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.


Why is it acceptable to kill someone? On the mysterious history of Britain’s road death toll

A London speed camera, 2004. Image: Getty.

A decade ago I became fascinated by a graph. This one:

I had been tracking the underlining data for years. The figures were easy to remember. Every year it was 3,500, plus or minus a percentage point or two.

Yet when the 2008 data was released, it had fallen to 2,538. This was 1,000 less than the figure in 2003. I plotted the above graph, and as I said, I became fascinated.

Because this is a really important graph. This is a plot of the number of people killed on Britain’s roads each year.

In Great Britain, collectively, we used to kill nearly 3,500 people on our roads every year. Consistently or, dare I say it, boringly: 3,500 deaths a year, 10 a day. It was accepted, in a, “Well yes it’s bad, but what can you do about it” kind of way. There was no clamour for change. Newspapers weren’t running headlines about the deaths mounting up, as they do with knife crime.

Meanwhile a train crash would be front page news for a week. Take the train that derailed at Hatfield on 17 October 2000, a tragedy in which 4 people died. That led to huge media interest, massive upheaval on the railways, and, ultimately, as the re-nationalisation of Railtrack, whose failings had caused the crash. Yet more than twice as many people will have died on the roads that day. Nothing was written about those deaths. Nothing changed.

In 2000, four people died in train crashes, while 3,409 died on the roads.

Here are those figures again.

1997 – 3,599 people killed on our roads

1998 – 3,422

1999 – 3,423

2000 – 3,409

2001 – 3,450

2002 – 3,431

2003 – 3508

But, in 2004 the figure dropped below 3,400 for the first time, to 3,221. Then in 2005 to 3,201.

2006 – 3,172

2007 – 2,946

Below 3,000! This was change. Significant change: 500 lives a year were not being lost. If you use Britain’s roads, your life may have been one of them.

2008 – 2,538

2009 – 2,222

When the 2010 figures came out I was amazed by the headline figure: 1,857.

That’s still far too high, of course, but it was 1,701 lower than seven years earlier.

This was a major story that deserved a ton of coverage, which it failed to get. Having shown no concern for when we were killing 3,500 people, it wasn’t overly surprising that the fact we were now killing 1,700 fewer wasn’t celebrated.

At any rate, the graph had flat-lined for years, then, in half a dozen years, it halved. Why?

The lack of media coverage resulted in an absence of answers. One commentator, Christian Woolmar, observed that there was no clear answer to why this had happened. But he went on to point out that there had been a fall in the average road speed over this period.

My anticipation of the 2011 figures troubled me, because I expected them to go up. Obviously I didn’t want them to: I desperately want zero deaths on our roads. But something happened in 2010 that I was sure would lead to more fatalities and bring a halt to the falling trend.

I was right. In 2011 we killed 1,901.

Sometimes, being right is shit.

The news was better in 2012. The fatality rate was 1,754. So was the 2011 figure just a blip, due to some significant snowfalls that year? No: the trend was over.

The number of people killed on our roads has remained stuck in the 17 hundreds. 

2013 – 1,713

2014 – 1,775

2015 – 1,732

2016 – 1,792

2017 – 1,793

2018 – 1,782

We have returned to a flatline on the graph – and if anything, I’m more fascinated now than I was before. Road deaths flatlined at 3,500 for years, then fell sharply, then flatlined again at half the rate.

This can’t have happened by accident. I wished I could explain it. I wish we could repeat it. No: I wish the second flatline hadn’t happened, and the fall had continued. If the rate of fall had continued, we’d have reached zero deaths on the road by now. You’d be right to question whether this is possible – but if you can half the number in a few years, why can’t we eradicate them altogether? The railways are an example of what is possible. The last time a passenger died in a train crash on Britain’s railways was in 2007.

It was time to figure out the answers to two questions. Why did the death toll fall? And why did it stop falling?

The obvious reason for a reduction in deaths on the road is the improvement in car safety features. This could create a gradual fall in the death toll as new, safer cars replaced older ones. But I’m not sure it can explain a 40 per cent fall over a 4 year period.

There’s a way to check whether cars on the road became almost twice as safe between 2003 and 2010: you can compare the figures with the rest of the EU. Car safety features are international, and any new feature would have appeared around the same time across the continent.

So I found the EU figures for 2000 to 2017, indexed for 2000 and plotted the graph for multiple countries. It was a busy graph. For clarity the following graph only includes Britain, Germany, France, Spain and Italy along with a straight line drop for comparison.

The good news is that things are improving across Europe – but no country had quite the same trajectory as Britain. They all have a fall much closer to a straight line of the sort you’d expect a general improvement in car safety would produce.

One thing I did notice is that, from 2013, these five countries stop falling. The technology based solutions of recent years, such as automatic emergency braking, don’t appear to be saving lives as of yet.

So, yes, cars are safer – but that doesn’t seem to explain why British roads suddenly became 40 per cent safer between 2006 and 2010.

In 1999, the New Labour government announced that it was going to reduce deaths on our roads. The target was a 50 per cent reduction by 2010. As you now know, it succeeded. This was a major achievement for a government. The kind of thing you would bang on about all the time. “Deaths on our roads halved by Labour!” But the party wasn’t in government when the 2010 figures were released – and it’s hard to take credit for your achievements from the opposition benches.

That it was government policy is not a full explanation, and how this happened is a little opaque. From what I can gather there was a wide ranging approach. The fire and rescue service changed their practices: because they recognised that survival rates were directly dependent on how quickly people got to hospital, this became the priority. Disturbing a police crime scene was allowed if it saved a life. Accident black spots were located, highlighted and safety measures implemented. Throughout that period road safety campaigns focused on speed, with “Speed Kills” being the dominate message for that decade. The government also changed the laws on speed cameras.

RoSPA, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, has a lot to say about speeding and speed cameras. Its “Speed Camera Factsheet” states that, “Cameras are a very effective way of persuading drivers not to speed, and thereby reducing the number of people killed and seriously injured.” It reports that an independent review published by the Department for Transport (DfT) in 2005 said that “cameras significantly reduce speeding and collisions, and cut deaths and serious injuries at camera sites”, adding that cameras sites were delivering 100 fewer deaths per year.

Cameras first appeared in 1991, and revenue from court fines and fixed penalties went to the Exchequer. However in 2000 a trial scheme saw local councils keep the fines to pay for the cost of speed and red-light cameras. The pilot was so successful that, in 2001, legislation enabled this to happen across the country. The cost of providing and operating cameras moved from the local authority to the law breaking motorist.

The golden age of the speed camera had begun.

There was a tweak to this legislation in 2007. Fines reverted back to the Exchequer’s piggy bank. The DfT switched to funding cameras through a road safety grant. The intention was to create a greater mix of road safety measures agreed between local authorities and the police.

The number of people killed on British roads in 2007: 2,946

The number of people killed on British roads in 2010: 1,857

So perhaps the creation of the Road Safety Grant had a significant impact.

The second question: why did the death toll stop falling?

In 2010 I was unaware of Labour’s target to halve deaths on the roads. But, the change in government was enough for me to predict that the fall was over.

When the Tory/Lib Dem government negotiated its way into power in May 2010, the press declared that it was the end of the horrible nanny state – a return to personal freedom, liberty and the rule of common sense.

The way that this was to play out in real practical terms was on our roads. The evil speed camera was in the firing line. The narrative was that these cameras were just there so councils could extract cash from the poor public. Completely ignored were the facts that the fines were only handed down to dangerous, law-breaking drivers, and that councils no longer got the cash from fines.

Soon after the election the coalition government said that “Labour's 13-year war on the motorist is over” and pledged to scrap public funding for speed cameras. The Road Safety Grant to local authorities was cut from £95m to £57m. This meant that the government was now receiving an estimated £40m more raised in fines than it was spending on road safety. The cut to the grant reduced the camera maintenance budget by 27 per cent. It removed all the funding for new cameras, speed humps and other safety measures.

And the golden age ended.

Councils across the country announced their change of policy. Oxfordshire County Council switched off its speed cameras on 1 August 2010. Money was saved; lives were lost.

Eight months later, on 1 April, Oxfordshire’s cameras snapped back into life when the council reversed its decision because deaths on the county’s roads had immediately increased.

Turning off speed cameras sent out the message that we were no longer taking speeding seriously. The road safety campaigns changed their focus. The message that Speed Kills fell away and was replaced by drink- and drug-driving messages. It’s easy to miss that these campaigns move from encompassing virtually every driver to targeting a minority. A switch from confronting a socially acceptable behaviour to re-enforcing something already unacceptable. The state is no longer challenging everyone to be safe – only the small minority of bad people.

Yet speed still kills. The World Health Organisation states that an increase in average speed of 1 km[h typically results in a 3 per cent higher risk of a crash involving injury, with a 4–5 per cent increase for crashes that result in fatalities.
The majority of safety measures installed before 2010 remain in place and are saving lives. But with the funding gone councils are no longer installing new measures and the death toll is no longer falling.

So you can make a strong case that the pattern of road deaths was the result of government policy.

Which begs the question of our government: why has it accepted that it’s OK to kill, or be killed, on our roads?