Written by Russell Meyer
Published: June 15, 2005 at 9:55 PM
I could probably write a doctoral dissertation about all of the problems that have been associated with Intamin AG’s rocket coasters, and in light of recent news involving their product, I’m going to devote a large amount of my time today to examining the troubled coasters.
When Xcelerator first opened at Knott’s Berry Farm in 2002, the problems were numerous. There were problems with the prototype launch system, and it took quite some time to figure out just the right speed necessary to get the train over the top hat without rolling back or blasting over the top so fast that riders were literally flung out of their seats. There was also a big problem with the top hat tower supports. They were found to be inadequate to meet California engineering standards, and were subsequently bolstered with additional steel supports. After almost a year of tinkering, it looked like the problems were ironed out – and actually, Xcelerator has become a decently reliable coaster.
Coaster fans soon found out that Xcelerator was actually a prototype for a coaster that would eventually shatter the world height and speed record for roller coasters, as Cedar Point announced the construction of Top Thrill Dragster with a May 2003 debut. No one expected Dragster to debut without a hitch considering the variables and extreme forces involved. However, many never expected the monster coaster to have so many problems, and such significant downtime that a web page had to be set up on the Cedar Point website to let guests know if the coaster was running on any given day. Cedar Point also experienced a major malfunction with the launch system during the 2004 season. The cable that pulls the coaster train up to 120 MPH in 4 seconds frayed, and shot steel splinters into the path of the launching train, causing minor injuries to the riders. Top Thrill Dragster’s reliability has increased since its first season, but there’s still no guarantee that it’s going to be running when you walk into the park on any given day.
2004 brought a new twist to the rocket coaster design- literally- as Hersheypark launched Storm Runner, the first rocket coaster built with inversions. With a launch speed of 75 MPH, it was also the slowest of the three rocket-coasters at the time,. Despite a few minor initial problems, it has been operating rather reliably since it was built. As with the other two rocket coaster installations, it took some time to “tune” the launch, and there were some minor breakdowns in its first couple of months of operation, but it soon became as reliable as any other coaster in the park.
That brings us to this year. 2005 has brought us the debut of three new rocket coasters, including one that exceeds the height and speed of Top Thrill Dragster. Kanonen at Liseberg in Denmark and Rita:Queen of Speed at Alton Towers in England debuted in April of this year, and with launch speeds of 46 MPH and 61 MPH, respectively, the coasters experienced very few problems aside from some minor “tuning” required to ensure even and appropriate acceleration. However, the current “king” of roller coasters, Kingda Ka, located at Six Flags Great Adventure, has not been as fortunate. Despite no reported construction delays, the coaster ended up debuting almost a month later than expected, and its reliability has mirrored that of Dragster’s first season. Six Flags has also added an announcement portion to Six Flags Great Adventure’s website that updates guests as to the status of the coaster. As I reported over the weekend, Kingda Ka experienced a “major” malfunction that has caused it to be out of service for the foreseeable future. Six Flags has announced that the ride is expected to be down for “several weeks.” The primary problem seems to stem from a liner that covers the inside of the trough that the launch cable travels through. During a test run, the liner came loose, and the train did not accelerate correctly down the launch track. Since the train was not accelerating properly, the brake fins, which normally pop up in sequence as the train passes through each zone of fins, actually began to engage in the zone that the train was still traveling through, and began to slow the train. The engine, which is supposed to adjust the train speed throughout the launch process, attempted to compensate by dragging the train through the brakes, and ended up damaging a number of brake fins as a result as the train came to a halt at the end of the launch section. The reason that the liner came loose is not yet known, and the damage caused by accelerating the train through the brake fins will take some time to repair. Because of the incident on Kingda Ka, Cedar Point has temporarily closed Top Thrill Dragster until Intamin can ascertain the cause of the malfunction.
To top things off, Alton Tower’s Rita has created a bit of controversy of its own, as a rider has apparently been injured as a result of the 61 MPH launch. A 12 year old rider was treated for sprained wrists after riding the rocket coaster. A week after the incident, the young girl was still experiencing pain, and was found to have broken wrists. I’m not sure how riding a roller coaster can break your wrists unless you have osteogenesis imperfecta. One has to wonder what this rider would have broken riding any of the launching coasters in this country. While the injury has nothing to do with the design of the coaster, it does put another black mark on the rocket coaster’s record.
Around most coaster fan circles, Intamin AG is regarded as one of, if not the top ride manufacturer in the world. They not only build coasters, but they also design and construct drop towers, flume rides, and many other theme park attractions. However, despite how much fans love their rides, Intamin has not had the best track record when it comes to reliability and even safety, and those problems are not limited to rocket coasters. A number of their safety problems have come as a result of poor restraint design. Perilous Plunge, a “shoot the chutes” ride at Knott’s Berry Farm, had a very well publicized incident of a rider being ejected, and Superman: Ride of Steel at Six Flags New England had another incident of rider ejection. There have also been reliability and general design problems with a number of other coasters. Volcano: The Blast Coaster, at Paramount’s Kings Dominion, had problems achieving a fast enough launch speed to get a full train out of the top of the volcano, and actually ran with trains with half of the number of seats that it was originally designed during the first year of operation. Superman: Ride of Steel at Six Flags America and Six Flags Darien Lake had problems with the braking system that resulted in a number of collisions between trains. Superman: The Escape at Six Flags Magic Mountain held the height and speed record for quite a few years, but it requires so much power to run, and has had so many problems during operation, that it has been out of service more than it has run over its 8 year history.
A lot of critics, including myself, have pointed the finger at the parks for building these massive coasters that are so technologically advanced that you need a PhD to keep them running. However, taking a long look, I think the industry may have a systemic problem with the manufacturer in this case. While other coaster manufacturers have had some reliability problems, no one has had the sheer number or severity of problems that Intamin has experienced. Are they moving too fast? Intamin has built 74 roller coasters and a number of other types of rides over their history. While the number of coasters is not surprising, it’s the number of different types of coasters that is startling, and the different systems required for each coaster, in addition to the other theme park attractions that they have built. B&M has built 61 roller coasters in its history. While B&M has a number of different coaster types, the ride systems are very similar, and only one (Hulk) has a launch system. Intamin has two different types of launching coasters (hydraulic and LIMs), and even the LIMs coasters have slightly different launching protocols. Intamin also chooses to construct coasters that are cutting edge, with four coasters that exceed 90 MPH and 300 feet tall, while B&M stays pretty conservative with its tallest and fastest coaster at 80 MPH and 230 feet tall.
Is Intamin taking coaster design too far too fast?
The evidence would support that thesis, as seen by the number of coasters that take months to “break in” and operate reliably. Also, Intamin has built coasters that just don’t work properly when constructed (Flashback at Six Flags Magic Mountain) and many that take months to re-engineer on site (Volcano and Xcelerator). Intamin has also had more “recalls” than the Ford Explorer when it comes to restraints. There have been a number of redesigns of the mega-coaster restraints in response to incidents that has now resulted in a restraint that is more like a leg vice than a restraint (see all installations of Superman: Ride of Steel and Millennium Force). Intamin’s engineers seem to do more work after a coaster is constructed than before ground is broken. A number of their major problems have been limited to their record breaking coasters, which leads me to believe that maybe Intamin is stretching their limits too far to try to gain notoriety. While theme parks are in constant competition with each one looking for a way to top each other’s best attraction, Intamin cashes in by continuing to expand the envelope of what is possible. Coaster fans are always looking for a bigger and better thrill, and Intamin has been providing them for the past ten years with faster and bigger machines every year.
Those fans don’t want to hear this, but maybe we should take a step back and slow the pace a bit. It doesn’t do any coaster fan any good to travel thousands of miles to try to ride a coaster that is not working. If the reliability of a coaster is the same as getting heads or tails on a coin flip, that’s a serious problem that needs to be addressed by the manufacturer, and I’m beginning to think that the parks are just pawns in a game of coaster one-upsmanship. Intamin has two more rocket coasters scheduled to open over the next year (Superman: The Ride at Warner Brother’s Movie World in Australia and Stealth at Thorpe Park in England) which are going to both be “smaller” coasters with top speeds of 62 MPH and 80 MPH, respectively. However, there’s still that crazy rumor going around that a coaster topping the 500-foot barrier is on the way for Six Flags Magic Mountain. I understand the need to keep building bigger and faster, but what coaster manufacturers should be focusing on, Intamin in particular, is building a better coaster. Your average coaster fan is typically looking for numbers and stats, but a statistic that manufacturers should look at is reliability. Every time I ride Loch Ness Monster, I look at a board inside the station that displays the basic stats for the coaster (60 MPH, first coaster with interlocking loops, 3240 feet of track), but the one line that always gets me is the number of hours the coaster has operated and number guests the coaster has carried in its history. Intamin’s coasters may be bigger and faster, but many other coaster manufacturers have roller coasters that will run laps around Intamin coasters when it comes to operational hours and ridership.