Transportation

Lift-off for the people movers

Sandra Peredo October 9 1978
Transportation

Lift-off for the people movers

Sandra Peredo October 9 1978

Lift-off for the people movers

Transportation

There were no signs saying Welcome to Tomorrowland, but officials of Ontario’s Urban Transportation Development Corporation—watching the “lift-off” of their new $l-million prototype “people mover” in Kingston late last month—might have been kids at a science-fiction fantasy show. As the black, orange and white, boxcar-like Test Vehicle 1 shunted along an arcshaped track beside a muddy ditch in the former cow pasture that has become the corporation’s Transit Development Centre (“The first facility dedicated to transit development in the world”) the officials’ faces beamed their dream of the future: noiseless, driverless, automated vehicles running on elevated guideways above city streets, carrying 15,000 passengers an hour to destinations not already covered by existing myriads of subways, buses and streetcars. “It will get people back into neighborhoods,” says Ed Brezina of UTDC.“They will be able to see kids playing in the streets, watch the colors of the leaves change. You can’t see that on a subway.”

The dream—some, recalling the horrors of the old New York and Chicago Els clanking past tenement windows, might prefer to call it a nightmare of the past—has become the transit industry’s latest answer to urban traffic problems. As costs of tunnelling have put subway construction at $50 million a mile (UTDC estimates the skyways at $20 million per mile) developers around the world have been racing to get the automated guideway transit systems— popular in recreation parks and airports—into downtown cores. In the United States, $220 million was allocated in 1976 to the Downtown People Mover Project and four cities—Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles and St. Paul—selected as future test areas to implement existing “state of the art” technology. In Morgantown, West Virginia, a people mover has been operating since 1976.

Planners feel the concept will have its major application in North America and in cities such as Brasilia, Brazil (which has been designed around the automobile), as the need to transport people to and from distant parking lots increases. But the city of Bremen, West Germany, is considering a proposal to link its downtown activity centres with people movers.

In Ontario—UTDC is owned by the provincial government—$61.3 million has been committed to the design and development of an intermediate capacity transit system (subways carry 40,000 people per hour, streetcars 10,000) that will not only serve our own

cities, but will become, in UTDC terms, “one of the exportables.”

The project—innovations include a linear induction motor to cut down on pollution and noise and “the first steel wheel alternatives to rubber tire systems used in the U.S.” — has not been viewed as euphorically by opposition parties as by UTDC program manager Morrison Renfrew. He feels that “We’ve really got the only answer for the northern market—automatic systems cannot run safely in snow and | ice on rubber tires.” 9 But opposition mem§ bers have accused the | government of “re-in| venting the streetcar.” g At month 26 of a 42y month project there are 5 still many intricacies to be perfected, among them the computer operation that will allow the people mover to operate completely on an automatic control system. “We need something,” says Renfrew, “that will tell control, ‘Hey, I’ve got a brake problem.’ Then the answer comes back, ‘Okay, one brake keep going and two

brakes stop operating until everybody gets off.’ We predict that some day subways will be run that way as well. Humans make mistakes.”

Critics of UTDC would agree. One big

mistake was the original intermediate capacity transit system contracted to a German company, Krauss-Maffei, and abandoned about $9 million later—the vehicles refused to turn corners (the

government managed to retrieve $8.5 million). “In development there are errors of judgment,” says Renfrew. “But now things are clocking off more or less on time, this winter we’ll look more closely at the problems of ice and snow.” UTDC will probably get a lot of chances in the coming months to play with those particular problems, but in the meantime the focus is on the inner workings of Test Vehicle 1. Tangles of cables and wires lead to subsystems, circuit breakers and power-conversion units, and above the conductor’s seat (TV 1 is still being operated manually, TV 2 will be fully automated) a sign alerts visitors to an Orwellian future as close as 1982 in which Canadians may have their own versions of the Expo Minirail and the Disneyland monorails running through their cities. “Das Machine,” it warns, “Ist Nicht Fur Gefingerpoken und Mittengrabben . . . Relaxen Und Vatch Die Blinkenlights.”

Sandra Peredo