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Monorail or AGT?

January 2011
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I’ve been asked a lot about the proposal to have a monorail or an AGT for the University of the Philippines Diliman campus. A monorail is a rail system much like what we have with the difference mainly that it runs on a single rail. Monorails may be of the straddle type where the vehicle is in the conventional position above the rail or it can be the suspended type where the vehicle is essentially hanging from the rail structure. Capacities vary since many monorail systems are considered light rail while there are few that significant capacity to be categorized above light rail but still below conventional mass transit heavy rail systems. By the nature of monorails, these are all elevated systems. Among the examples of monorails I’ve used myself are the Tokyo Monorail (straddle) and the Chiba Monorail (suspended).

AGT stands for automated guideway transit and designs vary with some operating along railway tracks and others running along guideways using pneumatic tires that are not so different from buses only that these are trains. AGTs are also driver-less hence the “automated” tag. Unlike the monorail, it is possible to have AGTs constructed at ground level. Many guideways are essentially parallel strips of pavement where the wheels would traverse and there are devices such as sensors built in to the vehicle that allows it to steer with respect to a rail or wall constructed along both sides of the guideway. In certain cases, the guideway cross section is L- or U-shaped for this purpose. I rode on two such systems – the Tokyo New Transit System or Yurikamome (translated as Sea Gull) and the Yokohama Seaside Line. An attraction for these systems because they are driver-less is that passengers can be seated at the front of the train thereby availing a view that only drivers used to have. It is actually popular for first-time passengers as well as children.

There are many other examples of such monorail and AGT systems in other cities around the world. However, there are none yet in the Philippines. Perhaps the closest we got to having a monorail was the proposal for one to be constructed in Makati City back in the 1990’s. It was envisioned that the system would serve the CBD and connect buildings along the alignment to the EDSA MRT. It would be a loop system to serve the many offices and commercial establishments in the CBD. The proposal, however, fizzled out and was never constructed although the idea has been revived time and again in relation to other plans for public transport in that city.

A newer proposal is a monorail system for Bonifacio Global City. This system, however, will not be serving the entire development but only the area in its northern part including what is called the Bonifacio Triangle that is adjacent to Kalayaan Avenue. This is partly due to the live proposal and current efforts to put up a bus rapid transit (BRT) service between the Makati CBD and Bonifacio and serving the core areas including developments adjacent to C-5 (e.g., Market! Market! and Serendra). There is no timetable yet for this proposal and there are no detailed information available so far for public consumption although it has been mentioned to possibly utilize Japanese technology.

Now, there is also a proposal for either a monorail or an AGT for the UP Diliman campus. It was mentioned already in several news articles in media and is apparently the idea of the head of the science and technology agency of the country. Among the things mentioned is that the system will be replacing the jeepneys that currently provide transport services to both UP and non-UP commuters. The campus, after all, is located strategically between two major thoroughfares – Commonwealth Avenue and Katipunan Avenue (Circumferential Road 5).

While I advocate modern transport systems and would like to have these realized in our country, I have apprehensions with regards to having a monorail or AGT inside the campus. Among these apprehensions concern the appropriateness of such a system for UP considering that it is an academic institution that, despite the existing land use, will not be generating much traffic. What would be increasing here is the amount of through traffic, particularly those trips using public transport due to the nature of the location of UP. Thus, it is UP’s call whether as a policy the university will allow such through traffic in the future. This would send a mixed signal to the public considering that the existing sticker system and gate entry/exit policy for private transport seeks to minimize through traffic in the campus.

Jeepneys plying routes inside the campus are actually tolerated by the university due to the demand for public transport among its constituents, which includes students, staff and faculty. Two particular routes, the Ikot and Toki, travel only within the campus, ferrying their passengers to and from the different academic units (e.g., Palma Hall to the College of Science complex) and other places of interest such as the Shopping Center and the dormitories. In fact, there used to be no C.P. Garcia Street that physically connects Commonwealth and Katipunan and bypasses the campus core. And through the years, development along C.P. Garcia has progressed to a point that there is now a perceived demand for public transport along this corridor. So perhaps a proposed monorail or AGT should be along this corridor and not inside the campus itself where

On the engineering side, I have no doubt that the expertise for the development, construction, and operations and maintenance of such a system is available. Yet, the biggest and usually the most important question is who will finance the system? Will the revenues be enough to pay for the initial outlay and be able to sustain the system? Or will the government fund a demonstration line (2 kilometers as some articles mention) to provide proof of concept but will actually fall short of connecting Commonwealth and C5 – a prerequisite for its success? Where will the money be sourced from? Government coffers? That would mean that it is the taxpayers who would be paying for the system and from the initial looks of it, it certainly will not be a good investment given the limitations and its justification as a proof of concept rather than a viable mode of transport.

Thus, a lot of caution should be taken if such a project is to be pushed for UP. A jeepney-sized vehicle may still be the more appropriate form of transport though buses service may also be explored. The arguments against these conventional vehicles usually pertain to driver behavior and the common complaint against air and noise pollution, particularly the former where poorly maintained or non-compliant vehicles belch smoke that leads to the deterioration of the environment. These issues, however, may already be addressed by a combination of governance and technology. The University ¬†reserves its right to bar entry of polluting and recklessly driven vehicles and it has shown it can firmly enforce traffic rules and regulations inside the campus. Then there are already initiatives and options to “clean up” the jeepney and introduce features to make it a safe ride for commuters. The bottom line still is whether UP would decide for or against through traffic now and for the future.

Aesthetics? That’s another story and would surely require another set of expertise to discuss.


4 Comments

  1. mmarays says:

    I have seen the monorail inside Jurong Bird Park in Singapore. Aesthetically, it blended well with the park landscape. Hopefully the UP monorail could also have the same effect if indeed it pushes through.

    • d0ctrine says:

      I’m hopeful that whatever it is that gets built in UP would be implemented professionally. It should be a good example of what can be done elsewhere considering that it is a prototype system. The community and especially those who will be involved in the development of the system from the UP-side should exercise extra care in the design and be vigilant during the construction to ensure that the system will also blend well with the university’s landscape aside from satisfying criteria for a safe and efficient system.

  2. Thank you for raising the question about the appropriateness of monorail transport for the UP Campus. Has the rationale for this project been established somewhere? What I mean is: is the existing volume of human traffic through UP so large as to warrant a monorail? Has it been considered that this new system may have consequences in raising the mass of people that enter campus that have nothing to do here but just want to travel between Katipunan / Commonwealth? Are there any other university campuses in the world that require monorail transport? (UP is not a bird park)

    • d0ctrine says:

      The rationale for the project, as far as I know, is unclear from the start. The idea was supposed to have been mentioned by the current DOST Secretary to previous officials of the UP System. The latter picked up the idea and drew some quick plans for a transit system that they thought was suitable for the campus, even stating (perhaps a irresponsibly) that it would replace the jeepneys in campus. There were no studies to determine suitability or demand for such an expensive system. Perhaps the inspiration for this is a system that’s been in place at the University of Dortmund that carries a very small 5,000 passengers/day. The difference is that system is used exclusively by people who have business with the university and is very unlike UP Diliman, which is located quite strategically between major corridors and whose roads are used by significant through traffic. Note though that what is now being constructed at UP Diliman is a test track for an Automated Guideway Transit (AGT) and no longer a monorail.

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