The O-Bahn Busway – Obscure Transit For The Masses

Credit: Lewin Day

Around the world, governments and city planners have long struggled with the issue of transport. Getting people where they need to be in a timely fashion is key to making a city a comfortable, attractive place to live. As far as public transport is concerned, this typically consists of buses on the roads, and trams and trains on rails.

Down in the city of Adelaide, Australia, things get a little muddled, however. Nestled in a river valley lies a special  transportation network known as the O-Bahn, where buses ride on concrete rails and the drivers can even take their hands off the wheel. The system remains a rarity worldwide, and was spawned by a perfect storm of conflicting requirements.

A Child of Circumstance

In the 1970s, the South Australian government found itself backed into a corner. Facing a booming population in the north-eastern suburbs, new transport links with greater capacity were needed to get people to the central business district. Original plans from the 1960s had called for more freeways to be built all over the city to solve the problem. In the face of stiff public opposition, legislation was passed in 1970 blocking the construction of any new freeways for a full decade, forcing the government to consider alternatives.

O-Bahn buses passing at speed near Stephens Terrace. Buses formerly reached speeds up to 100 km/h on the network; this was dropped to 85 km/h in 2012, adding 20 seconds to the average run. Credit: Lewin Day

Despite plans being shelved, a corridor of land stretching from the city to the north-east had already been acquired for freeway construction. This was retained, and studies were commissioned to determine the best transportation solution to suit the needs of the area. The “North East Adelaide Public Transport Review” suggested light-rail or a busway would be the best solution.

Initial plans were proposed to link the north-east with a light-rail tramway that would connect with the existing tramline from the city proper to Glenelg in the west. However, the City of Adelaide protested the plan, believing that extending the existing tramline to the east would damage the city’s carefully planned structure.  Plans were made to rectify this by running part of the line underground, massively increasing costs, and the proposal was shelved.

It was at this time, the guided busway in Essen, Germany came to the attention of the state government. Aiming to help reduce congestion by allowing buses to share tram tunnels, it began as a demonstration which later developed into the Spurbus network. The system offered lower cost and higher flexibility than light rail, and avoided the need to carve up the city to hook in to the existing light rail network. Had Adelaide laid out its existing heavy or light rail networks differently, the O-Bahn might not have gotten a look in. However, back in the early 1980s, it was an easy solution in a sea of difficult choices.

It Drives Like It’s On Rails

Articulated buses are commonly used on the O-Bahn Busway. Credit: Beneaththelandslide, copyrighted free use

The O-Bahn was designed around the concept of the curb-guided busway, a type of public transportation system rarely implemented in practice. Indeed, it’s very name comes from the combination of the German words for bus (omnibus) and path (bahn).

Rather than trains riding on rails or buses driving on normal roads, the O-Bahn consists of a concrete track which the buses drive upon. To enable the thoroughfare to be as narrow as possible without compromising safety, the track has large curbs. Buses are then outfitted with guide wheels, which ride along the curbs and control the steering when the bus is on the track.

Close-up of the rubber guide wheel used to steer the bus when riding the O-Bahn track. Credit: Beneaththelandslide, copyrighted free use

There are many compelling benefits to the guided busway concept, and the O-Bahn in particular. With the buses being guided by the track, there’s no need for steering or the wide lanes you’d find on a typical road. This allows for the construction of an O-Bahn busway in a much narrower space than would typically be practical, while still allowing travel in both directions.

Additionally, the precast concrete tracks are much cheaper and easier to build than laying conventional railroad tracks. Vehicles that ride on the tracks need only minor modifications to fit guide wheels; this can be achieved easily with virtually any passenger bus. The dedicated tracks allow the buses to maintain high speeds, rather than being stuck in the same congestion as other road vehicles. But, as a bonus, since the system relies on lightly-modified buses, the vehicles can serve dual duty, driving on normal roads as well as the O-Bahn track. This allows services to take advantage of the high-speed dedicated network, and then seamlessly transition on to suburban streets, delivering passengers to their destinations without requiring transfers.

The system does come with some disadvantages, however. Buses tend not to last as long as trains, requiring more regular replacement and maintenance. Additionally, trains generally have a higher capacity and are able to deal with larger numbers of passengers per day. Finally, there’s the always-amusing attempts drivers make to navigate the O-Bahn track in regular passenger cars – usually by accident.

Despite many warning signs, between one and four motorists finds themselves stuck on the track each year. Often, the car falls into the center of the track, or ends up sideways, blocking traffic in both directions. There are no known successful attempts of unauthorized civilian vehicles reaching an O-Bahn station via the track; this author, and many others, dream of achieving such a feat one day. To do so, a high-riding vehicle is a must – a heavy duty sump-buster installed at the Hackney Road entrance will rip the oil pan out of the average passenger car.

Tough Comparisons

The system is often compared to Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), a highly effective system that gives buses dedicated rights-of-way and other features to improve service quality. However, the O-Bahn’s special tracks avoid the problem that has stifled BRT for decades – where local municipalities begin to take away separated bus lanes away over time, repurposing them for general traffic. This quickly kills the efficiency of a BRT system, and happens so often it has a name – BRT creep – and its own Wikipedia article.

The system carries an estimated 31,000 riders each day on average, and has been the most consistent public transport network in the post-privatization years since the 1990s. Credit: Lewin Day

The O-Bahn does share many commonalities though – high speeds, physically separated tracks, and specialized “stations” instead of “stops”. One thing the O-Bahn could learn from the BRT handbook, however, is off-board fare payment. Currently, in line with all other buses in the Adelaide region, ticket purchase and validation is done upon boarding. This can cause significant delays during high traffic periods. Unfortunately, given the O-Bahn’s integration with the rest of the bus network, implementing this would be impractical.

Overall, the O-Bahn has served the Adelaide region well, even if the idea hasn’t caught on worldwide. The buses are fast, mostly on time, and continued investment has been made to the system over the years, including a major improvement in city access with new tunnel construction in 2015. It’s likely the system will continue to serve the region for decades to come. No government could justify tearing up the track to replace it with rails when the concrete rails are cheap to maintain and new buses can be purchased whenever needed. While trams certainly would have felt a touch fancier, and a full-blown train line would have been a heavy duty solution, buses flying along concrete rails is an oddball concept that worked, and there’s nothing more Adelaide than that!

77 thoughts on “The O-Bahn Busway – Obscure Transit For The Masses

    1. shame the monorail concept never caught on. at least the one at disneyland is impressive. with cheap prefab concrete rail segments, narrow pylons that would be right at home in most highway medians. so that solves 2 problems with light rail systems right off the bat, cost of infrastructure and efficient land usage. of course that goes for anything you can stick on a pylon.

          1. @ Mild Lee: When the monorail was built, Sydney had the option to instead build light rail, which would have been cheaper. Sydney chose the monorail, only to tear it down later and install light rail. Public transport in Sydney has been a joke simce the 1960s. Wikipedia has the details :-)

  1. There’s also the guided busway in Cambridge, UK. Everyone wanted light rail interconnect to Cambridge stations, instead they got a bus that was fast where buses were already fast, and then came off the route to share the roads where the roads were already busy. Still, eventually they built an interconnection with the railway via a new railway station…

  2. It seems ripe to be electrified, and off board ticketing is not that difficult to implement, if but costly. I’ve been on a few bus systems that utilized card strip readers, and even some that would print paper cards with a magstrip. Could do RFID as well, regular users could do monthly plans, or even commuter plans for fixed routes.

    1. Or you can go the old fashioned way and put a human on the platform with tickets for sale and one of those waist mounted change dispensers. This works well because you can install these humans only when and where they are needed. Never forget that humans are also equipment

          1. “Get a different job at will”? Ha! You really think they didn’t close that loophole? Get ready to fight the thousands of other unwillingly unemployed who are applying for every position you try for.

          2. > thousands of other unwillingly unemployed

            This is called a labor mobility issue: people pack into cities expecting to be served at least a minimum welfare to stay there, and as a consequence there’s an over-abundance of non-educated low-skilled laborers competing for the same McJobs.

            There are jobs to be done everywhere, just not people willing to do them. We are so humane we’d rather subsidize them to live unemployed and uneducated in some crime ridden “projects” than put a shovel in their hands and tell them to go fix a bridge or anything.

          3. And of course, if the state expects to support a bunch of unemployed people on welfare indefinitely, it comes cheaper for the state as well to pack them into cities and projects, so the state too discourages people from actually doing anything useful. It’s basically a welfare trap, but we blame the capitalists instead.

          4. >fight the thousands of other unwillingly unemployed who are applying for every position

            There’s also the possibility to become an entrepreneur. Can’t get a job? Make up your own. There’s the mentality of “I can’t do anything unless somebody GIVES me a job!” – well, how do you think those jobs were made in the first place?

            But this is a no-no for the leftists, since being self-employed and starting your own business would mean you become part of the class that owns the means of production, even if only a tiny amount, and thereby you’re joining the enemy. You’re not supposed to do things for yourself – you’re supposed to join the miserable masses who are trying to get the government to do things for everyone. You know, for solidarity.

          5. Absolutely true, especially when you take into account that we (as in humanity) produce/have enough food, medicine and shelter so everyone could just live.

            In 1930 John Maynard Keynes predicted that his grandchildren would only have a 15-hour work week with an x-fold living standard.
            This has become true/possible for a minority today but thanks to the economics of brutal capitalism (one foundational component is greed) with practically no checks and balances (see e.g. mayor gambling crashes of banks in the last few decades) on a far to free market this actual possibility never came true for the majority of people.
            And under any capitalistic system will probably never come true (unless heavily regulated / limited which kinda defeats the personal wealth aspect).

            To all who think everyone needs to work and/or can work a living wage:
            In the stone age (or Middle Ages or whatever) practically every living human being needed to “work” every awake moment just to keep on living.
            Since then…. industrial revolutions one, two and three ++[1] …. jada jada jada …. (you get what I’m pointing at).

            Now keep in mind that the resources on/off earth are by definition limited and that infinite economic growth is impossible[2].

            How do you suggest every adult human on earth is supposed to have a job that is worth enough in a capitalistic economy?
            If anything the huge deficits in public health, schools, elder care, food production and so on which became more visible “thanks” to covid-19 are a glaring indicator that the most important jobs for society as a whole are next to worthless in such an economy.

            Just my two cents.


          6. >And under any capitalistic system will probably never come true (unless heavily regulated / limited

            Notice that the present “capitalist” system with corporate personhood and high wealth disparity is a creation of the state, defined and enabled by the state through law and regulations that favor certain businesses and groups of people with taxes and subsidies.

            People say, “If we had no state control, the corporations would just run people over!”, but the corporation happens to be a fictional legal entity created entirely by the state. It can only do what we say it can do in the first place, so when you’re pointing a blaming finger at “capitalism”, you’re actually pointing at a mirror.

            The only trick here is that the group of people who actually form the state benefit from a situation where there’s this conflict between “the people” and “capitalists”. This is an entirely made up situation in order to demand the existence of a strong controlling state, in other words, to demand the existence of a controlling political elite. It’s just modern day aristocracy.

          7. >How do you suggest every adult human on earth is supposed to have a job that is worth enough in a capitalistic economy?

            This is a question that cannot be answered by any economic system. Even in a perfect planned society, you will find that your resources are limited and you have to support some people who contribute nothing back to your system. Then you get to choose whether to support an idle class of people at the cost of everyone else, essentially playing favorites – or confine them down to restricted rations and barely sustaining living standards as de-facto prisoners of your society. The choice is your moral responsibility since you took the role of the controller, and the blame is yours as well.

            In a capitalist society, the fundamental idea is that everyone has the same liberty to make of their lives what they will. Whether they succeed or not is not a matter of the state, which has no moral authority in such matters.

        1. Alas, it’s more of a subscription model than rental. You have to pay for a full subscription, regardless of whether you need it full time or just occasionally. And if it breaks or otherwise stops working, you’ve still got to pay for the subscription.
          It’s like Adobe wrote labour laws.
          (I’m in Europe. YMMV in the US)

        2. Replying to Dude here since it’s nested too much to be able to do it:

          >People say, “If we had no state control, the corporations would just run people over!”, but the corporation happens to be a fictional legal entity created entirely by the state. It can only do what we say it can do in the first place, so when you’re pointing a blaming finger at “capitalism”, you’re actually pointing at a mirror.

          I can’t believe achieving my dreams was so easy. If something isn’t defined within the confines of the law, it cannot exist!
          For my next act, I will burn the law, which will remove all existing sexes and genders, which will create my perfect agender, hermaphrodite, society. And none of you can stop me !

          1. A corporation exists only as the law allows it to exist, otherwise it’s just a bunch of people like any other. Corporations have things like limited liability, corporate personhood, etc. because we say they do – and the problem is that these special privileges have been piled on over the years to make corporations more and more powerful, while insulating their owners from any repercussions.

            For example, up until 1855 in England, there was no such thing as limited liability. The people who owned the corporation were fully responsible for whatever financial damage caused. Even earlier before 1720, corporations could only exist through royal charter, so most of the business went on through voluntary unions and associations (partnerships and co-ops). Allowing corporations to be created by simple registration and limiting liability reduced the risk to the owners and allowed them to build larger and larger business empires, which helped create things like the railroad companies and kick off the industrial revolution, but even then it was recognized that these tycoons were abusing their privileges.

            >For my next act, I will burn the law

            Burning the law doesn’t erase things which aren’t created by legal fiction.

          2. For an example in the US, since corporations are “persons”, they are registered to “live” in a state, and the state in which they live determines where and how much tax they pay, among other things, which leads to a race to the bottom as each state competes to attract more corporations. The corporation becomes more important than the people to the state governments, because they’re paying money while the people cost money, so the politicians do everything they can to attract or keep corporations. This leads towards crony capitalism.

            In contrast, a country like Estonia has no corporate tax for undistributed income from trading, dividends, capital gains etc. The taxation of corporate profits is postponed until the profits are distributed as dividends or deemed to be distributed otherwise, so there’s no incentive for the government to favor corporations. Instead, for the government to gain anything, they have to push the corporations to pay the people. This leads away from crony capitalism.

            So, a simple difference in how the law treats corporations affects how corporations ultimately behave, because it makes a difference in how the government behaves towards the corporations. We tend to see the government as something we control, that we’re in charge of how the government behaves towards the corporations (e.g. “regulation”), but this is not actually true: the state is its own animal, and behaves to a very large degree independently of the people in any case. That’s why the real difference is made with the rule of law that binds both the government and the corporations, and why “regulation” never actually does what it says on the tin.

    2. I agree about the electrification, the bus could drive on batteries on city streets and recharge on the busway, this might work getting people from Scarborough to downtown Toronto on the DVP (check google maps).

    3. I live in Adelaide. Other than the electrification I can confirm all the other ticketing options are there. But no matter what form you take up, to need to *validate* your ticket on the bus / train. That’s the delay piece. Would be great to select a ticket on an app on your phone and just be billed for that.

      1. On many suburban train systems I’ve used, you validate on the platform. No reason they can’t put validation machines there. You tag off again when you reach your destination.

  3. > There are no known successful attempts of unauthorized civilian vehicles reaching an O-Bahn station via the track; this author, and many others, dream of achieving such a feat one day.

    Tweet Musk, I’m sure he’ll accept the challenge. Actually, isn’t that almost exactly what they did with the Tesla in a tunnel thing?

    1. Motorbike looks to be a good bet?

      Also “sump buster” is a great new word :)
      I presume the intent is that any vehicles able to pass it are non-civilian (at least in design, if not ownership). A pickup truck may be a good choice?

    2. That would be logical nightmare think 100s of cars going 90kms on a track one breaks down you gonna get dumbo(the o’ban towing truck) to pull your ass out while the whole track is cloged

  4. Adopt this idea for cars and trucks on highways, instead of the pipe-dream of self-driving cars. A simple mechanical steering arrangement like those buses ( or a big retractable pin on the car to make a 1:1 slotcar set!), simple distance-sensing for acceleration and brake. Warning systems for getting on and off the end of slotted sections.

    1. If the big retractable ping is doubled and you could get a 750V DC you have also solved the problem of recharging the batteries of an electric vehicle. Add sensors for safety an electricity metering and it could be used for private vehicles. Basicayy a veichle has to identify itself when entering on the track section, and if allowed, the track will be energized and the power used is metered, the ant the end of the moth an invoice is sent.

      1. >750V DC
        > down where people can touch it
        that’d definitely go well…

        Also, look at the current draw requirements for 1 car. Now multiply by a couple of hundred. Not feasible, at least not in any sane way. The cost of the bazzilion substations needed to make this workable would make maglev look like a cheap alternative compared to this.
        Using high voltage (25-ish kV) like trains do is also out, because that would make the safety even worse + the transformers (or DC-DC power supplies) would be heavy and expensive.

    1. public transport is essential though. not everyone in the working class can afford their own vehicle and going to work is essential for their continued survival. you cant exactly work from home if you have any kind of manual labor job. contrary to popular belief you wont get evicted or lose your job for not going to church and services can be streamed. it certainly has made the local liquor store a fortune due to everyone buying wine for diy communion. the hour after church shall hince fourth now be known as happy hour. i dont partake in religion myself, but i will help with the booze.

      1. The statistics here is, 70-80% of public transportation passengers are on some sort of travel subsidy: Schoolchildren, student, elderly, or unemployed.

        The working classes don’t use them. Taking the bus would add hours to the average commute because it simply doesn’t go where you need to.

        1. Which was btw. also the case with the state-owned rail service back before privatization. The ticket prices were jacked up in attempts to make the service run itself without re-structuring, after which the only people who actually took the train were subsidized by the state, and the occasional businessman who could write it off as travel expenses.

          Same as with the city-owned bus service. If I’m making a shopping trip to downtown and back, in single tickets it costs me 2-3x to travel by bus than by my own car. Since I need to have the car anyways, pay the insurance and everything, there’s absolutely no reason to take the bus, ever.

          1. The bus service where I live is some what of a joke. Despite a buss stop only just around the corner the way the trip is planned my stop is one of the first in the run in and last on the run out – so 10minute drive becomes a 45 minute scenic tour each way. If I drive I can be in and back before the buss has even made it to the city Centre

          2. >so 10minute drive becomes a 45 minute scenic tour

            And for someone to take that ride, they would cause 3-4 times as many passenger-miles than just driving straight to where you’re going.

            Which is another thing often (quite deliberately) neglected when estimating the efficiency of public transportation vs. private cars. The fuel demand and CO2 emissions etc. per passenger mile are lower, but the average commuter would rack up many more miles on-board the transport because they can’t take the shortest and quickest path.

            Public transportation looks good on paper, because only the people who find it convenient enough are taking the bus.

  5. “However, the City of Adelaide protested the plan, believing that extending the existing tramline to the east would damage the city’s carefully planned structure. Plans were made to rectify this by running part of the line underground, massively increasing costs, and the proposal was shelved.”

    Well isn’t that ironic, within the last five years, part of the o-bahn now runs underground, and the tram line has been extended to the east. Not that there weren’t a few protesters who went kicking and screaming though.

    Still, the o-bahn has been serving us well for the last thirty years..

    1. lol

      let’s not forget the trams used to run up Magill, Kensington, Payneham roads and the Parade
      that is why those roads are so wide for most of the way to the foothills
      where the tunnel is now is where the tram used to leave the city

      we had a great tram system, until it was killed by greed

      the recent extension was meh, they should have kept going all the way up Magill and Payneham road

      1. It’s still in the pipe line apparently, though won’t start until after 2022 apparently. There is also plans to expand in to North Adelaide, however the Adelaide Bridge needs to be fixed first. And the airport line, via Henley Beach Rd is also still planned. Oh, and the city loop.

  6. this is my city and I’ve taken those very bus routes in the photos.

    O’ban is great love it I’ve moved to another part of town tho and now take the train in the city it i can get very loud and one thing you dont hear about the trains is our trains go 80kmh but our O’ban buses go 90kmh.

  7. I use the Obahn all the time. It’s how I get into the city. And my bus stop, off the o’bahn, is right outside my flats. It’s wonderful, wooshing along through the trees, over creeks and rivers, past joggers, dog walkers, and waving kids, and then boomph, into town, off the tracks, past the botanic park, through the tunnel, and right into the heart of our little city. Since coronavirus you can’t buy tickets on any of the buses but you can recharge them online and it’s mostly free for me cos I’m old. It’s just fun.

  8. To me, this seems like a scaled up version of the concrete and rubber-tired bus-trains that shuttle passengers around from terminal to terminal or even within larger terminals at many airports around the world (off the top of my head, examples include SFO, DFW, IAH, SIN, NRT, DEN, etc.). I know there are more and I’m pretty sure I remember at least one European airport I’ve been to having one, but I can’t recall it off the top of my head. I don’t recall encountering any examples in Africa or South America and I can’t speak with any certainty about Australia as my airport interactions there were fairly limited and it was only one trip.

  9. So, ALMOST as many of the downsides of every idiot ‘needing’ to drive their car everywhere, with none of the upsides of actual train travel (like higher efficiencies, drastically lowered maintenance, etc…)

    Yeah that’s a GREAT idea!

    1. it is a great idea

      the track needs way less maintenance than a metal railway

      the buses use way less diesel

      it is in a place where a railway would never have been allowed to go ahead

      that being said, our extensive rail and tram network was ripped up so cars could be sold…

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