The Transportation of the Future… Still Is!

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From the LA Times:

Those yearning to ride Disneyland’s long-awaited new monorail found they had to hang on a little longer Saturday. The Mark VII, which had appeared off and on late in the week, never made it out of its shelter, to the dismay of some visitors hoping to step aboard.

“I’m a little disappointed,” said Samantha Wakach, a vacationer from Los Angeles, who’d been told by the concierge at her hotel that the new train was operating. “That’s why we decided to come over here instead of walking.”

The Mark VII, otherwise known as Monorail Red, is the seventh generation of the ride that’s been entertaining visitors since 1959 when it made its entry as the nation’s first electric train system on a single rail.

Sleek and futuristic, it was promoted as a vision for public transportation.

On Saturday the long-awaited new train, the park’s only upgrade of the attraction in 21 years, failed to appear after several hours of on-again, off-again operation over the previous two days.

Disney officials attributed the glitches to the attraction’s normal “test and adjust” period, when mechanics and designers work out the bugs.

“We are working on solving them,” spokeswoman Betsy Sanchez said of the unspecified problems.

She would not predict when the ride would open full time.

When it does, Disneyland guests will be whisked along the system’s 2.5-mile route in even sleeker-looking coaches complete with remodeled nose cones, seats facing outward toward the windows and blue glass with shimmering red, blue or orange stripes.

“This is such an important icon,” designer Scott Drake said. “It’s the first thing our guests see when they drive up, so we wanted to make sure there’s as much color as possible.”

The new trains, he said, will also have lighting under and behind the seats “so that at night the interior looks like its glowing the color of the windows.”

As for its mechanical aspects, Drake said, it won’t be much different from the original Alweg Co. model introduced in 1959.

That was the year after Walt Disney, vacationing in Germany, happened to see one of the company’s test vehicles passing on a rail overhead.

Disneyland’s founder was so inspired, according to Drake, that he asked one of his transportation specialists, a young designer named Bob Gurr, to work with Alweg engineers on building the park’s — and America’s — first monorail.

“It was one of the first real E-ticket attractions,” Drake said. Based in Tomorrowland, the futuristic train “was heavily inspired by the Buck Rogers kind of feel.”

Two years later, the route was expanded to loop outside the park, with then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon and his family among its first passengers.

“Walt was a visionary,” Drake said. “He wanted to showcase this as a future device for mainstream transportation.”

Nearly half a century later, it’s a vision that never materialized.

At www.monorails.org ,the official website of the Monorail Society, an organization based in Fremont, Calif., dedicated to promoting single-rail technology as a safe, environmentally friendly and a cost-effective alternative to modern mass transit, lists only 10 monorail systems currently operating in the U.S. Six are in amusement parks, airports or zoos.

Crediting Disneyland with giving “fame to monorails in the 20th century,” the website sardonically notes that “while Disney installed the monorail to promote it as a train of the future, the effect it had was just the opposite. Monorails, for many years, would be typecast as amusement park rides.”

Brian Taylor, a professor and chairman of urban planning at UCLA and director of the university’s Institute of Transportation Studies, blames the failure of monorail systems to proliferate on simple economics.

Although monorails “have sort of captured the popular and journalistic imagination,” he said, they are too expensive to build on a large scale.

“It’s something that seems intuitively attractive,” he said, “but as a widespread alternative either to street and bus systems or conventional fixed rail it has lots of downsides and relatively few upsides.”

None of which seemed to matter much to one Disneyland visitor waiting Saturday for a ride.

Jesus Naranjo, a self-described “monorail lover” from Camarillo, was trying to be positive.

“It sounds pretty cool,” he said of the new train. “We’ll probably be back here in less than a month to take a ride.”

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