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Monorails are almost always bad ideas.
The last time I said that, I got angry emails from monorail enthusiasts,
but I stand by it.
Yes, passenger monorails are quirky and interesting,
they look like something from science fiction,
that's why theme parks use them.
But they're impractical and expensive,
because every bit of track has to be either elevated or dug into a trench,
and switches at junctions require physically moving the entire track.
There are exceptions, of course there are,
but for almost every case, a monorail is a worse idea
than light rail, or trams, or even a bus.
And that's proven out by the fact that almost everywhere in the world...
...does not use monorails.
Except.
I think I've found a good monorail.
And it was never public transit.
It was a replacement for construction workers with wheelbarrows.
The Roadmachines Mono-Rail was invented in a small town just outside London in the 1940s.
It was intended for construction sites,
and it was in competition with tractors and dump trucks,
and yes, workers hauling wheelbarrows.
And it's a really clever solution: the track is made of prefab parts,
so it could be set up just by clamping bits together like a giant toy train set.
The company claimed that two workers could set up 100 yards of track in about half an hour.
And because the track is elevated,
it could work over mud and rough ground at construction sites where
big equipment might get bogged down.
The single rail means it can have huge tolerances:
it didn't matter if things weren't set up precisely,
if someone needed to set one piece of the track
a few degrees off horizontally or vertically.
The monorail just clatters through it all.
And, sure, yes, the diesel engine is quite noisy,
but it's designed for construction sites.
Oh, and yeah, it's automated.
At the end of the track, there's an automatic stop built in,
where it stops, and waits to be sent on its way again.
It can even split and merge tracks easily,
because, well, that's easier to do that when the safety level is designed for bulk goods,
not people.
By 1966, there were 800 of these monorails in the UK.
Some were owned by construction companies
that'd set them up and take them down at each job site,
some were installed permanently in factories and works.
They'd been sold to 60 other countries,
where they transported timber, or clay, or sludge,
or even, at one place in Finland, fish.
Basically, they could be used to move any bulk thing that could be loaded into a wagon.
There were versions powered by compressed gas,
and a couple of experimental battery-powered ones.
And they showed up in a James Bond film:
that futuristic space-age volcano-base monorail was the same type
that was being used in construction sites around the world,
just with a shiny passenger cabin added on top.
But now, they are almost forgotten.
By the seventies, construction was changing. Tower cranes had appeared,
which meant that materials could be moved faster, and in three dimensions,
across building sites that were getting taller and taller and taller.
And specialised dump trucks were improving, too.
In 1977 the last of the Mono-Rails came off the production line.
But they were in use until at least the 1990s.
Most were scrapped, but enthusiasts keep a few of them running:
this one is at the Amberley Museum in southern England.
It's not a regular attraction at this enormous industrial museum,
but they have run it specially for me today, which is lovely of them.
There are also dozens in a collection at Nantmawr in north Wales,
including one that's been modified to allow passenger rides.
It was one of their enthusiasts who told me about this in the first place.
Thank you very much to Derry.
It's not that monorails are inherently a bad thing.
It's just that in most cases, there are better solutions.
Sometimes, like here, they're the right tool for the job.
Thanks so much to the Amberley Museum, and to David Voice,
who wrote the definitive book on these monorails back in 2011.
Most of my facts here are taken from his work, so I've put links and references in the description.