After years of denials, TransLink officials are hinting for the first time that it's possible to keep SkyTrains running later into the night, at least on the weekends.
The surprising revelation came from Matt Doyle, director of railway infrastructure, who oversees the overnight track maintenance that ensures trains can operate on schedule come rush hour.
Doyle was among a group of officials who recently took CTV News for a late-night tour into the bowels of the SkyTrain system, where he explained the reason entrance gates at almost every stop are lowered before 1:30 a.m.
His maintenance crews work hard throughout the night, Doyle said, inspecting tracks and performing minor repairs and adjustments on everything from reaction rails to switches.
But trains start running later on Saturday and Sunday mornings than they do on weekdays, and Doyle believes with the right resources, it's likely possible to keep SkyTrain going later on Friday and Saturday nights.
"Obviously 24-hour service or late-night service is successful around the world, so it is feasible," Doyle said. "We don't know what that would look like; it's something that would require a significant amount of time, effort, planning and investment."
For years, different groups have called on TransLink to run trains later, including riders, police, doctors and anti-drunk driving activists. The transit provider has stood firm, always citing overnight maintenance as the reason for maintaining the status quo.
But Detroit's transit system, which uses the same trains as TransLink's, runs until 2 a.m. And TransLink already keeps SkyTrains running all through the night on occasion; during snowstorms, if there are concerns about snow accumulating on the tracks, trains are used to keep them clear.
But even then, Doyle said the overnight work piles up.
"The reality is we have to make that time up on subsequent nights," he told CTV News.
Crews also already use the extra time available on Friday and Saturday nights to perform the most complicated work – jobs that, should something go wrong, could interrupt service in the morning. While Doyle admits that work could be completed during the week, he also warns that any potential problems that arise would impact many more commuters on a Monday than a Sunday.
"The reality of the job is things can go wrong despite the best planning. One of the primary concerns is the weekday rush hour," Doyle said.
"For us as a maintenance crew, we like the Friday and Saturday nights because we do get a longer time on track… that allows us to do some of these more complex tasks in a way that's not rushed and keeps the workers safe and ends up with a better quality of work at the end of the day."
And beyond the complicated jobs, there is a lot of routine work to be completed. SkyTrains are inspected every 20,000 kilometres, which works out to about once every five weeks,
Crews look over every single component to make sure the trains are up to standards, especially the axels and wheels. Ed Piwowarski, director of SkyTrain rolling stock, said a fault there could be disastrous.
"If these fail, they could easily derail a train. It could be catastrophic," he said.
And Mark 1 trains, which have been around since the system was introduced for Expo '86, are showing their age. Though they're still reliable, they require a little extra care.
"They're past their best before date, but we have done extra inspections on these cars. These cars now have five-and-a-half million kilometres on them, each car," Piwowarski said.
Trains also require an often frantic overnight cleaning. So while it could be possible to have them run later, allowing people a safe and inexpensive way home, it's clear that doing the overnight work any faster would not be cheap.
"It could be done," Doyle reiterated. "But it does require a significant amount of infrastructure, planning and investment."