Could floating monorails be the transport solution the world’s been searching for?

Suspended monorail cars trundle along merrily above the River Wupper in Wuppertal, Germany, in 1913. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The story starts, of all places, in Deptford. 

In November 1821, an engineer by the name of Henry Palmer registered a patent for a horse-drawn (yes, really) suspended railway. He built one in 1824, in the dockyards of Deptford to transport goods across factory work sites, and another in 1825 at the brickworks in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire. His second launch was a bit of a coup – passengers rode the line, making it a fairly big deal as the world’s first proper passenger railway only came along a few months later. 

Deutschland, Deutschland, über a river

It was in Germany, however, that the idea really got off the ground (appalling pun intended). Eugen Langen designed a suspended system similar to Palmer’s, which he had intended to sell to the city of Berlin. Instead, it was built in the north-west German town of Wuppertal, in the industry-heavy of the Rhine-Ruhr region that today is Europe’s largest conurbation. A trial run in 1900 saw Kaiser Wilhelm II – yes, that one – take a seat before the line came into operation in 1901, making it the earliest passenger monorail.

The line is still going strong today, and it’s probably the world’s most famous suspended monorail  which, given you’ve probably never heard of it, isn’t saying much. 

It carries around 80,000 passengers a day along its 13km route. Extraordinarily, it dangles over the River Wupper for most of its length, and a full trip would take you about 30 minutes. Although the trains can reach a top speed of 60kmph, they mostly dawdle along at just under 30kmph. There is a certain poetry to it, though – honest. Watch. Just me? OK.

But mommy I can't swim! Image: Roel Hemkes.

The Germans, at least, seem fond of the system. Between 1973 and 2003, two lines were built in Dortmund and Düsseldorf – both in the same region  and designated the H-Bahn. Dortmund’s line runs predominantly between the north and south campuses of the university, whilst Düsseldorf’s shuttles passengers back and forth between the airport’s various terminals and the long-distance Deutsche Bahn train station.

There’s also a rather bizarre system in Dresden, in the country’s east. It’s about the same age as the Wuppertal system, opened in 1901, and runs 274 metres up a hill between the suburb of Loschwitz and the top of the valley. Somehow it survived the bombardment of the Second World War unscathed, and was repaired extensively in the eighties and nineties, emerging triumphant as something of a minor national treasure.

But the Germans aren’t the only ones.

Ja-planning for the future

There’s the Shonan Monorail in Japan, running almost 7km between two satellite towns of the Tokyo super-blob, and the Chiba Urban Monorail not far away – the world’s longest, at 15.2km. Memphis, Tennessee, is host to a baffling specimen – a 518 metre, 7kmph crawler that runs rather tragically under a footbridge to an amusement park. But the less said about that, the better.

Tell me you aren't moved by Chiba's beautiful monorail. Go on. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

A little closer to the present day, and it’s obviously China that provides the most recent iteration. Chengdu – a whopping, giant megalopolis about the same size as London that we’ve obviously never heard of – is having a go. In September, the city ran a test trial on a 300m stretch of track. The system is, rather radically, powered by lithium batteries – supposedly with a mind to being more cost-effective and environmentally friendly  – and the dangling trains nipped along the single track at a formidable 60kmph. Though the system still has “tens of thousands of kilometres” of test runs to complete before it can open to the public, it’s a promising step.

Shanghai’s also been claiming it will build a transparent suspended monorail to open by 2019, but China’s largest city has always been a dreadful tease, so we’ll save the hype for when we see a real life test.

How to extract NIMBY tears

So that’s the tech – but what can it do? Well. Wuppertal and Chengdu offer hugely valuable lessons for what these systems might be capable of in future – if you’re brave enough.

Wuppertal’s system runs mostly over the river, and we all know how underused most city waterways are these days. Though bridging the Thames every few metres with gargantuan pylons to support an along-the-river line in London would likely prove problematic, there are – contrary to popular belief – other cities in the country.

Cambridge, one of the country’s fastest-growing places, has a beautiful stretch of river running through it.

Anger ALL the best-educated NIMBYs in one go. Image: Richard Humphrey.

As it reaches its tendrils southwards with vast housing developments and northwards with a new train station, why not string a suspended monorail over the river? It would never happen, because NIMBYs will out, but it’s a thought. More plausible options include the canals of Birmingham; the River Irwell and Rochdale Canal in Manchester; or the creeping tendrils of Marina Bay in Singapore.

Chengdu’s system, meanwhile, hovers over large roads and highways in a nifty way. Its supporting columns are so narrow that they can be built on the green verge in the middle of the carriageway, at just 80cm in diameter. The list of cities in the world that are low on public transport but high on chokingly enormous highways is a long one indeed.

You can help end this horror by donating just one suspended monorail. Image: Wikimedia Commons,

You could ease congestion on the Hong Kong subway with a line above Connaught Road Central in the city’s heart; give Los Angeles the public-transport boost it craves with lines above each and every freeway; help São Paulo tackle its choking traffic-jam problem with strategically-dangled lines above the metropolis’s crucial thoroughfares.

In short, as we were taught in those devastatingly cringey noughties adverts: the possibilities are endless. Do suspended monorails have all the answers to all the world’s ills? No. Are they an under-considered, undervalued, and under-loved way to top up transport networks without spending billions boring tunnels? Almost certainly.

And that’s good enough for me. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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Space for 8,000 new homes, most of them affordable... Why it's time to demolish Buckingham Palace

Get a lovely new housing estate, there. Image: Getty.

Scene: a council meeting.

Councillor 1: They say it’s going to cost £369m to repair and bring up to modern standards.

Councillor 2: £369m? Lambeth balked at paying just £14m to repair Cressingham Gardens. They said they’d rather knock it down and start again.

Councillor 1: Then we’re agreed? We knock Buckingham Palace down and build new housing there instead.

Obviously this would never happen. For a start, Buckingham Palace is Grade I listed, but… just imagine. Imagine if refurbishment costs were deemed disproportionate and, like many council estates before it, the palace was marked for “regeneration”.

State events transfer to Kensington Palace, St James’s and Windsor. The Crown Estate is persuaded, as good PR, to sell the land at a nominal fee to City Hall or a housing association. What could we build on roughly 21 hectares of land, within walking distance of transport and green space?

The area’s a conservation zone (Westminster Council’s Royal Parks conservation area, to be exact), so modernist towers are out. Pete Redman, a housing policy and research consultant at TradeRisks, calculates that the site could provide “parks, plazas, offices, cafes and 8,000 new dwellings without overlooking the top floor restaurant of the London Hilton Park Lane”.

Now, the Hilton is 100m tall, and we doubt Westminster’s planning committee would go anywhere near that. To get 8,000 homes, you need a density of 380 u/ha (units per hectare), which is pretty high, but still within the range permitted by City Hall, whose density matrix allows up to 405 u/ha (though they’d be one or two bedroom flats at this density) in an area with good public transport links. We can all agree that Buckingham Palace is excellently connected.

So what could the development look like? Lewisham Gateway is achieving a density of 350u/ha with blocks between eight and 25 storeys. On the other hand, Notting Hill Housing’s Micawber Street development manages the same density with mansion blocks and mews houses, no more than seven storeys high. It’s also a relatively small site, and so doesn’t take into account the impact of streets and public space.

Bermondsey Spa might be a better comparison. That achieves a density of 333u/ha over an area slightly larger than Lewisham Gateway (but still one-tenth of the Buckingham Palace site), with no buildings higher than 10 storeys.

The Buck House project seems perfect for the Create Streets model, which advocates terraced streets over multi-storey buildings. Director Nicholas Boys Smith, while not enthusiastic about bulldozing the palace, cites areas of London with existing high densities that we think of as being idyllic neighbourhoods: Pimlico (about 175u/ha) or Ladbroke Grove (about 230u/ha).


“You can get to very high densities with narrow streets and medium rise buildings,” he says. “Pimlico is four to six storeys, though of course the number of units depends on the size of the homes. The point is to develop a masterplan that sets the parameters of what’s acceptable first – how wide the streets are, types of open space, pedestrian only areas – before you get to the homes.”

Boys Smith goes on to talk about the importance of working collaboratively with the community before embarking on a design. In this scenario, there is no existing community – but it should be possible to identify potential future residents. Remember, in our fantasy the Crown Estate has been guilt-tripped into handing over the land for a song, which means it’s feasible for a housing association to develop the area and keep properties genuinely affordable.

Westminster Council estimates it needs an additional 5,600 social rented homes a year to meet demand. It has a waiting list of 5,500 households in immediate need, and knows of another 20,000 which can’t afford market rents. Even if we accepted a density level similar to Ladbroke Grove, that’s 4,830 homes where Buckingham Palace currently stands. A Bermondsey Spa-style density would generate nearly 7,000 homes.

There’s precedent for affordability, too. To take one example, the Peabody Trust is able to build genuinely affordable homes in part because local authorities give it land. In a Peabody development in Kensington and Chelsea, only 25 per cent of homes were sold on the open market. Similarly, 30 per cent of all L&Q’s new starts in 2016 were for commercial sale.

In other words, this development wouldn’t need to be all luxury flats with a few token affordable homes thrown in.

A kindly soul within City Hall did some rough and ready sums based on the figure of 8,000 homes, and reckoned that perhaps 1,500 would have to be sold to cover demolition and construction costs, which would leave around 80 per cent affordable. And putting the development in the hands of a housing association, financed through sales – at, let’s remember, Mayfair prices – should keep rents based on salaries rather than market rates.

Now, if we can just persuade Historic England to ditch that pesky Grade I listing. After all, the Queen actually prefers Windsor Castle…

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