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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Southern Rail is resuming full service – but how did the company's industrial relations get so bad?

A happy day last August. Image: Getty.

“I cannot simply operate outside the law, however much I might be tempted to, however much people might want me to,” a pained Chris Grayling said on TV on 13 December. As the first all-out drivers’ strike shut down the entirety of Southern’s network, the transport secretary insisted to interviewers he was powerless in this struggle between unions and a private rail operator.

But rewind to February and Grayling’s Department for Transport was putting out a very different message. “Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch-ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support,” Peter Wilkinson, the Department’s passenger services director, told a public meeting:

“We have got to break them. [Train drivers] have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place. They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”

Wilkinson was forced to apologise for his comments. But when Southern began to implement driver-only operation, replacing conductors with non-safety-critical “on-board supervisors”, unions weren’t convinced by claims it was all about improved customer service. “This is a national fight – we’re not going to let them pick off one group of workers at a time,” a spokesman for the rail union RMT said in April.

The strikes have been repeatedly characterised as being about who opens and closes train doors. Journalists might consider this the best way to capture the distinction between different modes of train operation – but it’s also the easiest way to dismiss and ridicule the dispute.

The reality is that with driver-only operation, all operational functions are removed from conductors. It’s then left to drivers to assess – at each station – whether it’s safe to leave the platform. Aslef, the train drivers’ union, says this requires its members to look at dozens of CCTV images in a matter of seconds. And ultimately, trains can run with just the driver.

While Southern has promised not to dismiss its current workforce, unions fear that removing the guarantee of a second member of staff will eventually lead to them being ditched altogether. Who would look after passengers if the driver became incapacitated?

In an article, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg suggested the dispute was also fuelled by rivalry between the RMT, which represents the conductors, and Aslef. Though the relationship between the two unions hasn’t always been easy, she misses the point entirely.

At a TUC fringe meeting in 2014, I watched RMT delegates accuse drivers of being happy to accept pay-rises in exchange for implementing driver-only operation. Aslef insisted this was not its approach, and the following year the union’s conference endorsed a motion calling for no extension of the method, and for guards to be restored where they had already been axed.

Surely the real theme of the Southern dispute is the unity of the workforce. Conductors are striking against de-skilling, drivers are striking against taking on additional duties, and the mandate for action among both groups is overwhelming.

It’s true, however, that a walk-out of drivers can have a much bigger impact than a conductors’ strike – given that 60 per cent of Southern services are already driver-only. And this is why Southern’s owner Govia Thameslink Railway, Britain’s worst-performing railway, has been so keen to prevent Aslef from going on strike. When Gatwick Express (also part of GTR) drivers refused to drive new 12-carriage trains without guards in April, the company secured a court injunction preventing striking over driver-only trains. It did so again in June after drivers voted to strike, with the High Court agreeing the ballot had included drivers on irrelevant routes.


When drivers balloted again in August, lawyers went over the ballot with a fine tooth-comb and forced the union to re-ballot over a technicality, fittingly, about doors. This week’s strike was only allowed because first the High Court, and then the Court of Appeal, ruled it was not an infringement of EU freedom of movement laws. When GTR launched this bid in the courts, a senior trade unionist told me it was in “wanky wonderland” if it thought it would win.

You’d think such expensive litigation would be risky for a company facing the ire of frustrated passengers. Things have got so bad some have moved house or switched to driving to work instead. But GTR, unlike most of Britain’s private railways, doesn’t operate on the normal franchise model. Rather than collecting fare revenue, the company is paid a set fee by the government – and so it has far lesser risks.

Critics say this has made Southern ideal as a test-ground for taking on the unions over driver-only operation, claiming the government wants to make it national as part of a cost-cutting drive.

But even with such a good deal on a plate, chaos has followed Southern bosses everywhere. At the Transport Select Committee in July, the firm faced heavy criticism for failing to recruit enough staff at the start of the contract. Southern has accused unions of unofficial action through high levels of staff sickness. But are these really a surprise when industrial relations are so bad and workers are threatened with the sack?

The Committee issued a withering report – but that was where its powers stopped. Transport secretary Grayling is also refusing to act, and the company is, after all, owned by a FTSE 250 firm and a French transport group. The only people with the power to do anything, it seems, are the workers. As hell-raising as their strike may be, perhaps it’s time we celebrated it.

Conrad Landin is the Morning Star's industrial correspondent. This article previously appeared on our sister site, the Staggers.

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