SkyTrain emergency evacuation speed questioned

Belcarra mayor urges review of crisis response on Metro Vancouver's rapid transit system after December fire

Smoke around a stopped Canada Line train on Dec. 20.

Smoke around a stopped Canada Line train on Dec. 20.

TransLink is under pressure to prove to passengers that they can be swiftly evacuated from SkyTrain during a crisis such as a fire.

Belcarra Mayor Ralph Drew is demanding answers in light of an electrical fire that shrouded a stopped Canada Line train in smoke Dec. 20 and says TransLink’s board has failed to answer safety questions he previously raised.

“I believe that TransLink’s board of directors should undertake an independent expert review of SkyTrain emergency evacuation procedures for scenarios involving smoke and fire,” Drew said in a letter that TransLink officials are to address at a mayors’ council meeting Friday.

In an interview, Drew said TransLink “dropped the ball” on the safety issue when it hired Toronto transit expert Gary McNeil to investigate the causes of two long SkyTrain shutdowns last summer.

McNeil’s Nov. 14 report makes no mention of the capacity of SkyTrain staff to evacuate passengers in an urgent emergency, instead focusing on preventing and recovering from major delays.

The findings prompted TransLink to commit to $71 million in measures to improve the system and a target of reaching stranded trains within 20 minutes so passengers are less likely to evacuate themselves and aggravate delays.

Even a target of determining the cause of a guideway intrusion within 10 minutes isn’t fast enough, Drew said.

“If a train fills with toxic smoke, 10 minutes doesn’t cut it,” he said. “It’s a life-and-death issue and minutes count.”

Drew said he raised emergency response questions in an October conference call to outline McNeil’s findings for mayors, but said TransLink board chair Marcella Szel asked the conversation be taken “off line.”

He said he got no follow-up answer and after “stewing” about the Dec. 20 incident decided to bring the issue before the mayors’ council.

Drew said if TransLink has a more robust plan to deal with emergencies it needs to be made public.

“People want to have the confidence that they’re travelling in safety.”

Drew also wants to know what advice TransLink is getting to prepare for potential terrorist attacks targeting the transit system.

TransLink officials were unavailable for comment.

A new SkyTrain shutdown Monday in downtown Vancouver caused system-wide backups during the morning commute.

The cause is still under investigation but it’s thought to have resulted from work that was being done overnight to replace a section of the rapid transit system’s power rail.

Video by Benson Huang