On Thursday I began my commute home at 4 p.m. as usual with the plan to do my run before dinner, meaning I’d be heading out around 5:30 p.m. or so. I get home around 5:10 or so and need about twenty minutes to recover from the stupor that results from an hour of riding public transit.
Everything proceeded normally on the Canada Line, so-named because its route from downtown Vancouver to Richmond is just like crossing Canada if you turned the route east-west and added 4,000 km to it.
All proceeded normally on the Expo Line until my train began approaching the Royal Oak station. Sometimes during peak hours trains will stop outside stations because there are so many of them running and they need to give them a minimum safe distance between each other. This usually happens at the busier stop like Waterfront or Commercial-Broadway but it can theoretically happen anywhere so I didn’t take much notice of it.
Shortly after the train stopped the P.A. crackled to life. This immediately triggered my “Uh oh, what broke on the SkyTrain?” alarm.
As it turned out, it was a major computer failure affecting a great swath of the system: all of the Expo line east of Metrotown (Royal Oak being the first station east of Metrotown) right up to an including Braid station on the Millennium Line (Braid is one station past where I get off at Sapperton), as well as the Expo Line spur into Surrey. The fact that the first announcement used the word “major” was bad.
At this point I would normally be about 12 minutes from my final stop of Sapperton. It was a few minutes before 5 p.m.
Not too long after the initial announcement another came on advising people that this was a “long term” issue and to stay on the trains. Do people actually get out of the trains between stations when the system goes down? As it turns out, yes, they do. Because people are impatient and dumb.
More announcements followed, reiterating what had happened and emphasizing that we would be stuck for a long time and to not get out of the train because then they have to cut power to the whole system to avoid electrocuting idiots and that will only delay things further. No one left my car, fortunately, but some reacted less favorably to the delay than others, as you will see.
My inner English teacher was irritated by the repeated use of the phrase “long term” to describe the problem. Merriam-Webster defines long-term as “occurring over or involving a relatively long period of time“. An outage, even one lasting hours, doesn’t seem to qualify. I almost expected a follow-up announcement advising passengers that “Your train will be delayed for several days. We please ask that you do not leave your train or eat your fellow passengers. We are working to airdrop supplies including food and deodorant.”
About twenty minutes in we were told that workers would be manually bringing in trains to stations and it might take awhile, in case we hadn’t figured that out yet. Oh, and also please don’t leave the trains because we already told you and you’re not listening. It’s only been twenty minutes, people, it’s not quite time for The Lord of the Flies yet.”
Shortly after this announcement I noticed someone using the emergency phone at the other end of the car I was on. Most people on the train were quiet–possibly conserving energy to prepare for the upcoming battle over supplies–so I could hear what he was saying and what he was saying was that a woman was starting to hyperventilate. I looked but couldn’t tell who he was referring to and entertained the idea that he was fibbing to get our train bumped to the top of the “please get us to a station before Survivor starts at 8 o’ clock” list.
It worked! A minute or so later an announcement for our train only informed us that we would be taken back to Metrotown station where emergency services would be arriving. By this time I could see the woman in question and she did not look so good.
The train them hummed to life and rolled back into Metrotown station. Incredibly people tried to get on the train, even though it was going nowhere. This was half an hour into the shutdown and anyone still in a station knew what was happening. As I got off the car I saw the woman was now face-down on the floor. I hope she was okay. I think she was probably okay. She may be riding the bus for awhile after this.
Metrotown has one of the largest bus loops in the system and it was already a sea of people. I finally found the end of the line for the New Westminster bus, the closest that would get me sort of home. It took over 40 minutes for the line to move to where I was close enough to actually be guaranteed a spot on the next bus.
Some people apparently or conveniently could not find the end of the line and formed a blob of people beside the bus, effectively cutting in. This became apparent and after the bus pulled up it sat for minutes without letting anyone board. You could sense tension in the air, along with a lot of body odor. Some in line noted the others not in line and called out to them. One woman started calling out “Shame on you! Shame!” I felt like I was in a European film. A transit officer arrived and tried as diplomatically as possible to tell the blob of people that they were totally cheating and we’re onto you. Some moved back, some stood their ground.
A man in the blob called out, “You can’t even see where the line is! How are we supposed to find where it is?” Several others in the blob murmured agreement. I wondered how the hundreds of people already in the line managed what these people had not but chose not to express this thought out loud.
We were finally allowed to board. It was now 6:47 p.m. I managed to get a seat at the back. The bus driver noted construction on Kingsway (more delays? Sure, why not?) and asked people to be nice to each other and to the bus driver. He said someone pulled a knife on the previous trip. Because pulling a knife works wonders for reducing an already tense situation. The passengers on my bus were either knifeless or not inclined to flash their blades.
The worst thing I had to deal with was the sturdy man sitting next to me constantly falling asleep and slumping onto me. Did I mention he was sturdy? He was, especially when he slumped into me, which was often.
By the time the bus rolled into New Westminster station it was after 7:30 p.m. I would need to walk up the street to Columbia station and catch a bus there that would kind of sort of go through my neighborhood. I was tired and hungry and called my partner and made puppy dog eyes over the phone. I told him it would be way faster for him to pick me up than me taking another bus and we could eat sooner and aren’t you hungry? He agreed.
Shortly after leaving he called back to report an accident blocking the main route. I wouldn’t be surprised if the SkyTrain was somehow responsible. He took an alternate route, I walked a few blocks down and finally got in the door a few minutes past eight.
My commute took four hours, roughly four hours longer than normal. The CBC website has a brief, lazy write-up of the story here, the centerpiece of which is a bland complaint from Twitter. While the story is no great shakes, the comments are predictably even worse.
At least in this modern age we can all ignore the strangers we’re forced to hang out with thanks to technology. A massive failure of the transit system may be inconvenient but it’s no reason to stop checking Facebook on your smartphone instead of talking to the person squashed into the seat beside you on the bus. I confess, I played Threes on my iPhone for most of the bus ride. I’m part of the problem.
After finally having dinner it was, of course, far too late to do a run, the second time in less than a week that a highly unusual event has caused a run to be postponed. And hopefully the last for awhile.
Despite all this, the SkyTrain is still way nicer than riding the bus. When it actually works.