It would often be thought the British Isles and Ireland have no monorails and its Germany (with its two Schwebebahns and the Dusseldorf monorail) or Japan that have a good number of monorails. Surprisingly the UK too once had a number of monorail systems in some its towns and cities and in fact the UK procured some of the world’s earliest monorail/suspended rail systems.
There are still a couple of systems at work in this country. The difference here is the UK doesn’t have any monorail systems that are interurban or metro systems like those found elsewhere, thus all its monorails are purely for the leisure/tourist industry.
The only successful UK monorail systems are the small systems within a number of theme parks or Butlins holiday camps and most were built in the 20th century. A good number of systems have shut down – for example Blackpool (closed 2012,) the two systems at Rhyl (closed 1980/2014,) the unique system at Merry Hill (closed 1996,) Chessington Zoo (closed 2015,) and Chester Zoo (closed 2019.) Practically all of the systems in the UK have used the straddle beam system – save for a few examples from the early 19th Century.
But first – what is a monorail? Well its what the word should mean – a single rail system. However numerous monorail systems depend on more than one guiding rail – or a pretty wide straddle beam with wheels placed at the top bottom and sides – so these are not exactly true mono-rails.
The one and only true mono-rail system in the world is the Schwebebahn. This runs on a single rail and that’s it – there are no other guide rails of any sort, nothing, nada. Nevertheless in terms of the more recent builds wide straddle beams or extra guide rails make for greater safety and carrying capacity.
The Daegu Metro in South Korea. Whilst its called a ‘monorail’ it isn’t exactly that – a ‘mono-rail.’ Its a multi guided system evidenced by having wheels on the top, at the upper sides and at the bottom of the singular slab beam track. Source: Trip Advisor.
Clearly the word ‘monorail’ is a sort of corruption. Its often something that is straddled upon slab track or from a suspended construction and with a certain number of wheelsets or guides to keep it in place – thus it means one has to accept most systems around the world are anything else but a true mono-rail. Some of these recent new rubber tyred tramway systems that run on a single guiding rail are being called monorails too! Evidently the term is use quite loosely right across the spectrum!
UK monorail systems of the past
One of the most celebrated early systems in these islands was the Listowel and Ballybunion Railway – built when Ireland was once part of the UK. The Ballybunion line was based on the Lartigue system (with additional development work by F. H. Behr.) A section of the former railway has been rebuilt and it gives public trips with a good opportunity to see how this unique system worked. See Lartigue Monorail Listowel.
The Listowel monorail in Ireland. Source: Wikipedia.
Palmer’s monorail systems 1822-1825
The earliest monorail in Engand was perhaps that at Deptford Dockyard in 1824. Little is known about that line however the same inventor built a larger system at Cheshunt that opened three months before the Stockton and Darlington Railway!
The designs for both these lines Deptford and Cheshunt were by Henry Robinson Palmer, Engineer to the London Dock Company. The latter system was owned by a Mr. Gibbs, ‘an opulent brick maker and builder’ – and primarily built to convey bricks from a works to a wharf on the nearby River Lea.
Palmer’s plans for a monorail, 1822. Source: Twitter.
It was constructed to negotiate the marshy ground around the Cheshunt area and its advantage was it would be able to operate in the winter when the marshes were flooded. A passenger train was also built and public rides regularly given.
Palmer had ambitions to build a monorail system linking a number of Kent towns from Maidstone. An Act of Parliament for The Tunbridge Wells, Snodland & Edenbridge Suspension Railway was announced in the Maidstone Journal on January 17th 1826.
‘In spite of initial local enthusiasm, many were doubtful that the project was viable. They were right. Even now the lines of the proposed route are very rural and any freight then would have been limited to agricultural produce and the output of a few small paper mills.’ Source: Kent Archaeology.
Palmer’s thesis on his monorail system can be found here.
Maxwell Dick’s suspension railway 1827-1830
A small scale demonstration model was shown in 1830 at premises in Charing Cross which were the London offices of a monorail promoter known as Maxwell Dick who came from Ayrshire. It was said ‘the exhibition is well deserving of a visit from the admirers of mechanical ingenuity.’ The system was claimed to be superior to that of Palmer’s.
Maxwell Dick’s system was devised in 1827 after a heavy bout of snowfall at his home near Irvine in Scotland. Thoughts turned to notions such as mechanical snow ploughs and the likes however after some deliberation a suspended railway was decided upon. In 1829 a two mile long line was built on farmland in Ayrshire belonging to the Duke of Portland.
The difference between this late 1820s example and other lines was Maxwell Dick’s system depended on a pair of rails suspended from posts rather than a single rail so its not exactly a mono-rail even though its built on the principles many modern systems employ including the Chiba Urban Monorail and the Shonan Monorail in Japan.
Monorail at King’s Cross 1830
Another early system was to be found at the Royal Panarmonion Gardens in King’s Cross during 1830. It had one railcar called William the Fourth (the King himself was Patron of the said venture) and the system was propelled by a conductor operating a winch that drove the wheels above the monorail car.
Although it is assumed the Panarmonion Gardens monorail had been operational, some observers think it was a hypothetical idea rather. Certainly by scrutinising the one and only picture to be found of that system, it can be seen the structure in question would have been impossible to build. Not only that the supports were simply too thin and would have buckled under the weight of the structure plus its boat-shaped car and willing passengers.
The Panarmonion Gardens monorail Source: Gutenberg.
The gardens were established by Stephen Geary in conjunction with Italian singer Gesualdo Lanza as part of an initiative to provide a Tivoli style parkland with a focus on the arts and music, including a college, art galleries, concert rooms and theatres.
Its said the gardens themselves offered little interest. The site was generally a chaotic mess and the promoters were desperate for custom in order to further their ambitions. Evidently the monorail was the gardens’ one and only saving grace for many other aspects of the gardens were unrealised – such as subterranean passageways, suspension bridges, grottos, fountains and fifty foot high cascades.
The venture shut when both Geary and Lanza became bankrupt. Their gardens were quite large and extended as far as Grays Inn Road, Euston Road and Bellgrove Street. Just one remnant from these unfinished gardens still exists. That’s the former Panarmonion Theatre, latterly known as the Royal Clarence Theatre.
The only remnant from the Panarmonion Gardens. Source: LRB.
It was Geary who was responsible for giving the area its name, King’s Cross, in 1835. Prior to that the area had been known as Battle Bridge.
Behr/Lartigue demonstration line Victoria 1886
Another early system, once again in London, was that demonstration line set up by both F. H. Behr and Charles Lartigue on land upon which reports say Westminster cathedral was later built. Actually the cathedral was built further west and the Behr/Lartigue demonstration line stood nearer where the Army and Navy Stores in Victoria Street were. This land had previously been occupied by Tothill Fields prison.
Contemporary photograph showing one of the monorail trains at Victoria. Source: Grace’s Guide.
There were two demonstration lines both based on the Lartigue system. One was totally on the level and another with severe gradients and a substantial viaduct. The latter unusually had rack operation in order to mount the severe gradients. Each line was approximately a third of a mile in length. Locomotives were provided by Mallet. Trackwork was by Monsieur Achille Legrand of Mons and the carriages and rolling stock by the Société des Forges et Ateliers in Saint Denis, both in France, whilst the rack locomotive was built by the La Metallurgique company in Tubize, Belgium.
The Behr/Lartigue partnership was intended to promote a new construction company the two monorail had pioneers set up. Behr became the company’s Managing Director. As mentioned it was primarily a promotion of Lartigue’s designs – although it must be said Behr’s own system had similarities. Alas the demonstration line wasn’t very successful and by November 1886 the company had been wound down.
The Behr/Lartigue system with reference to the lines at Victoria can be found in a comprehensive publication at Google Books.
Other early UK systems
The Hotchkiss monorail system (properly termed a bicycle railway) was built at both Blackpool and Great Yarmouth at the end of the 19th Century and the concept was based on a larger system built by Alfred Hotchkiss in New Jersey.
The Hotchikiss monorail system. Source: Twitter.
The Hotchkiss system as seen at Great Yarmouth in the 1900s. Source: The Story Of.
Canvey Island had a brief flirt with a mono-rail system when an example based on the Calliard system as set up there. It was envisaged as a substantial electrically propelled system three miles long. Even though those three miles were built, little else was done due to a lack of funds and the system was used for a short time with horses providing the motive power.
The Canvey Island system in 1902. Source: Canvey Island.
The Bennie Railplane was designed as a high speed monorail system. It was actually built however the track extended just over a hundred metres distant thus the one propellor powered railcar could only be used for very brief trips. George Bennie had high hopes this would be enough to interest prospective investors who would be willing to our money into Bennie’s scheme for a high speed line of this type between Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Poster for the Bennie Railplane. Source: Herald Scotsman.
The scheme, despite its promises, folded in 1937 when Bennie was declared a bankrupt. The Bennie railplane was resuscitated in various iterations during the forties and fifties including high speed lines from London to Heathrow and to Hastings.
The Bennie railcar at Milngavie. Source: Glasgow Live.
UK systems that were never built
Apart from seaside resorts, theme parks and holiday camps, monorails were indeed proposed for several towns and cities – here’s a rundown of those schemes.
The Bennie Railplane for London! How it could have looked at Oxford Circus in this 1951 proposal to link with Heathrow airport – no need for the Elizabeth line! Source: Revivaler.
As if one Railplane line wasn’t enough, London would have also had this high speed system to the Sussex coast. Source: Fast Company.
Heathrow high speed monorail 1958. This would have run between Waterloo and the airport and be suspended above the main railway lines for part of the way. It was a hybrid system – upon arrival at the airport the carriages would become a normal airport transfer bus! Source: Twitter.
Scale model of the 1958 Heathrow High Speed monorail. The wheels that can be seen are for its use on the roads around Heathrow airport. Source: Twitter.
1967/1970 proposal for a different Oxford Street monorail. This was a GLC initiative. Source: Unreal City.
The best known example that come to mind in terms of suspended monorails are these images for a ‘Schwebebahn’ (as some called it) down London’s Regent Street.
The GLC’s original Regent Street monorail concept, 1960s. Source: Twitter
Recently a modern version of the concept was drawn up to show how the monorail if built would have looked today.
How things would have looked if it had been built! Source: Twitter
More on this apparently ‘crazy’ idea can be seen at Secret London.
Another scheme for Oxford Street 2005. Source: Evening Standard.
And then there was…
A monorail scheme for London which was proposed by F. H. Behr at the end of the 19th century. This new railway was to be known as the North Metropolitan & Regents Canal monorail. It would run alongside the Regent’s canal between Lisson Grove and Park Road and pass under some newly built railway bridges unhindered.
An act of 1882 forced the Great Central Railway to build some of its new bridges with an extra span at Lisson Grove to accommodate the proposed monorail. The bridge is the one and only structure in London the public can walk through that was intended for a monorail!
The only structure in London built for a monorail is to be seen at Lisson Grove on the Regent’s Canal towpath.
Leicester proposed a seven and half mile long system in the sixties at a cost of £135 million pounds. The council ultimately rejected the plans.
Proposed monorail for Leicester. Source: Twitter.
The same Leicester spot today devoid of any monorail! Source: Google Streets.
The route would have been from Beaumont Leys to the city centre. Source: Twitter.
News article on the scheme that never took off. Source: Twitter.
The notion of a monorail in Leominster is the only attempt at depicting a true Schwebebahn system in the UK. However it seems the idea of having an Eugen Langen monorail in deepest Herefordshire was quite fanciful. Its just an idea put out to illustrate the future and the location thus chosen was probably wishful thinking! Leominster’s not even big enough to warrant a metro system!
1910 Villemard drawing depicting how Leominster would look in 2000! Source: Flickr.
Milton Keynes was to be Britain’s first ‘monorail city.’ Plans from as early as 1962 onward envisaged a network of monorails serving the different neighbourhoods and linking with the centre of the new city. The network was to be entirely free thus enabling dwellers to live their lives without total dependence on the motor car.
Clearly the newly built M1 motorway that ran nearby had brought huge numbers of cars and traffic jams, and councillors were looking for a way to prevent this modern concrete behemoth taking over their precious new, as yet un-named, city. Thus the idea of a monorail system came up as a way of encouraging residents to live as car free as they could – and what’s more the new transport system was to be free!
It was Fred Pooley, Buckinghamshire’s County Architect & Planning Officer, who fought tooth and nail to have a monorail system built at Milton Keynes in an attempt to reduce dependence on the motor car.
Free monorail transport for Milton Keynes! Source: Bill Berrett.
Supporters of the scheme included Ian Nairn, who said:
The Buckinghamshire plan for a ‘monorail city’ of 250,000 people – revealed last week – is the most adventurous and imaginative scheme in Britain. Here for once is a city of the future which isn’t just an abstract diagram or intellectual framework.
The ‘Pooley’ Monorail system for Milton Keynes. Source: Twitter.
The opposition that arose against the monorail scheme included bus companies who were vociferous. In October 1968 the substantial plans for a vast monorail network was ended and Milton Keynes was to be built with cars as the prime people mover system and buses as a subsidiary transport system:
‘Rather than forestalling the car by putting up a monorail, Milton Keynes embraced the car by laying down roads; and rather than viewing American cities as lessons to avoid, Milton Keynes took them as models to follow.’
‘Milton Keynes was largely developed in ways which produced a much worse built environment than had been envisioned…’
Many other UK towns put forward proposals for monorail systems. These are too numerous to mention however Guildford, Reading and Oxford are among some of the contenders yet many schemes were little more than an idea.
One system not mentioned here is the Brennan gyroscopic rail system. It was rather a different ken altogether – and needs an entire post to itself in order to describe its operation and the various locations the demonstration runs were found including White City and in the Americas.
In terms of other UK systems the Cambridgeshire Fens had the 1960s experimental Hovertrain, built on hovercraft technology. Following on the heels of the experiments at Alweg in Germany, the Hovertrain was a promising invention however it was expensive, and the track needed to support the system was huge – which sorts of discounts it as a monorail. It never carried passengers. Recently moves were made to relocate the Hovertrain itself at Railworld in Peterborough so that the public might learn more of this abortive monorail experiment.
Continued in part two.
Originally published February 2019. Updated and expanded 2022.