Seattle Monorail 50 Years

Alweg Seattle Chronology

Alweg Seattle Brochure

Alweg Seattle Future 1962

Alweg Seattle EMP

40 Years and Technology

Seattle Monorail Debacle

Monorail Memories

Alweg and the Baker Boys


40 Years Alweg Seattle


Technology Description


© Text Copyright Reinhard Krischer, March 2002
(Above photo showing one of the Seattle Alweg trains and the EMP courtesy of its photographer Lindsay Korst/Copyright Lindsay Korst.)

The name Alweg – originating from the first letters of its initiator’s and financier’s name Axel Lennart Wenner-Gren – sounds in German like “all Weg” which could literally be interpreted as “all way (or path)” insinuating that it can go anywhere. It is not known if this play on words was deliberate or coincidental. In any case some “experts” today still falsely spell the Alweg name with a double “l”. Axel L. Wenner-Gren’s big visions would certainly have wanted his monorail to go everywhere.

For me as a boy this Swedish multi-millionaire (in his time he was considered to be one of the richest men on earth) always looked on the photos that I had seen of him like a benevolent uncle. Indeed thanks to his Alweg monorail project my father had at last found a good job after difficult post war years. It had however meant leaving the beautiful Lake of Constance country and moving to the Rhineland metropolis Cologne. (At least the River Rhine was still with us, for after leaving Switzerland where it has its source, it flows through the Lake of Constance.)

From our apartment near Friedrichshafen (on Lake Constance/hometown of the Zeppelin and the Dornier aircraft company) we had been able to look over to the 2502 meter high Mt. Säntis in Switzerland. From our apartment in the center of Cologne we looked through ruins of WWII over to the German Federal Railways mainline.

Alweg in those days of the 1950s was a very futuristic project. It was created to revolutionize transportation industry, in particular of course the conventional two-rail-railway.

It was quite exciting to have a father who worked on this project, even if he did not talk much about it. As one of the former wartime Dornier aircraft engineers, who together with engineers from other famous German aircraft companies formed the backbone of the Alweg engineering team, he was still used to keeping quiet about his work.

So much the greater was then the adventure of visiting the Alweg test facility in Cologne-Fühlingen and to be able to ride the first full-scale test train as a boy.

My father was very often in Salzgitter at the big Linke-Hofmann-Busch car and locomotive builder plant where the full-scale Alweg trains were actually built. Sixten Holmquist, Wenner-Gren’s man in the USA, visited this plant when the Alweg train for Turin (1961) was built there. The Seattle project was slowly taking shape then and Holmquist chose the engineers for Wenner-Gren’s American Wegematic Corporation responsible for the Seattle project. My father got the chance to join the “American Alweg team”.

Axel L. Wenner-Gren died in 1961, but Alweg Cologne and Wegematic New York continued with their monorail work.

Things at Alweg Cologne were not looking too good. The City of Cologne did not even grant Alweg the chance to build an Alweg monorail line at no cost to the city, - as Wenner-Gren had proposed. For test purposes there would have been enough new lines possible, such as an airport line, connecting lines with newly built suburbs or industrial areas. But the City of Cologne’s administrators remained stubborn, preferring even not to build a line out to the airport and to opt for the expensive extensions of streetcar lines to the new suburbs.

Alweg’s future was definitely not to be found in the “Old World”.

So the offer to got to America promised a much brighter future.

Work on the Seattle project proceeded in the Wegematic offices on New York’s Madison Avenue. The two trains were built by LHB in Salzgitter. Wegematic also opened an office in Seattle’s “Orpheum Building”, strategically located to offer views of the Fifth Avenue section of the monorail line and of the photogenic curve leading to the Westlake Mall downtown Alweg station.

By the time the two trains arrived in Seattle the entire American Alweg team was working in the Seattle office.

The trains needed to be tested. Drivers had to be trained. All this was done by the German engineers assisted by a number of locally hired engineers and mechanics (ably supported by a locally hired office administrator and manager who kept the office running smoothly). This team was further assisted by local representatives of those American firms that had contributed components for the trains, - like Westinghouse and General Electric.

No one counted the hours of overtime. Very often the engineers and mechanics worked day and night, going without sleep, solving all sorts of unexpected technical snags that are inherent in such new and unique projects. They worked with the same spirit and dedication that had produced such quick and successful results on the Alweg test site in Cologne-Fühlingen. The “Center Maintenance” on the World’s Fair site (underneath the Fairgrounds station) became their home away from home.

They worked in the hope that now Alweg had its big chance to show its stuff! This was the chance to make Wenner-Gren’s vision of a transportation revolution come true.

On March 24, 1962, the Blue Train opened Seattle Alweg’s public service. On April 21, 1962, the World’s Fair with the motto “Century 21” was opened and the Blue Train and the Red Train carried the first of 7,378,815 World’s Fair monorail passengers.

The families of the German engineers moved from the “Old World” to Seattle. (From our apartment in Seattle we then had a for us unbelievable and unforgettable view across downtown over to beautiful 4392 meters high Mt. Rainier.)

The Alweg story ended on a sad and bitter note in 1967, but the Seattle experience remains as an Alweg and a personal highlight. Till today good friends from those days remain who made us quickly feel at home in the American Pacific Northwest! Sadly we had to move on in 1966 …

When I started work on this ALWEG ARCHIVES website I wished to save the history of the Alweg Monorail in memory of my father. But it soon turned out to be much more (including research about colourful Axel L. Wenner-Gren and about his Alwac computer venture).

Even though it may sound weird I have this fixed impression in my mind that the straight monorail beamway running along Seattle’s Fifth Avenue is a straight line that runs in one direction only. Maybe the term “monorail” has added to this impression because “mono” means “one” and that in my mind cannot possibly mean bi-directional. But the amazing thing is: the Monorail can go both ways.

It means that from wherever one has travelled with it one can return to where one started out from. The Seattle Monorail line is today only .9 miles long, but its story is a lot longer!

It was built for Century 21, but took 38 years to get there. If John Glenn, who rode the Monorail in 1962, had travelled for 38 years in his space capsule, where would he have landed?

Did the founders of Microsoft ride the Monorail as kids in 1962? Did they sit in front of the educational training computers in the Science Pavilion in 1962? Did they feel the spirit of Century 21?

One of them created the EMP and so allowed the Monorail to travel in style into the actual Century 21 for which it was built.

My father’s one big wish had been to live to see the year 2000. He passed away early in March 2000. In my last conversation with him I was able to tell him about Alweg’s passage through the Frank Gehry designed EMP. I told him that he could be proud of his Alweg achievement. He did not want to admit it. After stubborn persuasion he finally managed a quiet: “Yes!”

The actual Alweg story lasted from 1951 to 1967. Yet in Seattle it continues. In its entirety – and when comparing the refusal of Cologne’s city administration to build an Alweg line with today’s struggle of the Seattle initiatives for a monorail system – the Alweg history suddenly appears like a parable that (in my opinion) helps to illustrate how political bureaucracy and commercial interests can prevent civil progress …

© Text Copyright Reinhard Krischer, March 2002


Photo of Alweg and the EMP also courtesy of Lindsay Korst - Copyright Lindsay Korst

Technical Description of the

Seattle ALWEG line

The following letter - with kind permission of Mr. Glenn Barney, former General Manager of Seattle Monorail Services, to include it here - is entered in the public domain and files of the Seattle Landmark Preservation Board. (A note from Reinhard Krischer: This letter represents the best technical description of the Seattle Alweg system available today.) 

From: Glenn Barney

March 17, 2003

To: Beth Chave, Coordinator
Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board
Department of Neighborhoods
4th Floor, The Arctic Building
700 - 3rd Avenue
Seattle, WA 98104

RE: Landmark nomination of the Seattle-ALWEG Monorail System

Beth Chave and Members of the Seattle Landmark Preservation Board,

I was in attendance at your March 3rd board meeting, where the Seattle-ALWEG monorail system was nominated for Landmark status.  As you consider Landmark
designation of the Seattle-ALWEG monorail system, I would like to provide
the following comments that I believe you will find relevant to your
decision.  I would like to begin by providing my experience and
qualifications with the Seattle-ALWEG monorail system, followed by my
comments on the historical significance of the ALWEG company, and then of
the Seattle-ALWEG monorail system.  I will conclude with my thoughts on why,
and how, the Seattle-ALWEG monorail system should be preserved.

I am currently the General Manager of Seattle Monorail Services, the
organization that has operated and maintained the Seattle-ALWEG monorail
system, under terms of a Concession Agreement with the City of Seattle,
since 1994.  I am also a retired Air Force officer, and a native of the
Pacific Northwest. As a youth, I can remember riding the Seattle-ALWEG
monorail and being completely fascinated with it.  In my career with the Air
Force I served as both an aircraft maintenance officer and a logistics
officer.  Following my retirement in 1998, I returned to the Pacific
Northwest where I joined Seattle Monorail Services as the Maintenance
Manager.  In 2001 I became the General Manager, although I continue to
perform the Maintenance Manager's functions as well.  Some consider me an
expert in monorail systems.  Based on my experience with the Seattle-ALWEG
system, I was invited to Kuala Lumpur by Monorail Malaysia to review
progress on their monorail system testing and provide technical assistance.

During my tenure with Seattle Monorail Services, I found my previous
experience in both aircraft maintenance and logistics management enabled me
to develop an understanding and appreciation of the numerous unique and
outstanding features of the Seattle-ALWEG monorail system design.  I have
had access to, and have studied at length, the engineering drawings of the
train structures and systems, and the architectural drawings of the guideway
beams and piers, and the station structures.  I have also spent time
researching the history of the ALWEG company, and compared the ALWEG designs
to those of current monorail system manufacturers.  My comments represent my
personal position alone, and do not necessarily represent the positions of
either Seattle Monorail Services, or the Seattle Center.

The ALWEG Company occupies a significant position in the development of
modern monorail technology. The company was founded in 1952, in post WWII
Germany, by Dr. Axel Lennert Wenner-Gren.  His initials form the ALWEG name
and he was the company's primary financier and promoter.  The ALWEG Company
pioneered the straddle-beam monorail concept, developing, testing and
refining the design throughout the 1950s.  By the late 1950s, ALWEG began to
market the system as an economically viable option for urban mass transit.
In 1959, ALWEG produced a 5/8-scale model of their transit system for
Disneyland in Anaheim, California.  In 1960, ALWEG entered into an agreement
with Hitachi to share its technology for the manufacture of monorail train
systems in Japan. Thus all full-scale monorail systems in production today
can trace their design origins to the ALWEG designs of the late 1950s.

In 1962 ALWEG produced a new monorail for the Seattle Worlds Fair, featuring
a new and radically advanced bogey design.  The bogey is the assembly that
the wheels mount to, and it supports the train on the beam.  This new bogey
design provided independent suspension for each load wheel and guide wheel
axle, and articulation of the bogey assembly.  The independent suspension
feature reduced the un-sprung weight of the bogey to provide improved ride
performance without the requirement and expense of machining perfectly
smooth beam surfaces.  Articulation is the ability of the bogey assembly to
caster freely under the car body, allowing the guide tires to "steer" the
bogey through the curves of the guide-way, keeping the load carrying tires
in perfect alignment with the guide-way's direction of travel.

The earlier ALWEG design that was provided to Hitachi in 1960 did not
incorporate these features, and they were not incorporated in the monorail
trains produced by Hitachi during the 1960s.  By 1970 Hitachi did produce
its own articulating bogie design, but has never incorporated the
independent suspension feature of the 1962 Seattle ALWEG design.  Another
manufacturer, Bombardier, which is currently supplying the monorail system
for Las Vegas, NV, traces its monorail design back to the 5/8-scale model
system that ALWEG supplied to Disneyland in 1959.  However, Bombardier still
has not produced a true articulating bogie design.  The monorail system
currently under development in Malaysia incorporates a bogie system based on
the 1962 ALWEG design, however this monorail has not yet completed testing
or entered service.  The net result is that, even after 41 years in service,
the Seattle ALWEG monorail trains still feature the most technologically
advanced monorail bogey design operating anywhere in the world today.

The second significant technical design feature of the Seattle ALWEG
monorail trains is their low weight and high load carrying capacity.  Unlike
conventional rail vehicles, weight is not a positive attribute in monorail
vehicle design.  Excess weight exacts a heavy toll on monorail system cost
and performance, very similar to that experienced in aircraft design.  The
empty weight of a complete four-car Seattle ALWEG monorail train is only
93,400 lbs., yet it will carry 70,080 lbs. in passenger load.  This
passenger load represents 75% of the empty weight of the train, a ratio that
is an important measure of the design's structural efficiency.  Compare this
ratio with that of automobiles, which typically carry about 30% of their
weight in passengers and cargo.  Here again, the Hitachi and Bombardier
monorail designs have not equaled or even approached ALWEG's achievement in
load carrying to empty weight ratio.  Their designs achieve ratios between
50% and 60%, with some even lower.  The excess weight of the Hitachi and
Bombardier designs manifests itself in different ways.  For Hitachi the
weight resulted in the use of a dual-axle-four-tire bogey, compared to the
Seattle-ALWEG's single-axle-dual-tire bogey design.  For Bombardier the
weight resulted in long, narrow trains, with limited passenger capacity.  As
advanced as the Seattle monorail train design was, other components of the
system had unique features.

The Seattle-ALWEG guide-way beams are also unique in their design. The light
weight of the Seattle-ALWEG monorail train design allowed the use of hollow,
light weight beams for the guide-way.  The casting of these hollow guide-way
beams was another example of a technology pioneered by ALWEG.  The casting
process is featured on the web site No current monorail system
manufacturer has been able to incorporate this feature into its beam design.

The Seattle-ALWEG monorail guide-way beams are supported on piers that
feature a design based on mass rather than high-strength materials.  The
construction drawings for these piers specified the use of relatively low
strength 3,750psi concrete and 10,000ksi steel reinforcing bar. These
materials are only slightly stronger than what is commonly used in house
foundations.  Yet, the wisdom of this design strategy has proven itself
through 41 years service.  The piers have survived several major
earthquakes, collisions from vehicles including heavy busses and trucks, and
the ravages of time and the environment without failures and with minimal or
no maintenance.

Of the two passenger stations that were part of the original Seattle-ALWEG
system, only the northern Seattle Center station survives today.  The
original southern Westlake station was demolished in 1986 to facilitate
construction of new projects.  Because the Seattle-ALWEG system featured
only two stations, each station was by definition a terminus where all
passengers onboard a train would exit, and the train would be completely
reloaded with new passengers for the return trip.  With two trains
operating, each on a ten-minute headway from each station, and each train
capable of carrying 450 passengers, each station had a required throughput
capacity of 10,000 passengers per hour. Thus the significant feature of the
Seattle Center station is not seen in the architectural design, or the
styling, but in the functional ability of its design to facilitate the
movement of 10,000 train passengers per hour, and to do it without expensive
or elaborate moving parts such as gates or other barriers, and with a
minimum staffing requirement.

The Seattle-ALWEG monorail system is not just an amusement park ride left
over from the '62 World's Fair.  It is much more than just two old trains or
a series of individual artifacts where the historical significance of each
can be evaluated in isolation.  It is a fully functioning system that
includes the two trains, the guide-ways, the stations, and numerous smaller
sub-components, that were all designed to work together.  The components
have worked together for 41 years.  If any one sub-component is removed from
the system, the entire system ceases to operate.

While I understand that you do not evaluate future use of a landmark, much
of the historical value, as well as the utilitarian value, of the monorail
system is realized through its operation.  Continued operation requires all
of the system's sub-components, even if some of the individual
sub-components do not meet the necessary criteria for landmark status when
considered in isolation.

After 41 years of service, the Seattle ALWEG monorail system remains in good
operating condition and has many more years of useful life.  During the last
three years, the Seattle Center has administered nearly $2,000,000 in FTA
grant-funded projects to verify the structural integrity of the ALWEG
trains, and to perform refurbishment work.  The underlying written
justification for all of these federally funded projects has been the
extension of the useful life of the system by at least ten years.  These
projects have indeed verified the structural integrity of the trains,
including some of the previous structural repair work.  The projects have
replaced interior finishing materials to restore the appearance of the
trains, and improved the reliability of their mechanical operating systems.

The operating systems on the trains are more than 85 percent complete, and
operating as they were originally designed.  Original system suppliers,
companies such as General Electric, Westinghouse Air Brake, and
Rockwell/Meritor, all have technical representatives that regularly visit
the property to provide the technical assistance and parts support necessary
to keep the systems in top operating condition.  With this level of support
from the equipment suppliers, and an effective routine maintenance program,
these original ALWEG trains can continue to operate for many years.

The ALWEG company occupies a significant place in the development history
of modern monorail technology.  All full-scale straddle-beam type monorail
systems in production today can trace their design origins to the ALWEG
designs of the late 1950s.  The Seattle-ALWEG monorail is the last and most
technically advanced design produced by ALWEG, and the only remaining
operational example of ALWEG's work.  The Seattle-ALWEG monorail system is
recognized world-wide by monorail enthusiasts, by public transit industry
professionals, and by tourist and residents alike, as an icon of Seattle.
As an operating system, the public can experience the historic sights,
sounds, and motion of a train ride for the nominal cost of a ticket.  If the
trains are removed from service and placed in a museum, they become static
display artifacts.  The opportunity to experience them in operation will be
lost forever.

After fully considering all the information available, I am confident the
Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board will conclude that the Seattle
ALWEG-monorail system meets the criteria for Landmark Designation.  I
encourage you to designate the entire system, recognizing that its historic
value, as a complete and functional entity, enhances the value of any of the
individual components.  I also ask the Board to express its resolve to
protect the system in the future by preventing changes that would degrade or
prevent its continued operation.  The citizens of Seattle, and our many
visiting tourists, deserve to have this Seattle icon protected and preserved
as an operating piece of history.

I want to thank all of you for this opportunity to provide comment as you
prepare to make your decision. If I can provide further information, or
assist in any way, please do not hesitate to contact me. I can be reached at ...

Best Regards,

Glenn Barney


Text und Illustrationen (falls nicht anders vermerkt)
Text and Illustrations (unless otherwise noted)
von / by Reinhard Krischer
Reinhard Krischer
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