Were you one of the thousands of well wishers who said goodbye to Sydney’s Monorail last weekend? After 25 years of operation its last journey was made on Sunday 30 June 2013 at 9.30 pm. But construction of the Monorail prompted much controversy. Were you in the Monorail or Monsterail camp? Did you love it or loathe it?
As a Transport Curator I spend a lot of my time researching the Museum’s collection of trams, buses, trains and horse buses which served at various times on Sydney’s public transport systems over the last 150 years. It’s like putting pieces of a jigsaw history together many decades after the event. I was much too young to personally recall the end of the electric trams in Sydney in 1961 and wasn’t born when the last trolley buses, steam trams and cable trams left our streets. So when it was announced that the Monorail would close I was keen to record its passing. Museology has changed in the last 30 years. It’s the stories about the objects, who used them and how, which brings them to life in museums and really engages the public.
With the Museum’s Manager of Audio Visual, Zoltan Nemes-Nemeth, and Manager of Photography, Geoff Friend, I spent a fascinating day at the Monorail’s depot last week. We watched how the monorails are brought into the depot on a traverser, how they’re hauled into the maintenance shed on a winch and even had a monorail driving lesson, though of course I didn’t actually get to drive one. But we did get to ride out on the traverser in the driver’s cab of our own personal monorail and do few loops of the track. With the help of the depot staff our tiny GoPro camera was mounted in front of the driver while both our photographers shot more still and video images as we went along. With the front windscreen up our view was wonderfully unimpeded. An Ibis standing on the track took off seconds before our vehicle arrived. Not so lucky were three other avian fatalities … Monorail road kill? As we passed slowly through the 8 stations most of the intending passengers were taking photos. During the last few days the Monorail must be the most photographed transport system in Sydney’s history.
Built by the Swiss firm, Von Roll, in 1987, our Monorail was probably the most state-of-the-art transport system used in Sydney at the time. Originally meant to be driverless, they had a driving console only meant to be used for installing them on to their storage tracks; emergency help points in each passenger cab linking directly to the Control Room; CCTV was located at every station; sophisticated anti-collision equipment, fault-finding in every monorail which linked with the computers in the Control Room; and in 1988 a whole room of computers which ran the system. The monorail trains appeared to float along their track with 21st century space age precision. But if you could lift up and peer under their skirts you’d see a much more 20th century technology propelling them along on pairs of pneumatic-tyred wheels driven by electric motors with side and upthrust guide wheels to ensure they didn’t tip off the track.
The Monorail isn’t a new technology. It had its beginnings in the 19th century. The most famous one still operating is the Schwebebahn suspended railway, really an upside down monorail, in Wuppertal, Germany. It began in 1901, still operates today and solved a public transport problem for the city by travelling 12 metres above the river Wupper along a 13.3 km route. Just like our Monorail, elevated stations were erected along the way but with the a turnaround, like a chair lift, at the terminal stations instead of a loop. I wonder if the residents of Wuppertal protested against its construction destroying the visual amenity of the river? When my husband and I rode on it in 2009 Wuppertal’s monorail fleet dated from the 1970s and comprised 27, two-car sets seating 84. Sydney had a total of 6 monorails which seated 48 in each set. By 2008 the Schwebebahn carried an enviable 28 million passengers a year, (most of them commuters) compared to Sydney’s 4 million, mostly tourists. We hurtled along at a top speed of 60 kmh while Sydney’s was 33 kph. The Wuppertal ride was great fun, and the car flew out on the corners just as you’d expect from a fairground ride. But the Schwebebahn hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Apparently in 1950 a circus organised a publicity stunt by putting a baby elephant in a carriage for a ride along the line. As the elephant started to move around during the trip she was pushed out of the car and fell into the river. The elephant, two journalists and a passenger received minor injuries. Justifiably, the circus and operator were both fined.
Sydney’s Monorail has some good stories too. In the workshop there’s a row of small lost toys left in the cars still patiently waiting for their owners to pick them up. I was told that the monorails all had their own personality, No. 2′s doors stuck while No. 4 didn’t like going up hill and the drivers fussed when they were allocated that one. This was beginning to sound like Thomas the Tank Engine! All the staff learnt to drive and had to clock up the right number of hours all through the night when the regular service wasn’t operating. Maintenance was also done at night with special vehicles affectionately called the Buggy and Mule. If you’re an early bird in the city you might have seen this yellow cage-like vehicle nipping back to the depot at 5.30 am after maintaining the track and stations.
Recording the Monorail’s story includes the historical, technical, controversial and political aspects. But it’s the workers who sold the tickets, drove the monorails, kept them operating and maintained the track which is by far the most interesting for me. It was a great privilege to be able to record first hand the Monorail before it ended by talking to the depot staff and seeing how the system worked from the inside. The Museum will be acquiring the driver’s cab and one passenger car from Monorail No. 3 which I am told is a good choice…a well behaved monorail.
So if you missed out getting on board Sydney’s Monorail for the last time, you can still ride on two very similar Von Roll monorails operating on the Gold Coast in Queensland. One is at the Sea World theme park and the other links a shopping centre and casino at Broadbeach.
Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator, Transport