Cable Cars



I can’t see the difference, can you see the difference?

As some people know, there’s a huge subset of bottom-supported cable transit in the form of Cable Cars & Funiculars. Yet it’s a topic I’ve not given much attention to so far. Here’s why:

It’s hard to get people’s attention with Cable Cars. Urban Gondolas? Much simpler.

Back in March I was interviewed for an online news magazine called The Mark News. Bizarrely, as I was talking about bottom-supported systems; the following image was shown:

This picture is from The Gondola Project, but it’s not of a cable transit system. It is, in fact, a Monorail (they kindly re-edited the piece correcting for the error). Is it a big error? I’d say so. But it was also completely understandable. After all, this is what most Cable Car systems look like today:

The Pearson Airport Link in Toronto. Image by Squiggle.

I can’t see the difference, can you see the difference?

The reason gondolas grab people’s attention is because they look different immediately. You don’t need to understand the nuances between cable-propelled trains versus self-propelled trains. With a gondola, you see the cable and it’s up in the air. You don’t need an explanation. That’s both their blessing and their curse: Gondolas look so different from any other form of transit they can quickly arouse fear and suspicion in people. But they can also inspire curiosity.

One way or another, at least people pay attention.

The challenge the Cable Car industry faces is how to differentiate their technology from Automated People Movers (APM), Monorails and Light Rail. Because right now, most people don’t even know there’s a difference.

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Technicians Not Operators

The Mandalay Bay cable car in Vegas operates under a simple and controversial principal: Technicians, not operators.

This fundamental principal means this: The system is never in the hands of amateurs. If you don’t know how the system works in its entirety, you don’t operate the system. It’s the difference between having teenagers run a roller coaster and the people who actually built it running it.

This concept was described to me by Don Asetta, the Manager of Operations and Maintenance at the Mandalay Bay Cable Car. While the concept – up front – means increased costs, the long term savings are huge. As I mentioned in a previous post, the system is still operating with its original cable, eleven years later. Nevertheless, it’s massively controversial concept because of how disruptive it is for management, unions, etc.

Trouble is, the concept makes perfect sense. Every operator of the system is also an engineer, technician and maintainer of the system. Don, himself, spends 2 hours every shift in the booth “operating” the system.

To paraphrase Don: Whose going to know more about a system and what’s going on with it? Someone who just operates it, or someone who operates on it?

Think about that.

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Mandalay Bay Cable Car, Part 3


The Mandalay Bay Mechanical Room. Image by Steven Dale

I recently travelled to Las Vegas, Nevada to explore that city’s two public cable systems. This is Part 3 of a 3 Part report on the Mandalay Bay Cable Car.

The importance of station design in cable cannot be overstated. Even more than other transit technologies, cable stations have to be designed to accommodate large piece of infrastructure and maintenance facilities that other technologies can locate elsewhere.

This problem is typically exacerbated by over-zealous planners and engineers unfamiliar with cable. In the case of short-distance people mover systems, it is standard practice to design stations prior to technology selection. Mistakenly, designers appear to believe that cable and self-propelled vehicles are one and the same. They are not, and to design and build a station prior to technology selection is a tremendous mistake that costs time and money in the future.

Mercifully, this did not happen with the Mandalay Bay. Station and maintenance design was left till after technology choice. Once cable had been selected, engineers familiar with the technology designed stations in tandem with architects to maximize visual effect while providing for every practicality associated with cable.

As such, the Mandalay Bay system has one of the most complete and user-friendly maintenance bays in the bottom-supported cable transit world. A full workshop and spare parts shop is located below the system, allowing technicians to conduct preventative maintenance at all hours of the day.

A recent tour of a similar system in Toronto, Canada (to be discussed in a future series) suffered from the opposite. Stations and maintenance bays were designed beforehand. As such, the facilities are both oversized in some places and undersized in others. It is a station design that is completely inappropriate for cable technology and Toronto’s weather. This adds significant costs and significant frustration to daily maintenance.

I cannot overemphasize this point enough: If you are even considering cable as a transit choice, do not (I REPEAT: DO NOT!!!) design and build the stations before you’ve officially chosen cable. You will save your self heaps of time, tons of trouble, and hours of bitching from justifiably-irritated-and-inconvenienced maintenance workers.

Cable’s special. Not snowflake special, but special nevertheless. Treat it that way.

Mandalay Bay Station. Image by Steven Dale.

The true beauty of the Mandalay Bay cable car is that the system’s practical requirements are met perfectly, yet with a high degree of flair and style. The stations are part of the overall experience, they aren’t merely practical. Even by Vegas standards, the stations are attractive.

The same can be said for the vehicles themselves. MGM actually holds a patent on the design for the vehicles and they are unique to MGM resorts. The noses are far more pointed than traditional Doppelmayr cable cars and this gives them an aggressive, purposeful appearance.

Admittedly, the vehicles have suffered from vandalism and wear over the years. It’s the kind of vandalism, too, that can’t just be fixed with scrubbing (scratchiti and the like). Parts would have to be replaced and in this economic climate, MGM has chosen state of good repair maintenance over replacing vandalized or worn parts. Small spots of rust are visible on the guideway.

Nevertheless, the Mandalay Bay cable car is a true joy. As stated in a previous article, this is an incredibly reliable system. That it was built for a fraction of the price of a comparable self-propelled system is all the better.

Next time you’re in Vegas, ride this thing. Ride it hard. It can take it.


Click here to read Part 1.

Click here to read Part 2.

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Mandalay Bay Cable Car, Part 2

I recently travelled to Las Vegas, Nevada to explore that city’s two public cable systems. This is Part 2 of a 3 Part report on the Mandalay Bay Cable Car.

The Mandalay Bay Cable Car is the kind of cable installation I love. It’s a modest, unassuming workhorse that demonstrates why cable is just so attractive a technology. It’s fast, it’s got heft and it just feels right. I know it’s impossible to quantify such a subjective concept, but – believe me – I’ve ridden several cable systems that didn’t feel right and this one does. In fact, it feels almost perfect.

The system operates 24 hours per day, 365 days of the year with a total downtime of less than 0.5%. It operates above 30 km/hr and it can move between 1,500 and 3,000 pphpd depending on your calculation. The lack of a specific capacity is due to two major factors:

The Mandaly Bay Cable Car Map. Note the Express Line and the Local Circulator Line. Image by Steven Dale.

FIRST. Because it is a hotel resort system, capacity is at least somewhat determined by people with luggage. As anyone who comes to Vegas will do so with luggage, that luggage must be accommodated for. The more luggage, the less people. This fact somewhat artificially drives down the stated capacity of the system. During times of conferences and conventions, when people from all over Vegas descend on the Mandalay Bay, the system operates well over stated capacity without trouble, a testament to the previous statement.

SECOND. The system actually operates two separate independent shuttles. One is an express connecting the Excalibur and Mandalay Bay resorts in a single swift minute, whereas the second line is a local connector with intermediary stops at the Luxor and a second Excalibur station. This is a revolutionary alignment that most higher order transit technologies don’t even accomplish.

This dual track, dual purpose configuration, however, complicates matters of capacity as well as questions of connectivity.

From the main Excalibur Terminal, there is no direct connection to the Luxor or the secondary Excalibur station. To access either of those stations, one must first take the express line to Mandalay Bay, then transfer to the local and retrace backwards to either the Luxor or Excalibur intermediary station.

It’s a truly ludicrous design to any rational transit planner. But remember: This is Las Vegas. Transportation and rationality are completely anathema to this world. The purpose of the Mandaly Bay system is not to get you to the Luxor or the secondary Excalibur station. The purpose is purely to get you to the Mandalay Bay.

It may be a piece of planning absurdity, but it’s also a piece of marketing genius, and it was intentional according to those I spoke with who work with the system. Any movement on the cable car is filtered through Mandalay Bay, ensuring maximum exposure.

It is, in essence, the Freemium Model of public transit. Mobility is offered to everyone and anyone free of charge, the price is allowing oneself to be exposed to one giant Mandalay Bay advertisement. It was no mistake, after all, that the Mandalay Bay station is located deep within the heart of the complex, whereas the other stations require a long walk through their respective casinos.

So is it transit? No. But does that question really matter? I don’t think so. The Mandalay Bay cable car was always much more about marketing than it was about mobility. It’s important to analyze a system based upon its strategic goals. Not only has the cable car been an enormous marketing success, it has also (bizarrely) succeeded as transit in ways other Vegas transit systems haven’t, namely the Las Vegas Monorail.

The Las Vegas Monorail. A perpetual money-loser, the Monorail has a spotty technical record and is increasingly underutilized. Image by Steven Dale

Whereas the not-for-profit owned Las Vegas monorail is far longer and offers better connectivity, it is so much more irrelevant than the Mandalay Bay system. One doesn’t even know the monorail exists and one really doesn’t care to. In fact, it’s totally common to find websites and forums that confuse the Mandalay Bay system for the Las Vegas Monorail. But at a $6 per trip price tag, it’s hard not to understand why the Las Vegas Monorail drives users away.

Ironically, the Las Vegas monorail as a fare-based system is a perpetual money loser that has struggled financially and technologically since it opened. The Mandalay Bay cable car, meanwhile, is free and is seen by its owners as a complete success. So much so, MGM has just recently opened a second cable system linking three other resorts (more on that system in the future).

I’ll wrap up this report tomorrow with a discussion about the Mandalay Bay cable car’s visual aesthetics and station design.


Continue to Part 3.

Click here to read Part 1.

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Mandalay Bay Cable Car, Part 1

The Mandalay Bay Cable Car. Image by Steven Dale.

I recently travelled to Las Vegas, Nevada to explore that city’s two public cable systems. This is Part 1 of a 3 Part report on the Mandalay Bay Cable Car.

In the late 1990’s, the MGM group wanted to build a new casino in Las Vegas. The new casino – dubbed The Mandalay Bay – would be MGM’s sprawling take on a tropical paradise with far less emphasis on the kitsch the company had become associated with. The Mandalay Bay was not to be another Luxor or Excalibur.

Virtually all of MGM’s resort holdings in Las Vegas are located in one cluster at the interesection of Tropicana and Las Vegas Blvd. On the north-east corner is the MGM Grand. On the north-west is the New York, New York and the Monte Carlo. On the south-west corner is the Excalibur and Luxor. The Mandalay Bay was to be located south of the Luxor, one kilometer away from Tropicana and Las Vegas Blvd, much too far away from the action.

This presented a problem to MGM executives. A walk from the Grand, New York New York or, really, any of the MGM resorts would simply take too long. The friction of distance would either limit tourists’ spending or they would simply avoid Mandalay Bay entirely.

Movement is hard in Las Vegas. Intentionally so. The more people are walking around, the less they’re spending money. The casinos and resorts are designed in such a way that once you’re in, it’s very hard to get out. Exits are rare and placed as far away from suites as possible. It’s an exercise in social control where conspicuous consumption is the desired outcome.

The solution needed to be a short, high-speed transit link. The link had to be cheap, easy to maintain, available 24 hours a day, open to the general public and – most importantly – free of charge.

The answer was an elevated cable car system designed and manufactured by Doppelmayr. Completed in 1999, it was the first bottom-supported cable system by the Austrian cable transit giant behind such installations as the Peak 2 Peak and the Galzigbahn. Doppelmayr had little experience in bottom-supported systems other than funiculars and this presented a whole new set of challenges.

Mandalay Bay Cable Car en route to Excalibur Hotel (in background). Image by Steven Dale.

Built for a total cost of $26 million (1999 US), the Mandalay Bay cable car was remarkably cost-effective. The system and guideway itself only cost $16 million while the four integrated stations made up the rest of the total investment.

This was a very inexpensive system to build considering its capabilities (to be discussed tomorrow). While I have no evidence to support the following claim, I reason that the cost of the system had as much to do with the manufacturer’s desire to penetrate the urban people mover market as it did with the cost-effectiveness of the technology. Nevertheless, cost-savings accrued due to one major innovation:

Unlike previous Las Vegas cable propelled systems at Circus Circus and the Mirage, the Mandalay Bay system would utilize a modular steel truss guideway. This guideway – which could be manufactured off-site in a controlled environment – was cheaper to build than traditional concrete guideways that were far more typical of the time. Even today, concrete guideways are standard on almost all self-propelled people mover systems due to load-bearing requirements.

The Mandalay Bay Cable Car connects three MGM properties: The Mandalay Bay, Luxor and Excalibur. Image by Steven Dale.

The steel guideway also had the added benefits of less aesthetic intrusion on the urban environment and the ability to transmit light to the the areas below it. It had not, however, been demonstrated in a cable system to date except in a demo site at one of Doppelmayr’s manufacturing facilities.

Despite having no track record to speak of, the guideway was a tremendous breakthrough and is now standard on almost every Doppelmayr bottom-supported system.

Tomorrow in Part 2 of this report, I’ll discuss the capabilities of the Mandalay Bay system and some of its finer and unique qualities.


Continue to Part 2.

Click here to read Part 3.

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Bondada-Neumann Study, Part 1

(This is Part 1 of a 2-Part piece on the Bondada-Neumann Study from the late 1980’s. In Part 1, I focus on the issue of Familiarity. In Part 2, I’ll discuss the differences in perceptions between planners with cable experience and those without.)

In the late 1980’s two civil engineers from West Virginia University (WVU) had a theory. Murthy Bondada and Edward S. Neumann guessed that a lack of familiarity with cable transit among engineers and planners was holding back cable’s use in urban environments.

The pair created a mailback survey designed to measure not the quality of cable transit itself, but rather the perceptions planners and engineers had of the technology’s relative worth within a group of seven different transportation technologies: Passenger buses, passenger vans, self-propelled people movers, personal rapid transit (PRT), cable-propelled people movers, aerial tramways and aerial gondolas.

Firstly, Bondada and Neumann sought to discover how familiar transit planners and engineers were with cable transit. Planners and engineers were asked to rank their familiarity of the seven technologies along a five point scale from Very High to Very Low. How familiar were they with cable? In short, not very. Of the seven technologies, cable-propelled people movers, aerial tramways and aerial gondolas were ranked 5th, 6th and 7th respectively.

That could hardly be surprising. Even today, cable transit is little more than a triviality to the planning community but at least we now have tools like the internet (and this website!) to help people learn more. Not so in the neon-hypercolored glow of the 1980’s.

There were, however, two truly surprising results of the familiarity survey.

In the 1980’s cable-propelled people movers were incredibly rare. If you were planning on building an automated people mover, you were likely to use self-propelled technology. Aerial gondolas and tramways, however, had been implemented in ski resorts and cities around the world. The difference in relative familiarity between cable-propelled people movers, gondolas and aerial tramways was statistically minor, but even still: Why had the rare cable-propelled people movers ranked higher than common tramways and gondolas?

While Bondada and Neumann never answer this question explicitly, I suspect the answer lies with the fact that a cable-propelled people mover simply looks more like the “traditional” (ie: train-like) transit technologies we’re used to. Aerial cable systems must have just looked too weird to the survey’s respondents.

The more you look at the Bondada-Neumann study, the more bizarre things get. Of all seven technologies included in the study six were actual, real-world technologies. Only one – personal rapid transit – was theoretical. The technology had never been built and even though a people mover system at West Virginia University (the school Bondada and Neumann hailed from) had been dubbed “Personal Rapid Transit” it was not.

And yet – in rather stunning irony – respondents to the familiarity survey ranked PRT technology 4th by a healthy margin over all cable technologies despite having never been implemented anywhere in the world.

This was quite shocking. One expects a travel agent to be more familiar with Rio than Atlantis; an archeologist more aware of King Tut’s Mask than the Holy Grail; or an equestrian to have more experience riding Zebras than Unicorns. But not in this case. Here was an entirely illogical result. The planners and engineers in the study had demonstrated more familiarity (or at least a willingness to admit more familiarity) with a mythical/theoretical technology than three other technologies that had been successfully implemented worldwide.

If ever there was a case that showed just how subjective our transit planning system and regime was, this was it. But what Bondada and Neumann discovered next was equally (if not more) surprising.

(Click here to read Part 2 where I discuss what Bondada and Neumann discovered about the differences in perceptions between planners with cable experience and those without.)

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California and Powell

Last night I went for a ride in San Francisco.

I was on the west coast learning about various cable systems and I was at the end of a long week of traveling and research. I needed room to clear my head, get out of the hotel. I found myself jumping on a cable car at 10 o’clock at night. No where to go, no destination in mind. Just hop on and go.

It made no sense. I’d just spent the last two days riding these rickety old things and had no reason to want to ride one again. See, San Francisco cable cars are iconic, but they aren’t comfortable. You ride them because they’re the quickest way to get you where you’re going or you’re a tourist and you just kinda’ have to. The tourist’s obligation. But they’re not pleasant.

Firstly, they’re expensive. If you don’t have a pass, they cost five bucks a trip (each way!). The drivers (‘gripmen’) are large, surly ogres barking orders at pedestrians, riders and each other.  Wind whips through the open cabin, chilling your hands. Wooden benches provide meagre, spartan seating. The cars shake and jostle.

Even still, I was compelled.

The cable cars are deeply romantic things. Not romantic in the sexual sense, but in the original meaning of the word. They’re pastoral and poetic, inviting contemplation and meditation. They are so connected to the street, so plugged-in to the city-block, so unmediated that to ride the cars out in the open air is to experience the city first hand.

At the intersection of California and Powell, the car stopped prematurely. For technical reasons we had dropped the rope and couldn’t ‘pick it up’.  In other words, we were stranded. We were blocking five lanes of traffic in three different directions.

Waiting for a red light on the street corner, a fat man in a hoodie spotted the problem as though he’d seen it happen hundreds of times before. Maybe he was an off-duty gripman, or maybe he’d just seen it so many times he knew exactly what had occurred. Indeed, the curious design of California and Powell almost ensures this problem should occur repeatedly.

The fat man jostled over to our beached whale of a vehicle and began to push our car a dozen feet or so to a place where we could pick up the rope again. A few of us in the car jumped out to help. The fat man didn’t need our help, but we wanted the selfish right to tell the story later and that right could only be bequeathed to us if we participated in the event. The problem was resolved in a matter of seconds. We proceeded on our way and the fat man went back to waiting for his red light, which had already changed twice while he’d been helping us.

By every conceivable statistical measure the San Francisco cable cars are worthless, antiquated pieces of junk. But cities aren’t made on a spreadsheet. On paper, a system that needs a fat man in a hoodie to give it a push is laughable. In practice, it exposes the collective will of a city working together to maintain a piece of their heritage. Even in their dilapidated, ramshackle condition the San Francisco cable cars say more and accomplish more than almost any transit system I know of.

They’re a unifier, an advertisement to the world, a transporter of people and an invitation to reflection. That’s not something you’re going to find in textbooks, planning reports or wikipedia. Our systems just don’t allow us to consider such irrelevant pleasantries.

Think about it. When our modern transit systems fail (and they all fail at one point or another), what do we do? Complain, place blame, write an op-ed, call for someone’s resignation, demand a refund. I pay for this system with my tax dollars, dammit! But we never help.

We never just get out and push.

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