Monorail, why isn’t there more systems in the US?

The Walt Disney World Monorail is one of only a handful of monorail systems in operation in the United States. Seattle and Las Vegas also have monorail lines. Photo Credit: HARTride 2012. March, 2014.
The Walt Disney World Monorail is one of only a handful of monorail systems in operation in the United States. Seattle and Las Vegas also have monorail lines. Photo Credit: HARTride 2012. March, 2014.

One mode of public transportation that has always fascinated me is the monorail. Unlike conventional urban trains, like subways, monorails comprise of a one-beam track system and can either be built like something shown in the photo above, or as a suspended model, where trains are suspended below the beam. Monorails have long been touted as “the wave of the future” in public transit, allowing for a unique alternative to sitting in traffic or even using congested bus lines. The relatively narrow footprint of a monorail line can easily beat out building a conventional rail line, but the downside is that all stations are elevated, requiring elevator access for wheelchair customers.

Although many monorail systems exist worldwide (including a few lines that are either planned or under construction in Sao Paulo, Brazil), only a handful of them exist in the United States. Furthermore, many systems (both in the US and abroad) are primarily hinge off tourist traffic or are part of an amusement park or zoo, creating a negative stigma that monorails are nothing more than an amusement ride rather than meaningful public transportation. This negative stigma plagues systems like the Las Vegas Monorail, the Seattle Monorail, and the Newark International Airport AirTrain.

The Las Vegas Monorail in particular has been dealing with lower than projected ridership and its operating company filed for bankruptcy protection in 2010. Two extension proposals, one towards downtown Las Vegas, and another towards McCarran Airport have both been cancelled, with only a revised extension to the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino remaining alive. It is currently unclear if the latest plans will pull through to reality, and plans for an underground light rail/pre-metro line appears to be taking priority over any subsequent monorail extension plans. The Newark AirTrain is currently being debated for replacement due to its short projected lifespan of only 25 years, and replacing the monorail with either another monorail system or other mode of rail transport has proven to be costly. This leads some to believe that the AirTrain will be ultimately replaced in the short term by buses.

Even talk about building a monorail system in Tampa Bay has been nothing more than just talk. To the best of my knowledge, there have not been any official plans for any monorail lines in Central Florida outside of Walt Disney World.

On top of the theme park stigma and elevated stations; constructing monorail lines often have to deal with the usual transportation challenges such as land acquisition, track and station construction, manufacturing rolling stock, etc. and all of the associated costs. All of this is already on top of the general anti-rail sentiment that has filled many parts of the car-dependent US.

So the bottom line is, until monorails can prove to the US that they can be a reliable public transportation model, don’t expect any new lines to be built for the foreseeable future.

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