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?

Michael D. Setty and Leroy W. Demery, Jr

Michael D. Setty
Leroy W. Demery, Jr

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.

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

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).





PRT: Policy or Technology?

Setty, in this forum and at, maintains that--

"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 [i.e., policies] under the control of system designers."

If they have read any of the material describing PRT they failed to understand it. PRT is more than "system image", its chief advantages-- private ride (falling under "passenger comfort") and on-demand and nonstop travel ("frequency of service")-- are inherent in PRT's technology, not merely operating policies.

I invite Setty & Demery to demonstrate how a light rail system can adopt a policy of private, on-demand and nonstop rides, between stations within walking distance of all points within its service area, and still operate successfully. This is of course impossible, therefore PRT's advantages are not mere policy issues.

PRT solves problems that conventional rail doesn't

Setty and Demery use the perceived shortcomings of several technologies (Mag-Lev, monorail) to argue against the development of ALL innovative transportation technologies.

I find it interesting they specifically mention personal rapid transit several times and then never advance one argument as to why conventional rail offers an advantage over what PRT aims to do.

Comparing conventional LRT with PRT:

- PRT offers on-demand service. With LRT you wait for the vehicle. With PRT the vehicle wait for you.

- PRT offers non-stop journeys. LRT systems must stop at each intermediate station on the line.

- PRT does not require transfers to travel from any point on the network to any other point on the network. Rail systems do.

- PR can operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week with the same level of service at any time.

- PRT does not interfere with traffic. At-grade rail systems will.

- PRT is potentially far cheaper. It requires less right of way to be purchased. It can be built faster. And it can be built incrementally and expanded as needed.

Cheaper. Faster. Smaller. Better. Which option don't Setty and Demery like?

Setty and Demery also seem to suggest that development of innovative technologies is somehow distracting attention away from tried and true rail systems when I would suggest the opposite is the case. Line haul rail systems are under consideration or development in dozens of places around the world whether they offer the best option or not. Truly innovative solutions such as PRT or dual-mode systems like RUF have to come mountains of skepticism to become anything close to reality.

Chris Owen


Confusing to a layman like me how a train on the ground can support average speeds higher than monorail, can quote safety records better than monorail, can provide operating effeciencies higher than monorail, can produce better net revenues than monorail, can be more flexible in location placement than monorail, can be quieter than monorail, and can be environmentally safer than monorail.

I do wish an unbiased authority would address these points. Maybe then I would understand.

I don't buy the arguments used in the past addressing "proven technology". I don't buy the argument that "light rail has been around for so long it must be worthwhile." I don't think we put men on the moon to find cheese, build stealth bombers just to prove that biplanes and propellers are slow and old fashioned, or buy new computers because "my other one" wore out.

So to, I don't think I want a monorail system because it looks neat, or because it above the ground. I want a monorail because it should be better than a bus, quicker than a 500 mile plane flight-- and cheaper. I want a monorail because it can take me to where I already go in my car a lot easier than a train can because monorails can drop me off AT the mall. A train cannot do that. Monorail can drop me off at my current- existing office building, and a train will force me to take a bus or a cab.

I could go on. At the end of the day, it all boils down to convenience for the consumer. That should be the goal of transit. That is what attracts the most people to the system-period. If it is not convenient as defined by my comments above, it is not going to come close to being a "success". I can look at someone's proforma, or frequency-of-use forecast for a train (surface rail system, and predict with pretty good certainty that the system will fall short in terms of:



Real O&M costs vs projected costs.

Average speed




We need to face facts, the true facts... surface trains are a waste of the taxpayer's money because, in the U.S., they don't turn a profit and they do fall short in those categories I mentioned above.

Even conventional rail can be gadgenbahnen

A modern transportation system must incorporate ALL modes of urban/suburban transport: (cars/trucks, mass transit, walking and bicycling). When roadway modes of transport dominate, (including buses), they are an impediment to the other modes. Transportation planners must not forget that pedestrian crossing of traffic congested streets deters transit use.

The pedestrian-oriented modes of travel require non-road infrastructure: (sidewalks and truly pedestrian-friendly crosswalks, bike paths and lanes, isolated corridor transit systems). In other words, land-use considerations on new and existing development must accomodate pedestrian travel; otherwise the automobile 'eliminates' travel choice.

In addition to pedestrian-oriented infrastructure, land-use development must be diversified (mixed-use) and not 'centralized' to only a few mixed-use districts. If commuter-rail or light rail systems fail to influence mixed-use development along their lines at most stations, they too become gadgetbahnen by impeding development that enhances pedestrian-oriented infrastructure.

I consider BART, MARTA, DC Metro rail systems to be gadgetbahnen. Such rail systems overload during rush hours, but are underutilized in the reverse-commute direction and at non-rush hours. A second BART trans-bay tube, and a second Bay Bridge to Oakland is being considered. This is a classic example of the socio-economic failure of gadgenbahnen transport systems that create an impossible demand and need to travel from underdeveloped Oakland to overdeveloped San Francisco.

Show Me The Money!

Cool op-ed. Bottom line, not to make a pun... its all about money, and perceived risk. I say that from the standpoint of being one of these traditional, highway-based dinosaur ;) transportation planners. Look at ANY set of urban plans from the last 100 years - i.e., their transportation element - or transportation plans - and they're full of grandiose ideas that never came to fruition mostly due to a lack of funding, or the political will to follow-through.

This is nothing new. Has it ever occured to anyone that the reason the whiz-bang tech hasn't caught on is because what we have now is doing the job just FINE in most places, despite the constant siren calls of falling skyers that want to limit personal freedom by imposing draconian restrictions on where people live (i.e, 'let's increase density') and how they commute (i.e., 'let's fund transit, screw highways, and make people ride bikes and walk?')?

I'm being a bit - well a lot sarcastic here, and there are all sorts of subsidies and policies that have led, at least in the U.S., to a mostly highway based mode of transportation. We can argue on the merits and demerits of those policities until doomsday. But in the U.S., I think we place far too high a price on personal freedom from the mobility standpoint to bolt out of our cars anytime soon. I'm personally waiting to be beamed from Point A to Point B. Transporter pads look like they'd be a lot less obtrusive than a network of monorails or maglev tracks...

"The Bermuda Triangle"

It seems to me that the transportation sector suffers from a catch 33 in the sense that 3 groups keep each other firmly locked in an old paradigm in transport.

This Bermuda Triangle of the transportation sector consists of:

1) Politicians who are afraid of trying any unproven technology because they risk their position at next election. They seek their advice among traditional experts.

2) Experts in traditional transportation technologies who have used their whole carriere to learn all about roads, rails, trains and busses. They don't want to see their expertise become obsolete, so they tell the politicians not to even think about new technology.

3) The manufacturers of traditional heavy transportation technologies. When they look at the bottom line, they see that the company in the short term earn more money from delivering a large train system than from developing and delivering a system with many small units like PRT or RUF.

Like the Bermuda Triangle this "Troyka" seems to swollow any new initiative coming close to their playground.

It will end some day.

The beginning of the end could be when a PRT system in Cardiff (ULTra) becomes proven technology in 2005, or when a RUF system is build in Copenhagen sooner than you think.

New technology cannot be kept away from the transportation sector forever. A reasonable reaction among transportation experts would be curiosity and open mindedness.

Please look at and see if it would not solve your transportation problems better than the traditional systems.

Prepare for the future :-)

Palle R Jensen

RUF Danmark

Back to the Future

This has been a fascinating debate, mostly between transportation experts representing one side or the other of the "gadgetbahnen" question. I am not an expert or even a transit planner (merely a land use planner, sans the technological cachet) but, like most Americans, I am fascinated by the rapid advances of technology.

When I was a kid in the '60's, my Dad had an old bound compilation of Popular Mechanics magazines from the '30's. It was fascinating to flip through those pages to see what people back then thought the future would be like fifty years hence. By the 1980's, we would be driving airtight underwater cars on tracks laid across the ocean floor (I can still picture the illustration of a pipe-smoking, crew-cutted Dad in a cardigan pointing out the wonders of the sea to Junior through the specially designed "oceanshield"). Workers would don rocket packs to commute to work. And large groups of people would travel from city to city on monorails. Yes, conventional trains and buses would be abandoned for these silent trains in the sky.

Obviously, history, culture and technology have advanced in a different way than that earlier generation predicted. Certainly our current fantasies of the future (a'la Star Trek, etc.) will be a far cry from reality, as well.

It's interesting that despite the improvements in technology in the last 70-plus years, people still seem to prefer the modes of travel available to Popular Mechanics readers in the 1930's. We have the technology to create underwater cars, rocket packs, and yes, monorails, but have yet to employ it on any significant scale.

Despite the claims of the experts, I suspect that this will not change significantly in the years to come. The question is, why? (it's also interesting that the new, truly personal mobility technologies such as the Segway have not even entered into this debate). I'm sure that there are many technology-oriented and economics-oriented answers that the experts who have weighed in here can advance, but I cannot help but wonder if there is some other answer that is more related to culture and sociology. As Mr. Spock would say, "Fascinating."

Partial Reply to Chris Marlin

In partial response to issues raised by Chris Marlin, Michael D. Setty and I believe that it is a waste of time to offer the latest "innovative" transportation technologies as panacea solutions for problems that are essentially sociopolitical and economic. It is a well-known fact that the UK has deferred necessary investment for rail system maintenance and renewal for decades. Other countries did not follow this dubious "example" and have not experienced the rail safety, reliability and service quality problems that seem endemic in the UK. We trust that Mr. Marlin would not advocate monorail or maglev technology as a replacement for conventional rail in such a sociopolitical environment.

Various claims advanced by those with a proprietary or emotional interest in "innovative" transportation technologies often do not stand up to critical inquiry. In addition, "common-sense" assumptions sometimes prove incorrect, as anyone familiar with the history of technology is well aware. At the dawn of the rail era, some engineers believed that a locomotive could not pull a train up a grade or around a curve. Later, other engineers calculated that adhesion limits would prevent any rail vehicle from exceeding about 220 mph. All this has been proven false. Various assumptions about maglev are also turning out to be false (see, for example, Vuchic, V.R., and J.M. Casello, "An Evaluation of Maglev Technology and Its Comparison with High Speed Rail," Transportation Quarterly 56,2, Spring 2002, 33-49). High-speed maglev systems may be able to negotiate steeper grades and sharper curves than conventional high-speed rail, but this is not relevant to actual applications. A high-speed surface transport system of any technology would not be built with 10 percent grades and curves sharp enough to require high superelevation, owing to passenger motion-sickness issues and safety issues for standing passengers. Higher maglev energy consumption per unit of passenger capacity has been demonstrated, and the claim of lower maglev guideway maintenance cost is not proven.

Urban maglev systems do not necessarily negotiate steeper grades and tighter curves than “urban rail,” as anyone who has ridden the hill-climbing streetcars in Lisbon (Portugal) is well aware. Referring to “total automation,” more correctly “driverless” operation, the fact that regulatory authorities in the UK (and elsewhere) would not permit this at grade level is beside our point. Grade-separated lines using steel-wheeled trains (Vancouver, BC), large-profile rubber-tired stock (Lyon, France) or small-profile rubber-tired trains (Japan) can be equipped for driverless operation. However, some anticipated advantages have not materialized. Recent facilities in Japan, including the four “urban” monorails, were designed for driverless operation or could be converted with relatively little effort. This has not been carried out because anticipated operating cost savings were not obtained. Other findings from Japan: rubber-tired vehicles, including monorails and small-profile trains on elevated guideway lines, provide a ride less smooth and consume more energy than conventional rail.

We note that certain monorail enthusiasts and salespeople have stretched the definition of “monorail” like taffy to apply it to high-speed maglev. We are not fooled by this sophistry; nor are others, including the Japanese, whose definition of monorail includes “rubber tires.” No one would operate an urban transit facility at “high speed ground transport” velocity. It is true that the Transrapid maglev system has carried “fare paying passengers for many years,” but we are not fooled by this sophistry, either. Transrapid carries members of the general public at its Emsland (Germany) test facility – for a fee, by gum. In contrast, visitors who ride maglev test vehicles in Japan do not pay a fare. Although this will change when the Shanghai Airport line opens, there are currently no urban or intercity maglev facilities in revenue service.

We stand by our description of the Las Vegas monorail as serving a “niche” market geared to tourists. A route map of the project may be found on the project website ( As for the Japan earthquake story, a popular urban legend among monorail enthusiasts, we have read it before and know that it is not true. As documented by Japanese sources (see, for example, “Tetsudo-,” 1995.4-6), the Hanshin earthquake of January 17, 1995, inflicted severe damage in Kobe – but not in Osaka, 20 miles east. The Osaka Monorail, built in a suburban peripheral tollway corridor, was closed for inspection, together with a portion of a subway line on viaduct and an elevated guideway line. All were reopened on

Re: Setty's Partial Reply

I am familiar with Mr Hopkins' paper at

It is not Scripture. It is merely an argument against the need to invent anything new, an argument which can be summed up as follows: "Nothing New should be done if it is unlike the Old"-- a nonsensical proposition. This rationale, copied by Setty and some respondents in this forum, does not challenge the work currently being done on truly innovative technology*, it merely says "it hasn't been done, therefore it can't be done." Another nonsenical position, but one quite easy to hold when it is people who think like Mr Setty who control the entry of new technology into the transit market, and so are in a position to prevent the New from being done.

* I do not include monorail in this category because it's just another type of train, its primary economic characteristics as experienced by the User are basically the same as LRT.


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. Try telling that to the people who are unable to travel because ther are leaves on the line.

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

A. The covering of the power rails negating the above stated effect is in itself an improvement to the technology. This is merely one example.

focusing on passenger comfort, system image, frequency of service,

A. The ride quality on commuter trains is quite often totally awful and the image rail has in the UK is nothing short of total distrust. Frequency of sevice is nothing but a joke, I cannot remember having ridden on a train which has arrived exactly on time, at least not in the last few years.

automated train operation is as easily applied to conventional rail as monorails

A. The use of totally automated rail systems of any sort at ground level is illegal in the UK. Monorails are not covered by the relevant rules as they are elevated and therefore not a danger to the walking public.

After a century of technical development, there are still no monorails that exceed 50-60 mph top speeds in regular revenue service.

A. The Transrapid maglev system in Germany is by definition a monorail. It has been carrying fare paying passengers for many years and certainly does a lot more than 60 mph.

Monorails cannot provide nearly as smooth a ride as any garden-variety rail system,

A. Every time I go across a set of railway points I spill my coffee, “garden-variety” is certainly correct.

given the ongoing maintenance problem of keeping the concrete beam "rail" correctly aligned.

A.The guideway of the monorail in Japan during the last earthquake was the only form of transportation available to the people. All others had been wiped out in the area. I do not consider that to be a maintenance problem.

In comparison, maintenance crews routinely adjust track alignments using simple railroad track and tie technology.

A. Next time you travel on a railway, have a look at the tracks and try and tell yourself that they are strait. I think you may have a little problem there.

Monorail switching has improved somewhat in recent years. However, such switching is still clunky and awkward compared to the equivalent railroad technology.

A. Every time I go across a set of railway points I spill my coffee, “garden-variety” is certainly correct.

U.S. transportation problems are almost always sociopolitical and economic–not technical–in nature.

A. In Europe the problems are:

a. The rails are buckled due to under investment over a lon period of time. b. The trains cannot run through floodwater.

c. The snow is too deep for the train to get through.

d. Landslides have covered the tracks. e. Trees have fallen over the lines.

f. Rails have worn out due to excessive use without replacement. Etc,etc,etc. And that is just part of the problem. Are the problems in America not the same?

a severe limitation of maglev is the very high cost of introducing entirely new infrastructure into urban areas

A. The cost benefit of maglev over conventional rail is many fold. Her are a few examples:

a. Maglevs have a gradient climb ability of 10% in comparison to 4% with normal rail. This means less cuttings and embankments and all the costs that they entail.

b. Urban maglev systems have a tighter curve radius than conventional rail.

c. By introducing public transport into urban areas, roads require less money to keep them in good order.

d. Due to the technology involved, the maintenance costs of a maglev guideway are less than either roads or rail. This is because the vehicle never has to touch the surface of the guideway, therefore there is less wear and tear.

To name but a few, ask one of the professionals and they will explain a few more to you.

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.

A. My appologies, I didn't realise Las Vegas was a “niche market”.

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

A. Now now, careful, you might realise that we are living in the 21st Century and not the 19th.

Vegas is implementing Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in four lower volume corrido

Snake oil, soap bubbles, and reality

In evaluating the cornucopia of "gadget" alternatives to standard rail transit and light rail, planners would do well to beware extravagant claims and to focus on facts. Keep in mind that hundreds of light rail systems are well-proven and operating efficiently worldwide; can a comparable record of performance be offered for the various gadgets being purveyed? Does reality corroborate the "snake oil" claims of cost, operations, etc. being hyped?

For example, operating cost: The claim of dramatic cost savings through automation has never been substantiated. The elimination of drivers is offset by the need for extra security guards, passenger assistants, technicians, and other personnel.

In 2000, light rail in St. Louis averaged $0.21 per passenger-mile; in San Diego, $0.17; in Salt Lake City, $0.15, In contrast, the totally automated Jacksonville monorail averaged $10.71 per passenger-mile. The only automated system which is comparable in cost to light rail is Vancouver's elevated Skytrain, a standard rail system, but its lower cost correlates with very high ridership -- about 150,000 daily rider-trips, in a city with no central freeways.

For critical transit decisions, serious planners should demand fewer "soap bubbles" and more factual substance.

Partial Reply

In partial response to the many commenters on our op-ed, I suggest the more enthusiastic advocates of "innovative" technologies seriously study the paper posted on Dr. Schneider's website:

Many commenters seem to have missed the point outlined in the referenced paper by a country mile.

Maglev vs. High-Speed Rail

The authors' overheated points about the abilities of high-speed rail systems are misleading and self-serving. The portion of 225-mph train travel along the TGV network hovers around zero, and is unlikely to change without significant expenditures to upgrade the infrastructure and rolling stock. In Shanghai, the Transrapid maglev construciton project will feature operational speeds of 430 kph/267 mph for a two-station run of 30 km/19 miles in length with 10-minute headways in each direction. This is for 18-hours-per-day operation. A similar project would never be considered for a high-speed train.

Maglev has been designed from the outset to overcome the limitations of steel-wheel systems. It's too bad some consultants don't recognize any such limitations.

Monorails, Maglev's & PRT Vs. Light Rail

For years I sold used railroad and trolley equipment; and voiced my support for Light Rail projects. In 1996, I learned about the benefits of Monorail over Light Rail; and decided to get in on Monorails ground-floor. I started Monorails International.

During the past 6 years, I've increased my belief that Monorails (and now Maglev's also) are superior in MANY ways to Light Rail. Even if all construction costs were equal, the lower operating and maintenance costs for well planned Monorail systems mean, almost guaranteed profits, rather than year after year tax subsidities.

I've read Mr. Setty's statements about Monorails, Maglev and PRT's; and would like to take 5000 pages to refute him; but others are doing a good job of it. Let me say, check-out the facts before making a decision to go with Light Rail. I don't believe that once you've investigated Monorail, you'll even consider Light Rail.

Monorail: not high tech, just practical

I have read the comments about monorail technology and I'm not sure on what basis some of them were written. For example, the idea that conventional rail has a better ride than monorail. This just does not make sense. At best steel wheel on steel rail will have an equally comfortable ride than air filled rubber tires on smooth concrete beams. Another article says that monorail passenger capacity is far lower than LRT and used the Bombardier MIV as the example. Any diligent person will look at ALL monorails and not just the smallest in interior space. Of the 3 major monorail manufacturers, Bombardier is the only one that has completely isolated car interiors, resulting low capacity. The Bombardier and Seimens LRT trains in Portland are 86-89 feet long and have a crush load capacity of approximately 260 passengers. By comparison, Hitachi’s 1000 series monorail train is 95 feet long and has a crush load of over 400 passengers in a 2 car configuration. Monorail Malaysia's 2-car train has a crush load of 268 passengers and it is only 67 feet long. All this can be verified at the manufacturers web sites. This same study said that monorail was forced into a tunnel. I guess the monorail should have gone into a tunnel in Las Vegas at the convention center sky bridge instead of going over it. Does this make any sense?

Capital cost is another area where I am amazed at some of the comments. I’m not sure how it can be said that any mixed grade LRT, not to mention a completely elevated LRT, is comparable. IF we stop to think about it, how can building what is essentially a 2-lane car bridge cost any where near as much to build as what is essentially a 1 lane bridge without the road deck (monorail guideway). Even if a majority of the alignment is at grade, the much higher cost of the portion that is elevated boost the capital cost very high. There are traffic maintenance costs associated with any conventional rail running through an urban area. There are far less traffic problems during monorail construction due to it's less intrusive nature, reducing the need for traffic maintenance measures and monorail is build much faster than conventional or light rail. One wrote of the “ease of construction myth” saying that the Las Vegas monorail is taking 4 years to build (2000-2004). This person is mis-informed. The construction started in August of 2001 and vehicle testing will begin in early 2003 while the construction work to refit the existing system to work with the new system is underway. This type of lack of information is typical of monorail detractors.

Light Rail is really not appropriate in a built up urban area where alignments are challenging and land is expensive. Light Rail is really only appropriate where there are existing rail tracks that can be used or a long running open area where it is easy to put the track. If some think it is appropriate in streets with cars, tell me what the difference is between that and busses.

More reasons against ( and for ) Monorails.

Its interesting to hear the anti-monorail argument for once. Similar comments I have heard against, but not mentioned in where

-Turning radius, Monorails ( or elevated rail for that matter ) can’t turn very quickly making layout in an dense urban context problematic. You need to run the rail in a dense urban context to get access to passengers.

-The legs can be up to 80 inches in diameter so blocking the pedestrian street.

-Noise and vibration are another problem when transmitted to surrounding buildings.

-Reliability the Disney world monorails are rumored to be very unreliable, this is not inherent but its something which urban planners tell each other.

-Raised monorails have to have some mechanism for passengers to escape from a stationary and possibly burning carriage.

-Density, many cities in the US are dropping below the critical population density necessary to provide ridership for Monorails and light rail.

On the plus side

-Monorails don’t block or take street away from congested motorists

-Monorails don’t get stuck in traffic, keeping predictable intervals

-Right of way should be cheaper for a monorail.

-Its cheaper to build over than to dig under.

- Being raised the flexibility of track layout is higher

-Monorails can be fully automated lowering the running cost over rail.

To be honest one of the main reasons that Monorails and Maglev are being considered is the political problem that to get light or heavy commuter rail working you generally need to negotiate space/ rights of way from a freight dominated rail system. I know of no other rail system in the world where passenger trails are delayed and pulled to one side to let a freight trail though. By having an alternative its possible both negotiate rights to way costs and do so in reasonable ( less than 10 years) time periods.

Are Michael D. Setty and Leroy W. Demery, Jr. typical of transportation consultants? They seem a little under informed even about the cons of monorails. Why lump monorails and PRT together?. I have met other transportation consultants and they all seem to totally dismiss anything apart from what they are promoting. Perhaps I’m unreasonable in expecting unbiased and informed opinions from a transportation consultant over a light rail consultant. Perhaps professional societies should set standards and try and create a standard definitive list of pros and cons for all types of transportation technologies. Perhaps I am being unfair on Michael D. Setty and Leroy W. Demery, Jr. Who had to write something in limited space. After all if they examined the elevated cycle way concept (for example ) this would meet all their objections, but I don’t get the impression would become proponents to a technology just because it solved all there objections.

More than one factor should be addressed

It is interesting to read the articles and comments from so many. Still one must ask why the references are from studies or papers from as far back as 1994. One must also look at success such as Seattle's Monorail. It was nice in 1962 and is nice in 2002. A lot has changed since then both in attitude and the need for smooth, safe, quite, grade separated transportation systems. One need only look at the long list of rail accidents, auto, pedestrians and the delays waiting at train crossings and such to know our world is not going to accept that any longer. The cry "Rise Above it all," will be herd more and more as new Monorail's are built. The steel rail has its place and still is needed. But mixing freight and high speed passenger trains on the same track has to go. Monorails are NOT a novelty or "gadgetbahnen." The sooner long range planners and consultants accept this and look for ways to even better the elevated monorail technology the better the existing proven system will get. The rubber tire lobby should work on Monorail tires as well.

Monorail factor overlooked

It amazes me that the so-called experts who find ways to find fault with Monorails, always seem to overlook the most beneficial point of monorails. SAFETY! Sure monorails may cost alittle more to build initially, but what price do you put on a human life? Today take a good look at your spouse or son or daughter and then tell me that conventional rail is the way to go. And for you proponents of high speed conventional rail, lets remember the 100's of poor souls who lost their lives in Germany a couple years ago when the ICE train came apart and slammed into an overpass! FYI according to a report on the Discovery channel that accident was attributed with a damaged steel wheel.Without exploring the comparison of safety aspects of each of the different systems then a great diservice is done to the general public by the so-called experts.

RUF Dual Mode monorail

I agree that monorail used in a line haul mode in not much better than traditional rail systems. Grade separation makes it better but also more visible.

Dual Mode monorail like RUF ( is much better because it combines road driving and monorail "riding" in one vehicle.

A network with RUF as the one planned for Copenhagen with support from EU (see: can offer very short travel times in public transport based upon a 10 pass electric dualmode bus (maxi-ruf).

The same network can in a later phase offer a congestion free ride with an electric car (ruf) using the same network. No battery problems. Recharging from the monorail. Very low energy consumption due to train creation.

Network structure means very high capacity (see: and

Monorail this way makes sense.

A system for LA cost less ($10 billion) than they waste every year in traffic jam ($12.4 billion. RUF is recognized as interesting by MTA in LA (see:

RUF is very popular in the media (see:

RUF is a Danish development supported by the Danish Government and EU. A test track has proved the concept.

Palle R Jensen

RUF Danmark

Inventor of RUF

Conventional Rail vs. 'Gadgetbahnen'

The best transportation systems being build today, the Vancouver Skytrain included, are totally grade separated and automated. Grade separation prevents the trains from colliding with pedestrians and vehicles. Automation eliminates the need for drivers, saving money. In Seattle’s case, I’d much rather running monorail down the tight corridors and above the streets than the Vancouver Skytrain, wouldn’t you?

Monorails use rubber wheels and are drastically quieter than light rail. Monorails wrap around their guideway, making derailment virtually impossible. Compare that to the numerous times light rail systems derail every year.

Why is monorail criticized for its top speed of 70mph. Why would a city ever need a transit system that goes faster than 50? A speed of 40mph is unthinkable for surface light rail.

Personal monorail

Trains kill people.

Trains haven't been economically competitive against jitneys since 1915 or against buses since 1930.

Personal monorail vehicles can operate on demand and take individuals when and where they want to go quicker, cheaper, safer and more economically than cars or motorcycles. They will also enable systems which are profitable.

Personal monorails have the switching in the vehicles, not the tracks, so gaps between vehicles can be less than one second.

The highest cost of transport is the passengers' time. Individual transport is the most economical because it is the quickest.

Michael D. Setty and Leroy W. Demery, Jr. need to study personal monorail some more. They obviously don't understand it yet.

Monorails more costly than LRT

R. Kennedy states:

"Monorail is the cheapest way to acquire exclusive right of way in built-up urban areas. Light rail must either be placed on top of ugly viaducts or be tunneled underground for hundreds of million of dollars."

Leaving aside this writer's aesthetic bias (why are light rail viaducts "ugly" but not monorail viaducts?), the assertions don't appear well supported by facts, at least not as a generalization.

Case in point: A recent analysis by Parsons-Brinckerhoff for a major California transit agency, which compared 85% elevated light rail transit (LRT) with an alternative monorail system. One of the most startling findings was that monorail trainset capacity is severely restricted because of the intrusion of wheel housings into the passenger compartment (the Bombardier M-VI vehicle for Las Vegas was the basis for evaluation). This means that it took a 4-unit monorail trainset to equal the capacity of a single LRT car. In addition, the monorail has about 25% slower acceleration. Result: More expensive, longer stations, a much larger maintenance and storage yard, and a larger vehicle fleet raised the cost of monorail.

In addition, while LRT could flexibly run at grade where clearances were a problem, the monorail was forced into a tunnel.

Final tally: Monorail cost 49% more to provide a system of equivalent capacity and operating characteristics to LRT.


Good to see some common sense thoughts on monorail, PRT, Maglev, etc., instead of the supersalesmenship that seems to pop up everywhere there is a proposal for a new transit system. Too bad that many people don't know that there is often a vast gap between proponents' theoretical projections and operational reality when it comes to new technology.

The Monorail Bonus

What I think engineering types tend to forget is that although with a solution such as LRT or BRT, you can run down the list and check off the boxes that indicate a sound system, the idea of a bus or a light rail trolley doesn't inspire people to park their cars and utilize public transportation. So why Monorail? Its definately "the cool factor" with great views, a sense of speed and well lighted public stations that many of us non-engineering types sense in our guts will create the right kind of environment to inspire new ridership among traditionally non-transit users. My background is marketing and design, so from my point of view I see it as either a well engineered car that all the engineers in the world LOVE but doesnt sell unitsl or a well engineered car that sells through the roof because it captures the buying publics imagination. I'll take the latter, because ultimately public transportation is a product we want people to buy into.

Steel wheels

This will be brief.

Please don't forget that some monorails are designed to use steel wheels. These monorails are faster than your comparisons. Please don't lump.

Also, the main reason for not installing commuter rail on existing tracks, other than the landlord problem, is that the State in question must pick up the tab in the form of tax subsidies. This is no small point.

Thanks for reading.

Conventional Rail vs. 'Gadgetbahnen'

Why is Personal Rapid Transit mentioned in this article? None of the specific or vague criticisms apply to PRT, the apply to monorail and maglev.

The well-designed PRT systems waiting to be evaluated (but which are denied a fair shake as well as public prototype development funds due to the obstruction of status quo transit "experts") fall into a different class than line-haul systems.

In an urban transit context, network-based PRT with on-demand, nonstop, no-transfer service and higher-than-rail average speed offers clear service advantages over line-haul hub-spoke rail with bus feeders.

PRT isn't even futuristic, since all the parts are basically off the shelf. And even the botched PRT projects in Morgantown and Marlborogh MA (Raytheon) never approached "$100 million per mile or more"-- that's trains.

So why was PRT lumped in with monorail and maglev? Was it because the authors are ignorant of the difference? And isn't that their problem, not PRT's?

The Simpsons

I wholeheartedly agree with the Mssrs. Setty and Demery on the subject of monorails and all these other sorts of transit techno-gadgets. I am reminded of one particularly insightful episode of the Simpsons where a huckster-ish character comes to Seattle, er, Springfield, and sells the citizenry on a high-tech, wiz-bang, gee aren't we modern sort of transit system, only to have it immediately fall apart while Main Street remained "cracked and broken"

This shows the folly of spending large sums on these new technologies while solutions using tried-and-true technologies are more cost effective and are a better fit with the existing urban context.

As an urban designer, I feel that monorails would be an ugly overhead intrusion into the urban streetscape. Although Chicago has kept its 'El' and it is now one of that city's landmarks, I do not think that most cities would want looming overhead transit that plunge the public environment of the street into echoing noise and shadow.

As for the writer that said that LRT has to be either raised overhead or tunneled underground to avoid street congestion, I offer the simple solution of dedicating two lanes of roadway for LRT only, while keeping at least one lane in each direction for auto traffic. This has been done with great success in Toronto and other cities. Many, if not most, streets are wide enough for 48 feet of pavement that this simple, affordable, and efficient solution requires.

There IS a role for monorails

The authors are quite right, rubber tired monorails consume more energy, are not as smooth as conventional rail and have slower switching.

However, the major problem in the US is the planning NOT the engineering of new transit sytems.

Monorail is the cheapest way to acquire exclusive right of way in built-up urban areas. Light rail must either be placed on top of ugly viaducts or be tunneled underground for hundreds of million of dollars.

The authors claim that current railways can be upgraded, but the truth is that in many urban areas these railways don't exist or at least not in the corridors where transit demand is highest.

For more information I suggest you read "Considering Monorail Rapid Transit for North American cities" in the Transit Papers section of

Old School notions....

It's simply wrong to say there is "no evidence" that monorail can do anything better than conventional rail.

It's wrong to place PRT in the same category as monorail.

While is true that transportation systems are sociopolitical, their technical engineering aspects are significant.

I'm no fan of Maglev, but not because its unique technology may become proprietary. The cost of building and powering a Maglev train is prohibitive. The market they can serve is small. The engineering flaws of Maglev (and PRT) projects lead me to believe it's construction companies with the proprietary goals.

Personally, I consider the notion of "no transfer" transit service to be "Old School". Wise up. It's neither possible, nor desireable to ignore their necessity. Transfers must be incorporated in any transit system. Those in the engineering and planning fields who cannot accept this fact act as a detriment to progress.

California's High-speed rail project is off to a poor start, IMO. It's 1st Phase should not be between SF and SJ. The Caltrans conventional rail service in this corridor will be put at a competitive disadvantage. A 1st Phase between SJ and LA would enhance Caltrans and BART service south to SJ. The transfer at SJ encourages development and land-use considerations. The SJ-LA segment accomodates real high-speeds, creates an alternative to flying and new access for growing Fresno and Bakersfield.

I'm an ardent supporter of conventional rail and lightrail, but am baffled by the engineering intelligencia, such as those working for Seattle's Sound Transit agency who've produced a despicable work of engineering called LINK light rail.

'Ease of construction' myth?

Erik Peter Axelson writes that " of the winning arguments in Seattle's recent referendum approving a 14-mile monorail system was its ease of construction compared to light rail or new dedicated transit lanes." But he proceeds to issue the caveat: "Whether Seattle's monorail system will be as easy to construct and rise above delays on the ground remains to be seen."

Precisely the point. I am seeing lots of promises about monorail technology with little to no real-world fulfillment. The problems in installing any major rapid-transit mode in an urban area -- particularly with the topological challenges of Puget Sound -- are formidable, and this is what affects both cost and the speed of implementation.

May I remind readers that the Las Vegas monorail system -- about 4 miles in length -- is taking about 4 years to install (2000-2004)? And that's a privately sponsored and funded project, on predominantly private property, on basically flat terrain. It's critical for planners to keep their eyes on realities, and not the dreams and hype of monorail pitchmen.

Conventional Rail vs. 'Gadgetbahnen'

I would like to set straight an incorrect statement regarding the Vancouver Skytrain. A conventional railway could never have been built along the ROW's that were used to build the SkyTrain guideway.

Fact One: The motor that propels the SkyTrain is not found in the vehicle but is located in the guideway. It is called the Linear Induction Motor.

Fact Two: Because it uses a proven Automated Control System, its labor requirements are low; it requires no engineer to drive the train. This results in an operating cost profile of about 2 cents Canadian for every available seat kilometer. It is about 15 times greater than typical rail whether mass transit or Amtrak.

Fact Three: Becuase of the topography and tricky ROW geometry, LRT's were not an option in Vancouver.

Fact Four: Becuase the Ministry of Transport in the Province of Ontario was reluctant to install an automated SkyTrain system in a Toronto suburb, a manual Sky Train system was installed. It is regularly losing more operational days due to collisions caused by human error.


Don't overlook monorail's ease of construction

The authors provide some interesting comparisons of so-called high-tech transit solutions (monorail, maglev, etc.) with more prosaic methods (light and heavy rail, bus rapid tranist). But one of the winning arguments in Seattle's recent referendum approving a 14-mile monorail system was its ease of construction compared to light rail or new dedicated transit lanes.

Proponents argued that Seattle's Elevated Transportation Corporation's system could be installed using off-the-shelf components and aerial supports that would not involve extensive at-grade construction. And once the system is up and running, monorails would rise above it all, avoiding the street congestion that tends to limit the speeds of streetcars and light rail.

Indeed, Seattle's approval of the monorail comes after several years of false starts, cost overruns and reduction in routing of the Sound Transit light rail system that voters approved in the 1990s.

Whether Seattle's monorail system will be as easy to construct and rise above delays on the ground remains to be seen.

Technology is not the only factor

Of course, upgrading an existing system is most likely to be a cheaper alternative. At the same time, we should continue to experiment. Maglev costs are likely to come down. American Maglev has been boasting construction costs of $15-20 million per mile for their systems that they are developing (much less than the reported $100 million per mile). They are completing a one-mile demonstration project right now on the campus of Old Dominion University in Virginia in conjunction with Virginia Power. While it will only reach speeds of 40 mph, on its one-mile track, it is a first in the US on many fronts. If maglev can realistically be delivered at their low cost, it is worth considering the application for high and low speed travel.

Also, perception and politics are reality. That is simply why monorail technology has never caught on--too many nay sayers, and too few communities willing to stick their neck out and be the first guinea pig to see how it would work full-scale. I find it exciting that Seattle is finally expanding their system. In this case, monorail is a key component of people's perceptions of the city, so it will have benefits beyond just moving people. However, the most important part is that the people of Seattle have agreed by their vote on a technology and approach that they value. Despite its shortcomings and theme park perceptions the people are willing to give it a try. Will they regret it in the future? I don't know. Any system has its weaknesses.

At the same time, we shouldn't turn our noses up at old technology either. Light rail, the a la mode transit choice dominating the municipal scene today is essentially old technology being reapplied and is having a profound effect on the urban landscape nation-wide.

It really boils down to not only technology, but perceptions, politics and community identity and values. What works for one community is not necessarily the answer for another.

PRT versus Linear Transport

PRT is no answer to people and freight transport in such vast regions as America inhabits. We are seeking a sustainable solution for cross-country and city to city fast mass transport that is energy efficient for this and succeeding generations. This is not a trivial matter. We need to be able to push freight forward and people as well, fast and cost-effectively. Interestingly, a new rail idea has emerged with the Russian UST idea, or a cable-tensioned rail system for cost-effective high-speed transport. As a monorail or dual rail (pictured), such a concept appears to make sense, it would certainly be cheap to build, but it would likely be a fools errand. In Maine, we are now replacing one of America’s earliest long span suspension bridges (across the Penobscot River) due to cable rotting, a very, very costly enterprise to say the least (the existing bridge will be demolished). And considering how long concrete has lasted in ancient Roman structures (still as good as new), I’d vote for reinforced concrete support of a vast American elevated light (steel rail) mono-rail system. On an Eisenhower mass construction basis along super highways. I doubt if such a rail infrastructure would cost more than $3-4 million/mile. So based on the cost of war in Iraq so far at about $230 billion, we could have paid for 76,666 to 57,500 miles of elevated track already. This would be quite a good start to such a modern rail system considering the government could get every red cent back from time-rental on the track system, if they would just build it. We have been barking up the wrong tree for too long. It’s time to face the fact that we need a high-speed steel monorail system and gyro-stabilized train-module technology to achieve high speed rail safely. And a concrete beam system enables emergency side to side stabilizers to be quickly deployed if needed to stabilize such train units should the gyros fail (a very unlikely possibility).


I don't believe monorail has remotely reached its technological potential. See the Lewis Brennan train invention example.
There has been too much focus on slow speed monorails as opposed to what it takes to go fast with monorails; like say 150-200 MPH. It’s highly likely that Brennan technology can make that possible.

Summery: just say no to innovation

Summery: just say no to innovation ;>(

If we’re going to do away with innovation, why stop at rail, wasn’t it once an innovation itself? If we follow this ‘train’ (no pun intended) of thought we will end up back walking barefoot and naked? This line of thinking is obviously ludicrous. I do agree with the basic gist of the article, however, which is: there has been very little innovation in rail technology, certainly not enough to justify the additional costs (including monorail, maglev, etc.). Maybe this could be because rail it is inherently a flawed. Rail is a one-dimensional solution to a two-dimensional problem. People don’t live and work in a one-dimensional world, but in a two dimensional world (at least for the time being). We need a two dimensional solution—PRT. The authors used the letters ‘PRT’ in their article, but I have to assume that it was just a TLA (three letter acronym). If they understood the meaning behind the letters they would have refrained from putting it in with the risk of undermining their original intent. So I say ‘just say no to rail’ and ‘hello PRT’ :~)

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