Bus Stop Classics: Pittsburgh Transit Expressway System (Skybus) – The Steel City’s Aborted Highway in the Sky

(first posted 10/17/2017)       Pittsburgh has a rich mass transit history; inclines, trolleys, buses, light rail, etc. It was also home town to one of the twentieth century’s largest electronics and appliance makers – the Westinghouse Electric Corporation. These two interests merged in the mid-1960s to introduce an innovative new form of mass transit – the Pittsburgh “Skybus”. But good fortune wouldn’t smile on the Skybus, and after an eternity of studies, panels, and commissions, it died a quiet death…let’s take a quick look at this large-scale, driverless “people-mover”…

By the early 1960’s, Pittsburgh was well into its “Renaissance Plan”, with goals to improve housing, cultural facilities, economic diversification and mass transportation. For the latter, the city hoped to accomplish three objectives; build an innovative rapid transportation system for Allegheny County, use it as a showcase for testing and marketing rapid transit hardware developed by Pittsburgh-based corporations, and promote the city as a leader in the rapid transportation industry.

Evaluating several proposals, city transportation officials favored one submitted by Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse – the company had developed an automated, driverless, rubber-tired coach that traveled on an elevated guideway – a mixture of monorail and bus – the forerunner of the wheeled carriages that we ride between concourses at almost all major airports today.

An initial demonstration section was planned, but transportation officials were ultimately looking at building a 92-mile system fanning out in four directions from city center, and linking to the Pittsburgh International Airport.

Moving forward, in 1963, Port Authority Allegheny County (PAAC – the consolidated transport authority in the Pittsburgh area and surrounding counties) secured matching funds from the federal government for the initial demonstration of the Westinghouse Transit Expressway System (locally dubbed Skybus, though that name already belonged to a regional airline). In August 1965, a 1.77 mile loop in the South Park section of the city near the Allegheny County Fairgrounds was opened to the public.

The Skybus vehicles could operate as single coaches or linked together as multi-coach trains. Top speed on the elevated concrete guideways was 50 mph. Each coach was 30 feet long and could seat 26 passengers, with an additional 28 standing. Power was from two 60 hp (45 kw) electric motors – with AC current being supplied by a center rail. During the ten-month demonstration period, the system traveled over 21K miles, with few safety, maintenance or reliability issues.

But cracks starting developing in the coalition supporting Skybus – several new, incoming political leaders were not fans, and started a review of alternatives; more commissions, more studies, more panels. This opening gave a competing consortium, aligned with the steel industry, the opportunity to present their proposal, a light rail option that ran on steel wheels and steel rails.

Another nail in the coffin was a result of the social turmoil and racial friction in the late ‘60s.  Similar to other large metropolitan areas, Pittsburgh had its violent riots in 1968 after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King. The proposed route for Skybus had it going from the mostly white suburbs to downtown. Political leaders were open to alternatives that would broaden transportation opportunities for the city’s black neighborhoods.

It soon became clear that these newly elected officials were not going to support Skybus, and in 1976, after a planning period of over 10 years, a transportation consultant’s report recommended cancellation, and using the less expensive option of exclusive bus lanes, upgrading of the trolley lines to light rail, and construction of a downtown subway. Those options were adopted and are currently in use today.

Miami Metro-Mover – older Westinghouse C-100 model

But it wasn’t all for naught – using Skybus technology Westinghouse went on to participate in building the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in California, the Miami Metro-Mover, and automated people movers at several major U.S. airports, including Tampa, Dallas-Ft. Worth, and Orlando.

So what became of Skybus? The public could continue to take rides on the demonstrator loop until the early ‘70s, when it was closed. In 1980, the entire overhead guideway system was torn down and scrapped. Fortunately, one Skybus coach has been preserved and is open to the public at the Bombardier facility in Pittsburgh – which had purchased the transit division of Westinghouse in 2001.

I hate to say it since it’s almost a cliché, but it’s clear from their looks that these vehicles were built by a company most famous for its household electrical appliances…