Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, November 28, 2005

"Monorails never break down"...Oh, really?

Are monorails safe?

That's the question that one Seattle monorail advocacy website attempted to address with its frequently addressed questions section. For the record, here is what they wrote:
"Are monorails safe?"

Absolutely. Any transit system separated from cars and pedestrians is inherently safer than one that is not. Monorail systems have one of the best safety records of any transportation system -- cars, buses, light or heavy rail -- over its 100+ year history. Monorails don't derail, get in accidents, get stuck in traffic or break down, making them not only safer but also one of the most reliable and more rapid.
Oh really? Well, then, how do you explain this:

Seattle Monorail CollisionOf course, what you're looking at to your left (courtesy of the Seattle Times) is a picture of the Seattle Center Monorail's two recently refurbished trains, stuck together after an unfortunate side-on collision, which occurred last Saturday night. The two trains have remained stuck in place since then, drawing gawkers with cameras to take pictures of the sad spectacle.

I find it pretty ridiculous that a number of diehard monorail advocates insist that monorails "don't derail, get in accidents, or break down". I've seen that line on other pro-monorail websites, too. OK, maybe they don't get stuck in traffic, since they're suspended above ground. But the other claims? How can they say with absolute certainty that a monorail system is perfectly safe? The bottom line is, you can't say such things.

Now, I anticipate some monorail boosters will attack me, complaining that this monorail system is old and has a faulty design. But the bottom line is that most accidents happen as a result of human error or poor judgment. Seattle Center monorail officials acknowledge there was some kind of "communications problem".

How do we know there wouldn't have been, at some point or another, some kind of "communications problem" or other issue with the new Seattle monorail system (which now apparently won't get built at all)?

Just because monorail is suspended above traffic doesn't necessarily make it safer than light rail, for instance, which monorail boosters seem to recognize as the big rival to their system. Any transit system can have problems, but it seems that when monorail runs into problems, the whole line becomes inoperable for a while.

This is partly due to the challenge of running a transit system that's not at ground level. "Rising above it all" appears to have disadvantages as well as advanatages. Apparently, they're going to have to get a crane in to move these two trains.

Were this a ground level system such as light rail, I suspect a collision like this (say, with a car) could have been cleared much more quickly.

Additionally, you can't exactly walk away from a monorail. You have to climb down. They had to get fire trucks out to the scene to evacuate the people on the trains.

And furthermore...this isn't the first time this monorail system has had problems:
The last time the system went down was as the result of a 2004 Memorial Day weekend fire, the first in the Monorail's history.

While there were no major injuries, it caused 150 people on board to be trapped while the cars filled with smoke. An investigation later found the cause to be a series of malfunctions, beginning with a broken drive shaft.
The city spent $2.5 million in refurbishing the trains with new electrical systems and fire safety upgrades before the line went partially operational in mid-December.


In September 2002, the Monorail stalled twice in five days, a month before voters went to the polls to keep a new commuter monorail alive. In 1987, one of the trains hit a concrete emergency bumper and showered the streets below with glass. In 1971, a crash into another safety barrier injured 26 passengers -- some seriously.
Let's see that line again:
Monorails don't derail, get in accidents, get stuck in traffic or break down, making them not only safer but also one of the most reliable and more rapid
Sorry, but experience is showing us a different story. Monorails DO get in accidents, DO break down, and certainly can derail.

When it comes to reliability, I'd pick light rail over monorail any day. It's a tried and true technology. Just look at Portland's successful Tri-Met system. Monorail, on the other hand, hasn't been widely implemented. I'd rather our region build a transit system that's more dependable than build a system forcefully advocated by dreamy pioneers with grand visions in their heads.

Seattle voters admired that vision and supported a monorail four times. But when reality set in and the real costs of building the system surfaced, voters ended up dumping the project. In my view, that's probably for the best.

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