Vancouver’s Conspicuous Commuter Train System

7 min read by Dmitri.
Published on .

Some years ago, I got a big, wrapped box under my family’s lavishly-decorated pine tree. It was a German model train set, gauge TT.

The 1/120 scale model set is an incredibly detailed representation of the real thing, rolling on DC-powered tracks, fed through a transformer directly from a 220-volt wall outlet. With it, a collection of model homes, tiny fake trees, bridges, cars, locomotives, and other wondrous miniatures could be bought and assembled.

My infatuation with trains follows me to this day, though it’s a kind that doesn’t yield any knowledge or the drive to participate. I’m not interested in the makes, models, history, or how the trains work. Just seeing the machines on tracks is enough to grab my attention and make the mind wander.

Despite the advances in shipping, motor vehicle, and flight transportation, trains are still the most efficient method of movement over a distance. They glide on a predetermined path, on two slippery tracks, reaching incredible speeds on land, carrying eternal weight through continents.

In Vancouver, metropolitan trains have been fully automated for public transit since the 1980s. There are no human operators so that if there’s space, anyone could take the “driver’s seat.” What’s more, the transit is built on top of an endless bridge with a view that spans British Columbia’s coastal mountains and urban forests.

Having had a motorcycle as the primary means of transportation for years, taking a train to work isn’t something one would usually look forward to. Alas, owning a personal vehicle in Canada is significantly more expensive than in Thailand.

Instead of a thick wall of air pushing against the motorcycle helmet in solitude, daily SkyTrain commute comes with the usual packed, standing room during rush hours, long waits, and the general lack of comforts a personal vehicle is expected to provide. Still, the experience of riding the TransitLink system is truly the next best thing. Riding in Vancouver is almost as impressive as taking a bullet train in Japan, just as scenic and much more affordable.

Student debt and the intention to save funds for film and travel pushed my wife and me into the far end of the city. There, we are fortunate to live in a fairly nice apartment with a view the luxury public transit is undeniably enabling — the payment: $175 per month and an hour of transit each way on the daily.

SkyTrain’s cars are noticeably more compact than the average. I took commuter rail in Russia, Japan, China, Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, NYC, and four Canadian cities — neither of which, except for those in Montreal, are as tight on the inside.

The older cars are designed like wedges, blocky, with a wide base and a slightly narrower ceiling. They’re noisy and prone to crowding.

Newer generation carriages are built in a tubular fashion, with the sides bulging out slightly to allow more space for the passengers. The brand-new Bombardier cars being the roomiest, with an improved suspension that makes virtually no noise as the train glides in the open across the city. My favourite configuration is the 2019 edition that forms an uninterrupted corridor throughout the entire locomotive. Like a giant metal worm that speeds through the coastal landscapes.

Curiously, in the fall of 2018, Seth Rogan’s voice resonated throughout the cars with friendly suggestions to take off the backpack, lend a seat to the elderly, and not force the doors open. The famed Comedian’s signature infectious, dorky laughter did not make it to the recordings; still, it was nice to hear a celebrity’s voice adding some spice to an otherwise dull ride. The scenic awe tends to fade after months of back-and-forth.

Early in 2019, an unusual snowstorm covered Vancouver in white fluff, which remained on the ground for weeks. Though the city is relatively far up north, the warm oceanic currents keep the air above freezing year-round – hence the surprise. On that day, human operators had to step in to ensure the safety of the passengers. It turns out that the otherwise-unobstructed front seat has a secret control panel that folds out for the drivers to override the automation. A special car was also dispatched daily to melt the ice off the rails every morning.

The bridge that carries the trains enables the vista experience with the help of the cars’ light and agile design. The elevation angles are often as extreme as those of the paved roads, twisting 90° and bending upwards 20° in less than 200 meters, as it does departing Columbia station heading due Surrey. In some places, the tracks span four levels: freight trains, then TransitLink’s Millenium passenger line, followed by the bridge for road vehicles and pedestrians, topped off by the Expo Line at the Commercial-Broadway junction.

The rails are laid throughout the city two to five stories above the ground, dipping into sub-terrain in the downtown core. There, two of the stations squeeze the transport horizontally so that the opposite facing tracks are stacked vertically instead of being side-by-side. All to take the daily commuters from A to B in an efficient manner, despite the challenges of the rugged, rocky terrain of coastal British Columbia.