Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Hill climbing tram

with 21 comments

The photo below is posted to flickr. The image in fact comes from there – I am just posting a link in a way that displays the image in the middle of my text. It was taken in Lisbon, Portugal – last month. As you can probably tell, this is an old tram – and it is a simple electric, steel wheel on steel rail vehicle, not a cable car or a rack railway.  I like it because it reminds me of the number of times I have been told in all seriousness by certified professional engineers that a tram – streetcar – light rail vehicle – whatever you want to call it, cannot possibly climb a hill steeper than 6%. I have heard this about Burnaby Mountain, and why trams couldn’t possibly go to SFU. We need a cable car. We would had to have a tunnel or a major structure through the Miller Ravine because light rail just would never work on North Road. LRT could never be considered for Cambie Street past City Hall – its much too steep they said.

Carris 575 - Lisbon

Tram in Lisbon - image by Neil Pulling on flickr

Written by Stephen Rees

June 8, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Posted in transit

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21 Responses

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  1. Is climate a factor? Lisbon doesn’t get a lot of snow, and not even much frost, whereas rail up Burnaby Mountain would have to contend with freezing rain and snow. That question aside, though, I favour your side of the question. Engineers are trained to think in terms of following standards documents with hard, conservative boundaries. If the book says <6%, that’s the end of the matter. I don’t say that’s necessarily a bad attitude. When I’m walking over a bridge, I’d just as soon the engineer who designed it was pretty damn conservative. You need to balance those people out, though, and I’d just love to see a tram like that one, trundling up through Cambie Village.

    Dominic Brown

    June 8, 2011 at 6:15 pm

  2. I don’t think climate is a major factor, cost is…

    the steeper the grade is, the more expensive it is to operate a train, and it is possible engineer has book saying that above 6% grade, you can’t operate “off the shelves” tram…

    It is basically what has happened in Tenerife (Spain) where they operate a Modern tram (Citadis) on up to 8.5% grade…

    the difference with other Citadis, is that it has much greater motorization (motor on all wheels) and braking capabilities…energy consumption, maintenance are scaled accordingly.

    The extra cost could make sense in Tenerife because the average grade of the line is anyway in the 5% (some steep grade is not an isolated section of the line), and it serve lot of intermediate area (justifying the investment)… some other case, greater up front capital investment could be preferable to extra operating cost…

    in the case of the Burnaby mountain, between production way and sfu, there is little if not nothing to justify a service by a tram (or potential extra cost involved by it) versus a cheaper (and incidentally faster) solution like the proposed Gondola.


    June 8, 2011 at 11:36 pm

  3. I’ve recently returned from Basel in Switzerland where lines 15/16 in particular cover extremely steep and curving track, and the weather there certainly involves cold and wet conditions.

    Neil Pulling

    June 9, 2011 at 2:02 am

  4. I look forward to seeing more of your pictures of it

    Stephen Rees

    June 9, 2011 at 7:46 am

  5. @Voony: Hmmm. Come to think of it, hauling a heavy tram up hills certainly would cost a lot of additional energy. But then, hauling diesel buses up the same hills increases their fuel use, too. Perhaps the proportional increase is greater with trams, because their rolling resistance is so low, on level track. Wonder if there’s any way to use regenerative braking on the way back down, to recover some of the extra energy?

    As for the gondola, I’m glad to hear it’s not cost-prohibitive. Quite apart from better public transit, this town needs more whimsy and eccentricity

    @Neil: That’s very good to hear. Are those lines still regular steel wheels on steel track, or is there some cog arrangement for the steep sections? If not, I’m much encouraged. So many of the objections to public transit, from drivers, amount to complaints about the disagreeable character of the ride. Light rail addresses that better than any alternative. (Not that I’m one of the light rail = Holy Grail crowd.)

    Dominic Brown

    June 9, 2011 at 12:59 pm

  6. Weight may have something to do with it, and whether the tracks are smooth and shiny as the result of fresh grinding, or are pitted and rough. A crowded tram pulling a maximum load may result in wheel slippage.

    The huge freight trains operating over the Great Divide through the spiral tunnels east of Field BC have sand under air pressure blowing on the tracks in front of the locomotive drive wheels before cresting the Divide. I suspect the grade is well under 6% because the runs to the crest are very, very long. The tracks there are regularly replaced from wear. .


    June 9, 2011 at 4:34 pm

  7. MB, the Spiral Tunnel line is 2.2 % iirc, they replaced the 4.5% “Big Hill”. Perhaps the steepest grade remaining in BC is Lower Warfield to Trail….

    not that exciting.. the overpasses over Hwy 3B provide better shots of trains climbing or descending the grade


    June 11, 2011 at 9:20 pm

  8. WRT the EverGreen Line, I don’t think the issue is the North Road or the Burquitlam part of Clark Road (after all, the line is elevated there and the guideway will follow the contour of the lands), the hill in question is the Clarke Road hill on the other side – the Port Moody side) that is quite steep with curves to lessen the grade for cars.

    I found a video of Clarke Hill on Youtube:


    June 14, 2011 at 12:12 pm

  9. Cool, it inserted the Youtube video by itelf (I just pasted the link)

    BTW – I wonder how the Clark Rd. hill compares with the hill from Sott Road Station to Whalley. That’s quite steep.

    Also, regarding Cambie Street, the undergrounding of the Canada Line doesn’t mtigate the grade all that much because it’s close to the surface and largely follows the contours of the land.
    I think the short station platforms (50m versus 80m) helped with easing the grade, because the level sections of track introduced into the tunnel guideway for the stations didn’t force extremely steep “between station” segments.
    If you have a narrower LRT train (2.6m versus 3.0m) with longer level station platforms, then the “between station”: segments get steeper. i.e. each station platform introduces a “plateau” on the hill.
    In addition, for an at-grade LRT on Cambie, a level station platform (i.e. 80m long either north or south of Broadway) would necessarily require some sort of structure that is not on contour with the grade (whether trenched, elevated or tunnelled).


    June 14, 2011 at 12:27 pm

  10. If there was to be surface LRT from Vancouver to Richmond it should have either used the existing Arbutus right of way or, if it was to be on-street, then the best choice would have been Main Street. Not only would Main have have removed the need to deal with going over or under False Creek it would have given SkyTrain passengers a transfer point outside downtown Vancouver. Main was also the N-S street with the highest local transit ridership prior to the opening of Canada Line. Main had one further advantage to forward thinking planners: it lined up perfectly with the Shell Road rail right of way in Richmond. Main street has a significant hill between Marine Drive and 54th Avenue, but the 1905 streetcars could make it up so a 21st century tram shouldn’t have a problem.


    June 14, 2011 at 11:03 pm

  11. There is a quite steep hill at the Eastern end of the main avenue in Bordeaux’ eastern suburb of Cenon (France). I remember driving on that road up and down many times, in the days when there was no speed limit, and it was hairy, especially going down on rainy days. The more so as it was then the only access into Bordeaux, before the circular divided motorway was built.

    The Bordeaux tramway (line A) climbs alongside, on a succession of 3 curved viaducts that aren’t that high above ground, perhaps to preserve the view of Bordeaux for anyone driving down. I haven’t been able to find anywhere how steep these viaducts are.

    The Seattle Central Link LRT goes up/ down a relatively steep ramp in Tukwila…there again I couldn’t find any figures. The photo doesn’t make it look that steep but on the ground it is a bit more impressive. Of course steep is in the eye of the beholder….

    Red frog

    June 15, 2011 at 3:50 am

  12. @ David, there was substantial political pressure to build the Canada Line underground on Cambie, but despite the mode and politics there is a certain logic to using Cambie over Arbutus or Main when connecting Richmond to Vancouver in the 21st Century. Arbutus and Main both miss the important Central Broadway precinct by at least a kilometre, and the direct straight line link to downtown is lost. That’s not bias, just elementary geometry. Central Broadway and downtown are Metro Vancouver’s No One and No Two employment centres and have plenty of residential density to justify their decision.

    Moreover, the transit call was cast to serve regional transit needs first with a faster and more efficient system that required grade separation, not localized neighbourhood needs which are currently quite well served by trolley buses in Vancouver (not to say we couldn’t use more). Replacing buses with a virtually identical service frequency and capacity tram service has been hashed over ad nauseum in this blog, and was very effectively addressed on Human Transit. I would add it would be a supreme waste of money. And running a high capacity surface LRT system a minimum of a kilometre away from the areas it should best serve, let alone severing the ability of pedestrians to cross arterials, just doesn’t make sense.

    This is not to say a tram service couldn’t be implemented on Arbutus one day.


    June 15, 2011 at 12:19 pm

  13. MB, David

    Your discussion is Vancouver centric. The choice of route was strongly influenced by the need to serve the airport. YVR partly funded it as they needed to put in a people mover to utilize parking lots remote from the terminal. (Transit to the airport before the Canada Line time was not a significant choice for travellers.) But also the small c conservatives had long wanted to build rapid transit to Richmond – and Main Street’s possible connection to the Shell Road line was not a selling point then – or now! It had to get to Richmond’s centre – and the only choice as far as Richmond was concerned was No 3 Road, and preferably using surface light rail. Even if it meant a transfer!

    Whatever the political pressures, Ken Dobell had made up his mind that it was going to be in a tunnel under Cambie from the start – and whatever “studies” were done were designed to support that conclusion.

    Stephen Rees

    June 15, 2011 at 12:48 pm

  14. “Studies” in BC are a waste of time, money and paper. Someone like Ken Dobell, sitting in the gold plated office hidden from view in the base of the politicians’ ivory tower, makes all the decisions in advance.

    I’m probably only half way through my life, but I’ve already given up hope that anything I remember fondly from my childhood in Vancouver will still be standing when I’m down to my last days here. I should have been born somewhere else. Some place where people care about their history and their neighbourhoods.


    June 16, 2011 at 11:20 pm

  15. I hear Nelson, BC has a nice hictoric downtown. It even has a tram.


    June 17, 2011 at 3:11 pm

  16. The route rail transit to Richmond would take (Arbutus vs Cambie) was debated for 30 years, so perhaps it’s not surprising that we’re still arguing the point 2 years after it was finally achieved. One thing’s for sure, having grade separated rail proved to be helpful in moving people out of downtown last Wednesday night, when all street level transit had to be suspended, though true that this was a once in every 12-17 year occurrence.


    June 18, 2011 at 12:25 am

  17. Didn’t North Vancouver have a tram going right up the hill to Lynn Valley once upon a time?


    June 20, 2011 at 6:46 pm

  18. David, you bring up an interesting point. Back in the Olympic Spring of February 2010, when as I have it VANOC was pumping $1 million per day into transit, the trains were running every 90 seconds. Clearing a crowd was not an issue then. Grade separation is an advantage… but the language is imprecise. Do we mean neighbourhood blighting Skytrain, or do we mean below grade subway?

    Transportation does play an important role in reigning in Hooliganism. But not the leading role.

    My favourite idea for SFU Burnaby Mountain comes from a friend who worked all his life as an architect in the UK. He wondered whether or not we could bend the Evergreen line under Burnaby Mountain and then outfit a high capacity elevator system to whisk travellers from the mountain top to the Evergreen line and back.

    I have experienced just such a system in London, in Bloomsbury, and it seems to work just fine.

    Lewis N. Villegas

    June 25, 2011 at 11:58 pm

  19. Lewis: the grade separation downtown came to mind only because all bus services had to be cancelled as the roads were impassible, admittedly a rare event. As for blight… well, i’m not sure that Burnaby’s Lougheed Highway is any less blighted than before. It’s not an all or nothing proposition either (at least with LRT) LRT in St Louis runs underground downtown, and at the surface (albeit mostly in protected ROWs)

    Frequency: Skytrain often runs @ rush hour frequency during special events, but not to change the subject to rant here, but bus “Sunday Service” makes no sense in the summer. Last Sunday, with Greek Day’s on West Broadway, and the Carnaval del Sol Festival on Granville… buses were jammed, exacerbated by reduced “Sunday Service”. Sunday Service may have made sense decades ago, when many stores were prohibited from opening (pre Expo, supermarkets such as Safeway were closed by law), but in the 21st century , Sunday is as busy as Saturday; 10 minute 99 service ensures passups at Clark and Fraser, and the 84, the de facto extension of the Millennium Line, runs a decent service weekday days but shuts down at 10 weekdays, 9 Saturdays, and 7:30 Sundays.


    June 30, 2011 at 12:07 am

  20. Cal de Sao Francisco has two steep grades one is 12.0% and the second at 14.5%, is one of the steepest non adhesion grades in the world. Overall the Carris tram network in Lisbon has 9 different grades steeper than 11.0% (Source The Tramways of Portugal / Companhia Carris de Ferro de Lisboa). The tram bodies date from the 1930s. The bodies and all electrical and mechanical equipment were rebuilt about 1995.

    In North America Pittsburgh had streetcar lines with very similar grades. Toronto has steep grades on Bathurst Street above Davenport and entering St. Clair West station.


    January 27, 2012 at 10:09 am

  21. Dominic: They climb hills in Norway as well, and we have snow, lots of it in fact.

    I really have no idea how though, the tractive force between a steel wheel and its steel rails provide very low force/weight.

    Victor Zimmer

    February 12, 2016 at 12:23 pm

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