50 years later, Monorail enthusiasts still in awe
Seattle Center Monorail operators, celebrating the line's 50th anniversary, said the trains are running fine after three years of renovation.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The King of rock 'n' roll may be dead, but the Monorail he famously rode half a century ago is alive and well, thank you.
That was the "Y'all come" message delivered by Seattle Center Monorail operators Saturday as an Elvis impersonator crooned and gyrated on the passenger landing to help mark the 50th anniversary of the opening of the one-mile transit line. Saturday's celebration kicked off six months of events commemorating the 1962 World's Fair.
Once touted as a model for transportation in the 21st century, the Monorail connecting downtown Seattle to Seattle Center fell on hard times when maintenance was deferred and a series of mishaps drove riders away.
Passengers had to be evacuated from stalled trains in 2001, 2006 and 2008, an electrical fire in 2004, and a sideswipe train collision in 2005.
Those troubles are behind the system now, after a lengthy period of city-funded refurbishing, Seattle Monorail Services General Manager Thom Ditty said.
"We've just done a wonderful three-plus-year renovation of the trains. The reliability of the trains is top-notch. It's almost never out of service now, and if we're delayed, it's by 10 or 15 minutes," Ditty said — a significant improvement from the hourlong delays that plagued the operation a few years ago.
It was a celebration of all things Monorail.
After 50 years — and a million miles — of service by each of the two trains, several adult fans called the Monorail "cool."
"It's a nifty little system. I've always loved it," said visitor Chris Maser, who wants to see a more extensive Monorail system.
Jayme Gustilo, who rode the train as a child in 1962 and who has been a driver for more than two decades, said the excitement has never left him.
"You're 30 feet above ground on the highway of the future," said Castilo, who Saturday gave guided tours of the Monorail. "And kids still jostle to be in the front like I did, to be with the driver in the seat up front."
Einar Svensson, who was chief structural engineer for the Monorail line designed by Germany's Alweg Rapid Transit Systems, remembered some of the people who rode up front on the early rides.
One was England's Prince Philip, who wanted to know what kept such a wide train on its single concrete track. The prince accepted Svensson's invitation to visit the maintenance area below the landing and look at the "bogies," or chassis with wheels on the tops and sides of the guideways.
And then there was U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who asked, "Why is it so short?"
It's a question Svensson, an evangelist for monorail, continues to ask. Alweg, which is no longer in business, designed monorail lines to Everett and SeaTac Airport, but they were never built.
Svensson, now president of Urbanaut, which built a monorail system for Incheon, Korea, touts the technology as quieter and cheaper to build and operate than light rail. He has, unsuccessfully, tried to sell the idea of a rubber-tire monorail from Seattle to the Eastside and to Spokane.
Visitors got a chance Saturday to see the same bogies Prince Philip looked at, from the top and the bottom.
Maintenance engineer Russ Noe pulled out a floorboard to reveal the top of a large tire he called part of "the rubber centipede" that keeps the train on the beam.
Noe and Ditty both called Alweg's Monorail design "brilliant," and said it explains why the trains run fine 50 years later.
Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published March 24, 2012, was corrected March 27, 2012. A previous version of this story incorrectly said President John F. Kennedy rode the monorail, rather than U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.