Can The Simpsons explain why monorails never took off as a form of transport?

Let’s be honest, it’s the best episode. Image: Fox.

Conan O’Brien, in the commentary for seminal Simpsons episode Marge vs. the Monorail, described the inspiration for the titular mass transit system as seeing the word “monorail” on a sign in California and thinking, “What could be more wasteful and stupid?”

It seems planners generally agree. Indeed, the Wikipedia article listing the world’s monorails counts only 75 in operation worldwide. Of these, 34 are essentially attractions which serve theme parks, resorts and, inexplicably, zoos. Many of the remainder serve as passenger shuttles at airports, malls and hotels, leaving only a handful used as meaningful public transport systems.

Given that so few of these systems are in operation, the Simpsons might be the closest many people have got to seeing a monorail in action. A Google Ngram search shows that interest in monorails peaked around the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962, then declined in the following decades, before a bump following the episode’s airing in 1993.

Since the turn of the millennium, despite several new monorails opening worldwide, interest has continued to decline. So with the fate of this little-loved cousin of the tram resting on this one great episode, what does Springfield’s story get right – and wrong – about monorails?

It glides as softly as a cloud

As Lisa Simpson correctly points out, a small town with a centralised population doesn’t have much need for a mass transit system. Most of the more functional monorails are generally found in Asian megacities such as Chongqing, Shanghai, Tokyo and Mumbai, where their smaller footprint and ability to avoid tunnelling makes their construction easier and less intrusive than traditional light rail.

The closest we get in scale to the Springfield Monorail is the Wuppertal Suspension Railway in Germany, which has been running along the route of the Wupper river since 1901, carrying 82,000 passengers every day. Wuppertal (population 350,000) is still around ten times the estimated size of Springfield, and its monorail has the advantage of not being built by a conman – but it should stand as an example that monorails can, and do, work for smaller cities.

There ain’t no monorail here and there never was

The allure of an unusual transport system to follow the examples of Brockway, Ogdenville and North Haverbrook, and put a city on the map, has often extended beyond the mob mentality of Springfield.

A 1997 referendum in Seattle, on extending the small downtown monorail service into a 54-mile, five-line metro system, passed by 53-47 per cent. This would have made it the largest in the world at the time, and given Seattle’s mass transit system a unique selling point, building on its retro-futurist image linked to the legacy of the World’s Fair, the Space Needle. Unfortunately, a number of setbacks resulted in the project being cancelled in 2005 without any construction work beginning, at a cost of $125m to the taxpayer.


The city settled on building a more practical, if less exciting, tram network instead, the first line of which opened in 2009. But it should be noted that Lyle Lanley built and opened the Springfield Monorail for just $3m – demonstrating that the PFI scheme arranged with the city offered at least some value for money.

Several other monorail schemes have failed to come to fruition. The planned Malaysian city of Putrajaya switched to a monorail design for its light rail system late in the planning process. Construction has been stalled since 2004 due to budget constraints, though the Malaysian government aims to convert to a more standard light rail and open services by 2021. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then Mayor of Tehran, decided in 2002 to construct a monorail for his city at a cost of €135m, which was eventually scrapped after just 3 per cent of the system had been built.

For value, the residents of Springfield might have been better off buying a used monorail. There have been several such exchanges, usually based on the ease of tearing up and moving infrastructure that tends to be small in scale. The Vancouver monorail, built for Expo 86, was later purchased and installed at the Alton Towers theme park, while Blackpool Pleasure Beach purchased theirs from Lausanne in 1964 and ran it until 2012.

Is there a chance the track could bend?

Wuppertal’s monorail has a fairly good safety record for a 12-decade old system, with just one fatal accident in 1999. However, it’s only just reopened after a nine month closure caused by a collapsing support beam in November 2018, demonstrating that Apu’s fears might not have been entirely misplaced.

Generally, monorails are among the safest forms of transport – they move comparatively slowly, are very difficult to derail, don’t have to contend with traffic, and tend to operate over short distances, reducing the possibility of accidents. Many are now driverless, reducing the possibility of errors caused by Homer Simpson’s presence at the controls. They also, crucially, are not solar powered.

With Disney’s purchase of Fox at the beginning of this year, Marge vs. the Monorail is now the property of Big Mouse, and it might cause their PR guys a bit of a nightmare. The Disney World monorail in Florida has had a number of dangerous incidents while carrying 150,000 riders per day, including fires, breakdowns, and a 2009 crash which resulted in one fatality.

The implication that fire extinguisher cases might actually contain a family of possums might add to the company’s animal friendly image, but is unlikely to be reassuring to tourists. To make things worse, the episode’s inspiration, 1962’s The Music Man, is owned by Warner Bros.

It’s more of a Shelbyville idea

The failure of the Springfield Monorail means there are just three transit options left in the USA for fans of the system. The Seattle Monorail runs for just under a mile between Downtown and the Space Needle, while the Las Vegas Monorail serves primarily casinos and the city’s convention centre. The last is the Jacksonville Skyway, which has carried visitors across Florida’s most populous municipality free of charge since opening in 1989.

But there is a happy ending. With their generally logical, grid-based layouts, American cities are finally getting off the ground when it comes to trams and light rail, with new networks opening in Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit, Washington D.C. and San Francisco within the last five years. It seems that Americans don’t object to mass transit after all – but after Springfield’s experiment, they prefer to keep them on the ground.

 
 
 
 

London’s rail and tube map is out of control

Aaaaaargh. Image: Getty.

The geographical limits of London’s official rail maps have always been slightly arbitrary. Far-flung commuter towns like Amersham, Chesham and Epping are all on there, because they have tube stations. Meanwhile, places like Esher or Walton-on-Thames – much closer to the city proper, inside the M25, and a contiguous part of the built up area – aren’t, because they fall outside the Greater London and aren’t served by Transport for London (TfL) services. This is pretty aggravating, but we are where we are.

But then a few years ago, TfL decided to show more non-London services on its combined Tube & Rail Map. It started with a few stations slightly outside the city limits, but where you could you use your Oyster card. Then said card started being accepted at Gatwick Airport station – and so, since how to get to a major airport is a fairly useful piece of information to impart to passengers, TfL’s cartographers added that line too, even though it meant including stations bloody miles away.

And now the latest version seems to have cast all logic to the wind. Look at this:

Oh, no. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

The logic for including the line to Reading is that it’s now served by TfL Rail, a route which will be part of the Elizabeth Line/Crossrail, when they eventually, finally happen. But you can tell something’s gone wrong here from the fact that showing the route, to a town which is well known for being directly west of London, requires an awkward right-angle which makes it look like the line turns north, presumably because otherwise there’d be no way of showing it on the map.

What’s more, this means that a station 36 miles from central London gets to be on the map, while Esher – barely a third of that distance out – doesn’t. Nor does Windsor & Eton Central, because it’s served by a branchline from Slough rather than TfL Rail trains, even though as a fairly major tourist destination it’d probably be the sort of place that at least some users of this map might want to know how to get to.

There’s more. Luton Airport Parkway is now on the map, presumably on the basis that Gatwick is. But that station doesn’t accept Oyster cards yet, so you get this:

Gah. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

There’s a line, incidentally, between Watford Junction and St Albans Abbey, which is just down the road from St Albans City. Is that line shown on the map? No it is not.

Also not shown on the map: either Luton itself, just one stop up the line from Luton Airport Parkway, or Stansted Airport, even though it’s an airport and not much further out than places which are on the map. Somewhere that is, however, is Welwyn Garden City, which doesn’t accept Oyster, isn’t served by TfL trains and also – this feels important – isn’t an airport.

And meanwhile a large chunk of Surrey suburbia inside the M25 isn’t shown, even though it must have a greater claim to be a part of London’s rail network than bloody Reading.

The result of all these decisions is that the map covers an entirely baffling area whose shape makes no sense whatsoever. Here’s an extremely rough map:

Just, what? Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

I mean that’s just ridiculous isn’t it.

While we’re at it: the latest version shows the piers from which you can get boats on the Thames. Except for when it doesn’t because they’re not near a station – for example, Greenland Pier, just across the Thames to the west of the Isle of Dogs, shown here with CityMetric’s usual artistic flair.

Spot the missing pier. You can’t, because it’s missing. Image: TfL/CityMetric.

I’m sure there must be a logic to all of this. It’s just that I fear the logic is “what makes life easier for the TfL cartography team” rather than “what is actually valuable information for London’s rail passengers”.

And don’t even get me started on this monstrosity.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.