Cable Brest – more than a flight of fancy!

France, November 18: Brest makes its mark on the French public transport map by inaugurating an urban cable service.

The state-of-the-art system comprises a 4.2km line served by two cabins, with terminal stations at either end. It may be modest, yet qualifies the city as the first in the Hexagon to  introduce this aerial mode as a fully integrated part of its public transport offering – the Bibus network operated by Keolis Brest.

fly-brest_sky-cabinSpanning the river Penfeld, the cable links the city up with a former naval base, rebaptised Capucins Brest, whose 16 hectares are currently being regenerated into a cultural and leisure destination, together with new housing and fantastic views!

While the site has huge potential, it is somewhat hindered by lying out on a limb. Like other cities that have expanded around rivers, Brest is effectively sliced in two by its signature waterway. Over the years, the centre and economic activities have grown on the Left Bank, with the Right dedicated to shipbuilding.

A transport link was needed to bring this new development closer to the heart of the city. After weighing up the options – a form of bridge, or cable – the latter got the green light in 2011.

We should avoid comparing urban cable with other transport modes, but rather view it as another mobility solution.”

Frédéric Baverez, executive group director France, Keolis


The resulting  line is punctuated by an 80-metre tall pylon. Its chic, nautical-themed cabins, designed by Avant Premiere (the agency behind the city’s tramcars) can carry a maximum of 60 passengers.

A one-way flight takes just three minutes – a journey time that compares favourably to the car. The two road bridges already crossing the Penfeld have long since reached saturation – it takes around 15 to 20 minutes to drive between the two banks.

fly-brest_portholeService is scheduled to run  from 7.30am to 12.30am, with a frequency of one cabin every five minutes

Innovative technology by the Swiss Bartholet BMF, allows the cabins to cross paths along the cables by ‘leapfrogging’ each other (instead of passing in parallel). This means less space was needed to build the two terminal stations  (Atelier and Jean Moulin), and ensures easy access for all  – from street level at Ateliers and within the Capucins building itself on the opposite bank.


“This unique feature was one of the main reasons BMF company won the tender,” said Frédéric Baverez, executive group director France, Keolis.

“We devised this technology specifically for Brest and have since patented it,” said Jean-Christophe le Gall, who led the Brest project at BMF.

Also competing for the tender, awarded in 2014, were Leitner, Doppelmayr Garaventa, and POMA.

Working order around the clock

Maintenance was another reason BMF won the coveted ticket to fly Brest. Operating as public transport, the system simply cannot afford the generous time slots given to cable cars in the mountains (typically during the summer months).

fly-brest_maintenanceFortunately BMF has devised a system that can stay the pace. It will  operate 358 days a year, with maintenance carried out between the end/start of service times. Shutting down completely for just seven to eight days will  allow technicians from Keolis Brest, supported by specialist teams from BMF, to work on the most the most complex parts of the equipment.

Since the cable system is technically similar to that of the tramway, Keolis Brest, which already has a team of 18 maintenance staff, has trained up three of them to handle cable too.

Remote control

Following efforts by Brest métropole on the legislative front, the cable service is fully automatic and no staff are required permanently on site. Video cameras and interphones provide a constant contact with staff from Bibus.


A further feature, the system is monitored remotely – from Keolis Brest’s Central Control Post, located 5km away. From here, an operator ‘runs’ services in real time by means of an operations support system, which displays all information and alerts –  wind speed, brake failure, opening and closing of doors, etc. – on a single screen. It is supported by full video coverage of the stations and cabins at all times.

For Keolis Brest, automatic operation, which takes drivers out of the equation, means saving money on salaries.

On the eco-mobility front, the system scores by proposing an alternative to accessing the Capucins district by car. Regenerative braking makes it more energy efficient.

Safety, security & prying eyes

Strong winds are in the nature of a coastal city like Brest. When they gust over 108km/hr, cable service is legally obliged to shut down. At 80km/hr and above, a staff member must travel in each cabin to monitor the situation.

“We have guaranteed our client [Brest métropole] a maximum delay of three and a half hours to  retrieve a cabin if ever there were a technical problem, like twisted cables,” Mr le Gall told Passion4Transport. “Although this kind of scenario, and others, are highly unlikely, given the short length of the line, we studied and analysed every eventuality in order to deliver this guarantee with absolute confidence.”

Riders are unlikely to live this iconic James Bond adventure!

To protect the privacy of residents and naval facilities under the flight path, an automatic system dims part of the cabin windows when passing over a particular section of the route.

fly-brest_accessibilityIn line with accessibility rules and regulations, reduced mobility shouldn’t thwart anyone from taking to the sky.

Pathways in the stations are marked with tactile paving strips, each cabin can take two wheelchairs,  and there is no gap to mind – the platforms/entry and exit doors are flush (see above).

In-cabin information is provided both on screen and voiced, in French, Breton, and English. Bikes are accepted depending on the number of passengers boarding; skis, however, are not welcome!

In the coming years in Europe, it will be interesting to see if urban cable establishes itself as a mode of choice for overcoming natural obstacles such as roads, rivers, and rail tracks.

On the horizon

Vue aérienne de Brest et du quartier de Bellevue

Photo source: Frederic Le Mouillour

One question still lingers: why did cable win over a third bridge or river shuttle service?

“Cable is cheaper and faster to build than a metro or tramway, a bridge or tunnel, because  less civil engineering work is required and there is no need to deviate uutilities like water, electricity and gas,” said Mr Baverez.

For this Brest project, more time was spent on the preliminary studies and assessing the bids than on actually building the infrastructure. The main supporting pylon went up in May-June 2016; the cabling was installed in June; trials and testing followed in September.

According to Keolis, a shuttle service  was never an option because ownership and access to the navy-owned owned banks were a big issue; a swing bridge (necessary to let ships through) or a road bridge, were possibilities. But on analysis, neither ticked all the right boxes:

investment: at around €19 million, compared to between between €30-60 million for the other options, worked out cheapest
environment: cable emits just 10 grammes of C02 per person kilometre, compared to 17g for a tramway, 23g for a metro, and 76g for a bus
reliability: cable is considered one of the most reliable modes of public transport


“If the system appeals to tourists by offering a vantage point over the city, we will consider this an added benefit,” said Alain Masson, 1st vice president, Brest métropole océane (BMO) in 2014.  Nevertheless, he insisted  the link is designed first and foremost to cater for regular travel.

Elsewhere in France, while the cities of Paris, Grenoble, and Marseille have expressed interest in also bringing cable on line, Toulouse is most closely following in Brest’s footsteps.

In October 2015, transport authority SMTC-Tisséo approved the proposal for a 2.6km line to cross the river Garonne. The technical and operating aspects have been under discussion during 2016, with a delegation  visiting Brest in April on a fact finding mission.

“We are hugely inspired by the Brest example,” said Jean Michel Lattes, president, SMTC-Tisseo. “It’s vital to change established attitudes towards the cable car to bring it into the urban future. [Such systems] represent an extremely interesting solution in technical, financial, and environmental terms.” 


Read on…

Aerial Cable Transport Systems – opportunity for urban public transport is a report released by UITP’s Light Rail Committee in August 2016. The content focus is on integration of aerial cable systems within urban transport networks in developed (Western) cities. Available to UITP members, it can be used as a basis for establishing future recommendations.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s