Sunday, January 7, 2018

Why Are There No Monorails Outside Disney?

© Flickr

If you've ever visited any of the Disney Parks, chances are you've taken a ride on the monorail, whether you've traveled from the Disneyland Hotel to the iconic park in California, or enjoyed a scenic tour around the Seven Seas Lagoon at the Magic Kingdom.

The Walt Disney World monorail itself is one of the most heavily-used monorail systems in the world, serving more than 150,000 passengers daily. The only systems that are busier are the Tokyo Monorail in Japan and the Chongquing Rail Transit in China.

With so many people riding it, the Disney monorail has become a fan favorite among park guests. Some have organized their own meetup groups and pub crawl events. Others have even gone so far as to build their own monorails in their backyard.

However, whether it's their first time riding it or one of countless rides, most guests riding the monorail have probably wondered the same thing: how come there aren't any monorails outside of the Disney Parks?

There are monorails in cities such as Las Vegas and Seattle, but aside from them, these transportation systems remain a rare sight outside of a Disney Park, even though they're quite common in Europe and Asia. So how come Disneyland and Disney World are the few places in America where you can ride them?

To learn why there are no monorails outside of Disney, click READ MORE:

© Disney Parks

The Past: Walt's Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow

The first of the Disney monorail systems was constructed at Disneyland in 1959, initially offering an aerial sightseeing tour of the park, and later providing transportation to and from the Disneyland Hotel.

Rather than simply create yet another attraction to provide park guests with mere joyrides, Walt Disney considered his monorail to be "a critical step toward building the community of tomorrow," according to David Mumpower at Theme Park Tourist.

"In researching the mechanics of the [monorail], Disney felt like it was the blueprint for future societal traffic solutions," Mumpower wrote. "Given the efficiency, quietness, and stability of the monorail, Disney’s infatuation was understandable. He stated on several occasions that it would become the rapid transit solution of tomorrow. He loved the fact that his park would offer one of the first previews of future transportation."

Disney had high aspirations of utilizing this new transportation system to help create the "community of tomorrow." In fact, his original plan for Disney World was to create such a community to showcase the latest scientific and technological innovations such as the monorail and how their implementations could create "a great big beautiful tomorrow."

© Disney And More

The monorail would prove integral to his "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow", as he called it, providing long-distance transportation in and out of the city and across the more than 27,000 acres of Florida land that he had acquired for his most ambitious project.

Unfortunately, with his untimely passing in 1966, so too passed his vision for such a "community of tomorrow." However, not only would his vision be re-envisioned as a second theme park, EPCOT Center, but the monorail system would still prove integral to Walt Disney World.

With three separate lines (two facilitating the Magic Kingdom area, and another providing transit to EPCOT) all of them combined spanning 15-miles, the Walt Disney World Monorail is one of the longest and most traveled transportation systems of its type in North America. Of course, it's also one of the few, if not only.

Yet when Walt Disney himself first introduced the monorail to Disneyland more than 50 years ago, he had envisioned a futuristic mode of transport that would provide transportation short and long distance in and out of America's major cities. So why aren't there more of these systems anywhere else in the country?

© Wikimedia

The Present: Free Market Planes And Government Monopoly Trains

To answer that question, we first have to answer the question of why there aren't that many trains in America to begin with. How come most of Europe and Asia have made leaps and bounds with high speed rail, but not only are there no high speed systems in America, but our current "low speed" rail systems suffer from crumbling infrastructure and low ridership rates?

Most people would simplify that answer to politics, as politicians constantly bicker over how much taxpayer money to spend on rail infrastructure and proposed high speed rail projects. However, while politics is certainly one prominent factor, it is only but one of many factors, including population density, urban and suburban layouts, property rights, our individualist car culture, and an emphasis on utilizing existing rail for commercial freight over passenger service.

But perhaps the biggest reason for the lack of rail systems, monorail or otherwise, has to be consumer demand.

Here's a little experiment you can do using an internet search engine: try looking up the prices for a train ride from one location to the next, and then compare the prices to the same trip on a plane. You'll discover that the plane trip is often faster and more affordable than the same trip by train.

For example, a non-stop trip from New York to Miami by plane would take up to three hours and cost about $129, while the same trip by train would take more than a day and cost up to $155. Is it any wonder then why airlines carried a record number of passengers in 2016 over trains?

In fact, so few people actually ride trains, thus making tickets all the more expensive, that most of the costs are absorbed by the federal government, which subsidizes an average 40 percent of the total per-passenger cost per train ride. Again, is it any wonder that more people choose planes over trains?

© Etsy

This wasn't always the case. Airline flights were once considered a luxury only for the rich upper class. Everyone else traveled long distance either by train or by car.

That all changed in 1978 when the Airline Deregulation Act was passed, de-regulating the airline industry and removing federal government control over airline fares, routes, and the market entry of new airlines.

Under such massive deregulation, the airline industry was transformed into a more competitive free market that allowed them to offer better services and prices to customers. As Wikipedia explained, this in turn lead to, "a great increase in the number of flights, a decrease in fares, and an increase in the number of passengers and miles flown."

While the airline industry improved, the railroad industry went far off the rails in the opposite direction. In fact, seven years prior to airline industry deregulation, passenger rail service was losing so much money that private railroad companies were more than happy to confer control to the federal government through Amtrak.

Created in 1971, the government-created for-profit corporation was expected to revive the struggling passenger rail industry through the aid of temporary government subsidies. Nearly 50 years later, Amtrak continues to receive such massive government funding despite passenger rail not improving one bit.

In fact, most of Amtrak's problems are precisely due to it maintaining such a government monopoly. The Cato Institute explains: "Because of government control, however, Amtrak costs are far higher than necessary. Amtrak provides especially unprofit-able services for political reasons, and it is hamstrung by archaic work rule provisions that make it more expensive than other travel options."

In other words, while planes became a free market, trains became a government monopoly. The former industry took off into the wild blue yonder, while the latter went off the rails to crash and burn.

© Wikipedia

While most political ideologues would roll their eyes and scoff at the idea of the "free market", free enterprise has historically been a driving force for public transportation such as rail.

For example, while the transcontinental railroad is often cited as a successful "government project", the truth is that there were several transcontinental railroads: three publically-funded (the Union Pacific, Central Pacific, and Northern Pacific), and one privately-funded (the Great Northern).

Can you guess which type suffered from financial scandal and bankruptcy while the other became so financially successful that it managed to remain in business for a good hundred years before being merged with other railroads? If you guessed the privately-funded railroad, you're absolutely correct!

Also, did you know that the New York City Subway was originally privately-owned? Yes, the world's oldest, largest, and most-used public rapid transit system actually started out as two separate private lines that were inevitably purchased and combined by the city in 1940.

While the New York Subway system loses on average $6 billion annually while suffering regular delays, breakdowns, and overall poor maintenance, in contrast, the Seoul subway system in South Korea provides much better service to its passengers with heated seats, reserve seats for pregnant women and the elderly, free Wi-Fi and cell service, and platform gates to prevent people from falling onto the tracks.

Did I also mention that Seoul's subway system is privatized and mostly funded by commuter fare while NYC's system is heavily subsidized by the government? Coincidence?

But perhaps the best argument in favor of privatized mass transportation is Japan, a country world-famous for its high speed rail systems--all of which are privatized and have been for more than 30 years. Again, coincidence? I think not.

© Broward Palm Beach

The Future: Growing Cities, Growing Demand

While the current market favors planes, that market could easily be tiled back into the favor of trains through changing demographics. By 2030, about 60 percent of the world's population is expected to reside within urban areas. With more people living and working in cities, public transportation will have to expand and adapt to accommodate them. As such, 73 percent of Americans support improving public transportation infrastructure.

Many states have sought to address these transportation needs through proposed publically-funded high speed rail projects. The most famous--or rather, infamous--of these is California's High Speed Rail, which has turned into such a financial disaster over the past decade since first being proposed that, according to Reason TV, "its biggest political champion is now suing to stop it from happening."

While the public sector currently struggles to implement such high speed rail, the private sector has been more than willing to step up and provide investments in such projects.

Recently, Brightline, the first new private passenger rail system in America, is set  to open in Florida, providing intercity rail service from Miami to West Palm Beach, with plans to extend services to Orlando in the near future.

Other proposed private rail projects include XpressWest in Nevada (connecting Las Vegas to Southern California), The Texas Bullet Train in Texas (connecting Huston to Northern Texas), and the North American High Speed Rail Group in Minnesota (connecting Rochester to the Twin Cities).

© Independent UK

Aside from growing populations and private investments, new scientific and technological breakthroughs, from self-driving trains to smart card systems and maglev technology, could also help push for a greater demand for high speed rail.

Perhaps the most revolutionary breakthrough of them all, and the one creating the most hype for rail, is the Hyperloop, a proposed high-speed transportation system that can be best described as a bullet train running through a vacuum tube.

Proposed by Elon Musk, the Hyperloop promises to span long distances with high speeds and in short amounts of time, with one proposed line expected to travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles in less than half an hour. (Contrast that with the currently proposed high speed rail system that's expected to travel the same distance in three hours!)

With such advances in scientific and technological breakthroughs, along with growing interest by private investors and the general public, the future of public transportation could be set to leave the station.

And who knows? Perhaps that train moving forward into the future will be a monorail, just like the one Walt Disney once imagined.


  1. Disneyland and Walt Disney World are not the only places in the U.S. where you can ride a monorail. There's the Seattle Center Monorail which takes passengers from Downtown to the Seattle Center and back.

    Also, there's the Las Vegas Monorail which originally started out with WDW's old MarkIV trains. It takes passengers along 'The Strip' and is serviced by seven stations.

    And finally there are the "novelty monorails" which ran at various theme parks and zoos at different times throughout the history of the monorail in the U.S. I remember riding the Metro Monorail at Magic Mountain as a youngster and that one had three stations within the park. Hersheypark's monorail is still operating today, although as an attraction and not an actual transportation anymore.

    I like your section on the various rails systems, both private and publicly owned. I've ridden Amtrak across the country from the Bay Area to New York City and have found it to be extremely late on schedule. I remember many times the train sitting still on the tracks for hours while waiting for clearance from the private freight companies for Amtrak to get right-of-way to pass through on the privately owned tracks. That really took me by surprise. Amtrak is supposed to have the right of way over freight, but it isn't practiced that way. That is why Amtrak is known for being notoriously late. And were talking 5-8 hours late when going cross country.

    I thoroughly enjoyed your article in rail transportation and its future development. I remember BART being voted on and it eventually coming to the Bay Area. It was very futuristic at the time, but now seems everyday. Thanks for another great post.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. I'll be sure to edit this essay accordingly when I return later this week. Also, if you enjoyed this essay, you'll be sure to love my next one discussing the Peoplemover. :D