Elevated train lines may be controversial in parts of Melbourne but there are great examples of sky rails working well from across the globe.
Berlin’s transport system features the highly-rated Stadtbahn (S-Bahn) elevated trains, dating back to 1900. The S-Bahn system (as against the complementary U-Bahn subway) weaves through the heart of the city, getting intimate with all kinds of iconic landmarks, even looking down into the zoo and the Tiergarten parkland as well as pushing up against the Spree River. Built mostly on brick viaduct arches, with restaurants and other businesses thriving within the structure under the rails, it is remarkable mainly for the way the city has been built around it. From below, the S-Bahn is not a series of ugly metal poles and struts. Instead, it is more like a solid, inhabited building – with trains running along the roof, which also reportedly dramatically cuts the noise pollution. Berlin’s system is often cited as a strong example of how community life can be improved by raising rail into the sky.
Shanghai: Maglev airport train
In Asia, the famous Shinkansen trains in Japan have set the bar for reliable, very fast, comfortable commuter travel, often on elevated tracks, but China is catching up. In fact, Shanghai has bragging rights as the first city to use the cutting edge maglev (magnetised levitation) technology for a commuter train, as that elevated train shoots from the airport to the city and back at speeds that make you check all your fillings are still in your teeth as you arrive. The 30km journey takes an astonishing eight minutes, and that’s with the train travelling at roughly 300kmh, an operating speed more than 100kmh below the train’s actual capacity. (Fun fact: Melbourne CBD to Tullamarine airport? Distance: 23.2km. At 300kmh on a maglev train? Travelling time: about 7 minutes.)
Chicago: L system
Chicago’s iconic elevated train tracks are so much a part of the city that pop culture just wouldn’t be the same without them. Remember the final stages of cult movie The Blues Brothers, when Jake and Elwood finally make it to Chicago’s inner city and drive the Blues Mobile wildly through what appears to be a series of tunnels as dozens and dozens of cop cars crash and smash behind them? That is all happening among the pylons of the ‘L’, as Chicago’s century-old and fully functioning elevated train system is known. (And yes, it is short for ‘Elevated’ and no, we have no idea why it is therefore not the ‘El’.) More recently, it also featured in Ben Stiller’s epic, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. A mix of subways and elevated lines, the L dates back to the 1890s and remains a central pillar of the Windy City’s commuter life.
Melbourne: Clifton Hill to West Richmond
While the recent headlines have debated the pros and cons of building an elevated train line between Caulfield and Dandenong, the fact is Melbourne already has several elevated rail lines and they are pretty awesome. Some of the street art as you wind through the rooftops of Cremorne, heading out from Richmond Station, is brilliant, and then there is the entire elevated stretch from Clifton Hill station to West Richmond on the South Morang/Hurstbridge lines. Rolling at roof level through Collingwood, you get to savour the historic Victoria Park footy ground and enjoy a spectacular view of the city (especially at sunset) as well as the towers of the MCG looming as you approach.
New York: High Line
New York holds the American record for the earliest elevated train, debuting in 1867, and sections are still in use as you travel through the boroughs of the Big Apple. Even better, a 2.3km section of disused elevated rail in central New York has been converted into the High Line park, which is now an immensely popular walking track. Two storeys or so above street level, the track wends itself through the west side of Manhattan, from the Meatpacking District and Chelsea all the way to Hell’s Kitchen. It’s a must-visit if you travel to that city, loaded with flora, installation art and New Yorkers on first dates, and is a brilliant use of a previously derelict section of the disused West Side elevated line.
See Rail drama for a discussion how best to remove Melbourne's level crossings, including a proposal for sky rail.