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Commuters are stopped by a gate at the Stadium-Chinatown station during a lengthy delay in service in Vancouver on Monday. (Ben Nelms/BEN NELMS / The Globe and Mail)
Commuters are stopped by a gate at the Stadium-Chinatown station during a lengthy delay in service in Vancouver on Monday. (Ben Nelms/BEN NELMS / The Globe and Mail)

Five-hour SkyTrain shutdown strands thousands Add to ...

For the second time in five days, the entire SkyTrain light-rail system covering much of the Vancouver region was off line – blamed on a computer glitch that left cars stalled between stations and thousands stranded across Canada’s third-largest transit system.

Monday’s five-hour shutdown, blamed on a “technical issue” by a spokesperson for the region’s transit authority TransLink, prompted dozens of passengers on the 68-kilometre system to get out of stalled trains and dangerously walk near electrified tracks, some elevated, to stations.

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TransLink spokesperson Jiana Ling said Monday’s shutdown of the Expo and Millennium lines was the result of a “technical issue” but had no other immediate details.

“It’s unfortunate this did happen” Ms. Ling said in an interview “We’re still at 95 per cent reliability on the system, which is quite high.”

In a statement last week over the July 17 incident, SkyTrain president and general manager Fred Cummings said that was caused by a “computer problem” and expressed regrets to passengers. He was unavailable for comment on Monday.

However, SkyTrain sent out a tweet late Monday afternoon as the system finally came on line that read: “E-line, M-line back to regular service. Thank you for your patience and sorry for the inconvenience.”

There was no immediate estimate on how many passengers were affected Monday, but the numbers were thought to be in the thousands.

When the system crashed on July 17, transit police estimated that at least 10 people on trains forced open doors and walked the tracks, but on Monday, transit police spokeswoman Anne Drennan reported that “dozens and dozens” of passengers decided they couldn’t wait after the 12:30 p.m. shutdown.

She said passengers risked serious injury or death by walking near tracks that carry a 600-volt charge. Transit police and TransLink staff were going out on the tracks on Monday to evacuate passengers from stalled trains only to find that some passengers had already decided to leave the trains.

“We were surprised today at the numbers of people that were doing this, particularly since a warning had gone out to people four days ago after this happened. We do understand people are frustrated and some people are claustrophobic and they’re frightened,” said Ms. Drennan.

“Their first thought is just to get out and get off. Officers understand the mindset of people, but we also have to let people know the risk they’re taking.”

Cars can’t move unless the doors are closed, but some doors were damaged by the unauthorized exits so staff were struggling to fix them so they could get trains moving again, said Ms. Drennan.

As trains slowly came back on line, thousands remained inconvenienced. Frustrated passengers struggled to find ways to get around, many on buses that TransLink arranged to run between stations.

Some Vancouver-region mayors were also fuming. “Repeated Skytrain outages unacceptable. Transit system need stable funding + local accountabilility,” tweeted Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, facing a bid for re-election this November in a campaign where transit is likely to be a major issue.

Monday’s shutdown comes as the mayors and the B.C. Liberal government are trying to agree on options for a sustainable funding model for the regional transit system as it exists. They’re also looking at funding for billions of dollars in new transit projects that include an underground line across Vancouver along its Broadway corridor.

SkyTrain, which has been built in sections since the first line opened in 1985, does not run through the City of Richmond, which is served by the Canada Line, but Richmond’s mayor said there is a bigger issue of concern around SkyTrain problems.

“If people lose confidence in the system, it will lose ridership as people revert to using cars,” said Malcolm Brodie, noting that the regional transportation strategy hinges on people shifting from cars to transit.

Early Monday afternoon outside the downtown Burrard SkyTrain station, would-be passengers were being turned back at the entrance with a simple “SkyTrain’s closed, guys,” from TransLink staff . Bus-route alternatives were being offered if passengers asked.

Charmaine Gullacher, a student from the British Columbia Institute of Technology, facing a 12-kilometre bus ride to the suburban Metrotown mall in Burnaby before trying to get home to Surrey, called the situation a “disaster.”

She said she was disappointed there were no special shuttles. “Especially because it’s been down for two hours, you’d think they’d have shuttles.”

Kevin Osadchuk, who travelled downtown from Surrey for medical appointments, anticipated a three- to four-hour bus ride back home, and said the situation was disruptive. “It’s going to take all afternoon to get back. I won’t be able to do anything else now.”

Matthew Rigmey and Kevin Lally, heading home from construction work at the Trump International Hotel and Tower, were upset – especially as they had both been caught in the last SkyTrain shutdown.

 

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