Peak 2 Peak



Installing the Peak 2 Peak’s Ropes

As I’m currently recovering from a nasty flu bug that took me out of commission for the last few days, I’m executing the classic Sick Teacher’s Maneuver of simply showing a video instead of doing what I’m ostensibly supposed to be doing. So while Mr. Dale rests up, check out this informative video short about installing the Peak 2 Peak‘s haul and track ropes.

And, yes, there will be a quiz on this later this week.

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World Class Alpine Resorts Near City = Urban Gondolas?

Since the Gondola Project’s inception two years ago, reception (for the most part) has been overwhelmingly positive with interest in gondola transit rising dramatically. (Thanks again everyone! Keep the emails/comments coming!).

Peak 2 Peak - Whister. Image by Flickr User roaming-the-planet.

While there’s more work to be done, we’ve managed to successfully help bridge the knowledge gap between the institutions of city/transportation planning and urban gondolas.

If we just look within the Great White North alone, half of Canada’s largest metropolitan areas, are in or reported to be in the preliminary stages of planning a gondola system. That’s Vancouver (Burnaby), Calgary and Montreal (Laval).

Rendering of Laval CPT. Image via City of Laval.

In my opinion, this accomplishment is incredible. Two years ago, as compared to today, CPT was a fringe, misunderstood and relatively obscure technology in the North American transit world. Not so much anymore.

But this leads me to ask: What’s the biggest Canadian city that’s currently suffering from the worst congestion but yet to even remotely contemplate CPT?

You guessed it – Toronto.

While lampooning public transit in Hogtown is a favourite pastime amongst Torontonians, I do think they are doing great things in the city (i.e. Spadina Subway Extension, Eglinton Crosstown LRT etc.).

So instead of hating on the city that I love, I asked: Why is cable being implemented in other Canadian cities but not in Toronto?

As I’m currently preparing to go skiing in Whistler this week, I’ve had an epiphany. There’s a crucial factor existent in Vancouver (Burnaby), Calgary and Montreal (Laval) that’s missing in Toronto.

Can you guys think of it?

Can't wait to hit the slopes! Whistler, British Columbia. Image by Flickr User jsigharas.

World-class ski resorts!

Let’s see: Calgary has Lake Louise; Vancouver has Whistler and Montreal has Mont Tremblant.

And Toronto has Blue Moun… nevermind.

I’m sure there’s more to this revelation than alpine facilities, but it’s probably the most straightforward answer. In fact, this surprising fact may not be surprising at all.

Civil Engineers/part-time cable aficionados in the 1980’s, Bondada and Neumann, already found that planners more familiar with cable technology were more likely to rate it higher on a scale of 1 to 10. The question, then, is if mere familiarity with the technology in a ski resort setting is enough to cause planners to consider the technology more seriously. Bondada and Neumann, unfortunately, never addressed that question.

Anyways . . .  happy skiing everyone!

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The Peak 2 Peak (Part 3)


Image by Steven Dale

Last month I toured Whistler’s Peak 2 Peak cable gondola system. This is Part 3 of a 3-part series on the system. Click on the following links to view Part 1 and Part 2.

Most aerial cable systems offer a smooth ride. What little friction there is, is rarely felt by the rider. Except, of course, when it comes to passing over towers. When passing over the sheave assemblies attached to these towers, riders tend to feel a noticeable bumpiness and accompanying noise. To some, it can be slightly unnerving. The older and more basic the system, the more pronounced this is.

The Peak 2 Peak’s 3S technology does away with these nuisances. When passing over the towers, there is virtually no change in noise level nor smoothness of ride. The engineers should be commended for this feat. Not only does it make the ride more pleasant, it makes the technology more palatable to the psychological fears of riders not accustomed to cable technologies.

The towers are, however, quite large compared to less advanced systems. This is partly due to the technology in question but also partly due to the distance between towers. At it’s most extreme, 3 km of ropes, vehicles and skiers are supported by only two intermediary towers. It’s an engineering marvel, but means the towers are giants. The four intermediary towers range between 35 to 65 metres in height!

(Such tower heights would be too large for an urban environment unless extreme design changes are made. Granted, I can think of only a few urban situations where a 3 km towerless span would be required.)

As I said earlier, everything about the Peak 2 Peak feels oversized and enormous. Use whatever superlative you like, it probably applies to the Peak 2 Peak.

Except when it comes to the engine.

I’ve seen my fair share of cable transit engine rooms and they’re almost always underwhelming. One sees these massive systems and one expects a corresponding engine room. That expectation almost never meets reality. The Peak 2 Peak is no different.


Peak 2 Peak Main Engine Room. Image by Steven Dale

The Peak 2 Peak’s main engine and drive is located beneath the station in a bland, white subterranean room. The sound of the engine is deafening, but the engine itself is nothing much to behold. Despite it’s fire engine red coat of paint, the machine is unassuming. It’s small enough to fit inside a streetcar with room to spare for a half dozen riders and their backpacks.

That this piece of equipment moves 18 km’s of steel cable, 28 vehicles, 4,100 passengers and a steel bullwheel is remarkable. In fact, it’s almost unbelievable. What’s even more unbelievable is the diesel backup engine. The back-up is less than half the size of the main drive but can switch on within seconds of a main engine failure.

Redundancy is the name of the game here.

Of course the engine doesn’t do all the work. Gravity does much of it. The “belly” (I love that term) or sag of the rope is significant, on the order of three or four hundred metres. As maintenance engineer Sean Duff explained to me, the belly of the rope allows the system to capture potential energy (gravity) and use it to its advantage. Vehicles descending the belly pull vehicles up the belly. The engine only has to provide enough energy to compensate for the difference.

According to Sean, it’s an incredibly efficient system.

Because the Peak 2 Peak is a horizontal system, Sean explained, the system actually uses less energy than do the other gondolas on Whistler Mountain. Whereas the other systems must typically drag hundreds of people up the hill (with very few people using the system to descend the hill), the Peak 2 Peak has a relatively constant load on both directions. This causes a counterbalancing effect which reduces energy consumption.

When, however, a system with more “vertical rise” has more people descending the lift than ascending, it’s not uncommon for engineers to witness energy consumption drop below zero. That is, the system is basically generating energy because the weight of the descending line is heavier than the weight of the ascending line.


Image by Steven Dale

It’s refreshing how accessible the system’s engineers and maintenance staff are. Part of that accessibility is due to their presence. Unlike other transit technologies, cable systems tend to have engineers and maintenance staff onsite at all times of operation. As more-and-more cable systems demand near round-the-clock service (especially in airports), long shut downs for maintenance are just not a possibility.

This has caused the cable industry to adopt a policy of preventative maintenance. Throughout the course of their workdays, cable engineers are not fixing problems after the fact, they’re preventing them from happening in the first place.

As I said in Part 1 of this series, I doubt the Peak 2 Peak was really meant for skiers. Skiers want to go from the top of a mountain to the bottom, not from the top of one mountain directly to the top of another.  But that’s not really the point of the Peak 2 Peak.

Instead, the Peak 2 Peak is a statement of cable’s advances. Is it necessary? No. Is it overkill? Completely. But at a total cost of only $57 million, this overkill is still more cost-effective and deeply efficient compared to our traditional transit solutions.

It may be at a ski resort, but it’s transit through and through.

Return to Part 2.

Return to Part 1.

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The Peak 2 Peak (Part 2)

Image by Steven Dale

Last month I toured Whistler’s Peak 2 Peak cable gondola system. This is Part 2 of a 3-part series on the system. Click on the following link to view Part 1.

The very first thing one notices about the Peak 2 Peak is the sheer scale of it. Everything is bigger, flashier and a little less . . . quaint. This quaintness of past cable systems, I suspect, has caused much of the resistance to the concept of cable transit. Too small, too slow, etc.

None of that exists with the Peak 2 Peak. Signs in the vehicles proclaim the system’s high speed, large vehicle size and hefty system capacity. The Peak 2 Peak is big and it wants you to know it. It’s an obvious volley by the cable industry that says “we’re transit, too.”

Unfortunately, the scale of the system sometimes works against those goals. Stations are enormous and far too big for most urban areas. In cities, land is at a premium and extra space costs both current dollars and future tax revenue, a double negative in the minds of public transit agencies who might consider the technology.

This is not, however, an entirely fair assessment. When one examines the drive machinery, one notices that it is not significantly larger than standard systems. It’s a question of divorcing the infrastructure from the architecture. The infrastructure is standard and (relatively) modest, whereas the architecture is gargantuan.

This architecture is, however, necessary. The Peak 2 Peak has only two stations and these stations double as maintenance and parking facilities for each of the 28 (and 2 backup) vehicles. Public transit agencies also possess vehicle maintenance and parking facilities, but those are generally off-site and out-of-mind.

Off-site maintenance yards are, however, very expensive and create additional operating costs by way of the costs involved in bringing vehicles from the yards into revenue service. Are those costs off-set by locating the yards in low-cost industrial areas? I don’t know. What savings would accrue (if any) from having vehicles maintained and stored on-site instead of off-site would be an interesting discussion, but is a bigger issue for another time.

Incidentally, the next 3S system to be opened in the world will be a flat, temporary urban system in Koblenz, Germany. From the renderings I’ve seen, it appears the system will utilize slim-profile stations. How that system integrates maintenance and operations facilities into the whole will be useful to see and should contribute much to this conversation. There are, after all, more fingers on your hand than there are 3s systems in the world.


Vehicles are colour-coded to indicate those that have glass-bottomed floors (silver) and those that do not (red). Image by Steven Dale.

While the design of the system as a whole is utilitarian and industrial, there are a few neat flourishes.

Firstly, the seating is actually comfortable. Unlike most ski lifts, these are seats one could imagine spending 30 minutes sitting on. Are they perfect? Not by a long shot, but they’re a vast improvement over existing cable seats.

More important, the ratio between seats and standing space is excellent; 22 seats compared to 6 standing spaces per vehicle. Interestingly, however, I observed almost no one sitting. Most were happy to roam about the cabin, taking in the sites. These cabins are large, remember, and roaming is just about the best word to describe the way riders float around the cars looking through the windows.

The windows are also worth commenting on. Most ski lift gondolas utilize moulded plexiglass. Plastic windows add a cheapness to most gondolas, and are easily keyed and scratchittied (yes, that’s actually a word) by vandal-riders. Not so with the Peak 2 Peak. All vehicles are equipped with clear, tempered glass windows. The heft of these windows add so much to the experience it’s hard to describe.

It’s like the difference between cheap Ikea wine goblets, and fine crystal. Why one is better than the other is hard to quantify, but the difference is there and everyone notices it. The simple act of using glass windows instead of plastic transforms the Peak 2 Peak from just another gondola to something that approaches what we understand as transit.

And while speaking of glass . . .

Two of the 28 vehicles have a glass-bottomed floor. These floors give the rider an unprecedented and unique view of the world through transit. While I might be wrong, I suspect there is no other transit technology in the world that allows riders to look down upon the world from a height of almost half a kilometre.

The view of Fitzsimmons Creek from a height of 436 m. Image by Steven Dale.

This window is, however, cordoned off. Riders are not allowed to stand upon the glass floor, though the rails forbidding this are such that any person who wanted to, could. It’s nothing more than a psychological safety mechanism. It doesn’t make anyone more or less safe, but it makes you feel more safe. The tradeoff, however, is a loss of 2-6 spaces for standees, negligible in a resort area.

One of the most wonderful design novelties of this systems is the way in which glass-bottomed vehicles are identified. Whereas all the normal vehicles are painted red, the two glass-bottomed vehicles are painted silver. There is a beautiful elegance to this design feature. Instead of reading words (which you may not understand if you’re a tourist) or looking into each vehicle as it passes, you simply need look at the colour.

Colour is a powerful tool that is rarely used by transit agencies. Individual routes on a map may be colour-coded, but the vehicles themselves rarely are. Instead, transit agencies rely solely on numbers and names to differentiate their routes.

Why not paint vehicles different colours to suggest different features, or routes? It makes almost perfect sense when one considers it.

From an overall design perspective, the Peak 2 Peak is not aesthetically beautiful. It does, however, offer so many small, practical features it’s hard not view it with fondness. It is a clear and definite step in the right direction.

Proceed to Part 3 where I’ll wrap up this series with a discussion about the engineering and electricity demands that are put upon the Peak 2 Peak.

Return to Part 1.

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The Peak 2 Peak (Part 1)

Image by Steven Dale.

Last month I toured Whistler’s Peak 2 Peak cable gondola system. This is a 3-part series on the system. Part 1 is necessarily technical in nature and will refer back to several pages of The Gondola Project for those unfamiliar with cable technology.

With small, incremental baby-steps, cable transit continues to push its capabilities beyond what people traditionally expect of it.

Whistler, British Columbia’s Peak 2 Peak, however, is not so much incremental as it is an innovative leap forward for the technology. One of my former university professors, after having ridden the system, described it to me as an “incredibly impressive machine.”

(Somehow referring to it simply as “a machine” doesn’t quite do it justice, but that professor was never easily impressed anyways.)

The Peak 2 Peak was initially conceived by the proprietor’s of the Whistler-Blackcomb ski resort as a method of shuttling skiers and hikers between the tops of the resorts two major mountains (Whistler and Blackcomb).

You can’t help but question the logic of this: Skiers (the primary users of this system) use a gondola to get up a mountain so that they can ski down the mountain. As both the Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains each have their own gondola systems, why would a skier need to use the Peak 2 Peak at all?

Nevertheless, the novelty of the system attracts strong ridership and since it’s opening in early 2009, the Peak 2 Peak has become an attraction in it of itself.

At it’s highest point, the cable is 436 m above the valley floor, which (for comparison) is about the height of Chicago’s Sears Tower. And yet there’s virtually no vertical rise. The Peak 2 Peak is an almost completely horizontal system.

The Peak 2 Peak experiences virtually no vertical rise from station to station. Image by Steven Dale.

While the height of the system is impressive, it’s the valley crossing that garners most attention. While most cable systems would require several intermediary towers to accomplish a 3 km long valley crossing, the Peak 2 Peak does so without a single intermediary tower. This is the longest unsupported cable span in the world and the Peak 2 Peak owes its fame to this very feature.

Massive, unsupported spans such as this were impossible before the recent 3S innovation. Much like the technology behind Innsbruck’s Hungerburgbahn, 3S technology is a hybrid fusion of two separate cable technologies. But while the Hungerburgbahn fused funiculars and gondolas, the 3S is a hybrid of aerial trams and gondolas.

Aerial trams have a high speed, excellent wind stability and large vehicles. They are also expensive. The Portland Aerial Tram and the Roosevelt Island Tram are two very good examples of this technology. The trouble with aerial trams is they are not detachable systems and that causes their overall capacity to decrease. Corner-turning is impossible. It’s a high-cost, low-value technology.

Gondolas, meanwhile, have modest speeds, smaller vehicles and modest wind stability, but are detachable. This detachability increases system capacity, lowers wait times and allows for corner-turning.

The 3S, therefore fuses the benefits of both technologies while eliminating the deficiencies of each. The Peak 2 Peak runs on two individual and stationary support cables while it is propelled by a third separate moving cable. It is basically like a Bicable system with a second support cable. This second support cable allows 3S technology to carry vehicles of up to 35 people and operate safely in 100 km/hr winds.

Capacity of the Peak 2 Peak is 2,500 pphpd with 28-person vehicle headways of 49 seconds. Even shorter headways and larger vehicles are possible, driving the capacity of a 3S system above the 4,000 pphpd threshold.

Two stationary "track" cables with the moving propulsion cable in the centre. Image by Steven Dale.

While the Peak 2 Peak does not utilize intermediary stations or corners, those two features are both possible with 3S technology and are sure to be realized in the future. As of yet, however, only a handful of 3S systems are operational across the globe.

Proceed to Part 2 where I discuss station and vehicle design and footprint.

Click here to read Part 3

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Test Drive A Cable System Today!

Take a look at that picture again . . . Now take a look at this one:

Looks like the same system, right? Well, you’re sort of right and sort of wrong.

It is, indeed, the same system, but they’re in two different cities!

For those who don’t know (and I certainly didn’t), the biannual Federal horticulture show in Germany (BUGA) is a big deal. The 2009 show in Schwerin welcomed 1.8 million visitors over 4 months and the 2011 show expects over 2 million visitors.

The two images above were from the 2003 BUGA in Rostock and the 2005 BUGA in Munich, respectively. To provide an aerial view of the show grounds, Doppelmayr installed a simple Monocable Detachable Gondola. At the end of the show in Rostock, the system was disassembled and reassembled in Munich.

How about doing the same thing for an urban transit system? A test drive, if you will.

Would it be a long system? Probably not, but it wouldn’t have to be. It would just have to make a point.

For example, the 2011 BUGA in Koblenz is building a short 850 m long system, but it will carry 7,000 passengers per hour, well in excess of most light rail lines in North America.

What looks to be a 3S system is being built for the 2011 BUGA in Koblenz, Germany.

The most exciting thing about the Koblenz system is that it is not the basic MDG used in Rostock and Munich. From the pictures I’ve seen, it appears to be a 3S, the most advanced aerial cable system on the planet. The 3S was popularized by Doppelmayr with their Peak-2-Peak at Whistler-Blackcomb and will receive significant attention during the upcoming winter games in Vancouver.

The big question is whether or not this will be a temporary installation. The stations are tiny compared to those in Whistler (a good thing for any urban environment), which suggests it is, but I can find no information to support or deny that assumption.

If it is a temporary installation, could it be toured? Could a city just try it out? Kick the tires a bit?

I often talk about the No City Wants to be First Problem. It’s a clear problem when it comes to purchasing transit infrastructure, but does the problem exist if extended to testing transit infrastructure? I’m not sure that it would.

I suspect a touring cable transit system would have no shortage of cities interested.

Who wants to be first?

Images from Dr. Alex Rollrasen, Allie Caulfield, and the Koblenz 2011 homepage.

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The Peak 2 Peak

Peak 2 Peak

I’m in transit to Vancouver today to tour the Peak 2 Peak gondola in Whistler, British Columbia.

The Peak 2 Peak uses an advanced 3S technology, whereby vehicles are supported by two stationary cable spans while the third cable provides the propulsion. It’s one of the most sophisticated cable technologies there is. It enables vehicles to operate safely in 100 km/hr winds and incredibly long unsupported spans. The Peak 2 Peak is one of only a handful of 3S systems in the world, but is notable because it has the single longest unsupported cable span on earth; over 3,024 metres long!

This system operates at 27 km/hr, provides an offered capacity of 2,050 pphpd, and has wait times of 49 seconds between vehicles. Built at a cost of $52 million, it is 4.4 km long and has a per kilometre cost of less than $12 million. The ratio between sitting passenger spaces (sittees) and standing passenger spaces (standees) is more than 3 to 1, which is high for any transit technology.

I’ll let you know more about it in the coming week.

Creative Commons image by Duncan Rawlinson.

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