Tony the Tour Guy's Blog

A not very regular series of posts on New York City history, historic preservation, genealogy and related themes.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Coney Island Bicycle Railroad

New York has seen some creative approaches to transit, from the pneumatic subway secretly built under Broadway to the helicopter pad that once sat atop the Pan Am building. But for sheer originality, nothing compares with the experimental rail line built by a Mr. Boynton in 1879.

Boynton's idea was simplicity in itself: adapt bicycle technology to railroading. Conventional trains required over a ton of equipment per passenger, and much of the energy that they expended was wasted due to factors such as wind resistance and side sway. But Boynton was convinced that a system incorporating a single rail on the ground, plus another on the top of the train for stability, would not only be more efficient, but could transport people at the then-unheard-of rate of over 60 miles per hour. Brimming with enthusiasm, he set up an experimental line approximately a mile long in the grasslands of Coney Island. His locomotive, which was dubbed "The Flying Billboard" by some critics, weighed a scant 4 tons, and pulled a series of double-decker passenger coaches only 4 feet wide. In test runs the train indeed hit sixty MPH, and could have conceivably gone much faster, had there been sufficient track for it to reach full velocity, and the ride was so smooth that the upper rail hardly seemed necessary. The public was impressed, although some doctors expressed the then-popular notion that such high rates of travel could be dangerous to passengers' health. Boynton began to propose rebuilding the city's elevated lines to accommodate his new technology, and spoke of inter-urban lines to Boston.

Although Boynton's invention fascinated many scientists and engineers of his day, he was never able to garner enough backing to expand beyond his small demonstration line in Brooklyn. Railroad historians, however, believe that his major handicap was simply being born a century too soon, as modern monorails incorporate the same principles which he advocated in 1879.

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