Shredded tires in the sky

With its first new engines in 36 years, Seattle's venerable monorail is a proven champ. Just remember to duck when the debris flies.

WHEN PIECES OF A BLOWN TIRE flew off a passing Seattle Center monorail train and bounced off three vehicles below, it was hard not to notice the date: April 1, 1998. But it was no fool's prank. The remains of one of the train's 64 foam-filled tires broke a mirror and dented the door of a rental car driven by a visiting Scotsman. This visitor was shaken but unhurt, and at least had a good story to tell at the pubs back home: "So I'm drivin' along the road an' get hit by an over'ead train!"

But for the most part, city and monorail officials say, that's a rare accidental-tourist story. The Red and Blue trains are breaking in their new $500,000 electric engines this week—their first replacements since they were born in the 1962 Seattle World's Fair—and showing themselves to be not just durable but improving with age. As the city eyes expanding the short-haul tourist ride into a full-fledged rapid transit system approved by voters last November, the new model can take lessons from this "experimental" 1.2-mile system built by the Germans in 1960 (see "It Does Run on Time," p. ??). A new review of mechanical/accident records shows the monorail has been a relatively safe ride—some passenger bumps and bruises but never a fatality on its popular, albeit brief (90-second) Seattle CenterWestlake Center run. Last year was flawless: The trains made 54,129 one-way trips, carrying 2.4 million passengers, without a single injury, says Sam Desue of Seattle Monorail Services, which has contracted since 1994 to run the system. (It pays the city an 11 percent concession fee and makes a small profit, rare for any urban transit system, on nearly $2 million in annual sales; it hopes to increase ridership further with a new, daily park-and-ride commuter plan.) With a preventive maintenance effort under way and structural assessment of the trains about to begin, Desue says, "We'll ensure passengers get an even safer and more efficient ride."

SAFETY WAS A TOUCHY ISSUE in past years. Drivers occasionally overshot their stops or lost their brakes and banged into safety bumpers. In 1987 a train hit the concrete abutment at Westlake, jolting passengers and breaking a windshield that fell and shattered a car window below; similar head-bumpings occurred in 1980, 1979, and 1971, when 27 were hurt. Monorail drivers we talked with recently say they didn't know of any passenger-tumbling incidents in the past few years. "Safety," insists center spokesperson Beau Fong, "is our top priority."

Mechanical problems, especially with tires, were few in the last 15 months compared to 1996 when the system suffered a dozen broken, shredded, split, and shattered tires and rims, causing breakdowns but no injuries. Desue says he's bringing in a tire expert to "do a forensic analysis" of the Goodyear tire products he buys. "They're supposed to last two and a half years, but we're getting only 12 months out of them," he says. "We want to know why." A wheel assembly from a moving train also fell into the street last year, luckily hitting no one. That led to a new standing order: Three times daily, mechanics working in the center's repair bay must go over the complete assembly of 48 car-size side tires and 16 truck-size drive tires on each train. They also routinely test door and air-brake systems before taking private rides to inspect the rails and test gates and ramps. The new engines—replacing motors with 850,000 miles on them—should keep breakdowns to fewer than the five incidents recorded last year (versus up to 50 times when Metro ran the trains). Replacing the engines should also end oil drips that blacken the sidewalk under Westlake Station.

The monorail's safety records might be slightly incomplete. Residents who live near the elevated line tell us that debris and an occasional metal bolt have been known to fly off as the trains swoop past but aren't reported to the city. Rubber crumbs from blown tires litter Fifth Avenue, and at Westlake the waiting riders like to pitch pennies onto the rail tops; the coins are then sent flying by the train's arrival. But no known injuries have resulted. "I hope those people would report such incidents to us," says Fong. "We work hard on safety. That's probably one of the reasons voters approved expansion. They have confidence in the system."

In all probability though, the Seattle Center Monorail will remain just that. The thus-far unfunded expansion will likely be a separate operation—rails, new cars, new routes, with links to the Center trains (the Elevated Transportation Company will itself link up with the new regional rapid transit, forming the seamless system that could enable riders to take the train from, say, downtown Tacoma to the Space Needle. King County Council member Greg Nickels, among others, sees a "wonderful connection" in extending the existing monorail at least to the new Pioneer Square sports stadiums, tying together the city's two biggest entertainment centers. That extension could be expedited if, for instance, Paul Allen wanted to spring for more rails down Fifth Avenue, tying the train into his Union Station redevelopment. It seems a solid investment. As any fan of the "Century 21" relic will tell you, after all those taxpayer millions are spent on a new system subject to break-in (and maybe breakdown) long after the millennium, the vintage monorail, Seattle's living experiment, will still sail along. "Four decades," says Beau Fong, "and it seems better than ever."

 
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