Trackless Tram Scam

Our mainstream media always over-hypes the latest gadgetbahnen, or transit miracle from elsewhere, which turns out to be a yesterday’s failed transit experiment that was sold off on the cheap to let someone else try to sell it to rubes. This sensationalist reporting seldom, if ever reports that the very same transit miracle, in reality is a repackaged and rebranded proprietary transit system, from 20 years ago, reappearing like Marley’s ghost.

Case in point, the trackless tram or optically guided bus.

Years ago, when TransLink was extremely unhappy with my letters in the local newspapers regarding their planning of the day, I was summoned to TransLink’s golden towers for a session in their “Star Chamber”.

The Star Chamber (Latin: Camera stellata) was an English court which sat at the royal Palace of Westminster, from the late 15th century to the mid-17th century (c. 1641). The Star Chamber became synonymous with social and political oppression through the arbitrary use and abuse of the power it wielded.

I was shown videos of rapid bus as the way of the future. The videos showed an optically guided bus from the Netherlands and several guided buses, including the German O-Bahn. Being an almost 20 year member of the LRTA, I was was more than familiar with the modes shown and much to the astonishment of the chap who was supposed to dictate to me, I gave him a lesson about each mode. Unhappiness prevailed, but I do remember that with the subject of optically guided buses, a recent article I read pointed to the problems of optically guided buses operating in rain and snow.

Rains and snows in Vancouver, doesn’t it?

TransLink ceased communications with me since.

China has been acquiring obsolete or unmarketable transit modes to gain technology on the cheap and when such modes are built, they would like to sell them to recoup the initial investment. The trackless tram or optically guided bus is one of these, but after 25 years the same problems persist, they operate poorly or not at all in snow and heavy rain and of course it is a bus and suffers from the problems associated when comparing a bus to a tram.

The trackless tram scam is more about “locking in” an operator with a proprietary transit mode, just what the UTDC and Bombardier did with ALRT/ART/MALM on the Expo and Millennium lines, than offering an affordable and user friendly public transit alternative.

Caveat emptor!


An optically guided trolley bus in Bologna, Italy.

Light rail report cautions against ‘unproven’ trackless trams

15 June 2021


CRRC Zhuzhou Autonomous Rail Rapid Transit
‘railless train’ on test in Zhuzhou

CRRC Zhuzhou Autonomous Rail Rapid Transit ‘railless train’ on test in Zhuzhou

AUSTRALIA: The Australasian Railway Association has published a report highlighting the social benefits of light rail and making recommendations to help support future development, and also cautioning against ‘gambling’ with what ARA describes as unproven and untested ‘trackless tram’ technology-guided bus systems.

The Renaissance of Light Rail report which ARA commissioned from RPS Group found that trackless trams have been attracting interest because their implementation costs are said to be 50% to 65% lower per kilometre than conventional light rail and 90% cheaper than a metro. However, it says trackless trams are ‘a largely unproven mode’ which has had limited use globally, with technologies being considered in Australia being currently limited to Zhuzhou and Yibin in China.

A number of guided bus systems outside Australia were being decommissioned owing to challenges with delivering reliable services; examples cited included Eindhoven, Nancy and Caen, as well as buses designed with tram-like features in York and Las Vegas.

Concerns raised by the report include operation in snow, heavy rain and fog, regulatory requirements, a need to design road surfaces specifically for trackless trams, and proprietary technologies meaning supplier lock-in and a lack of competition in the market.

‘International experience has shown that while the technology may offer lower costs in the beginning, problems delivering reliable and comfortable journeys can lead to trackless trams being retired after a relatively short time in operation’, said ARA Chief Executive Caroline Wilkie.


Light rail in Sydney

Light rail in Sydney

The report also reviews light rail lines in Australia and elsewhere, assessing the circumstances where light rail is a better option than bus, bus rapid transit or heavy rail. It says light rail is well suited to areas where urban renewal is desired, and is the mode of choice when catering for high passenger volumes and a need for frequent stops.


Gold Coast light rail

Gold Coast light rail

Recommendations include refining policy frameworks to assess the broader benefits of light rail projects and take into account their impact on ‘place’ outcomes alongside the traditional transport benefits, developing a co-ordinated funding approach including engagement with local government stakeholders, and reducing delivery risks through an improved approach to risk sharing including for utility works.

‘Australia and New Zealand are already experiencing a renaissance of light rail as governments recognise the ease of access, connection and sense of community that can be realised from effective transport planning’, said Wilkie. ‘Light rail is an invaluable part of the wider transport network and offers real value as part of urban renewal efforts to meet population growth in our cities.’


One Response to “Trackless Tram Scam”
  1. Haveacow says:

    Let’s be honest about why these “Trackless Trolleys/Trams/Streetcars/Trains” are even a thing at all. This type transportation is designed for a certain subset of politician and voter who don’t like paying the capital cost for rail products of any kind. On top of that they don’t want there own or their voters cars, to be denied their blessed, handed down from god, road lane. Not to mention that helping those who can’t drive really isn’t even a concern for most politicians, if we want to be honest about it. Unfortunately, I have worked too long in this industry and most politicians (not all), even left leaning ones, really don’t care deeply about people who can’t drive. Their numbers are just too small to really care about when compared to other voters.

    Yes, these vehicles could be useful in certain limited situations but they are too small, too expensive, too dependent on one company’s spare parts, maintenance equipment, operator and maintenance training packages, compared to standard buses and more common rail based vehicles, to be useful. Even the physics of basic railways works against this Trackless Trolley concept.

    That is why such great hype is given to them for sales. When a city does adopt the vehicle technology, great amounts of money are spent so that, other politicians and transit operator executives from other cities can come see and experience it in person (usually in the first couple of years, up to about 5 years on). I was working at Bombardier when their Guided Bus Concept was marketed around Europe and North America (Late 1990’s and early 2000’s). The claims around this technology in my humble opinion were, unfortunately, shameful and shameless. They (Bombardier) were so “over the top” when hyping this concept, I and many others believed at the time that it actually hurt their rail business. In that, they lost several possible LRT, Light Metro and Metro system sale contracts because this type of technology was always mentioned by politicians as an alternative to any rail product. Oh boy, when the French cities Caen and Nancy bought the concept and both installed it, you would have thought the almighty him or herself had just appeared simultaneously in Bombardier’s Head Offices in both Berlin and Montreal.

    You can read about how both French cities soon regretted their decision. The real fun was watching Bombardier sales people push this “Bus-Wreak” of a technology knowing full well the problems and unending equipment performance shortfalls the concept was having. Yes, I know this is really mean, these were good people forced to sell a crappy product but it was amazing as well as hilarious to watch!

    This type of transit vehicle and others like it were once described by a transit writer this way, “it is a solution in search of a problem”. My take was it was never really designed to solve a transportation problem, it was designed to solve a political problem. The political problem in regards to what Public Transit should and should not be. Regardless of the vehicle type and technology, most rapid transit system failures in my humble opinion, begin at this point!

    Zwei Replies: Agree 100%. There are a few politicians promoting these things in Metro Vancouver and with and with compliant media, the scam takes hold. We have metro Vancouver councilors now saying that BRT can carry more than LRT!

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