The Disney Monorail: Trains of Tomorrow

The Disney Monorail: An appreciation of the 'Trains of Tomorrow'!

"We keep moving forward, opening new doors and doing new things..." Walt Disney once said in reference to how he encouraged his creative teams to work. This became especially evident with Tomorrowland at Disneyland in Anaheim, California. On June 14, 1959 Disney added multiple new attractions to the land including what is now referred to as the Disneyland Monorail, the first daily operating system of its kind in the western hemisphere.

Fifty years later, the Disneyland Monorail is still in operation and a larger counterpart has since been opened at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. Although monorail systems are being expanded and developed around the world, they are only highly used at theme parks within the United States. This leaves many American travellers wondering why monorail systems are not more widely used in urban commuting environments.

Although the opening of the monorail at Disneyland was the first time a single rail system was ever given international public exposure, it was in no way considered a new invention. The first known monorail system used for passenger transportation was developed in 1825 in Cheshunt, England; it was powered by a single horse. Over fifty years later, General Le-Roy Stone developed a steam powered monorail in the United States.

Another monorail landmark was in 1887, the Enos Electric Company of New Jersey created an electric powered monorail system. This was also the first time that the monorail track was made of steel instead of wood. Moving to 1952, Doctor Axel Lennart Wenner-Gren (ALWEG) developed the ALWEG monorail which reached speeds of approximately one hundred miles an hour, one of the fastest monorails built at that time. After being developed further into a more commuter friendly design, the ALWEG monorail system reached its modern form in 1957. Finally, in 1959, the Disneyland ALWEG Monorail was opened to the public.

The star treatment that the Disneyland ALWEG Monorail was given might have also been the systems downfall. Sadly, the innovation behind Tomorrowland has become lost. What was designed to be a showcase of what the future held became more of a showcase of futuristic looking attractions. Tomorrowland is "a step into the future with predictions of constructive things to come," Walt declared, when the land was originally dedicated. Although the monorail was supposed to be a representative of mass transit for the future, it became more characterized as an iconic attraction for theme parks.

With monorail systems being thought of as tourist attractions, it becomes highly possible that that thought process has prevented monorails from being widely used, at least within the United States. Despite being thought of as a tourist attraction, the success of the monorail systems at Disney theme parks should have been enough for people to see how well they operate as part of a mass transportation system.

By far, the most popular monorail systems were built by ALWEG. They stood behind their product to the point that they offered to build complete monorail systems for cities at no cost. Through this project, the Seattle Monorail was built for the 1962 World Trade Fair, costing the company $3.5 million. By the end of the six month long fair, ALWEG had made back their original investment and was making a profit through the fees being charged to use the system (Seattle History). With the monorail being built specifically for the World Trade Fair, ALWEG received its investment back easily and rapidly. Looking beyond that, the monorail proved to be a reliable transportation source for the massive amounts of people that headed to the trade fair. If it was not reliable, other forms of transportation would have quickly taken the spotlight.

A year later, ALWEG went to the city of Los Angeles to propose a monorail system. "The company said that if it were allowed to build the system, it would give the monorails to us for free -- absolutely gratis. The company would operate the system and collect the fare revenues," Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451, said in a 2006 editorial; Bradbury was at the meeting when the original proposal was presented to the council. ALWEG was going to look at expanding the system for multiple "monorails crossing L.A. north, south, east and west," Bradbury later mentioned.

The plan was unfortunately rejected by the city council. What seemed to be the dominant factor for the Los Angeles City Council rejecting the monorail came from oil company lobbyists using their influence. By keeping the monorail system out of the city, oil companies were able to maintain their fuel supply monopoly for private and mass transit operations. As a consequence of rejecting the offer, traffic issues were made worse due to the growing use of private automobiles. After a hiatus of not having any public transportation, the Los Angeles City Council started to build the subway system that the city has today. However, the construction of the subway was paid for by the tax payers of Los Angeles; subway manufactures did not offering their services nearly as cheap as ALWEG had offered.

Shortly before ALWEG closed in 1967, they gave other companies a license to use their technology. The most notable company with the license was Hitachi. The company has since delivered eleven different monorail systems world wide including eight in Japan, one of the world's most highly populated areas (Monorail Delivery). Since Japan was willing to develop numerous monorails, it can be assumed that the systems have become an intricate part of daily transportation, not simply used as an attraction for site seeing around the cities.

Taking the lead, Japan has given a prime example of what monorail systems can do for mass public transportation, even in dense urban environments. The Osaka city monorail opened in 1990 with over four miles of track. With the extensions that are being built, the monorail will eventually be travelling about thirty-one miles through the city and neighboring communities (Monorail of Japan). The commitment of building over twenty-seven additional miles of track shows how much of a cornerstone that the monorail system has become in Japan's public mass transportation network. It further shows how well monorail systems can help keep people moving to where they want to go.

The safety of monorail trains is undeniable. For example, the Osaka monorail was able to remain running after an earthquake in 1995 struck the local area, helping many locals to leave the city when highways were congested (Monorail of Japan). Searching through assorted sources for monorail accidents, their safety was further supported.

The only accident widely publicized was the incident that happened in Walt Disney World at the beginning of July 2009. It occurred during an end of the day procedure and caused the death of the pilot that was controlling one of the two trains involved. Throughout the history of monorails used in public transportation, this appears to be the only death that has involved operator or system failure. If any other accidents have happened, they must have been small enough that they were not widely reported.

Part of what makes monorails safe is that they are part of a multilevel system: as vehicles and pedestrians move along the primary level, monorails operate above everyone on a secondary level track. A second advantage to multilevel systems is that it allows the trains to continuously move without slowing down traffic.

Monorails have definitely shown their endurance through the years: the Seattle Monorail reached a million miles of travel in 2008 and the Wuppertal Schwebebahn suspended monorail, located in Germany, was put into service in 1901 and still works today. With so many people riding monorails daily and only one death having ever occurred during regular operations, they can easily be considered one of the safest ways to travel. The long term and daily use of monorails in Japan shows how well the systems keep travellers moving. Ray Bradbury said, "people are accustomed to travelling in the open air and enjoying the sunshine, not in closed cars under the ground," comparing Los Angeles' subway system to a monorail system. Hopefully, someday, people will be able travel together as the sun shines through the windows of their monorail while speeding through the sites of Southern California.

Work Cited

  • "A Brief Seattle Monorail History". Seattle Monorail Service.
  • Bradbury, Ray. "L.A.'s Future Is Up In The Air". Los Angeles Times.
  • "Monorail Delivery Records". Hitachi, Ltd.
  • "Monorails In History". The Monorail Society.
  • "Monorail Of Japan". The Monorail Society.
  • "Seattle Monorail Milestones". Seattle Monorail Service.