New cableway for Piz Gloria

New cableway for Piz Gloria

The Schilthornbahn has been in operation for 55 years. The first stage from Stechelberg to Mürren/Birg opened on 20th June 1965. That to the summit of the Schilthorn opened in 1967 and it was soon made famous because of 007! The summit facilities had been left incomplete due to shortage of finances however the making of the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service saw the film crews put much needed finishing touches to the Piz Gloria restaurant – and the finances from the filming enabled the entire summit complex to be completed. The Schilthorn is a popular summit becuse of its unqiue position – it commands an excellent view of the surrounding high mountains as well as vistas right across both Switzerland and Germany – including Europe’s highest peak at Mont Blanc in France.

007 film crew on the single track pylon near the summit of the Schilthorn in 1968. This pylon design shows the limitations of the current system which is for a single cable car only. Source: Twitter

The Schilthornbahn is somewhat limited because of its original construction, being largely a single car operated system. Its just the central section between Mürren and Birg that has a twin car operated cableway. The remainder of the route, despite being a pioneering system of the sixties, is now considerably limited largely because of single car operation on three of its four stages from Stetchelberg to Gimmelwald, Gimmelwald to Mürren and Birg to Schilthorn. In other words if one misses a trip they would have to wait for that one cable car to make an out and back trip before they could get on it. Clearly the stage between Mürren and Birg is the only section on the entire route that can manage an intensive cable car service.

The Schilthornbahn has received a number of upgrades over the years including new cabins, however several limitations were beginning to show with the present system – it couldn’t sustain the huge numbers of visitors because of this single car operation – and it does prove problematic especially in terms of the section from Birg to the Schilthorn. The fact the summit is known as Piz Gloria and the huge connotations with the James Bond movie franchise, certainly makes it a very popular destination, and in fact its almost a shrine to James Bond!

Back in 2011 there were warnings that the region’s cableways and railways would be unable to sustain the amount of tourism that was visiting the area unless major upgrades were undertaken. The older systems were rather slow which was somewhat off putting to those who were time-poor but wanted to do something specific within the region such as skiing – purely visiting a mountaintop for its spectacular views by way of a slow transport system wasn’t really as enticing as once thought. This prompted some of the operators to begin looking at ways to improve their transport systems up into the mountains. It wasn’t just this there was also the newly introduced Swiss Disability Act which prompted the transport authorities to upgrade their systems in terms of accessibility etc.

Rare view of the summit under construction released for 007/Piz Gloria’s 50th anniversary. Source: Twitter

One of the early converts in the light of this was the Stanserhornbahn who were the first in Switzerland to use a twin tracked cableway and the only ones so far to use a double deck cable car with an open top! The Matterhorn Express followed suit with its new route which opened in September 2018 using a new 3S cableway system to the highest cable car station in Europe 3883m/12739ft) and that complemented an older cable car route to the same summit.

Not only that the first stage of the controversial Jungfrau V Bahn opened in December 2019 providing yet another radical way of conceptualising the total mountain experience. The entire Jungfrau region clearly needed to upgrade its systems because there were queues and backlogs and there were inconsistencies in connections between the various parts of the region including both Wengen and Mürren and it was said a considerable amount of custom was being lost because the system didn’t meet modern expectations – mainly because people didn’t want to spend hours trying to get up mountains!

Its not that the rack railways of the region are a problem so to say. There will be people who are time rich and time poor. Skiers will likely prefer to take a cable car whilst others such as leisurely tourists would prefer to use the rack railways. Both will be quite intensively used and over the years the area’s classic rack lines have had enormous upgrades including new track, new trains, new and fully accessible stations. The Berner Oberland Bahn for example is now entirely double track from a point south of Wilderswil to Zweilütschinen. The previous lengthy single track section of some 2.80km was a considerable bottleneck.

There’s pressure on the area’s transport systems because of the immense popularity and the Schilthorn is no different. In fact its perhaps the most popular destination besides the Jungfrau. Tourism is a huge industry given the area’s delights but its also a big problem. It might not seem like it but improving the transport systems is a way of managing the vast crowds that come to visit the area.

Its why precipice walkways, glass floors and ledges that hang out over thousands of feet have become popular – more thrills besides the age-old one of admiring the view from the tops of the mountains. Its quite clever because these an element of sport (and a sense of danger even though the whole thing is actually quite safe) and this kind of thing has been a sure way of attracting custom the world over. But its also a means of providing a safe way for greater numbers of people to enjoy the mountains. These things might seem cynical but they do have a role and that is to help spread out the crowds as well as preventing the mountain environment being compromised.

The new look twin tracked cable cars which will carry people up to Piz Gloria. Source: Schilthornbahn 20XX

Inevitably the question of modernisation soon turned to the Schilthornbahn itself. The plans for a new cableway were initially mooted in May 2018 and during the summer of that year it was officially announced the project would go ahead. The new system would consist of a vastly improved, ultra high technology, cableway all the way from Stechelberg to the summit of the Schilthorn and in turn this would give faster transit times to the town of Mürren itself. Its not meant to be a replacement for the area’s other route, the Bergbahn Lauterbrunnen – Mürren, for this has a traffic catchment that is almost entirely different.

The new Schilthorn route is designed to overcome the operational and capacity limitations on the old one and provide a higher capacity twin car system operating from Stechelberg to the summit of the mountain. Like the other mountains the Schilthorn is a huge draw because it ash some excellent ski runs, but not only that, its a hugely popular draw because of its historic links to the James Bond films – especially on Her Majesty’s Secret Service – which was filmed at the summit of the mountain during 1968-69.

Mürren is of course served by the present Schilthorn cable car system as well as the Bergbahn Lauterbrunnen-Mürren, the latter having been a very early advocate of complete modernisation – in the early 2000s they swapped their historic funicular line – which had been suffering from a problem where its formation was being pushed out of alignment by geological issues – for a modern cable car system which does the job in far less than half the time and this has an ‘underload’ system for freight operations.

This left the Schilthorn system looking a bit dated even though that too is a valuable asset to the people of Mürren. The answer therefore was to seek to provide a newer, more direct and quicker route from the Lauterbrunnen valley.

The new cableway route from Stechelberg to the summit. The old route via Gimmelwald is shown. Source: Twitter

The new Stetchelberg-Mürren cable cars will have an even larger passenger capacity than the present ones – the new carrying 800 per hour plus freight carrying facilities which are to be provided by special ‘underload’ cradle sited beneath the cars themselves (following the example of the other cable cars in the locality that also use this system.) This new underload system will however go one better by having automated loading and unloading of the cradles at both Stechelberg and Mürren which means the Schilthorn system should be a far more convenient and quicker option than the other two routes.

The sections from Mürren to Birg and the Schilthorn will be 100% Funimor what that means is these will be operated independently of each other. It wont be a typical téléphérique system where both cars are tethered together (as will be the case on the lower section from Mürren to Stechelberg) but each car is actually independent of the other thus they will be able to travel on demand and without having to wait for the other to be filled up or load balanced.

These new routes will operate as ‘tethered’ systems as per classic cable car operation and it might look like the cars are in fact operated together – its easy to synchronise departures and arrivals so these are spaced out to even times across the board.

However that will be done electronically and it can be overridden. What it means is In very quiet periods just one car could be used whilst in very busy periods each could be utilised independently to match the demands of the service. Not only that one could be operated whilst the other is undergoing servicing – which means less of those closing periods (maintenance holidays) that usually bedevil the various cableways in Switzerland where the system has to shut down completely to permit work to be undertaken.

If there is a failure or some problem, the new system will permit the individual cars to be called back to base station if the need should be. It means the old ways of having to evacuate passengers from stricken cable cars via abseiling methods or being hoisted by helicopters wont be so necessary and it means access to the Schilthorn will be possible an almost uninterrupted 365 days a year.

So far its just a handful of cableways in Europe that have converted to the new twin tracked Funifor system, including several in Italy at Alba-Col dei Rossi. Passo dei Salati – Indren, Zoncolan – Ravascletto/​Sutrio and Pejo, plus some others in Austria such as the Falginjochbahn and the Sonderdachbahn. The Schilthornbahn will be the first such example of a Funifor line in Switzerland.

How the new base station at Stechelberg could look. The classic cable route via Gimmelwald leaves to the right. Source: Schilthornbahn 20XX

The new cableway is to be of the latest technology – which involves twin running cables (twin tracks) and support arms – rather than the classic single arm system that’s on practically all the world’s cable car systems. So far its just the Stanserhorn in Switzerland that has adopted the new format in 2012 (theirs is the CabriO® system whilst Schilthorn will use Funifor – both systems are in fact offerings from Garaventa and Doppelmayr.) An advantage of the new Funifor system is the support arms do not have to be as tall thus the terminal buildings can also be much lower in profile which means they are less intrusive on the landscape.

The Stechelberg to Mürren section will be a standard twin track system where the cars are in fact tethered together, however the twin sections from Mürren to Birg and Schilthorn will be the complete Funifor works where the cars can be operated independently. The reason for this is the first section will carry freight as well as larger numbers of passengers thus a more powerful haulage system is required even though its of the new twin tracked type.

Another new innovation of the Funifor system is the cable cars on the Mürren/Birg/Schiltorn section will generate power that can be stored and reused later on! You’ve no doubt heard of the railways’ use of regenerative braking? Well this is somewhat similar! The descending cable car will contribute power towards the ascending cable car which means the new system doesn’t require any new power supplies of any sort – in fact it will use considerably less power than the old system. If there is a power cut the cable cars will be able to travel under their own power drawing electricity from backup batteries that have stored regenerated energy.

The unusual interchange station at Gimmelwald where one switches from the Stechelberg to Mürren section of the Schilthorn cableway. Source: Deine-Berge

One may not notice it however the intermediate station at Gimmelwald happens to be the very earliest example of a Doppelmayer/Garaventa 21st century system – except it isn’t! It was built in the sixties yet it has those very elements that will give the new Schilthornbanh 20XX system a distinct style. We’re now seeing this sort of system with those curved support arms employed on a number of new cable car systems across the world and although the new Funifor system is far more modern in scope and technology, its early ancestor can be said to be that at Gimmelwald.

The single cable car on the Gimmelwald to Mürren section. Source: Twitter

One of the bigger surprises in terms of Schilthornbahn 20XX is the section from Stechelberg to Mürren will be a direct route. It wont take the longer route via Gimmelwald which is what the older section does. Currently the older section runs at full capacity because its a main access route for the residents of both Mürren and Gimmelwald as well as hordes of tourists to the summit of the Schilthorn.

The company wants to address these overcrowding problems by providing a direct route towards Mürren with a much larger carrying capacity. It will of course supplement the existing routes to Mürren (via Gimmelwald and via Grütschalp.) A collaboration with the federal government (the Canton of Bern) means the older section will continue to operate until 2035 thus Gimmelwald’s inhabitants will continue to have a half hourly public transport service. Any later than 2035 will depend on concessions from the Canton government.

The new cableway route direct to Mürren will replace a smaller one which was built at a later date by the Schilthorn company itself – this is primarily a freight operation for the town of Mürren as the picture below shows. The ‘underload’ system is very clearly depicted in this view as well as the unusual load that’s being carried!

The present Stechelberg-Mürren direct cableway is primarily a freight carrier – and yes – this is a Rolls Royce being transported up to the town for a special display! Source: Hotel Eiger Mürren

If one doesnt know, Mürren is one of those Swiss towns sited high up in the mountains which doesn’t have cars (Wengen on the other side of the valley, and Kleine Scheidegg higher up in the mountains, being further examples) and its why cable cars, funiculars and mountain railways are ever so important for these considerably isolated towns. Mürren is almost undoubtedly the most popular because of its fantastic location with the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau mountains as a dramatic backdrop – but its also the biggest of them all – and the Schilthornbahn is of course one of the town’s important lifelines.

The new Mürren station (1638m/5374ft.) Source: Schilthornbahn 20XX

The reason the original Stechelberg – Mürren route goes via Gimmelwald is because an extremely steep ascent would have been required. The narrow Lauterbrunnen valley is characterised by steep cliffs which rise to a thousand feet or more and in the days the Schilthornbahn was built the technology wasn’t really available for a cable car that could climb extremely steeply. This is why the lower section of the line takes the long way round. The car from Stechelberg to Gimmelwald is in fact counter-balanced by the car working between Gimmelwald and Mürren – both cars meet at Gimmelwald where cross-platform interchange is provided. Whilst it is an unusual system its not as quick as a direct line would be.

The new route wont have those problem of capacity or the need to switch cars en route for it will pass directly straight up the vertical cliffs towards Mürren. Unlike the old route this new one will in fact be one of the world’s steepest cable cars with a maximum inclination of nearly 1 in 1 – almost 45 degrees angle. Its almost like a Pilatusbahn train on steroids!

The present station at Mürren with a car for Birg. Source: Twitter

The current twin car system between Mürren and Birg. The current pylon seen in the distance (and another further down) will be replaced by a new one which will be the only such example on this section. Source: Twitter

Birg (2677m/8783ft) with the Schilthorn in the distance. Both the Skyline Thrill platform and the Thrill Walkway (which goes round the sheer precipice just below the cableway station) can be seen. Source: Schilthornbahn AG

In terms of other improvements the sections Mürren-Birg-Schilthorn will need less supports. In fact the upper section wont need any pylons at all (the current has the one almost right at the summit itself) whilst that to Birg will only need one plyon as opposed to the current two.

Currently it takes 32 minutes transit time from Stechelberg to the summit. With a more direct and faster system this will be reduced to 22 minutes – the early specs for the project in 2018 had specified a possible 19 minutes – whether this will be implemented at a later date is not known.

How the intermediate station at Birg could look with the new cableway system. The buildings that service the new cable cars will be much lower in profile than the old ones. Source: Schilthornbahn 20XX

The current single car service from the summit arriving at Birg. Source: Twitter

The single Schilthorn car approaches the summit. The intermediate stop at Birg can be seen in the distance. This view was taken in August 2020 when the Alps experienced a rare summer major snowfall. Source: Twitter

The single car section from Birg to the Schilthorn is so designed because of the considerably long distance between the two points (well over a mile) without any support for the track (apart from one pylon almost right at the summit itself – which can be seen at the beginning of this article) this was about the technological limit in the sixties for both the distance (in terms of capacity of the cable and the total amount unsupported distance it could manage) combined with the size and weight of the cable car (80 passenger capacity) that was required.

There are other major cableway systems that use a single car system too because of design issues – for example there’s the nearby BLM with its new route between Lauterburnnen and Grütschalp. Other locations include the steep upper section of the Nordkettenbahn between Seegrube and Hafelekar and also that from Skalnaté Pleso to Lomnický štít in Slovakia. The latter is undoubtedly one of the world’s longest unsupported cableways with a distance of just over 3km or nearly two and quarter miles rising an incredible height too – due to the sheer weight of the unsupported cable this means the cable car itself has to be quite small & light, carrying just 14 passengers. Technology has since developed better and longer unsupported cable systems with much bigger passenger cabins.

How the new look twin track cable car system at the summit of the Schilthorn/Piz Gloria (2970m/9744ft) could look. Source: Schilthornbahn 20XX

One more advantage of the modern twin tracked cable way systems is these can be operated in higher wind conditions, the loadings can be even greater than on a classic and of course the cabins are much larger – important when they’re increasingly the more popular type which are almost entirely glass sided.

The new cableway is designated Schilthorn 20XX. Preliminary work is set to begin this year and the major work to commence by 2021. The Mürren to Birg and Schilthorn sections should be operational by 2024 whilst that from Mürren down to Stechelberg is envisaged to be in operation by the end of 2025.

Whether James Bond would approve of the new system is something that remains to be seen!