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Mumbai Monorail: The future is here

31st Jan 2014 6:56 pm

India's first futuristic monorail is set to launch in Mumbai later today. It runs on air and corners on rails.

Urbanisation, it’s all about packing things into tight, confined spaces. This means people, buildings, cars, bikes, trains and your neighbour’s dog all fight tooth and nail for the same bit of turf. That’s where the futuristic monorail comes in; it uses space no one but the crows and pigeons are interested in. Riding six and a half metres above the road on a 800mm-wide cement rail, the monorail bothers no one - at least in theory.

 
No more ticket checkers. Access to the station requires a token card.

The 20km long and approximately Rs 3,000 crore Mumbai Monorail project will be India’s first modern monorail. Once fully completed this year, it will be the second longest monorail corridor in the world, second only to the one in Osaka, Japan. When fully operational, the monorail is expected to cater to the needs of Mumbai’s bursting-at-the-seams population. Capable of handling 10,000 passengers an hour (per direction) the network will have 17 stations and one central hub. Implemented by the MMRDA (Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority) and a consortium that includes bridge maker Louis Berger, engineering company Larsen & Toubro and Malaysian monorail specialist SCOMI (for the train), the Monorail project is a complex, high-tech operation.

 
There are tyres on the side which keep it attached to the rail.

To put it simply, the monorail is a train that sits atop a single solid beam or rail. While there are numerous types of grasping systems, the SCOMI trains we will have in Mumbai are of the straddle type. A pair of large wheels fitted with aircraft-type tyres (Michelin run-flats) sit directly on top of the rail. The nitrogen-filled load tyres take all the weight, but they don’t carry the burden of keeping the train up there alone – that would be disastrous. Each set of wheels has its own set of octopus-like arms, with guide wheels attached, that clasp onto the sides of the rails and hold on for dear life. Like the Mercedes S-class, the suspension is pneumatic and the train rides an air cushion and shock absorbers help damp out any secondary vertical oscillations. The guide wheels have their own lateral suspension system, which prevents the train from swaying dangerously. Power for the monorail comes from electricity taken from the grid. Traction motors are connected to the axle through CV joint shafts and conductive ‘shoes’ on the carriages collect electricity from the wire lining across the guideway. Continued..

The monorail is huge by that yardstick; think of it as four commuter buses placed end to end. Each train has an overall length of 44.8 metres – not very long by train standards but big for a monorail. And it’s light too (at least by train standards) – each bogie weighs just 15 tonnes, so that’s a 60 tonne train that has to be held up by the supporting pillars.

 
The plyons and rails are made from a very high grade of concrete (M60). The pillars only use one square metre of road space. 
 
This particular train uses a monocoque superstructure mounted on a solid frame. The bogies and electric motors attach to the underside of the frame, while the passenger compartment sits on top. Each monorail car is manufactured by the SCOMI group in Malaysia and then imported here. To keep it light, the chassis has a lot of aluminium bits, with fibreglass panels used for further weight saving. Like an electric car, the monorail uses regenerative braking to save power and electricity. Unlike an electric car, the monorail has no battery pack, so power is returned to the grid, where it circulates in a loop till another train comes along and picks it up.
 
 
The driver has a panoramic view. The monorail can be driven in both directions.

To drive the monorail you need to slide into the driver’s seat and wait for your signal. The Vehicle Management System tells you your speed, the amount of electricity being sent to each car, what the brakes are doing, the air pressure in every tyre, and the status of the doors – all in real time. The doors, as on an aircraft, won’t open when the train is moving, so none of that hanging off trains business that Mumbai is notorious for.  Continued..

Once all the safety checks are done, getting the monorail to move is as is as simple as moving a lever forward. The lever works like a throttle on an aircraft and has two simple functions, forward for Drive and back for Brake. Like all trains, there’s also a Dead Man’s Switch, where the train’s emergency brakes are applied if pressure is not maintained on the controller.

 
Minimalistic cabin to allow commuters to enter and exit without any obstructions.

This is no luxury train, so the cabin is what you’d call minimalistic. While every coach is massive, it only has around 20 seats. This is to make sure the flow of people in and out is not hampered. Each car can take 142 commuters at an average of seven persons per square metre. Handrails and handgrips have been placed all around, within easy reach of all standing passengers. When it launches in a few days, this will also officially be Mumbai’s first air-conditioned local train! Yes, the monorail even comes with climate control.

 
It looks basic, but is surprisingly comprehensive and detailed.

To be honest, we were quite nervous about testing the monorail. Here was a piece of kit that looked straight out of sci-fi movie set, but we were told it would do only 30kph!  No, no, that just would not do. We asked the engineer, could this really be slower than a bullock cart? He smiled, and our test was on. So, V-box booted up, we hit the trigger. “Hold on to something,” shouts the driver. The monorail is well into its stride and accelerating fast. The treetops are already a blur. By train standards, the monorail is fast. It gets to 60kph in 23.35 seconds and 80kph in 41.51 seconds. It’s even faster than the 4,000hp diesel locomotive we tested some years back; that took 52.9 seconds to get to 80kph. On regular service, however, the monorail will unfortunately only do an average of 35kph, and that’s a shame, because at that speed even evolution will pass you by. Continued..

Much like a car, this train also comes with disc brakes for optimum stopping power. But when you pull the lever back initially all you get is regenerative braking. Like the Mahindra e2o, the train’s electric motor spins the other way and collects power rather than pushing it out. But pull back harder on the lever and disc brakes come into play. And, in case the regular brake fails, there are another set of emergency disc brakes that will kick in too.

 
The Mumbai Monorail will be open for general public commute from February 2, 2014
 
The monorail corners, of course, like it’s on rails. And it’s brilliant! Come up to a tight corner, and there are more than a few here, and your horizon tilts. The monorail banks at a six-degree angle and the corner is dispatched without slowing down. The feeling is incredible; like you're flying though the city, banking and weaving to avoid buildings and structures.  

For a train, it’s shockingly silent as well. The mechanical cacophony of steel wheels on a steel track amplified by a steel box is absent, and the ride is pretty good too.

 
The Monorail depot at Wadala, Mumbai is home to 15 trains.

Overall, monorails have a fantastic safety record, much better than many other forms of transport, so there isn’t cause for any alarm. The monorail is also all-electric, so, there’s no question of it being inefficient. To top it off, it has regenerative braking too. In fact, monorails contribute to a greener environment – the Las Vegas monorail supposedly helped remove an estimated 3.2 million vehicles from the road.

 
Look at those poor souls waiting in the traffic while we glide right over them.

Look at any illustration of a cityscape of the future and you are bound to see a monorail. Up there with flying cars and elevated glass walkways, the monorail is pure science fiction. It’s practical, efficient, green, fast and very comfortable to travel in. We’re so impressed, in fact, that some of us are seriously considering moving close to a monorail station. So, here’s to less traffic, more monorails and shorter commute times; boy oh boy, do we need that.

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