TransLink announced that all modes of transit would be free on Friday because of a “freak” SkyTrain fire that completely shut down Expo line service and caused massive delays for thousands of riders.

The issues began with a fire on the SkyTrain track around 11 p.m. Thursday night that forced the transit authority to stop service on the Millennium and Expo lines into downtown Vancouver.

That blaze, which knocked out power to the communications station, happened while workers were doing some routine grinding maintenance on the tracks just east of Main St. Station.

The sparks from the grinders ignited a bird’s nest which was just under the guideway, and damaged a one-metre long section of cable that controls the operation of the SkyTrain from 22nd Avenue Station all the way to Waterfront Station.

Transit Police spokesperson Anne Drennan said maintenance workers couldn’t see the bird’s nest, and the fire was sparked during the routine maintenance that is conducted nightly on the tracks.

“This is very bizarre and it is a fluke incident. It’s a freak incident,” she said.

Expo Line service was restored by noon Friday, 13 hours after it was knocked out.

CEO ‘very sorry’

Doug Allen, TransLink’s interim CEO, apologized for the delays faced by commuters, calling the incident “unfortunate.”

“It’s a very unusual, almost freak thing that happened,” he told reporters after service came back online.

Allen defended the nearly half-day outage, saying he was thankful the situation “turned out as well as it has.”

People who hold monthly transit passes would be reimbursed for the service disruption, he added, although didn’t specify how that would be possible.

Despite long lines of stranded passengers, the company head said the 33 buses brought in to shuttle passengers into downtown Vancouver was adequate.

“I think the individual hubs were very well served,” Allen said.

“Did we respond well? I’d say today yes we did. There are disruptions that cause difficulties to customers. I get that.”

Commuter chaos

Commuters were advised to find a different way to get to work Friday morning, but the shutdowns caused massive lines for riders stuck at affected SkyTrain stations.

Every staff member from Transit Police and security were dispatched to the stations to assist with getting people onto buses and advising them about the best routes to get to their destination, and what kinds of delays they would face.

Despite bus bridges and crowd control, emotions were running high at stations, with hordes of commuters late for work.

“Mayhem, that’s the best way to describe it,” one rider told CTV Morning Live.

“This is just absurd. And unfortunately it happens more than they’d like to admit.”

Transit Police said birds, pigeons specifically, can cause problems on the tracks, although this incident was particularly bad.

“This was one small nest. Talk about bizarre that this would happen this way,” Drennan said.

Netting is installed in guideways where birds are an issue, she added, but noted installation in this particular location would be difficult because there’s a busy road underneath.