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The Skytrain system

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  Millennium Line, Burnaby

In the first half of the 20th Century, Vancouver had an extensive & efficient rapid transit system known as the "interurban". This was dismantled in the 1950's as the automobile came into its own. Big mistake. It took almost another 40 years for Vancouver to get back on track with transit. Vancouver now has one of the most modern & extensive rapid transit systems in the world for a city of its size. With a projected population of over 3 million by 2020, it's none too soon. Unfortunately, none of the 3 lines go close to many of the standard tourist attractions, but they do go close to Chinatown, Gastown, Yaletown,  New Westminister Quay, Lonsdale Quay, Granville island & Queen Elizabeth Gardens.

The Skytrain Rapid Transit System initially opened with one line in 1986 to coincide with Expo 86 (The Vancouver World's Fair). Skytrain connects downtown with the Eastern suburbs of Burnaby, New Westminster & Surrey plus the southern Suburbs of South Vancouver, Richmond as well as Vancouver International Airport. The 2 East-West lines were Canadian  designed & built by transportation & Aerospace giant, Bombardier, the North-South Canada line was built by SNC Lavelin. It is a totally automated transit system. There are no drivers, and even though it is a light rail system, it supposedly has the same capacity as a conventional heavy rail system. This is because computerization allows trains to run much more frequently, than on a conventional system. Unlike the initial BART experience in San Francisco, the software seems to work quite well, but then again, the technology had another 10 years to develop. The system has been in operation for over 20 years with minimal breakdowns. Vancouver & Kuala Lumpur currently have the largest versions of the Skytrain system, Vancouver's being the most extensive. It has the longest elevated sections of any light rail system in the world, although about 1/3 of it is underground. There are other existing systems in Detroit and Scarborough, Ontario, on a smaller scale, and one is planned for New York. The system is much faster (90 Km/h or 50 Mph) than conventional light rail systems. Trains on the Expo and Millennium lines are powered by Linear Induction Motors, which means they are effectively propelled by magnetism. These 2 lines are elevated for most of their routes with subway sections downtown. The 3rd North-South line is subway for most of its route. This is heavier 3rd rail type system with larger cars and is the one visitors are most likely to encounter first, as it connects to the Airport. It is also the largest & most modern of the 3 lines. The 4th line to be completed in the NE sector of the city, will be the same technology as the Expo and Millennium lines and will tie into the latter.

While elevated stations are easy to spot, underground ones are not so obvious. These are designated at street level with a white T on bright blue background. The  system has a total 12 stations that are underground. a couple may be added on the new evergreen line which will run underground for part of its route.

If you have always had a desire to be a train driver, the Skytrain is your chance to fulfill your fantasy. Since there are no drivers, you can sit in the seat that would normally be occupied by one. This is especially true on the new type trains. If you board the system in midday, at one of the terminal points (King George, Waterfront or Commercial), chances are you can grab this seat, or boot some kid out of it. I actually had to race a kid to this seat to get one of pictures depicted below. (At least he didn't start crying).

The decision to go with this technology was the decision of the Social Credit Government of the day. It was strongly criticized by the opposition NDP at the time, as too expensive. The NDP was in power when the decision on the Millennium Line was made. The opposition Liberals (Social Credit reborn under a different name) then criticized it as too expensive and promptly planned the 3rd line as soon as they gained power themselves. So goes BC Politics. In my opinion, the longer you wait, the more expensive it is, so you might as well bite the bullet and go for it. It's the price we pay for being able to get around & keeping the air breathable at the same time.

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Expo Line: (East West Line - South of the city)

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Expo Line, Surrey

 The 20 station "Expo" Line runs from Downtown through East Vancouver, Burnaby-Metrotown, New Westminster and then over the Fraser River to the Eastern suburb of Surrey. The name refers to the fact that it was opened to coincide with Expo 86. It was the first line constructed. The terminal stations for this line are "Waterfront", located under Canada Place (the building with the sails on the waterfront), and "King George", located at King George Highway & 100th Ave in the eastern suburb of Surrey. The line was completed in 1986, as far as New Westminster, the extension into Surrey across the Fraser River was completed about 5 years later. The Expo line services the downtown core and is underground through that area. The 15 station ( a couple are not yet built) "Millennium Line"   runs from New Westminster to Lougheed Mall in Burnaby and then west along Lougheed Highway and Broadway to join the existing line at Broadway/Commercial Station. This configures much of the system in a big loop. The two transfer stations are "Columbia" & "Broadway-Commercial". You have to be careful to board the correct train if you are traveling eastbound on the Expo line. At Columbia station, half the trains continue on that line into Surrey, the other half change over to the Millennium line & head back towards downtown Vancouver via that route.

 

One enterprising soul has produced high quality videos of a trip along all 3 lines, here is the first.

You Tube video of a trip on this line Link

Millennium Line: (East West Line North of the City)

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Approaching Lougheed Station - Millennium Line

The 15 station "Millennium Line" was completed in September 2002. The name derives from the fact that it was scheduled to be in operation for the year 2001 (the real millennium), but was slightly delayed. The system was originally planned as an "at-grade" light rail line, but more sensible heads prevailed, and the Skytrain technology was chosen for this route, rather than making the Vancouver Transit system a mishmash of different technologies. This line is generally more scenic than the Expo line. Unlike the Expo line, every station was designed by a different architect. They range from the simplistic to the futuristic. The 2 most impressive stations, in my opinion, are "Brentwood" , and "Lougheed" (above), which has an Oriental appearance (that was not the intent).  The terminal stations for the line are "Columbia" in New Westminster where it merges with the Expo line. Every second train running along the Expo line transfers to the Millennium line at this station. When you board a train eastbound on the Expo Line, you have to make sure you get on the right one, depending on whether you intend to continue into Surrey or take the Millennium line. The other terminal Station is at Vancouver Community College one station west of "Commercial Drive" which is located below the "Broadway" Station on the Expo Line.  Trains do not transfer from one line to the other at the connection point. The Millennium line will eventually continue due west towards the University of British Columbia around 2020. Most of that extension will run underneath Broadway Street. An earlier expansion to meet up with the Canada line a couple of miles west at Cambie is possible. The line has one underground section in New Westminster, but is above ground for most of its route.

Here is a You Tube video of a trip on this line Link

Canada Line: (North South Line/ Airport):

 

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The Canada Line is the newest rapid transit line. It opened mid August 2009. It has been incredibly successful, reaching the predicted 5 year capacity in less than 1 year.  This line was built by SNC/Lavelin rather than Bombardier, & although it is also an automated system, the trains are different from those on the current 2 lines. They are larger than the trains on the other 2 lines and look like the picture above. The line runs under Cambie street to the southern suburb of Richmond with a spur line to Vancouver International Airport. Unlike the 2 present lines, most of this line is underground, so as not to disturb the wealthy neighbourhoods it passes through. It is elevated south of 63rd Ave & through Richmond. It joins the current Expo line at Waterfront Station in Downtown Vancouver, and will eventually hook up with the Millennium Line at Broadway & Cambie, once that line is expanded east. Unlike the Millennium line, no transfers are required to get downtown. Travel time from the airport is about 25 minutes. This line consists of 16 stations with a future expansion to 19. This line provides a station to station link between the airport and the cruise ship terminal. Southbound you need to choose either an Airport train or a Richmond train. The line splits at Bridgeport station just after crossing the Fraser River. Trains to the Airport cost a couple of dollars more.

Here is a You Tube video of this line Video

Evergreen Line: (North West Line) 2016

This 10  station, 11 km  line is scheduled for completion in 2016. It will run from the current Lougheed Station on the Millennium Line into the Northeast suburb of Coquitlam, via Port Moody. There it will connect with the West Coast Express commuter train (see below). A fairly large section of this line will run underground due to geographic reasons. This will be a Skytrain type system, elevated in some sections & at grade in others.

Broadway expansion to UBC

This is a major section expanding the current Millenium line to the University of British Columbia at the far western edge of the city. It will be underground for most of its route, running under Broadway Street. Completion date is not yet set (2015)

General Info:

There are 3 types of rolling stock in service on the current lines, the older Mark 1 cars  new Mark 2 cars pictured at the top of this page, and the completely different system on the Canada line. Travel time on all 3 lines is about 25-35 minutes. When completed, the system will have about 100 km of track and about 60 to 75 stations.

The Skytrain is a good cheap way to get a look at Vancouver, as it is elevated throughout much of its route. The Millennium line is the most scenic of the three lines. The Canada line is underground for most of its route. All can be crowded in rush hours, however, especially the Canada line, which reached capacity only 9 months after completion. Tickets are purchased at machines in the stations (Bills accepted) or you can use your bus ticket. Be careful to purchase a ticket for the correct zone. Ticket purchases are on the honour system, but there are spot checks and heavy fines for cheaters. Tourists may be able to plead ignorance and get away with it, if they are obviously confused.

Some stations on the system have  experienced problems with drug dealers & petty criminals in the past. These individuals can use the system as a highway, and the fact that it is driverless and on an honour system, makes their endeavours much easier. There is a Skytrain Police force, but they have no power other than to kick people out of stations, their main function is to catch fare cheaters, and station security. The situation has improved considerably over the last couple of years, especially in the New Westminster Stations, where drug dealers were a problem. There is an increased police presence around some of the more troublesome stations, such as Surrey Central. I don't think any tourist need feel concerned about using the system, just use the same common sense you would normally use when  in crowds anywhere.

I used to ride the system every day, going to and from work, and never had any problems or felt unsafe doing so.

A Considerable amount of information on the system, including pictures & technical information can be found at Railway Technology - Vancouver Sky Train Light Rail Network - British Columbia, Canada

 

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Commuter Trains:

Vancouver has one Commuter Train, the West Coast Express. This runs in rush hours only, from Waterfront Station, downtown, to Mission, BC, 100 km to the east. It services the communities on the North side of the Fraser River. You can transfer to and from the other modes of transit, but will have to pay a surcharge. Check the Westcoast Express links in the table below for the fare structure. If you decide to ride this for an excursion, remember, that trains run in one direction only, westbound in the morning rush and eastbound in the afternoon.