Post by Steven Dale
This past summer I brought attention to the Rheinseilbahn in Koblenz, Germany. In a past post I suggested it was likely a strong example of an Urban Gondola given its innovative design. That opinion, however, was based upon second and third hand knowledge, not first-hand experience. Last month, however, I had the opportunity to visit Koblenz and tour the Rheinseilbahn myself.
All images by Steven Dale.
One of the most common arguments against Cable Propelled Transit and Urban Gondolas is station size.
There is a general misunderstanding out there that conflates station architecture with station infrastructure. The assumption is that because most existing cable stations are enormous, enormous stations are somehow intrinsic to the technology. That is, if you want to build a cable system, the stations are going to be huge.
It doesn’t matter that this is completely inaccurate, it is the prevailing perception. And as land in cities is expensive and the price of constructing buildings more costly every day, this is understandably a large concern for planners, policy-makers and decision-makers.
Even the most successful CPT systems such as those in Medellin and Caracas suffer from large station size. Yet in those two circumstances, station size was dictated not by technological needs, but instead by social ones.
In the case of Medellin, station size was dictated by security concerns. In Caracas, it was dictated by a program of integrating community centers into stations. In both situations stations are large and imposing, further reinforcing the point that cable stations are big and expensive.
This is why the Rheinseilbahn is so important; it debunks that myth.
In one graceful gesture, the Rheinseilbahn demonstrates categorically that cable stations can be slim in profile and complementary to the urban form. That the station designers accomplished this with a 3S gondola system is all the more impressive.
For those unfamiliar, 3S gondolas are hefty beasts. One only needs look at Whistler’s Peak 2 Peak to understand why the Rheinseilbahn’s station profile is so ground-breaking. Yes, Bolzano’s Funivia del Renon accomplished something similar, but it suffers from low capacities, poor queue design and an oscillating line speed to achieve its slim profile.
Most important are the station footprints. Foundations and supporting pillars are incredibly narrow. On the lower terminal, the width of less than three people. On the upper terminal, the drive engine, back-up diesel engine and the back-up generator are all integrated with the support pillars and one small, narrow room, barely 2 meters wide.
This design inspires all kinds of thoughts about how and where cable stations could be placed. The first that jumps to mind is within a traffic median. The second is within a traffic median but above street level – a design easily accomplished with little more than an extra few extra square meters of concrete.
Before moving onto the aesthetics of the Rheinseilbahn’s stations, a final practical concern needs be mentioned:
Typically, gondola and cable systems have a separate facility for storage and maintenance of vehicles. Sometimes these are integrated into stations but at a significant space premium. The Rheinseilbahn does away with that. All 18 vehicles can be maintained, cleaned and stowed in the existing station envelope with no need for additional space. Compare that to LRT, Bus and Subway systems where one of the major costs involved are the massive maintenance bays and storage yards.
Furthermore, because of the vehicle’s storage on-line, vehicles can be brought into operation in a matter of a few minutes thereby eliminating the dead-head time characteristic of other standard transit technologies. This completely negates the common occurrence of vehicles being in-operation but out-of-service.
(Note: Dead-head time is the time required to get a transit vehicle from maintenance/storage yard to in-revenue service. As dead-head time generates no revenue only cost, it should be minimized wherever possible.)
Aesthetically-speaking, the stations are – subjectively – quite lovely. Station infrastructure is shielded from the elements by waterproof material used commonly in large tents stretched in undulating waves across a solid-wood skeleton. It has the dual impact of reducing costs and creating an ethereal, lightweight station that is almost organic in shape and posture. One almost imagines the stations having mouths.
The use of material here is inspired. Viewed from the right angle at the right time of day, the wooden skeleton reveals itself in the sunlight. Meanwhile, translucent yet reflective panels at the ends of the station both hint at what’s inside the station while keeping it hidden from view. The stations walk the line between futuristic and old-world with surprising ease. Imagine a spaceship made out of fabric and wood and you’re on the right track.
This use of sun and light is not, however, a mere frill. During daytime hours, the fabric allows enough sunshine into the station bays to allow work to continue without need of artificial lighting, thereby reducing energy consumption and costs.
That dual combination of the practical and the beautiful is what most impresses about this system. Form and function have been married almost perfectly here.
With any hope, the Rheinseilbahn will finally put to rest the notion that cable stations are nothing more than ugly, looming beasts on the horizon.
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.