Lyle Lanley From The Simpsons — Alive, Well and Building Monorails in Malaysia

In our never-ending quest to bring you the best and most unique transport stories, we were recently informed by a colleague of a curious transit system in Malaysia named the Malacca Monorail.

Being true transit geeks (and huge fans of the Simpsons), we had no choice but to personally visit it ourselves.

This 1.6km, 2 station system is located in Malacca City — a World UNESCO Heritage Site and home to half a million residents. Today, the state is a huge tourist destination and welcomed a reported “13.7 million” visitors last year.

So as a way to add recreational infrastructure to the city, the RM15.9 million (~USD$5 million) monorail first opened in October 2010. Unfortunately, in an uncanny resemblance to the Springfield Monorail episode, the system infamously broke down during it first day of operation!

Malacca Monorail at Hang Jebat Station.

Malacca Monorail train at Hang Jebat Station. Image by CUP.

In fact, during its first year, it broke down a total of 21 times as it suffered from a range of mechanical issues — not the least of which included loose door screws, software glitches and engine problems.

Perhaps the most absurd discovery was that the system was found to be inoperative during rainfall. This would probably be a non-issue if the monorail were built in a desert — except unfortunately for the Malacca Monorail, it’s located in the tropics where precipitation is a common occurrence.

Hang Tuah Station.

The seemingly abandoned Hang Tuah Station. Image by CUP.

And instead of selecting experienced manufacturers, decision-makers chose a little-known company from China called Unis Technology Company Limited (no word on whether these guys wore bowler hats and sang a song).

Undeterred that they’ve already made a bad investment, officials went on to announce the second phase of the monorail at RM13.2 million (~USD$4.1 million) in December 2011.

Not surprisingly, despite its scheduled completion date of February 2013, the second phase of the system was never fully built.  Interestingly enough, if you sail down the river today, you can actually see some of the unfinished columns as a reminisce of the ambitious yet unsuccessful project.

Malacca Monorail. Unfinished columns.

Unfinished columns along river. Image by CUP.

So while it was originally designed to provide tourists with a 30 minute ride alongside the Malacca River, the entire system is essentially now a white elephant.

Even though I’m still failing to come to grips as to how a real-life Springfield Monorail came to be, the Malacca system does offer a very important lesson for all future transportation planners: if you choose to build transport infrastructure, please, please, please remember to choose someone with a proven track record.

But hold on, perhaps I’m missing something in all this. Could this have been preplanned?

On the flip side, a broken down monorail could be a huge attraction itself. And for a country obsessed with world records, the Chief Minister himself even quipped, “We almost made it to the Guinness Book of World Records for encountering countless breakdowns.”

Now that’s an achievement worth getting recognition for!

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Three Eye-Opening Papers On How We Build Transit

The other day I discussed how modal choice often has less to do with the intrinsic qualities of a technology and more to do with extrinsic factors. Those comments caused something of a stir with people coming out saying a variation of the following:

  • Light Rail is a scam.
  • Light Rail is awesome.
  • It depends. (Note: This is the camp I tend to fall in.)

Within the comments I disagreed with a commenter who referred to a “Light Rail Scam” but also admitted that “LRT has been foisted onto places that didn’t need it and probably shouldn’t have been built. But that’s not the case everywhere.”

Which prompted frequent commenter Matt the Engineer to question “What LRT lines weren’t needed and shouldn’t have been built?”

Very good question, Matt.

For readers interested in this issue, there are three essential articles they should look to (Note: clicking on the title of the article will allow you to download it):

The Pickrell piece is insanely readable for something as mundane as transit ridership forecasting. If you only have time to read one, this is the one you should look at. It gives a rather disturbing insight into how public transit is planned, funded and built in North America.

The Flyvbjerg piece, meanwhile, is a little more technical but nevertheless eye-opening. In fact, most of Flyvbjerg’s work is essential reading for anyone interested in how we (in)effectively conduct mega projects in the developed world, particularly in regards to public transit. If you take the time to work through his materials, you’ll come out the other end with a different mindset than when you entered.

The FTA piece, lastly, is boring beyond belief. But is great as a reference point to see how this all comes together. In it, you’ll find out which LRT systems in the US are the star performers (they’re not the ones you think), which are the true dogs (they probably are the ones you think), and which ones are middling at best (a few surprises).

If you’re a transit nerd, you need to read these.

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What The Death of The Sydney Monorail Teaches Us About Techno-Zealotry

Dead Train Walking, The Sydney Monorail. CC image via Wikipedia.

On the recent news of the soon-in-the-offing death of the Sydney Monorail, Jarrett Walker at Human Transit had this to say:

Technophile commenters will doubtless chalk this up the Sydney decision as a defeat for monorails in general.  I disagree.  It’s a defeat for one-way loops, poor connectivity, and symbolic as opposed to actual mobility.  The monorail didn’t fail just because it was a monorail, but because it was a poorly designed line.

Couldn’t agree more. But I’d like to expand on those words:

Imagine, if you will, a 3.6 kilometre long light rail “loop” with 8 different stations and a flat fee to travel within it. Whether you travel one stop or all six it’s going to cost you roughly five bucks. The line doesn’t allow for integrated fare transfers between local subway or bus connections – not that you’d want to transfer to it as the line effectively takes riders from nowhere in particular to nowhere in specific.

Would you ride that system? Neither would I.

Of course I’m not talking about a fictional light rail system, I’m talking about the real Sydney monorail that was recently purchased by the New South Wales government and slated for demolition whenever “feasible.”

Some have come out showing this to be a definitive example of why monorail technology is somehow an inferior transit mode. A recent article at This Big City, is remarkably inane in its lack of analysis stating “the transit technology just hasn’t been a practical success. Today we have two case studies of cities where building infrastructure up doesn’t always mean moving people forward.” So not only are monorails not a practical success, but elevated transit in general is problematic.

Now I’m no fan of monorail technology as I’ve mentioned before. But my problem has little to do with the actual technology itself and more to do with maddening tourist-oriented installations (such as the Sydney monorail) that bear so little resemblance to actual public transit. Successful monorail systems such as the Wuppertal Schwebebahn, for example, I happen to be rather fond of.

But to return to my original question: Would any average commuter actually ride the above-described light rail line? Would they if it were a subway? A bus line? A gondola? Would they ride it no matter what the technology implemented was?

Of course not. No reasonable person would.

When we argue against a technology because of its inherent (dis)abilities, we have to make sure that our arguments are intrinsic rather than extrinsic to the technology in question. For example:

  • The fact that light rail vehicles must travel on a set of rails is intrinsic to the technology. Where those rails are located, whether in the sky, the ground or in a tunnel is extrinsic to light rail.
  • A monorail intrinsically runs either on top of a single concrete “rail” or is suspended from above by a single steel rail. Extrinsic to the technology is the fare charged for the line and the line configuration.
  • Intrinsic to gondola technology is the fact that intermediary/angle stations are currently required in order for cornering and turns to be realized. Beyond a minimum set of parameters; the size, design, shape and attendant functions of a gondola station are extrinsic to the technology.

See the difference?

Those items that are extrinsic to a technology are limited not by the technology, but by the choices made by the system designers and operators. Yes, extrinsic choices are sometimes limited by the intrinsic characteristics of a technology (for example, current gondola technology does not allow for more than about 8,000 pphpd), but those situations are more the exception than the rule. Where we get into trouble is when people argue against a technology intrinsically when the problems of the system are clearly extrinsic. (Note that I’ve made a very purposeful differentiation between “technology” and “system”.)

Consider perhaps the best example of this problem – Vancouver’s SkyTrain and Detroit’s Downtown People Mover. The two are polar opposites on the end of the success/failure spectrum yet both use the ICTS Mark II Advanced Rapid Transit technology. One system (guess which) is a perpetual money loser, suffers from terrible ridership, provides no free transfers from the existing public transit system, is a 4.7 km long loop through downtown and targets tourists rather than local commuters.

The other has been a roaring success, has witnessed massive expansion throughout the entire city, functions as mass public transit with free transfers between modes and targets local commuters rather than tourists.

Yet they both use the exact same technology. 

Unfortunately the extrinsic/intrinsic distinction is rarely made by techno-zealots and why celebrations about the death of the Sydney Monorail are disingenuous at best. At worst, techno-zealots use extrinsic arguments against other technologies as evidence of those opposing technologies’ failings. It doesn’t matter that it’s incorrect because that doesn’t change the fact that it happens – a lot. Sadly debate, argument and logical reasoning don’t tend to be a part of our high schools’ curricula so instead of reasoned commentary we get a kind of gangland, partisanship bluster that does nothing to advance conversation.

See! Monorails suck! They’re closing down the Sydney Monorail! Light Rail represent, yo!

Monorails aren’t useless any more than Vancouver’s Skytrains aren’t. The difference is that Vancouver’s Skytrains are treated as public transit whereas the overwhelming majority of monorails have been treated as poorly-thoughout-out tourist traps. It would be like arguing with someone that a football is a terrible kind of ball based solely on the fact that the vast majority of footballs in the world were being used as baseballs.

Nevertheless, that’s where the monorail stands. You can’t turn back history. You can’t eliminate all the missteps along the way. You can’t erase that episode of The Simpsons. Nowadays the monorail is like a disgraced politician. It doesn’t matter if he was good at his job or got thrown under the bus by a scheming associate or whatever. In the court of public opinion, he’s a scoundrel and a deviant and neither has much of a shot in an election. (Though the scoundrels tend to fare better than the deviants in that regard.)

That’s the reason I flee from monorails. They’re a technology with too toxic a reputation and much too much baggage to overcome. That might change sometime in the future, but not in the near future. Right now, monorails are Robert Downey Jr. in 2001 with no guarantee of an Iron Man in the waiting.

Is that fair? No, not in the least. But life isn’t fair and neither is marketing. Anyone who told you otherwise, lied to you.

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The Paradox Of Established Technologies

How many of you own this? Image by Tom Raftery.

Quick! Hands up if you own an iPad!

(Good, now hold that thought because I’ll get back to it at the end of this post.)

A comment on a recent post over at Human Transit caught my eye:

The post was titled All Aboard The Canadian Hydrogen Overhead Monorail Express and dealt with Canadian Inventor Frank Illguth’s dream of a high speed monorail that doesn’t need to stop for boarding and alighting passengers.

As I discuss here, the concept of vehicles that don’t stop for boarders and alighters is not a new one. The practice dates back to the 1800’s and was called “coach slipping” and there are at least a few people in the world who still think it’s a viable proposition:



So does Mr. Illguth’s coach slipping monorail constitute a genuine invention or is it just the repackaging of an old idea? Doesn’t matter, that’s for the patent lawyers to decide and not the point of this post.

The response on Human Transit to Mr. Illguth’s CHOME was predictably and overwhelmingly negative and sarcastic. Mr. Illguth, meanwhile, didn’t help his cause any. He offered little evidence of his idea’s worth and caught the ire of the group by deriding other commenters and their “crap opinion(s)” – his words, not mine.

The discussion goes on and on and – as is typical of this kind of argument – one individual reiterated the oft-told and sacred rule of transit planning: stick with established technologies and a reputable manufacturer.

Fair enough.

But how does one define an established technology? And more importantly, how does a technology become established? It’s like the recent graduate who can’t get a job due to a lack of experience and is told to remedy the problem by getting a job so as to gain experience.

It’s a paradox and it doesn’t help anybody.

It’s not like we’re talking about fire or gravity here. Trains, buses and streetcars haven’t existed forever. At some point in time someone had to invent from nothing whatever transit technology you currently ride. And by virtue of that act of invention, every single transit technology in history has lived through a period of not being established.

One could argue that every major transit innovation/invention of the last 200 years was a deliberate and revolutionary act against the status quo. Horse drawn omnibuses led to San Francisco style cable cars which led to electrified streetcars which led to diesel-powered buses which led to LRT and BRT.

In other words, innovation and invention was always key. But somewhere along the line we traded that spirit of invention for a policy of establishment. Stick with established technologies and a reputable manufacturer. Good for the reputable manufacturers and established technologies, not so good for everyone else.

It’s nothing more than the No City Wants To Be First Problem: No city wants to be first with a new idea, but should the idea prove successful, every city wants to be second. Our cities have become the world’s largest riders of coattails and those responsible are strangely proud of it.

I know nothing about Mr. Illguth’s monorail and I doubt it will ever see the light of day. But guaranteed, if Mr. Illguth does find a city willing to implement his technology and it proves to be every bit as wonderful as he claims, cities will be clamoring for it. Same thing with the new London Heathrow PRT. Or the Chinese Tunnel Bus™. Or my CableRailGyroCopter (patent and trademarks pending).

Will every new idea pan out in the end? Of course not, but that’s okay. That doesn’t mean the act of innovation and invention is inherently something to avoid and fear. That we have an unwritten rule that is actively hostile towards the new doesn’t make it any easier, but that’s just the way it is right now.

New is hard, long and difficult. But it’s worth it.

Now to get back to that whole iPad question: How many of you ever owned a Newton?

Apple iPad circa 1987. Image by moparx.

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The Wuppertal Schwebebahn

The Wuppertal Schwebebahn in Central Germany. Image by JuergenG.

In the central German city of Wuppertal is a piece of transit infrastructure completely unique in the world.

Translated directly, the Wuppertal Schwebebahn means “floating railway” and it’s easy to see how it received it’s name. Built in 1900, the Shwebebahn in the oldest monorail on the planet and an elegant piece of transit history and infrastructure. (FYI – It’s not cable propelled.)

Even 110 years ago, civil engineers understood the problems of public transit co-mingling with other private modes of transportation. But unlike today where we try and work around the problem of mixed traffic with dubious Transit Signal Priority Schemes, these engineers decided to forget about the band-aid approach and just get out of traffic’s way completely. And in doing so, they arrived upon the solution of creating the world’s first “hanging monorail.”

While the age of the system gives its infrastructure considerable heft, it’s not at the expense of the urban environment. The green support structures arch gracefully and their conspicuously large steel rivets conjure images of turn-of-the-century skyscrapers and the Eiffel Tower.

Much of the Wuppertal’s route lies overtop of the local river. Whereas some might have thought such a scheme would only be useful for crossing rivers, Wuppertal planners were wise in recognizing the other more intrinsic value of river corridors: Running along a river instead of across a river opens up wide areas of public space and provides an attractive view for riders.

The Wuppertal Schwebebahn shows how aerial transit systems are not only possible, but elegant, practical, safe and efficient. The Schwebebahn has an excellent safety record, and is still an essential part of that city’s transit infrastructure; not just a toy for tourists. It also suggests how an aerial gondola system might be similarly configured/integrated into the urban environment.

Check it out:

Special thanks to Christian for suggesting I discuss this unique and amazing system.

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Mandalay Bay Cable Car, Part 2

I recently travelled to Las Vegas, Nevada to explore that city’s two public cable systems. This is Part 2 of a 3 Part report on the Mandalay Bay Cable Car.

The Mandalay Bay Cable Car is the kind of cable installation I love. It’s a modest, unassuming workhorse that demonstrates why cable is just so attractive a technology. It’s fast, it’s got heft and it just feels right. I know it’s impossible to quantify such a subjective concept, but – believe me – I’ve ridden several cable systems that didn’t feel right and this one does. In fact, it feels almost perfect.

The system operates 24 hours per day, 365 days of the year with a total downtime of less than 0.5%. It operates above 30 km/hr and it can move between 1,500 and 3,000 pphpd depending on your calculation. The lack of a specific capacity is due to two major factors:

The Mandaly Bay Cable Car Map. Note the Express Line and the Local Circulator Line. Image by Steven Dale.

FIRST. Because it is a hotel resort system, capacity is at least somewhat determined by people with luggage. As anyone who comes to Vegas will do so with luggage, that luggage must be accommodated for. The more luggage, the less people. This fact somewhat artificially drives down the stated capacity of the system. During times of conferences and conventions, when people from all over Vegas descend on the Mandalay Bay, the system operates well over stated capacity without trouble, a testament to the previous statement.

SECOND. The system actually operates two separate independent shuttles. One is an express connecting the Excalibur and Mandalay Bay resorts in a single swift minute, whereas the second line is a local connector with intermediary stops at the Luxor and a second Excalibur station. This is a revolutionary alignment that most higher order transit technologies don’t even accomplish.

This dual track, dual purpose configuration, however, complicates matters of capacity as well as questions of connectivity.

From the main Excalibur Terminal, there is no direct connection to the Luxor or the secondary Excalibur station. To access either of those stations, one must first take the express line to Mandalay Bay, then transfer to the local and retrace backwards to either the Luxor or Excalibur intermediary station.

It’s a truly ludicrous design to any rational transit planner. But remember: This is Las Vegas. Transportation and rationality are completely anathema to this world. The purpose of the Mandaly Bay system is not to get you to the Luxor or the secondary Excalibur station. The purpose is purely to get you to the Mandalay Bay.

It may be a piece of planning absurdity, but it’s also a piece of marketing genius, and it was intentional according to those I spoke with who work with the system. Any movement on the cable car is filtered through Mandalay Bay, ensuring maximum exposure.

It is, in essence, the Freemium Model of public transit. Mobility is offered to everyone and anyone free of charge, the price is allowing oneself to be exposed to one giant Mandalay Bay advertisement. It was no mistake, after all, that the Mandalay Bay station is located deep within the heart of the complex, whereas the other stations require a long walk through their respective casinos.

So is it transit? No. But does that question really matter? I don’t think so. The Mandalay Bay cable car was always much more about marketing than it was about mobility. It’s important to analyze a system based upon its strategic goals. Not only has the cable car been an enormous marketing success, it has also (bizarrely) succeeded as transit in ways other Vegas transit systems haven’t, namely the Las Vegas Monorail.

The Las Vegas Monorail. A perpetual money-loser, the Monorail has a spotty technical record and is increasingly underutilized. Image by Steven Dale

Whereas the not-for-profit owned Las Vegas monorail is far longer and offers better connectivity, it is so much more irrelevant than the Mandalay Bay system. One doesn’t even know the monorail exists and one really doesn’t care to. In fact, it’s totally common to find websites and forums that confuse the Mandalay Bay system for the Las Vegas Monorail. But at a $6 per trip price tag, it’s hard not to understand why the Las Vegas Monorail drives users away.

Ironically, the Las Vegas monorail as a fare-based system is a perpetual money loser that has struggled financially and technologically since it opened. The Mandalay Bay cable car, meanwhile, is free and is seen by its owners as a complete success. So much so, MGM has just recently opened a second cable system linking three other resorts (more on that system in the future).

I’ll wrap up this report tomorrow with a discussion about the Mandalay Bay cable car’s visual aesthetics and station design.


Continue to Part 3.

Click here to read Part 1.

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CPT Is Not A Monorail

When I talk to anyone under the age of 35 about Cable-Propelled Transit (CPT) something almost always occurs:

Without prompting, my partner in conversation will typically invoke the near-legendary Monorail musical number in The Simpsons episode “Marge vs. The Monorail.” For those who’ve never seen it, the story turns around a schemingly tuneful huckster bent on selling the town of Springfield a monorail despite their better instincts:

It’s a classic episode and the analogy is apt. After all, advancing the idea of ski-lifts as transit appears to be hucksterism at its best.

The difference, of course, is that Cable-Propelled Transit is a demonstrable success and monorails aren’t. Monorails are rare in the world and are so prohibitively complex and expensive they tend to become technological albatrosses. Ask anyone in Seattle.

You may think otherwise, but selling monorails is hucksterism. Advocating for cable isn’t.

So for those of you out there biting at the chomp to make the comparison, let me say this: I’m a terrible singer, I don’t earn a commission on any cable technology sales, I don’t know Leonard Nimoy, and I’ve never worn a bow tie in my life.

So there.


Far Left: Not Me.

(Far Left) Not Me.

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