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2001, The Future Didn't Look Like This

By Peter Drost

(Originally published March 1, 2001)

Transit systems around the world are headed into a conservative era. Innovation is out while tried and true methods are back in style. Buses, light rail, heavy rail and high-speed rail are the touchstones to this "new" way of thinking.

It all should have been better. Who would have thought we would be travelling around in buses in the year 2001? At this point we were supposed by flying around like George Jetson through our marvelous domed cities. What happened to the future?

In some sense this turn of events came about because the "magic transit bullet" was never found. Innovations that evolved in the late 1950s through to the mid-1970s did not, for the most part, pan out. Now we're back to the tried and true systems that have been in place for the last 80 years. This also means that we are left with all the problems inherent in these kinds of system.

Buses vs. Innovation

Although many buses today are low-floor and can run on a variety of fuels they still have a lot of user problems associated with comfort. Buses tend to be noisy and hot. The overall ride is as good as the road is smooth and if they run on diesel, the interior starts to reek like the fuel. Buses are also used on streets with regular traffic which, added to the regular stops, can slow the trip to a crawl.

An early innovation designed to cure some of these ills was the Swiss-made, Oerlikon Gyro bus (Click here for their official web site). This bus ran on a gigantic 1,500-kilogram flywheel that was powered periodically on the route by overhead charging posts. The beauty of this system was that in one fell swoop it eliminated pollution, noise and the need to string up trolley wires.

Okay, the Gyro bus had problems. The flywheel would slow down too much between stops (and the charging posts) especially when there was a lot of traffic. The Gyro bus was last used seen on Belgium streets in the late 1950's. Although a transit dead-end, the engineers were onto something: a smooth quiet trip without the diesel smell.

Other more recent bus innovations include busways like those used by such cities as Sao Paulo, Brazil and Brisbane, Australia and our very own Ottawa, which claims the largest busway system in the world. This innovation separates the bus from traffic thereby reducing the time of the trip. But it still doesn't fix the basic problems inherent with buses in general. Ultimately passengers have to travel by bus.

Monorail vs. Conventional Rail

Monorail never really died. It also never really took off in the way envisioned by futurists. Monorail systems can come in all shapes and sizes and can be used for myriad of applications especially non-transit applications in heavy industry.

Since 1901 there has been a "hanging" monorail in near continuous operation between Barmen and Elberfeld, Germany. Called the Wuppertal Schwebebahn (Click here for more information) the system is the grandfather of all monorails. Unfortunately, it created a perception that monorails are closed loop systems and that switching is not available.

Although a lack of switching is more or less the case with the Wuppertal system, it is not true of other types of monorails, including other suspended systems. Japan, which operates the majority of monorails used for public transit, has several systems that have switches. These have worked without problem for the last 30 years.

Monorail is superior to bus and light rail systems in almost every way. Monorail is quick, noiseless and, most importantly, will never get trapped in traffic. The main problem with monorail is cost. Obviously a bus system can run on almost any kind of road. The road comes "free" and bus stop shelters are cheap. A monorail system needs the overhead guideways and stations to make it complete. Depending on the type of system, different kinds of guideways sizes can be used; some are more pleasing to the eye than others.

And yet, monorail comes close to perfection. The draw back, as mentioned, is cost and the overall look of the track that can range from sleek to functional. The Wuppertal monorail stands alone as an iron-riveted monster. Interestingly, according to a Toronto Sun article by historian Mike Filey, the Toronto Telegram published a story on a Wuppertal-like system that was briefly proposed by the TTC for Dundas Street in the 1950s.

In the early 1960's a massive monorail system was proposed for Los Angeles (Click here for more), similar to the one at Disney World. Alweg, the monorail manufacturer, would have built and operated the entire system. Had Los Angeles gone ahead with this proposal, there is no doubt that many cities would have followed. It surely would have changed the face of public transit forever.

Problems with Innovation

Toronto did eventually get its very own "monorail", albeit a very bastardized version. It was supposed to be a maglev-type monorail. Today we know it as the Scarborough RT (SRT). This was an innovative attempt at transit that grew into hodgepodge of transit ideas, from PRT (like the People Mover in Detroit) to old, subway technology. Again, you can't blame the engineers for trying.

The promise of maglev - in this case linear induction motors (LIM) - is that there are fewer working parts, or ideally none at all. The SRT is actually dragged along the track by the LIMs. There are no drive motors that turn the wheels.

But the SRT has been plagued by myriad of problems since it opened. The greatest of these is snow, which gets packed onto the LIM, rendering it useless. A similar SRT system works fine in Vancouver (SkyTrain), and would probably work anywhere else in the world where it doesn't snow much.

If the engineers had been thinking of creating an actual monorail system for Scarborough, they should have gone with a suspended system (sometimes called Safege for the French engineering firm) as the rails and third rail would have been protected from the elements by a box-like structure overhead. (Click here for more) Alas, hindsight is always 20/20.

Overcoming Friction

Still, maglev testing continues in Japan and until recently in Germany, but no practical results have come about, yet. There may also be little need. The French are continually improving their high-speed trains (TGV) which run on special tracks. The newest generation of trains is expected to run at 300 km/h, while trains tested have achieved 500 km/h. That's fast!

The French have been true innovators in the field of high-speed rail technology. Back in the early 1970s French inventor, Jean Bertin, capped a decade long experiment in hovercraft/monorail technology with his Aerotrain (Click here for more). The hovercraft-train, gliding over a concrete track on a cushion of air and propelled by a jet engine, sped over 400 km/h.

Like maglev, Aerotrain also "solved" the problem of friction. Since there is no contact with any surface, the rail bed would never wear out, nor would the non-existent wheels. This would also mean that maintenance and repairs would be at minimum. Further, the great speed of this kind system fills a niche for traveling to nearby centres that are too close for regular air travel and too far away for conventional rail travel.

Problems with High-Speed Rail in Canada

While the French have the TGV and the Germans and Japanese have their equivalents, the last high-speed venture attempted in Canada was the ill-fated Turbo (Click here for more) in the 1970's. This weird looking, wedge shaped train was quick - maybe too quick. Equipped with gas turbine engines the train traveled between Montreal and Toronto at over 100 mph. However, after a series of collisions with vehicles at level crossings (including on its inaugural run) the Turbo program was scrubbed.

The Turbo shows the amount of drawbacks associated with any kind of high-speed rail in Canada. New track would need to be constructed while the rail corridor would have to be restricted. Certainly, there would be no more level crossings. Then the entire length of the system would have to be electrified. And finally, there is the weather: frost could heave the tracks, snow or ice build up could derail a train.

An Aerotrain-type vehicle could work well in Canada. But there are drawbacks, not the least of which is the noise. Who wants that thing racing through their backyard? Still, the promises of a fast, friction-free system are too many to drop out right. I mean, wouldn't it be great if you could take a train that would get you to Montreal just outside an hour, Ottawa inside an hour, or Niagara Falls in about 15 minutes?

Basic problems persist

Ultimately, the solutions to basic transit problems have not been found. Buses and streetcars get trapped in traffic. Light rail systems must contend with level crossings and the wear on the track. Heavy rail (subways) is cost prohibitive, while the underground stations can be dark, damp and depressing. These kinds of systems are functional, engineered solutions.

We may have good systems in Canada and in Toronto, but are they the best possible? Embracing the status quo is not a solution. Contrary to current trends, taking risks through innovations that will ultimately decrease commuting time, while increasing comfort levels is not a waste. Innovation in transportation is the key to making the future look more like the future we had anticipated.