Once, when I was a boy, my parents decided to take my sister and I into the city for a day trip. We lived a few hours north, so travelling into the heart of Sydney was a rare treat. Dad worked in Sydney so coming in on his weekend wasn’t something we really ever did. As a novelty, my parents decided to take us on the Monorail, and it was a trip that changed me. Come Sunday, the monorail will embark upon its final flight. This is its story.
The once-great Sydney Monorail this week began its transition into scrap metal, as the NSW State Government pulls it down. We thought it prudent to run the eulogy once more in light of current events.
The Sydney Monorail is beautiful. It sits on a steel-blue track built almost six above the city streets below. There are six trains of seven carriages each on the Monorail network at any one time — a system that can service 5000 passengers per hour.
There are eight stations littered along the 3.6km track, originally designed to link the Sydney CBD with Darling Harbour under its original name: TNT Harbour Link. To ride the whole loop you’ll need 12 minutes.
I first rode the monorail in the mid-1990’s. I don’t remember where we were going, or how long we spent on the track, but we definitely rode it, and I had a ball. I distinctly remember my mother, terrified of heights, closing her eyes behind sunglasses and refusing to look down — afraid of the 33km/h sky-train. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the scenery as we seemed to hop effortlessly across the city awnings.
For a young boy in a town with one train station, the idea of a sleek, futuristic train that ran on a line in the sky was beautiful. It was sci-fi in motion: public transport meets Star Wars.
Truth be told, the monorail and I are almost the same age. It was meant to be opened to coincide with Australia’s Bicentenary celebrations on 26 January, 1988, but significant construction delays and a lack of planning meant that the Sydney Monorail opened on 21 July. I was born in February, so the Monorail and I both celebrated our 25th birthday this year. Unfortunately, the Monorail’s upbringing was more tumultuous than my own. Almost immediately after its completion, cracks began to form in the lofty idea of the city’s own Monorail.
You see, the Monorail was a privately-owned transportation system, which meant the corporation that owned it intended to run it for a profit. High ticket prices followed, and immediately started putting people off travelling on the Monorail. Instead, they opted for cheaper options like buses, trains or walking.
For example, one of the shortest trips you can take today is between The Galeries shoping center and City Centre Station on Pitt Street: a trip that takes you about eight seconds to do, costing you almost $6 for the privilege. A day pass sets you back almost $10 on a system that doesn’t really go anywhere to tell you the truth. Compare that to less than $4 for an adult pass on the city’s train network which takes you everywhere faster and you see why nobody really rode the Monorail.
Each of the Monorail’s six trains is operated by a driver, but that wasn’t always the case: the company had intended to operate the Monorail automatically, but that was scratched after faults in the trains saw the idea nixed.
The Monorail quietly shuffled passengers above Sydney’s streets for years without incident, but in 2010, two trains on the line collided, hospitalising several passengers. Two years after that, a power failure on the tracks meant that almost 100 people had to be lifted from the cars to safety by the NSW Fire Brigade.
Passenger numbers dwindled, and discussions began behind closed doors about what to do with the ghost train above Sydney’s streets. In March 2012, the NSW State Government purchased both the Monorail and the light rail services beneath it as part of a Darling Harbour redevelopment plan. They said that the Monorail would be torn down in June 2013; an unceremonious end for a troubled city icon.
People are boarding the monorail today like they’re boarding a theme park ride: it’s a novelty. There are smiles on their faces. They know that today will be the last time they board this beautiful, yet deeply troubled attempt at transport progress. For many, their last time may even coincide with their first time.
The Monorail is now busier than it has been in the last decade, much to the bittersweet delight of ticket gate operators and drivers. Queues for tickets stretch longer than they ever have or will.
“I expect we’ll get very busy today, actually,” said the guy in the ticket booth as he gave me my ticket. He crossed out a few lines on my day pass before handing it to me. It was an ad for weekly and monthly passes on the Monorail.
It has been raining in Sydney all week: a city weeps quietly for its fallen icon in a sad ode to progress played out in a pitter-patter orchestra on the carriage roof. I’m sitting in the third car right now, writing about this train once bound for the future, and across from me are two young boys who are the same age I was when I first rode the Monorail.
They already live in a world of bullet trains, electric cars, private space flight and unlimited potential in one of the most blessed countries on Earth: they live in the world I dreamed of when I was their age. What advances in technology will they see in the next few decades?
Will these two boys be the two brothers responsible for a great leap forward in human knowledge? Maybe. Perhaps they’ll have an idea for a better Monorail one day. It all could start right here.
The final flight of the Sydney Monorail will be on Sunday 30 June, 2013.
Images: Transport for NSW