SkyTrain transit system turns 25

Former Deputy Premier and minister responsible for SkyTrain in the 1980s descends from a new SkyTrain car with the help of Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom at the system
Former Deputy Premier and minister responsible for SkyTrain in the 1980s descends from a new SkyTrain car with the help of Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom at the system's operations yard in Burnaby during ceremonies to mark the 25th anniversary.

By Grant Granger


Ian Graham began working on SkyTrain before a shovel had been put in the ground and well before it was called SkyTrain.

He’d been working on transit planning in 1973 before being assigned in April 1982 to the project that would transform Metro Vancouver’s skyline and transportation habits. Now he’s its senior operations planner and affectionately known as “Mr. SkyTrain.”

“I probably had some apprehension because it was quite new, but I made the plunge,” said Graham at the SkyTrain operations and maintenance yard in Burnaby following a celebration of the service’s 25th anniversary Wednesday.

“I was confident in the viability of the technology and the senior people involved. I trusted it could deliver the capability.”

These days, said Graham, SkyTrain carries up to 13,000 passengers per hour into downtown Vancouver from the Broadway station. To deliver that many by vehicle would require five freeway lanes heading west.

“It’s already the equivalent of a 10-lane freeway going down the Grandview Cut,” said Graham of SkyTrain.

“Over time it has continued to grow and has become part of the fabric of the region. It is now taken for granted.”

Not a week doesn’t go by when transportation officials from all parts of the globe aren’t touring SkyTrain. Graham said it has influenced decisions on how other systems all over the world do things, in places like London, Copenhagen, Dubai and Kuala Lumpur. 

For the ceremony, TransLink officials rolled in Grace McCarthy, former deputy premier and minister responsible for SkyTrain in the 1980s, on a special train painted to celebrate the silver anniversary.

Originally SkyTrain was called Automated Light Rapid Transit (ALRT) before the name was altered to Alternate Light Rapid Transit because of the possible fear customers might have for driverless trains, said ex-Premier Bill Bennett in a statement read by Bud Smith, one of Bennett’s former ministers.

McCarthy thought SkyTrain was a good name, but the next day a public relations person said that might be a problem because an airline had just branded their service as Skytrain and might sue.

“Wouldn’t that be wonderful,” McCarthy recalled saying at the time, likely with her trademark smile. “We would be known worldwide.”

The service has gone on to serve more than 1.2 billion customers.

“It’s one of the most wonderful investments the province or Canada has ever made in British Columbia,” said McCarthy. “It’s just an incredible success.”

SkyTrain was inspired by British Columbia’s desire to hold a world expo to celebrate Vancouver’s 100th birthday in 1986. The body that authorized the expo determined it was to have a transportation theme, and the Bennett-led Socred Party government felt such a fair needed a symbol.

“SkyTrain was the next era of transportation, and it hasn’t failed as a vision,” said McCarthy. “We showed the world through Expo and SkyTrain we are the best place to be to feel positive. Twenty-five years ago was a pivotal moment in time for British Columbia and for Canada.”

“For me it was a fun project. I never doubted we couldn’t pull it off, and I don’t doubt for a minute that British Columbia won’t be able to pull it off in spades in the future.”

McCarthy said the 1980s were recessionary times and there was an unwillingness to spend money, but Bennett believed it was the best time to do it because it would provide jobs and opportunity.

More than $4 billion has been spent on SkyTrain and another $2 billion is pegged for the future, including the Evergreen Line extending service from Burnaby to Coquitlam. (The figures don’t include Canada Line, completed in 2009, because it is operated by a private company, ProTrans BC)

“SkyTrain is the backbone of our transportation network,” said TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis. “There’s more progress to be made.”

SkyTrain timeline

• Nov. 1980 – Bureau of International Expositions awards 1986 World's Fair to Vancouver, originally titled Transpo ’86

• May 29, 1981 – Initial contracts signed to build SkyTrain system

• 1982 – Pre-build section completed at Main Street Station with 1,100 metres of track

• June to November 1983 – Two-car prototype operated for free along track

• 1984 – First SkyTrain cars begin arriving

• Jan. 3, 1986 – SkyTrain goes into service with 114 cars on original route between Waterfront Station and New Westminster station.

• March 16, 1990 – Service extended to Scott Road in Surrey

• March 28, 1994 – Service extended to King George in Surrey

• 1995-96 – Fleet expanded to 150 cars

• Aug. 31, 2002 – Millenium Line opens, Columbia to Commercial stations; fleet expanded to 210 including 60 Mark II cars

• Jan. 6, 2006 – Millenium Line extends to VCC-Clark

• Dec. 2009 – SkyTrain records its billionth rider

• Fleet expanded to 258 cars

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