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No tunnel vision in Bombardier’s monorail strategy

Artist’s rendering of Bombardier’s 24km-long monorail system in Sao Paolo, Brazil.


When you think of monorail trains, you probably think of the elevated monorail at Florida's Walt Disney World, which seems more like a crowd-pleasing tourist attraction than a serious piece of transportation infrastructure.

Montreal's Bombardier is trying to change that image. Unlike some of its big-name rivals, it sees monorails as one of its biggest potential growth areas and has two projects under way, one in Saudi Arabia, the other in Brazil. The company plans to use them as showcases for the technology once they are in operation, in a sort of build-it-and-they-will-come strategy.

While rare, monorails are nothing new. The Wuppertal Floating Tram, in the city of Wuppertal, in western Germany, has been in operation for more than a century. It's a strange looking bit of urban industrial hardware. The trains dangle from an overhead track instead of riding on top of a rail.

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Monorails are fairly popular in Japan and have made appearances in China and in Australia. But they remain rare. That may change, in good part because of their attractive economics, Bombardier says. Serge Van Themsche, the Bombardier vice-president in charge of transportation systems in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Brazil, said at Berlin's InnoTrans rail show that monorails cost about half as much as subway systems because there is no digging. Instead, concrete pillars hold up the narrow track, which is typically 10 metres above the ground.

They can also be built much faster. Bombardier's 24km-long monorail system in Sao Paolo is being installed at the rate of almost 1-km a month. That's unimaginably fast by subway standards and that, according to Bombardier, means it should appeal to politicians. "A politician can sign the contract and cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony because it takes only three to four years from start to implementation," said Van Themsche. "On longer projects, a politician would ask, 'Why should I start this and the next guy gets all the credit?'"

To be sure, monorails are not for everyone. In old European cities, they would be a blight on the scenery as they swoosh by above your head. It's hard to imagine one being allowed to blot out the Colosseum in Rome or the Louvre in Paris. But they might do the trick in the new megacities in the developing world, which are groaning under the weight of endless traffic jams.

Both of Bombardier's monorail projects are in modern cities. Bombardier's debut monorail (other than the one used by Walt Disney) is being built for the King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Bombardier is supplying the lightweight train cars, built of aluminium and carbon fibre, and the electrical systems for the 3.6-km line.

At 24-kms long, the Sao Paolo monorail is far more ambitious. Bombardier's share of the $1.4-billion (U.S.) project is about $800-million. When finished, its 378 train cars will be able to move more than 40,000 passengers an hour, making it the biggest such system in the world.

Other than providing good potential for growth, monorails provide one more advantage for Bombardier – relative lack of competition. While Japanese and Malaysian companies are in the monorail game, Bombardier's traditional heavyweight European rivals, Siemens of Germany and France's Alstom, have shown scant interest them. That could change if Bombardier's Saudi and Brazilian projects turn into winners. If it does, the Canadian company would have a commanding lead.

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About the Author
European Columnist

Eric Reguly is the European columnist for The Globe and Mail and is based in Rome. Since 2007, when he moved to Europe, he has primarily covered economic and financial stories, ranging from the euro zone crisis and the bank bailouts to the rise and fall of Russia's oligarchs and the merger of Fiat and Chrysler. More


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