Posts Tagged: Engineering



Aerial Technologies, Lesson 4: Funitel

The Hakone Ropeway Funitel in Japan.

My absolute, all-time favorite aerial cable technology is a little-known configuration called The Funitel. The technology was originally created by Lift Engineering, Inc. an American company (that mercifully no longer exists) with one of the worst safety records in the industry. While the concept behind the Funitel was ingenious, the engineering wasn’t. It wasn’t until Poma/Leitner and Doppelmayr/Garaventa got their hands on the concept and reworked it that the Funitel truly came into its own.

It’s now one of the safest, fastest, most high-capacity aerial cable technologies in existence. And it looks fantastic!

Like BDG technology, the Funitel uses two cables for support and propulsion. However, unlike the BDG, both cables in a Funitel are in motion. If you’ll recall, in a BDG configuration one cable is stationary and used for support whereas a second, moving cable is used for propulsion. Not so with a Funitel. In a Funitel configuration, both cables are used for both support and propulsion. For anyone whose been following The Gondola Project, you’ll recognize immediately that this is very much like a traditional MDG system.

Now for the confusing part: Modern Funitels only use one cable. While it appears that a Funitel system uses two separate cables, in reality one single, double-looped cable creates the effect. In some literature, the Funitel is actually referred to as the DLM or Double-Looped Monocable.

A single, double-looped cable creates two sets of parallel ropes running in opposite directions.

Like most advanced Cable Propelled Transit systems, the Funitel is a detachable technology. The system uses a pair of grips that suspend the vehicles between each pair of cables. This unique design allows for extreme wind stability and safety. Funitels can operate in the most inclement weather conditions and wind speeds of over 100 km/hr. Like other detachable systems, intermediate stations and corner-turning are easily implemented. Maximum spans between towers, while not as long as those associated with the 3S, are still impressive at 1,000 metres.

The Galzigbahn in St. Anton am Alberg in Austria. The Funitel technology used allows for extremely long spans as well as safe operation in high wind and snow conditions. Image by Steven Dale.

Funitel Stats:

  • Maximum Speed: 27 km/hr.
  • Maximum Capacity: 4,000 -5,000 persons per hour per direction.
  • Maximum Vehicle Capacity: 24 – 30.
  • Cost: $15 – $30 million (US) per kilometre (approximate).
  • Maximum Span Between Towers: Up to 1 km.

Despite the obvious strengths of the Funitel, one of the most appealing aspects of the technology is the look of it. Most aerial cable systems dangle from their cable, giving them a sometimes comical, awkward look. Even I admit that when talking about cable as transit, it’s hard to take a gondola seriously. It’s my opinion that much of that is due to the appearance of the vehicles.

Most gondolas are asymmetrical, lanky objects that look not unlike ornaments on a Christmas tree. There’s no front, no hood, no face to the vehicle. They don’t look like any kind of vehicle we know or are familiar with. It’s a psychological issue of design that I think implicitly holds the technology back. As a colleague of mine once said: They just look too goofy.

That’s why I love the Funitel so much.

The Funitel is compact, stocky and purposeful with more than its fair share of moxy. It doesn’t just hang around. It doesn’t dangle. The Funitel’s dual grip provides visual balance and symmetry to the vehicles and eliminates the junky-looking grip arm that characterize all other gondola technologies. The elimination of this arm lowers the profile of the vehicle, making it slicker, sleeker and aggressive. It looks and feels like a sprinter crouched down ready to dash towards the finish line. The Funitel moves with an aggressive purpose as if to say “don’t bother me now, I’ve got things to do.” It just looks and feels right.

For cable to truly make in-roads into urban transit, vehicle design and aesthetics is going to becoming very important, very quickly. The industry has already established that they have a technology that is competitive (if not superior) to traditional forms of transit and the technology is advancing at a rapid pace. The engineering is beyond repute. The real question then is, can the industry design vehicles that have a pleasurable aesthetic that matches their engineering prowess.

The Funitel is one of the first steps towards that answer.

Proceed to Aerial Technologies, Lesson 5: Aerial Trams

Return to Aerial Technologies, Lesson 3: BDG

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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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Open Source Transit

In the past, your technology was successful if you designed something, marketed it, sold it and people bought it. People used your technology the way you told them to use it and that was that.

Then along came things like the internet, Google, the iPhone, WordPress and Web 2.0 and all that changed. Instead of trying to control their technologies, companies started enabling the public to participate in the development and creation of new technologies and their various off-shoots. This change occurred very recently and the majority of manufacturers, technologies and engineers are still stuck in the ‘old way’ of doing things.

Subways, streetcars and buses are like those old software and computer programs we grew up with: There is only one way to use them and it’s the way the manufacturer dictates. Take two seconds and try and think of as many different configurations of our traditional transit technologies as you can. I bet you can’t think of more than three.

Cable on the other hand, is not like those traditional transit technologies. Cable is flexible. Cable allows the creator the freedom to imagine a whole world of transit possibilities grounded in a few simple rules. Understand those rules (the Source Code of Cable), and you can do virtually anything.

Anyone familiar with computer programming or has just a fleeting understanding of the new web, has encountered this concept before. It’s called Open Source and is a philosophy of production that promotes access to the end product’s source materials. Doing so, turns users into creators.

Cable is Open Source Transit. Cable provides the Source Code while others imagine the possibilities that Code presents.

Learn about it, remix it, dream it, build it. It’s just that simple.

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Kolelinia Aerial Cable Support System for Bicycles

I was recently sent a link to the fascinating Kolelinia aerial cable support system for bicycles. While not cable propelled, per se, it clearly uses cables and is well worth exploring.

Created by architect Martin Angelov, the Kolelinia allows cyclists to travel in mid-air above the line of traffic. Cyclists follow narrow u-shaped furrows supported by two aerial cables. cyclists are then attached to a third safety cable via harness and carabiner.

There are several questions I have about the concept (interestingly, they’re not so very different than questions I’ve had to answer about CPT): Does the safety wire prevent the bicycle from falling, or just the cyclist? How do cyclists pass one another? What about snow and ice build-up in the furrow? I can’t seem to find the answers to these questions, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there.

The Kolelinia reminds me of a past proposal by Chris Hardwicke called velo-city:


Hardwicke’s concept was certainly intriguing and garnered a massive amount of attention, but like similar concepts before it, velo-city suffered from one major flaw: Economics. The cost to build such corridors (not to mention maintain and operate) were such that the concept never took off.

Could the Kolelinia solve velo-city’s economic problem? Possibly, but who knows. Increased cycling is going to be one of several major changes our urban centres will see in the future and the more people think about it the better. So here’s what I’d like to see:

Lock velo-city’s Hardwicke and Kolelinia’s Angelov in a room for a weekend and see what they come up with. Do that, and we just might find ourselves with a high-capacity, low-cost bike lane in the sky.

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January 28th, 1882

Chicago, 1890s. Library of Congress

January 28th, 1882 is one of (if not the) most important dates in Cable Transit history. On that blustery winter day, C.B. Holmes opened the first cable car in Chicago.

It was the first time cable was shown to be economical in such a snowy, icy, windy environment. It was also the first known instance of cable cars installed in an absolutely flat city.

The Chicago City Railway cable cars operated at 23 km/hr and within 5 years were carrying 27 million passengers per year. Remember: This was 1887! They were also among the most profitable and extensive in all of North America.

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Grip Module, Lesson 2: Detachable Grips

Detachable Grip

It’s important to recognize that the term used to describe a Detachable Grip is detachable not attachable. Detachable grips are attached to a cable with heavy, industrial springs providing the pressure necessary to create the grip’s vice-like hold. Until a constant, targeted, external and specially-designed force is applied to pry open the grip, the grip’s hold is (for all intents and purposes) permanent. The above image should give you a better idea of the mechanism.

So who cares, right? Why would anyone want to detach from the cable?

For a cable transit line to have intermediary stations, vehicles must be able to stop at those stations. But to stop a vehicle means the cable must also stop, which in turn means that every other vehicle attached to the cable must stop as well. This was a problem back in 1872 for an Austrian fellow named Orbach and he solved the matter by patenting and inventing what would be the world’s first detachable grip:

Image from Orbach's original patent.

Detachable grips allow a cable vehicle to stop at a station without stopping the flow of the entire line. Upon approaching a stop, a mechanism located at the station opens the grip and the vehicle is slowed by another mechanism. Passengers get on and off, the vehicle is re-accelerated to line speed, and while departing the grip is re-engaged. This process is incredibly fluid, seamless and is virtually invisible to riders.

Basically, without the detachable grip, intermediary stations and corner-turning would be impossible, at least for aerial supported cable systems. And as urban transit needs many stops and turns many corners, detachable is almost always the way to go.

Proceed to Grip Module, Lesson 3: Attachable Grips

Return to Grip Module, Lesson 1: Introducing Grips

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Cincinnati Funiculars

The Mount Adams Incline in Cincinnati, Ohio

The Mount Adams Incline in Cincinnati, Ohio

Way back in the day (we’re talking 1872 here) Cincinnati, Ohio was clustered at the base of several small mountains. As the city grew and expanded up the sides of the mountain city officials had a problem: How were people and goods to be moved up and down the mountains?

This was, of course, before automobiles. People were still using horse-and-wagon and the steep grades surrounding Cincinnati threatened the city’s growth. A series of five inclined railways / funiculars were used to ingeniously solve this problem.

Bellevue Incline in Cincinnati, Ohio

Bellevue Incline in Cincinnati, Ohio

Cincinnati’s funiculars were remarkably unique and simple in concept.  As far as I am aware (and that could change), I believe they were almost entirely new for the time. And as such, I think they deserve their own classification: Let’s just call them “Cincinnati Funiculars.” for ease and simplicity’s sake.

What differentiates a Cincinnati Funicular from a traditional funicular is this: Traditional funiculars were (and continue to be) enclosed vehicles running up and down a mountain. A Cincinnati Funicular, however, was simply a gated platform that was relatively level to the horizon. It’s entrances and exits were aligned not with a sidewalk, but instead with the existing street grid.

Traditional Funicular, The Duquesne Incline in Pittsburgh, PA

Traditional Funicular, The Duquesne Incline in Pittsburgh, PA

A Traditional Funicular, the Polybahn in Zurich, Switzerland

A Traditional Funicular, the Polybahn in Zurich, Switzerland

A Cincinnati-Style Funicular; Cincinnati, Ohio

A Cincinnati-Style Funicular; Cincinnati, Ohio

This pared-down design conceit allowed horse-and-wagon teams to move from the street below, onto the funicular, up the mountain and onto the street above with little trouble. As time passed, the system allowed streetcars, trolleys and buses to do the same. It was a rare situation of transit technologies co-operating rather than competing with each other.

So who cares, right? Transit planners and advocates should:

Almost all rail systems (that includes, light rail, streetcar and subways) are limited to their location by how steep they can climb. It’s a limiting factor they can’t avoid. Rail technology simply cannot climb more than a roughly 10 degree incline. This severely restricts their potential for installation in all but the flattest of locations (see Hamilton, Ontario for a modern day example of this situation). When partnered, however, with a Cincinnati Funicular, that problem is alleviated, thereby opening up all new avenues for rail-based systems.

Sadly, like most fixed-link transit in North America, Cincinnati’s funiculars were gone by 1948. Unlike rail transit systems, buses and private automobiles had no troubles ascending the mountains, thereby making the inclines redundant. The design concept of a Cincinnati Funicular was forgotten about almost completely and the funiculars were demolished.

But now, given that the gussied-up streetcar known as Light Rail is king again I have a feeling we’ll be seeing Cincinnati Funiculars sometime soon once more.

Mount Adams Incline.

Mount Adams Incline.

Historical images of the Cincinatti Funicular are public domain. They can be viewed at

Creative Commons images by JOE M500 and phototram

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