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Monorails, Light Rail, and Automated vs. Non-Automated Transit Operation: Comparative Costs in Japan and USA

Light Rail Progress – December 2002

Automated transit operation is often touted as a "magic bullet" for reducing transit operating costs by proponents and vendors of monorails, personal rapid transit, and similar "gadget transit" modes. Partisans of automated transit technologies regularly claim that such systems have an inherent advantage in dramatically lowering operating costs compared with manually operated light rail transit (LRT) and other standard rail-guided modes. Many monorail proponents also contend that monorails have lower operating and maintenance (O&M) costs, in either automatic or non-automatic mode, because they supposedly avoid certain rail maintenance costs incurred by standard rail modes such as LRT.

The claims of lower monorail O&M costs are widely regarded with considerable skepticism, particularly when one considers the need for beamway paving, power system maintenance, vehicle maintenance and tire replacements, monorail switch maintenance, and similar needs. in regard to the claims for dramatically reduced O&M costs from automated operation, as our article "Transit Automation and Operating Cost – Where Are the Huge Savings?" points out, these claims do not seem supported by the available evidence. in particular, while a driver in each vehicle or train may not be required with an automated operation, this advantage is often offset by the need for additional security personnel, technicians, central control personnel, administrative personnel, and other essential staff.

Certainly, no data are immune from drawbacks. But we believe that, in evaluating alternative transit systems, it is far preferable to refer to real-world data than to theoretical hypotheses and speculations.

Unfortunately, because the deployment of monorails and similar "gadget" systems has been relatively minuscule worldwide, there is not a large pool of real-world, urban revenue-service experience from which to draw data. By far, however, the greatest and most diverse experience has been in Japan, with a multiplicity of standard-rail LRT and rail rapid transit (RRT, or metro) systems as well as experimental (and established) innovative guideway technologies such as monorail, automated guideway transit (AGT), and guided buses.

No cost data from country to country are completely and utterly compatible, but Japan is an advanced industrialized country, and most of the monorail systems operating in a real-world, urban revenue environment are there. it's about as accurate, relevant, and up-to-date as we are going to get in terms of actual experience with monorails and other unusual guideway modes.

It should be noted, however, that Japan currently has only 75 percent of the per-capita GDP of the USA. GDP estimates for 2001 are taken from the CIA's "The World Factbook":

These indicate that per-capita GDP is only $27,200 in Japan vs. $36,300 for the USA. Therefore, in any comparison of Japanese cost data with those from the United States, it must be kept in mind that the Japanese data are perhaps 25% less than what would be experienced in the USA. Nevertheless, for the purposes of our comparisons, it is assumed that Japanese transport labor costs would be equivalent, or perhaps slightly lower, than what would be expected in the United states.

We have provided below a list of urban rail transit and other operating fixed-guideway systems in the USA and Japan, ranked by operating and maintenance (O&M) expense per passenger-mile. It should be noted that cost per passenger-mile (or passenger-kilometer) is an international standard within the transit industry for evaluating performance. The international Union of Public Transport (UITP ), based in Brussels, stipulates that the fundamental measure of financial performance is operating expense per passenger-kilometer (or passenger-mile).

The statistics are consistently for the year 2000 (or in a few cases 1999). US data are from the National Transit Database of the Federal Transit Administration. Japanese data were published by the Japanese Bureau of Railways, Ministry of Land, infrastructure and Transport, and published in an annual booklet, "Suji de miru tetsudo," by Un-yu keizai kenkyu kiko, Tokyo.

In the table below, some conventions have been followed.

· AGT – refers to elevated guideway systems with small-profile stock, usually with rubber-tired trains. Some but not all of these operate "driverless."

· RRT – refers to rail rapid transit ("heavy rail" transit), a full-scale subway or metro.

· LRT – refers to light rail transit. This typically operates in a variety of alignments, including streets, but is capable of operating in trains, and usually includes well-defined passenger stations or transit stops, perhaps with prepaid or other more specialized types of fare collection.

· Streetcar LRT – refers to a more traditional streetcar operation with tracks built in roadways, usually with onboard collection of fares and without single-person operation of multiple-car trains.

· Monorail – refers to both suspended and straddle-beam type monorail transit systems.

Comparative O&M Cost: Various Transit Guidedway Modes in Japan and the USA

City/System Transit Mode O&M per P-M
Salt Lake City LRT $0.15
San Diego LRT $0.17
St. Louis LRT $0.21
Tokyo/Eidan RRT $0.25
Atlanta RRT $0.25
New York/NYCTA RRT $0.25
San Francisco-BART RRT $0.26
Hiroshima-suburban LRT (1999) LRT $0.27
Tokyo/Toei RRT $0.27
Portland LRT $0.29
Los Angeles LRT $0.29
Philadelphia-PATCO RRT $0.31
Tokyo Monorail $0.31
Chicago RRT $0.31
Kobe RRT $0.32
Washington DC MetroRail RRT $0.34
Yokohama RRT $0.36
Tokyo "Yurikamome" AGT $0.37
Osaka RRT $0.38
Denver LRT $0.40
Nagasaki Streetcar LRT $0.40
Tokyo/Saitama "New Shuttle" AGT $0.40
Boston RRT $0.41
Sacramento LRT $0.42
Nagoya RRT $0.43
Tokyo/Toei Streetcar LRT $0.43
Philadelphia-SEPTA RRT $0.44
New York/PATH RRT $0.46
Miami RRT $0.46
Cleveland RRT $0.46
Hiroshima "Astram Line" AGT $0.46
Osaka "New Tram" AGT $0.48
Baltimore LRT $0.49
Osaka Monorail $0.49
Fukuoka RRT $0.49
Sapporo RRT $0.50
Baltimore RRT $0.52
Tokyo/Tokyu Corp (1999) Streetcar LRT $0.52
Kitakyushu/Chikuho Elec Ry LRT $0.54
Kitakyushu Monorail Monorail $0.54
Dallas LRT $0.55
New Orleans Streetcar LRT $0.56
Boston LRT $0.56
Kyoto/Keifuku Elec Ry (1999) Streetcar LRT $0.57
Hiroshima-Urban lines (1999) Streetcar LRT $0.59
Enoshima Elec Ry LRT $0.60
Sendai RRT $0.61
Los Angeles RRT $0.62
Tokyo/Tama Monorail $0.63
Kobe "Portliner"+"Rokkoliner" AGT $0.63
Shonan Monorail $0.63
Cleveland LRT $0.64
Philadelphia/SEPTA LRT $0.64
Kagoshima Streetcar LRT $0.67
Yokohama "Kanazawa Seaside Line" AGT $0.68
Kumamoto Streetcar LRT $0.69
Takaoka Streetcar LRT $0.77
Toyohashi (0.4 mi/1999) Streetcar LRT $0.77
Toyama (1.7 mi/1999) Streetcar LRT $0.78
Okayama Streetcar LRT $0.83
Kochi Streetcar LRT $0.83
Osaka/Sakai Streetcar LRT $0.84
Pittsburgh LRT $0.84
San Francisco/Muni LRT $0.85
Hakodate Streetcar LRT $0.92
Kyoto RRT $0.92
Buffalo LRT $0.94
Chiba Monorail $0.97
New York/Staten island RRT $0.97
Seattle Monorail $1.02
San Jose LRT $1.07
Otsu/Keihan Elec Ry (1999) LRT $1.08
Sapporo Streetcar LRT $1.15
Newark+HBLRT (NJT) LRT $1.27
Gifu (1999) Streetcar LRT $1.37
Matsuyama (1999) Streetcar LRT $1.44
Komaki "Peachliner" AGT $1.73
Tokyo/Seibu Ry Yamaguchi Line AGT $2.09
Memphis Streetcar LRT $2.31
Osaka OTS Line AGT $2.45
Tokyo-Toei/Ueno Park Monorail (1999) Monorail $2.65
Seattle Waterfront Streetcar Streetcar LRT $2.88
Yukarigaoka AGT $2.91
Miami MetroMover AGT $3.42
Inuyama "Meitetsu Monkeyu Park Monorail" Monorail $4.10
Nagoya/Guideway Bus Guided Bus $5.06
Detroit People Mover AGT $6.07
Jacksonville Skyway Monorail AGT $10.71
Hiroshima Skyrail System AGT $32.16

Clearly, the tabulation of actual O&M costs above offers no evidence whatsoever that monorails, automated or not, or any other totally automated systems, have operating and maintenance costs per passenger-mile significantly lower than "manual" (non-automated) systems, including light rail, light rail-streetcar, and standard rail rapid transit. This suggests that automation actually yields little to no significant cost savings or advantage in urban transport systems. (As we have previously noted, however, automated operation may provide an operational advantage on totally grade-separated systems, although that itself is somewhat subject to debate.)

From the standpoint of urban transport economics, there are some important facts to keep in mind. First, most Japanese transport systems carry a higher density of traffic than their American counterparts.

Many people believe that the higher a system's traffic density, the lower is O&M expense per passenger-km/passenger-mile. This is not necessarily true.

Tokyo's "Eidan" subway system carries an enormous traffic density, and the cost of operating the necessary facilities is actually higher than the facilities necessary for Salt Lake City's traffic density. Since the "Eidan" system collects more than $0.25 per mile from each passenger in fares, it earns an operating surplus, or "profit".

Second, and most important: Many people believe that monorails have an inherent ability to operate without subsidy. This is not supported by real performance data. in order to operate without subsidy, a transport operator must be able to collect more per mile from each passenger in fares than it costs to transport each passenger. This is a function of the overall economic environment, not the mode.

For example, in San Francisco, BART (which must compete with an extensive and highly subsidized and high-quality freeway network) requires subsidy. in Hakodate, Japan, by contrast, the streetcars do not require subsidy. But it costs BART $0.26 per passenger-mile to operate, while it costs Hakodate $0.92 to operate. How can this be?

The answer to this puzzle is simple: BART is not able to collect $0.26 per mile from each passenger, but Hakodate is able to collect more than $0.92 per mile from each passenger.

Bottom line: A comparison of various standard rail transit modes, including LRT, with monorails, AGT, and other "gadget" modes indicates that neither monorails, automated or not, nor other automated "high-tech" modes, offer perceptible operating and maintenance cost advantages compared to standard rail transit modes. Automation may have advantages, but, if so, they are probably more operational than financial.

Updated 2002/12/14

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