Seattle’s monrail versus LRT debate – Same story, different players!



This, from the Seattle Transit blog, is a short history of Seattle’s virulent monorail debate that caused much “wailing and gnashing of teeth” south of the 49th!

March 19, 2008 at 11:20 am

A Rehash: What Was Wrong With The Monorail

by Ben Schiendelman

A week ago, while talking about the viaduct, a friend said to me “If only we had just built the monorail…”

A few days later, when he regained consciousness and they took him out of the ICU (joking! joking!), I had calmed down. I gave him a list of why the monorail would never have worked, was a bad idea in the first place, and would probably have ended up half-built and bankrupt:

First, putting your technology choice in your law is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of. Your law should always say something like “high capacity transit” or “fixed guideway transit” – something flexible – that way you don’t get backed into a corner. There were very few initial bids for the monorail – and only one that held up for long. This is not a standardized transportation system – there are many competing technologies for both trains and guideways. They’re generally proprietary – only one vendor will sell you the trains to go on your tracks. That means single bids, which kind of defeats the purpose of competitive bidding, don’t you think?

Second, don’t claim your fantastical technology will “pay for itself”. Seriously, that was how this all started – “it will be profitable”, we were told, “companies will be falling all over themselves to get the contract”. Yeah, and my buddies in Baghdad don’t know where to put all the floral arrangements. The original monorail group started out with that claim, then moved to $18-36 million a mile with operating costs recovered through fares (still no chance in hell), then more like $50-100 million a mile… eventually it became clear that it was, actually, a transit system, and that transit systems do, indeed, cost money. Too late: making all those crazy claims killed their credibility.

Third, and maybe even most importantly: This was supposed to be grassroots, bringing people together. Instead, it became an anti-light-rail festival of lies, alienating the support of transit users and people with brains everywhere. “Light rail can’t climb a grade”, they said, when the stretch we’ve built along SR-518 is as steep as their Hitachi monorail could do. “Light rail isn’t elevated”, they said… I hope everyone on this blog realizes the humor in that statement. “Light rail is so expensive”, they said (and I’m leaving out their capital letters and exclamation points) – but it turns out that the differences in cost between light rail and monorail are negligible. They poked fun at their base supporters, and it cost them.

Fourth, to cut costs, they planned to use single tracking and switches over the West Seattle Bridge (and they eventually cut Ballard from their plan entirely). Switches, for monorail, are huge, cumbersome devices that take many times longer than standard rail switches to actually switch over. The maximum frequency of trains over the bridge would have been choked off by switch actions between every set of trains. Even after making that decision, the monorail agency still advertised three minute headways – when they would have been physically impossible.

The rose-colored glasses the monorail agency looked through at every issue bit them time and again. They claimed that their real estate costs would be low because they “only had to pay for posts in the ground”, that their columns would be “thinner than light rail” (they weren’t), and that they would offer a “quieter, smoother ride” – they wouldn’t have. I’m not even discussing the financing plan – it was astounding. Along every step of the way, the agency lied, taking advantage of Sound Transit’s bad position at the time to hit as hard as they could at light rail, rather than collaborating. Oh, yeah, and they spent more on advertising alone than they were bringing in. …And their projections for car ownership (their funding source was an MVET) were far too high.

I’m glad they’re gone. There was no opportunity for mass transit there – they failed so many times in so many arenas that I hope that’s clear. All they did was confuse the public and spend our money. Yeah, I know, Ballard and West Seattle residents feel cheated – but it’s like Publishers’ Clearinghouse – you weren’t actually going to win a million dollars. We don’t have the tax base in Seattle alone, especially not just with an MVET, to build mass transit in that corridor.

We will. Once light rail is built northward to the county line, those will be the next logical places for Sound Transit to build using North King money.


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One Response to “Seattle’s monrail versus LRT debate – Same story, different players!”

  1. Stan Doore Says:

    You neglected to include elevated monobeam (cantilevered monorail) technology in your discussion.
    Monobeam can travel up to 70 miles per hour for two-way simultaneous travel. It uses flat wheels on flat cushioned rail to reduce noise and to provide more durability.
    A single 6-foot wide monobeam is less obtrusive than monorail or light rail structures which are 15′ and 25′ wide respectively. The aerial space needed for monobeam is about the same as monorail and light rail technologies.

    Zweisystem replies: For a technology (monobeam) that has been around since the 1960’s, there is no “monobeam” monorail in revenue service. This speaks volumes about the viability of the mode. Sorry to say, monorail is a gadgetbahnen, except for a very few transit lines, that is more Disneyland than anything else. Monorails, both straddle beam and suspended, have been around a very long time, but despite the hype and hoopla by their promoters have not been a great transit success. The fact is, light rail is superior in operation.

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