Saveitforparts.com is finally putting itself on the map, with the purchase of a genuine, bona fide, electrified, six-car monorail!
That’s right, I’ve bought an entire six-car monorail train from the Minnesota Zoo. The zoo’s elevated monorail system was retired in 2013 after 34 years of service, with the state-owned agency seeking to dispose of the equipment. As a lifelong train enthusiast with ongoing railroad history and model railroading projects, I couldn’t resist the chance to preserve a piece of local history!
While it would be awesome to construct a track and actually run the monorail, my resources are more suited to a static use of the cars. My initial plan is to park them on a rural property and use them as weekend cabins, as each car is similar to a small camper or RV in size. Interestingly, some of the Twin Cities’ TCRT trolley cars were used the same way after their retirement (sadly, most were scrapped or burned).
Below is one potential layout I came up with for a single middle car, leaving as much of the original body intact as possible (the seats are molded into the fiberglass inner shell). As the cars already have lights, heating vents, and multiple doors, it should be relatively simple to retrofit them for such a use without much alteration. I have some ideas for using multiple cars as well, the final layout will be exciting to develop!
Below are some close-ups of what the cars look like inside and out:
I’ve also been doing quite a bit of research into the history of these monorail trains. While it’s certainly a very niche field of study, I’ve collected a few details that might be of interest to other monorail enthusiasts.
Monorail switch and maintenance building, courtesy of Dakota County GIS.
The Minnesota Zoo’s Monorail was built in the late 1970s by Universal Mobility Inc (UMI), and is a “Unimobil Tourister” model. It began running in September of 1979 at the new Minnesota Zoological Garden (opened May 1978). The Minnesota legislature authorized the monorail with the provision that it be self-financing, separate from the zoo. A nonprofit corporation, Minnesota Zoo Ride Inc, was incorporated in 1976 to finance the accepted construction bid from UMI. The system included 3 trains, an oblong loop of track, an enclosed maintenance shop, single switch, and indoor & outdoor sidings for storage and maintenance.
Minnesota Zoo monorail car barn. Photo by Gabe Emerson
Based in Salt Lake City, Universal Mobility designed and installed several similar monorail systems in the United States. One other Tourister of nearly identical design was installed at the 1984 World’s Fair, then moved to the Miami zoo where it still operates. Updated Tourister II models operated at King’s Dominion, King’s Island, and Carowinds amusement parks, while older, open-car versions operated at various amusement parks and are still used at Hersheypark in Pennsylvania. Another Unimobil system reportedly operated at Fuji Highlands in Japan. Several proposals were floated to install UMI monorails in metropolitan areas for public transit, but none were funded.
The fiberglass car bodies were produced by Intermountain Design, who still manufactures monorail, people mover, and aerial tramway cars for various users. The mechanical drives and control systems were supplied by Maschinenfabrik Habegger of Switzerland. This company was tied to Von Roll Holding Co (designer of the Sydney Monorail among others). Both companies also designed ski lifts and aerial cable tramways (The Skyride at the Minnesota State Fair is a Von Roll system). Bombardier / TGI later acquired many of the UMI and Von Roll patents and produced another very similar monorail, known as the UM series. Von Roll / Habegger also marketed a very small monorail for use on farms and vineyards.
1970s concept drawing of zoo and monorail (note maintenance spur and car barn at lower right)
The Minnesota Zoo monorail ran into trouble almost immediately after installation, as ridership was not as high as predicted. The legislature refused to pay the full installments to investors, covering only what the ride actually made in fares. Shareholders (including various local and national banks) sued to demand the full loan amount in 1980. The state supreme court sided with the legislature and attorney general, saying that the state had no obligation to pay if the legislature chose not to.
The state was again sued, this time accused of securities fraud. Court cases dragged on through the early 1980s, involving investors, insurance companies, and various state agencies. The monorail remained operating, with profits covering only a fraction of the installments. Fares in 1980 were $1 for adults and 50 cents for seniors and children.
In September of 1985 the monorail system was repossessed, then sold back to the Minnesota Zoological Foundation with help from private donors and new loans. The monorail continued to report little or no profit, despite fares climbing to around $5 per person in recent years.
Monorail control cab, photo by Gabe Emerson
These ongoing money problems may show why monorails never gained much of a foothold in the US, despite the optimistic press of the 1970s. The energy crisis briefly brought a renewed flirtation with public transit (as well as other energy-efficient projects and proposals in Minnesota and elsewhere). Proposals for installing UMI monorails (or related people-movers) included downtown Saint Paul, Los Angeles, and other cities. Concept drawings for some of these installations can be found in several 1970s government studies.
Concept art for proposed St. Paul People Mover, courtesy Metro Transit via MNHS
A proposal for downtown Saint Paul imagined a monorail or people mover running through the former Selby streetcar tunnel, as well as a section of subway with station at the State Capitol.
Other cities considering monorails looked closely at the Minnesota Zoo as a test case. The zoo’s system was one of the first all-weather monorails installed in the US, and underwent extensive winter testing to prove it could function in northern cities. This monorail was one of the few with onboard cabin heaters, others had only A/C. A custom snowplow was fabricated for the train, mounted to one of the lead cars. Later a small street-sweeper device was built, and made to look like a miniature version of the monorail.
Winter operation studies found that the elevated track did well at preventing snow buildup, but sometimes iced over and impeded traction. The power rails were located under a lip at the track edge, which helped keep them dry, but there were occasional issues with ice and thermal expansion.
Hard specifications for this monorail are difficult to nail down, each document I’ve found lists a slightly different weight, speed, and capacity for this system. As best I can determine, each of the three trains could carry 96 passengers seated, or 120 with some standees. Trains were 100ft long and consisting of 6 cars. Wheel bogies were shared between cars, with a total of 7 per train (normally 4 powered and 3 idler bogies). The motors developed about 300hp at peak output, for a theoretical top speed of about 35mph. Normal cruising speed was around 3-4 mph and operations at the MN zoo were limited to a 7.5mph top speed. The main track included a 6,628ft loop and a 358f long maintenance spur. A moving switch connected the spur and loop, and a lateral transfer beam allowed switching between tracks at the maintenance building. Approximately 1,000ft of guideway made up the lateral beam and service rails at the maintenance shop (some of the outside sidings were removed). About 730ft of guideway was at-grade, the rest elevated on steel columns.
The drive system consists of rubber tires driven by 480v DC motors, with side-facing guide wheels riding the outsides of the track. Power and control signals were picked up from electrified rails under the lips of the track. Braking was dynamic, with emergency and holding brakes. The system was supposedly very quiet (“…as softly as a cloud”), although the AC compressors for summer use could be noisy.
The system was designed to be fully automated, controlled by an analog computer. Cars could be timed and spaced automatically, with multiple trains slowed or stopped as needed to avoid collisions. Human drivers could override the system, and also manned a microphone to narrate the ride and identify animals along the route.
I am looking forward to preserving one of these very interesting trains, and creating a unique and historic vacation cabin! And who knows, maybe someday, or somehow, I can get some track laid down!
For additional information on this and other monorail systems, check out the links below:
UMI Downtown People Mover Winterization Test (1982 report including details specific to the MN monorail).
The Monorail Society (general information, technical data, and monorail history)
Minnesota Zoo history & timeline
1888 South Saint Paul monorail (overhead track)
Star Tribune article on this monorail
Wired article on this monorail