Debunking the SkyTrain myth part 4 – The curse of the gadgetbahnen

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Gadgetbahn (also gadgetbahnen) is a pejorative term used by some transit professionals to describe what they view as infeasible or unnecessary transportation concepts. It is a compounding of gadget, meaning “device that has a useful specific purpose and function. Gadgets tend to be more unusual or cleverly designed than normal technology,” and the German word bahn, which has multiple meanings including way, lane, rail and tram. Perhaps the most well-known transportation concepts to be labeled as Gadgetbahn are monorail, maglev and personal rapid transit.

SkyTrain is terribly complicated and not really well designed“, Bob Abrams, a former official and then in 1983 a consultant to the Urban Mass Transportation Administration in the USA.

Vancouver is adopting a noncommercial approach……I hope they have lots of money.”, Norman Thompson; CBE, FCA, ACMA, English transit consultant and builder of the worlds busiest subway.

SkyTrain is enormously expensive thing for what it will do.” Edgar Horwood (deceased) a former professor of civil engineering and urban planning at the University of Washington.

SkyTrain is powered by Linear Induction Motors (like MAGLEV) and therefore unable to operate on none but it’s own rights-of-ways and is considered an unconventional railway or gadgetbahnen. Being a gadgetbahnen, it is fraught with very expensive problems, for the LIM’s must be exactly 1 cm above the reaction rail and constant maintenance must be preformed lowering the reaction rail. The reaction rail must be constantly adjusted to maintain the critical 1 cm air-gap because of the constant vehicle tire and rail ware. Being so close to the ground, the LIM’s are also vulnerable to dirt, moisture and certainly in the winter, snow.

It is because of the LIM”s ( the wrong type of LIM according to Professor Laithwaite who was the father of the modern LIM) that SkyTrain is maintenance intensive and being maintenance intensive means higher operating costs.

The SkyTrain lobby is ever eager to post ‘man of straw’ arguments based on emotion and not truth, to hide the failing of the proprietary metro. SkyTrain is faster; has more capacity; is safer, etc. is the clarion call for those in favour of the light metro, yet not one claim is true. The mainstream media, with a few exceptions, treat SkyTrain as a ‘mom and apple pie’ issue and claim all ‘rapid transit’ is good, no matter the cost. But, here lies SkyTrain’s Achilles heel – cost. The gadgetbahnen cost a lot more to build and operate than its competition, yet for the extra cost doesn’t have anything to show for it. The fact is, despite all the hype and hoopla, SkyTrain is just another very expensive metro, operating on a route that doesn’t have the ridership to sustain it and requiring very large subsidies to maintain it. Those who campaign for a SkyTrain subway to UBC live in a fantasy world, sadly for the BC taxpayer, the provincial government makes their fantasies come true!

TransLink, afraid to admit that they have wasted 30 years of planning for SkyTrain blunders on, like the French Bourbons of old, “remembering nothing and learning nothing.”

We are cursed with the SkyTrain gadgetbahnen, a very expensive, yesterdays transit system built to satisfy yesterday’s transit planning and with that curse is included the SkyTrain lobby, latter day Luddites, afraid to let go of the past and grasp the future.

     I Like this quote I dislike this quoteFacts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of the facts and evidence


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6 Responses to “Debunking the SkyTrain myth part 4 – The curse of the gadgetbahnen”

  1. mrjauk Says:

    “SkyTrain is terribly complicated and not really well designed“, Bob Abrams, a former official and then in 1983 a consultant to the Urban Mass Transportation Administration in the USA.

    “Vancouver is adopting a noncommercial approach……I hope they have lots of money.”, Norman Thompson; CBE, FCA, ACMA, English transit consultant and builder of the worlds busiest subway.

    “SkyTrain is enormously expensive thing for what it will do.” Edgar Horwood (deceased) a former professor of civil engineering and urban planning at the University of Washington.

    All of these quotes seem to have been uttered prior to the opening of the Skytrain (in 1986). Are there any studies that have been conducted in the intervening 23 years that actually assesses the system as it is, rather than as it was hypothesized to be?

    Zweisystem replies: Gee, no sales in Europe or the USA in 30 years (Detroit was a demonstration line that ever progressed and the JFK AirTrain was a private deal funded by the Canadian government) certainly shows that SkyTrain lived up to the quotes. Gerald Fox’s LRT AGT study was the kiss of death to most gadgetbahnen. According to Gerald Fox (noted American transit specialist), “In the US, all new transit projects that seek federal support are now subjected to scrutiny by a panel of transit peers, selected and monitored by the federal government, to ensure that projects are analyzed honestly, and the taxpayers’ interests are protected. No SkyTrain project has ever passed this scrutiny in the US.” about says it all. Simply SkyTrain has been rejected years ago and only in Vancouver do we continue building with a museum piece.

  2. mezzanine Says:

    Kuala Lumpur bought bombardier-based AGT for part of their system and are planning an expansion, in addition to places like Beijing and Korea.

    Further cities have bought AGT from different compnies (Turin constructed a VAL system ~ 2005, and copenhagen also has a new AGT system)

    Honolulu will be aiming to build a new AGT for their transit line in the near future.

    Zweisystem replies: Kuala Lumpur did by a Bombardier ART system, but it did not allow LRT to compete against it in the bidding process. Kuala Lumpur also has an elevated LRT system, but senior officials wanted a ‘high-tech’ showcase transit system and ART was chosen. What officials really wanted was a monorail and senior government types were aghast that SkyTrain turned out to be a railway. The third ‘rapid transit’ system built in the city was indeed a monorail. Both the former STAR (LRT) and PUTRA (SkyTrain) are being expanded, equally. The Beijing and Korea ART systems are limited stop airport to city systems with few stations and can hardly be called public transit (Beijing only has for stations).

    Turin built with a metro because the route it runs on demanded a metro solution, the city also operates a long standing tram (LRT) system. Copenhagen has built a metro, but the high cost of building metro has transit authorities planning for light rail instead.

    Honolulu City officials have tried for years to build a SkyTrain system but huge costs have deterred construction. As with all rapid transit systems requiring Federal subsidy, the projected transit system must undergo independent scrutiny, I doubt that SkyTrain will pass muster, as the TransLink officials who will be called to testify will have to tell the truth and our American friends take the issue of perjury very seriously. And they are reading this blog!

    Just for informations sake, there are only 8 VAL systems in operation (those built in France were 100% subsidized by the French government), 1 more than SkyTrain and in France, LRT has made VAL all but obsolete because like SkyTrain, for all the extra cost for VAL, there was no added benefit.

  3. Xerx Says:

    just a bit of a correction isn’t the Copenhagen metro actually expanding with 2 new lines opening by 2018? and sorry if i sound picky but the Yongin Everline in Korea doesn’t actually go to the airport but to an amusement park called Everland

    Zweisystem replies: The Danes are waking up to the fact of very expensive metro construction and increased taxes and fares. This is giving many a pause to rethink metro planning in the city. Here is the problem, when you build a metro, there is great pressure to continue building with metro, the trouble is, the metro tends to consume large portions of a transit budget, leaving other sectors wanting. It is this pressure that is compelling transit authorities to look at LRT, but like Vancouver, the metro lobby holds sway. Also with Copenhagen being the capital city, central governments tend to lavish funds on ‘showcase’ transit systems and of course you can’t be a world class city without a metro.

  4. Justin Bernard Says:

    From a total railfan view, the VAL systems look really cool.

  5. mrjauk Says:

    Thanks for the response. Is Fox’s study available online. Failing that, do you have a citation, so that I can find it at SFU or UBC?


    Zweisytem replies: The studies name is “A comparison Between Light Rail and Automated Transit Systems” by Gerald Fox P. E. Tri-Met Portland Oregon and published in 1991. I am sure somewhere on-line, one can find a copy of the study or even contact Mr. Fox for one. At the time, this study ‘debunked’ much of the hype and hoopla by the promoters of the automatic railways used in the study.

  6. David Says:

    “World class”, a term that all tax payers should fear. When governments want to show off they tend to go crazy spending ridiculous amounts on one or two “show piece” items that are rarely worth even half what they cost.

    Likewise a lot of people seem to be trapped in the notion that if something costs more it must be better.

    I remember Expo ’86 in Vancouver. I had a pass and visited no fewer than 30 times. The most impressive piece of equipment on display was the Japanese maglev train, even though it ran on just a few metres of track. Most were thoroughly unimpressed with SkyTrain. Even the little monorail that circled the expo grounds was more highly regarded than SkyTrain. After the fair thousands of people petitioned to have the monorail re-purposed as a downtown people mover. The government of the day was right to reject that idea because the monorail was a miniature model with individual rows of comfortable seats, each with its own set of doors. Its capacity and service speed were extremely low.

    I think what appealed to people, other than the comfortable seating, was the fact that the monorail was nearly silent. If you weren’t paying attention it could go right over your head without being noticed.

    SkyTrain, on the other hand, immediately caused noise complaints from all along the line, something that continues to this day. While I feel sorry for those who got an elevated guideway outside their back fence, things have gotten completely out of hand. A spoiled bunch of whiners living in buildings that went up 20 years AFTER SkyTrain did are responsible for that ridiculous slow crawl along Quebec Street.

    Many people in 1986 were happy to have SkyTrain. Vancouver was overdue for rail transit so there was great relief to finally have something built. Little did we know what a huge financial hole we had fallen into.

    I remember there was consternation, even in 1985, that SkyTrain was disrupting the bus system. Many routes were changed to feed SkyTrain instead of serving local destinations. Today TransLink admits that 80% of SkyTrain passengers get to the system by bus, but that fact has been obvious all along.

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