The Lost Era Of Electric “Flying Trains”

Over 119 years old and still in operation today, the Wuppertaler Schwebebahn in Germany is the world’s oldest electric elevated railway with hanging cars. Developed as the first to transport people instead of goods, this electric “flying train” is an impressive feat of engineering and magical to watch. At an average speed of 17mph, the train winds through city streets, over country roads, and follows the Wupper river. The track is approximately four stories above ground. (below, an updated version of 1902 video)

A ride on the Wuppertal Suspension Railway during a business trip in the early 1950’s inspired Walt Disney’s original plans for electric flying trains in the Land of Tomorrow. What better way to move massive amounts of people and reduce traffic. Unfortunately for the more adventurous future Disneyriders, Mrs. Disney didn’t appreciate the sway of the suspended cars as they flew down the track and around turns, hence a more stable raised monorail became the iconic centerpiece of Disney’s future worlds in 1959.

One of the original Land of Tomorrow sketches with the “hanging” monorail can be seen HERE.

Another fan of electric flying trains was the American Machine and Foundry Company (AMF). Believing the future of city transportation would include suspension railways, they made a hefty $5 million investment to bring the AMF Monorail to the US for the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York City. Touted as a “new dimension in transportation”, the AMF suspended monorail wasn’t quite futuristic enough to compete in the eyes of a public newly enthralled with the “Jet Age of Flight” nor powerful enough to fight against the well-entrenched interests of the US ground rail system.  Despite early interest by several cities, no contracts ever developed for AMF’s suspended monorail.

There are surprisingly few suspension railways worldwide.  Japan is a notable exception with three active suspended railway systems including the Chiba Urban Monorail, the world’s longest suspended monorail system with a 9.4 mile track length.

For a look at the modern day Wuppertaler Schwebebahn and its fascinating history, the ten minute video (below) includes a publicity stunt gone wrong 70 years ago, when a young elephant named Tuff fell from the train into the Wupper River but survived and lived on to a ripe old age.

You can also watch the original 1902 Wuppertal Suspension Railway video from The Museum of Modern Art’s archival footage.


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