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One-Track Wonders: Early Monorails


"QUANTUM SHOT" #558
Link - article by M. Christian and Avi Abrams



A dream of high-tech splendor balanced on a single rail

Why use two tracks when you can have only one, or no track at all (magnetic "levitation")? Same sort of logic gave us mono-wheel vehicles, Segway, and today is used extensively for public transportation in high-density urban areas. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present to you, for your amusement and edification, one of the strangest and counter-intuitive ways of getting from point A to point B: the monorail.

While the concept of possibly traveling across a city, and/or across the landscape, on monorails has become close to acceptable these days – or even grudgingly acceptable - back in its infancy visionary proponents of this form of transportation instead saw a future where everyone, everywhere, moved in gleaming high-tech splendor balanced on a single rail.



top image: The George Bennie RailPlane System of Transport, see below, via - bottom image via

Early Dreamers

One of those first dreamers was Henry Palmer, whose creations worked the docks of London for many years – and even carried quite a few passengers. Terrified of falling over, to be sure, but passengers nonetheless. Other inventors, like Ivan Elmanov in Russia and Charles Lartigue, the French Engineer, saw their dreams made in iron and steel and even – in the case of Lartigue – were able to ride their visions and see them as, albeit short-lived, successes.


Left image - Schwebebahn in Barmen-Elberfeld, via -- Top right: 1876 - Philadelphia Centennial steam-driven monorail (by General Le-Roy Stone) -- Bottom right: 1911 - William H. Boyes Monorail (Seattle, Washington), via

An interesting early 1910s application of monorail technology is U.S. Senate Monorail (1912) - carrying senators along the tunnels under the U.S. Senate building on the "shortest and most exclusive railway in the world." (read more info) -


(image by Library of Congress, via)

To be fair, some of these early designs were more thought-out than you might think – though the actual engineering was naturally a bit primitive. Some designs used a single rail for both balance as well as power (either balanced by a gyroscope or hanging by an overhead support), while others kind of ‘cheated’ by having a single rail for balance and then a second wheel off to the side for propulsion.

Propeller-driven "The Bennie Railplane" - "The short test track was built over a railroad line near Glasgow, Scotland. Two electrically-powered propellers delivered 240 horsepower in a short burst for acceleration to the cruise speed of 160 kph. There were plans for a high-speed link between London and Paris, with a seaplane to carry passengers across the English Channel, but the grave economic difficulties of the 1930's doomed the Railplane from the start." (source)


"The Bennie Railplane", via


Russia's Imperial Monorail, 1900

Russia has a long history of playing with monorail concept - as far back as 1820, in the small village of Mychkovo, Russian inventor Ivan Elmanov built an elevated single-track: the horses would draw carts sliding over the wooden pole "rail". The idea became even more popular in Russia than a normal steam train at the time (old salt mines in Crimea used Elmanov's monorail, for example):


(image via)

Another Russian inventor Ippolit Romanov asked permission from the Romanov royal family to build an elevated monorail in the city of Gatchina, and got the blessing of the Russian Imperial Technical Society. The road was constructed in the best Victorian fashion and received its first passengers in June, 1900 -



(images via Alexey Dedushkin, "Niva" newspaper, 1900)

After that, much more ambitious project, a high-speed monorail (with speeds up to 200 km/hr) connecting St.Petersburg and Moscow was considered and declined for the lack of funds. An image of projected huge terminal station survives (see the whole series of "Moscow of the Future" from 1900s - click here) -




The Oldest Monorail System in Operation: Steampunkish Wuppertal Schwebebahn

Wuppertal Schwebebahn (Suspension Railway) opened in 1901 along the Wupper river and remains in operation for more than 100 years. Perhaps it is the biggest miracle that it remains profitable and safe, economical and simply gorgeous (with new or vintage cars). It was designed by the Civil Engineer Eugen Langen of Cologne:






(images via 1, 2, 3, 4, Life)


1930-1970s always saw the future as balancing on one rail

While the early 20th century didn’t see a lot of huge developments in one-rail trains – except for here or there earnest experiments and limited uses – the 1920s and 30s were a boom year for the monorail in the pages of science fiction and techno-gee-whiz magazines like Popular Science and Modern Mechanix.



(images via 1, 2)

For some reason the brilliant artist of these and other magazines always saw the future as balancing on one rail. Their images are bold and daring, a plastic … or more like bakelite … glowing and chrome gleaming tomorrow of pipe-smoking, hat-wearing business men and balloon-toting and picnic basket-carrying children and wives zipping across meticulously manicured landscapes at the astounding speeds of 300 miles per hour.


(image via Modern Mechanix)


Arthur Radebaugh, "Metro Metropolis", images via

Amphibious Monorail - Designed to traverse the deserts of Turkmenistan (and to bring economic development to the area rich in natural resources), this Soviet "dream train" would turn into a boat for the independent crossing of major rivers. This "boat-train" idea may seem a little far-fetched, until you consider the projected link between Siberia and Alaska: a fleet of amphibious transport vehicles could be a viable alternative to building a costly tunnel.



Cover of "Popular Science", July 1934 (fragment), images via

Dreaming along similar Tomorrowland vistas, Disney’s imagineers adopted the monorail as the futuristic way of traveling around their famous amusement park:




(images via 1, 2)

Other engineers looked to this high-speed, or at least futuristic, way of travel as well, getting their visionary monorail systems installed in Japan (naturally), Seattle and a few other rare urban experiments.


Soviet monorail car, 1967, via


(images via 1, 2)


Monorail in Singapore, image via)


Magnetic Levitation: "Flying on the Ground"

It’s ironic that a system put in place – sometimes -- as a way to bring the future into the backward world of today would now be seen as a realistic future mass transit alternative – all because of magnets.

Well, Maglev to be precise: “magnetic levitation” to you and I. The principle is simple: put the plus pole of a magnet to the plus pole of another magnet (or negative to negative) and you get resistance, that fun little ‘repulsion’ that’s delighted kids since magnets were first discovered.

Shanghai-Pudong Magnev Monorail (top speed 501 km/h - 311 mph)



While this propulsion method was often included in those chrome and bakelite futures of one-railed, high-speed trains it wasn’t until recently that the idea of using magnetic levitation has been taken seriously as a mass transit alternative. It seems that one of the best ways of using Maglev is as the lift for a monorail system – as test beds around the world have proven. Proven so well in fact that Maglev trains hold the current ‘fast train” record at Modern Mechanix, Popular Science astounding speeds of 361 miles per hour.


(images via 1, 2)

It’s fun to look back at those old pulp dreams of tomorrow, at their bulbous machines and glowing tube control panels, their mountain-sized turbines and silo-proportioned engine cylinders and barely suppress a superior smirk at how they – charmingly, to be sure – got it so wrong, but, who knows, maybe sometime soon we’ll be doing that smirking while we silently blast across our own carefully maintained landscape as passengers in 300+ miles per hour, magnetically supported, one-rail trains.

Discarded Ideas

A few concepts that did not make it in public transportation (single-rail or no-rail). First, some ideas for those on a limited budget:



(images credit: Alexey Andreev)

An interesting futuristic vehicle, that made appearance in the popular German science fiction show "Perry Rhodan" - A Cable Police Car, concept by Georg Joergens:


(image via, click to enlarge)

CONTINUE TO "EARLY AVIATION" ->

Also Read:
Retro-future: Mind-Boggling Transportation
Future of the Urban Transport

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YOUR COMMENTS::

19 Comments:

Anonymous Marilyn_Res said...

Great roundup and pix, but here's one you missed: Morgantown, West Virginia's Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) at University of West Virginia. But it doesn't have a rail so technically doesn't qualify. But so cool! http://admissions.wvu.edu/undergraduate/discover/prt.asp

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Blogger Matthew said...

Monorails! Fantastic, thanks. I'm still waiting, and won't believe that the future has arrived till I ride one.
The last image is almost identical to one of Chris Foss's concept drawings for Superman!

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OpenID brian said...

This reminded me of Blaine the mono in Stephen King's Dark Tower epic.

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Blogger splatman said...

Here's some more you've missed:
http://peeron.com/inv/sets/6990-1?showpic=6467
http://peeron.com/inv/sets/6991-1?showpic=3077
http://peeron.com/inv/sets/6399-1?showpic=6487
And I have 6399.
ha ha, had to do it.

Give it a Splat!

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Anonymous pepper said...

Bertin's Aerotrain (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A%C3%A9rotrain) was tested in the late 60s on a test track constructed near Orléans France. Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5VvsxaaFNAs

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Anonymous monts said...

Don't forget the early-1900's Brennan gyro-monorail (linky)

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Blogger Nobody Important said...

Don't forget about the Las Vegas monorail, designed and built by Bombardier, the world's largest rail company.

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Blogger Avi Abrams said...

great tips, all - the full story is not told yet, will go into part two.

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Anonymous Duncan Snowden said...

I used to know a bloke who'd ridden on the Bennie Railplane as a young man. Sadly, he died last year, and I wish I'd talked to him more about it. Although, frankly, I don't think there was much to tell: as you say, it was a test track, and didn't actually go anywhere. He did say that it sounded - as you would expect - exactly like a plane. And at 20-30 feet from the ground, that must have been quite a racket. Not to mention the wash from the propellers (one at the front, one at the rear).

By all accounts, Bennie wasn't much of a businessman, but I can't help thinking that the technical issues doomed it as much as the economics.

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Blogger lordfly said...

There is a monorail very similar to the one at Disney located at the Miami Metrozoo in South Florida.

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Blogger Kaniu said...

You forgot the best one http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marge_vs._the_Monorail

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Senate subway wasn't (and still isn't) a monorail. Notice the motors on the trucks beneath the cars. The upper track is just the power source, like pangraph, but more durable.

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Blogger Monorail Guru said...

For the true monorailists out there, don't forget The Monorail Society at http://www.monorails.org

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Anonymous eule said...

We once had a monorail in berlin too:
http://www.berliner-verkehrsseiten.de/m-bahn/index.html

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Blogger zelectron said...

"Soviet monorail car, 1967, via"
it look like the French Safege !!!

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Blogger Matt said...

Then there's this:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jF_yLodI1CQ

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

In 1911, Burbank, California launched "the first patented monorail in the USA," a fan-driven affair dubbed "Fawkes Folly."

http://wesclark.com/burbank/fawkes_folly.html

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

check this nice edit too Q http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5VvsxaaFNAs&feature=related

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Perhaps it is the biggest miracle that it remains profitable and safe, economical and simply gorgeous"

It's not a miracle, it's german :)

___  

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