Monorails: the idea that will not die

You can't go many news cycles without hearing about some kind of monorail mess-up, but there's good news too.
Crosscut archive image.

The spectacular view from the Las Vegas Monorail. (Wikipedia)

You can't go many news cycles without hearing about some kind of monorail mess-up, but there's good news too.

Seattle has many gifts that keep on giving in the "Monorail foibles" category, and I say this with utmost affection for the historic world's fair Alweg monorail that connects Westlake with the old Food Circus.

In mid-December the Post-Intelligencer ran this headline: "Original train driver gets stuck on monorail." A train that once pinged reliably on its route from downtown to Seattle Center, the current monorail has become a symbol of Seattle unreliability. One of the monorail's original drivers, Robert Baker, was downtown with his wife Patricia to see a movie before Christmas and they got trapped when their monorail broke down. Baker drove the train himself on opening day of the Century 21 Exposition in 1962 and chauffeured Elvis Presley on the monorail back in the day. What movie were they headed to see? Appropriately, The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Earlier in the month, the media reported that a deaf man climbed onto the tracks and stopped the train. If it's not the deaf, then it's fires, breakdowns or bizarre collisions that seem to keep the monorail chronically newsworthy. Helpfully, the P-I's blog has run a list mono mishaps.

Thinking about the state of our monorail got me wondering about other monorail projects. The news is mixed. In Las Vegas, a privately funded line continues to suffer from economic woes. Its owners are continuing to push an expansion of the line to the airport, but that has alarmed preservationists who say it could damage a potential National Historic Register listing for the mid-century modern Paradise Elementary School.

On the good news side, terrorism did not stop work onMumbai's big new monorail project, however in what could be an ill omen, it did halt the foundation stone ceremony.

Most interesting is news that monorail research still lives in the Pacific Northwest. There's a report from the Missoulian in November saying that scientists at the Montana Technology Enterprise Center are working on a futuristic monorail "spider web" system

Imagine getting out of bed, walking outside and climbing into a hydrogen-powered magnetized monorail pod, only to be shot 150 miles per hour down a track to your destination. No need for cars, gasoline or even concentration...

Their personal rapid transit system would run down arterial streets and interstates, with pods waiting at each station to take individuals to their destinations, so there would be no wait and each pod would go directly to the desired stop.

The project is funded with a grant from the U.S Department of Transportation. The secret ingredient is hydrogen power:

On Friday, the team of researchers gave a public demonstration of their monorail system on a working model about a fifth of the size of a real monorail.

The pod hangs down from an enclosed track, and a rack above the pod hovers atop opposing magnets. When it passes through a gate, the motor senses its presence and releases an electrically charged magnetic pulse, powered by hydrogen fuel cells, which then pushes the car along.

"Hydrogen is the answer," said R. Paul Williamson, the team's leader. "It's the only thing we have enough supply of to solve our energy needs in the United States or the world." Williamson said the monorail would cost about $1 million per mile.

Seattle decided not to build the Green Line, but the Montana researchers expect "to have a full-size monorail by the end of their four-year grant period, which they are now halfway through," says the paper.

At 150 mph, let's hope they can keep people, deaf or otherwise, from wandering onto the track.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.