Transport Action BC members raised concerns about Canada Line service incidents that seriously affected its passengers, with no publicised action taken against the line’s private sector operator (InTransit BC / Protrans BC) by TransLink.
The Canada Line is, possibly, the most vigorously debated of the provincial government’s Public-Private Partnerships (P3) projects. Under the P3 model, a private sector concessionaire may finance, design build, and /or operate a specific project and assumes some project risk, in return for a guaranteed investment return. However, the concessionaire contracts to provide a certain level of service. Penalties should be considered by the project’s owner (in this case TransLink), if contractual obligations are not met. Essentially, the concessionaire does a detailed risk-analysis and decides how best to do the project while minimising its costs, maximising its returns and avoiding penalty payments.
There are two incidents that concerned Transport Action BC. Both incidents resulted in significant and lengthy disruptions to Canada Line passengers.
The first was the morning-long shutdown of the line on 26 November 2010 due to snow and ice build-up on the line’s 3rd rail. Transport Action BC felt that the Canada Line operator should have been able to handle a snow storm that, while uncommon, can reasonably be expected in a Vancouver winter. The fact that TransLink’s SkyTrain lines successfully operated under similar conditions shows that it could be done. Our concern was that the concessionaire had underestimated weather-related risks in the design of Canada Line elevated structures and inclement weather operating procedures. Under our understanding of a P3 scenario, this should have resulted in a penalty to the concessionaire.
The second incident was a series of late-night, service reductions to Canada Line service for track maintenance in February, March and April. Customers had to deal with reduced rapid transit service, shuttle trains or use the parallel bus route (albeit with more frequent service). This level of maintenance was a concern because the line was barely 1 ½ years old. Was there some underlying design flaw that resulted from the concessionaire’s risk analysis?
Transport Action BC sent letters to the TransLink Board of Directors after each of these incidents and received responses each time.
The first response indicated that the November 2010 shutdown was part of the two-year “learning curve” for the new transit project and penalties were not justified.
In addition to the track maintenance issue, our second letter questioned the rationale for a “learning curve” on a P3 contract. We felt that the concessionaire had made design decisions based on its risk-analysis. It should be responsible for those decisions and held accountable for any significant passenger impacts.
TransLink’s response to this letter stated its contract with InTransit BC / Protrans BC included a moratorium on performance penalties for the first two years (until 2011 August 12). This was a revelation to Transport Action BC and, we suspect, most members of the public are unaware that such a loophole exists in the Canada Line contract.
There are several concerns with this. What is the reason for this contract concession? It certainly violates the spirit of the P3 mantra as presented by P3 supporters. Do other P3 contracts include similar conditions? And, most importantly, how would the customers affected by Canada Line service failures feel if they were told that, other than some bad publicity, the line’s operator was not penalised for its failings?