Conventional Rail vs. 'Gadgetbahnen'

Do "innovative" transportation solutions such as MAGLEV monorail and personal rapid transit offer greater utility than conventional steel wheel and rail technology? Or are they simply clunky and expensive alternatives?
November 25, 2002, 12am PST | Michael D. Setty and Leroy W. Demery, Jr.
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The century-plus experience with monorails, beginning with Wuppertal, Germany, provides no evidence that monorails can do anything significantly better than conventional steel wheel on steel rail technology. A recent paper on monorails in Japan profusely illustrates this.1 The Disney Corporation can probably be blamed for the exotic, "futuristic" image that monorails still conjure up almost 50 years after Disneyland's debut. Such "innovative solutions" are almost always sold as major advances over conventional rail technology. But when one looks more closely, most such "improvements" are independent of technology, focusing on passenger comfort, system image, frequency of service, and similar factors under the control of system designers. To cite a favorite example of gadgetbahnen enthusiasts, automated train operation is as easily applied to conventional rail as monorails, as demonstrated by the Vancouver, BC, Skytrain (which uses standard railroad technology, not monorail as some Seattle monorail boosters apparently believe).

After a century of technical development, there are still no monorails that exceed 50-60 mph top speeds in regular revenue service. Monorails cannot provide nearly as smooth a ride as any garden-variety rail system, given the ongoing maintenance problem of keeping the concrete beam "rail" correctly aligned. In comparison, maintenance crews routinely adjust track alignments using simple railroad track and tie technology. Monorail switching has improved somewhat in recent years. However, such switching is still clunky and awkward compared to the equivalent railroad technology, making diverging, multi-line monorail networks a marginal proposition at best. Rubber-tired monorails also experience significantly higher energy consumption than comparable steel wheel on steel rail lines.

In our view, it is a big waste of time advocating such "gee-whiz" options, given the severe limits of monorails and similar technologies such as PRT, when U.S. transportation problems are almost always sociopolitical and economic–not technical–in nature. For example, a severe limitation of maglev is the very high cost of introducing entirely new infrastructure into urban areas, versus the relatively low cost of upgrading existing rail lines. But we do concede that specialized technologies may be appropriate in niche markets such as point-to-point shuttles, airports, amusement parks, Las Vegas, etc. In fact, we agree that the "ambience" that Las Vegas wishes to peddle to tourists is a good match for its "futuristic" (sic) Disneyesque monorail system currently under construction. But Las Vegas is also being realistic in other corridors. In addition to the Strip monorail, Vegas is implementing Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in four lower volume corridors that cannot justify rail, as well as conventional regional rail over existing tracks linking Henderson to the Strip and downtown.

Like monorails and PRT, maglev is generally a proprietary "solution in search of a problem." After the PR hype wears off, maglev tends to get rejected as it has by the German government for the Berlin-Hamburg corridor (though funding for two short "demonstration" maglev lines have been obtained through lobbying efforts). The Japanese have also made clear that maglev technology is not a prerequisite for construction of a second Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka shinkansen line. The major economic advantages of "interoperability" over existing transportation infrastructure, e.g., existing rail lines, also obviates any alleged "need" for new proprietary technologies such as maglev. Why should an entirely new form of fixed guideway be constructed into and out of cities at costs of $100 million per mile or more, when existing railroad corridors can be upgraded at a fraction of the cost? Should the traveling public be required to forgo direct, no-transfer super speed rail service to many locations on existing rail corridors while maglev requires waiting decades before "direct" service arrived, if ever?

Also, steel wheel on steel rail technology has essentially matched maglev's potential operating speed, certainly "close enough" as a practical matter. In 1990 the French demonstrated TGV super-speed rail operation at 322 mph. The French railways now routinely operate at 225 mph over portions of the TGV network.

To some extent, the promising concept of bus rapid transit (BRT) has also suffered from the "gadgetbahnen" mentality. BRT tends to periodically reappear as the Federal Transit Administration's (FTA) "mode de jour," particularly after a Washington "regime change" when a new Administration trys to discourage new rail starts. Unfortunately, BRT's periodic waxing and waning as "The Solution" tends to undermine deploying it in "real world" travel markets.

Unlike monorails, PRT, and maglev, it is unlikely that BRT can be turned into a proprietary "solution." Fortunately BRT is an "open source" technology similar to conventional rail, suitable for lower volume corridors where the extra capital expense of rail is not justified. We believe BRT potential extends to several hundred corridors in the United States. BRT would be the dominant "rapid transit" mode in urban areas of less than 500,000, and would supplement rail in lower volume corridors in larger urban areas. Various forms of rail—mainly light rail and regional rail over existing tracks—also appear to be feasible in several dozen more corridors in larger urban areas nationwide, plus a handful of special cases in smaller cities and rural areas.

1. Demery, Leroy. 2002. Monorail in Japan: An Overview. Working Paper 02-03. www.publictransit.us/documents/modechoice/WP02-03%20Japan%20Monorails.pdf

Michael D. Setty, owner and Principal of Carquinez Associates, is a transportation consultant with more than 23 years of experience in all aspects of public transit planning, finance, administration, and operations. Original research and analysis can be viewed at www.publictransit.us.

Leroy W. Demery, Jr., Senior Associate, Carquinez Associates, is a transport research specialist, analyst, and author. His research deals with various aspects of public transit planning, operation, analysis and finance ("Supply-Side Analysis and Verification of Ridership Forecasts for Mass Transit Capital Projects," Journal of the American Planning Association 60, 3: 355-371, 1994).



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