Posts Tagged: Education



Wanna Learn About Cable Cars?

One question I’m repeatedly asked is some variation on this:

Why is it so hard to learn about cable and meet people within the cable transit industry? How does one even start in the industry? 

Want a simple (albeit overly so) answer to the question?

Consider this:

There is no known university or college in the world that provides a specialized education in ropeway technology. Not one. There isn’t a place young people can, for example, major in English Literature and minor in Mechanical Ropeway Engineering. You want to learn ropeways, you basically start right out of high school or college, apprentice with a company and – as is typical for the industry – you stay in the industry for life.

At best, I’ve heard rumours that there exists a small technical school in Europe that now offers a course or two on ropeway engineering, but that’s about it.

The industry is incredibly close-knitted and that’s one of its beauties. But it’s close-knitted to a point where it’s becoming problematic for any of their attempts to move outside the ski lift market.

After all, an industry that doesn’t interact with the outside world cannot expect the outside world to interact with them.

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For most of your career you didn’t need to know anything about cable. Not anything. Nothing. What transit planner, engineer, policy-maker or advocate bothers with ski-lifts? That’s not transit, that’s a toy for tourists.

You could ignore it. You didn’t need to learn about it and your boss never asked about it. No politician mentioned it and no media personality called you up about it asking for your opinion. Simple reality is you probably never even considered it as a transit technology in the first place.

Look at Hamilton.

It was a good arrangement. It was easy. Slap down some rails, buy some streetcars, call it Light Rail. Write the cheque. Trouble is, that arrangement has changed. Fundamentally.

Now you do need to know about cable. Trouble. Now people are asking you about it. Also trouble. Now governments are seriously asking “what about cable?” Trouble thrice over. Media calls you up and you either say you know nothing about cable or what you do say is demonstrably wrong. Double trouble.

You wouldn’t be reading this post if that wasn’t true. Cable Propelled Transit’s not the kind of thing you stumble upon; you hunt for it.

The thing is this: Cable’s here and so are you. Which do you think is going to be around longer? And what are you going to do about it? You can fight it, get angry about it, rail against it – which is a guaranteed losing strategy – or you can embrace it, learn about it and – most importantly – help improve it.

It’s always better to ride with the leading edge of change than chase after it.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.



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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Aerial Technologies, Lesson 1: Introduction

With most traditional transit technologies, there is little consideration about the variations within that technology. A bus is a bus; a streetcar is a streetcar; and a subway is a subway. Sure, there’s variation between suppliers and models, but those differences are negligible compared to the overall technologies themselves.

That’s one of the real competitive advantages traditional transit technologies possess over cable: Understanding them is simple, and that makes them highly attractive to time-constrained planners, policy-makers and politicians.

Cable is not so simple. While the basic concept behind all the modes remains the same (a vehicle propelled by a moving cable), the variations between the modes tend to cause confusion.  Beyond the 4 major families of Cable-Propelled Transit (Gondola, Aerial Tram, Funicular, Cable Car), there exists a wide range of cable transit modes, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.

The key to cable is understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each respective mode and then matching the right mode to the right environment. It’s kind of like pairing wine with food: You’ve got to know the subtleties to do it right.

Over the coming months, I’ll describe these modes and give appropriate examples (probably one per week). But to begin with, let’s just get an idea of how many different modes there are:

  • Monocable Detachable Gondola (MDG)
  • Bicable Detachable Gondola (BDG)
  • Funitel
  • Pulsed Gondola
  • 3S
  • Funicular
  • Traditional Funicular
  • Cincinnati Funicular
  • Hybrid Funicular
  • Aerial Tram
  • Funifor
  • Cable Car
  • MiniMetro
  • Cable Liner
  • Cable LIner Shuttle

There are other modes, too, but these are the major ones. Like I said; it’s just not as easy as “a bus is a bus.”

Proceed to Technologies Module, 2: MDG

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What Changed?

(Check out this fascinating video of a San Francisco Cable Car in action, days before the 1906 earthquake. Tnanks to Ron Wm. Hurlbut for pointing it out!)

Lot’s of people have asked of me a variation of the following question:

If cable’s so great, why did we change all our cable cars to electric ones 100 years ago?

It was a question I wrestled with because it’s valid. Not many people know this, but prior to the electric streetcar, North America had hundreds of miles of cable car systems running throughout their cities. They were eventually abandoned in favour of electric streetcars.

So again, the question is this: If not then, why now? Why is it that cable cars proved less economical than streetcars 100 years ago, but today we’re finding cable to be more economical?

I have some ideas and I think it comes down to the simple fact that things change. What things? How about these:

1. The price of labour has gone up . . . a lot.

2. Cable transit is now automated, streetcars and light rail typically are not.

3. Fully dedicated rights-of-way allow cable to exploit that automation and become safer in the process which they could not do historically (see above video).

That’s just a guess, mind you, but it’s not a wild guess. What do you think?

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.



Passenger Safety

As cable transit is fully automated, operators can focus on passengers and their needs, rather than road traffic.

It’s a new year, folks! Congratulations, we survived another one!

My column yesterday attracted the site’s first Rabble and I don’t expect it to be the last. Among “thickslab’s” (please don’t post anonymously on this site, folks, and try to be respectful) concerns was the issue of passenger safety. I don’t mean in the sense of a technological failure (a rarity anyways), but in the sense of conflicts between riders and undesirables.

Is this a legitimate concern? Yes and no. It’s legitimate in that every time we choose to leave our front doors (or even when we don’t) we risk harm by other people. It’s just a question of how we minimize those risks. It’s not a legitimate concern in that the risk is no greater with cable than with any other public transit technology:

  • Being in an elevator with someone you don’t know?
  • Taking a taxi cab with a “foreign” driver.
  • The end of a subway platform where monitors aren’t installed.
  • A public-access stairwell late at night.
  • A subway car whose driver is 5 cars away.
  • Et cetera. Et cetera. Et cetera.

Most public transit cable systems use closed-circuit television in each car. These live feeds are monitored continually by staff located in stations or in an on-board monitoring station. As vehicles are equipped with additional communications devices, safety is as close as the nearest station. Smaller vehicles also mean that those communication devices are typically closer at hand to passengers than larger vehicles.

When staff spots or is alerted to an issue, security personnel and staff can be dispatched immediately to the station whereby the perpetrator can be apprehended. Furthermore, vehicles that carry a large number of passengers almost always have an attendant in-vehicle at all times.

Additionally, as operators and staff do not have to worry about contending with traffic and the actual driving of the vehicle, I’d argue that they are more capable of attending to the safety of passengers because their attention is not focused on “the road.” In the picture above, you can see the “driver” of a cable vehicle in Innsbruck who can actually monitor the activity of all five cars he’s responsible for.

This is simple fear-mongering and it doesn’t work: Even after last week’s unfortunate attempt by a youth to bring down an airliner bound for Detroit, hundreds of thousands of people still continue to fly (with unnecessary hassle, by the way).

People accept that a life lived around other people is a life that involves some degree of risk. But most of us choose to ignore that risk and live a happy life.

I would, however, be interested to know statistically-speaking how many passenger incidents occur in public cable systems as opposed to public non-cable systems. If anyone has any information on the matter, I’d love to see it.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.



The Cost of Light Rail

I tend to pick on Light Rail for a reason. It’s a technology akin to the average beauty contestant. It looks good on the outside, but is kind of useless on the inside.

Subways (HRT) can move hordes of people quickly and buses can move a moderate number of people cheaply, but Light Rail seems incapable of either. LRT is not quick, it doesn’t move a tonne of people, and it’s certainly not cheap. But as I’ve said before, Light Rail managed to come up the middle between a technology we cannot afford and a technology we do not like.

I’ve talked in the past about the speed of Light Rail, but let’s now talk specifically about that cost matter.

According to several recent studies by Bent Flyvberg, a respected scholar from Denmark, urban rail systems cost on average, US$50-150 million per route-kilometre. Granted, this range includes both light rail and heavy rail, but the point is this: At the low end of analysis, an urban rail system will cost a minimum of US$50 million per route kilometre to construct. It’s reasonable to assume that systems in that range will be of the light rather than heavy variety.

Cable systems rarely reach such costs. The Portland Aerial Tram, yes, reached the US$50 million per kilometre threshold, but that system is the exception rather than the rule. When looking at systems build worldwide, cable rarely eclipses the US$30 million per kilometre mark.

Given that cable is cleaner, quieter, more reliable and safer than light rail, the cost factor more than justifies cable’s place in the minds of transit planners everywhere.

I’m not saying forget about Light Rail entirely. I’m just saying that there are several instances where cable could do the job and is worthy of consideration.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.