Zingel Seilbahn: The water ballast tram

Preparing for take off!

The Obermatt – Unter Zingel Seilbahn in Switzerland is a cool old aerial tram that is powered, well, by gravity. Built in 1923 by Remigi Niederberger, the system still functions today. It is one of the last remaining water ballast tram systems.

The ropeway consists of two open-air “cabins” that have a spot to sit and a tank for water, cleverly built into the back of the seat. To hoist a person up from the bottom station, the tank at the top is filled with water and the weight of this water ballast is enough to counter balance the lower cabin (up to 100 kg) and run it up the mountain.

The system is simple, cheap, and surprisingly fast. (In fact the seilbahn can reach 45 km/h, which is the speed of any present day aerial tram.) There is no motor or no modern communication system. The operator at the top slows the cabin with a manually operated drum brake.

This video below beautifully illustrates how the Zingel Seilbahn works. [link]

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How to make a cable

We’ve talked a bit about cable splicing in the past, but never focused much on the process of actually making a cable. Today we resolve that.

Here is a short video (albeit in French) that demonstrates how small steel cables are wound together to create medium-sized cables, which are then spun again with other medium-sized cables to create the final super cable — the same one used in cable propelled transit systems.

I think the shear magnitude of the machines involved in this process is impressive. So is the final 5m diameter spool, which weighed in at around 150 tons!

Also, I find it reassuring that there are tests conducted all through out the process that test for strength and consistency, and that these are done both manually and with lasers.

It would be interesting to know about how long it takes to make one spool of cable.

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Meran 2000 Bergbahn

The Merano 2000 Bergbahn. CC image by Flickr user Alexander Klotz.

There is more than one intriguing feature to the Meran 2000 Bergbahn, an aerial ropeway built in 2010 at the Merano 2000 ski resort in South Tyrol, Italy. At first the it may appear to be a simple (yet stunning) two-cabin tram — the stations are small, the system branded a vibrant red, and the cabins large (each cabin can hold 120 people.) But there’s more…


A view from the mid-station. Image from Merano 2000.

First off, the system has three stations, not just two. And even more interestingly the mid-station consists of an underground waiting area, a large lattice pylon (tower), and a bridge. Yes, I said a bridge. Essentially, because of the alignment, the mid-point is located in a rather difficult location (apparently mid-air?)

Instead of constructing a really tall station that would reach to the ground below (which would be more costly and require a larger footprint) or re-aligning the system, engineers decided to span the distance between the cabins and nearest parallel mountainside with a large metal and cantilever (with support) bridge.

Now, when I say cabins, I mean cabin. The other point to this design is that as far as I can tell, only one cabin can utilize the mid-station since the bridge only reaches as far as one side of the tower. This is more obvious in the diagram below.

The bridge is entirely static except for the last bit which folds down for the approaching cabin once it has come to a complete stop. You can see the bridge in action in this video (or here):

Another intriguing aspect to the mid-station is that the cabins only stop when requested. If everyone is going to the top (or bottom) station, the system will continue past the mid-station/bridge. Only when the “request a stop” button is pushed does the cabin stop. (This reminds me of some other form of transit … oh right, buses and streetcars!)

As previously mentioned, the Merano Bergbahn stations are small. And by small I mean really narrow. Since the system is a reversible aerial tram there can never be more than one cabin at each end station at any given time. Therefore to save space the loading/unloading platforms in these stations are moveable, sliding back and forth depending on which side the cabin is on.

The base station with its sliding platform. CC image by Flickr user Alexander Klotz.

Other than being really awesome, a big reason for the small size (at least at the bottom station) was to stay away from the river, which would have led to additional complications and cost. If station sizes can be reduced to avoid naturally occurring obstacles, imagine how they could be designed to fit into urban contexts…

Finally, the last point to note is the architecture, which is really rather striking.

The top and bottom stations are mostly concrete but clad in a ruby red metal mesh. The top station also has a bistro which is almost entirely surrounded by windows — I can only imagine that the view is spectacular.

Mountain Station by day. Image from Merano 2000.

Mountain Station by night. Image from Merano 2000.

As a final observation, one video I watched showed the inside of one of the cabins. And it was equipped with a bike rack, which seemed rather appropriate to point out especially as a feature for urban systems and as a follow up to a recent guest post about bikes on transit. In this case it is definitely a feature that seems like it could be removed for the winter to allow more room for people and skis.

The Merano 2000 biker friendly aerial trams

In conclusion, if you’ve ridden on this system or have anything to add, tell us in the comments! We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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The Hohenwerfen Castle Funicular

This is a guest post by Ross Edgar.

Hohenwerfen Castle. Photo by “Sir James”

There are few castles in Europe more iconic than Hohenwerfen Castle which stands imposingly over the town of Werfen, 40km (25 miles) south of Salzburg on the Austro-German border. The fortress dates back to 1075 but in more recent years featured in the 1968 film epic ‘Where Eagles Dare’ in which the castle played the part of ‘Schloss Adler’.

Despite its considerable history the fortress is home to an altogether more modern means of transport to provide access from the valley below. From the castle’s car park visitors board a modern funicular which carries passengers from the foot of the hill into the heart of the fortress itself.

Hohenwerfen Castle single track funicular. Photo by Ross Edgar.

However, this funicular is far from conventional. Firstly, the funicular system only features a single car rather than the more conventional two cars. This is most likely due to the relatively short distance covered by the funicular. In place of the second car which traditionally acts as a counterbalance for the first, a set of weights travel in the opposite direction below the funicular’s tracks.

But the most unconventional feature of the Hohenwerfen Castle funicular is that it functions in a manner similar to a hotel elevator. Passengers at either station can ‘call’ the funicular by means of a button located next to the entry door. Once aboard the funicular the passenger then chooses whether to go up or down through the use of a button within the car itself.

The result is that this funicular is totally independent of any input being required from the operator. Therefore staffing requirements are comparatively low when compared to other means of transit or even more traditional funiculars. What is more, being operated by the passengers themselves means that the funicular is able to respond immediately to the demands of the visitors to the fortress. Waiting times are therefore reduced and operating costs are cut as the funicular does not confirm to a rigid schedule.

Hohenwerfen Castle funicular station. Photo by Ross Edgar.

The potential application for such a unique cable system within an urban environment is compelling. Such a funicular would allow a local authority to connect two areas of a city at considerably different elevations without the costs associated with other forms of transport or even other cable systems. The automation of the system would reduce staffing requirements to a very basic level of supervision and the system would be much more cost effective compared to a system that operates continually regardless of passenger demand. Moreover, the use of larger cars or even the addition of a second car would increase capacity considerably.
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Grey Public Transit? Quebec City’s Funiculaire

Quebec City's oldest public stairwell, the Breakneck Stairs. Image by flickr user mirsasha.

What do we call something that both is and is not public transit?

That’s something we’ve wrestled with before (here and here for example), but it wasn’t until a quick trip to Quebec City for an old friend’s wedding (congrats, by the way, to Ingrid and Darren!) that the point was driven home for me.

As many people know, Quebec City is topographically challenging. Which is an understatement if you’re elderly, disabled or otherwise disheartened by the idea of having to traverse an urban area almost exclusively by stairs and hills.

Moving from the upper to the lower parts of the old town, meanwhile, require navigating a series of steep wooden stairways lined with shops and restaurants. It’s all pretty beautiful. But as the stairs crowd with people, the entire experience can get a little overwhelming – and that’s not counting what they must be like in during an icy, slushy and snowy Canadian winter.

The stairs have such a reputation, their original name escalier Champlain (“Champlain Stairs”) has been replaced by the more humorous (and, I suspect, honest) escalier casse-cou – literally, the Breakneck Stairs.

(It’s worth noting that the Breakneck Stairs are just one out of several flights of stairs and hills one needs to ascend/descend to make the trek from the upper to the lower parts of the city. These stairs can present as much of a challenge to pedestrians as the Breaknecks.)

There is, however, another option: The Funiculaire.

Stretching almost exactly from the base of the Breakneck Stairs to to their destination outside the Chateau Frontenac, the Quebec City Funiculaire links the two halves of the city with a convenient, short connection. At only 64m in length, and with an almost completely vertical inclination, this system is more inclined elevator than funicular, but that’s just semantics and not really the point.

The Quebec City Funicular. Public or Private Transit? Image by flickr user jacdupree.

The point is this: At a one-way fare of $2.00 CAD (roughly the same in American) the Quebec City Funiculaire isn’t cheap. It’s not something your average joe could afford to use each day in each direction – unless, of course, that was the public transit they required.

Despite having a price point around what most transit agencies charge for unlimited access to their entire network, riders of the Funiculaire receive a five-minute long lineup to take a 30-second un-air-conditioned (at least when I rode it) elevator ride. It took less time for me to walk the stairways than it took to wait and ride the funicular.

Yet there were no shortage of people willing to use it. Most, I’m certain, were tourists, but many were not. And there appeared to be equal traffic in both the ascending and descending directions – something I admittedly didn’t expect.

So what do we call this piece of infrastructure? Especially when on considers issues of the mobility-challenged, the funicular clearly serves a public transit a purpose. Yet still, it exists outside the realm of public transit. It occupies a grey area that isn’t easy to define – and even harder to price.

These kind of borderline systems – whether cable-propelled or not – are common throughout the world. And despite this, we still don’t have a name for these type of installations. So I’m proposing we name them Grey Public Transit Systems.

Grey Public Transit Systems are neither the white of public transit systems nor the black of private transit (or reversed if you so choose) – instead they exist on a spectrum where they straddle both worlds and add an essential mix to the urban mobility picture.

What do people think? Does the term work? Does it make sense?

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Roosevelt Island Tram – From a Tourist Perspective

Tram travelling eastbound from Manhattan to Roosevelt Island. Image by Nicholas Chu, CUP Projects.

So this weekend, I made a trip down to New York City to take in some of the sights and sounds of the Big Apple. Being a natural transit nerd, I decided to make a side trip to Roosevelt Island (aka the Little Apple) to ride the Roosevelt Island Tram (RIT). Much to the chagrin of the accompanying girlfriend, but much to my delight, I was excited at the chance to finally ride the newly modernized RIT – arguably the world’s first commuter CPT line.

The system was originally constructed in 1976 to temporarily connect island residents to Manhattan. But even when the island was finally linked to the city’s subway in 1989, the RIT’s efficiency, coupled with its distinctiveness made it an inseparable icon of Roosevelt Island (more detailed history can be read here).

In terms of my experience riding the RIT as a tourist, the system was everything I expected – a quick transit connector service to and from Manhattan which offered scenic views of the city’s skyline. Unlike the typical screeching and squealing of a subway train, the RIT soared across the East River with poise, grace and stability. With the “dual-haul” or funifor configuration, service is frequent as the large spacious cabins arrive and depart no more than 5-7 minutes apart.

The tram is easily accessed from two different subway lines. For me, I boarded a train on the “N” subway line and got off at Lexington Avenue / 59th Street station. From there it was a short 2 minute walk over to the tram station at E 60th Street and 2nd Avenue. The Manhattan tram station was inconspicuously and neatly tucked into a street corner, almost entirely hidden from view by trees from the adjacent park. This is a great example of how cable transit infrastructure can be simply weaved into the urban fabric without causing any disruptions to sightlines and privacy.

Tram station on the Manhattan side. Image by Nicholas Chu, CUP Projects.

Since I rode the system on a Saturday afternoon, I’d say that about half the riders on the RIT were tourists. Given the breathtaking panoramic views offered, the dozens or so visitors armed with their DSLRs quickly snapped away at every possible moment (me included). Throughout the ride, the constant camera clicks and ticks were met with many “rolled eyes” and sighs from locals.

In typical tourist fashion, visitors struggle at the faregate, causing a slightly irritating backlog for regular commuters. Image by Nicholas Chu, CUP Projects.

Once we arrived on Roosevelt Island, we took a stroll around the vicinity but didn’t venture too far as we had other plans for the day. Similar to the Manhattan Tram station, the Tram station on Roosevelt Island was highly utilitarian and functional in design, with absolutely no frills about it. However, there were plans in the past to renew the stations (no word on the current status now).

On our way back to Manhattan for more shopping and sightseeing. Image by Nicholas Chu, CUP Projects.

While the island isn’t the most renowned tourist attraction in the city, the island itself does provide beautiful views of the city and lots of greenspace – perfect for a short weekend jaunt. So the story is: if you’re a tourist in New York and you want to take a breather from the hustle and bustle of the city, the RIT makes for a fun and exciting excursion.

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New Urban Gondola in Brest, France by 2015 (The Brest Téléphérique)

Rendering of the Brest Téléphérique, due to open in 2015. Image via

The small Breton city of Brest, France will enter the small club of cities around the world with an urban gondola system to call their own.

Back in December of 2011, the topographically-challenged city of 140,000 inhabitants approved plans to proceed with a short gondola system spanning the city’s harbour and Penfeld River.

The system is modest with only 2 stations, and ~ 410 meters in length. It’s primary purpose is to connect the left bank of the city with the  future neighbourhood of the Capuchins. Befitting the areas naval heritage, the system will operating at a height of 60 meters to allow naval ships to pass underneath.

Reports state the system will cost ~ €15m and will be fully-integrated with the city’s existing public transport network – which, as we often point out on The Gondola Project, is a must for urban gondola systems to be optimally effective.

Of the many reports about this system, one thing catches my eye. Apparently the system will include “deux trains de trois cabines de 20 places transporteront les passagers toutes les 3 minutes, pour une durée du trajet estimée à environ une minute.”

Now, if Google Translate is right (and it often isn’t), we’re talking about a system characterized by “two sets of three cabins of 20 seats will transport passengers every 3 minutes for a journey estimated at about one minute” (thanks Google Translate!).

Regular readers will immediately spot something amiss here.

If that quote/translation is to be believed, that means this is a Pulsed Gondola configuration. As we’ve discussed before, Pulsed Gondolas rarely have any useful purpose in urban environments due to their (relatively) long wait times, low capacities and inability to turn corners. This, however, is exactly the kind of situation where a pulsed situation is useful.

Due to the extremely short distance of the line, the wait time and capacity issue is largely eliminated. That allows project planners to leverage the (relatively) low costs of a pulsed system while minimizing the negatives associated with the technology.

If this all pans out, it will be the first known pulsed gondola to be fully-integrated into a public transportation agency – and worthy of our attention.

Having said that however, the youtube video of the system that’s making the rounds seems to show a Funitel-based technology arranged in a Pulsed configuration:

We’ve seen configurations like this before, but they’re rare.

To be honest, the only system I know of that uses such a set-up is the Bouqetin Funitel in Val Thorens, France. I’ll also admit that I have no idea what the advantages of the system are. Presumably, it leverages the low-cost of the pulsed system with the high wind stability of the Funitel. I also suspect that they’re arranged in a Dual Haul configuration to allow for round-the-clock operations.

Those comments, however, are pure speculation and I’d love for other readers to chime in with their thoughts because this thing is certainly an oddball.

Bouquetin Funitel in Val Thorens, France. Image by flickr user 123_456.

No matter what, you can be sure we’ll follow this one closely.

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