Wed, Jan
14
2004

Monorail! Monorail! Monorail!

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What if I told you that there was a way we can solve all of Toronto's congestion problems with just a small amount of cash? What if I told you that we could rewrite the ledgers of public transit throughout the GTA with a special new technology. What if I told you that there was a vehicle available that had the efficiency of a subway, was cheaper than light rail, and was the way of the future? You'd ask me for proof. Then what if I told you that the proof was hard to come by because there was a vast conspiracy of economic interests dedicated to promoting subways, light rails or even private automobiles over my newfound technology? What would my credibility be then? Unfortunately, in my limited experience, I have come across similar proponents backing monorail projects for every city in North America bigger than the town of Barrie.

I'm being unfair to the majority of the people who campaign for monorails. It is an underused technology that many planners tend to overlook. It's true that, when people think of monorails, they tend to think of the system at Disney World, or the various airport people-movers and other toy trains of limited usefulness, which isn't an accurate or fair perception. There are some venerable monorail systems operating in the world and there are uses for this technology that are being overlooked because of the monorail's chintzy reputation, but the minority that foams at the mouth reduces the majority's credibility.

On a transit-related mailing list I belong to, a monorail proponent came forward, pushing his technology and making a number of bold claims: that monorail systems are always cheap to build, that monorail systems always make a profit, that monorail systems are always less intrusive and cheaper to build than light rail lines and subways. You can fit them into the city as effectively as a Chicago elevated train, and they don't blot out the sun the way Chicago's Ls or light rail overhead does. Monorails are paragons of safety (unlike light rail) and not a single death has ever been attributed to a monorail system.

All of his points were debatable (and, the last one, flat out wrong), and when he started getting really down on light rail technology, the group began to debate him. He did not take it very well.

Subways and streetcars may be one-hundred-year-old technology, but they exist to this day because they work as effectively as hammers beat in nails. They are the simplest means of moving large numbers of people around. Monorails are themselves one-hundred-year-old technology, but they are not as prevalent in the world because the need to balance a car over (or under) a single piece of track makes the equipment more complicated; like a mechanical hammer, more opportunities exist for things to go wrong. Switching is possible, but a chore.

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I've always found the argument that monorails didn't blot out the sun as much as elevated subways or light rail overhead to be especially funny. Elevated subways I can see, but because most light rail lines operate on the ground, complaints of sky obstruction here generally rest on long lengths of thin copper wire. Monorails are not elevated subways, but their tracks are still two-foot-wide concrete beams, and monorail proponents don't tell us much about what monorail stations look like. Rapid transit platforms, be they subway or monorail, have to be wide in order to address capacity issues, and they have to be long enough to serve at least one train. The sun blocking abilities of monorail stations, unless they're built into buildings (possible but rare) would equal that of any of Chicago's elevated stations.

Then there is the issue of monorail systems always making money, unlike subways or light rail vehicles. Pure wishful thinking. Basically, this comes down to the fact that monorails can be automated, throwing at least one driver out of work and saving the transit agency the cost of his wage. Light rail vehicles can't do this because they operate next to cars and pedestrians, and somebody has to be at the controls to make split second decisions. However, subways can be automated just like monorails; the TTC has already assessed the costs of doing this (as part of possibly installing platform doors on all of Toronto's subway stations to improve safety) and already operates the Scarborough RT by computer (the driver's only job is to watch the platforms and to push a button to tell the computer that the vehicle is ready to depart). The decision whether or not to put a human at the controls is political, not technological, and there are plenty of reasons why a transit agency would want to keep a human operator on board. It's also important to note that Vancouver's rapid transit system operates fully automatically, with no drivers, and it loses money just like all other transit systems in North America.

In the end, the fervent monorail proponent was unconvinced by our arguments, and promised that we would eventually "see". And, finally, we are all about to "see". The technology is finally getting the North American testing it deserves as two real monorail-driven rapid transit systems are well on their way to completion. Now we don't have to talk about theory, we can see monorails in practise. And in practise they look... mortal.

Las Vegas is building a monorail network connecting various hotels on the Strip. The project is going well, using Bombardier equipment and coming in on time and under budget (revenue service begins March 1st). So, does the technology work? Yes. Will it effectively move people? Most probably. Was any public money spent on this project? Nope! (The line was completely funded by Bombardier and prominent Las Vegas hotels). Is it cheap? Nope.

Estimates for the Las Vegas monorail suggest that the project has cost $650 million US to build, almost a billion dollars in Canadian funds, or $135 million per kilometre of track: roughly the price of building building the Sheppard subway. Toronto can build LRTs for less than $25 million per kilometre. The Las Vegas monorail also has very specific reasons for its construction; the hotel strip of Las Vegas is all about glitz and glamour, and so a glitzy, glamourous, high tech solution such as a monorail is appropriate here, even though a subway or an LRT could work as effectively (and more cheaply in the LRT's case). Cities which don't have these considerations (like Toronto), are just as likely, if not moreso, to stick with tried and true solutions that already exist in their current network.

More troubling to monorail proponents should be Seattle, which is building a $100 million/km monorail network to act as a real, publically funded rapid transit system, complementing a series of light rail lines and busways. Monorail proponents built from the success of a short line that opened for an Exposition back in 1962, and won the right to raise taxes and build a 14 mile "phase 1" line through the city.

Over a year since the budget measure was approved, however, and the monorail has run into controversy. The revenue raised by the tax measure was lower than expected. Questions have been raised about the size of the pilons required to support the tracks. People have started to complain about the intrusiveness of elevated monorail stations and monorail tracks compromising the open skies of a key public space (so much for not blotting out the sun).

The monorail has even run into difficulties the critics didn't expect. For example, in all of the debate over the merits of Seattle's monorail, not once did the engineers consider what to do to avoid snow and ice build-up along the track (which affects monorail traction as much as an icy road affects that of a bus). When this issue was raised, the first solution (equip a monorail car with a plough and a sander to shove the snow off the concrete rail -- running 40 feet above roadways and sidewalks -- and dump sand) provided hilarious descriptions of the consequences and another dose of bad PR for the project.

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(The Monorail Society has tried to combat this bad PR by providing photographs of Moscow monorails operating in snow, but they sort of miss the point. We don't question monorails' ability to operate in snow, but whether they can be kept from inadvertantly knocking blocks of snow and icicles on people in the streets 40 feet below without substantially adding to the system's already inflated costs?)

This last controversy effectively deflates the argument that monorails are substantially safer than other forms of mass transit. Although the technology is as safe as a subway (with its number of accidents decreased by the fact that few monorails exist compared to subways) there have been deaths associated with monorails. Any piece of technology can go wrong, as was shown when the original Seattle monorail failed, leaving 250 riders suspended in mid-air for over an hour. Evacuating a vehicle is more difficult when it's dozens of feet in the air instead of on the ground, or inside a tunnel, where the floor is only a short jump from the doors. The more complicated the technology, the more opportunities for things to go wrong.

The Seattle monorail will still be built, and it will still move passengers. I predict that ridership will be high and the line will become a vital component of that city's transportation network, well-suited to the city's rather specific conditions. But a be-all, end-all solution of traffic problems it is not. Seattle's experience shows that the monorail has the same costs of any major rapid transit construction. There are benefits and there are drawbacks.

I welcome the emergence of monorails as a serious option for rapid transit, but let's be realistic. There is no reason that monorails shouldn't be considered by any city looking to improve its public transit network, but very little distinguishes it from the tried-and-true technology of a set of steel wheels operating on smooth and level railway track. And for systems that have already invested heavily in tried-and-true technology (like Toronto), there is no good reason to go for something new for newness sake.


Marge vs. the Monorail

The title for the above post is shamelessly borrowed from a song sung during the classic Simpsons episode, Marge vs. the Monorail, wherein Marge Simpson struggles to save Springfield from investing in a dangerous monorail boondoogle. It's only natural, I suppose, that the episode provided fodder for the anti-monorail campaigners in Seattle. Fox even had to slap them around on some copyright issues as a result of it.


On This Day

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