Saturday, January 26, 2008

Flood channel monorails?

For more on monorails (see also Wilshire monorail?), David Lazarus' 12/9/07 column "Southland transit is in need of big ideas" suggested:

Brian C. Brooks, an L.A. County Department of Public Works employee, believes he has the answer, which he shared with me after laying out a map of the county's system of flood channels.

"If you had a monorail system all over Los Angeles, along all the flood channels, it would be like having a magic carpet, carrying you above all the traffic," he said. "Absolutely this would work." ...

Brooks believes a monorail network can be built along L.A.'s flood channels for less than $35 million per mile, or a tenth the estimated cost of expanding the existing subway system. A 10-mile monorail line could be up and running in less than three years, he said.

"Californians are an above-ground people," Brooks said. "We don't want to be underground in a dark tunnel. We want to be above it all, in the light."

This image shows how a flood channel monorail could look, north from the Charnock Ave. bridge in Mar Vista, between McLaughlin and Sawtelle (enlarge).

I was a regular San Francisco Bay Area BART rider in the 1970s, and every time the train came out of the subway onto elevated track I enjoyed seeing daylight (or even night). So I'm another who prefers to ride above ground.

Monorails have operated in transit service in a number of cities around the world, and certainly have a cool factor from Disneyland, Disney World, etc. -- even if the Disneyland monorail only bumped across the parking lot at 25 mph.

But I'm concerned monorails are oversold, especially when a company claims costs and performance that it has never built. Here are three issues about monorails along flood channels: 1. Would they fit? 2. How much would they cost? 3. Would they go where people travel?

1. Fit. Running along storm channels raises issues of space for 5-6-foot wide columns and noise and visual impacts for neighbors, commonly single-family residential neighborhoods. I rather doubt that the owners of the houses on the right would welcome this past their back yards; some of the most heated opponents of the late Orange County CenterLine were Irvine homeowners along the flood channel where it would have been built.

The Las Vegas monorail (train used in image) is a close comparable to the unbuilt Metrail proposal Brooks cites. Las Vegas' Bombardier trains are about the same size but not as tall, also made of lightweight composite materials. The standard Las Vegas columns are 4'-8" x 2'-8" and 18+ feet tall. In Los Angeles they would likely be thicker to for our seismic standards; the L.A. Green Line's columns are about 6 feet in diameter.

Las Vegas trains are relatively quiet, but could not be called silent, with tire noise and a metallic whoosh as they pass. Metrail proposes to add an on-board engine instead of electric power, which would add to its noise, likely making it sound like a Long Beach diesel hybrid bus.

2. Cost. It's very unlikely a Metrail monorail could be built for one-tenth the cost of subway. The Las Vegas monorail was built between 2001 and 2004 for $100M per mile (source) by an experienced engineering company (see construction photos by The Monorail Society).

With Brooks's Metrail trains about the same size and weight as Las Vegas' its guideway and stations would be quite similar, while costs have inflated seriously since then. Best case is probably $100-150M per mile, at least 1/3 the cost of subway.

3. Usefulness. Finally, would monorails along flood channels put stations in places useful for travellers? In many cases, no.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

One of the arguments you never hear from the Monorail guys is how difficult "light rail in the air" is to switch -- that is, simply taking one track vs. another. Considering that the monorail channels are not an organized web or grid, certainly there would be a need to cause a train to go in one direction or another -- or at least take it offline to a maintenance facility.

Think about the two most familiar systems -- the Las Vegas Monorail runs a linear route from one end of the Strip to another as its inflexibility and right-of-way needs won't allow it to go in other directions. Aside from its enormous oosts -- actually $125-150 million/mile -- this inflexibility allows it to run along one side of the strip which diminishes ridership since it's too unwieldy to be built directly into the hotels. LVM has a minimal number of stations as they're also expensive and must be built where they can be used. Running in the channels is a good idea for certain transit modes, but access must be from the streets they cross, so consideration must be given the these large ELEVATED stations for the thing to be useful. And consider that they station needs to be at least as long as the train itself.

Disney's monorail runs in a loop and is really just a sexy amusement park ride (it's also been rebuilt three or four times). It's never been extended anywhere useful -- like a transit hub, airport or even their own parking lots -- so why is that? Disney's not stupid and they'll have some very good reasons for treating this ride as they do.

If this interests anyone, take a look at the LVM website to see how massive the concrete arm is that simply moves a (complete) train into the bays of its service facility. Their local situation also requires that an egress walkway be required to exit the train if it were every to have a serious accident or fire -- somehow the sexy illustrations never show those requirements.

Monorail's only difference from light rail is the significant cost to elevate it and the inflexibility, noise and visual intrusion that creates -- at huge costs. Take a look at the MASSIVE infrastucture that's required to raise this turkey above street level in Las Vegas, and also consider that a truly useful system is going to have DUAL rails, one in each direction.

Pipe dream.

dtownla said...

I'm sorry, but this sounds really dumb. Monorails have not worked anywhere but theme parks and airports.

The "Californians are above ground people" is a really lame argument based entirely on Brook's poetic metaphor for the state.

I could just as easily say "Californians are adaptable people who would take any mode of transportation that got them where they wanted to go.

Which brings it to my final point. What exactly is along the flood channels that is worth seeing, exactly?

Mr. Brooks is tripping the light fantastic. Extend the subway to the beach down Wilshire and Santa Monica for the biggest bang for the dollar. It should have been done long ago.

Bob Zwolinski said...

Ah…. Just what we need… A 3rd rapid transit modality. It would be an operations, maintenance and training nightmare for the MTA. Let’s stick with the heavy rail & light rail systems that are in place. We don’t need a theme-park ride plodding along LA County washes where no one wants to go anyway. I’ve seen the map. The lines would go nowhere, not serving anything or anyone.
The Las Vegas monorail is losing money at an alarming rate and is facing bankruptcy. The ridership is dismal, since the route simply strattles the back alley of the hotels it’s supposed to serve.
Had LA’s original monorail systems devised in the mid-50s thru early 60’s come to fruition, it would be a different story. We wouldn’t be in the hellish position we’re in today. It’s too late now.

Alek said...

Another reason why Monorail may not be such a good idea, is - Safety and Crime levels.
Oftentimes those flood control channels are visited by gangs, for whom vandalizing a brand-new monorail system would be endless joy! The point is - putting a monorail system on uncivilized and ugly flood-control channel is a bad, bad idea.
I'm generally not opposed to monorails, but... something tells me it will NOT work on flood control channels. It would be just another line "from nowhere to nowhere, through", going though places no one will want to visit!
Indeed, let's finally start building the Subway!

Scott said...

Here we go again.

My short list of why monorail is a BAD IDEA. In general, but especially in Los Angeles.

1) Elevated structures fall down in Earthquakes. Remember the 10? Remember the 14? In the 1994 earthquake? Bridges fell down. The Blue Line and Red Line were operating at that time: no damage.
2) Elevated structures up, elevated, in the bright sun, are overheated and hard to cool. Just try out the Las Vegas Monorail.
3) Monorail switches are very expensive.
4) People don't like the aesthetics of the elevated structures. Even in Las Vegas they built the monorail "in the back" BEHIND the hotels on the Strip.
5) Monorail costs more than light rail or streetcar and carries less people.
6) Monorail cars are small and cramped. Ride the Las Vegas Monorail, or Disneyland's, if you don't belive me. We need BEEFY transit options for a city with millions of people.
7) Monorail stations above streets (not all of the system can built over flood channels, everybody must admit) LOOM HUGE, casting giant shadows.
8) There are fewer companies making monorails compared to light rail. If the monorail company goes out of business, WE CAN'T GET ANY MORE PARTS!
9) Training MTA mechanics to maintain and repair yet ANOTHER type of transit will cost yet MORE money.
10) Light rail is "off the shelf" and many manufacturers make parts, driving down prices for replacement parts.
11)Monorails along the flood channels don't go anywhere people want to go! Nothing is built along the flood channels. People built their houses with their backyards facing the flood channels. Because people don't want to look at them, live near them, play near them or work near them. There are no businesses, museums, libraries, sports staidums or universities located along flood channels! Factories are located along flood channels, that's about it.

watson374 said...

Here we go again. Lets go step by step.

"Elevated structures fall down in Earthquakes."
In that case, why have the monorails in Japan not fallen down, despite being subject to many earthquakes?

"Elevated structures up, elevated, in the bright sun, are overheated and hard to cool."
Really? Then why are the elevated LRTs in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok so nice and cool?

"People don't like the aesthetics of the elevated structures."
Then why are there elevated LRTs?

"Monorail costs more than light rail or streetcar and carries less people"
Actually, not really. Many monorails are small, yes, but those are those theme park ones. Transit monorails are BIG and can carry LRT loads at subway speeds (no traffic).

"Monorail cars are small and cramped. Ride the Las Vegas Monorail, or Disneyland's, if you don't belive me. We need BEEFY transit options for a city with millions of people"
Wrong. Outside the US there are monorails that are BIG (Osaka, Tokyo, Tama, Chiba, Chongqing, Kuala Lumpur(medium sized)). Open your eyes...

"Monorail stations above streets (not all of the system can built over flood channels, everybody must admit) LOOM HUGE, casting giant shadows."
Then why is it that stations were built over roads in Bangkok and KL? The BIG shadows are on only part of the route, not all of it, unlike elevated light rail.

"There are fewer companies making monorails compared to light rail. If the monorail company goes out of business, WE CAN'T GET ANY MORE PARTS!"
Nice try, but sorry. If that were the case, why is the one-miler in Seattle still running even though its builder went bust decades ago? Monorail uses off the shelf parts!

"Training MTA mechanics to maintain and repair yet ANOTHER type of transit will cost yet MORE money."
Well, every time a new fleet of rolling stock comes in, that happens. Even for your beloved LRTs.

"Light rail is "off the shelf" and many manufacturers make parts, driving down prices for replacement parts."
Monorail parts are also off the shelf, like tyres (use bus tyres), motors (they're the same as those in any other electric vehicle), etc.

Oh, and there are many TRANSIT monorails outside the US. Monorails are being used SUCCESSFULLY in TRANSIT outside the US (mostly in Asia).