Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.

 
 
 
 

What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.