The Future of Quiet,  Efficient Transportation

A monorail is a transportation system composed of a single rail that acts as a support mechanism and guide way. The term also refers to the vehicle using the guide way.

Most monorail systems are generally found in small applications such as people movers in airports and in medium capacity mass transit roles. In order to differentiate between monorails and other forms of railed transport, the Monorail Society defines a monorail as a vehicle that runs on a single rail smaller than the full width of the vehicle.(The Monorail Society)

Monorail History

The first monorail was built in Russia in 1820 by Ivan Elmanov. Attempts to build monorails as a viable alternative to other forms of railed transportation were common in the early 19th Century. The earliest known patent for a monorail design was issued to British inventor Henry Palmer in 1821. Monorails based on Palmer’s design were built at London’s Deptford Dockyard and in a stone quarry in Hertfordshire. The Hertfordshire monorail was unique because it was the first passenger monorail, as well as the first railway of any kind in Hertfordshire.(Palmer, Henry (1823). Description of a Railway on a New Principle. J. Taylor.)

In the early 19th Century, most monorail designs centred on the use of a single metal rail with wheels on both sides of the rail providing balance and support.

In the early 1900s, there were numerous experiments with gyroscopically balanced monorails. However, most of these plans did not proceed beyond the prototype stage. One exception was the monorail used by the Patiala State Monorail Trainway in Punjab, India.(Self, Douglas”The Schilovski Gyrocar”. Douglas Self.Retrieved on Apr.8/09)

One of the first truly practical monorails to be put into operation was a system that was designed and built by French engineer Charles Latrigue, in Ireland in 1888. Its single rail resting on a tripod, Latrigue’s steam powered monorail ran from 1888 until 1924, when it suffered extensive damage in Ireland’s Civil War, at which point it was taken out of service.(The Lartigue Monorail Society)

During the first half of the 20th Century, there were many plans for the construction of mass transportations systems based around the use of monorails. Unfortunately, the surge in popularity of the automobile meant that these plans never got off the drawing board.

The Future of Monorails

However, toward the end of the 20th Century, with the rise in traffic congestion and the increasing pace of urbanization, city planners are re-examining the viability of the monorail as a possible solution to traffic congestion. There has already been some notable early success using monorails in this capacity. In the 1960s, the Japanese built the longest monorail system in the world in Tokyo. With over 15 kilometres of track, and capable of carrying 175,000 passengers per day, the Tokyo Monorail is one of the busiest commuter lines in the world.(Kyodo News. “1.5 Billionth Rides Monorail.” The Japan Times. Jan.25/09)

Types of Monorails

There are two different kinds of monorails, straddle-beam systems and suspended systems. Straddle-beam monorails are the most common. They derive their name from the way the train wraps itself around the running surface, which is usually a concrete beam two or three feet wide. An under carriage composed of rubber tires keeps the train centred on the beam and provides locomotion. The suspended beam method hides the wheels inside the guide way and suspends the train below the track. Virtually all monorails built today utilize either electric motors or an electrified third rail as their source of power.(The Monorail Society Technical Page)

With their small footprint, as compared to other forms of mass transit, their ability to move large numbers of people quickly and quietly, their high energy efficiency, and low environmental impact, monorails may be the mass transit system of choice in the future.


The copyright of the article Monorails in Electric Trains is owned by Terry Long. Permission to republish Monorails in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

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