on the trains for people to warn people the doors were closing, and that’s where it started.

I guess the other systems have more mechanical sounding chimes, I guess.

JAWN: Sure.

IAN FISHER: Being in Germany, they got some pretty harsh buzzer sounds in Berlin. Or there’s a particular, three note descending sound that you hear in Toronto and a lot of other systems.


JAWN: Is the original recording like on a cassette? Like, how did they do it? Because it was all those years ago now.

IAN FISHER: Yeah, it is on a cassette. I think I still have a cassette.

JAWN: Ian, when it comes to like how, like the function of the chime in itself is that coming through from a centralized sort of computer that plays from one location, or do we have to, like, manually download this chime into every single SkyTrain? And if so, how do they know when it’s time to play the chime?

IAN FISHER: Right. Yeah. So we have two announcement systems on the train. So the chime is usually associated with the automated announcements for the next station and the train destination. So when the doors open to the train announces where it’s going, it’s ambiguous where that train might be going given the platform it’s at.

And those announcements are all drawn from a library of about 100 recordings that we have stored on every train. So they’re in flash memory on the trains, which does mean that if we want to change one, we have to get a technician out there to change close to 200 or so computers right now.

JAWN: Wow.

IAN FISHER: Manually change the flash memory on them, which is very time consuming, so we don’t do those changes lightly. But that’s the main chimes as well as all the next station announcements, which side the doors are going to open, where the trains going. All of those recordings are loaded on the trains.

If we have an ad hoc announcement, where the control centre needs to make announcement, then that sort of live over the radio, but all of those routine ones that you hear every day, they’re all recordings stored on each train,

JAWN: I mean, to your point, the SkyTrain announcements have never been wrong. Like, it’ll never be like, the next station is Stadium Chinatown when you’re actually arriving at Columbia. Right? So is it designed in a way that these things can’t ever really fail because it’s built, designed, like, I obviously don’t know how it all works out, but I’m assuming there’s a reason why it doesn’t fail like that.

IAN FISHER: Yeah, it doesn’t usually play the wrong announcements, fortunately.

JAWN: Right.

IAN FISHER: Sometimes we have cases where the radio system isn’t working properly or there’s coverage issue and then and efforts don’t get played. Those, if STAs hear them, they can often get things working by resetting a computer on the train.

JAWN: Gotcha.

IAN FISHER: Especially if the door chimes aren’t working. It’s just a simple reset of equipment on the train. But yeah, for the other times, you know, the announcements, they’re programed centrally. And then the central computer here in the control centre sends codes to the train to tell it what to play at each moment.

JAWN: Gotcha.

IAN FISHER: So, if provided we haven’t made a mistake on the programing in, you won’t hear the wrong station when you arrive at one.

JAWN: Yeah. Fair enough. Maybe just explain Ian, why do we need chimes and the function that they actually serve as people are trying to enjoy their commuting experience?

IAN FISHER: Sure. Well, the door chime, I guess is really a safety one. And that’s just to warn people the doors are going to close. So if you’re thinking you’re going through the door, please don’t go through the door if the door chime has started because you’re going to block the door. Usually the doors can reopen and let people in or get their hand out of the door, but that delays everyone on the train. And sometimes it can cause the breakdown of the door. It wears the door out faster. So we really much prefer it if people don’t obstruct the doors when they close. So the door closing chime is there to warn people. Try not to do that, please.

And then, of course, we have the other, chimes as well, just to warn people that there’s an announcement coming. So it’s just a way to, hey, get your attention.

JAWN: Right, right.

IAN FISHER: Something coming, please listen.  I was going to mention that the newest train is the Mark 5 will also have a visual warning that’s a bit more obvious.

JAWN: Right.

IAN FISHER: Especially when you’re especially on you’re on the outside of the train, there’ll be a light bar above the door frame that will go from green to red.

JAWN: Wonderful.

IAN FISHER: When the doors are going to close, so people who cannot hear the chime will also have a cue that the doors are closing, as well as everyone else. We’ll see this much more readily than the current indicator lights which are quite well hidden.

JAWN: I love it. And you know, I think the tricky thing to Ian is that, as we kind of step back and take a look at the bigger picture, like we live in a world where there’s so many different sound effects, like you have a sound for your text messages, you have a sound for the alarm as you wake up, you have a sound for the emails that come through when you’re at work or you’re at school. How do you try and like, try to pierce the busyness of all these different chimes and sounds that people already carry with them every single day? To try and make sure that especially newcomers or visitors to Metro Vancouver using the SkyTrain for the first time, they’re able to clearly identify like this is what it is, and it’s probably like a tricky experiment sometimes because you got to make sure it’s not lost in the busyness of everyday life, but it makes enough sense that people know what’s going on.

IAN FISHER: Yeah, I guess when our chime came out, there weren’t really that many. There wasn’t much competition for it.

JAWN: Yeah, right. Okay.

IAN FISHER: People certainly do recognize it, I guess. You for the door closing chime, you kind of learned by example. Okay, I hear that the door is closed. We don’t actually educate people that that’s what it means, but you learn it pretty quickly. I haven’t really seen any evidence that people aren’t hearing it anymore. Although some people these days have earbuds and that kind of thing, and it’s very hard to reach them. maybe not so much with the door chime, but for announcements. So if there’s a service disruption of any kind, you know, they might be listening to music or whatever, they won’t get the announcement, which can be a problem.

JAWN: In a world full of alerts, dings, bells, beeps and whistles, the SkyTrain chime stands in elite company as one of the most iconic sounds of Metro Vancouver. It can represent the beginning of your journey, full of endless possibilities, or it can represent the feeling of going home back to the comfort of a familiar place. Somehow, inexplicably, this three tone sound has stood the test of time, even finding a role in how we end each one of our episodes on this podcast.

As the famous saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And you know what? Enough set my thanks to Ian Graham and Ian Fisher for providing the insight and story behind this iconic chime. Producers Vince and Allen for always chiming in with the very best advice day in and day out. And of course, our thanks to you for listening and subscribing.

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