Research Issues



Hybrid Transport — Trieste Opicina Tramway Funicular


Trieste Opincina Tramway Funicular. Notice anything different? Image by Nol Aders.

Before the widespread adoption of automobiles, cities around the world had little choice but to develop creative ways to move people around. Near the turn of the twentieth century, when urban areas began to industrialize and innovations flourished, streetcar systems began to grow and expand. However, one of the main challenges faced by rail vehicles then (and now) was that they were unable to navigate hilly terrain (> 10% gradient).

To solve this problem, some city builders found that cable-driven solutions were complementary tools in a multi-modal and topographically-challenged transit network.

Mount Adams Incline c1905.jpg

Mount Adams Incline transporting streetcars up and down the hill. Image from Wikipedia.

For example, in the past we documented an interesting hybrid transit lines such the streetcars which operated on Cincinnati’s Mount Adams Incline (1876 – 1948).

Simply put, the rope-driven funicular enabled streetcars to navigate steep hills by allowing a vehicle to load onto a platform, which in turn, was pulled up to the top of a hill. It wasn’t the quickest option by today’s standards, but was regarded as an effective solution for its time.

However, as competing lines were built and cars became more popular, the Mount Adams Incline (alongside the city’s other inclines) were all abandoned. And to that extent, we assumed that all hybrid streetcar / funicular systems were forever lost to time.

Of course, that is until reader Paul S. sent us a link of the Trieste Opicina Tramway.

This 5.2km transit line, built in 1902, connects the town of Opicina to the City of Trieste in Northeastern Italy. While the system at the onset looks like any standard tram, 15% of the route is actually designed with cable-propulsion technology.

When the system first opened, the transit route’s steepest section (between Piazza Scorcola and Vetta Scorcola) used rack railway technology to overcome the hilly terrain. However, to accommodate an increase in ridership, the rack railway section was replaced in 1928 with a more efficient cable-driven tractor. The 799m long rope-propelled section of the line enabled the tram to overcome a height difference of 160m and a maximum gradient of 26% in about 7 minutes.

File:Tram Trieste 2009 11.JPG

The cable-tractor basically “brakes” the descending vehicle (seen on the left) and “pushes” the ascending vehicle. It is important to note that the tram vehicles are not physically connected to the cable-tractor. Image by Smiley.toerist.

The funicular portion of the transit line, between Piazza Scorcola and Vetta Scorcola, is highlighted in red. Image from Trieste Transporti.

While photos are great for illustrating the hybrid tram+funicular concept, nothing really beats seeing the system in action. If you watch the video below, the funicular part starts at the 1:20 mark. In another clip, it’s possible to see that the actual process of preparing the tram for cable-propulsion is relatively quick, taking about 1.5 minutes.

Today, the tram is a popular ride for both locals and tourists and is one of the top attractions in the City. Unfortunately, the line is currently out of service as it suffered damages in an accident in 2016.

As it has been our experience with cable-propelled transit research, it appears that a lot of the information on these hybrid transit lines is yet to be fully unpacked and/or understood by transit planners — especially in the English-speaking world. And perhaps this should not come as a surprise since the majority (and limited number) of these cable-fused trams — Monreale Tram, Automotofunicolare Catanzaro and Darling Street — are now defunct and/or operated in Italy.

Nevertheless, as urban populations grow and renounce the car for more sustainable transportation forms, one can imagine that this type of hybrid technology could be a complementary service in many terrain challenged streetcar networks. The ability to make tram routes more efficient by directly overcoming hilly areas can not only make journeys quicker, but it can also add some novelty/fun to a trip.

Off the top of my head, there are a dozen or so cities where this technology could be used. In fact, this type niche product seems like it could be a logical extension of the urban transit solutions offered by ropeways manufacturers. If cities knew of this product, imagine how many 300+ streetcar cities in the world would explore this technology? After all, how can urban planners begin to solve local transport challenges if they don’t even know that hybrid cable-trams exists?

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Being Feasible

What is feasibility? Image from pixabay.

Years ago, a colleague once remarked to me that feasibility analysis is nothing more than complex marketing — a tool used to advocate for that which has already been decided upon. It’s a comment that stuck with me over the years and has recently taken on new relevance to me.

As we’ve repeatedly pointed out over the past year (here, here and here, to name just a few examples), the cable car industry is living in a golden age of people not only paying attention to the industry but also actively researching and studying potential projects.

That’s no small thing.

While I have no clear statistic to back up this claim, I’m quite certain that there has never been a time in human history where more government and private sector entities have been actively developing cable car projects.

That development process, more often than not, begins with some form of feasibility analysis. And as we’ve also pointed out (here, for example) those analyses are oftentimes lacking in the intellectual rigour necessary to advance the projects.

From what we’ve witnessed, however, the problem is not one of insufficient diligence, but rather the direction those inquiries take. It’s a problem of not asking the right questions — or perhaps not understanding what the questions are in the first place.

When journalists report on a government or corporation commissioning a study (whether that be for a cable car or any other program or piece of infrastructure) to “determine whether X, Y or Z is feasible,” it’s oftentimes written in a way so as to suggest that the study is impartial and binary — that the project Will-Be or Will-Not-Be deemed feasible as though judgement were to be cast down from the heavens.

But what does Being Feasible even mean?

Read more

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WORLD MAP UPDATE: Proposals and Ropeways Added

Given the recent flurry of activity within the urban cable car sector, we took time to update the world map. For a larger version of map, click on the upper right hand corner of the map below or click here.


  • Albany, New York (July 2016)
  • Busan, South Korea (May 2016)
  • Chicago Skyline, Illinois (May 2016)
  • Don Valley Cable Car, Toronto, Ontario (March 2016)
  • Guatemala City, Guatemala (April 2016)
  • Kathmandu, Nepal (June 2016)
  • Konstantz, Germany (June 2016)
  • Linea Plateada (Silver Line) – Mi Teleférico (February 2016)
  • Seoul Sports Complex – Ttukseom Hangang Park (June 2016)
  • SFU Gondola, Burnaby, British Columbia (re-added due to news from June 2016)
  • Zurich, Switzerland (March 2016)


Our Facebook and Twitter page has up-to-the-minute updates, so be sure to check it out. If you have any ideas on how to make the map better, please let us know in the comments below or send us an email at

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Hamilton Gondola — We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

NOTE: An earlier version of this post originally appeared on December 4th, 2009 (yup, that’s over 7 years ago, kids). At that time, the report “City of Hamilton Higher Order Transit Network Strategy” was available online. Unfortunately, it is no longer available. 

Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know and that’s really nobody’s fault.

For example:

In the spring of 2007 a working paper by IBI Group called City of Hamilton Higher Order Transit Network Strategy came out. For those who don’t know, Hamilton is a city in southern Ontario that is cut in half by a 700 kilometer long limestone cliff that ends at Niagara Falls. It’s called the Niagara Escarpment and has made higher-order transit connections between the Upper and Lower cities difficult.

You See The Difficulty

You See The Difficulty

In the IBI paper the writers conclude that a connection between the Upper and Lower cities is “physically impossible” and that the Niagara Escarpment Commission might “strongly resist” any new crossings of the escarpment. As such, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) became the focus and preferred technology of the report. That’s because streetcars and Light Rail can’t handle inclines of more than about 10 degrees. The only way for a rail based technology to work, IBI concluded, was if a tunnel or viaduct was built.

No where in the report, however, was Cable Propelled Transit (CPT) even mentioned, despite cable’s ability to resolve most if not all of the issues IBI highlighted.

It’s no real surprise. Back in 2007 there was virtually no publicly accessible research available on cable. Believe me, I know; I had just started my research in 2007 and it was incredibly difficult to find anything.

Should IBI have considered cable? Should they have known about cable? I don’t know . . . and furthermore, I don’t think it’s relevant to this discussion. What you don’t know, you don’t know and that’s all there is to it.

What is, however, relevant to our discussion is this:

Hamilton Gondola

Photoshop of a gondola traversing the Hamilton Escarpment. Image via Hamilton Spectator.

The City of Hamilton is now updating their Transportation Master Plan and they’re surveying the public on their opinions. And the survey includes a question on gondolas. Last summer, meanwhile, around half of the people that responded at Hamilton’s Transportation Master Plan public meetings said they liked the gondola concept.

So why does that matter?

Because in less than 7 years’ time, a large North American city made a complete about-face on this matter. They went from a place where they thought (incorrectly) that a specific transit problem could not be solved with a fixed link solution due to their topography; to a place where they are actively soliciting the public’s opinion on using a gondola to solve the very problem they previously thought couldn’t be solved.

I know people in the cable car industry think seven years is a lifetime. And it is. But not to a large municipal bureaucracy. To a city, seven years is a heartbeat. In a heartbeat, Hamilton went from basically not even knowing cable cars exist to considering it as a part of their overall Transportation Master Plan.

That’s progress no matter how you look at it.

Creative Commons image by John Vetterli

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Bumblebees Can’t Fly

Above: A bumblebee not flying. Image by flickr user cuellar.

There exists an almost century-old anecdote about a German aerodynamicist and a bumblebee.

Over dinner, the aerodynamicist remarked to a biologist that – according to his calculations and the accepted theory of the day – a bumblebee was incapable of flight.

This, of course, wasn’t true. Bumblebees could fly (still do, I believe) and it didn’t matter that the aerodynamicist and his calculations said otherwise. Delighted by the absurdity of the situation, the biologist spread the story far and wide.

Is the story true? Who cares. It’s a good story and that’s all that matters.

Whether the story is true or not is irrelevant because as a fable and piece of folklore it resonates with us as human beings (check out The Straight Dope for their take on the tale).

For better or for worse, it’s a story that feeds people’s willful distrust of experts, specialists and trained professionals.

Most of the time, I think, we should listen to the experts, specialists and trained professionals. The reason they’re experts is because they know more about something than the general population does.

But the same mechanism that makes an expert an expert can also blind him to anecdotal reality. Nine times out of ten the aerodynamicist will be right with his calculations. But because he knows nothing about bumblebees and their biology, his calculations were worthless in the above situation because no matter what his equations foretold, we’ve actually seen bumblebees fly.

It’s in those moments where it’s incumbent upon the non-expert to point out the error – and incumbent upon the expert to admit his shortcomings.

According to the accepted theory of the day you probably can’t use gondolas as public transit. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t doing it.

A good rule to live by for non-experts: Defer to the experts until they’ve demonstrated themselves no longer worthy of the name.

A good rule to live by for experts: You’re ability to remain an expert is dependent upon your willingness to admit what you don’t know and defer to those that do.


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Are Gondolas and Cable Cars Safe?

Perhaps the most common question we’re asked about Urban Gondolas and Cable Propelled Transit is the safety question. Namely, are they safe?

And while anecdotally we’ve always known them to be a remarkably safe technology, gathering clear statistical proof has been very difficult. Most countries don’t have readily available access to numbers on this and those that do make the mistake of combining ski hill chairlifts and gondolas within the same statistical category despite the two having fundamental differences in their safety statistics.

Nevertheless, the Switzerland’s Office fédéral de la statistique OFS recently put out some new statistics that help shed some light on the safety issue. While by no means definitive, we’ve compiled some of the important numbers in the tables below and our preliminary investigations suggest Cable Propelled Transit technologies such as Funiculars, Gondolas and Aerial Trams are amongst the safest public transit technologies around.

Take a look:

Compiled by CUP; Based Upon Numbers Gathered By Office fédéral de la statistique OFS.

You’ll note that during 2008 and 2009 Funiculars and Gondolas/Aerial Tram technologies consistently experienced the fewest number of accidents, injuries and deaths per 1,000 passengers. Rail-based technologies consistently experienced the most.

These numbers are important for a couple of reasons:

  • Switzerland has the largest number of cable transit systems in the world with a well-used and highly-developed multi-modal transit network across the country. If cable is to be compared to other travel modes, this is the place to make the comparisons.
  • These numbers necessarily did not include small, private gondola systems nor ski hill chairlift systems. This lack of inclusion makes the comparisons far more apt.

Notwithstanding the above, these numbers do come with a few caveats:

  • It would have been preferred to see numbers across a wider time period. Unfortunately the data series used did not include accidents, injuries and deaths for Tram, Trolleybus and Autobus technologies prior to 2008.
  • Owing to Switzerland’s almost complete lack of Subway/Metro technology, no statistics were available for those technologies.
  • While complete accident, injury and death statistics were available for 2010, passenger volumes were not available.
  • An additional comparison between modes by Passenger Kilometers Travelled would’ve been preferred as the distance travelled by cable is likely to be shorter than the distance travelled by the other modes. Such figures, however, were not present in the datasets for Gondola systems. Instead, gondola values were given in Hours of Operation.
  • All information was given in French. And while as Canadians we have a base understanding of the language, there is clear potential for error. Anyone with a greater grasp of the French language is invited to double-check our work.

Having said that, this is still a step in the right direction and more than a little bit eye-opening.

As always, additional information, corrections or amendments can be posted in the comments and we’ll be sure to correct any errors or omissions.

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Why Doesn’t the Industry Keep Better Records?

Ropeway systems have continually demonstrated their ability to adapt to strange new environments. From the mighty rivers of rural China to the stacked vertical density of New York, it seems nothing is insurmountable.

No doubt this flexibility is a main reason why we see more and more of urban gondolas being proposed and built. And thanks to the Internet, we now can keep track of these developments as they come.

However, as we know, ropeways have been around for a long time and many old systems are now just being rediscovered today. Some of these older systems contain a wealth of lessons and best practices for us present-day transportation practitioners. Shouldn’t we be learning from them?

Image by Tino.

Cable Car in Wuhan, China. Notice anything interesting? Image by Tino.

Case in point, the urban cable car in Wuhan, China. It travels from a high-rise building, through and above dense urban form, crosses the Hanjiang River before terminating at the lush and picturesque Guishan Park.

Originally, we thought that the Singapore Cable Car was the only urban ropeway that travels from a tall building but as the picture shows this is obviously not the case.

Perhaps what’s even more unique is that this is the first example we’ve seen of an elevated and arching roadway tower. Aesthetically, the drab concrete architectural styling leaves much to be desired. However, the underlying concept is strong and functional advantages are unmistakable — the cable car tower is integrated into the urban form without the negatively impacting ground-level traffic.

If you look closely at the picture, you’ll notice that it is an excerpt from an old Doppelmayr report. Exactly why such a practical tower design is not mentioned and brought up more often is difficult to say. But we suspect that record keeping in the industry for urban gondolas in the past was minimal at best.

I’m almost certain we will find more of these nice little treats as we continue our journey on the Gondola Project. But perhaps this is a reminder of the importance and value of improving record-keeping for all those working in the cable car industry.

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