— Page content written by Danny Seplow
Los Angeles County and Southern California have a long history of monorail proposals that have failed to materialize. The proposals varied from mass transit systems to smaller dedicated lines, such as a downtown to LAX expressway.
While most of these plans never progressed past the concept phase, a few proposals were seriously considered in the 1950s and 1960s.
However, these plans failed as well for several reasons, including funding difficulties, local objections, inability to secure rights-of-way, and the impracticality of monorails for mass transit.
The high switching and maintenance costs of monorails make them unfeasible for mass transit but ideal for airports and amusement parks, like Disneyland, where they travel either in a straight line or a loop.
Types of Monorails
There are three main types of passenger monorails that have been historically considered for Los Angeles. While the categories are broad and have large variations within them, each has its own advantages and drawbacks.
Suspended Monorail – Asymmetric
The asymmetric suspended monorails were some of the earliest passenger monorails. They have been most famously employed in Wuppertal, Germany, whose monorail dates back to 1903.
In the early 1960s, Goodell Monorail, Inc. proposed their use in Los Angeles. However, there were several problems with suspended asymmetric monorails at the time of the proposals.
One of the advantages of asymmetric suspension is that it allows the cars to sway, permitting higher speeds around turns. However, the sway is limited by how much passengers will tolerate, usually about 15°, capping the speeds these monorails can reach. The swaying can also be a problem at stations while loading and unloading passengers.
Furthermore, at the time of the Goodell proposal, no efficient switches had been developed for suspended asymmetric monorails, limiting the ability to create a branching network.
The Wuppertal monorail only had slow cumbersome switches to allow cars to access repair and storage areas. Another drawback of asymmetric suspended monorails was that they could only make one way operations, requiring slow turntables at the end of lines, further limiting the flexibility of a potential network.
Some suspended asymmetric monorails, like the one proposed by Goodell, limited the swaying with counter weights, but it did not completely fix the problem and did nothing to solve the speed limitations, one way travel, or switching troubles.
Suspended Monorail – Symmetric Split Rail
A symmetric suspended monorail is technically not a real monorail, instead a narrow gage railway with the car suspended below the track.
It was treated as a type of monorail by private firms, government agencies, and the general public. The small box girder and a hydraulics system limit the sway in these monorails. The box girder also allows two way operations and switches to be created with much more simplicity than the asymmetric designs.
The drawbacks are that the rail is much larger than competing monorail designs and that maintenance is difficult due to the enclosed nature of the box girder. Symmetric suspended monorails were largely absent from the public discourse during the major monorail proposals of the 1950s and 1960s due to few American companies having developed the technology.
Supported Monorail Overriding Saddlebag
Supported monorails differed drastically from both suspended designs by having the car rest directly on the track.
While supported monorails have been around since the 19th century, the overriding or saddlebag designs are more recent, having their first operational test in 1952. This design was also technically not a true monorail due to the stabilizing wheels on either side of the rail. One of the largest proponents of this design was Alweg, who built the Disneyland Monorail.
The advantages of the overriding designs are sway control, cheaper and smaller supporting structures than suspended monorails, two way operations, and developed switching. However, the switching designs that did exist were slow and expensive. Likewise, the support beams were also difficult and expensive to make smooth enough for passengers and build curved tracks for.
The first monorails in the Western Hemisphere were built for mining operations, connecting gold mines to smelters several miles away. The single track nature of the monorail made it advantageous for mountainous and hilly terrain. These industrial monorails would often be pulled by a single mule or donkey.
Electric Monorails were shown off at 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, where inventors attempted to attract investors across the United States. The alleged advantages were the cheap costs of construction and high speeds that the cars could achieve.
The first commuter monorail for Los Angeles was proposed in 1912 which would have connected L.A. to Santa Monica with a five cent fare. The proposal claimed to have financial backing and was given the go ahead by city council, contingent on a $5000 bond passing. The plan never materialized.
In 1915, Pasadena investigated numerous transit methods to connect it to Los Angeles, one of which was monorail.
Another proposal in 1921 envisioned a line that would go from downtown Los Angeles the harbor district in eight minutes. Although the project had assembled an engineering staff, the plan did not develop further.
In 1922, a line connecting Mt. Lowe summit and Mt. Wilson Observatory was planned to be constructed and would be powered by a Ford engine.
In 1927, another monorail project was proposed in Ventura County, with the possibility of later expanding to Los Angeles. None of these progressed much further than the idea or planning phase.
Monorails During the LAMTA Era (1951 – 1964)
The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority (LAMTA, often referred to as the “First MTA”) was created by the California Legislature in 1951 with the task of constructing and operating a monorail between the San Fernando Valley and Long Beach, financed entirely from its own revenue.
Unlike the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), also created by the state legislature that same year, which was tasked with creating a region-wide transit system and allowed to use local and state funds to finance studies, the MTA was treated as a private utility under the State Public Utilities Commission and required to pay taxes as if it were a privately-owned transit company.
The LA County Board of Supervisors granted LAMTA funds to conduct studies which found that a monorail system was not feasible with the imposed restrictions of needing to pay for itself.
A 1955 study found that monorails offered little advantage or traditional duo-rail, stating that “a conventional modern-type elevated railway could be built and operated for approximately the same costs as for the monorail system, and at the same or higher speeds.”
In 1957, the state legislature gave LAMTA power to acquire most existing private transit facilities, financing the acquisitions through bonds, but in the years before the acquisitions, many of the trolley lines were closed or turned into buses. After the conversion in 1958, LAMTA could operate and plan countywide transit. LAMTA issued a study for a county-wide rapid transit system, resulting in a proposal for a $625 million traditional duo-rail network built mostly overhead above public streets. The project would not have been profitable enough to pay for construction bonds.
Throughout 1963 there were two concurrent major proposals by private firms for monorails in Los Angeles.
One of these was from Wegematic Corp, then owners of the Alweg Monorail rights in the U.S., who created a joint venture to build a privately funded monorail system. The company had already offered to build a smaller monorail line from West LA to downtown in 1961.
Alweg had previously constructed the Disneyland Monorail which opened at the park in 1959.
The monorail was showcased on Walt’s Sunday show in 1961, exposing viewers across the country to the futuristic looking technology. The Disneyland monorail and Walt Disney’s salesmanship contributed to the public’s desire for monorails, both within Southern California and across the country.
Another major proponent of monorails was science-fiction author Ray Bradbury, who was a vocal advocate for monorails from the 1960s through the 2000s, arguing that they were a better financial investment than traditional rail.
Alweg representatives met with several LAMTA officials and members of the LA County Board of Supervisors to discuss the proposals throughout early 1963. The offer changed throughout the year. The 40 mile network ranged in price from $100 – $188 million, in part financed by bonds to build the system and buy the land.
Several groups and municipalities opposed the plan, like Beverly HIlls who did not want an overhead structure and feared the effect it would have on property values.
Alweg pointed to the previously built 1.2 mile line in Seattle they built for the 1962 World’s Fair as a proof of concept.
However, Los Angeles government officials were skeptical because the line did not show how the company would address switch lines, commuters, curved lines, storage during off hours, and financing without the World’s Fair to attract riders. The Seattle mayor had previously called the line a “gimmick” and the city was still debating whether to keep the line or not in 1963.
After Alweg submitted their plan to LAMTA in June of 1963, they announced that their offer would remain on the table for only 90 days.
The reactions to the plan were divided. Many local representatives were enthusiastic about the possibility of finally having a mass transit solution but were hesitant about the perceived ugliness and costs of the monorail and skeptical about where the stops and route would be.
LAMTA did not reach a decision within the original 90 days but was granted a 60 day extension to reach a final conclusion. They used the time for meetings with local representatives, business owners, and community members.
Goodell Monorail Proposal
The other proposal in 1963 was from Goodell Monorail for a $40 million, 12 minute nonstop monorail from downtown Los Angeles to LAX. The suspended monorail would be privately financed and designed for airport passengers and include dedicated areas for luggage in the cars. The project was reliant on obtaining rights-of-way and further feasibility studies.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors disliked the notion that it was non-stop and aimed toward airport travelers rather than commuters and shoppers. The Board also attacked both Goodell, doubting whether previous Goodell monorails in Texas were real, and LAMTA, for purposefully confusing Los Angeles residents with false promises.
In response to the criticism, Goodell offered a new 60-mile, $338 million monorail plan to LAMTA in July of 1963. Bond financing would allow the project to be completed without costing taxpayers. The plan had the option of building a subway backbone for the system.
Failure of Both Plans
In September of 1963, LAMTA announced that mass rapid transit would need to be built at least partially with tax money, crushing dreams of a privately funded transit network.
They criticized the Alweg plan for being designed to make the company profit, highlighting that it was not actually privately financed, but relied on public bonds to be taken out. Furthermore, many of the cities affected by the monorail had rejected the proposition.
At the same time it was revealed that part of the financial success of Seattle’s Alweg monorail line was in part due to the upcharge of travellers going to the World’s Fair. LAMTA said that the Goodell plan for a line from DTLA to LAX was worthy of further study, but would not be included in any area wide system plans.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, who had previously had a contentious relationship with the LAMTA over monorail plans, supported these statements.
Part of the reason that the MTA had to reject both offers was their structure and lack of powers. The LAMTA board had been appointed by the governor, not local voters, but agreed to be reorganized to allow local voter control of the agency if it would need to tax for projects.
Doubting the MTA’s statements, several representatives in both county and city governments called for inquiries into what the Goodell and Alweg proposals actually included about financing. They were hesitant to accept at face value the MTA’s notion that tax revenue was necessary to build a transit system.
Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown weighed in, defending his appointees to LAMTA and their statements. He attacked members of the Board for going to the papers to criticize the MTA instead of working together to make progress. State Assemblyman Tom Carrell, chairman of the Assembly Interim Committee on Transportation and Commerce, launched an investigation into what the proposals of Alweg actually entailed.
In response to the backlash, LAMTA backed up its earlier refusals by pointing towards financing disputes and community objections. However, they also said that both Goodell and Alweg could submit new proposals, but they would need to be a combination of surface and subway rail, which it claimed were demanded by local communities. LAMTA meanwhile doubled down on support for its own $649 million, 58 mile standard rail plan from several years earlier— a possible reason why the agency was insistent that tax revenue was necessary.
The County Board of Supervisors asked LAMTA to rescind its rejection of the Alweg and Goodell plans until the Carell committee finished its hearings, calling the rejections “narrow and provincial.” They told the Carell committee that LAMTA had a “negative attitude” and that the LAMTA proposed tax increase would surely fail if put to a vote.
LAMTA reiterated its stance that private financing was not feasible and emphasized the need for a duo rail system financed by fare revenues and increased vehicle taxes. To this end, they released an expansion of their previous plan, now $669 million and 64 miles.
The chief LAMTA engineer, Ernest Gerlach, claimed that the Alweg system would cost $709 million when the same service requirements were met, making the LAMTA plan cheaper.
He stated, monorails:
“are a solution looking around for a problem. The proper problem doesn’t show up very often. I think it probably did in Seattle and at Disneyland. But in planning a system for Los Angeles County, we have to build structures the citizens will accept. There are six different towns on our backbone route, and several of them simply said a flat ‘No’ to any overhead transit system on main streets of their town.”
In 1964, the State Legislature passed the Southern California Rapid Transit District Act, creating the Southern California Rapid Transit District (SCRTD). The board of the new SCRTD was appointed by locally elected officials in Los Angeles County. Furthermore, SCRTD was able to finance larger scale projects with bonds and fewer financial hurdles than LAMTA.
SCRTD released a 1967 preliminary report in which monorails were analyzed as a potential transit method. The report stated that both supported and suspended monorails had numerous problems making them a poor choice for a large-scale transit network, seemingly ending the hopes for a future Los Angeles monorail network.
Among these were switching problems, high initial costs for tracks and vehicles, acceleration limits, and no major advantages over duo-rail. Wegematic, the owners of the Alweg monorail rights in the United States, also ceased operations in 1964.
In late 1963, Duorail Aerospace Rapid Transit Corp. (DART), proposed a six mile monorail between Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. The plan required the city of Anaheim to sponsor a federal grant to partially finance the project.
Anaheim turned down the DART proposal, stating that they did not want to take federal funds to finance the project.
Another proposal came in 1966 from Anaheim Rapid Transit System (ARTS) which would create a monorail loop connecting Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, Anaheim Stadium, the Anaheim Convention Center, and several business hubs in the city. The proposal claimed that it could be done with private capital and financing. Earl J. Welch, who headed ARTS, had previously also been in charge of the DART proposal from 1963.
ARTS sought a 99-year exclusive franchise for monorail from the Anaheim City Council, however council members were hesitant to grant such a long lease.
After a year of negotiations and feasibility studies, Anaheim City Council endorsed the plan for a shortened 40-year franchise but required further studies before final routing was decided. The only assistance that the city would give would be in acquiring rights-of-way. All other financing and construction would be private.
To save on rights-of-way costs, the monorail would be built over public highways. Furthermore, ARTS would carry insurance so Anaheim would not be liable for damages arising from operations of the monorail. The city would keep tight control over the building schedules of ARTS construction, threatening that the 40 year exclusive franchise would be null and void if the schedule was not maintained.
The proposed plan would see ARTS playing 1% of gross receipts after the first seven years of operation. Several companies, including Universal Design Limited, General Electric, and Fashoveyor all competed to build the cars for the ARTS deal.
However, ARTS changed their proposal to a non-exclusive franchise and showed projected costs as high as $3 million per mile. After several months of study, Anaheim City council determined that a monorail was not in urgent demand locally, instead opting to invest in bus and jitney services.
In August of 2020, LA Metro received four proposals for the future Sepulveda Pass that would link the San Fernando Valley to the West Side, and eventually LAX.
One of these proposals was given by LA SkyRail Express to build a monorail with an approximately 24 minute travel time. The other three proposals were traditional duo-rail. LA SkyRail Express’ proposal had an estimated cost of $6.1 billion (2020$) and would have an estimated operating expense of $63 million per year (2035$).
LA SkyRail Express was one of the two finalist proposals that advanced to the next round of selection. It was awarded a $63.6 million contract to develop a more robust monorail plan with arial alignments primarily over the I-405 right-of-way. The final decision on which method to employ for the Sepulveda Pass is still several years out.