Monorail - an excellent choice for Seattle.
by Kim Pedersen / President & Founder of the Monorail Society

On August 19, 2002, the Seattle Times published an editorial by Vukan R. Vuchic entitled Monorail is a poor choice for Seattle and the Region. What follows is a point-by-point response to Professor Vuchic's comments.

Vuchic's editorial comments are in black italicized letters, Pedersen's responses follow immediately in Violet standard text.

Vukan R. Vuchic: MONORAIL has attracted considerable attention in recent years in debates about transit alternatives for Seattle. Similar discussions took place in many other cities during the 1960s, when the Alweg monorail was built for the 1962 World's Fair in Seattle.

Kim Pedersen: Mr. Vuchic is referring to what is currently known as the Seattle Center Monorail, the only rail system in the USA that turns a profit each year and never has accidents with pedestrians or vehicles on the streets below it.

This historic connection with monorail technology may explain why this debate has been resurrected in Seattle decades after this transit system was rejected by many cities around the world.

True, monorail has been rejected by many cities, but monorail has also been adopted by many cities around the world, and continues to be by others. Should we ignore the cities that said yes to monorail?

However, sentimental attachment makes a poor basis for selecting a transit system for the future of the Puget Sound region.

Asserting that monorail is desired strictly as a result of "sentimental attachment" is an insult to all those have carefully studied monorail and know that it is a legitimate transit option. The sentimentality assertion is also an affront to the Elevated Transportation Company (ETC) staff, their consultants and volunteers who have spent eighteen months working to create the Seattle Popular Monorail Plan. Their work goes far beyond sentimental attachment.

Seattle is one of the nation's largest and most mature cities without mass transit. Residents need high-quality, reliable and cost-efficient transit solutions to attract them from their cars. Monorail technology does not meet these criteria and therefore would be a poor choice for this region.

First, where does it say that the proposed monorail is for the Puget Sound region? The plan is specifically drawn up for the City of Seattle, not the region. It happens to be an excellent choice for the City, and thousands of citizens in Seattle have come to that conclusion after studying the issue and witnessing firsthand how well their one-miler monorail operates.

One of the strongest arguments presented for monorails is their ability to run on elevated guideways through downtown areas. When compared with rail transit, monorail does have the advantage of having slightly smaller elevated guideways, as well as a "futuristic image." However, any elevated transit operating in Seattle's narrow downtown corridors would have serious negative impacts on the urban and pedestrian environment.

Saying monorail has only "slightly smaller elevated guideways" is a clever misrepresentation. Evidently a monorail guideway three feet wide is only "slightly smaller" than nine feet wide for light rail? Yes, monorail has a futuristic look, and that is why it is more suitable to blend with a modern city environment such as Seattle. With a monorail guideway 40 feet above pedestrians, most of the day the narrow shadows of the beams above won't even be on the street far below. One could argue that the shadows of 50-story buildings have a far great negative impact on the urban environment, with shadows that cover multiple city blocks. Still, I don't see any movement to tear them down. Heaven forbid that monorail makes a shadow narrower than a bar counter!

Other cities have chosen either surface or underground alignments for their mass-transit systems when running in the dense downtown areas. Portland's light-rail transit runs on surface streets through its downtown, while Vancouver's SkyTrain enters a tunnel and runs underground through the city center.

Mr. Vuchic again neglects to include ALL cities. There are also cities that have selected elevated monorail for their downtowns, which is far less expensive or challenging than digging tunnels for subways or ripping up streets for surface rail. As for street-running light rail, what good is a system that is placed in the middle of traffic? It certainly won't get you to your destination faster than the auto traffic that surrounds it, and it also takes traffic lanes away, which adds to congestion. Portland's light rail, and others like it, have all proven how slow they are when they run on surface streets.

A more comprehensive comparison of monorail to light-rail transit shows that monorail's advantages are greatly outweighed by its disadvantages. In fact, there is virtually nothing that monorail offers that light rail could not match or exceed.

This is true if you don't care about a few minor details such as safety, speed and economy...
Safety - Monorails do not run in the streets and therefore will never kill pedestrians or motorists (such as those that make a wrong turn into the path of light rail). In fact, the term light rail is a fallacy in that the vehicles are heavier than even subway trains. Why? Because light rail is built to withstand COLLISIONS. Monorail doesn't have to be, because collisions with automobiles just don't happen.
Speed - I've never seen the Seattle Center Monorail stop for a traffic signal, have you? Yet I've seen light rail stop for signals as well as traffic many times. The object of rail transit should be to get you to your destination quicker than traffic, not slower.
Economy - If anyone tells you light rail is as economic to build and run as monorail, they don't know the facts or they are outright fibbing.

Because it straddles a single beam, monorail needs a much more complicated support than rail systems. Thus, a monorail vehicle has 24 rubber tires as compared to a rail vehicle's eight steel wheels.

Yes, there are more wheels to keep the train on the track, the advantage resulting in vastly narrower track. Even with additional wheels, wear and tear on rubber tires is much less than steel wheels on steel track suffer. By the way, don't steel wheels on steel track make a lot of screeching sounds? That's certainly what I've heard every time I've seen a light rail train make a turn.

Much higher resistance of rubber tires than steel wheels results in greater energy consumption and heat production.

Perhaps monorails do consume more energy than other rail systems, but this fact is irrelevant when you consider how energy use is a very small portion of the total operating costs. The American Public Transportation Association cites energy costs at 3% of the operating costs of any system. The higher resistance of rubber tires also happens to allow monorail to climb steeper hills with better traction than light rail, which is a huge advantage in a city like Seattle.

Moreover, monorails have lower riding comfort.

With all due respect, this is ridiculous. I've ridden most of the major monorails of the world and I can testify that they are as comfortable to ride as any other rail system. Are automobiles less comfortable to ride because they run on rubber tires?

Monorail vehicles appear tall due to their long skirts covering horizontal wheels, but their interiors are less spacious than rail vehicles.

Let's also add that they appear far more attractive. Interior space is equal to or above that of conventional rail, which leads me to ask which monorails has Mr. Vuchic inspected in person? He's certainly not including the many transit monorails that exist outside the USA borders, but I guess that fact invalidates them as even existing.

With fewer seats, a monorail system would either have more standees, or require more cars, involving higher cost than light rail.

Monorails can be configured in any way you want to fill their empty space. Monorails can have just as many seats as any light rail train. It's just like a Boeing airplane inside folks, fill the space the way the customer wants.

Monorail train sets operate as units. Light rail train lengths can be adjusted to passenger volumes, increasing utilization and lowering operating costs.

Please show me a light rail system that recovers all its costs in the USA. There aren't any. Yet the Seattle Center Monorail recovers its costs each year and then some. The ETC's conservative studies have found that it is very likely that the Green Line Monorail will recover all it's operating costs, no matter what the train configuration. Shortening train lengths is just not an important issue with monorail, although there are monorails that can be lengthened or shortened if desired.

Guideway switches (for branching out) operate slowly and take much more space than rail switches. Moreover, the guideways cannot cross each other, making operation of branch lines and yards rather awkward.

This is a complete falsehood, a myth that has been perpetuated by the conventional rail industry for decades. As we illustrate on the MONORAIL website (, monorail switch technology has advanced to where switches operate extremely fast, don't take up space and are completely reliable. They are used on branch lines of several monorails including Jacksonville, Chiba City and Osaka. The Las Vegas Monorail will have branch lines with unobtrusive, quick-operating switches. The switch platforms will be smaller than elevated light rail switch platforms. The fact is that monorail switches are also safer than conventional rail switches. Because of the nature of the wrap-around-the-track design of monorail, derailment is virtually impossible. Yet with less than a few inches of steel flange on wheels resting against steel track, light rail and heavy rail suffer derailments on a far more frequent basis, and often they take place at the switches.

With proprietary systems, monorail has few suppliers and therefore faces high-priced supply parts.

How is it then that the Seattle Center Monorail has continued to maintain their system profitably, even considering that Alweg, the company that built it, went out of business decades ago? Monorail uses standard rail parts that are readily available on the market. There are many suppliers that can build monorail systems and provide replacement parts.

A popular belief is that monorails are cheaper and more acceptable on elevated structures in urban streets than rail systems. On actual projects this belief has been repeatedly proven incorrect. Monorails built in Japan and recently at Newark Airport have involved investments much higher than any light-rail system.

Newark Airport's Monorail is indeed the "crazy aunt in the closet" for monorails. It was grossly overbuilt to keep the steel industry of New Jersey busy and wealthy. The Seattle Monorail Plan will prevent this kind of pocket-padding project. And again, even if some monorails are more expensive than a surface light rail may be, the benefits of grade-separated, swift transit far outweigh any additional capital costs. In Seattle, the ETC 14-mile Green Line will be much cheaper to build and operate than Sound Transit's 14-mile line. Independent analyses have verified the ETC figures.

Monorails were promoted by their manufacturers and by some groups who believed that they represented "the transit system of the future," a so-called "Disney World effect."

Walt Disney World, that's the resort with over 14 miles of monorail track that safely carries upwards of 100,000-200,000 passengers a day on monorail at above 99% reliability. Pretty nice effect I'd say.

During the 1960s, monorails were carefully considered as an alternative to rapid transit, light-rail transit and other modes in many cities, including Frankfurt, Germany, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. The findings of detailed engineering studies were very clear. Study after study found that monorail's advantages over rail systems are far outweighed by their disadvantages.

I don't suppose any of those studies were influenced by the very-powerful conventional rail industry? More recent studies are starting to tell the truth, as it's getting harder to conceal hard operating data of monorail systems and fool the public. Three examples monorail-favorable studies are from the ETC-Seattle, Pinellas County-Florida and Las Vegas-Nevada studies. They have all found that monorail is an excellent choice for transit.

Transportation professionals thus generally agree that light rail and rapid transit are more efficient and appropriate for high-quality urban transportation than monorails.

Believe it or not, so-called transit professionals aren't always right, and Seattle will prove those monorail detractors in the industry wrong. Not all fall into agreement with Mr. Vuchic, the ETC Seattle Monorail Plan was carefully crafted with the thorough work of many transit professionals. Should we discount their findings and only accept that of the good old boy network of conventional rail?

That is the reason that during more than four decades, monorails have been built only for special purposes, such as amusement parks and airport shuttles. Very few cities, mostly in Japan, have built monorails as a transit line.

Some of those "very few cities" include (in order of their construction), Wuppertal, Tokyo-Haneda, Urayasu, Kitakushu, Osaka, Chiba, Sydney, Jacksonville, Tama, Naha and Kuala Lumpur. Most of these systems are being expanded. Other monorail systems being built include Las Vegas, Singapore, Chongquing. There are several others in various stages of planning. The special circumstance is that planners and government officials found monorail to be superior for the applications in each of their cities. None of the above listed monorail are at amusement parks.

Actually, there is no city with more than one monorail line anywhere in the world.

Jacksonville, Osaka and Chiba City have revenue-producing spur lines off their main lines. Translation? They're monorails with multiple lines.

During the same 40-year period, new rail rapid-transit systems, such as the Toronto Subway or San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), have been built in about 80 cities around the world. Since the late 1970s, an increasing number of cities have selected light-rail systems because their speed, capacity and passenger attraction are much better than those of buses, while their investment cost is considerably lower than that for larger-scale rail rapid transit, such as BART. Since 1978, no fewer than 20 cities in North America and many more overseas have built new light-rail systems.

Almost none of these systems have paid for themselves, and they continue to sap money from taxpayer's pockets. Does that make them a better choice? Monorail is unlike conventional systems, monorail can truly turn a profit under the right conditions. Seattle, in my opinion and the opinion of many others, has the right conditions for a profitable system. Conventional rail for the City of Seattle would be prohibitively expensive, would take decades more than monorail to build and would be a never-ending black hole of tax dollars.

Residents of Puget Sound obviously want better transit. It is time to learn from the successful light-rail/bus improvements in Dallas, Denver, Portland, St. Louis and other cities, rather than lose time on discussing exotic technologies.

The monorail is not "exotic" technology, as many cities with monorail have proven in over 40 years since modern monorail technology was developed. Yes Mr. Vuchic, residents of Seattle do want better transit, and that is why they have overwhelmingly supported monorail. That support for monorail, built on common sense as well as serious study, is to the chagrin of those who would not make money if monorail were built rather than something else. A Seattle Monorail System would also open the floodgates for more monorail development across the USA, and that's another reason conventional rail backers from outside Seattle are arguing against it.

The present plan, including light rail with easy transfers to improved bus lines and commuter rail systems, is the best alternative for transit in the region.

To the contrary, the Seattle Popular Monorail Plan, including monorail with easy transfers to bus lines and commuter rail systems, is the best alternative for transit in the City of Seattle. Anyone who carefully compares monorail with other transit modes will come away with that conclusion, unless perhaps they are beholden to the conventional rail industry.

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