sydney: monorail soon to be scrap metal?


The state government that rules Sydney is giving signs that it's ready to tear down the city's monorail, ostensibly for a rebuild of the convention centre but also to remove some obstacles to surface light rail, including game-changing new line down the middle of Sydney's CBD spine, George Street.  Jake Saulwick has the story in today's Sydney Morning Herald.

A source from one consortium [bidding to build a new convention centre] said no decision had been made ''but the word from the government is 'don't let the monorail constrain your thinking' ''.

''Conversely they say the light rail is quite important.''

This could be read as a story about big bad developers destroying a crucial transit resource, but it's not. The Sydney Monorail, opened in 1988, is the red line in the map below: a one way loop connecting the CBD to the nearby tourism-entertainment-convention district of Darling Harbour:

Map by

Like many transit toys, it was built cheaply on the assumption that the joy of the technology itself would transcend its lack of usefulness.  Its most obvious use is for travel between the convention/exhibition area on the west side of the loop to the city centre in the east, but the key stations on the west side of the loop, serving the convention/exhibition area and Paddy's Markets, are attached to parking structures, offering an unattractive walk to the destination itself.   The fare is $5.00.  Meanwhile, it's less than 1.5 km (1 mile) walk from one side of the loop to the other, mostly along reasonably pleasant paths that lead to the front door of your destination, though to be fair there is one elevated waterfront freeway in the way.

I lived and worked in inner city for five years, crossing the monorail's service area on foot several times a week.  Twice in that time, in very bad weather, using the monorail made sense to me.

The monorail is a barrier to light rail, indirectly, because its pillars form a bottleneck in a potential north-south traffic lane on Pitt Street, and this lane could be useful in rearranging street uses to create room for a light rail line the whole length of George Street, the largest continuous north-south street in the city's core.  Light rail is being designed to be useful.  It will be in an exclusive lane (which is why it's not being called a "tram") and it will form the common CBD segment for several lines branching out in several directions, serving high-demand corridors in the inner city.  Its high capacity (in the sense of passengers per driver) and its two-way service in high-demand places will make it a real transit service, unlike the tiny one-way loop of the monorail.

Next time someone wants to introduce a fun new technology into your city using a one-way loop, remember: 

  1. Very few people really want to travel in circles.
  2. Except for tourists and others travelling for pleasure, most people need direct service in both directions, which loops don't do well, and …
  3. Loops are intrinsically closed, turned inward on themselves, impossible to extend without disrupting existing travel patterns.  That's why one-way loops are never a good starter project for a technology that's expected to expand its relevance in the future.

For more on those principles, see Chapter 4 of Human Transit.

Finally, monorails are fun to ride, but most people experienced this one from being underneath it.  This was just a single beam for one-way loop service, causing all the problems above, but it was still much-disliked, especially in the narrow streets of the highrise core where it added to the sense of overhead weight above the pedestrian.



To be fair, it's less oppressive than, say, the Chicago "L" or many other downtown viaducts.  A transit advocate might fight hard for exactly this kind of visual impact if it was the only way to get useful two-way service through a high-demand area.  In fact, one of the best uses of monorail is in historic and very crowded areas where the combination of archeological and ground-plane impacts of any transit service simply mandates elevated as the least bad solution — parts of New Delhi, for example.  But the Sydney monorail had few of these benefits.  Perhaps it was just a toy, and Sydney has outgrown it.

29 Responses to sydney: monorail soon to be scrap metal?

  1. Zoltán January 9, 2012 at 8:32 am #

    “That’s why one-way loops are never a good starter project for a technology that’s expected to expand its relevance in the future”
    While in Detroit, I did a thought experiment about using the people mover infrastructure (helpfully on steel rails, making it potentially compatible with light rail trains, but looking like a monorail from below, and just such a downtown one-way loop) as the basis for a light rail system to extend elevated and at grade out of the city, including along Woodward.
    To bring everything onto a one-way loop, à la Chicago, would:
    – Fail to serve linear travel within downtown.
    – Given branching, make downtown travel illegible (can I get the red line, or will that branch off the loop before my destination?)
    – Cause long detours in one direction for passengers travelling to points downtown.
    So I decided that it would be better to place passing loops every so often. This, however, causes the following drawbacks:
    – With loops placed as I designed, trains could only run at headways divisible by five minutes – not more often than every five minutes, nor every 7.5, every 12, etc.
    – Trains would waste several minutes waiting at passing loops downtown, to ensure the system was reliable.
    – Any delay before entering downtown or within downtown, from motor traffic, passengers, technical faults with trains, etc., would impact upon the entire system.
    – Any branching would have to be scheduled very precisely indeed.
    – Some downtown stations would have one platform served confusingly by trains going in opposite directions.
    So, in short, yes, one-way loops are pretty much impossible to do anything with after they’ve been built.

  2. Jcb10 January 9, 2012 at 9:03 am #

    When last in Sydney, I had to go from the CBD to Darling Harbour (was going to play at Lyric Theatre). And yes, I chose to walk on those “reasonably pleasant paths that lead to the front door of your destination” because it was nice and cheaper than the monorail.

  3. BBnet3000 January 9, 2012 at 9:58 am #

    Even when a people mover works out (Vancouver Airtrain), do its limitations really make it worth it?
    I guess it may be easier to get built in a city than an elevated light rail line, though the latter is fairly unobtrusive when done in a modern fashion as well, from what ive seen.

  4. francis January 9, 2012 at 10:22 am #

    About the only places these things make sense is inside airport terminals, where…
    – Distances are short but passengers have lots of luggage and don’t want to walk it.
    – Level boarding saves lots of time.
    – Expansion is unlikely.
    – One-way reduces confusion for travelers.

  5. Jarrett at January 9, 2012 at 10:56 am #

    Francis.  Yes, good example!  See Chapter 4.  🙂

  6. Michael Doyle January 9, 2012 at 11:44 am #

    I’ve lived in Chicago for almost nine years, most of that time living downtown. Not once have I ever thought of the elevated portions of the ‘L’ as “oppressive.” Loud, yes. Overwhelming, no. I’d bet most Chicagoans would feel the same way.
    Then again, I’m originally from New York, where the trains and the elevated structures are much larger/longer/wider, and the viaducts tend to be built down the middle of main streets (now that’s oppressive!), not above secondary streets and back alleys as here in Chicago.

  7. 23skidoo January 9, 2012 at 11:50 am #

    The system in Vancouver is called SkyTrain, not Airtrain (although the JFK AirTrain is the same technology, as is the Scarborough Rapid Transit in Toronto, and the Detroit People Mover).
    It doesn’t feel like a people mover in Vancouver, especially with the longer second-generation train cars. It feels like regular rapid transit, only much more frequent, and driverless, and with shorter trainsets.

  8. Beta Magellan January 9, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

    It helps that in downtown Chicago—where the ‘L’ is built over the street—the tracks don’t pass directly over the sidewalk as in Sydney, but that there’s more breathing room between the trains and the buildings:,-87.625569&spn=0.003762,0.009109&sll=41.883260,-87.626210&layer=c&cbp=13,198.67,,0,1.17&cbll=41.88326,-87.62621&hnear=N+Wabash+Ave+%26+E+Washington+St,+Chicago,+Cook,+Illinois+60602&t=h&z=17&vpsrc=0&panoid=xq5KH8KiZoEi1qDaAKzB3A

  9. Roland S January 9, 2012 at 12:02 pm #

    Although I’m also a Chicagoan, I think the Loop is oppressive to some extent. It darkens the street around it and the noise is incredible. That said, the “dark” streets provide low-cost space for small businesses and startups to locate downtown. Were it not for the cost savings allowed by elevated construction, we probably wouldn’t have as much rail transit as we do.
    Jarrett, how do you feel about one-way loops caused by one-way streets, where opposing directions of a rail or bus line are on adjacent streets one block apart?

  10. Rico January 9, 2012 at 3:15 pm #

    Although the Vancouver Skytrain is the same technology as the Detroit people mover it is regular rapid transit (essentially a mini-metro). It has significant lines and these lines are all 2 way segments. I believe it is the 5th or 6th busiest ‘metro’ in North America. I guess that shows it is often not the technology but how it is applied that is important.

  11. JJJJ January 9, 2012 at 6:44 pm #

    For points 2 and 3…Jarrett, what do you think of the miami metromover? The central portion is a loop, but it operates both ways, and there are northern and southern extensions off the loop.
    It has good ridership (actually, very good for such a small system), but it is also free. $AUS5 is ludicrous.
    Being elevated is not an issue, because it is very high up, so few road impacts

  12. Jarrett at January 9, 2012 at 7:36 pm #

    JJJJ.  Haven't visited the Miami metromover, but I agree that two-wayness makes a big differences.  Of course that means more overhead structure.  

  13. Aidan Stanger January 9, 2012 at 10:33 pm #

    I can’t agree with your objections to one way loops. People don’t need direct service in both directions, they need quick service in both directions, and as long as the loop is fairly small (as the Sydney monorail is) it should be acceptable. Small loops are quite good for outer suburban bus routes for the same reason.
    ISTM the problem with Sydney’s monorail is its lack of integration with the other transport in Sydney. The high fares ensured it wouldn’t be much use for anyone except tourists, and not until there was (limited) fare integration with the light rail did it start to serve any serious transport purpose. And the route seems to go out of its way to avoid Central station and doesn’t even serve Town Hall station very well.
    And what part of the elevated freeway do you regard as being in the way? I thought the whole point of it being elevated was that it doesn’t get in the way!

  14. Erik G. January 10, 2012 at 10:33 am #

    IIRC, This Sydney Monorail was built by Von Roll and the license for this type of (proprietary) monorail has passed along to Bombardier.
    And if I am right, then this proprietary monorail technology (that’s always the main issue with monorail) is the same as the one used by AirTrain EWR or the Newark Airport AirTrain.

  15. Susan Pantell January 10, 2012 at 3:05 pm #

    What do people think about the elevated rail they are planning to build in Hawaii?

  16. Jarrett at January 10, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

    Susan.  I like it for the same reason I like Vancouver's.  Serious rapid transit line, and driverless so that it will support extreme frequency.  Jarrett

  17. Marklister83 January 10, 2012 at 5:06 pm #

    I lived in Sydney for a few months last year and I never took the monorail for some of the reasons you highlighted – it’s not integrated with the rest of the public transit system, and I was able to easily walk around the CBD. Also, the $5 fare is too expensive for a single trip.
    Jarrett – are there future plans to integrate the light rail (shown in blue on the map) with the existing transit system operated by the NSW government? I think the planned light rail corridor along George St. is an excellent idea. I took the light rail from Glebe to Central a few times but eventually settled with using the 431 and 433 bus lines along George St. Despite a shorter transport time for the light rail, the fact that I needed a separate ticket was a significant disincentive.
    I’m currently in Brisbane, and I think their integrated GoCard is excellent for simplifying usage across different modes of public transit. Sydney’s system would benefit tremendously from having a similar card system.

  18. Jarrett at January 10, 2012 at 5:10 pm #

    Marklister … Short answer to your question is yes, but there are lots of details to be worked out because of franchises given to the private sector in the past … 

  19. Ben Smith January 10, 2012 at 7:33 pm #

    I’ve never been to Sydney, but from the pictures I’ve seen, I think their monorail adds to the streetscape rather than detracts from it like some others do. At the very least, it is a model of how elevated monorails can be used in dense urban environments as an alternative to expensive subway tunneling.

  20. Jarrett at January 10, 2012 at 8:14 pm #

    Ben.  Yes, but note that if it does't look too overbearing as an overhead structure, that's only because it's a single beam useful only as a one-way loop or couplet!  For the streetscape effect of a two-way monorail — useful as actual transit — walk under the northern part of 5th Ave in downtown Seattle.  Admittedly that's an old one and the technology has improved, but still …

  21. Chief Clerk January 11, 2012 at 8:32 pm #

    Jarrett, it’s interesting to see your apparently favourable view on the light rail proposals – knowing your firm view that these (or any mode) should depend on the right demand and traffic conditions. Rather than go off thread can we hope for a “Sydney light rail” post sometime?

  22. Jarrett at January 11, 2012 at 8:50 pm #

    Chief Clerk.  
    After literally years of discussion with Sydney friends colleagues, I accept  that light rail, properly deployed and priced, will justify its capacity advantage over buses (understood as passenger capacity per driver) in the intense inner city markets of Sydney.  This kind of capacity is the main reason that light rail comes out ahead of buses in terms of the amount of mobility that can be offered for a given operating budget.  I'm talking of course about high capacity lines feeding into George Street, and enjoying exclusive right of way wherever they operate.  I'm not talking about another tram-stuck-in-traffic (see Toorak Road) nor about opportunity-driven extensions like Dulhich Hill, useful as the latter may be around the edges.  
    The other thing I like about light rail in Sydney is that it will finally force the government to plan for a connection-based network, because light rail will several much of the historic through-running patterns that makes the existing network so infernally complicated.  (See HT Chapter 12).

  23. wanderer January 15, 2012 at 8:02 pm #

    In defense of Sydney-siders, it’s worth recording there was significant opposition to the monorail at the time, particularly on the impact on the streetscape, as well on the other issues already raised not least the fairly clear cost and transport advantages of light rail. It was bulldozed through by the then Minister for Bullying Laurie Brereton. If it was a toy, it was a political one. And I’ve never been on it.

  24. Ben Smith January 18, 2012 at 9:29 am #

    Never been to Seattle, but have seen photos of their monorail and played around with Street View. While more oppressive, I still don’t think it looks that bad. Certainly far less obtrusive than 19th century els in New York or Chicago.
    One way around this could be to separate the tracks along nearby parallel streets. This way the effects on the streetscape are kept to a mimum. Worst case scenario you might have to walk an extra 100m to or from the train on a return trip.

  25. Jeremy January 19, 2012 at 7:47 pm #

    Sydney seems to be a case where some politicians remembered a good experience on a monorail (due to the operating conditions, not the mode) and fell in love with the technology at all costs.
    As with any transit mode, I think people tend to associate positive experiences with the vehicle technology rather than with actual operating conditions. Sure, monorail systems have a dedicated right of way and level boarding, and they are frequent and generally free (or off-board payment), so what’s not to like? You could do the same with any other vehicle type but normally we don’t so people don’t think of that as an option.

  26. Al Dimond January 22, 2012 at 12:10 pm #

    I’m from Chicago and live in Seattle; from a visual impact perspective as a pedestrian I loved the L in Chicago and love the monorail in Seattle (the latter, of course, is not all that useful for transportation). I’ve lived near the L, near busy freight rail, near a freeway, and near a biker bar. The freeway is easily the worst neighbor, and the L is easily the best. I’d certainly rather live near an L than street-level light rail.

  27. oscar January 26, 2012 at 5:11 am #

    The Simpsons’ ‘monorail’ episode always made me think of what the marketing must have been when building Sydney’s monorail.
    Nevertheless, as a long term Sydney resident, I wonder whether rather than scrapping it they could extend it (or rebuild it for more long-distance trips) to make it more useful – perhaps up Oxford street to Bondi Junction….

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