An electrician installing a circuit breaker has been blamed for a shutdown of the region’s SkyTrain light-rail system this week – the second in five days – prompting chaos that included passengers prying open doors and walking the tracks to escape stalled trains.
Hours after declaring the situation “human error” by an unidentified “experienced electrician,” the region’s transportation authority, TransLink, said the worker had been suspended pending an investigation into the second recent shutdown of one of Canada’s largest transit systems.
Officials are describing the two shutdowns as unprecedented for SkyTrain, a system of underground, surface-level and elevated rail transit over about 60 kilometres that dates back to the 1980s. They said they could not recall anything like the shutdowns on Monday and July 17.
At Vancouver City Hall, Mayor Gregor Robertson and Councillor Geoff Meggs called for an independent investigation into what went wrong and whether a strong contingency plan should be created in case it happens again.
Mr. Robertson said that, although TransLink has a strong record for efficiency and smooth operations, “everyone’s confidence is shaken.”
But Doug Kelsey, TransLink’s chief operating officer, said in an interview on Tuesday that an investigation would waste taxpayers’ funds given that the cause has been identified as human error.
SkyTrain was shut down for five hours on Monday afternoon and TransLink had to evacuate passengers. Many got out on their own, risking serious injury or death as they walked on the tracks without guidance to avoid rails charged with 600 volts.
SkyTrain is an automated system without drivers, and public-address systems went off-line, leaving passengers alone in scores of stalled trains until TransLink staff and transit police could reach them. Once people were off the trains, stations were sealed. Buses moved passengers between stations.
A system-wide malfunction on July 17 was blamed on a computer glitch.
On Tuesday, TransLink said it will offer free transit on B.C. Day – Aug. 4. “It’s an acknowledgment of some of the problems we did cause,” Mr. Kelsey said. “It’s a small token of our appreciation.”
The union representing SkyTrain workers said it sympathized with passengers, but suspending the electrician was unfair. “We take exception to the fact that management acted so quickly,” said Tony Rebelo, vice-president of Local 7000 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
Mr. Rebelo said the worker was doing a job ordered by management at the British Columbia Rapid Transit Company, which operates SkyTrain. He was installing a new circuit breaker at SkyTrain’s operations centre in suburban Burnaby for the Evergreen Line to the region’s northeastern suburbs, which is under construction and supposed to open in 2016. Eleven kilometres of the line have been built.
Mr. Kelsey dismissed union concerns. “The union can say whatever they want,” he said, calling the suspension “standard practice.”
Employees coming out of TransLink’s operations centre said they were not allowed to talk to the media.
Mr. Kelsey said it was no surprise a malfunction in one component would have a cascading effect across the system because the error affected a core system for the entire SkyTrain operation.
He said SkyTrain has never before had such breakdowns, and will have to earn back the public’s trust by avoiding them in future. He added that the presence of crowds on SkyTrain on Tuesday suggested people are loyal.
But riders were more skeptical. Stewart Nurmi said he had a busy day planned on Monday and was stuck at home. He said he would take advantage of free transit, but is not sure it makes up for the mishap.
Kulwinder Sidhu does not have a transit pass and said he might use the free transit. “It’s a good gesture, but I don’t think this is what they should be focusing on. They should be focusing on fixing the issue.”
With a report from Alexandra Posadzki in Burnaby, B.C.
Frances Bula is a freelance reporter