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Thirty Years and Counting: Vancouver’s Driverless Transit Revolution

How do you keep a transit revolution going for over three decades?

That’s the question that passengers might well ask as Vancouver’s SkyTrain glides across the SkyBridge above the Fraser River, affording them with panoramic views of the snow-capped North Shore Mountains.

That majestic view from a train without a driver has been a wonder for passengers without interruption for a third of a century.

Vancouver residents take it for granted now, but the opening in 1985 of the world’s first fully automated driverless metro was nothing short of revolutionary.  And Thales made it happen from the start; the signalling system– SelTracTM  Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC) - was designed by Thales and first implemented on the Expo Line.

Since then, Thales continues to provide Metro Vancouver’s growing rapid transit network with the maintenance, upgrades, and extensions it needs to continue to serve passengers safely and efficiently despite heavy usage of the three lines which carry 1.3 million passengers a day.

That’s easier said than done. Carrying out the renovation work is “like changing the tires on a car going 100 kilometres an hour.”  Since the trains run at a 90-second interval, “We can’t close the system for long. So we have skilfully worked with the operator to renew and refresh the key elements of the signalling by using a “cut-over strategy” of getting a new system ready to go, then in the middle of the night shuttling it into place, throwing a switch to reconnect the computers so in the morning it’s all set. And passengers don’t even realise it’s been changed.”

Dave Beckley, Vice President, Customer Service for Thales.

It’s hard to imagine a household appliance lasting 30 years, but “Thales sells such high-integrity, military-standard equipment that it has held up,” says Beckley.

Thales has carried out 5 “life-cycle extension projects” for the system, including the 11-kilometer Evergreen Extension to the Millennium Line. The computers on the train, the communications system, and the central operating function have all now been replaced. “Thales has nurtured these systems, replaced them sometimes, in order to keep the system growing while maintaining excellent reliability.”

Expansions have been made to both the track and the fleet, which have grown nearly 200% from the original 18 kilometres and 114 cars. “We are here to help the operator extend their network as their needs grow, that means replacing old parts piece by piece.

It’s all been done smoothly thanks to Thales’ close working relationship with TransLink, the system’s owner, and British Columbia Rapid Transit Company, its operator. Thales’ role as a dependable partner continued with its work on the city’s 19 kilometres Canada Line, which opened in 2009, 100 days ahead of schedule.

With that kind of partnership behind seamless upgrading of the system, Vancouver residents and tourists alike can be sure that their driverless transport model has many, many reliable years ahead of it.


Find out more about what’s driving driverless trains and discover why the Dubai Metro will be a wonder at World Expo 2020