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Polybahn, Zürich

Old Polybahn car - Zurich Switzerland

ABOVE: A vintage 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.

Tech specs

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):

Gear-driven from AC electric motor
1000 mm (39.3 in.)
176 m (577 ft.)
41 m (131 ft.)
2.5 m/sec. (5.6 mph)
90 sec.

Tickets and timetable

To ride the Polybahn, you'll need a Zürich transit ticket or pass, a Zurich Card, or a Swiss Pass. (You can buy tickets from vending machines at the upper and lower stations.)

Hours of operation are 6:45 a.m to 7:15 p.m. on weekdays, 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays, with departures every two to five minutes. Closed Sundays and holidays.

Web links

Funimag: Funicular Polybahn
Michael Azéma's page includes a photo, a map, and technical information.

Polybahn (German)
This attractive site has a history of the Polybahn, technical data, and plenty of large, up-to-date photos. You can decipher the German text with Google Translate.

About the author:

Durant Imboden photo.Durant Imboden is a professional travel writer, book author, and editor who focuses on European cities and transportation.

After 4-1/2 years of covering European travel topics for, Durant and Cheryl Imboden co-founded Europe for Visitors in 2001. The site has earned "Best of the Web" honors from Forbes and The Washington Post.

For more information, see About Europe for Visitors, press clippings, and reader testimonials.