Case Studies



The Hungerburgbahn (Part 2)

Hungerburgbahn, Alpenzoo Intermediary Station. Image by Steven Dale

This is Part 2 of a 3 Part series of posts on the Innsbruck Hungerburgbahn. To read Part 1, click here and to read Part 3, click here.

Leaving the technology-side of things until tomorrow’s post, let’s talk about the Hungerburgbahn’s station configuration.

A common misconception about cable transit is that the stations are large and are, therefore, incompatible with an urban environment. Fortunately this is just a misconception.

The Hungerburgbahn demonstrates how cable stations can be elegantly woven into the urban fabric. Whatever your opinions about Zaha Hadid’s intriguing design (my partner describes it as ugly play-dough from the future), these stations do not impose themselves on the city.

Intermediary Station, Löwenhaus, Image by Steven Dale

Terminals use a beguiling Open-Air-Yet-Underground (OAYU) design and the two intermediary stations are slim and provide ample space for bicycle parking. While the intermediary stations are two stories high, there is no reason they could not be placed on medians at street level much like the current practice common to Light Rail station infrastructure.

Above-Ground Entrance to the Congress Terminal (Exterior), Image by Steven Dale

Underground Congress Terminal (Interior), Image by Steven Dale

To understand cable, you have to divorce the infrastructure from the architecture. Cable infrastructure is relatively modest in size and can be located virtually anywhere (even a few stories underground). The architecture that encases the infrastructure, however, tends not to be. Not because it must be that way, but because it tends to be that way. Strip away the architecture and you have a minimal station footprint, which is highly desirable in urban environments. That’s why the Hungerburgbahn is so important: The stations are small and converse with the city beautifully.

Most alpine cable installations (which are the ones most are familiar with) have just two terminals and (possibly) a mid station. These terminals double as maintenance bays and car yards for the vehicles themselves. This automatically drives up the station size. So a minimum of one large-footprint terminal for maintenance and storage are a base requirement for cable, but intermediary stations can be as slim as desired.

Intermediary Station, Löwenhaus, Image by Steven Dale

Subways, Buses and Light Rail have the exact same problem, but their maintenance facilities tend to be located off-terminal. This “hides” the large footprint of traditional transit, but it does not eliminate it. Furthermore, traditional transit’s off-terminal maintenance configuration means significant costs are incurred to build the infrastructure necessary to shuttle vehicles to and from maintenance yards. A further cost is also incurred during daily operations to bring vehicles into service from the maintenance facilities. In-motion-but-out-of-service vehicles are common to all traditional transit technologies and are an inefficient and costly waste of resources that does not occur with cable transit.

Continue to Part 3.

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The Hungerburgbahn (Part 1)

Image by Steven Dale

Last month I toured the Hungerburgbahn CPT system in Innsbruck, Austria. There is much to say about this system, so I’ve broken the column into 3 parts. This is Part 1.

The importance of the Hungerburgbahn in Innsbruck, Austria cannot be overstated.  Given its unique Hybrid Funicular technology and elegant organic station design by renowned architect Zaha Hadid, one might expect this system to provoke the transit industry’s interest.

One would, however, be wrong: The system is virtually unknown outside this small city nestled in the Austrian Alps. That needs to change, however, because Hybrid Funiculars are a legitimate game-changer in the field of transit planning. Like it’s lone counterpart in Neuchåtel, Switzerland, the Hungerburgbahn deserves attention from the transit and planning industries.

Politicians and policy-makers suffer from what I call the No City Wants To Be First, Every City Wants To Be Second Problem. Traditional transit technologies exploit this problem masterfully because no matter what city you’re in, buses look like buses, subways look like subways and light rail looks like light rail. There are no surpises. Traditional transit technologies are easy to explain and simple to understand which makes life easy for time-deprived politicians and policy-makers.

In the political arena, cable is therefore at a disadvantage. Unless you’re trained to see the similarities, no two CPT systems look the same, at least not in urban environments.

Furthermore, successful implementation of cable in urban settings requires planners to pull component parts from each system and assemble their own. If transit planning were a toy store, buses, streetcars and subways would be the exact replica models, no assembly required. Cable, on the other hand, would be a big box of Lego with no instruction manual. With cable, there’s just no “silver bullet” installation that politicians and policy-makers can point to and say “yes! That’s exactly what we want!”

The Hungerburgbahn might just be that first silver bullet installation, or at least a stepping stone towards it. But before discussing what the Hungerburgbahn is, let’s discuss what it’s not:

  • The Hungerburgbahn is not fully-integrated into the city’s transit grid; an additional fare is required beyond the price of a standard transit ticket and that fare is not cheap: a steep €6.80.
  • The Hungerburgbahn is not a long system. It’s just under two kilometers long, with two stations, two terminals and only two vehicles which shuttle back-and-forth.
  • The Hungerburgbahn has atrociously long wait times of 15 minutes between departing vehicles. As the system caters to recreationalists (let’s pretend that’s a word, okay?), that is not such a problem, but would be in actual public transit usage. This could easily be shortened, however, as the travel time from end-to-end, is only 8 minutes.
  • Dwell times at stations and terminals are similarly long and unnecessary. I witnessed dwell times of up to two minutes at each of the two intermediary stations and cannot fathom a reasonable justification for this. Subways, which move hundreds of people at a time, use dwell times of between 10-20 seconds. Trimming dwell times could cut total travel time by up to 50%.

In other words, the Hungerburgbahn is not quite public transit. It is a stand-alone system that shuttles people from the city centre of Innsbruck to the alpine suburb of Hungerburg. But that is not the fault of the technology itself and none of the problems I just highlighted are specific to the technology. Each flaw the Hungerburgbahn presents is easily fixed.

So why then is the Hungerburgbahn such a revolutionary system? Tune in tomorrow to find out.

Hint: It has to do with the stations.

Continue to Part 2.

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January 28th, 1882

Chicago, 1890s. Library of Congress

January 28th, 1882 is one of (if not the) most important dates in Cable Transit history. On that blustery winter day, C.B. Holmes opened the first cable car in Chicago.

It was the first time cable was shown to be economical in such a snowy, icy, windy environment. It was also the first known instance of cable cars installed in an absolutely flat city.

The Chicago City Railway cable cars operated at 23 km/hr and within 5 years were carrying 27 million passengers per year. Remember: This was 1887! They were also among the most profitable and extensive in all of North America.

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Cincinnati Funiculars

The Mount Adams Incline in Cincinnati, Ohio

The Mount Adams Incline in Cincinnati, Ohio

Way back in the day (we’re talking 1872 here) Cincinnati, Ohio was clustered at the base of several small mountains. As the city grew and expanded up the sides of the mountain city officials had a problem: How were people and goods to be moved up and down the mountains?

This was, of course, before automobiles. People were still using horse-and-wagon and the steep grades surrounding Cincinnati threatened the city’s growth. A series of five inclined railways / funiculars were used to ingeniously solve this problem.

Bellevue Incline in Cincinnati, Ohio

Bellevue Incline in Cincinnati, Ohio

Cincinnati’s funiculars were remarkably unique and simple in concept.  As far as I am aware (and that could change), I believe they were almost entirely new for the time. And as such, I think they deserve their own classification: Let’s just call them “Cincinnati Funiculars.” for ease and simplicity’s sake.

What differentiates a Cincinnati Funicular from a traditional funicular is this: Traditional funiculars were (and continue to be) enclosed vehicles running up and down a mountain. A Cincinnati Funicular, however, was simply a gated platform that was relatively level to the horizon. It’s entrances and exits were aligned not with a sidewalk, but instead with the existing street grid.

Traditional Funicular, The Duquesne Incline in Pittsburgh, PA

Traditional Funicular, The Duquesne Incline in Pittsburgh, PA

A Traditional Funicular, the Polybahn in Zurich, Switzerland

A Traditional Funicular, the Polybahn in Zurich, Switzerland

A Cincinnati-Style Funicular; Cincinnati, Ohio

A Cincinnati-Style Funicular; Cincinnati, Ohio

This pared-down design conceit allowed horse-and-wagon teams to move from the street below, onto the funicular, up the mountain and onto the street above with little trouble. As time passed, the system allowed streetcars, trolleys and buses to do the same. It was a rare situation of transit technologies co-operating rather than competing with each other.

So who cares, right? Transit planners and advocates should:

Almost all rail systems (that includes, light rail, streetcar and subways) are limited to their location by how steep they can climb. It’s a limiting factor they can’t avoid. Rail technology simply cannot climb more than a roughly 10 degree incline. This severely restricts their potential for installation in all but the flattest of locations (see Hamilton, Ontario for a modern day example of this situation). When partnered, however, with a Cincinnati Funicular, that problem is alleviated, thereby opening up all new avenues for rail-based systems.

Sadly, like most fixed-link transit in North America, Cincinnati’s funiculars were gone by 1948. Unlike rail transit systems, buses and private automobiles had no troubles ascending the mountains, thereby making the inclines redundant. The design concept of a Cincinnati Funicular was forgotten about almost completely and the funiculars were demolished.

But now, given that the gussied-up streetcar known as Light Rail is king again I have a feeling we’ll be seeing Cincinnati Funiculars sometime soon once more.

Mount Adams Incline.

Mount Adams Incline.

Historical images of the Cincinatti Funicular are public domain. They can be viewed at

Creative Commons images by JOE M500 and phototram

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The Speed of CPT (and Chickadees)

The other day I wrote about how Toronto’s streetcars were like shooting chickadees with cannonballs.  In terms of speed, the streetcars were designed to operate at speeds far in excess of what was possible in an urban environment.

So how does CPT stack up on our Cannonball Index (that doesn’t exist, by the way, but wouldn’t it be great if it did)? Pretty well, in fact.

Cable-Propelled Transit maxes out at around 40 km/hr and most are built with a maximum speed of around 27 – 35 km/hr. Doesn’t sound too impressive, does it?  Remember, though, these vehicles actually travel at that speed. None of this built to go 100 but actually goes 10 nonsense.

Of course we have to factor in the time required for the vehicle to stop and allow passengers to alight and board but that time is offset by three major factors:

First, terminal time.  Because CPT is almost always fully automated, terminal time (the time a vehicle idles at its two terminal stations) is statistically irrelevant.

Second, drivers’ breaks.  Again, because CPT is typically fully automated with driverless vehicles no time and speed loss occurs due to bathroom breaks.

Third, crawl speed.  In the case of aerial-supported Gondola systems, vehicles don’t stop at stations. Instead, they are slowed down to what is known as “crawl speed” or “creep speed”.  Vehicles move through the stations at a speed of less than a meter per second allowing passengers to safely board and alight.  For those with accessibility issues, the vehicles can be stopped entirely for safe loading. Crawl speed doesn’t have a dramatic impact on overall average speed, but it does increase it somewhat.

So next time you’re riding a streetcar in Toronto . . . please, think of the chickadees.

Plz kanz yous think of me?

Please, think of me?

Creative Commons image by spaceamoeba

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(For those of you not statistically or mathematically inclined, you’ll probably want to skip this post)

PPHPD is an acronym for persons per hour per direction and is a great tool for calculating offered capacity of a transit line. Unfortunately, it’s not a term that has any sort of mainstream usage or understanding and that means it’s easy for us to be confused when we read reports or news articles about our cities’ transit systems.

When we read a news clipping where someone lauds a transit line carrying “40,000 people” (as is common in my hometown of Toronto), we tend to nod our heads and say “hmm . . . yes . . . that’s a lot of people. We should be proud of ourselves.”

But what does 40,000 people really mean . . ? We’ll get back to that in a minute.

PPHPD boils things down to their lowest common denominator. PPHPD defines this:  How many total passenger spaces per hour pass a given point on a transit line in a the single peak direction?

In other words, if over the course of one rush hour, a westbound streetcar is scheduled to arrive at a given stop every fifteen minutes; and those streetcars can each carry 100 passengers each, then we know that the PPHPD of that line at that time is 400 (60 minutes / 15 minutes x 100 passengers = 400 PPHPD).

So let’s apply that knowledge, going back to our 40,000 people example:

The 501 Queen Streetcar in Toronto has the distinction of being the world’s longest Streetcar line, it’s also one of North America’s busiest. That should tell you something. At around 30 km long and running 24 hours per day, it carries 40,000 people (on average) per weekday.

Impressive? I guess, unless you look at it from the perspective of PPHPD. If you look at the 501 from the perspective of PPHPD, you find that on any given day, the501 Queen Streetcar only offers around 2,000 PPHPD at peak rush hour.  See the difference there? It’s classic bait-and-switch.

40,000 people sounds impressive so that’s the statistic planners and journalists trot out. 2,000 on the other hand, doesn’t just sound common, it sounds inadequate.  What politician wouldn’t want to say 40,000 instead of 2,000?

My point in bringing this up is this:  Light Rail/Streetcar technology is very expensive to build. It ranges, generally, between $30 – 75 million USD per kilometer.  Some instances such as Seattle, have had costs explode over $100 million USD per kilometer. Meanwhile, there is no single Light Rail line in all of North America that provides an offered capacity greater than ~ 5,000 PPHPD.

(For the wonks out there: Yes, I know Boston’s Green Line provides offered capacity of over 9,000 but that’s only in the trunk section of three converging lines.)

Cable, on the other hand, can be built for between $15 – 45 million USD per kilometer and can provide capacity up to 6,000 PPHPD.

How much sense does that make?

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Shooting a Chickadee with a Cannonball

The Swiss have an expression to describe solving a problem with far more than is necessary.

To do so, they say, is to “shoot a chickadee with a cannonball,” and is a perfect description of what light rail is to the transit planning problem.

As an example: Toronto’s current fleet of streetcars were designed to reach a top speed of around 100 km/hr, and yet they never reach that speed. Not even close. In fact, if one looks at the Toronto Transit Commission‘s own service summaries, one sees that the average speeds of most streetcar lines in Toronto rarely eclipse 15 km/hr. Most hover around 12 or 13.

(You can find several TTC service summaries on the fine Transit Toronto website.)

Anyone whose ever ridden a Toronto streetcar can tell you the reason. Streetcars in Toronto stop constantly to linger at red lights, pick-up and drop-off passengers and avoid any of the pitfalls of modern urban traffic.

Yes, terminal time and driver’s bathroom breaks also factor into the equation, but the point is still the same:

Streetcars in Toronto will never reach speeds of 100 km/hr because the nature of urban environments preclude it. In fact, even subway trains, which stop far less frequently and operate in exclusive rights-of way, rarely surpass average speeds of 35 km/hr.

It’s like that guy who buys a Ferrari and drives it into the city every day only to get stuck in traffic jam-after-traffic jam. It’s all fine and well that you have a Ferrari that can go zero to 200 in 3.2 nano-seconds (or whatever), but if you use it in the city, you will never get to do so.

So what’s the point? There isn’t one . . . unless you like shooting chickadees with cannonballs.

That Guy

That Guy

Creative Commons image by vm2827

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