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Come behind the scenes with us as What’s the T: the TransLink Podcast with Jawn Jang reveals the voices and stories that drive Metro Vancouver’s transit system forward. Subscribe and listen everywhere you get your podcasts, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Google Podcasts!
On this episode, we chat with Sidd Achuthan, an elevator and escalator technician at SkyTrain, on why an elevator and escalator may not be available. We have the “T” on the types of regular inspections that have to be done, why we take pride in our work, and more.
JAWN: Hey, welcome to What’s the T, the TransLink podcast. I’m your host, Jawn Jang. Here’s what we’re checking out on this episode.
[Elevator sound effects with elevator music]
[Transitions into Windows XP logoff chime]
But why is it from time to time our elevators and escalators can be out of service? Let’s tap in to What’s the T?
[INTRODUCTION MUSIC PLAYS]
VOICEOVER 1: The next station is…
VOICEOVER 2: Welcome to What’s the T, the TransLink Podcast.
JAWN: The public transit system in Metro Vancouver is an expansive one, powered by different modes of transportation. That includes the SkyTrain, the SeaBus, the West Coast Express, and all of the different busses that we have on our roads. Needless to say, getting you from here to there requires a lot of operational planning and it’s something that we’re doing constantly throughout the day to the point where we are a pretty well-oiled machine.
But, sometimes the trickiest part of your commute isn’t necessarily about going from point A to point B, it’s actually just going up and down.
LINE FROM MAD MEN: “Hold that. How are you? Not great, Bob.”
JAWN: Escalators and elevators at our SkyTrain stations play a very important role in your commuting experience, but it’s one of those things where you don’t really think about it until it’s unavailable. Now, most customers can still take the stairs, but not everyone can make that choice. So, What’s the T when these services are down for maintenance, why can’t they just stay in service all the time?
SIDD ACHUTHAN: Escalators in SkyTrain, they use constant, here’s no, there’s no breaks because the train’s coming in every few minutes. So there’s always people on the escalators all the time.
JAWN: This is Sidd Achuthan, an elevator, an escalator technician at SkyTrain. When life keeps you down, it’s up to Sidd in his team to literally bring you right back up.
SIDD: There’s all people that need the escalators and elevators, right? From mobility wise and all that. So, I understand where they’re coming from. It’s, it’s a hassle when one of those units are down. But yeah, usually it’s because the public, public unit, things happen all the time. It gets use almost all day every day. Right. So, it’s like your car breaks down, you got to fix it. And this is gonna keep on running, you know, so small things such as like a screw or like something in the door. So, it could just take the elevator or us get out of service right? And you got to be, be ready to go to the job.
JAWN: I want to jump on your, your car metaphor there a little bit because you’re right, like cars do break down over time. But if you are good at maintaining your car, doing regular check ups, you hopefully avoid major issues. So how much of your work is doing preventative maintenance as opposed to doing reactive emergency maintenance, if you will?
SIDD: First, the guidance, the standard is pretty high here. So we have an A, a B, and a D. You have an A inspection, which is a monthly inspection. Where a monthly inspection, it only takes a few hours. That’s the one where you check the external safety’s, you check your handrail inlets, your upper handrail inlets, your skirt, if anyone hits the side of it, that usually stops, so no one gets their foot stuck in the side of the escalator. You check your emergency stop buttons and then you just check the overall step quality. So, we run it through, check it all the stairs, make sure everything is good, nothing is broken, nothing defective. So that’s your monthly inspection.
Now you got your B inspection which are quarterly inspections. This is little more, a little more complex, you got to get into the units. So, you take up ten steps out. Put the hoarding, hoarding on, because you don’t want any customers falling in there. You get in there, in this confined space, you take ten steps out and then you get inside the unit and then you check the internal safeties, the bottom and top, see if all those are working. Such things are tension carriages, your, your springs, your chain. You check all of that, make sure everything is good, everything is lubricated properly, and you do the same thing on top. You check that out, make sure everything is good, oil the unit, lubricate it properly. That takes about two days. Hopefully nothing in that inspection, you see out of order, out of the of the regular. If the if, if you see something that’s not to code or that’s worn out, then it might take a little longer because you got to fix that, rectify that problem and then you’re off.
Your most complex is your D. So, it’s an annual inspection, that happens once a year. So, for us that is going to take out half the steps. So, let’s say like a station like Granville or Burrard, you got over a hundred steps you got to take out, clean it from top to bottom, the whole unit and you’re, you’re on a slope as well so you can’t do it quick. You gotta do it slow and steady because what one, one, one false move and you’re going to fall down the escalator. You check all that, you check the whole, all the nuts and bolts from top to bottom, check all the safeties, lubricate the chain, and one day for taking the steps out. And then you have four or five days to check all internal, internal safeties and another whole day to put the steps back in. And hopefully nothing is wrong in that, in that inspection, because if it is, it’ll take longer than a week. But usually if everything goes in order, about a week, I would say, for an annual.
JAWN: When escalators or elevators do go down, are they down because something did break or are they usually down because you’re actually just maintaining what the system has to go through of like whether it’s the monthly, the quarterlies, or the annuals, like you mentioned.
SIDD: Yeah. Well, they, they break outside of our scope of work as well because things happen, and just the wear and tear of things as well. Right. But mostly when they’re down obviously, we’re working on them, maintaining them and once you’ve done the maintenance after all the units, next month happens and you had it all over again and just repetitively keep on doing it. So, it looks like it’s always down, but a lot of maintenance involves.
JAWN: It’s quite fascinating because I think people have to also remember that yes, we have newer stations, but a lot of the Expo Line stations, they were originally designed as part of Expo 86. A lot of that infrastructure is several decades old. Is that a challenge for you and your team or have you been able to adopt like new technologies over the years to keep it as modern as possible?
SIDD: Yeah, for sure. So yeah, when the Expo Line, for example, for the longest time it was the same units since they installed Expo Line. But, now they’re retrofitting them, putting new units in there. And I think Burrard’s the last one where they’re working on, to changing it out, everything else has been retrofitted with new equipment.
JAWN: This is just my personal observations. But more people are using escalators. So, what is the lifespan of that? Like, if you have managed to fix it up and let’s say it’s at 100 per cent, at what point does it start getting to a point where it needs critical repairs or something?
SIDD: Each station is different, I guess, like the amount of usage you get like from Lake City, for example, it doesn’t get used that much, right, compared to like Commercial, or Burrard, or Granville, Waterfront, but it’s like heavily used, right?
JAWN: And then for elevators, obviously they, they operate very differently from an escalator and I would imagine there’s more moving pieces in an elevator. This is just me being a total rookie. I have no idea. So, I’m just making that presumption. Is it generally the same too? It just kind of depends on wear and tear of how busy those elevators might be?
SIDD: For elevators, like, are hydraulic elevators, which is oil, Burrard and Waterfront. They go up and down constantly, right? So, like a car, oil heat heats up. And whereas now the newer the newer units are roped, they use rope and counterweight. So, there’s no oil involved. So, it lasts a little more longer.
JAWN: Sidd, maybe take us through like a comparable. So, our escalators are publicly accessible, right? They’re, they’re open pretty much all day and all night. So how does that compare in terms of maintenance requirements when we try and maybe look at an escalator in a place that’s not as busy, let’s say, you know, in a mall, for example, how does that maybe work for you, because you know that there’s just a frequency difference between ours and theirs, if you want to put it that way?
SIDD: Yeah, for sure. Well, the escalators in SkyTrain, they’re used 24/7. All day, constant. There’s no breaks because people come, the trains come in every few minutes. So, there’s always people on the escalators all the time. Whereas in a mall you got people coming through who will come in in like installments, right? And malls will open only at so-and-so hours of the day where the system’s open almost all day, every day, seven days a week, and constantly got people coming through. The sheer volume of the people and the frequency of people. It just never stops on the SkyTrain.
JAWN: Escalators that maybe get five people an hour obviously require less maintenance than escalators that maybe get 20 people a second or something along those lines, I would imagine.
SIDD: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. You got that right. Yeah, for sure. The amount of people makes a big difference and the frequency because you don’t wait on them. You got people using them, you got people hitting them. So, the more people that, that they use escalators, the, the chance of things breaking is more as well.
JAWN: Maybe you can share this again. Are there specifically other stations that are just a little bit more tricky to work on? Is it Granville, for example, just because of the sheer size of that escalator, or is it somewhere else in the system where maybe just because of how it’s designed or the space or whatever it might be, it’s just sometimes more finicky than some of the others?
SIDD: Yeah, mostly it’s the downtown, like from Commercial onwards, because it gets more busy. That’s what everyone piles up there, right? So, like for the downtown zone, there’s only one elevator in each station, right? So, when you take that out of service, there’s no way people can move around, right? Like at Waterfront, you got the cruise ships coming in, right? But people’s bags and all that stuff, so they get an out of service or maintenance, people can’t get on the station or you got to walk around or can’t up the stairs or the escalator, right?
JAWN: And, I think that’s also important to keep in mind. You mentioned it right off the top, like when elevators and escalators aren’t working, it’s annoying, but it’s not the worst case scenario because the stairs are always available. You and I can walk up and down it, no problem. But those that have physical disabilities, those that might be parents with babies in strollers, those that are, you know, just carrying lots of luggage or whatever it might be, it does create a challenge for things like that. And you mentioned sometimes you have to deal with concerns from customers while you’re working on site. But maybe important to keep in mind that these services are way more important for, for people that just have different challenges than maybe you and I would, right?
SIDD: Yeah, for sure. But yeah, it’s definitely an inconvenience for the customers. But luckily, we have a good team like the STA’s help on through when we’re working on, so they provide assistance, helping the customer as well while we’re working, them setting up either like a taxi service or just guide them, to get, to get them where they need to be, right? So, it’s good that way.
JAWN: Let’s take a quick pause here and really understand why elevator escalator technicians like Sidd takes such pride in their work. They recognize the importance of accessibility for our customers. And with that in mind, I want to introduce you to my friend Ben Dooley. Now, Ben lives in Surrey but works in Downtown Vancouver and is a regular TransLink customer.
JAWN: Ben was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair. This is Ben’s story on how an out of service elevator can disrupt his daily commute.
BEN DOOLEY: Well, it depends on, on the station. You know, if I go to Granville, that’s the station that I use most frequently. And I see that the elevator is out of service. I know, that, okay, my plan is to hop back on the train, go to Waterfront, and then transfer to Vancouver City Centre. That’s the easiest place to for me to go to get me where I need to be. But, if it’s a station that I’m not as familiar with and there’s a broken elevator, then my mind starts racing and I have to, you know, figure out a new plan to get me where I need to be, whether that’s, you know, finding a TransLink attendant who might be able to suggest, you know, a different route, calling TransLink customer service and, and hoping that I can get through in a in a relatively quick manner and seeing if they have anything to suggest me, or sometimes I’ll, I’ll head to Google and and, and do the old Google Maps to, to you know, punch in my destination and see, you know, how the heck am I going to go to get to where I need to be because this elevator has, has broken down and I’m not able to use it.
JAWN: On average, then, how, I mean, maybe it’s a little bit tricky, but how, how much of a delay does that add into your whole plate commuting time if we’re talking just one way trip?
BEN: Well, as it just so happens, on my way to work this morning I ran into a broken elevator.
JAWN: Oh no.
BEN: At Granville Station. You know, I got a text at 5:55 this morning letting me know that the elevator was out of service, so I could plan, you know, “okay, this elevator is out of service.” Maybe I leave a little bit early today and so I can account for, you know, the fact that I’m going to have an additional travel time. And with the Granville Station, like I said, I’m, I’m familiar with Granville and I know, you know, what plan B is. And so, once I figure out plan B and that’s from, from Granville to [Vancouver] City Centre is probably an additional 20 minutes. But again, it depends because if I don’t have an immediate plan B that I can put into action, right, then there’s the added time of figuring out what my plan B is going to be before I can continue on my route.
JAWN: Again, I’ve never had to endure something like that before. So, take us through like, almost the whole experience when you know that you’ve got to get out of Vancouver City Centre.
BEN: Well, the route that I take, City Centre, is actually closer to where I need to be. So, so that’s not too bad. But I’ll, I’ll go back to the example of Granville again. Granville has two elevators, which is great. And I think that, you know, every station should have two elevators in the perfect world. But one of the elevators at Granville comes out at the halfway point of a of a pretty big hill. And the other elevator comes out at the very bottom of that very big hill. So, if that elevator, that’s at the halfway point goes out of service, then I got to start at the bottom of the hill. And it’s, it’s a grind getting up that that huge hill. So, so even, you know, in a scenario where you’ve got two elevators, if one of them goes out of service, that’s still a problem for me.
JAWN: So, I think listening to you, it’s, it’s not so much the reasons why that matter. It’s just about making sure the services are as operational as possible.
BEN: Yeah, it’s making sure the services are operational and, you know, communicating what somebody is supposed to do when the elevator is down. Because you know what I’m, I think that I’m a pretty reasonable person. I understand that, you know, sometimes elevators break, sometimes they, they need maintenance and me going to go out of service. But when they do, tell me, you know what, what are my options here? Do I need to take a bus? Do I need to, you know, go to a different SkyTrain station? What are, what are the options that I have to get to where I need to go? Because that’s all that matters is getting me from point A to point B, And that’s what’s important to me as a as a commuter. The analogy that I always use, and I’ll go back to something you said earlier, when an elevator goes down to say an escalator goes out of service, you can just use the stairs. But what would happen if the stairs were out of service for you? You know, an elevator going out of service for me is like the stairs going out of service, you know, if the stairs went out of the service, you know, that would be a huge inconvenience, a huge problem for the large majority of, of transit uses.
JAWN: A universally accessible public transit system doesn’t just mean our modes of transportation are the ones that live up to those standards. It means bus loops, bus stops and exchanges, SkyTrain stations, they all have to be accessible as well. And this is why elevator maintenance and accessibility plays such a key role in the work that we do every single day. With that in mind, let’s go and finish up our chat with Sidd.
[Whoosh sound effect]
JAWN: It’s all about making sure that again, like everyone’s commuting experiences as, as convenient and as, as efficient as possible. But of course sometimes there are things that happen, such as maintenance, where we’re trying to do the best we can to make sure that their next trip and that many more trips after that can be reliable and comfortable. So just one thing that I do want to share and keep people keep on top of mind for people that are listening, what are some of the more common issues with escalators and elevators, if you can share that? Like is it, is it just something gets stuck and then all of a sudden everything freezes and you have to find which part of it gets stuck or is it kind of more elaborate than that?
SIDD: So, in my experience for escalators, the most common problems are grooves in the in the treads of the of the combs because there’s safeties when there’s a screw that stuck in the comb and it stops it making sure that nothing breaks the, the comb on the top or the bottom. So just shuts it down. So that’s the most common for the escalators. For the elevators, the most common problem are the doors, right? It gets jammed in the doors like for safety, in case someone’s hand or something, just, it stops. So even in the sill, there’s something jammed there, it shuts down. Right. So that’s the most common issues that I’ve had with those units.
JAWN: Do you find a lot of like lost items that people have dropped in that space between the elevator and then, you know, the platform? Like, you know, I think people might drop probably coins, maybe sometimes a cell phone. I hope it doesn’t happen too often. But like, do you find things like that down there when you’re clearing it out?
SIDD: Yeah, yeah yeah. I’ve found tons of tons and tons of random stuff. That’s where I get my tips from, you know all the five dollars.
SIDD: That’s my work and my hard work, right? So yeah, but a lot random stuff, phones. I got my phone many times in the, you know.
JAWN: No good
SIDD: Yeah, phones, Compass Cards, credit cards, debit cards.
JAWN: I want to share a story with you said when I was younger and my family had immigrated from Korea, like not that long prior, I was new to the country. I didn’t read English that well, and my mom took me to Lougheed Mall. Inside Lougheed Mall there’s many escalators. And I remember looking at this thing because I don’t think I’d ever seen an escalator before. And there’s this big shiny red button right near the bottom of it, the emergency button. Of course, I didn’t know that. And being just a curious child, I pressed it and then all of a sudden, everyone got mad at me because the escalator stops working. How annoying is that for you and your team? If somebody just even accidentally presses that button is it kind of simple to turn it back on again? Or do you actually have to go through an inspection process just to make sure that there’s nothing wrong with the whole thing.
SIDD: Oh, no, if that happened, that’s, that’s not a really big deal for us. That’s why we go in there. That’s I like those calls. They’re easy fixes. You just go in there and put the key on and you’re good to go. But like let’s say if you got a fall, an escalator or some of that, then you got to check, you got to basically do a monthly inspection on it just to make sure that it not caused by the escalator. So that’s the only thing. But like something like what you did, like push the stop on. It’s no big deal.
JAWN: Okay, good. Because I felt really bad. You know, ultimately when I start to look up and I see everyone’s just looking around confused, and then there’s just me with my hand on the red button. I bolted as quickly as I could, but I’m glad to know. So, thank you for making smile a young Jawn, at least a little bit relieved that didn’t ruin somebody’s day too badly.
Yeah. And so I guess like the final note to the people listening is that, yes, like the public perception is that when escalators or elevators aren’t working, you don’t know whether it’s not working because it’s just broken and out of service or if because your team is actually doing the maintenance. But at the end of the day, it sounds like there’s more maintenance than there is actually breakdowns. That’s just my, my take away from you.
SIDD: Yeah, 100 per cent, for sure. Because like I said, it’s a public unit. So, we got to be on top of the ball on this, right? Keep everything up to date. Make sure everything is safety wise, everything is good, everything is working, all the switches are working, all the all the safety components are working. So, I understand where the customer is coming from. When they look at it, it’s always down. But on our on our end, we got to do our safety checks and, and it just a repetitive thing over and over again.
JAWN: It’s worth repeating. Safety is our number one priority no matter what. And that’s why maintenance of our systems from top to bottom is such a high priority in ensuring reliable public transit options for everyone. In a perfect world, maintenance wouldn’t matter, because wear and tear simply wouldn’t exist. But here in the real world, it takes skilled and well-trained technicians like Sidd and his team to make sure that your next trip will be as smooth as possible.
My thanks to Sidd Achtuhan for providing valuable insight on his work. Ben Dooley for taking the time to share his thoughts with me. Producer Allen and Alex Jackson for the logistics and planning on this episode, and you, for listening and subscribing. Thanks again for joining us for another episode of What’s the T, the TransLink Podcast. I’ve been your host, Jawn Jang, and until next time, have a safe trip.
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