Monorail. The mere mention of that word provokes a myriad of emotions. For some, it is a cool, sleek mode of transport that has a Howard Hughes-esque “way of the future” feel to it. For others, as brilliantly captured in the “Marge vs. the Monorail” episode of The Simpsons, it is the epitome of the word “boondoggle.”
Monorails have been built all over the world, largely as a means of traveling within a complex like an amusement park or an airport. In some cases, such as with the Shanghai Maglev, monorails shuttle people between transit nodes. However, when monorails have been deployed as mass public transit, they have seen mostly negative results. With this in mind, it is very curious that on Feb. 2, 2014, a monorail opened in Mumbai, India, a city with immense traffic problems, an overburdened suburban railway network, and no other modes of mass transit besides bus.
If history were to serve as precedent, Mumbai’s monorail is already doomed for failure. The line, currently 12 miles long, is meant to be a feeder between points along various suburban railway lines. It does not connect to the city’s main railway station, affecting potential ridership. Fares are being kept rather low to attract riders; currently, the most expensive ticket costs 11 rupees (approximately $0.18). Monorails also tend to be very costly. The Mumbai Monorail master plan calls for a total of eight monorail lines, costing $3.2 billion; the line that just opened cost $430 million. Many more lines are yet to be built, but at this time, the economics don’t seem to add up.
This seems to be set up for similar failures as other public transit monorail failures, notably those from Sydney and Las Vegas. Both cities’ monorail lines go nowhere near transit hubs, resulting in poor ridership. To compensate for the poor ridership and high construction costs, a ticket on both of these networks costs $5 (Nevada residents can ride the Las Vegas Monorail for $1). A key difference between these two cities is that Sydney possesses an extensive public transit network with bus, train, and ferry services, while Las Vegas’ public transit pales in comparison. Las Vegas’ famed Strip is also a never-ending traffic gridlock, making their monorail somewhat essential. Sydney’s monorail terminated operations in June 2013, while Las Vegas still has its monorail and struggles with ridership.
It is worth noting that not all public transit monorails are failures. Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur have proven that monorail can be successful if it provides direct links to major transportation hubs (Haneda Airport and Kuala Lumpur Sentral railway station, respectively), it is well-integrated into a city with large high capacity, rail-based transit networks, and it provides links to multiple transit lines. What Mumbai has going for it is that the city’s transit network is a work in progress. Mumbai already has suburban rail. Their monorail plans, albeit rather ambitious, are only a part of a new, sizable mass transit network. The first of three lines of the new Mumbai Metro is slated to open in March.
Rail seems to be the way to go in Mumbai, a city with major traffic issues and no opportunities to expand due to its geography. On the surface, the Monorail appears to be doomed, but once both the Monorail and Metro networks are completed, it might be an unexpected success.