Ronin of the Spirit

Because reality is beautiful.

The monorail of the future!

So the other day I commented on someone’s Monorail post. There are not nearly enough posts about monorails on wordpress. I love monorail hype. In fact monorail hype is so bad that I call any person pedaling any technology that claims benefits completely out of proportion to its ability “monorailers”.

(This comes from a claim I read on someone’s page once that said that small monorails could end sexual discrimination and racism. The theory was this: Increased travel opportunities would allow the disadvantaged to get out of their disadvantaged communities and compete for jobs with advantaged people from advantaged communities. If we just built this guy’s pet transit technology, BOOM no more racism or sexism. I love it.)

Anyway, monorails have the best hype because everyone knows that people in the future will ride monorails everywhere. (See picture to left). To quote a favorite website of mine “It wasn’t that long ago that we had a future. I mean, we have one now; the world isn’t going to crash into the Sun or anything like that. What I mean is that we had a future that we could clearly imagine. The future wasn’t tomorrow, next week, next year, or next century. It was a place with a form, a structure, a style.” And part of that vision was monorails.

I admit it when I visualize a hip, green future, it is a city covered with voluptuously curved buildings of pure white concrete and sparking glass. Where roads of wheezing autos were once locked in traffic, long narrow meadows blow gently in the breeze in the spindly shadows of silent monorails.

So why don’t we have more of them? Well, the truth about monorails is this: they are unique adaptation of narrow gauge rail fitted with rubber tires. That’s all folks.

Narrow gauge has numerous advantages in hilly terrain. It can climb steeper hills and take tighter turns while moving freight through small right of ways. Often it is the railway system of choice when the rail is used only lightly, as it is much cheaper to build and operate. Least you think narrow gauge is old fashioned, truly tiny trains (as tiny as 18″ gauge) receive very heavy duty use in some of the most modern mines in the world. Narrow gauge carries passengers and freight all the world over (1 meter gauge). And is the backbone of Australian sugar production in the form of a 460 mile 24″ gauge fully dieselized line. (here)

Rubber tired trains, on the other hand sound retarded. Isn’t the whole benefit to rail the absurd efficiencies of steel wheels on steel rail (about 99.994 percent efficient in lab conditions)? So why a rubber tired one? Well, steel on steel’s superb lack of friction becomes a real liability when one needs to do anything where traction rather than efficiency is of prime importance. Hill climbing is one of these situations. Rubber tired trains can climb grades of up to 13%. ( More than 680 ft of rise per mile) They brake faster and are quieter and smoother. The big disadvantage to rubber tired trains is that they require guide rails as well as concrete or steel “rails” to carry the tires.

Enter the monorail. A single rail, around a meter wide. The train runs on truck tires on the rail and holds onto the sides as well as the top. This means aside from the advantages of narrow gauge (tight turns, steep grades) and the advantages of rubber tired trains (very steep grades, quite operation, rapid speed change) it has the final advantage of being able to handle very steep embankments (since it can’t fall over, even if it stops on one.)

So why don’t we see them every day?

(1.) The guideway (beam) is both structural (like a bridge) and precision guiding (like rail). Large load carrying members made to .005 precision are expensive. Theoretically, in mass production it should be cheaper since the two operations are combined but this savings is hard to realize in real life.

(2.)The guideway is big, and cannot ever cross roads at grade level. Grade separation is safer. It is also expensive.

(3.) Switching T-rail is easy. Switching multi-ton beams isn’t. Switches are expensive. (Not impossible mind you, just pricey.)

(4.) Full size trains put such huge loads on such tiny areas that any ice or water on the rail is literally vaporized at the contact patch. Narrow gauges don’t put down that kind of load and require manicured track. Rubber tired trains have even softer contact and so they require very clean “tracks”. Since a monorail is just a rubber tired narrow gauge, they require constant guideway attention during rain/snow/sleet etc.) Again, this can be done but at a cost. (One in Russia just uses a steam heated guideway.)

(5.) Elevated trains are not fun, easy, or cheap to evacuate.

So why is monorail used at all? At its own line of work, nothing is better. Monorail is absolutely ideal for what it is used for worldwide: grade separated mass transit that must operate through narrow and hilly city corridors. If the train has to be elevated anyway, then the prefab monorail guideways are cheaper than bridge + rail. If it is narrow and hilly, than rubber tires make more sense than steel. If people have to walk under it and live by it, rubber tires are nice. So, as I said, IDEAL for elevated urban corridors.

But I stand by my idea: monorail is rubber tired narrow gauge. Use it where it works, but let’s not pretend it is anything more than that.


April 13, 2008 - Posted by | Ecology | , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Are those Nazis I see in the window of that monorail on the cover of Popular Mechanics?

    Comment by CC | April 13, 2008 | Reply

  2. Wow…I totally did not see that. It sure looks like Nazi’s. Just what is this blog promoting? 🙂

    Comment by ladyrebecca | April 13, 2008 | Reply

  3. Great post- I’ve long held that narrow gauge could have a future in rural transport where a monorail is far roo expensive and they need to shift freight and passenger I see the point though that monorail can be useful in cities, although a tad pricey. They ran fairly sucessfully here in Wuppertal, though I think that system uses steel wheels. I’ll have to have a look.

    Comment by Andy in Germany | April 19, 2008 | Reply

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