Post by Steven Dale
Last month I toured Whistler’s Peak 2 Peak cable gondola system. This is a 3-part series on the system. Part 1 is necessarily technical in nature and will refer back to several pages of The Gondola Project for those unfamiliar with cable technology.
With small, incremental baby-steps, cable transit continues to push its capabilities beyond what people traditionally expect of it.
Whistler, British Columbia’s Peak 2 Peak, however, is not so much incremental as it is an innovative leap forward for the technology. One of my former university professors, after having ridden the system, described it to me as an “incredibly impressive machine.”
(Somehow referring to it simply as “a machine” doesn’t quite do it justice, but that professor was never easily impressed anyways.)
The Peak 2 Peak was initially conceived by the proprietor’s of the Whistler-Blackcomb ski resort as a method of shuttling skiers and hikers between the tops of the resorts two major mountains (Whistler and Blackcomb).
You can’t help but question the logic of this: Skiers (the primary users of this system) use a gondola to get up a mountain so that they can ski down the mountain. As both the Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains each have their own gondola systems, why would a skier need to use the Peak 2 Peak at all?
Nevertheless, the novelty of the system attracts strong ridership and since it’s opening in early 2009, the Peak 2 Peak has become an attraction in it of itself.
At it’s highest point, the cable is 436 m above the valley floor, which (for comparison) is about the height of Chicago’s Sears Tower. And yet there’s virtually no vertical rise. The Peak 2 Peak is an almost completely horizontal system.
While the height of the system is impressive, it’s the valley crossing that garners most attention. While most cable systems would require several intermediary towers to accomplish a 3 km long valley crossing, the Peak 2 Peak does so without a single intermediary tower. This is the longest unsupported cable span in the world and the Peak 2 Peak owes its fame to this very feature.
Massive, unsupported spans such as this were impossible before the recent 3S innovation. Much like the technology behind Innsbruck’s Hungerburgbahn, 3S technology is a hybrid fusion of two separate cable technologies. But while the Hungerburgbahn fused funiculars and gondolas, the 3S is a hybrid of aerial trams and gondolas.
Aerial trams have a high speed, excellent wind stability and large vehicles. They are also expensive. The Portland Aerial Tram and the Roosevelt Island Tram are two very good examples of this technology. The trouble with aerial trams is they are not detachable systems and that causes their overall capacity to decrease. Corner-turning is impossible. It’s a high-cost, low-value technology.
Gondolas, meanwhile, have modest speeds, smaller vehicles and modest wind stability, but are detachable. This detachability increases system capacity, lowers wait times and allows for corner-turning.
The 3S, therefore fuses the benefits of both technologies while eliminating the deficiencies of each. The Peak 2 Peak runs on two individual and stationary support cables while it is propelled by a third separate moving cable. It is basically like a Bicable system with a second support cable. This second support cable allows 3S technology to carry vehicles of up to 35 people and operate safely in 100 km/hr winds.
Capacity of the Peak 2 Peak is 2,500 pphpd with 28-person vehicle headways of 49 seconds. Even shorter headways and larger vehicles are possible, driving the capacity of a 3S system above the 4,000 pphpd threshold.
While the Peak 2 Peak does not utilize intermediary stations or corners, those two features are both possible with 3S technology and are sure to be realized in the future. As of yet, however, only a handful of 3S systems are operational across the globe.
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