What makes a monorail vital to the city community?
This is the question that town planners and the
community should be asking themselves. This is the
question that every stakeholder should be asking
before substantial funds are spent on constructing
a rail system.
A city should be very sure of how the rail system
can benefit the bustling metropolitan. In the case
of monorails, we are confident of the many proven
advantages the system can offer to any growing city.
Could it be due to the fact the monorail is likely
to be the cheapest of all rail systems; there by
helping to save tax payers’ money? Or could
it be that future monorails, by leveraging on magnetic
levitation technology could make travel much faster
Or perhaps it’s due to the fact that the
monorail is arguably the only rail system that cannot
Any of these arguments make for a compelling case.
But we believe that by travelling down yesteryear
and making stops at the various transit points or
milestones of monorail history, one is able to see
just why the system should be a vital component
of future urban transportation.
Introducing the monorail – a thing
of science and beauty
The monorail is a vehicle that operates on a single
concrete or steel beam, hence the word ‘mono’
– which means one.
This beam is also known as a guideway. In monorails,
the guideways are always narrower than the train
it supports (around 0.6-0.9 metres wide). This is
one of the fundamental features of the monorail
which gives it a competitive advantage over other
Most monorails are elevated (run above ground)
and are electricity powered. They can be classified
into three versions:
• Straddle Beam
The straddle version is the most common type of
monorail. Basically, the train straddles the single
concrete or steel guideway. A rubber-tired carriage
contacts the beam on the top and both sides for
traction and to stabilise the vehicle.
The suspended version has the train supported from
the top. The train and the rolling stock (passenger
cars) are suspended beneath the wheel carriage;
with the wheels riding within the single beam.
• Maglev (Magnetic Levitation)
In a maglev monorail, the train is connected through
the use of magnetic levitation. The magnetic effect
keeps the train on track. When moving, maglev trains
hover over the track. The advantage of this technology
is that maglev trains can reach top speeds exceeding
Today, there are several monorail designs which are commonplace, but perhaps the most common is the beam variant, which can be seen in many cities across the world. These include Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Tokyo (Japan) and Las Vegas (USA).
The Early Years
The monorail is actually older than cars, trucks
and other automotives.
It has been in existence since the 19th century,
proving that even in those early days, the need
for mass people or cargo mover was already well
received among industrialists and town planners.
The first effective monorail system
was the Cheshunt Railway which appeared in 1825.
The Cheshunt made history when it carried passengers
and helped pave the way for more advanced trains.
The turn of the century signalled a new age
in monorail development. 1914 saw the arrival
of the Genova monorail – the world’s
first straddle type monorail. But it was only
in the last 60 years that the monorail began
to gain momentum.
In the 1950’s, a combination of larger
beams or guideways, with wheels that both supported
and guided the train allowed for the birth of
the modern monorail. These early frontrunners
were the ALWEG straddle design and subsequently,
the suspended type, SAFEGE system.
The 1960’s saw monorails operating in full scale
mass transit operations as the demand for alternative
urban transportation grew rapidly. Cities who adopted
these 60’s monorails included:
• Seattle, USA (1962)
• Tokyo, Japan (1964)
• Various Europeans cities across the continent
(throughout the 1960’s)
Monorails were also proving useful for shuttle services
in theme parks and airports. Major monorails were
installed at Disneyland, California, Seattle, and
The next 40 years has witnessed remarkable development,
particularly due to the advances in technology,
materials and engineering capability. Monorails
from their functional form have been remodelled
to become aesthetically pleasing people movers.
Naturally, technology has made these trains more
comfortable, faster and better performing ‘people
Today, monorails now dot the city landscapes of
a vast number of cities including:
• Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
• Las Vegas, USA
• ChongQing, China
• Okinawa, Japan
• Kitakyushu, Japan
The next 40 years will witness remarkable development, particularly due to the advances in technology, materials and engineering capability. Monorails from their functional form are being remodelled to become aesthetically pleasing people movers and naturally, technology will make these trains more comfortable, faster and better performing.
A Cost Effective Urban Solution
The most pronounced factor that cannot be ignored about monorails is cost. This is evident when the monorail is compared to several various rail systems in the world:
Monorail vs. Other systems
Cost/km (USD million)
West Rail Hong Kong
Manila Line 3 Ext
Source: SNC-Lavalin Inc; the Monorail Society
Note: Cost/km includes capital cost excluding land
Perhaps the most interesting revelation of monorails is that with its lower cost, a properly run system can generate profits. The 8-mile Tokyo-Haneda Monorail in Japan, which has been in operation since 1962, has been making profits every year.
In truth, the monorail offers cost savings upon cost savings, along the whole process of its implementation. From the start, by only requiring a single beam as well as by being elevated, the monorail system only needs a fraction of the footprint of other rail systems.
Smaller footprints mean less space needed for track construction and less material used. The construction process is also faster, meaning that local residents and businesses face less disruption or even avoid relocation costs altogether, ultimately providing cost savings.
Once the monorail is already up and running, it is also often cheaper and more efficient than other modes of transportation. The Kuala Lumpur Monorail, for example, offers transport to the whole of downtown Kuala Lumpur for as low as RM1.20 (USD0.38) to a maximum of RM2.50 (USD0.78).
How else can you enjoy such swift, comfortable travel, accompanied by a great elevated view of the city, at this cheap rate? Contrast this with the cost (in time and money) of other modes of transport, from buses to taxis to other rail systems.
Better Safety, Convenience & Comfort
The monorail also offers a host of other clear competitive advantages, from safety to convenience and manoeuvrability, over many other common urban transportation methods.
Unlike the underground or subway system, whole streets need not be shut down due to monorail construction works. With its single beam and elevated design, the monorail’s small footprint makes it ideal for urban environments where construction, expenditure and environmental impact need to be minimised.
The monorail also solves one of the most common concerns about trains – derailment. Unlike conventional rail systems, monorails wrap around their track and are thus not physically capable of derailing, unless the track itself suffers a catastrophic failure. This itself is very rare.
The vehicle and rolling stock is firmly secured on the guideway for a firm grip so that passengers will always be safe during their journey.
The monorail is a grade separated system with a smaller footprint than the light rail or metro systems.
And by producing only 75dBA, the latter is far quieter, which is a very critical factor in cities where people live close to rail tracks. The light rail system emits noise up to 90dBA.
The use of rubber wheels instead of steel reduces the noise level and also allows for steeper ascent along gradients of up to 6 degrees.
Another key feature is the monorail’s ability to easily manoeuvre tight corners within a 50-metre turning radius. Other rail systems need at least a 100m-150m equivalent. This means that the tracks can be placed with greater flexibility around buildings. The monorail system has the capability to work within the existing infrastructure of the city with less need to relocate or demolish structures.
The importance is not so much in the buildings, but also to the livelihood of residents, who will not be affected. Imagine if blocks of buildings had to be demolished and people relocated to other areas to build other rail systems that require larger construction area. The socio-political and economic impact can be costly.
The monorail offers a much more responsible answer.
An Eco-friendly Answer to Urban Woes
The monorail reduces the public’s dependence on automobiles – giving them an alternative to battling downtown traffic crawls and rising fuel prices. The best option they enjoy is the choice of whether a car is needed at all.
With the monorail, people are less dependent on private-owned transport. If they don’t need cars so much, there will be fewer cars on the road. This leads to reduced carbon emissions, less air and noise pollution, traffic woes and the stress that comes from driving in a congested city. The result is better environment quality and quality of life for urbanites.
What we look forward to now is how monorails hold more environmentally friendly possibilities for our world. Think of the day, for example, when monorails can run on solar power. After all, with their elevated positioning, the train and its rolling truck are already exposed to sunlight – why not harness it?
These are among the possibilities that we are looking into for the future, and the legacy we would like to leave for our future generations.
Imagine…a completely self-powered, environmentally friendly urban transportation solution for the people. If and when it happens, this would indeed be one of the biggest breakthroughs of our time.
When you look at its long and illustrious history, together with its many strong factors, there is ample justification for the monorail to be part of a long-term urban transportation plan.
History shows that the monorail has served us well for almost 100 years and, with its many competitive advantages and possibilities, it has a bright future. One we'd say could extend to another 100 years or perhaps with technological advances; even more.