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End of the Line for the Sydney Monorail

Monorail

By Tim Grzesiakowski

After 25 years of service, the Sydney Monorail in Sydney, Australia, operated its last trip on Sunday, June 30, 2013. Whether due to nostalgia or novelty, ridership on its last weekend of service was one of its highest. Almost 16,000 people rode the monorail on its final weekend, 210 percent more than in the same weekend one year earlier. The weekend's final proceeds, almost AUD $70,000 (about $64,400 USD) were donated to five children's charities.

I rode the Sydney Monorail and had a tour of the system on a trip to Australia back in 1990. While I had ridden the monorail at Disneyland, it was the first time I rode a monorail that was designed to be more than a tourist attraction. TNT, the Australian firm that built the monorail with private funds, had high expectations for the service, as part of the Darling Harbour redevelopment project. So after seeing the media reports, I had to ask the question, "What happened?"

It turns out the Sydney Monorail was an extremely controversial project from the outset. Its history began in 1971, when the Sydney City Council and private developers investigated running a monorail from the King's Cross area of Sydney to the city center.

It remained nothing more than an idea until the mid-1980s, when the Darling Harbour section of Sydney, which had been the site of New South Wales Railroad's yards and freight consolidation center, was found to be inefficient. Due to its proximity to Sydney's city center, it was recommended that the area be redeveloped as a pedestrian and tourist district, anchored by a convention center, which opened in 1988. The monorail was also to provide a connection between Darling Harbour and downtown Sydney, though it served the outskirts of the downtown area.

Although the Darling Harbour Transport Plan didn't recommend a monorail, in 1985, Australian firm TNT proposed running a monorail at a cost of AUD 40 million ($42 million USD) at no cost to taxpayers and using driverless technology.  The New South Wales government approved TNT's proposal. Despite government approval, opponents protested in Sydney against monorail construction. Actual costs turned out to be AUD $50 million ($55 Million USD). (USD amounts based on 1985 exchange rates.)

The monorail opened in 1988 as TNT Harbourlink, with long lines of riders. At the time, research conducted showed that 60 percent of Sydneysiders favored the monorail. Yet it was plagued by problems right from the beginning.

In its first three months of operation, it experienced nine breakdowns, including more than a few instances of passengers trapped onboard the monorail. Even after it opened, it was opposed by many groups, including the Royal Australian Institute of Architects and Royal Australian Planning Institute, who felt the government of New South Wales made autocratic and irrational planning decisions about the project.

Various owners tried to reposition the monorail, but at a ticket price of AUD $5 ($5.10 USD), it turned out to be less of a commuter solution and more of a tourist attraction. And due to the short circular route, and relatively high fare, many tourists preferred to walk. The monorail wasn't designed to connect with the existing transit system, and required a separate fare to ride. Tourists made up over half of the ridership figures, which were less than half of what had initially been projected.

The monorail went through various ownership changes, and was finally sold to the Government of New South Wales in 2012.

Beginning in July 2013 and continuing through March 2014, the monorail is being decommissioned, including closing all the stations, removing the coaches and dismantling the infrastructure, which will be sold for scrap. A light rail line is supposed to serve the Darling Harbour area, but it will not be operational for several years. In a June 25 article, the Sydney Morning Herald questioned that tactic, saying that Transport for New South Wales should be improving public transport, instead of removing something that was working.

The moral of the story? Proceed cautiously about projects like this. Concerns that were raised when the monorail opened in 1988 proved to be true—prices were higher than inflation and ridership estimates were highly inflated. Even so, the monorail's checkered history still raises strong emotions among Sydneysiders, with some saying "good riddance" and others saying that it's leaving a gap in the transport network.

Photo Credit: Monorail Mothballed/shutterstock