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Rail to Nowhere

A monorail going into a tube with playing cards in the background
Illustration: Ryan Vellinga
Photos: Unsplash

A reporter rides the monorail in search of how far it’s come in 20 years

Sahara Las Vegas
Despite my repeated efforts, the gate at the Sahara monorail station refused to accept my rightfully paid-for 24-hour ticket. The pass, which costs $15 and can be dispensed at any stop of the Las Vegas Monorail, did not appear to have any defect or conditions that should have barred me from the boarding platform. Having no confidence that the intercom would connect me to a living being at 9 p.m. on a Friday night, I hurdled over the plastic fins. This trespass triggered about five seconds of a faint, high-pitched beeping and no other punishment.

I’m one of the few lone riders on this journey, as most seem to take the trip in pairs. Also waiting at the station were two middle-aged men wearing baseball caps and flannels, two women speaking Tagalog and carrying their platform wedges in their hand, and a couple of French-speaking teenage boys trying to decipher the monorail’s transit map. Soon, the train arrived, and I stepped onboard with no particular destination in mind.

The Las Vegas Monorail began its life in 1995 as a mile-long track connecting the MGM Grand and Bally’s, now the Horseshoe. To learn more about its history, I talked to Richard Velotta, who has reported on Vegas traffic for many years. “It was something new, and people viewed it as a modern mode of transportation,” he says, “even though it actually wasn’t.”

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In July 2004, the monorail expanded to seven stops. Two months later, it was temporarily shut down after two separate incidents of pieces falling off. The first was a wheel that landed in an empty parking lot, and the second was a part of the drive shaft that hit a power rail.

After the Sahara, the next stop heading south is the off-Strip Westgate. It’s the first indication that the monorail doesn’t actually put you “above the Strip traffic,” as ads claim, but simply away from it.

“There were some (casino operators) who viewed the monorail as a conveyance to take customers away from their properties instead of a means to deliver customers to them,” Velotta says. “‘Why should I support something that is going to take my customers somewhere else?’”

A proper metro station gets you either to the train or back to the street as quickly as possible. A casino, with its labyrinthine layout, is designed to do the opposite. Since casinos serve as monorail stations, it’s an incongruent system.

Boingo Station at Las Vegas Convention Center
The monorail suffered from declines in ridership during the Great Recession, when the Sahara closed in 2011, and during the COVID pandemic. After the Las Vegas Monorail Company suspended service and filed for bankruptcy in 2020, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority bought its assets. “LVCVA leadership agreed to take it over because it provided reliable transit to big conventions,” Velotta says. “(Conventions are) when the monorail makes the most money.”

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I rode the monorail during CES 2023. It was indeed busy. And LVCVA seems happy with the purchase, according to a written statement it provided: “The Monorail consistently outperformed nearly every other rail system reported by the FTA (Federal Transit Administration) in the comparisons of revenue earned per mile and riders carried per mile of system since it began operations. This, combined with ongoing high customer service scores averaging 4.7 out of 5 the last two years reinforces the fact that (LVCVA’s) acquisition of the system and decision to continue its operation was the right choice for the destination.”

The purchase was also a big help to LVCVA partner The Boring Company, because the removal of the monorail’s non-compete zone cleared the way for the development of the underground convention center loop.

But on a Friday night with no major trade shows in town, the Convention Center stop is barren. It felt like I had gone somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be, like an abandoned mall. Before I followed my morbid curiosity into the dark stairwell, the next train arrived.

Harrah’s/The Linq
This stop is the closest one to Brooklyn Bowl, which is why I started riding the monorail to begin with: The fare is cheaper than parking on the Strip. But if you plan to go anywhere that isn’t one of the stops, be prepared to do a lot of walking.

In 1993, the same year plans for the MGM-Bally’s monorail started in earnest, the iconic “Marge vs. the Monorail” episode of The Simpsons premiered. In it, the fictitious town of Springfield spends a large windfall on a monorail instead of fixing its derelict main street.

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The reorganization and expansion of the original MGM-Bally’s monorail cost $650 million and was funded by municipal bonds, which were backed by revenue the monorail was supposed to generate. Developers projected that, by 2004, more than 19 million people a year would be riding the monorail. According to the LVCVA, the system carried more than 4.3 million riders in 2022.

Flamingo/Caesars Palace
“A proposed subway system was unveiled even before the monorail, but the projected cost killed the idea before it was even seriously considered,” Velotta tells me. I recalled the plans for a light rail on Maryland Parkway a few years ago. That idea, too, was dead on arrival because local transportation experts calculated that bus rapid transit could provide the same service more cost-effectively. “But most of the public just viewed that as a variation on bus service, so it never really got the support it needed,” Velotta says.

Beneath the bridge connecting the Flamingo to its monorail station, taxi and rideshare drivers angrily honked at each other while pedestrians weaved between slow-moving vehicles. Driving alienates us from each other. It doesn’t seem like a person cuts you off — it’s just some giant hunk of metal that won’t get out of your way. When we lack proximity to another human being, our empathy for them evaporates.

As I contemplated this urban-planning ignominy, I heard the wheels of the monorail rolling away. The automated PA system informed me the next train would arrive in nine minutes.

The LVCVA has said the train cars need to be replaced within the next decade, so keeping up with casino rebrands and name changes seems futile. In 2021, French company Alstom bought Bombardier Transportation, which manufacturers the train cars. Alstom itself has had a series of financial and regulatory difficulties.

According to the monorail’s 2010 bankruptcy filing, the company was supposed to deposit its revenue in an account at Wells Fargo, which was the senior trustee for revenue collection and eventual bond repayment. However, in 2009, the monorail company opened a separate account at Bank of America and began depositing its revenue there. “The Trustee,” the filing reads, “was understandably angered.”

Meanwhile, the company that insured $451 million of the municipal bonds, Ambac, lost its triple-A credit rating during the Great Recession and said that if the monorail stopped making payments on some of the bigger bonds, Ambac would be exposed to a liability of $1.16 billion.

MGM Grand
The end of the line is, ironically, where it all began. The PA drops its friendly demeanor and informs the few of us still riding that all passengers must exit at MGM Grand. As I walk toward the casino, I see one of the French teens from earlier waiting for the northbound train. His friend isn’t with him.

Despite its flaws, what is most painful about the monorail is its wasted potential. From end to end, the ride is about 15 minutes long, which feels short compared to the stress-fueled gauntlet of driving down Las Vegas Boulevard. “The system’s operation of autonomous, electric trains results in the reduction of 2 million vehicle miles and nearly 25 tons of greenhouse gas emissions into our valley’s air,” the LVCVA reports. It’s a glimpse into what could have been — the proof-of-concept for the future of transit in Las Vegas, instead of its demise.

“The monorail’s days are numbered,” Velotta tells me. “Maybe within two or three years, the monorail will become a footnote in the city’s transit story.” Whether this does indeed happen, perhaps it can serve as a lesson that great care, consideration, and public input are needed to make an effective transit system that’s attractive and useful to riders.

We’ll see. Either way, this is my stop.