I was discussing transit with an acquaintance today, and mentioned monorail as one technology which could be used on certain corridors. This person stated that they thought monorail was “kitschy” and, perhaps realizing that subjective perception of aesthetic merit is a poor criterion for mode selection, proceeded to reach for other reasons to justify writing off monorail as a technology entirely.
I find these conversations to be somewhat aggravating, as the objections are the same ones I heard as an intern with the Seattle Monorail Project a dozen years ago.
“Monorails aren’t a proven technology”
Japan has had monorails in operation for nearly 50 years.
“Monorails can’t carry high numbers of people”
Tokyo-Haneda carries 120,000 a day. Chongqing carries 1.1 million on a system which is roughly a 50-50 split between monorail and subway.
“It takes a long time to switch trains”
No, segmented switches in use in Chongqing and Tokyo cycle in 5-6 seconds. And the suspended Shonan Monorail operates on a single track, relying on intermediate switches to maintain 8-minute headways throughout the day.
I used to field these questions all the time at public meetings. At the time, we thought their days would be numbered. Seattle would have its system, there would be a heavy urban transit monorail in operation with the US, ignorance would no longer be possible. Alas, the Seattle political process struck in the way that it always has, and after four votes in favor of the monorail a fifth took it away. (This isn’t new – in the 60’s, the Feds were prepared to cover most of the cost of a heavy rail system for Seattle. It was rejected, and the money was sent to Atlanta, where it created MARTA).
Meanwhile, Vegas built their line. And while it has decent ridership density (12,000 people over a four mile route), its location among the casinos does little to establish it as a “serious” transit line in the minds of people for whom “seriousness” matters as a criteria independent of such things as system capability, capital or O&M cost.
I was thinking about this when it occurred to me: this sort of myopia isn’t unique to monorail. In fact, it has afflicted many transit modes.
Consider, for instance, Skybus. Skybus was first-generation AGT, developed from scratch by Westinghouse. Automated, driverless, rubber-tired trains would run every 6 minutes, replacing Pittsburgh’s decrepit streetcar system. Skybus came very close to being a reality, but was ultimately killed by political infighting. Pittsburgh instead got a couple of light rail lines and a busway that no one rides, while the rest of the streetcar system was torn up.
But that wasn’t the end of the technology. While Westinghouse was unable to sell it to the transit operators, they did have some success with airport operators, installing the technology at SeaTac (1969) and Tampa International (1971). Over the years the technology passed through Adtranz to Bombardier, where it continues to be the predominant AGT design in the airport market.
Alas, Bombardier never re-marketed rapid-transit-sized rubber-tired AGT, likely because they also have the rights to the original Skytrain technology. But latecomers in other countries were successful; France’s MATRA was able to sell its VAL system to Lille and Toulouse, in addition to various airport clients. The technology passed to Siemens, who have installed line-haul AGTs in Taipei, Seoul, and Turin. Rubber-tired AGTs also made it big in Japan, with the Kobe Port Liner, the Saitama New Shuttle, the Nippori-Toneri Liner, Yurikamome Line and Yokohama Seaside line all carrying substantial passenger loads.
Up in Canada, Vancouver has continued to build out their Skytrain system. But when the contract for the most recent line was tendered, rules were adopted that expressly prohibited consideration of cost savings resulting from using the same technology as the rest of the system. Thus in 2009 the Canada Line opened not with steel-wheeled LIM-powered AGT, but with traditional third-rail powered EMUs. Meanwhile, the only substantial implementations of the Skytrain tech outside Vancouver have been in Beijing, Seoul, and Kuala Lampur.
You see the pattern here. Southeast Asian cities look at a rapid transit line, consider all the technologies available, and then make a decision. But Americans (and to a lesser extent Canadians) seem to first run transit decisions through a filter which excludes anything that’s not “serious,” meaning anything that isn’t substantially identical to the transit technology that was installed in east coast cities a century ago.
So Seattle adopts LRT and then ends up with a giant concrete bathtub where they could’ve had two slender monorail beams instead. Pittsburgh adopts LRT and then never expands it, because the city is too hilly to do so without new tunnels. And all across the US, we’re having very earnest discussions about streetcars, which have an average speed of approximately two miles per hour and can generally be outpaced by everyone from novice cyclists to Rascal scooter owners. Meanwhile, Kuala Lampur’s monorail is so popular that they’re extending the platforms to allow longer trains.
Why is this so?