New World Transport
Above illustration from the collection of Reinhard Krischer; photo imaging/copyright by Reinhard Krischer 2002. Original photo of first generation Disney-Alweg red train.
THE ALWEG PHENOMENON
© Copyright Reinhard Krischer, March 2002
When Axel L. Wenner-Gren initiated and financed the development of the Alweg monorail system in the 1950s he chose Germany as the location for his research project.
He had financial assets in Germany that could due to special post-war circumstances only be spent in Germany. He had heard of German engineers who had come up with some interesting ideas about monorail technology. And Wenner-Gren was a certified Germanophile who knew that his project would create badly needed jobs and if successful could lead to much, much more. And he had a vision about revolutionizing the world’s transportation industry.
The Alweg Research Company as it was once called attracted a unique team of men and women. A good number of the founding engineers came from the former German aircraft industry. As “aircraft people” they approached the task of developing a totally new kind of rail vehicle without any of the inhibitions that traditional railroad engineers might have had when called upon to abandon two-rail principles.
Within an amazingly short time the first Alweg test trains raced successfully on an oval monorail test track. Transportation industry engineers and managers, even politicians and of course journalists from all parts of the world congregated on Cologne-Fühlingen to watch test-runs of this phenomenal new monorail system.
Media coverage about Alweg was during the 1950s extensive. Photos of the test trains were supplemented by illustrations drawn by artists who evidently specialized in wild science fiction scenarios.
This was the time when jet airplanes were tested with much publicity. When rockets signalled the beginning of the exploration of outer space. When atomic energy was believed to soon power ships, planes, even trains.
All these technological developments and visions met with great enthusiasm in America, where streamlined diesel locomotives had replaced steam engines, automobiles were equipped with futuristic fins and gleaming grilles, daredevil test pilots flew supersonic jets and rockets probed the first reaches of space.
Good, old Europe just looked on and struggled to rise from the rubble of war. In this setting the Alweg monorail experiment in Cologne-Fühlingen in Germany seemed more like a futuristic anachronism. The two-rail lobby and chronic enemies of technological progress saw no merit whatsoever in this weird monorail business. To them it looked like the fantasy of some mad inventor.
In their eyes this was verified when in 1959 a certain Mr. Walt Disney had an Alweg monorail system built for his then still rather new Disneyland in California, - a (as they saw it) typically American type of amusement, totally superfluous and without any cultural merit. That’s where monorails could be built, but not in staid, old Europe!
Henceforth Alweg was stuck with the amusement-park-image.
But as the saying goes: only time will tell!
While the stubborn German transportation establishment blocked all of Alweg’s efforts to prove the merits of its concept (thus possibly endangering the profits of the two-rail-lobby) Walt Disney quickly expanded the first monorail line in his California Disneyland.
Disneyland illustrates one of the basic differences between the “Old World” and the “New World”. Americans can develop creative enthusiasm while in Europe enthusiasm is stifled by habitual scepticism and institutionalised bureaucracy.
So in Europe no one would have come up with a term like “imagineering”. The Disney people created this type of engineering by combining “imagination” and “engineering”. Enthusiastic imagineering produced the design of the Disney-Alweg trains. Their chief design “imagineer” later said that he had been influenced by a Buck Rogers (an American science fiction comic-strip hero) vehicle.
But during the 1950s rocket shapes and bubble canopies were an integral part of future oriented design. Shark noses were the result of the streamlining fashion that had begun in the 1920s. Most of the really sleek design was however still only visible in artwork or design studies.
It took courage to apply such design features to the real thing. Disney went ahead and made his Alweg trains look like fast rail-bound space vehicles the likes of which had so far only be seen in science fiction illustrations.
Disney-Alweg became an instant success and something like a trademark for Disneyland.
Today Disney is already operating the sixth generation of monorail trains. They still follow basic Alweg technology, but have been modernized continuously. Disney also introduced the beautiful arched beamway that makes the classic Alweg monorail structure look even more elegant and fragile. Disney’s monorails in California and Florida are indeed theme park monorails yet they daily log miles and carry numbers of passengers that are equal to genuine rapid transit figures. This service record counters all “expert” criticism that tries to denigrate monorail technology as a non-serious transportation concept.
The extensive new Tokyo Disneyworld monorail will undoubtedly be overlooked on purpose by the monorail opponents because there Disney now operates a full-scale monorail system based on proven Japanese monorail rapid transit technology.
It is sad that monorail opponents still love to stick to the “amusement park transport” cliché. The Disney record has proven (and keeps doing so) this cliché to be false. The Las Vegas monorail – the first Vegas monorail consisted of ex-Disney equipment – will sooner or later condemn this line of criticism to oblivion. Only time will tell (in Las Vegas as of the year 2004) …
Disney-Alweg had (and has) to do with American enthusiasm. Americans adopted the Disney-Alweg monorail as one of the most important parts of Disneyland and Disneyworld. Millions of people each year ride the monorails there. The Internet, today’s best marketing poll instrument, shows with many webpages how popular Disney’s monorails are.
In “Old Europe” hardly anyone, especially the diehard monorail opponents, knows of this popularity (which also applies to that other Alweg classic, - Seattle’s popular full-scale 1962 World’s Fair Alweg monorail). The “Old World”, initial home of the Alweg Monorail, has totally slept through all those years that helped make monorail popular in America!