Bus Lines: Go easy on these sturdy transit workhorses

It’s simple to criticize Vancouver’s people-movers – but we don’t know how good we’ve got it

Confession: I had a headline for this column before I even started writing it.

“Vancouver, I love you but the No. 84 is bringing me down.”

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Not only would it convince you all that I had some modicum of cool by referencing LCD Soundsystem, but it would also give me carte blanche to rant about my regular commuting bus route.

It’s terrible journalistic practice to shoehorn a story into a headline and, thankfully, the need didn’t arise. Because, rather than getting me down, the more I thought about the No. 84, the more reasons I had to be encouraged.

I’ll be honest, the No. 84 hasn’t been good to me in the past. I’ve stood in the rain for almost 30 minutes at VCC-Clark station, waiting in a line that snaked for a good 50 metres past the drop-off bay, where three No. 84 buses sat parked, going nowhere.

I’ve stood in the dark, damp chill of a late October evening on West 2nd waiting for yet another No. 84 to approach without the dreaded words “SORRY, BUS FULL” illuminated on the display above the windshield. My record is four drive-bys. Then there was the time a bus drove right past, just slowly enough to show off the ample room for passengers inside.

We all have our transit sob stories. If you think about it, transit is an easy target for rush-hour frustrations, let alone a great excuse for being late to work.

But you know what, Metro Vancouver? You don’t realize how good you’ve got it. My challenge to any Lower Mainlander when they start going off on a rant about transit is to live and work and take public transport (as it’s known) in the United Kingdom for a year, then get back to me.

The only regular thing about Glasgow buses is how they show up in threes every hour, even though they’re scheduled every 20 minutes. Integrated transit? You’re having a laugh; you’ll need a separate ticket for bus, underground and low-level rail in Scotland’s biggest city.

At least London has Oyster, the model for TransLink’s Compass card. But if you’ve ever taken the Underground at rush hour, you’re likely still getting PTSD flashbacks about how intimate you’re expected to get with strangers just to get on the train.

To top it off, you have to pay a very British premium for these, uh, services.

Newsflash: The transit service here is, comparatively, pretty damn good. It’s integrated. It’s affordable. ($2.85 to go as far as you want on a bus within 90 minutes is a great deal.) What’s more, it’s actually seen as a priority. That means funding for new projects and increases in service, like what happened with the No. 84 recently.

I’ve rarely waited longer than five minutes to get on a No. 84 at VCC-Clark for a few weeks now. Passengers are generally not crammed in cheek to jowl, a la theTube. And this is with the new Emily Carr campus opening on Great Northern Way. (I had a longer wait this morning, but TransLink reported a decrease in service during the week leading up to Christmas, with students off classes.)

The No. 84 takes in a lot of busy flashpoints along its route to UBC: the Canada Line, Granville Island, the main shopping strip of Kitsilano and several nearby beaches.

Yet, on a recent morning rush hour when I take the bus past my usual stop near Cambie, the bus is practically empty by the time we pass Burrard.

Yeah, I think, the bus system here is pretty damn good.

Two minutes later, the No. 84 breaks down.

The driver is apologetic and tells passengers it’s an engine problem. I’m no mechanic, but the whining noise that’s been occurring intermittently for the 10 minutes preceding our unplanned stop is likely related.

As we all bundle off, I quiz the driver a bit more about the problem. He says it’s a leak of transmission fluid that’s caused by the cold, and that it’s a fairly common problem with these buses (fair warning, Winnipeg transit planners, if you’re looking to add to your fleet).

Bus Lines: Go easy on these sturdy transit workhorses_1
A TransLink mechanic inspects the stricken No. 84. - Jan Zeschky

These models are around 12 years old, the driver says. I ask him to read me the odometer count: 304,000 kilometres. He then grabs some matting and throws it under the rear of the bus, where a small puddle of fluid is forming.

The fact is, these buses cover Vancouver’s roads like nothing else, except, perhaps, the Prius taxis. Those distances add up.

Later on, I follow up with a few questions to Chris Bryan, senior media relations advisor with TransLink.

He tells me the fleet’s buses are retired around the 17-year mark, 21 for trolleybuses. By that time, most have registered between a million and 1.4 million km. That upper limit is the equivalent to three one-way trips to the Moon, or 35 times around the Earth.

As of December 2016, TransLink counts almost 1,500 buses in its fleet, from 20-year-old workhorses to the low-floor, diesel-electric hybrids introduced in 2009.

The transit authority hasn’t splurged on new buses since 2009. Instead, it relies on an army of around 1,000 maintenance and support workers to keep the wheels turning. They include mechanics, electronic technicians, painters, machinists, welders, engineers, plumbers, electricians, carpenters and sheet metal workers, among others, according to the Unifor 2200 union, which represents them.

Bryan says every bus gets a comprehensive, 200-point preventative maintenance inspection every 8,000 km, around once every month or two. But it’s not the transmission or brakes that require the most servicing, Bryan says.

“Generally the most common issue that needs attention is wear and tear from the huge number of passengers our buses carry every month. … The seats, stanchions and pull cords – it’s the little things.”

So, yeah, the buses here do pretty damn well.

We focus so much on transit’s essential function of ferrying people from A to B that we forget that these are machines very similar to our own vehicles.They’re subject to the whims of weather and reliability as much as your own personal vehicle is. They get caught in traffic. They break down. Especially if they’re a million clicks deep.

It’s worth thinking about the next time you’re cursing TransLink under your breath at a bus shelter on a cold, wet winter night.

Bus Lines: Go easy on these sturdy transit workhorses_2
TransLink buses can expect to clock at least a million kilometres in their service lifetime. - Jan Zeschky

Transit Talk: The No. 84

Terminus stations: VCC-Clark SkyTrain Station, UBC Exchange

Length of route: 11.5 km

Estimated route time: 35 minutes

Average speed (2016): 23.7 km/h

TransLink bus boardings in November 2017: 21.2 million

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