ABOVE: A classic Polybahn car (now retired).
Zürich is a city of hills, including a steep one that climbs from the east end of the Bahnhof bridge across from the main train station. High on the hill, overlooking the Old Town and the River Limmat, are two college campuses: the University of Zürich and the Federal Institute of Technology, also known as the ETHZ, Polytechnikum, or "Poly."
Getting to the campuses can be a chore, especially for students or professors who are laden with books. Recognizing the need for a mechanized shortcut, the Zurich city fathers granted an 80-year concession for a Zürichbergbahn in 1886. The funicular railway was completed in 1889 and has been known colloquially as the "Polybahn" ever since.
Saved by the bank
The Zürichbergbahn whirred and clanked its way uphill without incident until 1966, and the concession was extended by ten years. Then came the bad news: In 1976, the Polybahn's management announced that it didn't have enough cash for a badly needed overhaul of the system. The Union Bank of Switzerland came to the rescue, establishing a new business called "UBS Polybahn AG" that took over the concession.The new UBS subsidiary completely restored the track and renovated the Polybahn's two funicular cars in just 12 weeks.
Bigger cars for bigger crowds
In 1990, the Polybahn established a reciprocal fare arrangement with Zürich's public transportation network, and ridership climbed to an unprecedented 1.6 passengers a year. It was time for another system overhaul. This time, the cars were replaced by slightly larger versions that boosted capacity by 25%, to 50 passengers every three minutes or 1,000 passengers an hour.
How the system works
The Polybahn is a funicular railway, consisting of two cars that are connected by a cable. The two cars are designed to counterbalance each other like a pair of old-fashioned elevators. As the car on the left climbs the track, the car on the right descends. They pass each other in the middle, with the left car reaching the upper station as its twin arrives in the lower station. The cars then discharge their passengers, collect new payloads, and repeat the three-minute cycle.
Here are the Polybahn's specifications, as reported by the German-language UBS Polybahn Web site (which is now defunct, I'm sorry to say):
Fares and schedule
A single ticket on the UBS Polybahn cost CHF 1 the last time I checked. The good news: Transfers from buses or trams within Zone 10 are honored, and you can ride the Polybahn free if you have a 24-hour transportation ticket from the VZZ (Zürich's public-transit system) or a Swiss Pass.
Hours of operation: 6:45 a.m to 7 p.m. on weekdays, 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays. Closed Sundays and holidays.