Barcelona’s Montjuïc Cable Car, Part 1

Last fall I had an opportunity to tour and document Barcelona’s Montjuïc Cable Car and Funicular. This is the first of two parts documenting the Cable Car system. For the second part, click here. Click here for a discussion of the Funicular

Approaching Barcelona’s Montjuïc Cable Car from the adjacent Funicular station one could be forgiven for not even noticing that a cable car system existed on this mountaintop park.

Montjuic Funicular

The Barcelona Funicular to the right and the main Cable Car station to the left. Image by Steven Dale.

Unlike other cable car systems that insist on proclaiming themselves through extravagant towers and stations, the Montjuïc Cable Car is happy to be plain. The towers are simple, the stations are slim and nothing ever really calls attention to itself—and that’s a good thing.

It’s easy to want customized everything and I’m a strong advocate against simply porting a ski lift into an urban setting, but sometimes there is beauty in a humble system’s utilitarianism. Such is the case on Montjuïc.

Built primarily as a way to afford tourists—both local and foreign—a picturesque means of accessing the Montjuïc Castle, the MDG system by Leitner is a fascinating study of a system that straddles two worlds.

It both is a spectacular example of how to integrate a cable propelled transit system into a contemporary public transportation network and city but is also a lesson in how the needs of the tourist is so completely at odds with the needs of the local.

The system’s physical integration with the surrounding urban fabric and transit network is flawless. Transfers between the Funicular (itself fully-integrated into the wider Barcelona transit system) are seamless and the vehicles have a way of criss-crossing roads and parking lots that is unique in a developed, western landscape.

Montjuïc Cable Car

Montjuïc Cable Car top station. Image by Steven Dale.

Montjuïc Cable Car

The bottom station of the Montjuïc Cable Car. Image by Steven Dale

Yes, the system primarily services a recreational green space, but the way in which it engages with that green space has wider implications for our urban environments. That engagement is put on display best at the system’s mid-station. There, the station is nestled perfectly into an inclined hill; the system’s parking garage and maintenance bay hidden beneath a green roof. It’s as though the system itself doesn’t want to be seen.

Montjuïc Cable Car midstation and maintenance facility. Image by Steven Dale.

Montjuïc Cable Car midstation and maintenance facility. Image by Steven Dale.

Montjuïc Cable Car

The Montjuïc Cable Car mid-station. Image by Steven Dale.

Montjuïc Cable Car

The Montjuïc Cable Car mid station seen from above. Note that the maintenance facility is located below the green area. Image by Steven Dale.

Yet while the mid-station is a stroke of genius from a design perspective, it is flawed from a service perspective.

The system, at only 752 meters, is beyond modest—it’s short, plain and simple. And that shortness makes one question the need for a mid-station at all, particularly given how few people actually use it.

According to my guide, the mid-station was a necessity due to the fact that it was a rebuild of a previous system that also had a mid-station. The mid-station was needed to avoid certain archaeological / natural features typical of a heritage sight such as Montjuïc.

Nevertheless, one can’t help but notice that a good third of the trip is spent in said mid-station due to what is increasingly becoming a problem for the cable transit industry—dwell times.

Sure two minutes in a mid-station is a minor inconvenience for a tourist, but in a transit planning exercise, two minute dwell times are a complete non-starter. Look at the Caracas Metrocable where almost half the system’s travel time is spent in station.

Beyond that, however, the system is a winner from a physical design perspective.

Next week we’ll discuss what makes this system unique from an operational and ownership perspective.

Montjuïc Cable Car

Montjuïc Cable Car overview. Image by Steven Dale.

For the second part, click here.

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.

Barcelona / Montjuïc Cable Car
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System Profile: Montjuïc Funicular, Barcelona

Montjuic Funicular Barcelona

Image by Steven Dale.

As we know, public transit agencies rarely implement cable transit solutions within their networks (hence this website), and when they do, they tend to implement them not as fully-integrated components of their network but rather as isolated, independent components (here or here for example).

They’re treated kind of like that awkward, sticky-fingered step-cousin you only see at certain holidays—kept off to the side and left to fend for themselves.

That’s what makes the Monjuïc Funicular in Barcelona so wonderful. It isn’t an afterthought or at the kiddie’s table.

Montjuïc Funicular. Image by Flickr user lisaeeeee.

The system, originally built in 1928 to serve the hilltop Expo of 1929, was rebuilt by Leitner in 1992 so as to cope with the increased traffic to and from the hilltop due to the wildly successful Barcelona Summer Olympics. 

While only a modest 758 meters long and ostensibly built solely for tourists, the system is fully-integrated into Barcelona’s wider transportation network and is operated by TMB, the city’s local transportation agency. There are no additional fares to ride the system and the station platform is a mere 30 second walk down the hall from the nearby Paral-lel metro station platform.

You could, if you wanted to, pay your metro fare at the top of the funicular and then transfer directly to the metro without going outside, paying an additional fare or even passing through a turnstile—it’s that wedded into the overall system.

Montjuic Funicular Barcelona

The station platform of the Montjuïc Funicular. Image by Steven Dale

Currently, the system operates at approximately ten minute headways with a trip time of only two minutes. But during the Olympics, the system was operating at full-tilt: 10 m/s speeds, with three minute headways and cabins packed to the brim with 400 passengers.

Do the math and you quickly realize that during the Olympics, the Montjuîc Funicular was moving 8,000 pphpd. For those who are keeping track, that’s thought to be the most number of people a funicular had ever carried in history and is a record that stands to this day.

Unfortunately, the headways between vehicles experienced back then are not experienced now.

The current wait times for the vehicles are not exactly prohibitive—after all, at ten minutes they’re still within the tolerance of most urban frequent service bus schedules—but they do feel excessively long for what is such a short ride. Certainly it is possible for the system to operate at shorter frequencies, but to do so would only increase the wear-and-tear on the system.

That’s one of those operational trade-offs that causes problems. From a rider’s perspective, a ten minute wait for a two minute journey hardly seems reasonable, but does it make sense for a transit agency to operate a system in an inefficient manner so as to provide for a greater level of customer satisfaction? 

Hard to say.

Notwithstanding that one minor issue, the Montjuïc Funicular is exemplary in its overall function and integration. It’s not the typical cable car bastard child of the transit network; it’s part of the family. That’s what makes it valuable as a case study. The Montjuïc Funicular teaches you that if you treat a cable car system as transit, then it is transit. That’s the (easily remedied) mistake that London is making with their cable car line.

Perhaps most interesting?

Its upper terminus is right next to another urban cable transit line and what must certainly be one of the world’s most interesting urban gondola systems—but we’ll talk about that next week.

Montjuic Funicular

See that black box to the left? It’s in there. Image by Steven Dale.

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.

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