Monorails matured alongside trains to fill particular niches in public transportation
Everyone knows that a monorails are amazing, bona fied electric trains running as softly as a cloud, but that’s only thanks to a history nearly as long as traditional railroads. Passengers first got a ride on a steam train in 1808, and monorails weren’t far behind, opening a slightly less comfortable, horse-pulled line in 1825. The Cheshunt Railway was actually a train of suspended gondolas designed to carry bricks, although passengers were able to get a ride on its opening day in June of that year. Still, the seeds had been planted for a mode of transportation that can operate in smaller, elevated spaces, avoid risk of derailing and definitely put a few cities on the map.
The allure of a rail system that required less space, materials and thus financial investment motivated a number of monorail designs, although few managed to really take hold as sustainable businesses. Early monorails were often made around wooden beams, with some sort of carriage sitting on top. Only in 1886 did the Enos Electric Railway demonstrate the promise of steel beams to suspend the entire train above other street traffic, although like many other projects, it was never fully realized. This isn’t to say that all early monorails were pipe dreams though— the Wuppertal Schwebebahn suspended monorail opened in Cologne, Germany in 1901 and still operates today.
The early 20th century saw further experimentation with monorail design, although few made it past limited test tracks. Some systems were built entirely on wooden tracks to save costs. Others focused on gyroscopes to ensure the suspended carriages couldn’t tip over. The Bennie Railplane toyed with some unusual forms of propulsion, being driven by two electric propellers to reach speeds of up to 99 miles-per-hour. Still, few governments ever fully committed to these projects, and so, with the exception of a few rail systems in Japan, most remained novelties instead of replacements for other forms of transportation.
Practical or playthings?
In the United States, this conflict was unintentionally compounded by Walt Disney. In 1957, Disney saw the ALWEG monorail, and moved to build a similar vehicle at his new Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California. The monorail worked fine, but it built the association that these vehicles were theme park rides, not viable transportation. An AMF Safege monorail at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York may not have helped matters, as that system ended up only looping around the amusement area, rather than truly connecting visitors to the rest of the city.
This is not to say that monorail train systems have been a failure at all. While their use is limited in the United States, where you’re most likely to see one at a park or airport, other parts of the world depend on monorails for public transportation on a daily basis. Europe and Asia are home to many functional systems, making use of their space-saving design concepts that make them a good match for dense, urban development.
Source: Monorails in History-Part I, The Monorail Society