why two rails per track is practically better than one.

in my responses to kat_chan‘s interview question yesterday, tiff_seattle asked an excellent question and made some popular points to mass transit solutions in the Puget Sound: “Why do you not like the monorail? It goes just as fast as light rail and is way cheaper. In fact, since the entire system will be grade separated the line would actually be faster than light rail.”

well, here are six points worth mulling over.

1. light rail is faster to build. the 11.6-mile Hiawatha Light Rail Transit line, going from downtown Minneapolis-to-MSP airport-to-Bloomington’s Mall of America, is slated to take three years to construct. this included the boring of a mile-plus twin tunnel in 2002, customized highway overpasses and the building of completely new tracks. even though public service won’t occur until spring 2004, light-rail trains have already begun to test the tracks there.

also, the 18-mile TriMet Blue Line in Portland is 18 miles long and only took five years to build. Portland now operates three lines — one of those slated to open next year.

the Green Line Monorail, from West Seattle-to-downtown-to-Ballard, is roughly planned to be about 14 miles with no tunnels and over an existing bridge. were construction to begin right now, the opening date would be 2009.

Seattle doesn’t have the luxury to wait. see #6.

2. light rail transit technology can operate at both street level and in elevated capacity. unlike monorail technology, light rail tracks can be laid into existing streets without impeding traffic. the average light rail train is roughly three to four cars long and can cross an intersection in about fifteen seconds or less. this can be timed with traffic lights in most cases.

this is advantageous because the right-of-ways for building a track on an existing wide street can still allow for automobile traffic on that street (usually reduced to one or two lanes, depending on its original one- or two-way intent, respectively).

take TriMet’s MAX service in Portland, for instance. because light rail tracks can be inset into a street (in this case, the Blue Line on Burnside Avenue in Portland/Gresham comes to mind), automobiles can cross the rail-enabled intersection without any problems (you don’t even notice it). this usually has minimal to no impact on cross-street traffic, and it permits pedestrians to access the services quicker and with less hassle of climbing or lifting to an elevated platform which also mars the cityscape in ways a ground-level line wouldn’t.

further, in places where no existing right-of-way roads exist for MAX’s Blue Line, the elevated technology works seamlessly.

because of monorail’s track structure, inlaid-flush street-level crossings are not possible. that proponents of monorail technology sell the point that monorail is “immune” to city traffic is a red herring on this point, because light rail can both exist on streets and do so without apparent traffic impediment.

3. the cost of maintaining light rail transit is lower. because light rail technology borrows heavily on existing dual-rail technology — a venerable format used since the 19th century — the cost of upkeep is lower. more mass transit systems globally (and especially in North America) use this technology, and the availability of parts and vendors is more plentiful. plus, the technology has proven itself to be reliable. further, track right-of-way, with special agreement, can be shared by other transit systems as the needs require, such as existing trolley service and the like.

4. monorail technology hates curves. it’s true. that’s the biggest contention facing monorail planning. the Green line tries to minimize the number of times it has to change direction, because monorail parts wear out quicker from changes in direction, resulting in more maintenance and higher long-term costs. local communities vying for access in their neighbourhood to the proposed Green Line have rendered the track options to be riddled with curves galore, which would spell misery for the upkeep of that track.

5. light rail is cheaper to build. case in point: the Hiawatha LRT in Minneapolis, at 11.6mi (plus the boring of two 1.2mi tunnels, one for each direction), runs at a cost of $674 million, most of that covered by the Federal government under its transportation initiatives. this is money that Minnesotans will not have to pay back. the Seattle Monorail green line, in comparison, at 14mi, is projected to cost $1.255 billion — pretty much double in cost, using today’s dollars. and much of that will be paid by a motor vehicle tax.

in Houston’s METRORail FAQ for the 7.5mi initial line currently being built from downtown-to-Medical Centre-to-Reliant Field/Astrodome complex (opening in 2004), question #6 addressed the monorail cost and maintenance option, which cites it as being prohibitively expensive (at least $1.3 billion — or more — for building monorail versus $324 million for building light rail).

Houston is interesting to note because it shares a lot in common with Seattle’s road pollution and automobile congestion problems — more so, perhaps, than the examples cited in Minneapolis, Portland or elsewhere.

also, it’s important to note that Houston’s inaugural METRORail project is slated to take three years to build.

6. Seattle doesn’t have the luxury to wait. it’s very understandable why Seattleites would be all for monorail technology. it ties into a local patriotism which reaches back over forty years and makes Seattle distinctively unique in contrast to other newer American cities. proponents also contend that monorail trains can travel faster than light rail trains.

but the technology, while impressive in itself, hasn’t taken off in several transit regions for the very reasons listed above. historically, the Puget Sound has flirted with several mass transit solutions, all to questionable or failed ends.

mass transit technology should have occurred in the area no later than 1993, but even now, car-dependent Puget Sound can do nothing to control its growth, unimpeded by how far one can drive. it’s not unheard of for people to drive into the city to their workplace from places as remote as Enumclaw, Cle Elum, Bellingham and Centralia. in some cases, this is well over 75 miles from downtown Seattle. in Minnesota terms, it’d be like driving from Albany, Eau Claire, New Ulm or even Willmar to Minneapolis for the same. in Portland, that’d be like driving from Hood River every day.

further, speed is not a primary consideration when navigating within the city limits. rather, reliability is. it doesn’t matter how fast a multi-stop train operates if all it’s doing is saving a minute or two with a rail line containing 5-minute rush-hour intervals anyway. you can get there from here in a minute or two slower on a more reliable technology like light rail, whereas the only option now is to be up to an hour late while being stuck in I-5 or Aurora/Alaskan Viaduct/99 traffic.

so, like, that’s what i’ve gotta say about the matter. i’d like to hear some comments.

  • 1. light rail is faster to build.

    That may be true in Minneapolis but not in Seattle. Sound Transit passed in 1996 and the first line will be up and running after the Green Line, which passed in 2002.

    2. light rail transit technology can operate at both street level and in elevated capacity.

    Light Rail running at grade is no faster than a bus though, as it has to wait for cross traffic and traffic signals.

    5. light rail is cheaper to build

    The light rail project in Seattle is running at a much higher cost per mile than the monorail, and will be finished after the monorail is finished.

    6. Seattle doesn’t have the luxury to wait.
    Agreed. I am looking forward to the day that these two projects are finished. Supposedly ground will break for light rail later this year, but I’m not holding my breath.

  • Another problem that some cities face when trying to build light rail projects is right-of-way acquisition if they try to connect areas in a counter-intuitive way. One example of this is the repeated (failed) attempts to bring light-rail to Cincinnati. They want to connect areas where the roads aren’t conducive to running rail lines, and there’s little desire to connect the suburbs to downtown (racial considerations a big part of that, to be sure). Oddly enough, in the area around the UC campus you can see where the old streetcar rails are emerging through the pavement (because they just threw asphalt on top of them when the old streetcar system was ditched in the 50s or 60s.

    On the other hand, Cleveland has resolved this problem by acquiring sections of rail that CSX/Conrail were abandoning and upgrading them for use as “rapid transit” rails. There are currently plans to run a diesel/electric hybrid bus system down Euclid Avenue from Public Square/Terminal Tower (where the main transit station is located) to Playhouse Square (where the main theatrical district is located) in an effort to bring the theatre-going crowd into their ridership, and then out to the University Circle area, where the two major hospitals are located. This project was originally to have been light-rail as well.

    The single biggest cost that I can see in a monorail is the need for the rail support, since it has to be elevated. And then it has to conform to a city that has grown without it, where the El systems in other cities were build as the city grew. And even Cleveland has the layout of a streetcar-city, making it more light-rail friendly. However, building at-grade rail is more economical, if not in the short-term, then definately in the long run.

    Another thing that could be slowing the light-rail proposal in comparison to the Green Line is if the light-rail is seeking federal funding. The Euclid Corridor project in Cleveland was first proposed (in my memory) back in about 1987, and only in 2002 was it finally cleared for federal dollars. Smaller projects, like the Waterfront Line, were undertaken with local money (especially due to increased revenues from increased ridership when the Jacobs Field/Gund Arena complex opened), and planned and completed while the Euclid Corridor project languished, awaiting federal pork.

    But in the end, anything that cleans the air (and gets the mountain out more) will be great for Seattle. However, the economies of scale need to be taken into account. The available data seems to suggest that light-rail is more economical than monorail, and if this is the case, it is the best way to go. (Oh, and wouldn’t light-rail work better on a landmark suspension bridge across Lake Washington, compared with monorail?)

    • the powder keg.

      ummm, well, i think you might wanna have a long read and see the lovely fun happening over on in light of my mirrored posting earlier today.


      and by no means does it show any semblance of abating anytime soon.

      • Re: the powder keg.

        People identify too closely with the monorail, eh? Of all the leftover crap from the 1962 Fair, they like that?

      • Re: the powder keg.

        modernism brings out the most irrational passions in people.

        that is, after all, why it’s art. i find it amazing.

      • Re: the powder keg.

        I guess it’s just one of those things. To me, all a monorail makes me think of is the “Music Man” spoof they did on “The Simpsons”. I’ll have to read all the Seattlite justifications.

        And isn’t is more important to “waste” that tax money on schools? Especially if light-rail is cheaper. Just think of how that surplus could aid the schools!

  • light rail tangles up w/traffic, it’s irritating enough that los angeles puts work into completely seperating the two. there’s already heavy rail for the burbs. plus the cities that got monorail? like it. i want my monorail!

  • re light rail not impeding traffic: when i worked at port of seattle my window overlooked an intersection of light rail and road, and witnessed collisions (guard rail onto car, car into guard rail, car into other car trying to get around the rails at the same time, etc etc) and it’s pretty ugly when the rail car has to jam on its brakes b/c people are just too fucking stupid to handle intersections.