While wooden coasters defined their place as the classic coaster experience, the only constant to this experience has been change. They have gotten bigger, faster, with more forceful elements. Just like other industries once they got rolling the pace of change accelerated. The wooden coaster is constantly changing to push new boundaries, but the latest development seems to be steel. This has led to simpler maintenance, launches, and even inversions. Does this shift just make wooden coasters, steel coasters?
There are currently three active firms who design and build wooden coasters; Gravity Group, RMC & GCI, and they have all been expanding their reliance on steel. Gravity Group, the makers of the first inverting wooden coaster, have been using steel to build support structures for years. This adaptation provided a more stable structure, less maintenance concerns, and a frame that could be fabricated off site and easily assembled. This was typically referred to as a hybrid wood coaster, but that term made a lot less sense once RMC showed up.
RMC is best known for their hybrid designs where they take an existing wooden coaster and re-imagine the layout with a steel track called Iron Horse, we will come back to that later. They also have made four wooden coasters using their Topper Track, a product that combines a substantial steel top that provides a surface for the road, guide, and up-stop wheels and a stack of laminate wood underneath. This Topper Track was first used as a maintenance product to smooth out sections of older wooden coasters that had become rough. This manufacturing technique allowed RMC to jump into the ground up wooden coaster model, and even though they have only built four each has been a record breaker or fist for its type. However they are about to drop down to three and a half?
One of the RMC wooden coasters, Lightning Rod at Dollywood, is having about 60% of it’s wooden Topper Track replaced with the all steel Iron Horse Track after only a few seasons of operation. This leads us to believe that the wooden track that they have developed could not do the same job as the steel track. This makes sense because wood is a natural material and cannot match the uniform nature of steel. This suggests that RMC has found a limitation, and their cost effective solution is steel. Cost of all materials has been going up, however the cost of lumber has been increasing at a faster rate than steel according to the National Home Builders Association. The cost of steel framing is still more expensive than wood however in the past it would typically cost about 9 times more for materials in a steel framed building than a wooden frame. Now the costs are getting closer where steel framed buildings have about twice the material cost compared to wood.
The durability of steel could justify the added cost, but it can also be assembled easier and faster lowering installation costs. This is another factor closing the cost gap. When applied to a structure dealing with the dynamic load of a roller coaster it's not surprising that wooden coasters have been increasing their reliance on steel for the support structure. However the wooden track is also becoming a lot more magnetic too. RMC’s topper track uses substantially more steel than a traditional wooden track that would only use flat strips of steel for the wheels to roll on was the first step. Then we have the confusion of what to call Lightning Rod, but we also have a third design firm GCI.
GCI has already been using more and more steel for their support structures just like Gravity Group and others from the past. They both have examples that have all steel structures, but with wooden tracks. We have discussed GCI’s upcoming product now called Titan Track in the past. It is similar in look to RMC’s steel track, but is initially being used like the Topper Track as a maintenance product. They installed a few sections onto White Lightning down at Fun Spot Orlando as a proof of concept. The result is a wooden coaster that has a small section of steel track replacing the wood track that would be beat up in high stress areas. Unlike the topper tack from RMC the Titan Track contains no wood at all. White Lightning has a steel support structure, so if the entire track was replaced the only wooden parts would become the catwalk that maintenance workers use to inspect the ride. Would this still be a wooden coaster? Is it the material or the style that defines a wooden coaster?
When we first became aware of the steel track being produced by GCI we speculated how it could be used. We now know they plan on marketing it as an alternative to wooden tracks for new construction, and a replacement product for rough wooden tracks, they even said they would use it to add elements to pre-existing layouts. This sounds a lot like the space RMC has been occupying. We know they already have a customer, as the Predator at Darien Lake will be receiving Titian Track on an unknown amount of its layout according to GCI owner Clair Hain Jr.. This could just be a method for lowering maintenance costs going forward, or it could be a way for Six Flags to test the track out. They did use the Topper Track on The Texas Giant before they extensively renovated it with the Iron Horse Track, changing the layout, and becoming the New Texas Giant. Could we see Six Flags giving GCI the go ahead in a few years to totally renovate and re-imagine older coasters? The Predator would be a great place to start.
So the question becomes, has the time come where wooden coasters will become extinct? Is there a reason for parks to keep this knowledge base of how to run, maintain and repair wooden coaster tracks? GCI could build all steel frames with their Titan Track that would essentially be a steel coaster with a wooden aesthetic, and that may become a very desirable thing for parks. There is an undeniable fact that there is a fun factor to wooden coasters. They provide a tactile experience, a nostalgic connection to the past, and in some cases provide a character that is more difficult to produce with steel. Modern wooden coasters have provided a cost effective and exciting addition for parks, but the lower initial cost vs the increased maintenance cost could be changing this dynamic in the years to come. Once the people who do this type of work stop, and they don’t pass this knowledge along, the skills are lost forever.