It’s been apparent to almost everyone who rides on the Walt Disney World monorail system that this once-futuristic mode of transportation is in need of an extreme makeover. Between the frequent mechanical troubles and mounting safety concerns, it’s clear that the current fleet of Mark VI monorails is in dire need of a major overhaul. No other fleet of Disney monorails has been kept in service past their 20-year design life. Earlier this year, we chronicled the history of the Disney monorails in our story entitled The Past, Present, and Uncertain Future of the Walt Disney World Monorail System.
The current fleet of Mark VI trains came online between 1989 and 1991, “completing the modernization of the Walt Disney World Monorail System,” as the announcer tells you as you ride from Epcot towards the Transportation and Ticket Center. With the system modernized in 1991, what does that mean 27 years later for the twelve trains of the Highway in the Sky that have a design lifetime of 20 years? It means Walt Disney World needed a new fleet about 6 or 7 years ago. Ever since the now-infamous door incident on Monorail Red in early January, it seemed everyone on earth except Bob Chapek and Bob Iger realized that the monorail fleet needed to be replaced.
We reported back in April that internal sources at Disney had been saying that a new fleet was ordered from Bombardier of Canada, the same company that built the Mark VI trains for Walt Disney World, and one of only a few companies in the Western hemisphere with the capability to build mass-transit class monorails. A short time after that, legendary Imagineer Bob Gurr, who was instrumental in the design of most Disney monorails, reiterated the very same information.
So what has happened since we reported those rumors back in April? A door fell off Monorail Green after an ECV struck the door at the Grand Floridian monorail station just last week. In June, passengers had to remove windows from Monorail Lime after it became disabled without power for an extended time. Basically, nothing to make anyone think the monorail system in its current state can last much longer.
But yet, it seems that Disney hasn’t, in fact, ordered a new fleet of monorails from Bombardier. A somewhat esoteric but far-reaching accounting standard called IFRS 15, which is an International Financial Reporting Standard promulgated by the International Accounting Standards Board, took effect in January 2018. This new standard deals with how companies recognize revenue from contracts with customers. In accordance with this standard, Bombardier must report “significant orders” from customers in its quarterly financial reports. Based on the past several quarterly reports and the 2017 annual report, these “significant orders” tend to be contracts of about $100 million or more.
I think it’s safe to assume that a new fleet of monorails for Walt Disney World would cost at least $100 million. If a new fleet would actually cost less than that, then shame on Disney for not upgrading the fleet sooner. How much money did they spend on rebuilding Monorails Pink and Purple after the fateful night in 2009 when Monorail pilot Austin Wunnenberg lost his life in a tragic accident? How much did they spend trying (and failing) to add a new signaling system to 20-plus-year-old trains?
Some estimates put the cost of a new fleet at $250 million or more. A 2017 order for 108 INNOVIA 300 cars was valued at $266 million, or roughly $2.5 million per car. A fleet of 12 monorails with 6 cars each would thus be around $177 million at that pricing. Even if Disney ordered the INNOVIA 200 model, which is based on the Mark IV and Mark VI system, the cost wouldn’t drop considerably. Even if the value of the contract is not disclosed, Bombardier still lists the contract in the “significant orders” section of their financial reports, as they did for sales of transportation systems to customers in Thailand and Germany last year.
But if you examine in detail Bombardier’s third-quarter report, which was released earlier this month, you’ll not see any mention of any orders placed by Disney in 2018 (nor in 2017). What does this mean? The most obvious answer is that Disney management seems to think that the current fleet of Walt Disney World monorails is just fine for at least another 3-4 years (which is likely how long it would take Bombardier to deliver a new fleet, even as a rush order).
It may be possible but, in my opinion, highly unlikely, that Disney placed an order for less than an entire fleet, so Bombardier didn’t have to disclose it as a “significant order.” This would be very shortsighted by Disney, because on one hand they are acknowledging that they need new monorails but on the other hand not willing to shell out the money to get enough of them to replace the whole fleet. Although it’s quite possible that even half a fleet would cost in excess of $100 million.
Another possible scenario is that Disney has actually ordered a new fleet of monorails, but not from Bombardier. We mentioned in our history piece that Hitachi built the monorail system at Tokyo Disney Resort. Although it is certainly feasible that Hitachi could build a fleet of monorails for Walt Disney World, it would likely take much longer since Hitachi isn’t at all that familiar with the system and its rather specific requirements, whereas Bombardier is quite familiar with the current fleet. Bombardier actually licensed Disney’s monorail patents in order to build the Las Vegas Monorail, which is also based on the Mark IV system. I would estimate that a Hitachi-built fleet would take significantly longer than 3-4 years to be delivered. The only other major supplier of monorails is Siemens, which was rebuffed by Disney on its offer of a new fleet of monorails for free.
Despite frighteningly frequent breakdowns, technical problems, and safety issues, Disney has yet to make any official statement on the future of the monorails at Walt Disney World.