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.