Final Flight Of The Sydney Monorail: An Ode To A Troubled City Icon

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.

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.

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


Comments

    The monorail is really... doh

      Instead of being junked I think it should be used to connect the domestic and overseas terminals at Sydney Airport.

        That involved Macquarie Bank spending money and/or giving up land for the convenience of passengers. fat chance.

        That is a great thought except that 6 passengers in one cabin with their luggage is kinda unthinkable.

        While I do agree that this is a great idea. It is true that Macquarie Bank will never shell out the money and they are kind of small. Although if it was run no for profit, or just had low ticket prices compared to what it was in the CBD, I would problay use it just for the sake of riding the Monorail when I'm visiting the airport.

        That's exactly right.
        Look at examples of London and Paris (with no driver) etc.

        However, those abroad are bigger cars and allow lots of passengers and their luggage!
        Which the monorail was never designed for that purpose...

        To me, back in '98 when I first arrived in Australia, (although we have had a similar trains on our roads for many years prior) the "sky train" was unique, magical and a novelty!
        Definitely, made Sydney one of the most beautiful cities in the world - A huge (and very unique) tourist attraction.

        I used to kill time watching it from an Ettamogah table by the window or riding it in a loop, while waiting for my girlfriend (now my wife) to finish work.

        I'm very sad to find out today, such an icon has gone.

    My experience of the Monorail, is that it doesn't go anywhere useful, the AC frequently breaks down, and it's too expensive compared to trams or trains.

      It was originally meant to go to Central & Circular Quay, but they went the cheap option which made it too short to be of any use, and hence nobody rode it. If they had just spent that extra money up front it would have gotten more patronage and been a more worthwhile investment. It was the shortchanging/costcutting thinking that made it a white elephant.

      Unfortunately this shortchanging/costcutting thinking is the norm for both State & Federal governments, the NBN is one of the few things recently that avoided it - or at least it will be until the Libs get in and turn a potentially great national investment into a white elephant themselves.

        It had nothing to do with "the cheap option", it was all politics. Laurie Brereton and Labor had a spectacular vision for Darling Harbour and the monorail was originally intended to link it with the other big tourist area of Circular Quay. Nick Greiner made an election promise to do everything in his power to stop it from being built, for reasons that completely escaped me at the time (but apparently CBD workers didn't like the idea of monorail passengers looking in at them through first floor windows and had never heard of curtains or blinds). When Greiner was elected he discovered a loophole in the contract that would allow his government to change the route so, in a fit of bloodyminded pettiness, he decided if he couldn't stop it, he'd make certain it was completely useless. It is the greatest betrayal of our city by any government in my lifetime. It is also no coincidence that Greiner is head of Infrastructure NSW, whose decision it was to tear it down. (I should point out that I have voted Liberal all my life, and will for the rest of it, so there is no political axe to grind here.)

        Last edited 28/06/13 2:00 pm

          Its sad to read that you decision on how to vote has been preordained

            I will always vote for less government and that means Liberal over Labor, every time. Voting for independents or minor parties is a waste of time, as only your preferences will affect the outcome. Of course, ultimately it makes no real difference who is in power, they are pretty much two sides of the same coin and I really can't think of a single instance where the policies of either party have had even the tiniest effect on my own life.

              Except for in the case of Oakshotte and Windsor. They have made a significant difference.

              Then again, you might as well vote the same way you did before your frontal lobes developed because, hey, change is too much of a...hey look a dickhead in a Commodore! Too bad, less government, yay, whatever that means.

              Research "Howard" "recruitment freeze" and "epic failure" if you want a crash course in less government.

                No they haven't, they have taken advantage of a situation in the most disgusting way imaginable, pork-barrelling their electorates in the forlorn hope of buying the forgiveness of their constituency. It is opportunism of the worst kind.

                Less government is a pretty simple concept. Let me give you and example. The Hawke government wanted to bring in a bill of rights. On the surface that seems like a pretty good thing, right? Until you realise that the way the law works now, everything is legal unless there is a law against it but if we had a bill of rights it would restrict our freedoms to whatever they thought to include. That's government telling us what we can do, as well as telling us what we can't do.

          swinging voters can also not have a axe to grind. And so can lib voters against libs.

          Your claim about the route being changed is nonsense. Construction of the monorail track was completed a long time before Greiner became premier.

    For the last few months this could have been a test bed for driverless trains as well as the new Opal card but sadly it's going forever. Even Tasmania doesn't want it.

    Mono means one and rail means... rail

    It put ogdenville and north haverbrook on the map!

    I caught a monorail a few years ago. They just had some stupid "loop the loop" 30 second song playing on loop (I know, the irony).

    My group of friends did a tribute to the monorail two weeks ago - a monocrawl. Quite conveniently, there are pubs very close to each stop. We fit 24 people into one carriage (that normally fits 6-8 people) until the people who are about to lose their jobs got angry after a few stops :(

    Anyone else remember the monorail scene from 'Napoleon'? That was my first experience, and for years afterwards, I wondered if it was only monorails that had a convenient spike on the front, or if it were common to all trains.

    Last time I remember riding the monorail, I can't remember where we were going, but it was close to Christmas about 6 years ago, and my brother had bought me the graphic novel of the first collection of The Umbrella Academy. Happy memories.

      Ah, many fnd memories of browsing through comics at the Ol Liverpool st Comics Kingdom watching the monorail fly past the first story window

    Built almost 6... what?

    Why was this reposted today (16/08/2013)? I AM SO CONFUSED!

    That was a good, if sad, read and was nice for you to give a personal perspective. The best thing about the lack of people on the monorail was that I always got to ride up the front and enjoy the view. Just wish I'd got some photos of it and the view now, benefit of hindsight I guess. I suppose the future really wasn't monorails. Sigh

    Very sad. But this was always boutique mass transit and that was apparent when the track was laid. To get off the ground now (so to speak) it needs to be on the grandest scale and cheap. I'm sorry if that sounded socialist (shock horror) but it's today's reality with our large urbanised populations separated by vast distances. Jetstar, Virgin Aus and Tiger have the right idea. The next logical step for big cities is underground railway like London, Guangzhou, Singapore, Hong Kong....

    Last edited 18/08/13 4:30 pm

    It's a pity they got rid of the monorail. It's a pity they stopped the trams. Indeed it is a pitiful place when people with closed minds get the upper hand and ruin it for all. Ruin it for the future generations. The monorail was a good idea that was not big enough. It had a temporariness air to it and seemed experimental. Had they gone whole hog on it the outcome would have been different. As a boy I remember going to Bondi on a tram. And then they were gone. Had the Monorail followed similar routs to the Sydney trams things may have been different. Had it been less of a novelty and a treated as a serious addition to Sydney's growing Transport problems we could be looking at different outcomes. It will probably be another 50 years before they put the monorail back into Sydney. Long after it should be put in which is now. I remember the debate surrounding the building of the Sydney Opera house. The redneck, stiff-necked, closed mind brigade were in full roar. Could not see why Sydney or Australia need an opera house. We were Australians we didn't need such frilly fluffy stuff as an Opraaa house. They whined, belly ached and moaned about the cost. The Opera house not only drew attention to Sydney but to Australia. When overseas people always bring up the subject of the Sydney Opera House. Closed minds will always hold Australia back and stop it from growing.

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