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The Monorails Must Roll

The monorail station could be looking like this a lot more when Disney institutes its new reduced hours for the trains.
The monorail station could be looking like this a lot more when Disney institutes its new reduced hours for the trains.

One of my favorite Robert Heinlein short stories is “The Roads Must Roll.” Written in 1940, it speculates about a rapid transit system that would move people across the country in speed and comfort. The high speed nature of the rolling roads meant that maintenance was a huge deal. When the employees decided to organize for better working conditions, well, the shit hits the fan. In some ways it foretold the air controller strike of the Reagan era. These days there is an odd tie-in to the Walt Disney World monorails system too.

Walt Disney World just announced they would be reducing the operating hours of their monorail fleet. They used to run 1.5 hours after the parks closed or after the last scheduled event (extra magic hours, christmas party, etc). Sometimes these hours were stretched even further on the EPCOT line. Now they will all shut down 1 hour after the posted closing time for the park with no allowance for extra magic hours or other events. Guests will be placed on buses or water craft to be returned to their hotels or the TTC and EPCOT parking lots.

Initially, there was a lot of outcry directed at Disney for reducing benefits to resort and park guests at the same time they are raising prices, but soon word leaked out that there was an important reason behind the shift. The reason? The monorail fleet is just breaking down under the strain.

Reports of frequent breakdowns, certain monorails that pilots hesitate to stop of a slope for fear they won’t be able to make it up the hill after starting again, doors that don’t open or close, and electrical and brake fires have been cropping up with increased regularity over the last few years.

There are a lot of factors contributing to the increased strain on the monorail fleet. The include, but are not limited to:

  • They’ve increased the capacity of each car by removing the leaning posts. This adds weight to the cars during peak periods.
  • After the tragic accident of July 5th two years ago, the fleet had to operate down three monorails for a while (the two in the accident and one in the shop). They’re still awaiting the return of a replacement for Monorail purple.
  • With DVC Resorts opening up all the time, there are many more guests staying on property these days. This leads to an increased volume on the monorail fleet.
  • The current trains are all between 22 and 20 years old. The original fleet only lasted 20 years before it had to be replaced.
  • The recession came at a bad time leading to a tight budget for Walt Disney World transportation over the last few years at the exact moment when some extra money was needed most.

Apparently things got so bad that cast members in the WDW transportation system pleaded via multiple emails and written letters to WDW management that they must do something. Reduced hours is the result. The actually savings are only about 2 hours a night. In theory that time will be applied to increased maintenance. But it doesn’t really address most of the problems listed above.

Disney World was faced with an interesting choice. They could do nothing and frustrate guests with continued issues with the monorail, risking further accidents or fires, or address the issue and frustrate guests with reduced capacity and/or operating hours. Choice two was obviously the safer one.

What we don’t know yet is if the existing fleet be getting an overhaul that will extend its life significantly or will they continue in emergency mode until the point where they can afford to replace the monorail fleet.

If it’s the latter, then Disney has a couple of options. Building a whole new fleet of trains is not cheap. They just did it for the monorail at Disneyland and it’s been one mess after another. Recently Disneyland has been back down to just one train operational. The other option is to build a new transportation system based on one of the futuristic technologies. I look at the PRT system at London’s Heathrow airport or a street car type system as good models. But there is one technology that is really futuristic that would make a great fit for Disney.

If Disney can make this existing fleet last 7 to 10 years longer, they can probably switch over to a system based on the autonomous cars that Google is now developing. Guests will board shuttle vans built to hold one or two families and take them from their current location exactly to their destination with no extra stops. Move most guest parking lots to the periphery of WDW except for guests staying at a Disney resort. This solution has the advantage that Disney would not need to build a lot of new infrastructure as the Google Shuttles can co-exist with cars on existing roads.

Any solution remains a ways off. The current reality suggests that guests paying to stay at a monorail resort to take advantage of the quick travel time to and from the Magic Kingdom might want to rethink that strategy. You’re losing one of your chief perks (a quick ride back to your hotel at the end of the night) on EMH and party nights. Additionally, other guests, who would otherwise rely on the monorails to return to their car after a late dinner reservation, will have to make other plans.

I think there is a short term solution that doesn’t affect that resort monorail guests and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some revision to the announced policy. The MK/Express line can be closed 1 hr after the park and EPCOT can close as soon as it is reasonable, probably 1.5 hours after park to allow for late dinners. But keep the resort line open, even if it’s just a reduced capacity. This lets Disney get maximum monorails back in the shop but only reduces service levels for MK and resort guests a moderate bit. Much more palatable.

Disney may be spending over $1.6 billion on their Next-Generation Theme Park Technology, but it won’t do any good if the monorail system collapses under its own weight and that part of the allure of Walt Disney World disappears. If the move really is just to save money, then Disney management is more out of touch and has more problems than I realized. Therefore, I tend to believe the change in operation is to save some wear and tear on the system. The question is, are they the right ones? If you were Disney what would you do?