Cities are often faced with having to make important choices as to the type of public transportation they consider most suitable for fulfilling the needs of their users. Although the decisions made have usually been in response to problems of urban expansion and increases in traffic congestion, the technology adopted—whether it be in the form of rail, light rail, monorail, or buses—varies for each case and often, especially with regard to larger cities, involves the use of a multimodal transport system, that is, one using different types of technology. [1]

Winnipeg during the mayorship of Stephen Juba (1957-1977) was a city that was faced with this type of decision. As with many North American urban centres of the time, the city was in the process of modernizing the physical aspect and contours of its urban core, but was also attempting, in the face of increasing traffic congestion, to find a solution for creating a more efficient and rapid means of public transportation. The monorail, which had undergone a process of improvement during the 1950s and 1960s, appeared to offer the Juba government of the early and mid-1970s a potential solution to these problems.

This article analyzes the Winnipeg monorail proposal within the more general context of monorail and urban transit development in North America. In assessing the reasons for the project’s ultimate collapse, I argue that, in addition to the high costs involved in the initial investment and maintenance of a monorail system, there were also concerns regarding the drawbacks of monorails from both technical and operational standpoints, and their suitability for a city such as Winnipeg. A bus-based system, the backbone of which would be a bus rapid transit (BRT) network, offered not only a more affordable option but also a more flexible one in terms of route designation and user demands.

Steve Juba shows off his office in the newly constructed City Hall.
Steve Juba shows off his office in the newly constructed City Hall, 6 October 1964.
Source: University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, Winnipeg Tribune, Collection 18-10245-006

Origins of the proposal

During the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, Winnipeg followed a pattern of transit development similar to that of other North American cities. Horse-drawn streetcars of the Winnipeg Street Railway (WSR) Company, founded by Toronto businessman Albert William Austin, began service in 1882. The wideness of the streets and thoroughfares, particularly Main Street and Portage Avenue (40 m in each case), as well as the region’s flat topography, made the city suitable for streetcar operations, a characteristic which would also become relevant during the later debate concerning the construction of a monorail system. [2]

A decade later (1892), the Winnipeg Electric Street Railway (WESR) company inaugurated electric-powered cars; as a result, in 1894, Austin sold his assets to the former and ceased operations. Streetcars helped to develop the city’s suburbs; interurban lines extended west to the villages of Charleswood and Headingley, north to the town of Selkirk (with a separate branch line from Middlechurch to Stony Mountain and Stonewall), and south to St. Norbert. By 1925, 340 cars carried approximately 60 million riders annually. [3]

Gasoline-powered buses made their debut in 1918 and, in the following decades, competed with the electric rail lines for customers. In late 1938, trolley buses (rubber-tired buses running off overhead electrical power lines) began operating on certain routes. In the meantime, the streetcar service was deteriorating. During the Great Depression and the Second World War, neither cars nor tracks had been adequately maintained; in addition, many North American cities were switching to diesel buses. Increasing traffic congestion also played a role since the streetcars occupied space in the central portion (or median) of the avenues on which they operated. As a result, the Greater Winnipeg Transit Commission, established in 1953, decided to purchase new diesel buses and discontinue the streetcar system. Streetcar service ceased operations in September 1955. [4]

Trolley buses, which had supplanted streetcars on several routes, operated for a number of years afterwards before being retired from service. The Transit Department of the Metropolitan Corporation of Greater Winnipeg (Metro Winnipeg), established in 1960, decided to gradually replace the trolley buses with diesel buses. Plans were also underway for renovating the city core area and the maze of overhead trolley lines was considered by some people to be an eyesore. Streetcars, as well as trolley buses, with their overhead cable feeders, were considered to be less flexible for routing purposes than diesel buses. Maintenance of trolley coach units was also becoming a factor as equipment aged, since manufacturers, due to the decline in demand, were no longer making components or had already gone out of business. Moreover, as the number of coaches in operation declined, the cost-per-coach increased, in part because Metro Winnipeg purchased power from Winnipeg Hydro on a flat rate basis, that is, the yearly power cost remained the same, independent of the number of coaches actually in operation. By the end of October 1970, the last of the trolley buses had been withdrawn from service, leaving the city with an exclusively diesel bus transit system. [5]

Such was the situation when the populist Mayor Stephen Juba attempted to initiate another major change in the city’s transportation system. The Juba administration had already achieved a number of impressive public works: the Disraeli Bridge and Expressway (1959), the new City Hall (1964), Public Safety Building (1965), and the Centennial Centre (Museum, Planetarium and Concert Hall, 1968). Winnipeg had also hosted the 1967 Pan-American Games, which not only helped promote the city as a site for future events but also left it with a number of new sports facilities. [6] The period was also notable in terms of municipal structural changes. The mayor played an important role in abolishing Metro Winnipeg and, in 1972, amalgamating the city into a single entity, the Unified City of Winnipeg (Unicity). Juba opposed the idea of having the Mayor elected from Council and argued for direct election, a view that won public support. It also played a part in Juba’s triumph in the mayoral elections of 1971 and 1974 and consolidated his power as a political leader. [7]

To Juba, the time appeared propitious for directing his attention to improving the city’s transit. Like other North American cities in the 1960s and 1970s, Winnipeg had begun to feel frustration in its failure to cope with the steady increases in vehicular traffic and transit problems in general. In keeping with his penchant for introducing modern, avant-garde ideas for the city’s development, [8] Juba became interested in the possibilities of a monorail system for enabling Winnipeggers to criss-cross the city quickly without having to rely on either automobiles or slow-moving buses. [9]

Bus transit in Winnipeg, as in most of Canada and the U.S., was the most common form of urban public transportation. Users, however, often complained that they were slow, crowded and unsafe. A rail project, therefore, was an important element in boosterism. Urban rail systems, in helping to attract business, tourists and conventions to cities, put them, as the urban planning specialist Alan Black has expressed it, in the “big-league, like a major league sports team or a domed stadium”. [10] Monorails had the additional advantage over conventional rail systems of appearing futuristic. [11]

The monorail plan was not the first rapid transit rail system proposed for the city. In 1959, Norman D. Wilson, the Toronto civil engineer, recommended that Winnipeg construct a subway system for the inner city area. Based on his experience in Toronto, Wilson argued that construction costs for expressways and subway lines did not differ significantly. He also asserted that the latter were less intrusive on city centres and less disruptive for the neighbourhoods affected by the routes; they would also shield users from the cold weather in winter cities. The plan was rejected, however, owing to the high initial investment costs involved, as well as fears of seepage from the Red and Assiniboine rivers that intersect at the Forks. [12]

A few years later, in January 1962, Winnipeg Metro transit director D. I. MacDonald, inspired by the World’s Fair monorail which was due to be inaugurated that year in Seattle, did not believe Winnipeg to be large enough to support a subway. Instead, he recommended that the Seattle monorail be examined to see if it could be adapted to Winnipeg, with lines built along the medians of Portage Avenue and Main Street. Although having a smaller capacity than a subway, MacDonald believed that, at approximately $4.2 million a mile compared with between $15 and $20 million a mile for a subway along the suggested routes, a monorail would be more economical. He did, however, have concerns about the monorail’s suitability to Winnipeg in view of its harsh winters. As in the case of the Wilson subway proposal, the MacDonald idea of the monorail as a transit option likewise failed to materialize. [13]

Be that as it may, monorail features—both real and supposed—made this form of transit attractive to urban planners. Monorail manufacturers claimed that the “new” type of overhead railway—whether the suspended or the “straddle-beam” type (in which the train sat astride the beamway)—would help to relieve urban traffic congestion; it was also supposed to be safer because it reduced the risk of collisions with surface-operating vehicles. Proponents argued that monorails could achieve higher speeds than conventional trains, even though the velocity of the various models conceived and built during the 1950s and 1960s raised doubts on this point. They also claimed that the monorail could negotiate much sharper curves than conventional trains because they travelled on a beam and could also “bend” into the curve. [14]

In terms of cost, monorails were supposed to be more economical to build than subways, their main competitors for the construction of urban mass-transit systems. As long as monorails remained overhead systems, excavation and tunnelling costs could be avoided; obtaining right of way would also be more economical if the lines could be built along the medians of avenues or highways. [15] Proponents also argued that the monorail would be more environmentally beneficial than the two-rail train. The German Alweg monorail, for example, was electric-powered (although monorails could also be powered by diesel or gasoline); moreover, its rubber tires avoided the noise often associated with steel-wheeled trains. Unlike overhead trains, monorail vehicles and their supporting structure cast a smaller shadow than conventional elevated railways. [16]

Critics of the monorail for urban transit purposes focused on the difficulty of switching trains or units from one track to another. Monorail track circuits were essentially confined to a loop. With conventional rail systems, track-switching operations were fairly simple; regarding monorails, however, segmented switches were needed to move the supporting beam from a straight position to a curved one, directing the train onto different portions of the rail system. [17]

In the early 1970s, monorail development was in decline in North America, Europe and other regions. Despite the popular success achieved by the Alweg Company of Germany with the Disneyland Monorail (1959) and the previously mentioned Seattle Monorail, many major and even medium-sized North American cities had considered, but rejected, monorails as mass-transit options. Significant exceptions to this tendency were the Hitachi Company of Japan which, under a licence agreement with Alweg, constructed a monorail between Tokyo and Haneda Airport (1964), using switches for direction reversal, and the Nihon-Lockheed Monorail Company (also Japanese), which, under licence from Lockheed, built several short regional monorail lines. [18] Another exception was the Siemens People Mover (SIPEM), initiated by the Siemens Company of Germany in the early 1970s, which resulted in the development of a suspended monorail system similar to the French SAFEGE model of the 1960s. [19]

Although monorails had appeared to have reached a “dead end” in many areas, urban highway construction was also on the wane. Early transportation planners, such as those who attended the First National Conference on City Planning at Washington in 1909, had espoused several ideas that are reminiscent of those of today’s planners: (1) the link between transportation and land use, that is, providing access between cities and suburbs, work and home; (2) the establishment of hierarchical road networks for concentrating traffic on major thoroughfares and arterial routes; (3) zoning; and (4) multi-modalism (the integration of facilities for streetcars, private vehicles and pedestrians into a coordinated system). [20] In the following decades, however, such ideas were gradually lost sight of. By the late 1930s, municipal governments, unable to raise funds for the type of large-scale projects envisioned, were increasingly obliged to rely on state and federal government agencies for funding aid. Control of planning passed to state highway engineers, who focused on urban expressways to relieve congestion, achieve higher vehicle speeds and funnel traffic into and out of city centres as safely and efficiently as possible. [21]

The urban freeway boom collapsed in the latter part of the 1960s and early 1970s due to a combination of political discontent (often headed by civil rights activists, city residents and emerging environmentalist groups) and rising construction costs. Public transit, particularly rail transit, was once again considered an important element in city planning strategies. [22] Winnipeg likewise turned its back on freeway construction in the same period. The Winnipeg Area Transportation Study (WATS), which released its results between 1966 and 1968, [23] recommended the construction of five radial freeways and a suburban beltway; however, the plan, which was strongly opposed by the province, also met with strong community opposition and was eventually condemned by a majority of city councillors. As a result, the expressway idea was cancelled and, instead, several of the major urban traffic corridors became arterial roads. [24]

The Juba government, in considering monorail as a new form of rail transit for the city, was hence not quite out of context with the general trend in North America that opposed additional urban highway construction and favoured public transit, even though, as indicated, monorail in particular had been examined and rejected by many urban centres.

However, although Winnipeg had experienced appreciable levels of growth after the Second World War, from the mid-1950s on it remained a slow-growth city. There is no indication that Winnipeg Council, in considering monorail, took into account, first, the ridership of its existing bus system, including express buses, and second, whether there really was a need to attempt to increase ridership by building a monorail system as a key part of the city’s transit system. As in most bus-transit cities, ridership peaks occurred in the early morning and late afternoon rush-hour periods, dropping considerably during the middle part of the day and late evening. Urban planners commonly assumed—correctly—that the number of cars in cities would increase, thus worsening traffic glut, and therefore sought improvements in public transit—even those based on more unconventional technology—to offset this trend. [25]

How Portage Avenue might look with a monorail running down its centre.
What might have been. A photoillustration published in the Winnipeg Tribune on 11 January 1962 showed how Portage Avenue might look with a monorail running down its centre.
Source: University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, Winnipeg Tribune, Collection 18-6433-37

The plan takes shape

In considering manufacturers for the monorail, City Council focused on two companies in particular: the Swiss Maschinenfabrik Habegger company, in Thun, near Berne, and the German Alweg company in Cologne. Since both firms had Canadian regional offices (Habegger in Vancouver and Alweg in Montreal), it would be relatively easy to arrange meetings between company representatives and Winnipeg municipal delegates. [26] Habegger had been in the monorail business since 1961, numbering among its projects an eight-mile-an-hour straddle steel box beam minirail for Expo 64 fair in Lausanne, which was later dismantled and reconstructed as one of two mini-monorail systems at Montreal’s Expo 67, and low-speed monorails for Munich and Blackpool. It was engaged in developing medium-speed straddle-beam monorails at the time when Winnipeg expressed its interest in monorails for public transport. [27] Alweg, for its part, had developed several straddle-beam monorail prototypes in the 1950s, becoming a leader in the field following the enormous popularity of its models built for Disneyland and Seattle. [28]

In the belief that the Habegger design would be more suitable for metropolitan Winnipeg’s needs, Juba and Council entered into discussions with the firm some time during the latter half of 1971. The following year (1972), a delegation of councillors went to Vancouver to meet with company representatives. Habegger recommended its automated M3 Model straddle-beam “Fixed Guideway System”, with electrically powered, rubber-tired trains of from three to five coupled cars or units. [29]

The city’s initial plan was for a double-railed monorail route to extend from Portage and Main west along Portage Avenue out to Polo Park and, subsequently, Westwood. At later dates, other lines would be built north along Main Street as far as East Kildonan and West Kildonan and also southeast to St. Vital. As mentioned in connection with Winnipeg’s former street railway systems, the city’s wide principal avenues favoured the construction of a monorail line down the median strips of these avenues. The track level was to be approximately five metres above ground. Monorail stations in the downtown or Central Business District (CBD) would be connected to the second floor or level of commercial or other public buildings from which passengers would board and exit the trains. The monorail superstructure would also accommodate skywalks where needed for passenger access. During peak hours, the monorail could carry approximately 2,160 passengers in each direction. It was estimated that ridership would increase through time, reaching a maximum by 1980. As an elevated system, the company asserted, the monorail would not substitute or interfere with, but rather complement, existing regular transit systems; feeder buses would drop off and take on passengers at the various stations. [30] Habegger estimated that the project, based on an initial distance of 10.7 km, would cost $35,595,790 (including design, construction and installation) and would take approximately two-and-a-half years for the system to become fully operational. [31]

In the mid-1970s, Council devised a more elaborate proposal. This plan had the monorail trackway beginning near Water Avenue and Main Street and extending southwest to the University of Manitoba and Fort Richmond areas. The line, which would have a total of nine stations, would run parallel to Pembina Highway along the CNR Letellier Subdivision right-of-way, the so-called “Southwest Transit Corridor”. An alternative downtown line would loop around Smith and Donald streets, beginning at Graham Avenue, an area which, together with the downtown section of Portage Avenue, has traditionally been the city’s transit hub. [32]

The mayor faced opposition to the monorail proposal from the moment that it became publicly known. This stemmed in part from the local press—that is, from the editors of the city’s two dailies, the Winnipeg Free Press and the Winnipeg Tribune, whom Juba claimed were both very critical of the idea, [33] and also from his councillors, who were generally not in favour of the plan. One exception was Deputy Mayor J. Paul Marion, who tried to drum up enthusiasm for the project in its early stages; another was Councillor Gerald Mercier who served as Chair of the city’s Works and Operations Committee near the end of the Juba period. In time, Juba and Mercier were able to convince others that the proposal should at least be given careful study. [34]

To instill enthusiasm among his fellow council members, Juba attempted to present the monorail as an example of cutting-edge transport technology. In late June 1972, he submitted for their consideration a copy of a letter he had received from D. H. Race, President of C.A.E. Aircraft Limited, expressing interest in the proposed monorail system. The mayor drew attention to the latter’s comments that many of the design and manufacturing techniques used in monorail construction (systems engineering, electronic control systems, structural fabrication, reliability engineering and fail-safe devices) were similar to or derived from techniques used in the aerospace industry. [35] The comparison of monorails with aircraft was not only physical, but psychological; passengers would enjoy the sensation of gliding through the air. [36] Juba claimed that the monorail, like the one in Seattle, would prove popular with tourists, which, in turn, would help boost the city’s hotel sector. [37]

The fact that the monorail would be electrically powered was especially appealing, considering the rise in fuel oil costs following the 1973 Oil Embargo and the environmental appeal of clean energy. The NDP government of Premier Edward Schreyer (1969–1977) was interested in continuing hydro development on the Nelson River begun by Premier Duff Roblin (1958–1967); it was thus likely that it would give its support in the legislature to any type of electrically-based public transportation system. [38] In an October 1973 press interview, the premier cautioned, however, that the province was prepared to give “additional millions” to the City of Winnipeg for public transit systems and other forms of urban improvement, though “not necessarily for a monorail.” Schreyer added that “… the province doesn’t presume to know better than the city fathers. We stand ready to assist,” which appeared to indicate that the province would help only after the city itself had decided to go ahead on one or another specific project. [39]

In the meantime that year (1973), the Juba government had proposed yet another possible monorail route in conjunction with the mayor’s plan to relocate the runways of the Winnipeg International Airport 16 km northwest of their location. The terminal itself would remain at the older site, while passenger access to the aircraft and the runways would be provided by monorail. Critics of the airport plan, including Winnipeg finance committee chairman Richard Wankling, believed it to be, in part, an underhand tactic on the part of Juba to begin construction on the monorail system for the city at large. The airport monorail proposal complicated the process of winning support among city officials and the electorate for the plan. It proved, as well, unnecessary, since the plan to move the airport runways was eventually shelved. [40]

In a comparison between a monorail and other forms of mass transit, the former had serious drawbacks. Certain performance criteria such as speed, flexibility and efficient use of space made the monorail less attractive as a transport option compared to other modes. Monorails were particularly weak in the second category, flexibility; the automobile, which the monorail was designed to supplant, offered the most spatial flexibility for users as a transit vehicle. [41] Although monorails (in their overhead form) were more economical to build than subways, municipal authorities (and experts as well) were inclined to opt for a subway system on the basis of its superior passenger-carrying capacity as compared to that of monorails. [42] In addition, since subways (and conventional urban rail systems) were double-tracked, headways (frequency between trains) would be shorter in the case of the latter as well. The majority of monorail lines of the period, except for the Alweg Seattle Monorail, were single-tracked. These considerations, together with the technical drawbacks to monorails mentioned previously, as well as cost comparisons—detailed estimates revealed that monorail systems were in fact more expensive than conventional railways—worked heavily against the marketing of monorails. [43]

Critics targeted the “hidden” costs of monorail construction. They argued that a substantial portion of monorail costs would involve the construction of the concrete support pylons as well as the train units themselves; the cost of the individual train cars would be higher, they asserted, due to the extra expense involved in the apparatus for keeping the car on the single rail or beam. [44] Also lost sight of in the discussions concerning cost, they added, was the question of maintenance; on a yearly basis, this would be considerable in either case and, with respect to the monorail, could be particularly high. [45]

Winnipeg’s winter climate might also prove detrimental, critics charged, to a monorail project. On the one hand, a monorail system, being elevated, would supposedly allow trains to run without the hazards of snow blockage and icy conditions as opposed to road surfaces. Press reports from other winter cities with monorails supported such affirmations. [46] Be that as it may, Winnipeg’s extreme winter temperatures, as well as the effects of ice and alternate freezing and thawing on the central beam or guide rail, were unknown factors that could have an important bearing on its operations in winter.

There were thus, in the minds of some of the persons critical of the monorail project, certain reservations about choosing this form of mass transit as a means for alleviating the city’s traffic and public transport problems.

In addition to discussions over the pros and cons of monorail as a transit option for the city, Council members could have made more concerted efforts to view monorail operations at first hand. In June and July 1975, Winnipeg’s Executive Policy Committee authorized the mayor to arrange for members of the Committee, or those councillors who might be willing, to visit some US monorails; it is uncertain, however, whether this trip actually materialized and what systems, in particular, may have been inspected. [47] In a press interview, Juba indicated that he could get confirmation from only two councillors of the executive policy committee for the venture; he complained that the city councillors were too “scared to go”, for fear that such trips would be considered by the public as pleasure junkets. [48] In early summer 1975, the Ford Motor Company invited Juba and his councillors to view its proposal for the design and establishment of a new monorail system for Detroit (the Ford ACT Monorail). Although Winnipeg’s executive policy committee discussed the matter in June of that year, there is no indication that Juba or any of the Winnipeg councillors ever visited Detroit for this purpose. [49]

Proposed monorail routes in Winnipeg.
Proposed monorail routes in Winnipeg.
Source: StreetMap North America, ESRI, 2010, edited by Carlos U. Gonzalez – COLEF

Collapse of the project

In early April 1977 Winnipeg Council decided to invite Habegger to submit a formal proposal for the construction of a monorail system for the city. The city gave Habegger a 120-day limit to submit the proposal, which it did in June of that year. In the meantime, a delegation of councillors made another trip to Vancouver to examine the design in detail; as a result, some of its members, one of whom was Pearl McGonigal, a member of the Independent Citizens Election Committee for St. James-Assiniboia, became more enthusiastic about the monorail option. [50]

While some citizens—most likely the younger ones—may have looked with interest towards the monorail’s successful implementation, others viewed it as just another public works project designed to favour one portion of the city at the expense of others. Some residents of the North End considered that such transportation projects generally favoured the southern part of the city. Voters in the East KildonanTranscona electoral district complained of the lack of responsible planning which had, they claimed, created a chaos in transportation to and from the city centre, particularly along Henderson Highway. Together with members of north Winnipeg constituencies in general, they saw the proposed monorail, the main route of which would run along the so-called “Southwest Transit Corridor”, as being of little benefit for solving public transport problems in their specific areas. [51]

In August 1977 Habegger representatives presented their design to an all-day Winnipeg Council meeting. [52] Although impressed, some of the councillors continued to have doubts about the ability of the monorail to operate in cold weather despite the company’s assurances that “snow represents absolutely no problem.” The Council came near to approving in principle the proposal; nevertheless, it chose to refer it instead to the civic board of commissioners for a report within 60 days. [53]

The cost estimates for construction were particularly worrisome. In the five-year period since the Council had begun its study, these had risen considerably, from $36 million to $54 million. To obtain the necessary financing, Juba indicated that the federal and provincial governments would have to assume at least two-thirds of the cost, while Council would have to commit to at least $10 million. In late September 1977, as a last-ditch attempt to persuade Council to approve the project, the mayor informed the latter that he had explored the possibility of undertaking the project as a joint venture with the federal and provincial governments. [54]

The deciding factor in the debate was a study entitled Winnipeg Southwest Transit Corridor Study, prepared by the transport consultant firms M. M. Dillon Limited and De Leuw Cather Canada Limited in association with the Lombard North Group. Phase One of the study, completed in September 1976, urged that the monorail idea be discarded since, based on an analysis of two innovative US transit systems (the Ford ACT Monorail and the Pittsburgh Westinghouse Skybus), it would cost $86.7 million. Instead, it recommended that diesel buses (with the possible use of trolley buses in the event of a significant increase in fossil fuel costs) be used for a busway corridor along the projected space of the CNR Letellier Subdivision. The cost of the latter project, an estimated $22.6 million, would be considerably less than that of the monorail system. [55]

The dedicated busway or transitway, which had begun to appear in some cities of the Americas, appealed to urban transport planners striving to create an economical form of rapid transit having some of the speed of rail systems and also be, at the same time, more flexible than the latter. [56] At this point, Winnipeg had only entered the planning stage of bus rapid transit; for the moment, it would rely on an improved conventional bus transit system. A bus system, it was argued, offered more routing flexibility than a fixed monorail system; moreover, stations, or “stops”, along the projected monorail routes would not be as frequent as in the case of buses. Bus units could also be shifted from one route or area of the city to another in accordance with user demand. A bus-based system would also help to stimulate the local economy since Winnipeg possessed a strong bus-manufacturing sector, prominently New Flyer Industries. [57]

In late September 1977, the civic board of commissioners assigned to review the Habegger proposal issued a report recommending in essence that the project be put on hold indefinitely. It is possible that the recommendation may have influenced Juba’s decision to not seek re-election. [58] As a result of the power vacuum created by Juba’s withdrawal Robert Steen fell heir in the subsequent election of 26 October 1977 to the latter’s support base in the North End (Juba’s home territory). In a close election, Steen defeated his main contender Bill Norrie. Concerning the monorail, Steen commented shortly after his triumph that “it is not a dead issue but it is not a priority item to be considered in the near future.” Steen suggested that the federal government provide funding for a demonstration of its capacities “once and for all” with, he added, Winnipeg as the site selected for such trials. [59]

Undaunted, John N. Laxton, of the legal firm Laxton and Company, Vancouver, which handled business matters for Habegger, made a final attempt to convince Winnipeg officials that it would be a mistake to reject the monorail project. In a letter to Winnipeg Council, Laxton indicated that Habegger was aware of the city’s plan to stick to improving its bus system. He repudiated rumours that the monorail would cost between $80 million and $90 million and claimed that such figures corresponded to larger and much more complex systems. Laxton claimed that Winnipeg could obtain $20 million in funding from the federal government for the project, which would leave the city with having to pay only $6 million. He mentioned that for only $2,500,000 Winnipeg could “test ride” the new system. He also held out the possibility that Habegger could consider financing up-front costs on a joint-venture basis. [60]

Council, however, kept putting off discussion of the monorail issue and, without Juba at the helm, there was little possibility of keeping the project alive. In late May 1978, it notified Laxton and Company that Winnipeg was “not interested in the monorail proposal”. The rejection note specified that the municipal Executive Policy Committee, in accordance with the report, which it had issued on 1 February of that year, had rejected the proposal and that the city was “not interested at the present time.” [61]

Despite the rejection of monorail by Winnipeg and other urban centres, monorails continued to be built. In recent decades, there has been a substantial increase in monorail construction projects globally with the participation of other companies such as Scomi Rail (Malaysia), Bombardier (Canada), and, more recently, Urbanaut (USA). Although many of the new projects have been designed to fit the more “classic” amusement, theme park or exposition roles of the past, others have been used for more specific purposes within the overall urban transportation framework. [62] Some Japanese monorails, for example, have been employed as “intermediate-capacity” transit systems where traffic levels are too high for efficient bus operation but too low to justify full-scale conventional rail lines or subways; others serve as short intercity connections or as feeder transport to the principal heavy-rail urban lines. [63] In other cases, monorails have been designed for certain special-purpose applications such as airport commuting, university campus shuttles or as part of housing projects. The application of Maglev technology to rail transport has also opened new vistas for monorail, although this would be primarily in the case of longer, intercity lines, should they be built. [64]

Winnipeg, for its part, continued with the development of its bus transit system. The trolley bus scheme recommended for the Letellier Subdivision transitway never materialized (nor did trolley buses reappear on any Winnipeg transit routes). Instead, the city resolved to temporarily strengthen the existing bus transit system with additional and improved diesel bus units, as well as the creation of additional routes in accordance with the city’s expansion. It is worth noting, however, that the Southwest Transitway, as it was originally conceived in 1976, was to have followed one of the principal routes contemplated for the Habegger monorail. The additional transitway corridors that have been planned (to connect the CBD with TransconaSt. JamesWest Kildonan and other areas) also parallel to some extent the ideas behind the monorail system as far as routes and destinations are concerned. [65] It is possible that at some future date the busways may be converted into an LRT or other type of rail system, as has occurred in the case of Ottawa, Curitiba (Brazil) and other cities. [66] In that sense, the monorail proposal of the 1970s may be seen as a step—however ephemeral—in this ongoing evolutionary process.


Although the Winnipeg monorail proposal may have appeared to some advocates as a “golden opportunity” to provide the city with an opportunity to compete with other urban centres in their attempts to modernize and improve their public transportation systems, the plan was undermined from the start by several drawbacks and weaknesses.

An initial difficulty arose from the lack of research concerning ridership needs for such a system to be cost-viable from the standpoint of potential patron use and operational expenses. During the period of Council discussions on the issue, concerns were expressed as to anticipated performance and operations of such a system, the various routes envisioned, as well as the suitability of a monorail for service under harsh winter conditions. A culminating impediment was the high cost estimates of the monorail’s initial phase and route, which would be very much higher once other routes were added to the system. The issue was eventually decided by the De Leuw-Dillon study, which panned the idea, followed by the decision of Juba, the project’s leading advocate, to not seek re-election. The decision to create a bus transitway along the Pembina Highway route, together with efforts to up-grade the existing bus system, provided a more economical and flexible alternative to monorail.

Despite the proposal’s collapse, Winnipeg’s public transportation system continues to evolve. It is quite possible that, at some point in the future, the monorail in some form may yet be incorporated as a part of this network as it grows and struggles to meet the challenges involved in satisfying the transport needs of citizens.


The author expresses his gratitude to the anonymous reviewers of this article and to Robert Coutts, Editor of Manitoba History, for their many helpful comments and suggestions.

1. Wolf Homburger, “Transportation Policy and Technological Development”, in D. R. Miller, ed., Urban Transportation Policy: New Perspectives, Lexington, MS: D. C. Heath and Company, 1972, pp. 157-158.

2. Walter E. Bradley, “Winnipeg’s Horse-Car Service”, Manitoba Pageant, vol. 4, no. 3 (April 1959), accessed 25 November 2016; John E. Baker, Winnipeg’s Electric Transit: The Story of Winnipeg’s Streetcars and Trolley Busses, Toronto: Railfare Enterprises, 1982, pp. 9–12.

3. H. John Selwood, “Urban Development and the Streetcar: The Case of Winnipeg, 1881–1913,” Urban History Review, vol. 6, no. 3 (February 1978), pp. 34–41; Baker, Winnipeg’s, pp. 12–56, 114–129.

4. Baker, Winnipeg’s, pp. 56–105, 133–138.

5. Baker, Winnipeg’s, pp. 142–145.

6. Robert McKeown, “And What Winnipeg’s Mayor Wants Is to Make His City the Sports Capital of the Country,” Winnipeg Free Press (hereafter, WFP), 27 April 1968 (Weekend Magazine supplement), pp. 18, 20; Michael Czuboka, Juba, Winnipeg: Communigraphics, 1986, pp. 89–99.

7. Lloyd Axworthy, “The Best Laid Plans Oft Go Astray: The Case of Winnipeg”, in M. O. Dickerson, S. Drabek and J. Woods, eds., Problems of Change in Urban Government, Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1980, pp. 105–121; Czuboka, Juba, pp. 65–66, 101–24, which includes a personal interview with former premier Duff Roblin (p. 66).

8. Two such ideas—which did not mature in any way—consisted of using hovercraft as transport on the Red River and erecting a Buckminster Fuller-type protective dome over the city. Allan Levine, “Remembering Steve Juba,” Winnipeg Sun (hereafter, WS), 8 May 1993, p. 24.

9. “More City Roads No Answer: Juba. Urges Monorail”, Winnipeg Tribune (hereafter, WT), 26 April 1973, p. 8; Drew McArton, Winnipeg: The Impact of Growth, 1972–1978. Summary Report, Winnipeg: Urban Development Institute, Manitoba Division, 1978, pp. 1–18.

10. Alan Black, Urban Mass Transportation Planning, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995, p. 117.

11. John R. Gold, The Experience of Modernism: Modern Architects and the Future City, 1928–53, London: E & FN Spon, 1997, pp. 26–27.

12. Norman D. Wilson, “Future Development of the Greater Winnipeg Transit System,” 4 March 1959, pp. 20, 41; accessed 5 May 2016; “Subway For City?,” WT, 23 January 1959, p. 6. Although Wilson did not give a figure for subway construction costs for Winnipeg, he calculated that, based on those of Toronto, they would be approximately $11,530,000 per mile. Wilson, “Future,” p. 34.

13. Nick Hills, “Transit Chief Has Eye on Portage Monorail”, WT, 11 January 1962, p. 21. A few years later (1966), MacDonald also considered the Pittsburgh Westinghouse Skybus—which was not a monorail but rather an electric-powered bus car system running on an elevated concrete track—as a possible transit system for Winnipeg. Michael McGarry, “Transit Experiment Eyed,” WT, 2 February 1966, p. 35.

14. E. H. Anson, Monorail Systems for Mass Rapid Transit, New York: Gibbs & Hill Consulting Engineers, 1954, pp. 9–15; Hermann S. D. Botzow, Monorails, New York: Simmons-Boardman, 1960, pp. 22–25, 27–29.

15. Botzow, Monorails, p. 25

16. Botzow, Monorails, pp. 25, 33–34.

17. Botzow, Monorails, pp. 19–21, 28. Modern day monorails use a variety of switch technologies such as the segmented switch, suspended monorail switch, beam replacement switch and rotary switch.

18. Leroy W. Demery, “Monorails in Japan: An Overview,” Vallejo, CA: Public, 2005, pp. 13, 23–26, accessed 30 June 2016; Reinhard Krischer, “Alweg+Hitachi Revolution,” The Alweg Archives, accessed 21 January 2014.

19. Siemens installed one of the H-Bahn systems at both the University of Dortmund (1984) and Düsseldorf Airport (2002). “Dortmund University, Germany,” The Monorail Society, accessed 27 May 2016; “Düsseldorf SkyTrain,” The Monorail Society, accessed 10 June 2016.

20. Committee on the District of Columbia, United States Senate, “Proceedings of the First National Conference on City Planning”, in City Planning: Hearing before the Committee on the District of Columbia, United States Senate on the Subject of City Planning, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1910, accessed 5 December 2016; Paul Barrett, The Automobile and Urban Transit: The Formation of Public Policy in Chicago, 1900–1930, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983, pp. 56–163.

21. Jeffrey R. Brown, Eric A. Morris and Brian D. Taylor, “Planning for Cars in Cities: Planners, Engineers, and Freeways in the 20th Century”, Journal of the American Planning Association, vol. 75, no. 2 (Spring 2009), pp. 166–172; Joseph F. C. DiMento and Cliff Ellis, Changing Lanes: Visions and Histories of Urban Freeways, Cambridge, MS: MIT Press, 2013, pp. 45–102.

22. George M. Smerk, Urban Mass Transportation: A Dozen Years of Federal Policy, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1974, pp. 18–89; Brown, Morris and Taylor, “Planning,” pp. 172–174; DiMento and Ellis, Changing Lanes, pp. 103–132.

23. Metropolitan Corporation of Greater Winnipeg, “The Winnipeg Area Transportation Study,” 3 vols. Winnipeg: Metropolitan Corporation of Greater Winnipeg, 1966–1968.

24. An exception was the previously mentioned Disraeli Expressway (Freeway), having an extension of approximately 1.6 km. The WATS report also recommended a 8.6-km subway line from Polo Park to Elmwood, but this was also discarded. Terry J. Partridge, “Transportation Advocacy Planning in Winnipeg: The Case of C.O.S.T.”, Institute of Urban Studies, University of Winnipeg, 1973, pp. 8–20, accessed 28 November 2016; Danielle Robinson, “The Streets Belong to the People: Expressway Disputes in Canada, C. 1960–75,” PhD dissertation, McMaster University, 2012, pp. 190–229.

25. Wilson, “Future,” p. 12; Partridge, “Transportation,” pp. 3–14.

26. “Monorail Explained,” WFP, 18 May 1972, pp. 1, 10; “New Proposal Introduced for Downtown Monorail,” WT, 20 February 1973, p. 3. E.M.S. Electronik Monorail Sales Limited of Montreal held the Canadian franchise for Alweg.

27. “Monorail Explained,” p. 10; “Le monorail: site officiel de la Ville de Lausanne”, accessed 6 March 2013; Anthony Clegg, The Minirail at Expo 67 and Man and His World, Ottawa: Expo 67 Corporation, 1967, pp. 3–10.

28. W. G. Barber, Manager, Utilities Corporation, Toronto, to Juba, 2 March 1976, together with a copy of “Transit Compendium: Current International Developments in Transit Technology” (information from the Transit Systems Research and Development Branch of the Ministry of Transport and Communications), in the “Winnipeg Monorail” file of the Winnipeg Council meetings, City of Winnipeg Archives and Records Control (hereafter, CWARC), Winnipeg City Council Minutes (hereafter, WCCM), TT-1.1 (Monorail file), vol. 1.

29. Bob Lisoway, “Secrecy at City Hall,” WFP, 27 May 1972, p. 10. In December the Canadian Alweg representative E.M.S. Electronik Monorail Sales Limited also proposed a monorail plan for the city: 1972. “Proposed rapid transit system (monorail type) servicing the heart of Winnipeg, Manitoba”, E.M.S. Electronik Monorail Sales Ltd., 15 December 1972. Some of the early Winnipeg press reports of the proposed monorail erroneously describe it as a “suspended” system. It is possible that, based on monorail development in later decades in Japan and elsewhere, an Alweg design might have been the better choice.

30. “Habegger Report,” in CWARC, WCCM, Monorail file. See also “Detour for Monorail,” WFP, 18 May 1972, p. 3; “Juba Backs Monorail Again,” WFP, 26 April 1973, p. 8; and Czuboka, Juba, p. 147.

31. Kurt Hohenwarter, President of Habegger Industries, to Winnipeg Council, 4 February 1972, in CWARC, City Clerk’s Office Transit Department, file no. 730.

32. Steve Pona, “Council Nears Agreement on Monorail,” WFP, 12 August 1977, p. 1.

33. Val Werier, “Does Winnipeg Need a Monorail?,” WT, 26 March 1972, p. 6; “Pipe Dream,” WFP, 27 March 1972, p. 5; Douglas MacKay, “Newspapers Spoiling Monorail Plan: Juba,” WFP, 9 May 1972, p. 1.

34. Douglas MacKay, “Monorail Transit for City Studied,” WFP, 23 March 1972, pp. 1, 5; Czuboka, Juba, p. 148.

35. Note of enclosure from Mayor Juba of letter from D. H. Race of C.A.E. Aircraft Limited, 7 June 1972, in CWARC, City Clerk’s Office, 21 June, 1972, Form 5-1M No. 175.

36. The comparison between monorails and aircraft dates from experiments with the Schienenzeppelin (rail zeppelin) and the Bennie Railplane (the brain-child of Scottish inventor George Bennie) of the late 1920s and early 1930s. R. E. G. Davies, Fallacies and Fantasies of Air Transport History, McLean, VA: Paladwr Press, 1994, pp. 196–203.

37. John McManus, “Juba Says People Key to Tourism,” WFP, 11 April 1972, p. 1.

38. Czuboka, Juba, pp. 16–17, 148. This opinion was reiterated in early 1977. “Hydro Is Key to Transit Funds,” WT, 7 January 1977, p. 4.

39. “Schreyer Says Millions Available for Urban Plans,” WFP, 27 October 1973, p. 3.

40. “Juba Plan Hit,” WFP, 26 October 1973, p. 9. The proposal stemmed from complaints from citizens in the northwest section of the city concerning noise from airport traffic as well as the revving of aircraft engines during the early morning hours. “Airport Problems Outlined,” WFP, 26 October 1973, pp. 1, 9.

41. M. C. Poulton, “The Relationship Between Transport and The Viability of Central and Inner Urban Areas”, Journal of Transport Economics and Policy, vol. 14, no. 3 (September 1980), pp. 255–256.

42. Such was the case in 1959 with the municipal authorities of Caracas, who, after comparing an Alweg monorail system and a subway, opted to build the latter in the belief that it would support greater passenger volumes than a monorail. “Growing Caracas Plans Subway,” New York Times (hereafter, NYT), 22 October 1972, p. 17.

43. Demery, Monorails, p. 13.

44. Richard E. Mooney, “Monorail Lines Stretching Out, But Not Very Far,” NYT, 27 November 1964, p. 56.

45. Harry McDougall, “Monorails: Mass Transit Systems of Tomorrow,” Imperial Oilways, December 1961, p. 3.

46. On one occasion, for example, the Seattle Monorail was advertised as a “fast, direct” method for avoiding street traffic and ice as commuters were forced to navigate slippery roads jammed with abandoned cars and pileups. “Seattle’s Monorail Provides Crucial Transportation During Snow!”, 23 November 2010, accessed 6 January 2017. As another example, the Moscow monorail noted that, in the case of snowfalls, early morning runs of its trains blew snow off the tracks while subsequent runs prevented snow accumulation. “Construction Gallery: Moscow, Russia,” The Monorail Society, January 2004, accessed 21 October 2010.

47. City Clerk to Juba, 22 July 1975; Juba to Councillors, 30 July 1975; and W. A. Quayle, City Clerk, to all members of the Executive Policy Committee, 12 August 1975, in CWARC, City Clerk’s Department, TT-1.1, vol. 1.

48. “Council Scared to Travel: Juba,” WT, 14 November 1975, p. 6.

49. “Monorail Idea Alive Again,” WT, 27 June 1975, p. 39; Czuboka, Juba, p. 148. It is possible that Juba visited the Ford Motor Company in Detroit after seeing Mayor Richard J. Daly of Chicago, since he mentioned to the latter that he was en route to that city. Daly, with whom Juba was on close terms through past business dealings with Chicago firms, had advised him that a monorail would face opposition not only from the oil industry, land developers and highway construction firms, but also labour unions, since, being an automated system, it would not need operators. Juba interview in Czuboka, Juba, pp. 183–184.

50. Honourable Saul A. Miller, Minister for Urban Affairs, to Juba, 19 May 1977, together with the City Council Resolution of 6 April 1977 and Deputy City Clerk to the Honourable Saul Miller, 21 July 1977, in CWARC, City Clerk’s Office, TT-1.1, vol. 1; “Council Votes to Pay for Monorail Proposal,” WT, 7 April 1977, p. 4.

51. “North Winnipeg Neglected,” WT, 2 May 1977, p. 9; “East Kildonan-Transcona,” WFP, 20 October 1977, p. 14.

52. “Winnipeg Southwest Transit Corridor. Habegger Fixed Guideway System: a proposal submitted by Habegger Industries Ltd., in association with Habegger-Thun, Glencoe Management Ltd. and H. Nussbaum, P. Eng., August 1977,” in CWARC, City Clerk’s Office, TT-1.1, vol. 1.

53. Pona, “Council,” p. 1; “Council Eyes Monorail Transit Plan,” WT, 12 August 1977, p. 3.

54. Minutes of the City Council, 20 September 1977 (1652), 1830, in CWARC, WCCM, vol. 2, 4 May–19 October 1977.

55. De Leuw-Dillon in Association with The Lombard North Group Ltd., Winnipeg Southwest Transit Corridor Study. Report of Phase I Feasibility, Winnipeg, September 1976; “City Eyes Electric Trolleys,” WFP, 7 January 1977, pp. 1, 4.

56. Black, Urban, pp. 107–112, 114–118.

57. De Leuw-Dillon, Southwest, op cit.

58. Juba indicated that he had prior knowledge of the contents of the report before it became public knowledge. He argued, however, that although the rest of his administration was counting on him to run again, the negative reaction towards the monorail constituted the prime factor, which led to his resignation. Steve Pona, “Juba Quits Mayor’s Chair After 21 Years,” WFP, 7 October 1977, pp. 1, 4; Susan Ruttan, “Juba’s Withdrawal: Guessing Goes On,” WT, 5 November 1977, p. 13; Czuboka, Juba, pp. 163–172, 184–186.

59. “New Mayor, New Council,” WFP, 27 October 1977, p. 1; Steve Pona and Cecil Rosner, “Steen Wins Mayoral Race; ICEC Dominates Council,” WFP, 27 October 1977, pp. 1, 4.

60. John N. Laxton, Laxton and Company, Vancouver, 31 October 1977, in CWARC, City Clerk’s Office, TT-1.1, vol. 1; “Monorail Salesman Defends Estimates,” WT, 19 October 1977, p. 4.

61. Mayor Robert Steen to Herbert E. Sanger, City Clerk, 18 January 1978,and Sanger to John N. Laxton, Laxton and Company, Vancouver, 26 May 1978, CWARC, City Clerk’s Office, TT-1.1, vol. 2; “City Tells Firm It Isn’t Interested in Monorail Plan,” WT, 22 July 1978, p. 6. The Swiss Von Roll company and other manufacturers later modified the Habegger monorail for people-mover systems.

62. Ryan R. Kennedy, “Considering Monorail Rapid Transit for North American Cities,” 2004, pp. 6, 22–23, accessed 10 March 2015.

63. Demery, Monorails, pp. 5–57.

64. Kennedy, “Considering”, pp. 11–12.

65. Rick Borland, “Winnipeg’s Proposed Southwest Transit Corridor”, The Manitoba Professional Engineer, April 1990, pp. 4–5, accessed 1 December 2016.

66. Bartley Kives, “City Explores Light-Rail Options,” WFP, 13 January 2009, accessed 9 September 2009; “Wyatt Wants City Back On LRT-train; Katz, Selinger Not So Sure,” Winnipeg Sun, 9 April 2014, accessed 22 November 2016.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

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