How do metro systems cope with whopping great hills?

Barcelona has hills of the sort that are a right pain when you're planning a metro system. Image: Hedwig Storch/Wikimedia Commons.

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:

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.


Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.

At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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