Véhicule Automatique Léger or VAL – SkyTrain’s real competition!

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SkyTrain is not in a class of its own, despite first being marketed as ICTS or Intermediate Capacity Transit System, which was more a marketing name not a transit mode. SkyTrain is a light-metro and though SkyTrain initially competed against light rail, it was soon found that SkyTrain could only compete against other light-metros that were being marketed for the modal niche. Only in Vancouver is there a light rail/light metro debate as transit planners in most other cities fully understand the role of a light-metro and light rail.

SkyTrain’s main competitor was the French VAL rubber tired light-metro. Yet VAL’s success has been checked by light rail, despite a concerted drive by the French government to build with VAL instead of LRT. Civic politicians, ever with the taxpayer in mind, largely rejected light-metro and the VAL system, like SkyTrain is used as a light-metro, airport people mover or a niche light-metro built for political prestige.

VAL is an automatic rubber-tired people mover, based on an invention by Professor Robert Gabillard (Université Lille Nord de France). It was designed in the early 1980s by French Matra, for the then new metro system in Lille.

The acronym was originally for Villeneuve d’Ascq à Lille (Villeneuve d’Ascq to Lille), the route of the first line to be projected (and inaugurated). It now officially stands for Véhicule Automatique Léger (automatic light vehicle).

In contrast to some other driverless metro systems like the Docklands Light Railway or Vancouver’s SkyTrain, the VAL design uses platforms that are separated from the guide-way by a glass partition, to prevent waiting passengers from straying or falling onto the guide-way. Platform screen doors, which are produced by Swiss glass door manufacturer Kaba Gilgen AG, embedded in these partitions open in synchrony with the train doors when a train stops at the platform

When VAL has been introduced to Taipei, the term medium capacity system is coined to differentiate VAL from heavy rail (metro). Thus this term is being applied mainly among Asian cities and railway planners though they are not using VAL’s technology. In Siemens official site, VAL is advertised “first fully automated light metro”, in which the term “light metro” can be traced back to Moscow Metro Butovskaya Light Metro Line.

The “Super Mongy”: the Lille – Roubaix – Tourcoing tram

With civic finances an ever increasing problem, especially with the city’s resources being diverted to the very expensive VAL system, in 1991 civic politicians funded a rebuilding of the Mongy, Roubaix – Tourcoing tramway, with new track, overhead (including uprating the voltage from 600 to 750 V), tram-stops and rolling stock, as it was a much cheaper proposition than building a new VAL system.

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The new tram stop platforms were built to allow level access for the new low floor trams ordered from Breda in Italy and styled by the famous Pininfarina design house. The 2.40 m wide trams are “one-offs” and it was somewhat surprising that Lille went outside France for it’s cars especially as Alstom was promoting a “French Standard” car for the new tramway’s being built in the country at the time. Some commentators have suggested that the cars are noisy and have poor rides and this is because of corners cut with costs on both rolling stock and track work, but operating low-floor cars of this width on metre-gauge track was, inevitably, going to involve compromises and less than perfect results. Despite this, the new trams were in operation from 1994 and Lille, for whom transport operations were vested in the TRANSPOLE company (a subsidiary of Keolis) from May of that year, got itself a new “Super Mongy” in double-quick time.

The lessons of VAL and the Mongy were not forgotten by city fathers in other French cities, where over and over again the expensive VAL mini-metro was rejected even when the French government offered to pay for the full cost of the initial line, in favour of much cheaper, modern light rail.

The Lille metro was inaugurated on April 25, 1983. VAL systems were subsequently built in several other French cities, including:

  • Paris Orlyval, 1991
  • Toulouse Metro, 1993 (new tram line completed)
  • Rennes Metro, 2002
  • Paris CDGVAL, April 2007 (3 tram lines in operation)

Outside of France, VAL systems are also used in:

  • Chicago O’Hare’s Airport Transit System (opened in 1993)
  • Taipei’s Muzha Line (opened in 1996, larger variant using the MAGGALY technology from Lyon Metro line D)
  • Turin’s Metrotorino (opened in 2006, just before the 2006 Winter Olympics) (updated tramline)

A VAL system is in project in Uijeongbu, South Korea.

The Chicago O’Hare and Taipei lines use the wider VAL 256 version of the system.

Jacksonville had a VAL line inaugurated in 1989, which was shut down in December 1996 and replaced by a monorail, the JTA Skyway. The rolling stock was sold to O’Hare International Airport.

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