The Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal

Informed but opinionated commentary and analysis on urban transportation topics from the Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal. Names have been omitted to protect the guilty.

Our Mission: Monkeywrench the Anti-Transit Forces

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Tuesday, August 13, 2002


From the Cabalmaster:

One fact about Japanese monorail development has become crystal clear here at the Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal: Japan decisively rejected monorail as a "general-purpose" urban transport mode -- and did so 30 years ago.

Existing Japanese monorails were built for specialized applications --primarily lines in road corridors. A few short lines were not successful and have been closed. In addition, the literature contains no hint that any "new"monorails will be authorized, other the line nearing completion in Naha (Okinawa), and sort extensions in Osaka and Chiba.


Japan's first monorail proposal was submitted in 1913. This outlined a short line in Tokyo, between Ueno station and Asakusa, resembling the Wuppertaler Schwebebahn. Ten more proposals followed between 1923 and 1931. All were rejected by transport officials, who were skeptical of the technology, the ability of promoters to secure financing, and their various claims (inclouding ridership estimates).


A 188-meter suspended monorail opened at Toshima-en amusement park, in Tokyo's northwest suburbs, in 1951. This little-known line was not much more than an amusement-park ride, and was dismantled some years ago.


Large Japanese citiies began to consider streetcar replacement during the mid-1950s. The very robustness of electric railway technology helped bring about its demise. Streetcar lines in bomb-devastated cities were restored with relatively little investment. Large numbers of composite-bodied cars, with sturdy but obsolete hardware, were built to replace the thousands damaged or destroyed during the 1945 firebomb attacks.

[A well-documented account states that Hiroshima managed to restore partial service just three days after the A-bomb explosion. This account is true, and we accept it as such . . . but we still don't believe it!]

But streetcars could not continue operation indefinitely without large-scale investment for renewal and modernization. Transport and finance officials eventually decided that this investment could not be justified. Local and central government agencies cited population shifts, falling ridership, financial difficulties and rapidly rising road congestion as factors requiring investment in some other mode.

Subways were the obvious choice to replace streetcars on busy trunk lines. Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya had long-standing plans for comprehensive networks, but progress was slow owing to financial constraints. Trolleybuses and motor buses required much less capital but were totally inadequate for busy surface lines. This led to renewed interest in monorail technology.

In 1957, the Transportation Bureau, Tokyo Metropolitan Government ("Toei"), which operates surface transport and the smaller of Tokyo's subway networks, built a demonstration monorail line in Tokyo's Ueno Park. This extends330 meters, and connects two sections of Ueno Zoo. It was patterned after the Wuppertal Schwebebahn, although with rubber-tired "trucks" and a much
smaller single-beam guideway. Toei used streetcar hardware when possible. Traction current is 600V dc, and schedule speed is 12 km/h. Rolling stock is built to "half scale" -- 9.3 meters long and 1.7 meters wide. The line has a single two-car train.

This tiny line has operated successfully for more than 40 years, carrying an average of 4,000 people per day. It proved totally inadequate for busy urban trunk lines, but serves a useful purpose and has become something of a technological monument. The original cars were replaced in 1967 and again in 1984-1985. Closure was threatened at the end of the 1990s, following a Transport Ministry inquiry regarding earthquake-safety standards, adopted after the 1997 Kobe earthquake. The agencies responsible eventually decided to rebuild the line, and it was closed from January 2000 through the end of May 2001 to permit this.

It's not clear what potential applications were considered. One proposal called for construction of monorails together with the urban tollway netwrok, but this was not carried out. Replacement of major streetcar lines with monorails as an alternative to subways may have been an early idea, but this was not considered seriously for long. Toei invested considerable sums for temporary track to maintain streetcar service during service during subway construction, for permanent track after construction was finished, and for new track as part of street widening projects. This stopped in 1965, and Toei announced a five-year plan to replace all streetcars and trolleybuses in 1967. There was no mention of monorail. One streetcar line escaped closure owing to extensive private right-of-way and lack of parallel streets suitable for buses.

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