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Transport / Mass transit

How do metro systems cope with whopping great hills?

Sudden steep hills are a bit of a pain in the arse  an engineering challenge for yer bog standard metro system.

Obviously you don’t want too many steps between underground platforms and a station entrance. But long lifts will constrain the number of people who can get in and out, and could lead to over-crowding during peak hours; while escalators, nifty as they are, require a lot of space that isn’t necessarily available.

So, how do you get people from the top of a hill to an underground train and back? Cities have come up with a variety of solutions to link their metro networks up with their more mountainous areas. Here are three.

1. The funicular

In Paris, the metro lines skip the top of Montmatre altogether, and deposit passengers in the streets below. If you really want to visit Sacré-Cœur without climbing a whopping great hill, there’s this:

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The Montmatre Funicular. Image: Anthony Atkielski/Wikimedia Commons.

Funiculars, for those who haven’t had the pleasure, are cable-pulled cares clinging to the sides of steep slopes. As the cable winches one car up the tracks, it simultaneously lowers another, which provides a counter balance and reduces the energy the system needs. It’s the sort of thing English resort towns use to carry old people up cliffs, and it’s rather clever.

That said, in Paris the base station isn’t anywhere near a metro station either, which is a bit off. Other cities make more effort to integrate their funiculars with the rest of their transport system. In Barcelona, the funicular that carries passengers up Montjuïc starts from what is essentially a platform within Paral·lel Metro station:

The lower platform. Image: YMblanter/Wikimedia Commons.

How it looks on the metro map. Image: TMB.

Naples has no fewer than four funiculars, three of which connected at a single station, Vanvitelli. The largest of these, the central funicular, carries over 10m passengers a year through its four stations. (By way of comparison, London’s smallest tube line, our old mate the Waterloo & City, carries 15m.)

2. The cable car

Cable cars have picked up a bit of a rubbish reputation in certain western cities (can’t think why).

In many hilly Latin American cities, though, they’ve proved really handy. They’re relatively cheap and easy to construct, and bother quicker and less prone to disruption than buses.  Consequently they’ve popped up, in Medellin:

Image: Raul Arboleda/Getty.

In Caracas:

Image: AFP/Getty.

And in Rio:

Image: Mario Tama/Getty.

Oh, and you can use them as an alternative way of Barcelona’s Montjuïc, should you so wish.

There’s one big downside to both cable cars and funiculars, though: they’re not that big. Look at the size of the cars. They simply can’t carry that many people compared to a traditional metro system.

So that leaves:

3. Clever station design

Okay, this isn’t always an option, for all sorts of reasons. But some metro stations have been designed specifically to deal with the fact they’re buried under massive great hills

Take Casco Viejo station, in the middle of Bilbao. It serves both a main line station, to the east, and the medieval heart of the city to the west (the name literally means “old city”). Between those two destinations lies the lower slopes of a huge hill which leads up to the Parque Etxebarria.

It’d obviously be pretty impractical to stick the station itself in the park, and get everyone to walk down. So instead, the metro platforms are buried deep under the hill, and connected to the world either side through long tunnels containing moving-walkways. You can just see the western one in the background here. It’s the big dark tunnel:

Image: Google Streetview.

El Coll–La Teixonera, in Barcelona’s hilly northern suburbs, does something similar. The deepest station on the network, it contains no fewer than 12 moving walkways, giving passengers a choice of slopes to pop out on. The eastern entrance to the station is a whole quarter of a mile away from the western one.

Then, to help locals with the last climb to their house, it offers outdoor escalators like this:

Image: Jonn Elledge.

Or, I guess, you could walk.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He tweets as @jonnelledge.
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