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Notes from the Curator's Office:

What Ever Happened to the Monorail?

The 1964/65 World's Fair in New York City pictured the monorail as the rail line of tomorrow.

Ever since my kids were small I've read to them pretty much every night. It's a practice I recommend to any parent. Not only does it help to make a lifelong reader, it creates a special time for child and parent to bond. I especially enjoy introducing some of my favorite books I enjoyed as a young person to my own kids.

One we read recently was Tom Corbett Space Cadet: Standby for Mars! This book from the 50's actually predated my own childhood, but a copy was left lying around the house by my older brothers, so I wound up reading it. I have to say the plot - a group of adolescent boys training to be spacemen in a future era when Venus and Mars have been colonized - holds up pretty well. One of the interesting aspects of reading older science fiction like this is to compare the writer's vision of the future against our reality. What technology has appeared that he couldn't predict? For example, computers play no major role in the equipment pictured in the book. Today you might expect some computerized controls in a spaceship capable of interplanetary travel. Fifty years ago, however, the only computers around were huge main-frames that took up entire floors of buildings. The thought that one of these behemoths might fit into the cockpit of a rocket was probably ludicrous to the writer at the time. Of course, today we know that this same amount of processing power can reside in the PDA you carry in your shirt pocket.

The book also carries examples of technology that was expected to be widespread, but so far have not shown up. Throughout the novel, when the characters aren't rocketing through space, they ride from place to place on an extensive monorail system. That got me thinking. A lot of science fiction books of the era seemed to expect that monorails would place an important part in passenger transportation as the new millennium neared. Many exhibits that looked toward the future such as the 1964/65 World's Fair in New York and Disneyland's Tomorrow Land also featured monorails. Yet, here we are, almost seven years into the 21st century, and I'm still not riding one of these sleek, elevated, bullet-nosed trains to work. Whatever happened to the monorail?

The monorail has a long history. This steam-powered train served the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876.

Now I'm not talking about the type of "novelty" monorails you might see at a zoo or an amusement park. Those are great, I love to ride them, and they can be very effective at giving people a bird's-eye view of the grounds without building a massive support track. What I'm thinking about here, though, are monorails as a part of a transit system meant to carry people from place to place in the same way a trolley, bus or commuter train does.

The Monorail Society

Probably the best place to find out about the current status of monorails is the Monorail Society (www.monorails.org). The Monorail Society is a group of people who love monorails, think they would help to solve a plethora of transportation problems, and do what they can to promote them. The site includes information about pretty much every transit monorail system in the world, as well as technical information about the different types of monorails there are and how they work.

One of the first things the site helped me figure out was just what a monorail exactly is. You might think (to steal a phrase from Justice Steward) "you know one when you see one," but that's not necessarily true. The society defines a monorail as:

A single rail serving as a track for passenger or freight vehicles. In most cases rail is elevated, but monorails can also run at grade, below grade or in subway tunnels. Vehicles are either suspended from or straddle a narrow guideway. Monorail vehicles are wider than the guideway that supports them.

So being sleek and bullet-like isn't really the criteria. For example, the BART system from the San Francisco bay area is sleek, elevated in parts, and futuristic looking, but because it runs on two tracks, it's just really a slicker version of the trolley lines that appeared at the end of the 19th century.

Monorails can be suspended from the track as well has riding on top. The Wuppertal Schwebebahn has been operating commercially in Cologne, Germany since 1901.

On the other hand, the Seattle Center monorail, which was constructed in 1962 in conjunction with the World's Fair, does qualify as a monorail system. It has a single rail and an elevated mile-long track that connects downtown Seattle with Seattle Center (home of the Space Needle and various theaters and museums). The Seattle line is probably the best-known monorail connected with a city and has been a popular part of the skyline for years. Still, it remains only one of a handful of monorails in North America used for transit. It's my perception that when an idea like this doesn't catch on quickly, there usually a reason for it. Either it's too expensive, technically unworkable or undesirable for some other reason. Is that the case here?

The people at the Monorail Society say that's not the problem and list all the wonderful reasons why these trains should be adopted. First, they are relatively cheap to build. In the best situations you can just dig a series of holes, drop in a few pylons, bring in some pre-built rails and lift them into position with a cane, then wire the whole thing up and you are running. Compare that with the expense and complexity of preparing a rail line where every foot of the right-of-way needs to be cut or filled to be made level, ties need to be heavily supported to take the weight of the trains, the ground needs proper drainage, street crossings need signals and gates, etc..

Secondly, monorails are environmentally friendly and safe. The elevated track allows much of the ground below to be undisturbed. Also the rails create much less of a shadow on the land than an elevated road or train line. The above-grade track also removes any chance of the train colliding with surface traffic or running over pedestrians. The design of most monorails, either straddling or hanging from the guideway, virtually eliminates the possibility of derailment, too.

So with all this going for it, why are there no monorails in most cities?

I decided to contact the president of the Monorail Society, Kim Pedersen. Mr. Pedersen is a huge monorail fan. Not only has he studied monorails for the last eighteen years, but he has built a miniature monorail, large enough for himself to ride in, around his backyard garden. Now, when I run into this kind of dedication - a person willing to spend the time and expense not to mention brave the raised eyebrows of friends and neighbors, to pursue his interests in such a tangible way, I know I've found an expert on the subject.

Why No Monorails?

The modern Kuala Lumpur monorail. (Image by Calvin Teo. Released under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License)

So I asked him about his thoughts on the regrettable lack of monorails. "Unfortunately, I haven't been able to pinpoint it down to one reason. I think it's a combination of factors and it depends on which proposal we're talking about as far as importance of each reason." Pedersen has found that the following apprehensions, however, usually come up about a monorail proposal:

There aren't any transit monorails, we shouldn't build something that hasn't been proven. This is an oft-cited concern according to Pedersen. "It's a ludicrous reason, but it sticks for some reason. This is despite the fact that there are dozens of successful transit monorails around the world… Monorails are perceived as new, experimental and untried. Not enough people are aware of the many transit monorails in operation today along with their proven track record."

A lot more people can make a lot more money if light rail or subway is built. According to Pedersen, this is "something some transportation experts have whispered to us over the years…The conventional rail industry has established a stronghold and monorail is often discouraged by consultants. Familiar large firms recite the same untruths about monorail in city after city when rail is being studied for implementation and they eliminate monorail in the early stages of planning." You might expect that in this situation those companies that build monorails might conduct a publicity campaign to help their product, but Pedersen says, "Most manufacturers of monorails build all kinds of rail systems besides their monorail product. If your city wants a more expensive technology than monorail or if their consultant steers them in another direction, manufacturers are all-too-happy to oblige by selling them something more expensive."

Elevated rail stigma. "People think of noisy trains and overbearing structures like Chicago's EL," says Pedersen. "They don't always realize monorail has elegant structures with very narrow guideways (small shadows) and extremely quiet trains (rubber tires on concrete)." Anyone who has been to both Disney World and New York City can testify to the huge difference between steel and rubber wheels. Just imagine the monorail quietly gliding through the atrium of the Contemporary Hotel compared to the screech of a NYC subway train entering its station.

The Disney Factor

Monorails and submarines cross paths in this picture from an old Disneyland brochure. Did the identification of the monorail with theme parks keep it from becoming a serious transit mechanism?

There's another reason that Pedersen didn't list but is an acknowledged hindrance to installing a real monorail transit system. I like to call it the "Disneyland" factor. Though the idea of a monorail dates back to the early 19th century, the monorail installed in Disneyland when it opened in 1959 with its sleek futuristic looks caught the public's attention like no other monorail has since then. With another, larger, line installed at Disney World in Florida and copies built at other amusement parks throughout the world, the monorail has now been forever coupled with the idea of a theme park.

And therein lies the rub. In peoples' minds, monorails are theme-park rides,. not solutions to real world transit problems. You can imagine the position of a manager in charge of building a new transit system. He's presented with proposals to build a system based on conventional rail technology verses monorail technology. The monorail is cheaper, nicer, way more cool, but suppose his project runs into problems, as almost any large project does. If he is building a conventional rail system, he can just point to countless other projects in other cities that had snags too. That's to be expected. But if his monorail project runs into problems he risks his opponents sneering "Well, what do you expect! He built a theme park ride!" With their jobs and reputations on the line, it isn't hard to see why most managers would recommend building something perceived to be proven, even at the risk of spending more money for a lesser system.

Pedersen doesn't see the situation changing, at least in the United States, in the near future. "Internationally, we're seeing a lot more monorails being planned and built though, and there's always hope that the USA gets out of its third-world transit status. Then again, high-speed rail started in Japan in 1964, we're still waiting for that too. I am encouraged by the enthusiasm people/citizens have for monorail however," he continues, "and sooner or later something may take off. All we need is one non-resort system to be successful here, similar to Kuala Lumpur monorail, then officials of other cities will 'get it.'"

Viva Las Vegas

It may be that the best hope for the monorail in North America now resides in - perhaps the most unexpected of places - Las Vegas. If there is any place in the world that is a cross between a theme park and a city, Las Vegas qualifies. Perhaps here the monorail can finally make the jump. A short system was originally installed in 1995 and was extended in 2004 to a length of four miles with seven stations. The line, which covers much of the famed Las Vegas strip, uses the same technology as the trains at Disney World and carries up to 30,000 passengers a day - a respectable load for any small transit system. The Las Vegas system is also fully automated and needs no drivers for the trains, which lowers the cost, making it even more attractive to other locations that might want to try the technology.

The Las Vegas monorail trains have been painted to promote different sponsors.

Not that the Las Vegas system didn't go through some rough spots. During 2004, it was shut down for four months because parts kept falling off the trains onto the street below, hardly a situation that inspired confidence. This problem was eventually resolved, however, and ridership has been increasing ever since with over 704,000 passengers enjoying the line in April of 2006, This is short of projected goals, but the monorail still has had the support of many of the hotels, casinos and businesses, some of whom sponser parts of the system. My personal favorite is the "Borg" train that has been painted to draw attention to the Hilton's Star Trek Experience. Who wouldn't want to ride in a monorail car covered with colorful aliens inside and out?

City-to-city monorail lines may also be on the horizon as the sky gets overcrowded with air-traffic and security checks make visits to the airport a nightmare. MAGLEV technology, which allows the trains to float above the track on a magnetic field, is very attractive when coupled with monorail-type tracks. With no friction from wheels, MAGLEV trains can obtain speeds of 300 mph or more - nearly that of an airliner. Because keeping a train traveling at that speed on its track is a major consideration, using a monorail, which virtually eliminates derailments, makes a lot of sense. One MAGLEV monorail has been successfully operating in passenger service in Shanghai, China, since 2004, and it seems likely that others will follow.

So, hopefully things are looking up for the monorail and in the not too distant future perhaps more of us will have a chance to board these trains. They seem to have lots of positives and few drawbacks. Also, they might be key to saving our cities and preserving our environment. As Kim Pedersen notes, "…they have sex appeal that no other form of rail really has, perhaps enough to get Joe Citizen out of his SUV and take the monorail downtown instead."

Copyright 2006 Lee Krystek. All Rights Reserved.

 

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