The View From Vancouver

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Elevated status: Chicago's "El" versus Vancouver's SkyTrain

Christiana Johns

Southern belle from NOLA, DePaul journalism grad student, football fanatic and aspiring jetsetter

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The best mode of transportation in Vancouver is the SkyTrain. Photo credit: Christiana Johns

When traveling back and forth from our apartment to the Main Press Center downtown, our best mode of transportation is the SkyTrain, Vancouver's equivalent of Chicago's "El."

After living in Chicago and taking public transit on a daily basis, it's easy to compare the CTA to transit systems in other cities.

So, how does the SkyTrain measure up? Better. Here are the pros and cons of the SkyTrain:


  • Cleaner trains and stations.
  • Trains arrive more frequently (so far, I haven't waited more than 5 minutes, and in the morning they come one after the other).
  • Majority of the passengers are not as pushy and actually say "excuse me" before shoving you out of their way.
  • Easy to transfer lines.
  • Food courts in certain stations.
  • Doors don't shut as quickly, allowing passengers more time to get on and off the train.


  • Fewer cars per train.
  • Most trains are not labeled with the destination on them.
  • Very crowded during rush hour, sometimes you have to wait for another train.
  • Not as many routes.

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Vancouver's SkyTrain is also elevated like Chicago's "El" is, but some stations have trains on multiple platforms for different lines, such as the Commercial-Broadway Station here. Photo credit: Christiana Johns.

Another odd aspect of the SkyTrain is that it seems to work based on the merit system. There are no turnstiles or personnel monitoring who purchases tickets. In fact, there is no where to slide your ticket or have it punched even if you did buy one.

Those who evade paying fares won't be a concern during the Olympics anyway, reserving man power for safety even though millions of dollars in transit fines go unpaid each year. Our media credentials get us around for free anyway, but it looks like it wouldn't make a difference if they didn't. Overall, I'm pretty impressed with how efficient the SkyTrain has been so far, but that could change when the Games finally begin this weekend.



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jennkloc said:


ah, what a great post! I wonder about how public transit works in other cities all the time. Thanks for sharing! How does it compare in terms of train speed? And does Vancouver have a great bus system like Chicago?

jennkloc said:


ah, what a great post! I wonder about how public transit works in other cities all the time. Thanks for sharing! How does it compare in terms of train speed? And does Vancouver have a great bus system like Chicago?

Christiana Johns said:


I'm not sure if the SkyTrain is faster in terms of speed (I checked both the CTA and Translink Web sites and didn't find where the average speeds of the trains are), but I think the travel time is shorter because there are fewer wait times for the next train.

I have not been on any of the buses yet, so I'm not sure how they compare, but if I do I'll let you know. :)

therealstory_Zed said:

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SkyTrain is actually two different technologies, the newest Canada Line (Airport) was built through Private partnership w/ SNC-Lavalin which operates for the next 35 years until handing over complete control to TransLink. TransLink pays ProtransBC (SNC-Lavalin) based on service therefore you will see much more attendants and general cleanliness on the Canada Line.

An excellent guide to the Skytrain Network:

The Canada Line train is a tranditional subway car built by Hundai-Rotem, they are wider than traditional SkyTrain cars however due to budget contraints with station design are limited to 40m currently with possible expansion to 50m.

The other two lines (Expo / Mellenium) are Bombardie cars that are much longer (70m+), and use LIM motors. Beijining (Airport Express) and Bangkok operate these cars among others. These trains are faster. (55mph)

Vancouvers biggest advantage is frequency with trains able to reach 1.5min headways. SkyTrain is also the longest automated rapid transit system in the world at 42.7 mi, with more lines on the way.

Vancouver's bus system is massive with a bus pretty much anywhere you need to go, I believe the 99 B-Line which travels between Broadway-Commerical Station to UBC carries the most passengers per day of any bus line in North America.

vxla said:

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You're comparing two completely different systems. You left out one major concern: human beings are available on each moving Chicago 'L' train. Skytrain is automated and there are gaps of 1-2 miles where no one is available for any assistance, between stations.

Try making a valid comparison next time instead of vying for media attention through the Concern of the Day.

vxla said:

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Oh yes, honor fare systems are in many places throughout the world. Auditors spot-check fares while onboard vehicles (usually in motion) and violators are fined if they've evaded payment. I'm guessing the reporter here probably has never ridden transit anywhere outside 2-3 cities.

Christiana Johns said:


You make a good point that not having an attendant on the trains or at the stations is a concern, but the CTA does not have a person on every car either.

I think it's a valid comparison because they are both public transit rails in large cities. I am speaking on my experience of riding both trains for extended periods of time, and I've found that the SkyTrain runs more efficiently in terms of service.

I rode public transit in Chicago, Seattle, Vancouver, London, Edinburgh and Paris.

joshuate said:

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Skytrain has no attendants on any of its trains. It's 100% automated with no collisions or accidents in the time it has been live. The max speed for Expo and millenium line trains (Mark I and Mark II trains by Bombardier) is 90 km/h, 56 mph. The trains on the Canada Line (built by Hyundai Rotem) reach a max. speed of 80 km/h , 50 mph. Around the same speed as Chicago's "El".

Brad Lang said:

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Except the CTA DOES have a person (the conductor) on every train who handles all de/acceleration and decides when to close the doors based on how busy the stop is.

Paul said:

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By 2013 the plan is to have all of the stations in the entire network with fare gates. Also smart cards will be implemented as well. Which is something I can't wait for :)

Brad Lang said:

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So basically what you're saying is that the Vancouver system is newer and is in a smaller city. While many of the differences are valid, they're not really black and white cons vs pros.

The mention of slower door closing is misplaced, since CTA conductors stick their heads out the window and watch people get on and off to judge when to close the doors.

Any new train system will have a lower accident rate because it will be years before any of the trains break down, and when it happens a human controlled system is more robust, though a hybrid computer controlled system with human overseer would be the most efficient and safe.

The real problem with the CTA (the L and bus system) is that the coverage is horrible for the people that need it the most - the poorer south and west sides of the city. Though here there are complications.

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