Cops probe sabotage as traffic lights on the blink
Clocks that run city traffic lights flipped to night mode
Doug Ward and Jonathan Woodward, Vancouver Sun
Published: Friday, September 28, 2007
The Vancouver police department is investigating whether someone sabotaged the City of Vancouver’s traffic-light computer system, causing traffic congestion Thursday at many key intersections.
Chief city engineer Tom Timm said the clocks governing the traffic lights were out by seven hours for much of the day.
This meant that morning rush-hour traffic was being managed by lights geared to the middle of the night.
“We weren’t getting the optimal flow of traffic because the signals weren’t functioning in the most efficient manner,” said Timm.
The worst traffic snarl was on the Stanley Park causeway during evening rush hour, when only one northbound lane was open, backing up cars to Granville Street.
Flashing left-turn arrows, which operate on a different schedule at night, weren’t working for much of the day.
B-Line buses on Granville Street could not prolong green lights. And green lights were on for a shorter duration than normal.
Timm said someone could have hacked into the central computer system at strikebound city hall.
Or the traffic lights could have been out of sync due to a computer glitch, because the systems are not reset as often as usual during the strike, he said.
Today is the 71st day that about 5,000 civic workers have been off the job in a strike that began in July.
Police investigators went to city hall Thursday, but so far have not confirmed there was any foul play, said Const. Howard Chow.
City managers noticed the problem at about 7:30 a.m. said Timm.
The city fixed the causeway lane problem late in the afternoon and then moved onto the rest of the system, which was back to normal by about 5 p.m., said Timm.
Suspicion that the traffic-light problem was related to the protracted civic strike was aroused early in the day when an unidentified man phoned all-traffic radio station AM 730, and talked to traffic anchor Michel McDermott.
“This is your traffic CUPE local, and it will continue,” said the man, who confirmed he was talking about the traffic light problem.
“Okay, how long will it continue for?” asked McDermott.
“Until the strike ends,” said the man.
CUPE Local 15 Paul Faoro denied that any striking members hacked into the system.
“Our union doesn’t know who this caller was and we don’t believe this person was a CUPE member. We would never condone this type of behaviour.”
Faoro said he dispatched a CUPE striker, an engineering technician who specializes in traffic lights, to fix the problem later in the day.
The technician found that a central clock that governs the city’s traffic lights had been set back seven hours. Normally, the problem would have been resolved by its connection with the city’s main computer clock, which would have set it straight — but this connection was not working.
As a result, individual traffic lights, which periodically check themselves against the central traffic light clock to ensure they are in sync, began setting themselves back seven hours.
But the safeguards that stop total traffic chaos were still in place, said city officials.