MASS TRANSIT | SkyTrain Vancouver :: 25 Years :: 2010.12.11

PHOTO > Doug McKinlay

SkyTrain Flight Plan (1985) PDF




Modern mass transit in Vancouver is only 25 years old. That’s an indicator of just how provincial this city can be. As the late Arthur Erickson, Vancouver’s (perhaps Canada’s) most celebrated architect once put it, Vancouver is a “hick town.”

After defeating the pro-urban freeway movement in the ’60s (Vancouver is the only major city in North America without a downtown freeway system), it took the so-called “Terminal City” until the 1980s to consider building a rapid transit system.

The impetus came from the Social Credit (Socred) government in power at the time, pushed by their grande dame, Grace McCarthy:

The Socreds wanted to “build the province” by constructing major infrastructural projects.

Someone came up with the idea of a world exposition to get things going, and Expo 86 (“Man in Motion – Man in Touch” later repositioned as a less sexist “World in Motion – World in Touch“) was born.

The theme was to be transportation and communications, two things Canada used to excel at.

DESIGN > Harvey Thomas Prosser, 1966


The only major embarrassment was that Vancouver didn’t yet have a mass transit system.

So British Columbia went to Ontario for help.

Grace (top), the Premier of Ontario, David Peterson and the Premier of British Columbia, Bill Bennett, 10 December 1985, the eve of SkyTrain’s first day of service

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At the time, the government of Ontario was keen on building people movers. They saw a big market for smaller mass transit trains that, elevated on thin pilotis, could snake through the congestion of the world’s cities.

Vancouver bought the system and grew it.

That’s how Vancouver’s then-impending expo ultimately led to SkyTrain (Vancouver) becoming the world’s longest fully-automated mass transit system.

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Being a rapid transit freak, in the early ’80s I trekked to the Urban Transportation Development Corporation’s (UTDC) test track (below) at Millhaven, outside Kingston, Ontario, to have preview of the system (one of the world’s first fully automated) Vancouver had purchased for its “fair.”


What I saw shocked (HORRIFIED!) me: the trains looked like something a class of engineering students had mocked up using bits and pieces from buses and other moving objects. The seats were from my local bus, but alternating in blue and red (!), the colours of the Socreds.


If world expositions were about the future, and Vancouver was supposed to be showcasing the world of tomorrow, the original SkyTrain Mark I ICTS (Intermediate Capacity Transit System, later repositioned as Advanced Light Rapid Transit or ALRT) trains were a joke. Where was the industrial design?

Sure, the system’s linear induction motors were then cutting-edge, but the trains were (are – about half of the trains currently running along the guideway are Mark I models) super ugly. Even the temporary Swiss-built monorail at the expo looked more superfuturistic:

(I have, however, always liked SkyTrain’s original guideways — they are about as elegant as they could be given the engineering constraints, and they look great with daffodils and tulips):

It took a couple of decades, but the second-generation Mark II trains (below) are the future: they’re unabashedly beautiful — sleek and sexy (and air-conditioned).

Bombardier got things right when the new trains were commissioned for the New Democratic Party’s (NDP) Millennium Line, which didn’t open for either millennium but which showcases the design talents of some of British Columbia’s finest architects (see next post).

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I won’t go into the debacle called the Canada Line.

It’s been open for more than a year and it still hasn’t been featured on designKULTUR because I can’t get my head around how bad things went under the Liberal government’s Public-Private-Pork Barrel agreement to rush the thing through as part of the infrastructure supposedly required for hosting the Games of the 21st Winter Olympiad.

Let’s just say that Vancouver uses toy trains for moving its citizenry: the Canada Line’s platforms are about as long as your front yard. There’s no room for the future and its growth requirements along that line.

A digression: Erickson declared in 1989 that Vancouver should plan for a regional population of 10 million and stop pretending it is a suburb. So far, Metro Vancouver hasn’t adopted this attitude in its planning for mass transit. What we get instead are toy trains and tiny stations, not forward-thinking concepts.

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But back to the past.

Eastbound SkyTrain departs Royal Oak Station in South Burnaby on first day of service, 11 December 1985

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Vancouver’s first experiment in 20th-century mass transit was launched 25 years ago today. It marked a decisive shift in the psyche of the city, one that further sealed Vancouver’s reputation as one of the world’s most livable cities.

The original Expo Line (the extension across the Fraser River across the magnificent Skybridge to Surrey opened in 1990) may have been a toy train with uniform stations, both pieced together from a kit of parts, but the evocative name SkyTrain is a keeper. It has that very-eighties’ internal capital in the middle of the word (did MasterCard start that trend?), making it not just a concept, but a brand. Too bad it wasn’t trademarked.

Happy 25th Birthday!




Brill Trolley Tour, Circa 1985. Imagine — eight days of free rides on what is now the Expo Line! By comparison, the Canada Line in 2009 just had one.

– rickie22, Flickr

PHOTO > Bill Stilwell, Flickr

PHOTOS > rickie22, Flickr


designKULTUR | MASS TRANSIT | Le Métro de Montréal :: »Le Plus Sexy du Monde«

designKULTUR | MASS TRANSIT | Le Métro de Montréal :: »Le Plus Sexy du Monde« ::: Redux

The (Award Winning!) Buzzer Blog | SkyTrain turns 25 years old on December 11, 2010!

Translink | Vancouver Regional Rapid Transit Project Quarterly (No. 8, Winter 1986) PDF

Bombardier | 1971 Intermediate Capacity Transit System (ICTS)

Transit Toronto | UTDC Kingston Transit Development Centre

McMaster Wiki | How the SkyTrain and the 1986 Expo Triggered Growth

railway-technology.com | Vancouver SkyTrain Network, Canada

Japan Railway & Transport Review 16 • June 1998 | Vancouver SkyTrain — A Proven Success Story

worldsfairphotos.com | More Information on Expo 86

bobbea.com | Expo 86

Ken MacKenzie | Freeway Planning and Protests in Vancouver 1954 – 1972 (thesis)

skyscrapercity | Renowned architect Arthur Erickson dead at 84

designKULTUR | ARCHITECTS | Arthur Charles Erickson :: The Passing of a Giant

Wikipedia | SkyTrain (Vancouver)


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