The Vancouver-region transit authority was looking for a tough outsider to advise it on getting better at handling future shutdowns of the SkyTrain system. They found their man in Ontario.
Gary McNeil, the former chief executive of GO Transit in the Toronto region, has until the end of October to write a report for TransLink. He has spent 40 years in transit – four helping develop and launch the very SkyTrain system he is putting under the microscope. “It’s in my blood,” he said on Tuesday of his passion for transit. Mr. McNeil was also executive vice-president of Metrolinx, which provides regional transportation plans for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.
He was recruited – for $1,200 a day – after a computer glitch and then a power failure shut down SkyTrain on July 17 and July 21, stranding thousands of passengers. Some pried open doors and walked the tracks to stations. TransLink, among other things, wants to discourage that.
Mr. McNeil, designated on Monday as head of the independent review, spoke to The Globe and Mail from Toronto before he returns to Vancouver.
Why did you accept this job?
When a transit system is in trouble, I want to help. TransLink were very open and transparent about the issues they have been having and the fact they want to improve their reputation with the public. When you have the full support of management behind you, you don’t mind doing a job.
Do you have the freedom to go where you need to go, talk to who you need to talk to and see what you need to see to produce the report by the end of October?
That’s what the CEO indicated to me. It’s wide open.
I understand you worked on SkyTrain in the 1980s. What brought you into your role then?
I actually worked with the Urban Transportation Development Corporation. They were providing the system for Expo 86. I was in Ontario, and I moved to Vancouver, lived in Kitsilano. I loved Vancouver and have a lot of friends there still. I stayed on the project right through the very end. It was exciting.
What makes SkyTrain distinct as a transit system?
The key distinction is it has a lot of elevated structure. The TTC subway system goes above ground for short distances, but most is underground. Light-rail systems operate on street primarily or dedicated rights of way at grade with some grade separation. But Vancouver is a fully elevated system primarily – short sections underground with the tunnel in the downtown core. But I think that, and the linear induction motor and the fact that it’s a driverless system. There are a number of places around the world with driverless systems so it’s not new nowadays. But when it was first being introduced to Vancouver, it was kind of the leading edge of technology. That, I think, has made a lot of impact on the operating system and the operating protocols that have to be put in place.
Is SkyTrain different from other transit systems in terms of passengers prying open doors. It’s not as intimidating as a subway?
Anyone can pry a door open on any of the transit systems – like in Toronto for example. GO Transit? If you were trapped in the train and you have to open the doors, it has to be readily available to do that. You rely on people using their common sense to not want to do that on a regular basis. It’s not something unique in the transit world. In this particular case, the system was down for a very long time. The customer starts to react. They want to take control themselves. That’s one of the concerns TransLink have, the safety associated with that kind of thing.
I know you’ve just started your work, but any early thoughts on deterring people from prying doors open?
It’s all down to communications, communications, communications. You need to get that information out to them, even if it’s through getting front-line staff to go out to the train.
What did you think, in Toronto, when you saw these SkyTrain shutdowns?
Surprisingly, when you look at how the unplanned evacuation happened, most people behaved very well. They got off the vehicles. They walked down the centre of the guideway in that designated walkway area that was always planned, at the beginning, to be an emergency evacuation route, and made their way back to the station. It was actually very controlled and actually respectful.
Will anything come out of your work that is going to be urgent and relevant for other transit systems in North America that may not be like SkyTrain?
The transit industry is a small industry, especially in Canada. When best practices pop up, it quickly gets spread to the rest of the industry.
This interview has been edited and condensed.