The Gravity Group goes against the grain
Holiday World’s The Voyage gets a vertical track makeover
Park fans know that wooden coasters deliver a different kind of experience than their steel counterparts. Among their distinctive characteristics is a rough and tumble ride. Fans also know that over time, fatigue sets into wooden tracks and the “rough” in the rough and tumble equation can become excessive.
The wear and tear of the rolling stock, the weather, and the organic nature of wood all conspire to degrade the tracks and change their shapes. Wooden tracks typically last anywhere from 5 to 15 years before they need some TLC. Otherwise, once beloved coasters start developing potholes and other problems, and passengers experience unintentional, uncomfortable elements such as “washboarding.” Instead of shedding tears of joy, riders can be reduced to crying “uncle.”
Woodies may cost less than steel coasters to initially install, but they require a lot of time and money to maintain, especially the ongoing replacement of wooden track sections. More recently, companies such as RMC, which offers IBox track, and GCI, with its Titan track, have introduced longer-lasting steel track alternatives for wooden coaster rehabs.
When Holiday World in Indiana wanted to retrack sections of The Voyage this season, it turned to the company that originally designed the wonderful attraction in 2006, The Gravity Group. The wooden coaster specialists used their own ingenious method of ride restoration: precut vertical wooden track. What the heck is that? Read on.
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According to Mike Graham, engineer and partner at The Gravity Group, when the company wanted to develop a way to make wooden track stronger and more durable, it took inspiration from the way homebuilders assemble floors. Traditionally, wooden track is comprised of a stack of horizontal boards that are nailed together. Floors, however, are made of vertical wood members, with the boards turned 90 degrees onto their sides. Compared to horizontal members, which can have the give of a diving board, vertical members are considerably stronger. What if TGG could harness that strength for coaster track?
It’s actually not a new concept, Graham says, noting that some wooden coasters included vertical track sections decades ago. Vertical pieces of wood couldn’t be bent into curved shapes, which meant the application was only used on flat sections of track. By definition, you can’t have a gravity-fed roller coaster without hills (and it’d be pretty boring even if you could), so the use of vertical track was quite limited.
TGG figured a clever way to address the challenge by using modern fabrication technology. Instead of cutting horizontal sections of track on site, as is the method typically used when retracking a coaster, the company uses a CNC router–a computer-controlled cutting machine–to custom-craft vertical pieces at its shop. TGG then laminates the prefabricated pieces together, delivers the assembled rails to the park, and sort of snaps them together like giant Lego pieces.
The result? The vertical track is more than 20 times stronger than traditional wooden track, and, theoretically, should last up to 20 times as long. Graham contends the strength is nearly the same as steel track. Also, the computer is able to cut perfect shapes and restore the track to its original specs. Most significantly, the ride experience improves dramatically.
“It feels really smooth, but it doesn't feel like a different experience altogether,” says Graham, noting the goal is to remain true to the essence of a wooden coaster. That should please coaster purists. “It has piqued a lot of parks’ interest,” he adds, noting that the vertical track is economical to boot. “It’s a great solution for the life and preservation of wood coasters.”
The Voyage is not the only coaster to incorporate TGG’s precut vertical track. The company started developing the product in 2016 and installed it first on the Kentucky Flyer at Kentucky Kingdom in 2019. Since then it has used its precut vertical track on other coaster restoration projects, including Racer at Kings Island in 2021 and The Beast at the same park in 2022. For this season, TGG is also incorporating the track on sections of The Grizzly at Kings Dominion, as well as eight other coasters.
For The Voyage, TGG installed vertical track on the coaster’s first two hills, the “peek-a-boo” curve (in which the train comes out of a tunnel, takes a quick right turn, and then descends back into a tunnel), and the final turn into the brakes for a total of 1,600 feet. To merge the vertical track with the existing, traditional track, Graham says that the older sections are feathered into the new rails to gradually meld them together. The ride experience is seamless.
As for the future, the TGG engineer and principal notes that the company plans to use its precut vertical track on new, ground-up coaster installations. The new-age woodies should be able to maintain their original ride experience and integrity for many years–potentially delaying the need to do any retracking on them for quite some time.
Have you boarded any of the coasters mentioned in this article since The Gravity Group installed its precut vertical track? What do you think about the innovations that TGG and other ride designers have developed to address the inherent fatigue issues faced by wooden coasters?