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Mumbai’s Monorail: Breakthrough or Blunder?

Engineers recently completed a much-anticipated trial run of India’s first monorail car in Mumbai. The trial was an early test of the Mumbai Monorail Project, an initiative of the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority aimed at increasing mobility and reducing congestion through sustainable, high-quality mass transit.  The monorail’s proposed route is 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) long and runs between Jacob Circle and Chembur, a suburban neighborhood in eastern Mumbai that is considered an important transportation hub for travelers to Pune.

Scomi, an oil and gas service provider based in Malaysia, and its consortium partner Larsen & Toubro, India’s largest engineering and construction conglomerate, secured $545 million for the project in November 2008 and are expected to complete the project by 2011.  They are tasked with delivering 60 cars to make 15 four-car trains.  Each four-coach monorail is expected to be able to accommodate about 600 passengers, carrying a total of nearly 300,000 commuters daily.

While some have touted this flashy, big-ticket project as the transportation mode of Mumbai’s future, others aren’t convinced that a monorail is the best choice for the city.  Eric Britton, editor of the blog World Streets, recently expressed his doubt of the monorail as a serious sustainable transportation option, particularly in developing countries.  He provides a host of reasons for his skepticism, including:

  • Monorails are extremely costly and saddle cities with debt (Britton points out that as Mumbai welcomed its first test car, the Las Vegas Monorail Company was filing for bankruptcy)
  • Monorails have limited capacity per dollar spent
  • Since monorails are, by design, grade-separated systems, they do not provide easy connections with destinations or other modes of transportation
  • Because monorail systems are commonly elevated, they ignore, and thus contribute to the degradation of, street life (read our previous post on TheCityFix about a similar problem with Mumbai’s proposed “skywalks.”)
  • Monorails can be a visual intrusion on the cityscape

As Britton also mentions, the jury seems to still be out on the environmental benefits of monorails as compared to other public transit alternatives, and many experts question their “clean” reputation.  Proponents of the Mumbai Monorail Project claim that it will prevent 200 tons of carbon dioxide emissions daily.  Monorail advocates echo these sentiments.  The Monorail Society, a non-profit organization promoting the transport mode, cites the emissions reductions achieved by the Las Vegas monorail.  In 2007, they say, it aided in the removal of an estimated 3.2 million vehicle miles from Southern Nevada’s major roadways and reduced emissions by more than 58 tons of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides.  But Britton suggests that the total emissions of monorail projects, including construction and the systems’ eventual electricity usage, add up to a considerable carbon footprint. For all rail projects, a system is only as “clean” as the power grid that supplies the electricity.

What do you think?  Are monorails the way of the future, as they are in cities like ChongqingTokyo and Kuala Lumpur? Are they the right choice for Mumbai?  As food for thought, check out The Transport Politic’s piece on the Disney World monorail, the ninth most heavily-used rapid transit system in the U.S.  And of course, for the monorail debate in a nutshell, you can always watch the famed Simpsons monorail episode.