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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Thursday, October 31, 2002


"It is the unfortunate destiny of the ridiculous to be subject to ridicule."
James Howard Kunstler

From the Cabalmaster:



Supported system, Kokura to Kikugaoka, 5.5 mi. Through fare: $2.40.
40 cars, 10 four-car trains.
Maximum train length: four cars.

Scheduled running time between terminals:19 minutes
Schedule speed: 17 mph.
Maximum permitted speed is 40 mph.

6 am to 11:30 pm.
Every 6-10 min throughout most of the day.

Weekdays: 103 "down" (Kikugaoka) trains; 103 "up" (Kokura) trains.

Sundays/holidays: 94 "down" and 93 "up" trains.

The "Kitakyushu Rapid Railway Co, Ltd, Kokura Line," aka the Kitakyushu Monorail, was the first "urban transit" monorail in Japan. It was also the first supported monorail built following adoption of design standards (by the Japan Monorail Association) and application criteria. The Tokyo Monorail was built as an "airport-access railway," and this remains its primary function. Many overseas monorail enthusiasts credit the Kitakyushu Monorail for sparking a "revival" of the mode in Japan. The Japanese have a different view [and we opinionated TransitCabalists concur!]. The second stage of monorail development in Japan is considered to have started with the Shonan Monorail. (There could hardly be a "revival" for a mode that never fell out of favor, but instead resembled a "solution in search of a problem" for many years.)

No two cities are exactly alike, but Kitakyushu (pronounced more or less as "key-tuh-cue-shoe") stands out as unique. It grew up as Japan's major steel town -- and as five separate cities that were not amalgamated until 1963. It sprawls over more than 20 miles east to west. Heavy industry has become less important in recent years, but Kitakyushu retains a highly industrialized cityscape.

Until the end of the '70s, Kitakyushu had one of the busiest, fastest, most efficient and best-maintained streetcar systems in Japan, operated by the Nishi-Nippon Railroad Co, Ltd ("Nishitetsu;" pronounced something like "Nish-tets"). It remained at its largest extent long after other large Japanese urban tramways had been curtailed or replaced. But it could not withstand a prolonged, inexorable decline in traffic, owing to population shifts and declines in industrial employment levels. The first bus substitution took place in 1980 an the last vestige was closed near the end of 2000, leaving a suburban "express tramway" (the Chikuho Electric Railroad Co, Ltd, a Nishitetsu subsidiary) built in 1953-1959.

Railbound competition was not a significant factor when the standard-gauge trunk streetcar system was built (1911-1929). That changed abruptly in 1961, when JNR electrified its Kagoshima Main Line. Today, JR-Kyushu operates three local and three "rapid-service" trains per hour through Kitakyushu, a "rapid-transit" service in all but name. These trains achieve passenger speeds exceeding 30 mph.

Another significant development in Kitakyushu was a rapid increase in auto ownership together with a dispersal of population from "close-in" districts. Auto ownership grew from one per 5.5 households to one per 1.1 households between 1963 and 1980. Meanwhile, manufacturing employment declined by nearly 30 percent. In part, this reflected large productivity gains from large-scale use of industrial robots. JNR managed to gain passengers within Kitakyushu; boardings within the city limit increased by 38 percent. But bus traffic fell by 16 percent, and streetcar traffic plummeted by nearly 50 percent.

Meanwhile, new suburban development south of Kokura, the business-center "hub" of Kitakyushu, created a need for improved transportation. The city's "original" streetcar line opened with horse traction in 1906 and electrified in 1920, extended 2.8 miles southward from Kokura to Kitagata; a short-lived (1923-1925) horsecar line once extended 1.9 miles farther south to Tokuriki. Planners decided against a streetcar extension. The slow (11 mph schedule speed), narrow-gauge Kitagata Line, built in narrow streets, could not provide the needed capacity. However, forecast traffic levels were not high enough to justify a subway. The logical mode choice: monorail.

Construction of a monorail line extending 5.2 miles southward from Kokura was authorized by the Transport Ministry in 1976. The Kitakyushu city government organized a third-sector company, Kitakyushu Rapid Railway Co, Ltd, with 75 percent of the stock held by the city. The Nishi-Nippon Railroad Co. holds about 10 percent of the stock. Nippon Steel Corp, Kyushu Electric Power Co, and Sumitomo Metal Industries each hold about three percent.

Construction started in 1978, and the line opened in 1985. A short (0.3-mile) extension at Kokura brought monorail trains to a new terminal, in the new Kokura station complex, in 1998.

The monorail was built over a newly-widened street in central Kokura, where it is supported by T-shaped pillars. The middle portion is built beneath the roadway deck of an elevated express highway. Much more massive pillars support the monorail, and the highway above. The southern, outer portion was built over a new road in an area of new suburban development. This portion is quite scenic, with views of the mountains in the distance.

A 1982 magazine article stated the estimated construction cost at 5.14 billion yen (roughly $350 million in today's dollars), with "infrastructure" (the guideway) accounting for 45 percent of this. A subway was estimated to cost three times this amount. The actual cost was about 35 percent higher, about $470 million.

(The Japanese perspective on this "overrun" might read something like this: "The monorail was built as a less costly alternative to a subway, which would have cost three times more. It is known that large construction projects cost more to build than initial estimates suggest. This is regrettable, but inevitable. The "gap" can be managed, but not eliminated, and would occur regardless of mode choice. A 35 percent increase from five billion yen is a much smaller
amount than a similar increase from 15 billion yen.")

The line has 11 intermediate stations. Platforms have barriers with gaps at door locations -- precise spotting of trains is customary in Japan. The operating base is located a short distance beyond the outer terminal, Kikugaoka. As usual in Japan, the Kitakyushu Monorail has a stage fare system. The minimum fare, for 1/4 mile, is $1.25.

The line is equipped with CTC and ATO for driver-only operation, and was Japan's first "major" monorail with one-man operation of trains. Traction current is 1500V dc.

CTC and ATO stand for "Centralized Traffic Control" and "Automatic Train Operation," respectively. These are historic acronyms. Current reality is best described as 1.) computer-controlled dispatching, 2.) A computerized "fail-safe" or "oversight" that displays maximum permitted speed over each section, and monitors acceleration, speed, braking and so forth in order to prevent unsafe operation. The electronics could, if necessary, provide for driverless or unmanned operation. A few Japanese gadgetbahnen operate without drivers, but most do not.

1.) The Kitakyushu Monorail is clean, quiet, well-built and well-run; it also returns an operating surplus equal to about 15 percent of revenue. By every measure, it is a success.

2.) There is no prospect for expansion.

To the American monorail buff, 1.) and 2.) are a contradiction in terms, and this "proves" that all the other information on this blog is absolute . . . well, you know . . .

[We opinionated transit pundits ARE opinionated, but open to persuasion, and the following explanation did the trick.]

The Mayor of Kitakyushu -- who may also serve as president of the monorail company, the typical practice for municipal "third-sector" enterprises -- might explain that the monorail was built because better transport was needed, but the cost of a subway could not be justified. He might also explain that the monorail was not built with expansion in mind. It could be extended at either end, in fact, a short extension was built when the reconstruction of Kokura station justified this. He might continue that monorails are not suitable for operation in a network, integrated with other monorail lines. Where such a network is needed, some other mode would be built.

"And so," a visitor might ask, "Would a city choose monorail as the first "stage" of an eventual integrated network, with vehicles traveling from one line to another?"

The likely (polite) answer, in Japanese, gets translated as "perhaps not;" it is the functional equivalent of "I do not believe so, but I cannot guarantee this."

An outline map dating to the opening of the line shows two "future" lines. Japan makes such plans far in advance, but are not implemented until "decisionmakers" reach a consensus that the project is necessary and its expense can be justified. Hence, these are best understood as "possible" future lines, for which provisions will be made as other projects are built.

[In other words, other projects may not obstruct a potential future transport corridor. In the Los Angeles area, Caltrans once threatened to do just that, on grounds that it "didn't have the money" to build an overpass, rather than an embankment, across a rail alignment. The road project was the Century Freeway . . . and the rail alignment eventually became the light rail Blue Line!]

A monorail line extending southwest from Kurosaki, in the western part of the city, would roughly parallel the Chikuho express tramway mentioned above. Traffic may eventually grow to justify a second line. [The key word here is "eventually."]

A monorail line between Kokura and Kurosaki would duplicate the only section of the standard-gauge streetcar network not paralleled by JNR (now JR-Kyushu). [The key word here is "duplicate."]

The plan for a Kokura --- Kurosaki monorail line dates to the mid-'80s, and probably farther back. The streetcar line was closed in 1992. It seem safe to conclude that this line will not be built until traffic becomes too heavy for buses -- and that, in our opinion, is a long way ahead.

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