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
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).