Old-fashioned science fiction cities always seem to be full of monorails; a generation or two ago they were seen as the mass transit of the future. As a child watching Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds, I was enthralled by the vision of aerial monorails replacing the London Tube, and cities linked by high-speed intercity monorails. ‘Serious’ transport publications presented a similar vision. Two rails was the past, one rail was the future!
Of course this brave new world never came to pass. For inter-city travel we now see such wonders as the French TGV, sleeker and more futuristic than anything imagined by Gerry Anderson, but running on the same flanged wheels on steel rail as used a century and a half earlier by George Stephenson. For urban travel we’ve seen the remarkable revival of a form of transport though obsolete three decades before, the tram. Just about the only monorails in Britain to carry passengers are amusement park rides at places like the Beaulieu Motor Museum and Blackpool Pleasure Beach
Monorails have a long history. Right back in 1878 the world saw the not terribly successful and much-ridiculed steam-powered Listowel and Ballybunion Railway in Ireland. 1902 saw the rather more successful Schwebebahn in Wuppertal, Germany, still running today.
The Slate article thinks monorails are a better idea than light rail.
Light-rail options are the current vogue, hailed as low-cost and easy to build. But laying trolley tracks on busy urban streets is more labor-intensive than it sounds. A separate lane must be created, electric wires must be hung to provide power, and streets often need to be widened to accommodate both trains and autos. There’s also the issue of providing crossing points for pedestrians and vehicles. No matter how many safety precautions are put in place, sooner or later an unlucky driver or walker gets smooshed.
I’m not surprised monorails have never really caught on. They’re far more expensive to build than light rail, the overhead supports are going to be obtrusive, and they don’t really have any big advantages over the two-railed alternative. The arguments the Slate argument makes over collisions with other vehicles and pedestrians is exaggerated; a tram is no more dangerous in that regard to a bus!
The Slate article suggests monorail’s advantage is the ‘fun’ factor.
Besides, if you want a lovely view in a monorail town, simply fork over your fare and watch the scenery zip by at 50 miles per hour. It’s a heck of a lot more entertaining than slogging through a city center via light rail.
As crazy as it may sound, that fun factor counts for something—a lot, in fact. The goal of mass transit is to convince people to abandon their cars, which feature such enticing accessories as CD players and elbow room. Light rails are too buslike to impress most commuters, too squished and close to the ground.
Well maybe. But I can’t say I’m really convinced by his arguments. The light rail system in Manchester has enticed people out of their cars, even when much of the route is a conversion of existing heavy rail lines; ridership on the new trams is significantly higher than the trains they replaced. And it’s twice as fast as the bus.
The monorails is doomed as one of those exciting-looking technologies that never really worked in practice, like airships, they represent a future of the past; something out of old-fashioned science-fiction.