Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo monorail tested urban transportation system for new era

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The current monorail, which has been in operation since 2001

By Rie Hayashi / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Despite its popularity among visiting children, operations of the monorail at Ueno Zoo will be suspended in November this year, as its cars and facilities are getting old.

How did the monorail, said to be the nation’s oldest, come to be at the zoo in the first place?

Ueno Zoo consists of the East Garden, which has the main gate, and the West Garden. Pandas are exhibited in the East Garden, while the Shinobazunoike pond is located in the West Garden, where visitors can see giraffes and penguins.

Separated by a public road, the two gardens are linked by the monorail, which has a 330-meter track and can transport passengers between the gardens in only about 90 seconds.

Different animals are drawn on the monorail cars, and its seats are painted in a variety of colors.

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  • Courtesy of Bureau of Transportation of Tokyo metropolitan government

    The first monorail in Ueno Zoo, which was operated from 1957 to 1966

Passengers can see the Shinobazunoike pond through the large windows. At a fare of ¥150 for an adult, I could enjoy the extraordinary feeling of “walking in the sky.”

According to the Tokyo metropolitan government, about 1.1 million passengers use the monorail annually. There is a bridge over which visitors can come and go between the two gardens in less than 10 minutes, but the number of monorail passengers reveals that one in four visitors to the zoo take the monorail.

I thought the monorail was just an attraction. However, Takashi Sugino, 51, a zoo official in charge of public relations, said, “It’s an authentic public transportation facility.”

The monorail’s official Japanese name is the Ueno Kensui Line. Ueno Zoo is run by the Tokyo Zoological Park Society, while the monorail is operated by the Bureau of Transportation of the Tokyo metropolitan government. Former drivers of Toei subway lines who have abundant experience operate the monorail.

According to the bureau, the monorail opened in December 1957 as an experimental line for developing a future urban public transportation system.

In the 1950s, the key means of public transportation in metropolitan areas was the streetcar. However, it became difficult to operate streetcars on time due to the increase in the number of automobiles. To address the situation, the Tokyo metropolitan government began considering subways and monorails as substitutes.

At that time, monorails were “new-age vehicles” operated only in West Germany. Ueno Zoo was selected as a venue for a feasibility test of a monorail because it satisfied necessary conditions such as having different levels of heights and being able to accommodate curved tracks.

The request to build a test line was accepted by the zoo.

Originally, Ueno Zoo had just the current East Garden. It began expanding in 1949 and constructed the West Garden across a public road. However, since there was no bridge to connect the two gardens, visitors had to cross the busy road and climb up and down long stairs to come and go between them.

According to a document titled “100 years of Ueno Zoo,” the monorail became popular after its opening as a vehicle intended for amusement and entertainment, thanks to the scenic view it offered of the entire Shinobazunoike pond.

Dai Toratani, 58, a section chief responsible for the operation of the monorail at the Bureau of Transportation, took his first monorail ride with his family when he was a little child, and still has clear memories of the experience.

“The silver body with blue lines looked cool, like an aircraft. It was like a vehicle of the future,” he said.

However, the construction of subways was ultimately prioritized as a future urban transportation system because massive transport capacity was needed to respond to a rapid population increase. Starting with the opening of the current Toei Asakusa subway line (from Oshiage Station to Asakusabashi Station) in 1960, subway lines were increasingly extended.

In contrast, monorails like that at Ueno Zoo were not adopted. Also, due to financial difficulties facing the Tokyo metropolitan government and the ageing of the facility, a report recommending its abolishment was submitted in November 1980, saying that its mission as an experimental vehicle had been achieved. However, it was decided to keep the monorail alive due to opposition from users.

New cars were constructed with a subsidy from the Japan lottery association. The current cars are the fourth edition and have been used since 2001. With their renewal term expiring, the metropolitan government decided to suspend operations in November.

However, they are the only cars of their kind in the nation, and it takes about three years to construct them at a cost of about ¥1.8 billion for two cars. The metropolitan government has therefore begun discussing whether to keep or abolish the monorail. Which decision will it make?Speech

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