THE STAKES ARE high in the battle to build Seattle's 14-mile monorail. At $1.7 billion, the prize will be both lucrative and prestigious for whatever team of builders wins the bid. Teams led by two construction giants, Hitachi and Bombardier, are considered the top contenders for the monorail contract; both teams submitted preliminary information about their systems last Friday, and a short list of qualified builders is expected in May.
Whichever team wins, a few things are certain. Seattle's new monorail will be taller, and its columns will be somewhat skinnier than the hulking freeway pillars that now turn Fifth Avenue into an obstacle course. But don't expect the new system to be invisible. For one thing, the new monorail will run down the same route as the current onein the middle of the street, not off to the side. It won't have ugly squared-off columns, but let's face it: Building a transit system requires concrete, and plenty of it. The size of the columns is dictated partly by stuff monorail builders can controllike the size of trains and the kind of materials that are usedand partly by stuff they can't, like earthquake codes and a budget.
Hitachi and Bombardier take very different approaches to this conflict between functionality and looks. Bombardier, a Canadian company that built the SkyTrain in Vancouver, B.C., models its monorail trains on Disney's theme-park systems; accordingly, they're just over half the size of a "full-scale" passenger train. Hitachi, a Japanese company that's built monorails from Tokyo to Osaka, builds full-size trains that are heavier, bulkier, and shorter than Bombardier's. For the additional square footage, monorail riders get trains that are wider, airier, and connected so passengers can walk between cars.
DOES SIZE MATTER? Hitachi's supporters, and there are plenty, think so. They point to several advantages to having bigger, wider, more open trains. On Hitachi's monorails, riders can walk through the train because the "bogey"the compartment that holds the wheels, motor, and other mechanical innards that make the car gois tucked underneath, with the passenger compartment riding on top. The bogeys allow passengers to move between cars but also make Hitachi's monorails taller. On Bombardier's trains, the mechanical components ride between the cars, and the wheels protrude into the front and back of each passenger compartment. Bombardier's monorails are compartmentalized: Whichever car a passenger gets on, that's where she has to stay.
The advantages of walk-throughs are pretty obvious. First, it's easier to distribute passengers on a walk-through train, because riders can move to a car that has more room. "If a fight starts on your part of the train, you want to get out of there," monorail mastermind (and walk-through proponent) Dick Falkenbury says. Moreover, passengers have more evacuation options with a walk-through train. And if a door gets jammed, Falkenbury notes, people can just walk to another exit.
Bombardier's trains sit lower on the beam and have a sleeker, skinnier look. The lower center of gravity also has a practical benefit. According to Bombardier, it allows the monorail to negotiate tighter curves. And because Bombardier's trains are lighter, they could conceivably require smaller beams.
LONGER TRAINS, like Bombardier's, do present another complication: Monorail stations have to be long enough to accommodate them, meaning that, in Bombardier's case, they'll have to be at least 150 feet long. In Las Vegas, the stations span 240 feet, although Sarah Clark, the project manager for Bombardier, says Seattle stations would be "designed to fit into Seattle neighborhoods." Because Hitachi's trains are shorter, their stations conceivably could be, too.
Most people who ride the monorail will have to stand, with a measly 2.7 square feet of standing room apiecenot a lot of space for supersize Americans. Some in the design world, such as monorail critic and Seattle Design Commission member Jack Mackie, excoriate the monorail agency for taking away their seats. "How do you enjoy the view if you're standing up and people are standing in front of you?" Mackie asks. On the other side, pro-monorail folks like Patrick Kylen, a Hitachi consultant in Seattle, note that people already expect to stand in places like Tokyo and New York: "People will get used to it," Kylen says.
The new monorail will look little like the bulky, bug-eyed model Seattle has grown up with. Both Bombardier's and Hitachi's are sleeker and more contemporary than Seattle's modernistic monorail, circa 1962. Some will no doubt mourn the loss of Alweg's Art Deco-inspired design. Bombardier's Las Vegas monorail looks more like a Japanese bullet train than the shiny Electrolux look of Seattle's Alweg. The Alweg's quirky seating arrangement, with its bench seats aligned every which way inside the roomy vehicle, will also be a thing of the past. Nor is a new train likely to feature the existing monorail's wide-open vistas and skylights.
At least one thing, for better or worse, will likely be the same. Because the monorail agency has pledged to preserve the "historic route" of the original, we'll be stuck navigating that slalom course on Fifth Avenue forever.