Q. You're Kim Pedersen, president of the Monorail Society. The Atlantic last covered the subject of monorails in 2005, shortly after the Las Vegas project opened to the public. Is the Sin City monorail a success?
A. The Las Vegas Monorail has been a success on several fronts, yet it has financial problems the company is currently trying to address. The monorail has carried over 40-million passengers up and down the Strip. This has reduced traffic gridlock around popular destinations such as the Convention Center. The daily receipts from ticket sales cover all operation and maintenance costs, which is incredibly rare in the world of rail transit, yet not that rare for monorail. They do have a problem with the debt created by the costs of building the system, and this has delayed efforts to expand to the airport and west side of the Strip. Once those extensions are built, ridership should skyrocket. At that point we can call the Las Vegas Monorail a total success.
Q. Could you give us an overview of monorails operating in the United States, and in the world?
A. For the most part, monorails in the United States aren't making progress. The USA still embraces trains in traffic (light rail) or outrageously expensive subways. However, around the world more and more countries are introducing monorail as a quicker, more economical way to build rail transit in congested cities.
As an example, Mumbai is currently building India's first major monorail system. Already there are plans for massive expansions of the system, before it has even opened. Over twenty other cities in India are now seriously considering monorail as a quicker, more economical way to get grade-separate transit established. Sao Paulo is about to award a contract for Brazil's first major monorail system. Kuala Lumpur has a new, spectacular monorail line that has resulted in Malaysia becoming one of the world's major monorail manufacturers. Japan remains the world's leader with their major monorail systems, and their numerous monorails continue to carry millions of people each year, safely and quickly over traffic below.
Q. Is there an American city that seems to you best suited for a monorail, whether due to its geography or its transportation needs? Has that city ever considered a monorail?
A. I can think of several US cities that would benefit from monorail. Los Angeles has many transit corridors that would benefit from monorail. There have been numerous efforts for monorail in LA going back to the first half of the 20th century, but the 'good old boy' network has always managed to convince politicians that more expensive rail modes are the way to go. Seattle is ideal for monorail, with challenging, hilly terrain and waterways to cross. In the last decade a grassroots effort resulted in four separate votes for a monorail system by Seattle citizens, yet expensive, slow and dangerous light rail is what they are getting from their city leaders.
Q. What are the advantages of a monorail compared to light rail? And what are the disadvantages?
A. The main advantage of monorail over light rail is grade separation, or in other words, pedestrians, traffic and trains will never suffer collisions as happens frequently with light rail. Operational expenses of running monorail are far less than light rail, even though the initial construction cost can be equal or higher. As far as disadvantages of monorail, people can be wary of elevated guideways down city streets. Folks don't always make the distinction between silently gliding trains on narrow beams vs. noisy clickity-clack steel elevated rail like the El in Chicago.
Q. Describe for me the most enjoyable experience you've ever had on a monorail.
A. I've been fortunate enough to guest-drive on some great monorails, but the two top experiences were driving the Disneyland Monorail and Seattle Center Monorail. Disneyland was probably tops for me. I got interested in monorail thanks to Walt Disney and his interest in monorails for future transit. It just made so much sense to me, as well as millions of other young viewers of his TV show. To get to drive one of those trains was a dream come true, and the uniqueness of the alignment actually required some skills beyond just pushing the throttle stick forward. It has tight turns, hills to climb and descend, and some straight stretches for zipping along faster.
Q.You mentioned that the "old boy network" in Los Angeles has opposed proposals to build a monorail in the city. Why do they oppose a monorail? What about a subway system or light rail makes them prefer those modes of transportation?
The entire rail transportation infrastructure; the companies, unions, agencies, are all geared towards developing conventional steel rail. It's what they know best. Even though monorail can actually profit in many cases, a rarity in transit, the 'network' is more interested in who gets the contract and the larger amounts of money taxpayers can be suckered into paying. Las Vegas has a monorail because it was privately developed. I'm sure that if it had been government, they would have chosen more expensive ways to run trains through the city. That's what keeps happening across America.
I can't tell you how many times I've heard monorail of monorail proposals, only to be switched to steel rail when the 'experts' chime in.