Monorail: What's Past is Prologue...

Last week I happened to be in Jacksonville, Florida. I have never been keen on Florida (it's too hot, it's too muggy, it's so pedestrian unfriendly, it's so Republican), but my partner was obliged to go down there for business. Good for you, I thought: Have fun!

However when I told a dear friend of mine here in DC that my partner was going to Jacksonville, this friend confided in me that maybe I ought to go with him because Jacksonville has a monorail.  

So I did go. 

Now, my dear reader, at least I remember the hype about monorail systems quite some years back. It was going to be the "non-plus-ultra" in public transportation. After we managed to virtually destroy American cities via the "Urban Renewal" programs and the ensuing atrocious "brutalism architecture", the monorail idea was going to be saving us from gridlock. Also never mind that most cities in this country already had fully functional and efficient public transportation in the form of street car systems. But again, politicians and General Motors and it's ilk managed to kill all that off to make obscene profits with replacement buses.  But I digress. 

"Brutalist" Architecture in London, UK

"Brutalist" Architecture in Washington, DC, USAMonorail of course means "one rail". The term is not descriptive of the kind of vehicle running on it nor how the vehicle would operate on this one rail. Most of us immediately think of this as a "proper" monorail: 

Disneyland Monorail (Wikipedia Commons Photo)

A bit toy like, but there are others that look more like real trains:

Las Vegas Monorail (Wikimedia Commons Photo)

Tokyo Monorail (Wikimedia Commons Photo)

All these examples use the "straddle beam" system. But there are other ways for a monorail to function:

Wuppertal, Germany Schwebebahn (Photo by Ralf Meier)

In Wuppertal the train hangs from the single rail. The propulsion system and the "hanging" mechanism are combined:

Wuppertal, Germany Schwebebahn Propulsion/Suspension Mechanism (Photo by Ralf Meier)

And then there is the Maglev. Technically it is a monorail. But there really is no steel rail. Basically it is a system with a concrete beam right of way to which magnets are afixed. There is a corrosponding set of magnets in the vehicle. These two sets of magnets repel each other, thus lifting the vehicle and giving it forward movement. 

Transrapid Maglev in Germany (Photo by Ralf Meier)

Here is a look at how the Transrapid works:

Graph of Transrapid Propulsion (Photo from the Journal of Wind Engineering and Industrial Aerodynamics)

Of course whatever system is going to be used they all suffer from a fundamental problem: They are totally incompatible with existing transportation infrastructure. That was one of the reasons that Deutsche Bahn (German Rail) categorically refused to build and operate a maglev line between Berlin and Hamburg. Another difficulty is the technical complexity of the right of way, in particular the way a monorail train switches from one track to another. That is actually one of the reasons most monorail systems are loops or one track "back and forth" systems. Here is a photo showing the complexity of switches/points for a monorail:

Point work at the Osaka, Japan Monorail (Osaka Transport Photo)

Besides monorails are ugly. The concrete pillars and the right of way on top of them are absolute eyesores. Really, who would want these things in the middle of the street, in the middle of a town's downtown area?

Right Of Way Seattle Monorail (Wikimedia Commons Photo)

Jacksonville's monorail right-of-way is even worse. There doesn't seem to have been any consideration for aesthetics when the system was built. It is very much of the "cheapest bidder" mentality so prevelent here in the US. 

Ugly, ugly, ugly: Jacksonville Skyway (Photo by Ralf Meier)

The Jacksonville system, euphemistically called "Skyway", goes basically from nowhere to nowhere. It is run by the Jacksonville Transportation Authority.  It trundles past the Jacksonville Convention Center and somewhat near to the River Landing restaurant area, but it is useless for visiting either, because the Skyway system shuts down at 9 pm and there is no parking at all at the Skyway terminal stations. 

Jacksonville Skyway system

The system is 2.5 miles in length. At one point a fare was collected via turnstile fare gates, however now the ride is free. During rush hour trains come every 4 or 5 minutes, during non-rush hour the train intervals are around 8 or 9 minutes. The system is totally automated.

Skyway Station Entrance at Central Station (Photo by Ralf Meier)The vehicles are from Bombardier. All are two car articulated units which can be run in a consist of up to six units. Top speed is about 40 miles an hour while going across the Acosta Bridge spanning the Saint Johns River. There is seating for about eight people in each articulated section.

Skyway Vehicle at Central Station (Photo by Ralf Meier)Interior of Skyway Vehicle (Photo by Ralf Meier)Passenger information is very good. There are lots of LED signs in the stations and on board the vehicles. The stations and vehicles are clean, no graffiti at all. Security is pretty good, albeit a bit clueless. One of them was trying to tell me that I could not take any photographs or video. I very politely told him to check with his supervisor and kept on photographing.

Following are a few video impressions of the Jacksonville Skyway. The ride is a bit rough, so there is some camera shake, sorry about that. Feel free to fast forward. Watching the video can get a bit tedious for a non rail fan!