Earlier this month, VIA architecture released its study of the potential for higher capacity and usage of the Seattle Center Monorail. Though activists had been asking for years for ORCA integration to bring the independent line into the fare system, it was the commitment to bring big-time sports back to Key Arena that finally made Seattle serious. Mike Lindblom summarized the key figures ($) in the study.

VIA identified a series of improvements that could double the monorail’s capacity to 6,000 people per hour per direction. Each train can hold 300, but 250 is the maximum for timely boarding and deboarding. More than 6,000 would have diminishing returns: at off-peak times today Link can comfortably carry about 2,700 people/hour, expanding as Link goes to higher frequencies and 4-car trains in the 2020s.

To get there, the monorail has to fix the cluttered station arrangement at Westlake and make it faster for people to get on and off the trains. Faster loading and unloading (a ponderous process today) can get headways down from 5 minutes to 2.5. The trip itself only takes 90 seconds.

Phase 1 at Westlake would cost $7m. It involves staffing both stations at all time (today the driver also sells tickets at times), keeping Westlake Mall open, and expanding the station area as shown at right. The Seattle Center end would make fixes to platform gates, level boarding, and so on.

Phase 2 is $13m for better “vertical connectivity” at Westlake: by demolishing the retail area on the left side of the diagram, there is frontage for elevators and escalators facing Westlake Park. The two new elevators will go all the way down to the DSTT, where the Westlake Mall tunnel entrance is today. The changes increase visibility, improve flow, and allow the Mall to close while the monorail is running. At Seattle Center, it reduces steps to the train at some entrances.

Phase 3, $3m, would add a North entrance to the Seattle Center station.

The study also examines a Belltown Station, near Bell Street, for $40m. This adds 2 or 3 minutes to each trip, forcing headways back down to about 5 minutes. Because this would reduce event capacity, the study recommends that this not open until 2035, when Link’s Seattle Center station takes some of the demand away. A Belltown Station, however, would make the Monorail relevant long after ST3 is complete.

2020 is the target date for Phase 1, to coincide with the Key Arena reopening. However, there is no funding stream today.

Though not in the study document, Lindblom’s reporting confirms that the fare gate modifications would include ORCA acceptatnce.

63 Replies to “Monorail can be HCT, Study Says”

  1. Megan Ching, general manager at Seattle Center Monorail ? confirmed to me the study figures included ORCA gates similar to a ferry terminal. I would caution that a retrofit like this, that requires new wiring connections and breaking up concrete walkways, can easily overrun.

  2. Can anybody tell me why one phone call from KC Metro to present owner can’t get the Monorail to take ORCA cards in an hour? Thanks.


    1. Someone has to pay for the readers, and they have to agree how much revenue the monorail gets from the ORCA program.

      1. Thanks, Martin. But if the Monorail becomes the eighth of the Separate Agencies responsible for fact you can get fined as a thief for a correct tap after a forgotten one….have somebody in brass buttoned conductor suit check and punch cardboard tickets. Especially if classic monorail in Wuppertal had those.


      2. What about all the ORCA readers purchased for Tacoma Link but won’t be installed since the board decided to push off fare collection until after ORCA II is in place?

        Are they just collecting dust in some ST warehouse?

  3. Will the Monorail still be able to operate post 2035? If something breaks, will replacement parts even be available? How close will the supporting columns be to their end of life?

    1. I don’t know about the integrity of the support columns but the monorail engines aren’t very complex. I’m under the impression they use fairly standard off the shelf parts. I very much doubt anything under the hood is original in any way.

      1. Yeah. Keeping the cars running is and will be a big problem. Alweg (the builder) went out of business shortly after the monorail was built. The rubber tires have to be custom made, and remember a few years ago after a fire one of the cars was out of commission for months as parts had to be manufactured. The monorail just can’t be counted on for reliable high capacity transportation. Forget about the cost of remodeling the station. It’s mostly a tourist ride. It was in 1962 (I was one of the tourists) and it is now. Honestly, I’m amazed it still is in service. It’s a true testament to the mechanics and engineers that keep it going.

      2. We’re not talking high speed here, or a line more than a couple of miles long. And vehicle design and manufacture have come a long way in 56 years. And we’ve still got some aircraft manufacture in the region.

        Probably only place in Seattle I’d want a driverless train. Though would rather do the historic railroad thing, keep human operators just for authenticity.

        The monorail was intended to be a moving stairway with seats between Downtown Seattle and the Seattle Center. Designers would definitely have supported including the new stadium. Its retirement and replacement would be both hard and needless.


      3. 3D printing would be really expensive for this. Most of it looks like it could be done with a laser cutter and a press brake. If you need to go thicker than 3/8 inch then water jet cutting becomes cheaper.

        If the motors aren’t a standard NEMA frame size, they should be. That allows a standard motor from any manufacturer to be used interchangeably with any other.

        As much as this thing runs, the tires should be a regular wear item that has spares kept in stock, standard size or not. They’re probably changed every year or so. at least.

    2. Alweg-style monorails are still being built and supported by Bombardier (Disney Parks & Las Vegas) and Hitachi (Tokyo and several other Asian systems), so I can’t imaging that finding someone to support our monorail into the future would be especially challenging.

      I am unsure where Jay gets the info about needing special tires; Wikipedia claims that it uses standard truck tires. I believe the drive system is also a standard truck differential with one side capped off.

  4. The platform still looks a little cramped for crush loaded trains but the good thing is people will only really be traveling in one direction at a time. You probably won’t have very many fully loaded trains offloading onto a fully loaded platform.

  5. No mention of the additional staircase and 2 elevator towers added along Pine Street to improve “vertical connectivity”? By focusing on the changes to 5th, you conveniently ignore the diminishment of the plaza/park to pad the wallets of a private enterprise. An excellent example of the problems surrounding public/private partnerships in the region.

    1. Is any of that actually public property? Westlake Park across Pine is definitely public but the plaza in front of Westlake Center is private as far as I know.

    2. Regardless of property status, it’s definitely a public area that should be minimally impacted.

    3. That whole block is private property – how would adding public access to public transportation in an area now reserved for commercial activity possibly impinge on the public realm?

    4. The reason most plazas in Seattle, whether publicly or privately owned, are miserable failures is that they don’t provide access to much important. Westlake succeeds (it is often lively even without programming) because it provides access to publicly-accessible businesses and transit stops, right on the plaza (or “park”, as it is officially known), not across the street. Westlake works because of what it connects to. Making Monorail access more direct and obvious from Pine Street would augment the plaza, not diminish it.

  6. A few things just don’t seem logical.

    1. How can a 2.5 minute headway actually happen on a single track terminal station at Westlake? Not only must trains slow to enter and leave the station and doors have to open and close, but the entire train must unload and load again. That leaves almost no room for error — as a 30 second delay would delay the next train and the schedule may not ever recover for hours.

    2. How can a Belltown stop reduce frequencies to double that 2.5 minutes? Operationally, Westlake appears to be the frequency constraint and not an infill Belltown Station.

    3. Why is there no discussion about getting between monorail platforms and Link platforms? This easily adds time, especially since there are no down escalators at Westlake and the shopping center access has its issues. Even with the new Pine Street monorail access recently proposed elsewhere, it will still take time to get to the Link train platform.

    Honestly, I’m not convinced this work is that useful beyond political objectives to renovate Key Arena.

    1. For number 3: “The two new elevators will go all the way down to the DSTT…” – In short, the Monorail is an elevator ride away.

      1. Thanks! I missed that. I don’t think two elevators will be enough though — unless they are huge!

      2. To the mezzanine or to the platform? It’s getting to the platform that is the problem. There are down escalators from the street to the mezzanine already. Direct elevators could go further down from the monorail platform to the southbound platform but not the northbound platform.

    2. There’s an elevator that takes you straight from the Monorail to the DSTT mezzanine. It doesn’t take long at all and if you’re young and fit the stairs are even faster. That stairwell was my favorite secret way down to Westlake Station when I used to commute from there daily.

      I wish the elevator and stairwell could be made into a fare-paid zone to make the transfer easier but as it is now it won’t be that difficult, especially if they manage to put up some good way finding.

      1. Al, now that I think about it I’m pretty sure the elevator from the monorail level actually leads all the way to the DSTT platform but I’m not sure. It’s been a while for me.

      2. The Monorail elevator only goes to the Westlake Station mezzanine. Also it’s been extremely slow to arrive the few times I’ve tried to use it late at night (versus crossing the street to use the actual DSTT elevator).

      3. There are two separate elevators, one from the platform the the mezzanine, and a nearby one from the mezzanine to the street and monorail.

        The biggest objection to a single elevator would be going directly into the fare-paid area without passing the ORCA readers or TVMs. The UW Station elevators are only for Link so the elevators are inside the fare-paid zone, but Westlake’s case is more like the airport: people are going between the street and the monorail and the third floor of Westlake Center, and don’t expect to enter a fare-paid area for that. Instead there’s a shared tap-in/pass-through hall before the platform elevators/escalators. A shared elevator may be more confusing and lead to more fare disputes. Remember that Westlake has a lot of tourists and people who don’t normally use ST, and our fare rules are complicated and non-intuitive.

      4. The elevator to the platform can’t really hold more than 6 people. I was going to take it today, but there were 4 people on it with luggage — and it was too full to board.

        We should make Seattle Center install another elevator or down escalator for each Westlake platform. If they want Link connectivity, capacity all the way to the platform is needed. Almost isn’t good enough.

    3. Those open bridge plate things seem like a terrible improvised idea that would be really good to get rid of and replace with an actual center platform.

    4. 1. The whole trip 90 seconds. So that leaves 30 seconds per station to board and unload. That is typical for a lot of subway stations. As far as “messing up the whole schedule” the two trains move in unison (they have to, to prevent a collision). I assume they are in radio contact, and basically stay in sync (more or less).

      2. There is only one train on each track. So if you slow down the train half way through, and add another 30 seconds of boarding/alighting, now it takes longer for the train to get from one side to the other. Five minutes does seem excessive though. I would think you could get headways of maybe three and a half minutes easily. 30 seconds in dwell time, plus another extra 30 seconds in acceleration/deceleration. Maybe they think there would be more dwell time at Belltown, because not everyone is getting off at the station. Five minutes still seems excessive. Even being conservative, I would guess you could it in four.

  7. Are there any plans to modify the interiors of the monorail cars? Last time I was on it, seemed like there was too much seating and not enough handholds for standees.

      1. Yes, there are available seats right now because the Monorail is a stupid dinky tourist toy that no one actually uses as functional transit.

        Its current seating config is going to be a disaster when it actually sees heavy loads to and from Key Arena events. I rode it once (it was free) after the St. Patrick’s Day parade and accommodations for standing passengers were woefully inadequate even under moderate loads. I had to press my palms against the ceiling and count on friction to hold me in place because there was nothing for me to hold on to.

      2. A trip on the SeaTac inter terminal train is about the same length, and has a minimal amount of seating, only for people with disabilities. There is no reason the monorail can’t do the same, once you’re not in the train for 10+ minutes, waiting for the other passengers to board.

      3. A hockey game will have more fans than the World’s Fair, Bumbershoot, or any previous basketball game or concert?

  8. It’s funny – rather than futz around with the monorail, it seems like westlake->5th ave->15th ave->ballard would be an ideal streetcar route, given a dedicated ROW. I bet it would get used a ton.

    Then the light rail could serve Fremont and continue north.

    But what do I know?

  9. Ballard is getting light rail and it will stop at Seattle Center along the way. Upgrading the monorail is sort of an interim solution until that gets built.

  10. I’m not sure why there hasn’t been much enthusiasm for expansion of the monorail system in (if not throughout) downtown Seattle. An elevated transit system could make traveling around downtown significantly more convenient, be cheaper to build than the light rail tunnels we’re waiting for, and possibly meet less resistance from downtown residents than the city has been getting to elevated rail from suburbanites in North Seattle/West Seattle. If above and below ground systems are integrated and serve each other, an elevated rail system serving downtown could fast-track the development of a more world class cosmopolitan public transportation system in Seattle.

    1. You must be new here because there was indeed a lot of ‘enthusiasm’ about expanding the monorail a few years ago.

    2. It’s funny you mention that; I remember voting for exactly such a proposal *four times* before the city finally managed to kill it. We’d have had a Ballard to West Seattle line running for literally years already if they hadn’t been so short-sighted.

      1. As I recall there were 11 billion reasons not to go forward with the monorail plan.

    3. Main problem with any elevated system is that Downtown Seattle hasn’t got enough room to put any structure. Especially the really massive amount of concrete needed for this one. Take a walk down Fifth avenue and think how much more of it you’d like between you everything beyond it.

      And among monorails, meaning running one one rail- in this case a single concrete beam on rubber tires- I think ours would have worst problems with switches. But if the climate were a lot colder here, could be positive vote for a system of hallways through every building, crossing streets on sky-bridges.

      Which could even have a course of moving walkways, as airports often do. Or even battery powered golf carts, like at Sea-Tac. Undoubtedly, there’d be shops, restaurants, and cafe’s the whole length of the system.

      I think years ago all this was suggested, and fact we don’t have them speaks for itself. But if something elevated is that necessary now, either do an initiative or ask the Downtown Seattle Association. Their father’s great grand-kids on the board might go along this time.


    4. Been there done that. Unfortunately, the incompetents in charge managed to waste about 125 million dollars before the electorate wised up and killed the half baked project.

    5. Remove the Momorail!

      Driverless Ballard light rail should be evelated from Market St to lower Queen Anne. From there It should be tunneled and emerge to an elevated line in the Seattle center. It then should run elevated in the monorail ROW. The line should end at Westlake with express elevators to Westlake station platform.

      We do not need a 2nd downtown tunnel!

    6. It’s a Seattle political curse. Because the extensive monorail expansion vision and funds were a debacle 15 years ago, when the streetcar need for near-Downtown only evolved, no monorail option was studied. — like a monorail connection south to ID-Chinatown station.

      Recently, Seattle picks technologies first, and then meets with little technical info to decide where to put transit. Most other people would define the need first, and then study possible technologies.

      1. “no monorail option was studied”

        ST rejected monorail technology for two reasons: (1) it can’t run on the surface, where ST anticipated saving a lot of money, and (2) monorail technologies are proprietary so they cost more and lock you into a single vendor while light rail is standard off-the shelf and you can mix and match vendors and servicers.

    7. The city didn’t kill it. A group of 2nd Avenue businesses led the four Repeal campaigns because they didn’t want trains in front of their 3rd-floor windows or losing parking spaces. Then an Eyman initiative eliminated the MVET that was going to be most of the monorail’s funding. Then an accounting report was released that was hyperbolic (it compared the monorail’s after-interest-and-inflation costs to other projects’ before-interest-and-inflation costs) but it basically showed that the monorail authority was fly-by-night amateurs with unrealistic assumptions on the budget, risks, and performance. Then they deleted half of the line to get it within budget. The accounting report and all that came after it was what convinced voters to reverse their previous three confirmations of the project.

      There were also the longer-term issues that the monorail’s top speed was 35 mph and large parts of it were single-track, which would forever stunt travel time and frequency. And the fact that it wouldn’t honor ORCA transfers or passes — that was another trick to fit it into the available tax revenue. That would force people who transfer to pay double fare, and people who have passes to pay a lot of extra money for the monorail. They wouldn’t: they’d stay on the buses. That would depress the monorail’s ridership and eliminate its core rider base.

      1. Some of this is wrong.

        Eyman had nothing to do with it. The initiative to build the monorail (the final one, with car tab taxing authority) came after Eyman’s $30 car tab initiative.

        Two things killed the monorail:

        (1) An extremely transparent funding plan, where every person could tell to the penny how much it would cost them. (Unlike, say, Sound Transit, the funding plan for which is arcane and therefore difficult for the taxpayer to understand the cost of.) Also, this extremely transparent funding plan put the cost totally on car owners, who would be least likely to ride the thing, and so made them ready to vote for the recall.

        (2) A Board which made design decisions which drove the cost way up. When we voted for it we thought we were voting for more of the 5th Avenue monorail, but the Board decided that all the columns needed to be twice as tall (and thus made of four times the concrete, and more difficult to construct and install), and that there should not be one standard column but four different-looking columns for artistic reasons, and stuff like that. They made the project cost four times more than it should have, which made the voters ready to vote to kill the thing.

        There are those of us who believe that when the City Council and the Mayor — who were dead set against the Monorail expansion — chose the members of the Monorail Board, they tasked them with making it as expensive as possible, and the cost as plain as possible, so the voters would kill it. Mission Accomplished.

    8. It’s much easier & cheaper to maintain & retrofit the existing monorail that it would be to extend it – no need to take ROW, no need for disruptive construction, minimal new concrete & steel, etc. It’s a very different project.

      When the support columns for the monorail are at the end of their life, then it may make sense to simply remove the monorail. Until then, it’s a useful piece of transportation infrastructure.

      1. Exactly. Just look at the costs here — 7 million, 13 million, 3 million or 23 million total, for all three phases. That is extremely cheap for a grade separated line (even if it only has two stops). In contrast, the 80th street BRT station for Kirkland will cost somewhere around 250 million.

    9. The trains cannot turn sharply enough to make a corner. Also, much of downtown south of Pine is hilly; the trains need flat stations but the street below would either be rising or falling underneath it. Any elevated solution in downtown Seattle would be handicapped by this.

  11. This sounds like extremely cost effective projects. For a relatively small amount of money, lots of people could see a very big improvement in travel times. I sure hope they find the money somewhere for this, because it would make a big difference, not only for folks headed to the Seattle Center, but for those headed to Lower Queen Anne.

    1. When I had a friend living in a DADU in Magnolia there were times that the trip to Lower Queen Anne on the 33 took half an hour. I’d gladly have replaced it with a trip on the monorail.

  12. I’ve supported this idea for years. I hate driving to Seattle Center and parking in that area, thus I rarely go to events there. I suspect that I’m not alone. It’s much like the closure of Convention Place vis-à-vis going to events at the Paramount. Transit access is, one might say, “paramount” (sorry, folks).

    It’s my understanding that if the monorail expansion (that failed) had its funding accurately portrayed instead of lowballed (to get approved) and the initiative still passed that it would have been up and running by before Link opened.

    If the city of Seattle can blow $12 million on bicycle lanes and raise taxes for every other cause, they should be able to lead the way on this virtuous improvement that would fill more seats with ancillary revenues to boot.

  13. These investments seem extremely cost-effective, giving us a light rail stopgap that dovetails elegantly into grade-separated service for Belltown. This would combine well with a Belltown streetcar that turns 1st into a pedestrian mall.

    The City could get the capital funding from the KeyArena renovation, and then take the monorail from the psuedo-private corporation that currently runs it and have Metro operate it instead, consolidating some agencies under the ORCA banner.

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