Las Vegas Monorail Project Blends Style, Function -- and Risk

Posted on June 1, 2002 by Steve Temple, freelancer

Monorails are nothing new in Las Vegas. A number of short-line, low-speed tourist movers already connect various resort properties lining the Las Vegas Strip. Seeing the popularity of this mode of transportation and the increasing traffic congestion in the desert town, the Las Vegas Monorail Corp. is moving forward with an extended line that will link seven major hotels on the Strip and the Las Vegas Convention Center. The potential impact of this project on other transit systems nationwide could be enormous for several reasons. In addition to being in a high-profile location, the Las Vegas system is the largest urban monorail project under construction in the United States. It is a privately funded project, with significant risk for the investors. First phase underway Ground was broken last August on the first four-mile phase of the monorail project. The target opening date is January 2004. A second four-mile link is under environmental review, with additional extensions being considered. It will begin operation with four-car trains, but the stations are large enough to handle eight-car trains. The initial capacity of the system is expected to be nearly 4,000 riders per hour per direction, with four-minute intervals between trains. If there is sufficient demand, more cars can be added, increasing the capacity to more than 18,000 riders per hour per direction. Estimates indicate the monorail will carry 19 million people in its first year of operation, running 12 hours per day, 365 days per year. Like the city of Las Vegas itself, the design of the monorail stems from surprisingly diverse influences. The Bally's and MGM Grand resorts, which already have a one-mile monorail linking them, had bought several Walt Disney World monorail cars that Bombardier refurbished. The new system will feature cars designed by Equus Design and manufactured by Bombardier. The existing one-mile line between Bally's and the MGM Grand will be absorbed into the new system, but the existing cars will be replaced. Monorail cars updated The refurbished Disney Mark VI monorail cars do not satisfy current standards, says John Creel, the CEO of Equus. "The old design had a number of problems," he says. "Standards have changed, such as the height of doors, and wheelchair access is now required." In addition, the new trains will be much faster, traveling up to 50 mph. Creel says the cars were designed using lightweight materials because weight is a critical concern for an elevated train with a narrow, 26-inch footprint, especially with the addition of computer controls and larger, heavier doors for wheelchair access. In addition to practical considerations, issues surrounding the unique setting of the monorail had to be addressed. Considering that the location is essentially a themed adventure playground for grownups, it comes as no surprise that Las Vegas wanted something different. "When the monorail was built from MGM to Bally's, it was an amazing success, especially considering that 7 million people a year are taking it to go from nowhere to nowhere," Creel says. "It changed transportation from punishment to entertainment. It made the ride pleasant because it's futuristic." Sex appeal required David Stollery, one of the Equus designers involved in the project, says form and function required the proper balance. "Bombardier was primarily concerned with developing a cost-effective and reliable system," he explains. "For Las Vegas, we also had to create a design that is sexy, exciting and entertaining. Riders in Las Vegas aren't looking for basic transportation that's a 'prison on wheels,' but something that's fun and fashionable." To that end, the sleek shape features racy exterior vents at the nose, along with blacked-out windscreens and stanchions. Stollery describes the interior as flowing, with serpentine and voluptuous shapes. "I wanted to do more with the graphics and the floor covering to make a Vegas statement," adds Stollery, "but expense and maintenance were concerns since Bombardier has the service contract as well." The nose was originally longer, but was shortened to make 90-degree turns on the route. Other monorail planners have taken particular note of the monorail's ability to wind its way through and around sharp curves. They also are impressed by the use of thinner beams and smaller and fewer columns spaced up to 120 feet apart. Granite Construction Co. is building the track and stations, with an estimated cost of less than $100 million per mile. Adding to the monorail's entertainment quotient is the design of the seven route stops. Advertising is done differently, says Creel. "The stations are called pavilions and sponsored by major corporations with merchandising opportunities, according to their vision." Fare collection touted An innovative technology for fare collection provided by Rapidtron is an intrinsic part of the Las Vegas monorail system. Rapidtron provides radio frequency smart access-control systems that facilitate rapid, operator-free entry and exit through automated turnstiles or portals, as well as optional hands-free entry. The system uses either read-write smart cards or bar-code paper tickets. This dual capability allows a venue to reissue numerous types and durations of access privilege cards. Its open architecture allows for an easy interface with existing back-office software. Conceivably, the card could be used as pre-purchased access for events and other venues that visitors travel to by the monorail, or other types of transportation systems. Disney's vision of transit Prospects for the success of the system are uncertain, but the vision is clear. "It brings a vision that Walt Disney had for the future of transit, but never happened," Creel says. "Transit authorities viewed Disney's monorail as entertainment. They never saw it as moving people for transportation. A lot of cities are watching this program very closely. With a small footprint -- half that of light rail - it can go right down the center of a freeway on an elevated track."

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