In 1967, the Conservative Party published a document calling for the scrapping of buses in central London – and replacing them with a huge Monorail network.
The move was far fetched, but based on some very real concerns. Since the early 1950s, bus usage had declined as commuters switched to the motor car, and this was causing congestion problems in the centre of London.
As the report noted, London needed a better bus network, but also more space for motorists. Save some schemes to put a motorway through the middle of London, realistically, there was no more road to provide, and yet congestion continued to increase.
The scheme proposed by Brian Waters, and endorsed by Desmond Plummer, Leader of the Conservative Opposition at the GLC, was to get rid of buses entirely.
This would free up considerable road space for motorists — but what to do with the displaced public transport users?
A series of Monorails was planned which would have run above the streets of London, in four loops which interconnected with each other.
In a way, this was a precursor to the Docklands Light Railway, but being a monorail meant that far less rail infrastructure would be above the heads of pedestrians, so that pavements wouldn’t feel gloomy.
The proposals called for the use of the electric SAFEGE system, with short trains running at around 40mph on rubber wheels — fast enough to be convenient, and quiet enough to avoid steel-on-steel screeches.
As with the Underground, passengers would use escalators to get up to the platforms, which were expected to be built alongside shops, who were then likely to be keen on opening 1st floor entrances to their stores.
Again, mirroring the later DLR, each platform would have been around 100 feet long, for 2 or 3 carriage monorail trains, and as we now have on the Jubilee line, there would have been platform edge doors to stop people falling down to the road below.
The monorail was expected to be driverless, and thus able to feed extra trains into the network when unexpected demand required it.
In terms of the monorail supports, these upright columns were to be spaced at 100 metre intervals, and with a width no wider than a current traffic island should not have been an impediment to road traffic.
It was expected that construction would take about 2 years for each of the four loops, which amounted to 43 miles of monorail network.
The cost was put at £53 million (vs the £65 million Victoria Line being built at the time). A future expansion to the Barbican was also envisioned.
Rather delightfully, the report said that if built, then “Bus diesel fumes and noise, so much a part of the London street scene, will be replaced by the gentle ‘woosh’ of the monorail passing over the street”.
Sadly, the gentle wooshing was not to come into being. Although the Conservative’s won election later that year, their majority shrank in following years, and the necessary political will, even if funds were available, faded away.
Today we still use buses, in volumes that can be scarce imagined — they carry twice as many passengers per day than the London Underground.
How much more interesting would London have been with a network of monorails?
Get our cities moving, Brian Waters, Conservative Political Centre
Addendum: Brian Waters is still active in town planning, and in 2013 proposed extending Crossrail to Stanstead, creating a direct rail link with Heathrow.
Article last updated on May 13th, 2020 at 08:13 pm