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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Worried Guildford will be destroyed by Chinese trains? Then you might not be very nice

A South West Train at Waterloo. Image: Getty.

Despite the collapse of everything else that more-or-less worked in 2008 Britain, before the Hunger Games years began, some things remain constant. One of the things that’s near-mathematical in its constancy is that, when a new train contract is let, people on both sides of the political spectrum will say extremely stupid things for perceived partisan advantage.

This week saw the award of the contract to run trains to the south west of London, and unsurprisingly, the saying stupid things lobby was out in force. Oddly – perhaps a Corbyn-Brexit trend – the saying of egregiously stupid racist lies, rather than moderately stupid things, was most pronounced on the left.

As we’ve done to death here: rail in Great Britain is publicly run. The rail infrastructure is 100 per cent publicly owned, and train operators operate on government contracts, apart from a few weird anomalies. Some physical trains are owned by private investors, but to claim rail isn’t publicly run would be like claiming the NHS was the same as American healthcare because some hospital buildings are maintained by construction firms.

Every seven years or so, companies bid for the right to pay the UK government to operate trains in a particular area. This is the standard procedure: for railways that are lossmaking but community-important, or where they are within a major city and have no important external connections, or where there’s a major infrastructure project going on that’ll ruin everything, special measures take place.

The South Western England franchise is not one of these. It’s a profitable set of train routes which doesn’t quite live up to its name. Although it inherited a few Devon and Dorset routes from the old days, its day job involves transporting hundreds of thousands of Reginald Perrins and Mark Corrigans from London’s outer suburbs and Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire’s satellite towns to the grinding misery of desk jobs that pay a great deal of money.

(If your office is in the actual City of London, a fair trek from the railway’s Waterloo terminus, then you get the extra fun of an extra daily trip on the silliest and smelliest Tube line, and you get even more money still.)

Anyway. The South Western concession went up for auction, and Scottish bus and train operator First Group won out over Scottish bus and train operator Stagecoach, the latter of which had run the franchise for the preceding 20 years. (Yes, I know 20 isn’t a multiple of 7. Don’t ask me to explain, because I can and you wouldn’t enjoy it.)

First will manage the introduction of a bunch of new trains, which will be paid for by other people, and will pay the government £2.2bn in premiums for being allowed to run the service.

One might expect the reaction to this to be quite muted, because it’s quite a boring story. “The government does quite a good deal under which there’ll be more trains, it’ll be paid lots of money, and this will ultimately be paid back by well-paid people paying more train fares.” But these are not normal times.


First Group has decided for the purposes of this franchise to team up with MTR, which operates Hong Kong’s extremely good metro railway. MTR has a 30 per cent share in the combined business, and will presumably help advise First Group about how to run good metro railways, in exchange for taking a cut of the profits (which, for UK train franchises, tend to be about 3 per cent of total revenue).

The RMT, famous for being the least sensible or survival-oriented union in the UK since the National Union of Mineworkers, has taken exception to a Hong Kong company being involved in the railways, since in their Brexity, curly sandwich-eating eyes, only decent honest British Rail has ever delivered good railways anywhere in the world.

“A foreign state operator, in this case the Chinese state, is set to make a killing at the British taxpayers’ expense,” the RMT’s General Secretary Mick Cash said in a press release.

This is not true. Partly that's because a 30 per cent share of those 3 per cent profits is less than 1 per cent of total revenues, so hardly making a killing. Mostly, though, it’s because it’s misleading to call MTR “state-owned”. While it’s majority owned by the Hong Kong government (not the same body as the central Chinese state), it’s also partly listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. More to the point, this a really odd way of describing a transport authority controlled by a devolved body. I wouldn’t call the Glasgow subway “UK-state owned” either.

So this fuss is intensely, ridiculously stupid.

There’s an argument – it’s a bad argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be properly privatised without government subsidy.

There’s an argument – it’s a slightly less stupid argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be returned to the public sector so we can enjoy the glory days of British Rail again.

The glory days of British Rail, illustrated in passenger numbers. Image: AbsolutelyPureMilk/Wikipedia.

But to claim that the problem is neither of these things, but rather that the companies who are operating trains on the publicly run network are partially foreign owned, makes you sound like a blithering xenophobe.

In fact, if you think it’s reasonable for a Scottish company to run trains but not for a Hong Kong company to run them, then that's me being pretty bloody polite all things considered.

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