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.

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Tuesday, August 27, 2002

TOKYO -- Tokyo Monorail (aka "Tokyo-Haneda") -- PART ONE (Monorail 14)

From the Cabalmaster:

TOKYO -- Tokyo Monorail (aka "Tokyo-Haneda") -- PART ONE

(See: Websurfers are advised that some Japanese sites require Japanese-compatible browsers and software, otherwise the "text" gets displayed as gibberish. Graphics and photos usually get displayed, even when this happens. Some but not all sites have "English" versions, but these--when available--seldom have more than a fraction of the information available in Japanese. The Tokyo Monorail site has English cues on the menu buttons, so at least you'll know "where you're going.")

The Tokyo Monorail, an icon among monorail supporters, was Japan's first attempt at applying monorail technology to a major public transport facility. It has operated successfully for nearly 40 years, for much of that time, as a profit making enterprise.

[All of this has generated a great deal of enthusiasm for similar lines in the U.S. We opinionated TransitCabalists believe that this enthusiasm is, at best, misguided.]

The Tokoy Monorail serves a unique "niche" in a unique transport market, whose characteristics permit profitable operation. Under Japanese law, the Monorail is not considered an "urban" transit route, but an "airport-access railway." If built today, it would probably use conventional rail technology.

A few quick facts about "that" market. The Tokyo metropolitan region houses roughly 30 million people within a 30-mile radius of Tokyo station (claimed as the largest agglomeration of people, and economic activity, in human history). An estimated 2.5 million people commute to jobs in Tokyo's three central wards each weekday. Along major transport corridors, traffic volumes are high enough to justify parallel tracks, and lines, to an extent unimaginable anywhere else, with the possible future exception of large cities in mainland China as they develop.

The busiest corridor is the one extending south from Tokyo station. Nine pairs of "tracks" enter
central Tokyo from the south, all within an area about 1/2 mile wide. These include two subway lines and a third underground line built for the "railway" network. On the surface, the Tokaido Main Line has three pairs of tracks, and one pair for Tokaido Shinkansen trains (which now carry substantial short-distance travel). Elevated structures carry the newest addition, the "Yurikamome" ICTS line, and the Tokyo Monorail.

We opinionated TransitCabalists can't imagine why anyone would dream about duplicating the Monorail's financial results in the U.S. or Canada. Tokyo Monorail passengers pay far more, and tolerate far higher crowding levels, than U.S. consumers would. The technology has proven itself, but does not provide greater operating efficiency than postwar U.S. rail systems. BART, for example, would return a $40 million annual operating surplus if it could match the Monorail's per-passenger fare revenue. If it could then cram additional passengers on board to match the Monorail's peak-period loads, its annual operating surplus would approach $100 million.

The area where Haneda Airport is today was once served by an electric railway branch. This was cut back after WWII, but was eventually re-extended to serve the airport. Monorail buffs may be surprised to learn that the conventional railway was "there first. "

An airfield established in 1931 became a military air base several years later, and was taken over by the U.S. military at the end of WWII. It was returned to Japanese control in 1952. Here, the Transport Ministry began building Tokyo International Airport in 1954.

The rail spur, owned by today's Keihin Electric Express Railway ("Keikyu;" pronounced roughly "kay-cue"), terminated within sight of the airport terminal, but the Keikyu management had no interest in serving Haneda Airport. The company believed -- correctly, as things turned out -- that airport traffic would not be sufficient to justify a rail link. Air traffic accounted for a tiny fraction of all intercity transport during the '50s and early '60s, and air passengers would not bring much additional revenue. Instead, Keikyu and Japan Air Lines started an express bus service to Tokyo station when the airport opened in 1955.

Planning for the 1964 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo started in 1959. Keikyu considered an underground extension to the airport terminal but did not pursue this idea. Back then, Keikyu trains terminated at Shinagawa, south of central Tokyo. The long-planned subway to Shinagawa, used by Keikyu trains today, was in the works but not complete.

Into this breach stepped the Japan Elevated Electric Railway Co, Ltd, organized in 1960. Its president was a friend of Dr. Axel L. Wenner-Gren, the Swedish inventor who developed the Alweg monorail system. The company, renamed Tokyo Monorail Co, Ltd, received its concession in 1961 and began construction in 1963. It was financed exclusively by private investors, with no participation by the government, the airport authority or the aviation industry. But supplier Hitachi, which held the license rights for Alweg technology, did participate -- perhaps to a greater extent than originally intended. The line as built extended 8.2 miles. The line cost about $60 million at the time (about $350 million in today's dollars), with 95 percent of this amount for infrastructure and five percent for rolling stock. Opening Day was September 17, 1964.

The Tokyo Monorail's "inner" terminal, at Hamamatsu-cho railway station, is two miles south of the long-established Ginza-Yurakucho business hub. This location was selected for economy reasons, but it is easy accessible from most offices and hotels by JR Yamanote Line trains or taxi. The Monorail was built along the railway, canals, and tidal areas reclaimed from Tokyo Bay. The line has a short tunnel under a ship channel, and the original terminal had a single-beam tunnel beneath runways to a station below the main ticket counters. The maximum permitted speed is 50 mph.

The Monorail had no intermediate stations when built -- and demonstrated that Keikyu management was correct. Airport traffic alone could not support the line. A toll expressway to Haneda, also completed for the Olympics, provided strong competition. One intermediate station was added in 1965 to serve the Oi Racetrack, but the line was still not able to earn a profit. The company was merged into the Hitachi group in 1967 as "Hitachi Transportation Systems, Tokyo Monorail," eliminating all outside investment.

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