Seattle Center Monorail -- History Worth Saving

  • By Glenn Barney
  • Posted 3/17/2003
  • Essay 4282
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The following letter, written by Glenn Barney to the Seattle Landmark Preservation Board on March 17, 2003, is in the public domain files of the Seattle Landmark Preservation Board. In the letter Barney summarizes the history and unique technology of Seattle's monorail, built by the ALWEG firm for the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. The Board unanimously voted to landmark the monorail. Glenn Barney is the General Manager of Seattle Monorail Services, but wrote the following letter to represent his personal position. His views are not necessarily the positions of either Seattle Monorail Services, the Seattle Center, or the Seattle Monorail Project.

Glenn Barney's Letter

RE: Landmark nomination of the Seattle-ALWEG Monorail System

Beth Chave and Members of the Seattle Landmark Preservation Board,

I was in attendance at your March 3rd board meeting, where the Seattle-ALWEG monorail system was nominated for Landmark status. As you consider Landmark designation of the Seattle-ALWEG monorail system, I would like to provide the following comments that I believe you will find relevant to your decision. I would like to begin by providing my experience and qualifications with the Seattle-ALWEG monorail system, followed by my comments on the historical significance of the ALWEG company, and then of the Seattle-ALWEG monorail system. I will conclude with my thoughts on why, and how, the Seattle-ALWEG monorail system should be preserved.

I am currently the General Manager of Seattle Monorail Services, the organization that has operated and maintained the Seattle-ALWEG monorail system, under terms of a Concession Agreement with the City of Seattle, since 1994. I am also a retired Air Force officer, and a native of the Pacific Northwest. As a youth, I can remember riding the Seattle-ALWEG monorail and being completely fascinated with it. In my career with the Air Force I served as both an aircraft maintenance officer and a logistics officer. Following my retirement in 1998, I returned to the Pacific Northwest where I joined Seattle Monorail Services as the Maintenance Manager. In 2001 I became the General Manager, although I continue to perform the Maintenance Manager's functions as well. Some consider me an expert in monorail systems. Based on my experience with the Seattle-ALWEG system, I was invited to Kuala Lumpur by Monorail Malaysia to review progress on their monorail system testing and provide technical assistance.

During my tenure with Seattle Monorail Services, I found my previous experience in both aircraft maintenance and logistics management enabled me to develop an understanding and appreciation of the numerous unique and outstanding features of the Seattle-ALWEG monorail system design. I have had access to, and have studied at length, the engineering drawings of the train structures and systems, and the architectural drawings of the guideway beams and piers, and the station structures. I have also spent time researching the history of the ALWEG company, and compared the ALWEG designs to those of current monorail system manufacturers. My comments represent my personal position alone, and do not necessarily represent the positions of either Seattle Monorail Services, or the Seattle Center.

The ALWEG Company occupies a significant position in the development of modern monorail technology. The company was founded in 1952, in post WWII Germany, by Dr. Axel Lennert Wenner-Gren. His initials form the ALWEG name and he was the company's primary financier and promoter. The ALWEG Company pioneered the straddle-beam monorail concept, developing, testing and refining the design throughout the 1950s. By the late 1950s, ALWEG began to market the system as an economically viable option for urban mass transit. In 1959, ALWEG produced a 5/8-scale model of their transit system for Disneyland in Anaheim, California. In 1960, ALWEG entered into an agreement with Hitachi to share its technology for the manufacture of monorail train systems in Japan. Thus all full-scale monorail systems in production today can trace their design origins to the ALWEG designs of the late 1950s.

In 1962 ALWEG produced a new monorail for the Seattle Worlds Fair, featuring a new and radically advanced bogey design. The bogey is the assembly that the wheels mount to, and it supports the train on the beam. This new bogey design provided independent suspension for each load wheel and guide wheel axle, and articulation of the bogey assembly. The independent suspension feature reduced the un-sprung weight of the bogey to provide improved ride performance without the requirement and expense of machining perfectly smooth beam surfaces. Articulation is the ability of the bogey assembly to caster freely under the car body, allowing the guide tires to "steer" the bogey through the curves of the guide-way, keeping the load carrying tires in perfect alignment with the guide-way's direction of travel.

The earlier ALWEG design that was provided to Hitachi in 1960 did not incorporate these features, and they were not incorporated in the monorail trains produced by Hitachi during the 1960s. By 1970 Hitachi did produce its own articulating bogie design, but has never incorporated the independent suspension feature of the 1962 Seattle ALWEG design. Another manufacturer, Bombardier, which is currently supplying the monorail system for Las Vegas, NV, traces its monorail design back to the 5/8-scale model system that ALWEG supplied to Disneyland in 1959. However, Bombardier still has not produced a true articulating bogie design. The monorail system currently under development in Malaysia incorporates a bogie system based on the 1962 ALWEG design, however this monorail has not yet completed testing or entered service. The net result is that, even after 41 years in service, the Seattle ALWEG monorail trains still feature the most technologically advanced monorail bogey design operating anywhere in the world today.

The second significant technical design feature of the Seattle ALWEG monorail trains is their low weight and high load carrying capacity. Unlike conventional rail vehicles, weight is not a positive attribute in monorail vehicle design. Excess weight exacts a heavy toll on monorail system cost and performance, very similar to that experienced in aircraft design. The empty weight of a complete four-car Seattle ALWEG monorail train is only 93,400 lbs., yet it will carry 70,080 lbs. in passenger load. This passenger load represents 75% of the empty weight of the train, a ratio that is an important measure of the design's structural efficiency. Compare this ratio with that of automobiles, which typically carry about 30% of their weight in passengers and cargo. Here again, the Hitachi and Bombardier monorail designs have not equaled or even approached ALWEG's achievement in load carrying to empty weight ratio. Their designs achieve ratios between 50% and 60%, with some even lower. The excess weight of the Hitachi and Bombardier designs manifests itself in different ways. For Hitachi the weight resulted in the use of a dual-axle-four-tire bogey, compared to the Seattle-ALWEG's single-axle-dual-tire bogey design. For Bombardier the weight resulted in long, narrow trains, with limited passenger capacity. As advanced as the Seattle monorail train design was, other components of the system had unique features.

The Seattle-ALWEG guide-way beams are also unique in their design. The light weight of the Seattle-ALWEG monorail train design allowed the use of hollow, light weight beams for the guide-way. The casting of these hollow guide-way beams was another example of a technology pioneered by ALWEG. The casting process is featured on the web site rheinland/alweg/alweg.htm. No current monorail system manufacturer has been able to incorporate this feature into its beam design. The Seattle-ALWEG monorail guide-way beams are supported on piers that feature a design based on mass rather than high-strength materials. The construction drawings for these piers specified the use of relatively low strength 3,750psi concrete and 10,000ksi steel reinforcing bar. These materials are only slightly stronger than what is commonly used in house foundations. Yet, the wisdom of this design strategy has proven itself through 41 years service. The piers have survived several major earthquakes, collisions from vehicles including heavy busses and trucks, and the ravages of time and the environment without failures and with minimal or no maintenance.

Of the two passenger stations that were part of the original Seattle-ALWEG system, only the northern Seattle Center station survives today. The original southern Westlake station was demolished in 1986 to facilitate construction of new projects. Because the Seattle-ALWEG system featured only two stations, each station was by definition a terminus where all passengers onboard a train would exit, and the train would be completely reloaded with new passengers for the return trip. With two trains operating, each on a ten-minute headway from each station, and each train capable of carrying 450 passengers, each station had a required throughput capacity of 10,000 passengers per hour. Thus the significant feature of the Seattle Center station is not seen in the architectural design, or the styling, but in the functional ability of its design to facilitate the movement of 10,000 train passengers per hour, and to do it without expensive or elaborate moving parts such as gates or other barriers, and with a minimum staffing requirement.

The Seattle-ALWEG monorail system is not just an amusement park ride left over from the '62 World's Fair. It is much more than just two old trains or a series of individual artifacts where the historical significance of each can be evaluated in isolation. It is a fully functioning system that includes the two trains, the guide-ways, the stations, and numerous smaller sub-components, that were all designed to work together. The components have worked together for 41 years. If any one sub-component is removed from the system, the entire system ceases to operate.

While I understand that you do not evaluate future use of a landmark, much of the historical value, as well as the utilitarian value, of the monorail system is realized through its operation. Continued operation requires all of the system's sub-components, even if some of the individual sub-components do not meet the necessary criteria for landmark status when considered in isolation. After 41 years of service, the Seattle ALWEG monorail system remains in good operating condition and has many more years of useful life. During the last three years, the Seattle Center has administered nearly $2,000,000 in FTA grant-funded projects to verify the structural integrity of the ALWEG trains, and to perform refurbishment work. The underlying written justification for all of these federally funded projects has been the extension of the useful life of the system by at least ten years. These projects have indeed verified the structural integrity of the trains, including some of the previous structural repair work. The projects have replaced interior finishing materials to restore the appearance of the trains, and improved the reliability of their mechanical operating systems.

The operating systems on the trains are more than 85 percent complete, and operating as they were originally designed. Original system suppliers, companies such as General Electric, Westinghouse Air Brake, and Rockwell/Meritor, all have technical representatives that regularly visit the property to provide the technical assistance and parts support necessary to keep the systems in top operating condition. With this level of support from the equipment suppliers, and an effective routine maintenance program, these original ALWEG trains can continue to operate for many years.

The ALWEG company occupies a significant place in the development history of modern monorail technology. All full-scale straddle-beam type monorail systems in production today can trace their design origins to the ALWEG designs of the late 1950s. The Seattle-ALWEG monorail is the last and most technically advanced design produced by ALWEG, and the only remaining operational example of ALWEG's work. The Seattle-ALWEG monorail system is recognized world-wide by monorail enthusiasts, by public transit industry professionals, and by tourist and residents alike, as an icon of Seattle. As an operating system, the public can experience the historic sights, sounds, and motion of a train ride for the nominal cost of a ticket. If the trains are removed from service and placed in a museum, they become static display artifacts. The opportunity to experience them in operation will be lost forever.

After fully considering all the information available, I am confident the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board will conclude that the Seattle ALWEG-monorail system meets the criteria for Landmark Designation. I encourage you to designate the entire system, recognizing that its historic value, as a complete and functional entity, enhances the value of any of the individual components. I also ask the Board to express its resolve to protect the system in the future by preventing changes that would degrade or prevent its continued operation. The citizens of Seattle, and our many visiting tourists, deserve to have this Seattle icon protected and preserved as an operating piece of history.

I want to thank all of you for this opportunity to provide comment as you prepare to make your decision. If I can provide further information, or assist in any way, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Best Regards,

Glenn Barney

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