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Seattle Monorail

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Seattle Center Monorail at 5th/Denny. Photo by Peter Ehrlich, May 2003.

Overview

Seattle's monorail was thought to represent the future of mass transit when it opened in 1962. Although monorails have yet to become commonplace in US cities, Seattle's monorail is more than a relic of a bygone era.

The monorail provides a crucial link between Downtown Seattle and Seattle Center - Seattle's 1962 World's Fair site, now home to many cultural, entertainment, and recreational facilities. With adult round trip fares of $2.50, the monorail has the distinction of being the only publicly owned rail transit system, in the US, that makes a profit.

Construction on the monorail began in April 1961. Alweg Rapid Transit Systems, a now defunct German firm, built the system as a demonstration project and underwrote the entire $3.5 million cost of construction.

The monorail began operating on March 24, 1962, shortly before the World's Fair opened. During the six months of the Fair, the monorail carried over 8 million passengers.

After the Fair closed, the Century 21 Corporation, which produced the Fair, assumed ownership of the monorail at no cost. In 1965, the City of Seattle bought the monorail for $600,000.

The monorail begins at Westlake, in Downtown Seattle, where passengers may transfer to the Seattle Metro Tunnel, an underground busway, which will soon be converted to light rail use. Westlake station is located above 5th Avenue between Pine Street, to the south, and Olive Way, to the north.

Beyond Westlake, the monorail runs northwesterly above 5th Avenue for ten blocks in the bohemian, but rapidly gentrifying Belltown neighborhood. Turning sharply north at Denny Way, the monorail then runs above 5th Avenue North for two blocks in the shadow of the famed Space Needle, along the eastern edge of Seattle Center.

At Thomas Street, the monorail turns sharply west, enters the Seattle Center grounds, and runs through a portal in the Experience Music Project (EMP), a musical museum inspired by Seattle native Jimi Hendrix and designed by Frank Gehry. (Gehry is currently designing Lower Manhattan's new Guggenheim Museum).

Whether the EMP is a grotesque blob or an innovative and imaginative design (It was inspired by a smashed guitar!) is a matter of hot controversy. It is, nevertheless, undeniable that the monorail's bullet-like passage through the building is an exciting climax to an already interesting trip. Immediately after passing through the EMP, the monorail ends at Seattle Center station.

The monorail runs for 0.9 miles. It is built on 62 prestressed concrete piers that support the concrete beams on which the trains run. The entire line is elevated. A complete, one way trip takes approximately two minutes.

The monorail's two original Alweg trains, built in 1962, are still in service. The four car trains, which ride on 64 rubber pneumatic tires, are powered through 700 Volt D.C. contact rails in the beams.

Seattle's monorail trains are the only Alweg trains in operation anywhere in the world today. The trains boast large head end windows - a rail fan's dream with their great views as the trains smoothly glide along the beams. With a maximum speed of 50 mph, Seattle's monorail remains the fastest full-sized monorail system in the U.S.

The monorail's trains are manually operated. The operator sits on the left side of the train's head end. Unlike most, if not all, manually operated subway systems, the operator is not segregated from the passengers in a separate compartment.

Through the years, the monorail has had more than its fifteen minutes of fame. Lyndon Johnson, John Glenn, and Sylvester Stallone all took highly publicized rides on the monorail. However, the monorail's most celebrated passenger ever was Elvis Presley. Elvis rode the monorail in 1962, during the filming of It Happened at the World's Fair, a truly schlocky 1963 movie in which he starred. The film is redeemed only by its excellent location footage of Seattle during the World's Fair era.

The sky seemed to be the limit for the monorail when it opened in 1962. In the same year that saw the debut of TV's The Jetsons, the public had little doubt that monorails really were the future of urban mass transit. Even otherwise cautious Seattle city officials were gushing over the monorail's potential during the World's Fair. Plans to extend the monorail 12 miles south of Downtown Seattle to Seattle-Tacoma (Sea-Tac) International Airport were discussed.

Sadly, once the World's Fair closed, city officials all but forgot about the monorail. The expansion plan to Sea-Tac was abandoned.

Incredibly, by 1963, there was even a real possibility that the monorail would face demolition. This pathetic state of affairs was the result of the City of Seattle's lack of interest in buying the monorail from the Century 21 Corporation. Only in 1965, when the city changed its mind and purchased the monorail, did the system's continued existence become more secure.

Nevertheless, the city continued to see the monorail as a mere relic of the 1962 World's Fair - useful only as a shuttle between Downtown Seattle and Seattle Center. Ballot measures to build a BART-style rail system failed in 1968 and 1972. Ballot measures to build a light rail system failed in 1995 and passed in 1996. Not once, however, in all those years, were Seattle voters given the choice of expanding the monorail.

Indeed, the city's devaluation of the monorail perhaps reached its nadir in the late 1980s when Westlake station was demolished and forced to move one block north during a Downtown redevelopment project. During this period, when the monorail ceased operation, one city council member, Norm Rice, later to be mayor of Seattle, even proposed demolishing the entire monorail. Fortunately, this trial balloon was quickly retracted in the face of tremendous public outcry in support of the monorail.

Against all odds, the monorail has survived to this day. Although it has never reached its potential or matched the hopes of its designers, it continues to do its job well. Happily, it may also finally see the expansion that so many people envisioned in 1962.

In 1997, Seattle voters passed a ballot measure to develop private funding sources for an expanded, 40 mile monorail system. The proposed expansion of the monorail included two lines and 22 stations, laid out like an X, extending to all four corners of Seattle and connecting in Downtown.

Unfortunately, city officials have been generally hostile and, at best, lukewarm to expanding the monorail. Despite voters' clear support for the monorail, Seattle's mayor Paul Schell and most of the city council appear to view the monorail as a distraction and threat to a highly controversial planned light rail system they wholeheartedly support.

In 2000, the city blatantly attempted to thwart voter support for the monorail. Hoping to kill the movement to expand the monorail, the city defunded the Elevated Transportation Corporation, which was set up in accord with the 1997 ballot measure to develop a funding plan for monorail expansion.

Seattle's voters, however, struck back in November 2000 and passed a ballot measure to refund the effort to expand the monorail. On December 5, 2000, the city council's transportation committee, in response to the ballot measure's passage, approved a $20,000 down payment on the $6 million earmarked for monorail expansion planning by the November voter's initiative.

What happens next is anyone's guess, but it seems a good bet that Seattle's monorail supporters will ultimately get an expanded monorail system even if takes another 20 years of fighting City Hall. Public officials cannot indefinitely defy the people who vote and pay taxes. Average people, not politicians or bureaucrats, have always been the monorail's greatest supporters. That the system still exists today and may expand tomorrow is very much to their credit.

Station by Station

Westlake (original station opened 3/24/1962, current station opened 10/1988) is the southern terminus of the monorail. It is built into a third floor balcony of Westlake Center, a major Downtown Seattle shopping mall. Entrance to the station is possible through the third floor of the mall or from a street level doorway on 5th Avenue. The 5th Avenue entrance is connected to the station via three nondescript flights of stairs, enlivened only by a mural of children's artwork. With access to Westlake Center's elevators, the station is fully ADA compliant.


Upon entrance to the station, passengers pass through fare control (one ticket booth and turnstile) before walking onto the station's single boarding platform where outbound trains are entered from the left.

One of Westlake station's most unusual features is its single platform design. While there are two monorail beams at the station, only one is immediately adjacent to the platform. Passengers may thus simply walk from the platform and into trains on the inner beam, but trains on the outer beam are accessible only through retractable walkways that bridge the gap between the platform and the outer beam trains.

One sight that is never seen at Westlake station is two trains on the two beams simultaneously. Aside from the fact that a train on the inner beam would render a train on the outer beam inaccessible to passengers on the platform, there is also too little horizontal clearance for two trains to fit into the station at the same time.

Westlake station was originally located one block south of its current location in what is now Westlake Park, just south of Pine Street. The original 1962 station was demolished, in the late 1980s, to make way for Westlake Park, now a focal point of Downtown Seattle. The monorail's original right of way, north of the site of the former station, is now occupied by Westlake Mall, home of the current Westlake station.

Seattle Center (Opened 3/24/1962) Following the quick, smooth ride past the office buildings and hotels of Downtown, the multistoried apartment houses of Belltown, and through the EMP portal, the monorail ends at Seattle Center. Unlike Westlake, Seattle Center station has never been reconstructed. Indeed, the station is little changed from the day it opened in 1962. Seattle Center station has three platforms. Passengers exit the trains on the two outer platforms and board the trains from the central platform. The station has two entrances. To the south is the main approach to the station from the Fun Forest amusement park, which surrounds the station's north and south sides.

Just west of the station is the Seattle Center House, an Art Deco edifice housing a wide variety of restaurants, a dance and exhibition floor, a children's museum, and other attractions. A short walkway connects Seattle Center station to the main floor of the Center House.

Photo Gallery


Image 18778
(43k, 418x285)
Photo by: Paul Schlienz
Location: 5th/Denny

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Photo by: Paul Schlienz
Location: Experience Music Project

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Photo by: Paul Schlienz
Location: Experience Music Project

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Photo by: Paul Schlienz
Location: Experience Music Project

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Photo by: Paul Schlienz
Location: Seattle Center Station

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Photo by: Paul Schlienz
Location: Seattle Center Station

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Photo by: Paul Schlienz
Location: Westlake Center Station

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Photo by: Paul Schlienz
Location: Westlake Center Station

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Photo by: Paul Schlienz
Location: Westlake Center Station

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Photo by: Eli Dardis
Location: Seattle Center Station

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Photo by: Eli Dardis
Location: Seattle Center Station

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Photo by: Eli Dardis
Location: Seattle Center Station

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Photo by: Eli Dardis
Location: Seattle Center Station

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Photo by: Roberto C. Tobar
Location: Westlake Center Station

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Photo by: Oren H.
Location: Seattle Center Station

More Images: 1-50 51

Photos By Location

Seattle Center Station, Experience Music Project, 5th/Broad, 5th/John, 5th/Denny, 5th/Vine, 5th/Wall, 5th/Battery/Alaskan Way, 5th/Bell, 5th/Blanchard, 5th/Lenora, 5th/Virginia, 5th/Stewart, 5th/Olive, Westlake Center Station, (Misc/Unknown)

Page Credits

By Paul Schlienz.









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