July 01, 2007

Special Report | Monorails: Back to the future

Monorail technology has long stirred images of sophistication, speed, and modernity. No longer confined to amusement park applications, several monorail vendors have set their sights on cities, both in the developed and developing world. The idea of whisking customers quietly and swiftly above city streets has prompted more than a few officials to investigate the monorail option.

Unfortunately, the reality of monorail technology has failed to match its promise. Instead of ushering in a new era of clean and rapid public transport, monorails have had an uneven history of limited corridors that have proven to be financially unsustainable. Beyond the costly collapse of projects in Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya and Seattle, the technology has little to show in terms of actual implementation. At the same time, the disruption caused by cities pursuing monorails has meant that more realisable and more effective forms of public transport are often ignored.

A promising beginning

Monorail’s modernistic status emanates from both the sleek appearance of the technology as well as its early application in high-profile settings, such as at World’s Fairs and amusement parks.

Monorail systems are a single track technology that generally operates on an elevated structure. While the concept had been known since the 19th Century, the modern era of monorails was perhaps launched in 1959 with the development of a monorail at the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim (US).

Subsequently, more practical, commuter systems have been developed, such as the systems in Osaka and Tokyo. Most of these applications are in Japan and most only consist of a few kilometres of track. Excluding amusement parks and zoos, there are currently 13 monorail systems in operation today: Jacksonville, Las Vegas, Seattle, Sydney, Qiongquing, Osaka, Tokyo, Tama, Hiroshima, Naha, Kokura, Chiba City, and Kuala Lumpur. In addition, Maglev systems, such as the one operated in Shanghai, can be considered a form of a monorail technology. None of these existing systems have actual ridership levels greater than 5,000 passengers per hour per direction.

Like all technologies, monorail possesses many positive attributes as well as limitations that should be considered in any decision-making process. Some of the advantages of monorails include:

  • Relatively quiet ride performance (since monorails actually use rubber tire technology for traction with the median rail)
  • Excellent safety record in systems to date (the nature of the technology means that a derailment is nearly impossible)
  • Sophisticated image that can help attract discretionary public transport users

At the same time, there are some issues that merit further consideration when evaluating a monorail option:

  • Infrastructure costs can be relatively expensive (especially when compared to Bus Rapid Transit and Light Rail options)
  • Use of single rail means that required turning radius is greater than twin rail systems (and thus implying limitations in design of routing alignment)
  • As an elevated system, monorails can create access issues for customers moving from the surface level to platform (especially for the physically disadvantaged) (Figure 2)
  • Elevated structures can create visual intrusions in the urban environment (Figure 3)
  • Elevated structure implies that emergency evacuation can be difficult
  • Potential frequency of train sets can be limited by the challenges of rail switching for monorail systems

Perhaps the most successful application to date has been in Osaka (Japan). The 28-kilometre (17.4-mile) system connects the Osaka Airport to the University of Osaka as well as several northern neighbourhoods in the city (Figure 4). The system also runs along the site of the 1970 World’s Fair. The Hitachi-built system features a comfortable passenger environment, professional and courteous staff, clean and modern station areas with enclosed areas providing either air conditioning or heating, and even bicycle rentals at stations.

While certainly impressive, Osaka-type systems are perhaps limited in market reach due to both infrastructure and operating costs. The Osaka system cost approximately US$ 120 million per kilometre to construct. Further, in order to partially cover operating costs, the system must charge fares of between US$ 2 and US$ 4.50. Being a relatively affluent city, Osaka has been able to make its monorail a success and a source of pride.

Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya

Prior to the development of the Kuala Lumpur monorail in 2003, the technology was the domain of North American, European, and Japanese manufacturers. By contrast, the Kuala Lumpur system was constructed by MTrans Holdings and managed by KL Infrastructure Group Bhd (KLIG), both indigenous firms of Malaysia.

The Kuala Lumpur monorail (8.6 kilometres/5.3 miles) was constructed over a five-year period. The system experienced a difficult opening as an accident at the time of launch resulted in a journalist, David Cheliah, being seriously injured by a falling part. Mr. Cheliah was a pedestrian below the system when part of the undercarriage fell from the train. A financial settlement was eventually reached, but the negative publicity greatly harmed the system’s image.

Due to the Kuala Lumpur monorail’s cost structure and limited capacity, the system has had to rely heavily upon operational subsidies. During the system’s first 8 months of operations, operational debts of RM 46.24 million (US$ 13.6 million) were accumulated.

In May 2007, the Kuala Lumpur monorail system went into receivership after KLIG failed to repay a loan to a Malaysian bank. The system is now in the hands of Bank Pembangunan Malaysia Bhd. In the wake of the system’s bankruptcy, the public sector will now be responsible for taking over the system’s debt of approximately RM 906 million (US$ 266.5 million).

MTrans also received a contract for a new system in Putrajaya, the new capital city of Malaysia. Some construction work began in 2005 but was subsequently halted due to financial problems. The construction pillars of the abandoned system remain in place in Putrajaya.

Las Vegas and Seattle

Two of the newest attempts at monorail implementation have been in the United States, with the cities of Las Vegas and Seattle. Both of these systems, though, have had rather tumultuous histories.>

Like the unfortunate incident in Kuala Lumpur, the Las Vegas monorail has had parts of the carriages fall to the ground in at least two occasions. Further, an incident occurred in which doorways opened while in operation along an open portion of the track. The system thus underwe

nt two costly system closures while Bombardier, the system manufacturers, sorted out the technical problems. The Las Vegas monorail is currently embroiled in a financial crisis. The system cost a reported US$ 101.6 million per kilometre ($ 163.9 million per mile) for the 6.4 kilometre (4 mile) corridor. Each day the system is losing approximately US$ 70,000. To improve the financial basis for the system, the operators raised fares in 2006 to US$ 5 per single trip. While this marginally improved total revenues, the higher fare reduced the number of customers able to afford the system.

Seattle’s “Green Line” monorail system was to connect the West Seattle community of Ballard with central city destinations, including businesses and sports stadiums. The planned 22.4 kilometre (13.9 mile) corridor was to be just the first of five monorail lines operating in the city. The project was approved in a 1997 public referendum.>

The Green Line project was eventually de-railed due to escalating costs, which included US$ 2 billion in construction costs and US$ 9 billion in financing costs. In a subsequent public referendum in November 2005, sixty-five percent of Seattle’s voters moved to cancel the project. By order of the City Council, the project office has been disbanded, although millions of dollars was spent on planning a system that was never developed.

Jakarta

A range of other projects are “in development”, although it is unclear the extent to which actual implementation will be realised. Most often, when municipal officials are approached to consider monorail systems, they are presented with very misleading information about the profitability and capacity of the system. Often the monorail developer will tell a city that they will not be required to invest any money, all they ask is for the city to provide a ridership or revenue guarantee, meanwhile presenting very optimistic projected ridership estimates based on very sketchy planning techniques. They also often claim monorails can move tens of thousands of passengers per hour, but then present technical details for systems with far lower capacity.

Since 2003, Jakarta (Indonesia) has been considering two monorail lines in the city. The “Green Line” and “Blue Line” are envisioned to include a total of 27.8 kilometres (17.3 miles) of track, and will service many central district destinations. The project was originally awarded to MTrans Holdings of Malaysia. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with MTrans was subsequently cancelled, and the project was then awarded to a Singaporean-led consortium (Omnico), which first proposed Hitachi technology and later switched to South Korean maglev technology. By July 2005, another consortium appeared on the scene with Siemens technology being offered. This merry-go-round of firms has led to several legal challenges which have further delayed the project.

The Jakarta system developers seem to have employed a sort of “Trojan Horse” strategy in attempting to win project approval. This technique has been practiced elsewhere in which private sector developers attempt to quickly gain city and provincial commitments to major investments. In each case, the developer has received permission to quickly put in place a skeleton of construction pillars to encourage a sense of inevitability to the project. It is expected that governments will then make a full project commitment when faced with the prospect of having derelict infrastructure lining the streets
(Figure 6).

Numerous other cities, including Rio de Janeiro, Hyderabad, and many other Indian and Chinese cities have been similarly approached to consider monorail systems.

South Africa

Despite the bankruptcy of the Kuala Lumpur system and the financial collapse of the Putrajaya project, the Malaysian monorail developers have attempted to develop new markets elsewhere. The most recent target has been South Africa. With South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 World Cup looming, a Malaysian consortium, known as Newcyc Vision, has targeted South African cities as a prime market.

In fact, on 16 May 2006, the very day of the bankruptcy of the Kuala Lumpur system, Newcyc Vision, announced a project commitment to build a 45-kilometre (28-mile) system in Johannesburg. The system would link Soweto directly with the central business district of Johannesburg. The estimated infrastructure cost of the system is R 12 billion (US$ 1.7 billion), or US$ 38.1 million per kilometre.

While the exact financial arrangements on the Johannesburg project are unclear, it appears that the system developers will be awarded with land, property, and a ridership guarantee. As part of the deal, the consortium will be given public property in the central business district as well as along the corridor for development. Also, as is increasingly the case of many rail-based PPPs (Public-Private Partnerships), the developers will be guaranteed a minimum number of daily passengers. If that guaranteed ridership does not materialise, the South African government (i.e. South African taxpayers) will make up the difference. The costly Gautrain system, a previously approved rail system for the Johannesburg area, also provides a private consortium with rather generous ridership guarantees.

As in other cities, the Johannesburg project promoters have made some rather bold claims regarding the monorail system’s likely performance and ridership. At the initial press conferences to announce the project, the Province of Gauteng and Newcyc Vision claimed that the Johannesburg system would be able to carry 1.5 million passengers per day. Given that this amount is roughly equal to all public transport trips in the city, it was a bit difficult to believe this ridership could be achieved on a single corridor. Further, given that no monorail system is currently serving more than 5,000 passengers per peak hour per direction, increasing this by an order of magnitude in low-density South African conditions seems optimistic. However, if given ridership guarantees by the Government, then perhaps the system developers have no real concern regarding the actual performance.

The proposed monorail alignment will also largely duplicate the proposed Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project that has already been approved and is under planning in Johannesburg. The future of the Rea Vaya project may become somewhat doubtful if the monorail project proceeds.

Fortunately, the Johannesburg project announcement now appears to have been premature. Apparently, the project developers forgot to notify the Mayor of Johannesburg and the City Council, who have responsibility over public space in the city, as well as the National Minister of Transport, who holds responsibility over rail systems nationally. In an unprecedented move, the National Transport Minister Jeff Radebe was forced to make a press statement in which he noted that he had no prior knowledge to the project’s existence. The project has thus been retracted to the status of being “under review”.

Undeterred, though, by this initial setback, the Gauteng Provincial Government and Newcyc Vision have instead insisted that they will continue pursuing the project not only in Johannesburg but also other South African municipalities, including Tshwane (Pretoria) and Ekhuruleni. Hopefully, reason will prevail and the Gauteng projects will be forced to go through an open and transparent process in which there is full public financial disclosure and as well as a full comparative analysis with all other public transport options.

Conclusions

Monorail technology does hold many intriguing performance aspects as well as an image that can potentially be attractive to discretionary public transport users, and especially to car owners. While the Malaysian monorail systems have experienced financial difficulties, there is a glimmer of hope that these systems can evolve into well-performing and lower-cost services, as was originally envisioned.

However, that future is yet to arrive. To date, monorail technology has suffered from operational difficulties, negative press coverage, and a spate of bankruptcies. As technologies such as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) have delivered quality services at rational costs to a long list of cities, including Bogotá, Brisbane, Curitiba, Guayaquil, Jakarta, Los Angeles, Ottawa, Paris, Rouen, and Seoul, monorails have achieved nowhere near the same record of implementation or performance.

It would perhaps be unfortunate if the unrealised promises of monorails deter actual public transport advancements in South Africa and elsewhere. Monorail developers dream of taking us back to the future, but the hard reality is that our world cities require quality public transport today.

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