Are trackless trains the solution to Edmonton's transport woes?

Part bus, part train, part robot, trackless trains are the Frankenstein of modern transportation technology.

'It feels the possible perfect hybrid between bus rapid transit and light rail transit'

The world's first trackless trains are being tested in Zhuzhou, China but could the land trams work on Edmonton roads? (Getty Images)

Edmonton councillor Andrew Knack is pitching trackless trains as a solution to the city's transit woes.

Knack intends to table a motion at the Dec. 5 council meeting asking the city to explore emerging technology alternatives to traditional light rail.

The Ward 1 councillor believes trackless trains may be the city's best bet. 

'It looks fascinating'

Part bus, part train, part robot, they are the Frankenstein of modern transportation technology. Often self-driving, the battery-powered hybrids rely on sensors to guide them along painted, dedicated track lines.

While the technology may sound futuristic, the trains are currently being tested in Zhuzhou, China, where they can travel up to 70 kilometres per hour with more than 300 passengers aboard.

"It looks fascinating," Knack said in an interview Thursday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"I've been interested in new and emerging technology and I thought it was the right time for us to do an analysis of that technology, out on the market, to see if it can be used in our city to help, sort of, fill in the gaps.

"We have a lot of areas that we need to build mass transit to, so I wanted to see what the cost would be, [what] the viability would be and whether we can do it here."

Knack believes the technology could settle the ongoing debate between bus rapid transit and light rail infrastructure at city hall.

Trackless trains, also called road trams, are energy efficient, and because there is no underground utility work required to build the hybrid networks, they're cheaper and easier to build than traditional trains.

Trackless trains would likely come in at a fifth of the cost of a standard LRT, said Knack, meaning that under-served areas, including his west-end ward, may end up getting service faster.

"It feels the possible perfect hybrid between bus rapid transit and light rail transit," he said.

"Even if it were 30 per cent cheaper, well then, all of a sudden not only can you build mass transit out to the west end of the city ... but then we could look at building out to the northwest, or southwest or northeast, where there is also demand for mass transit." 

'Window of opportunity'

Knack wants to explore the cost and viability of putting trackless trains in motion on Edmonton's often snow-covered streets, before construction begins on the Valley Line West LRT project.

He said the motion he plans to bring forward at the Dec. 5 council meeting would not stall construction, but would ensure the city is making the best possible investment for the future.

He's hoping for a report back from administration by early 2018, well before procurement for construction of the new line begins.
Councillor Andrew Knack is looking to have the city explore emerging transportation technology that could work in Edmonton. One of those transit options in a notice of motion he put forward yesterday is a trackless train, currently being tested in China. 6:35
"It doesn't have to re-open the discussion or delay our timeline around building it out because that's an important consideration too. We've been waiting for a very long time for proper mass transit out to the west end of the city," Knack said. 

"We have this window of opportunity that exists over the next six months for us to do that high level analysis, and see if it's viable." 

Listen to Edmonton AM with host Mark Connolly, weekday mornings at CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM in Edmonton. Follow the morning crew on Twitter @EdmAMCBC.