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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Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.