Last week we looked at some possible future trends in urban motor coach transportation – those that rode on good ole’ terrestrial mother earth. But there is another mass transit option that due to a variety of factors, may offer a cost effective supplement to buses and light rail – a form of elevated railway; the monorail. Monorails derive their name from the single beam that provides coaches both support and guidance.
Why and how are monorails cost effective? Two main reasons; first, they typically follow an existing right-of-way, such as a large street, requiring space only for the supporting pillars, and second, stations are built vertically over these right-of-ways, again lessening the footprint (and cost).
Here in Japan, where urban congestion and high land prices limit expanding roadways or adding new rail lines, monorail systems have proven both popular and profitable. Let’s take a quick look at two…
The Tokyo Tama Line is fortunately fairly near our home – no station is nearby but it intersects with several other rail commuter lines that are close. Opened in 1998, the system serves western Tokyo with a total of 19 individual stations over a 19 kilometer route.
The Tama Line is a “straddle” type monorail – where the coach sits on the guiderail (in comparison to a “suspended” type with the guiderail above).
The coaches are built by Hitachi, and this design has been standardized for all straddle-type monorails in Japan – they are approximately 3 meters wide and 63 meters long. Each car as two bogies, with 4 rubber tired drive-wheels per bogie. The horizontal wheels secure the coach to the beam, and serve as guides.
A typical train consists of four coaches with a total passenger load of 632 – 156 seated. Trains can reach speeds of 60 mph.
Our other monorail is in Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo, sitting opposite Tokyo Bay. Chiba City is served by the “Townliner” – a “suspended” monorail, which is the longest such system in the world. Built in 1988, it currently extends for 16 kilometers with 18 stations – and a new 2 km extension is under study.
There are several different types of suspended systems – Chiba uses the SAFEGE design; a hollow steel box that serves as the support and guiderail – the bogies are contained within this box. Contrary to what one may assume, SAFEGE isn’t a product of General Electric – the acronym actually stands for the French consortium Société Anonyme Française d’ Etude de Gestion, which first developed this design in the 1960s. This system works well in locations with frequent inclement weather – as the drive assemblies and guiderail are protected from the elements.
Coaches are constructed by Mitsubishi – new, updated models were introduced in 2012. Trains run in pairs and max speed is 50 mph.
The Chiba monorail has very high ridership rates.
The Tokyo Tama Line also has expansion plans – on the books is an extension with an end terminal just a few blocks from our home – it’s one of the transportation initiatives for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Good timing, as by then I’ll be eligible for my senior citizen “Golden Card” discount…
Fun Fact: Ever wonder why monorail systems today appear rather boxy, and nothing like the futuristic, streamlined models similar to the one at Disneyland? Well, while those old designs looked great from the outside, inside they were very cramped. The bogies, other drive systems, auxiliary controls, etc., all intruded into the passenger area. Rather than a flat floor, these large protrusions limited space, hindered passenger flow, and made for awkward seating. Modern straddle coaches like those on the Tama Line put all those components under the floor and on the sides, maximizing the cabin area, but resulting in a somewhat boxy, bland design.