Friday, January 25, 2013

Funicular fun

Being vehicle-less for the past two weeks (long story) has been quite liberating. I've done more walking than normal, especially around Bourg between the Les Arcs Express funicular and the town centre. I've enjoyed also the walk through the frozen  park to the supermarkets a few times.  But I have spent a lot of time on the Funi, and a fair amount of time waiting for it at both ends. Even after using it regularly for the last 10 years to get in and out of  Les Granges I still get confused by the time-table, especially in the late afternoons, and this is compounded by the occasional 'operational error', when it doesn't stop here when it should do.

Never stopped by snow or bad weather
Some of my guests find it hard to get the hang of it, and I think the record is 6 journeys up and down before finally managing to get out at Les Granges. I always try patiently to explain how it all works, but glazed expressions and odd questions often belie a fundamental lack of grasp. The commonest mistake the guests make (please don't laugh!) is getting on the one going down when they actually want to go up, or vice-versa. I try to get them to think of it as an upside-down cable car on rails, but I don't think this helps much...

Bottom station of the old TPH,
now demolished
Love it or hate it, the funicular is a vital lifeline for Les Arcs and Bourg St Maurice. Without it I imagine the town would be a rather sad and forgotten place (like Aime) with very little in the way of tourist infrastructure.  The number of users has grown every year (over half a million last year) as Bourg's popularity as a budget resort option and a summer destination grows (same effect as Brides Les Bains/Meribel).

Past and present...
The 'Arc en Ciel', as the funiculaire was originally named, opened on 23rd February 1989, so next season we'll be able to have a 25th birthday party. It was the third link between Bourg and the ski area, having been preceded by the 2 stage chairlift via Les Granges (1961 - 1974) and a téléphérique (1974 - 1989) which was never much good because it was too prone to high winds blowing down from the St Bernard Pass and only took 68 people - not enough for the fast-developing resorts of Les Arcs.

The decision to build an expensive funicular (for which the town is still paying) was taken in the light of the up-coming 1992 Albertville Olympics (remember Torville and Dean?), for which Arc 2000 hosted the Speed Skiing event, the 'KL'. (Much of the valley's infrastructure was improved then, including the upgrading of the railway to take TGVs and the express dual-carriageway road from Albertville to Moutiers.)

Building the bridge over the Isere
Unusually for a funicular railway of such length (2.9 km) there are no tunnels.The Grande Motte funicular at Tignes was built at the same time and for the same reason, but entirely in a tunnel. Various geological problems caused delays, and it missed the Olympics completely, opening eventually in 1993.

The 'Arc-en-Ciel' uses a simple, prefabricated structure made in sections in a factory rather then on-site in a potentially hostile climate. Once the earthworks were done, it was all bolted together easily and quickly.  The two 'rames' each hold 276 people and the 7 minute journey was a great deal faster and more comfortable then either of the previous uplift systems.

View from the cab
We all got a bit excited a couple of years ago when the SMA (now called ADS, who franchise the funicular from the town, who own it) announced they were going to re-furbish the carriages. However, all this resulted in was some rather flat-footed graphics on the outside, a change of name to the dull 'Les Arcs Express' and absolutely nothing on the inside, which continue to look tatty and un-loved.

It'a shame that this, and the appalling Elephant-and-Castle type walkway linking it the railway station are the first impressions  many visitors have of Les Arcs.  The location of the bottom terminus at the wrong end of the station and miles from the town centre is  for me one of the "5 Great Planning Mistakes of Les Arcs" - surely another 500m of track wouldn't have broken the bank back then in the prosperous 1980s?

However, lets be thankful that that the people of Bourg had the courage and vision to build such an efficient,  reliable (never been stopped by snow or bad weather), safe (there has never been an accident) link. Just think of the amount of  Co2 and pollution saved over 25 years of car-less transport. If only we could persuade them to simplify and extend the timetable into the evenings, perhaps run it every 15 minutes rather than 20, and splash out on a coat of paint and some new flooring for the inside.....

You can even get a hand-made Funi 'custom beanie' hat as a souvenir, made by some enterprising British girls and their grannies. Worn compulsorily by cool Coolbus drivers, and ideal for keeping warm while you have to wait 40 minutes for the next one to Les Granges....


  1. Excellent reading thanks.

    I am intrigued "5 Great Planning Mistakes of Les Arcs"

    I know you mentioned Transarc in 1800, what are the other 3?

  2. I very much enjoyed reading about the funicular at Les Arcs, especially as I was there in Feb 1990 and lucky enough to get a ride on the inaugral journey from BSM to LA non stop. I say lucky, as aboard were the Mayors of Les Arcs, BSM, Albertville and Bromley. On the subject of first and last journey's, I'm sure some of your snow sure readers would be interested to see that the Metropolitan Line A60 stock has been withdrawn. This link to a popular video site, documents the item on BBC local news channel. A most sad day I'm sure you'll agree...

  3. Great memories of the cable car 1982-1983 - but the train is great!