Warning: flashing lights in this article.
We might all be required to stay at home for the moment, but one day we’ll be let out again. When that happens, there will still be plenty of sites of transport design, architecture and cultural interest to visit. Here’s another.
2001: A Space Odyssey (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968) is a highly regarded if a little, er, inaccessible movie. I admire the scope of its vision, I’m impressed by its special effects, but to be honest it’s quite long and for extensive periods the plot moves forward rather slowly. I suppose it makes for a pretty accurate rendition of what interplanetary travel will actually be like. One notable sequence takes place towards the end of the film, when astronaut Dave Bowman makes a trip – and a very trippy trip it is too – through a stargate to another part of the universe. “My God,” he says portentously, “it’s full of stars.” Here it is:
It’s an experience you can match on public transport, in the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel, Shanghai.
Definitely sitting in the same family as London’s Air Line cable car, this is a piece of public transport that nominally does a transport job, but has long since left that behind in favour of its tourist potential. Unlike the Air Line however, Bund Sightseeing Tunnel (sometimes called Waitan Sightseeing Tunnel) has largely given up even the pretence of being a public transport option. Its 646m-long line is operated by people mover cabins which cross underneath the Huangpu River, and connect the the Bund and Lujiazui areas of Shangai’s Pudong District to each other. With journeys taking around four minutes, the speed of the people mover is – let me check my maths – some 9.7kph or 6mph; a gentle jogging speed. Just like London’s Air Line, it is possible to use regular public transport options to make pretty much the same journey considerably more easily and at lower cost, as one Tripadvisor reviewer found.
So how can a tunnel, which you would normally expect to be dark and with restricted views, be a sightseeing opportunity? Prepare to be amazed (and profoundly disturbed) by this passenger’s-eye-view of the line.
With lights (so many lights), sound effects and animated physical props, Bund Sightseeing Tunnel is a hallucinogenic journey through the mind of a tunnel engineer. Most people regard tunnels as dark and boring, an interruption to the sightseeing opportunities of public transport. Bund Sightseeing Tunnel seems to be an attempt to capture the excitement that tunnel designers and engineers feel about their speciality, translating it into something comprehensible (if only barely) to the mortal mind.
It has flashing lights (at 0:14 in the above), psychedelic disco screens (at 1:32), twinkling fairy lights (at 2:00), inflatable scary clowns jerking straight out of many a nightmare (at 2:20), a video aquarium (at 2:57), and the ride finishes with what seems to be a representation of neurons firing in the mind of whoever dreamt this up (3:42); an individual or perhaps team I have had no luck identifying so far.
Bund Sightseeing Tunnel uses the SK people mover system as its actual transport component. The SK system is one of the many, many technologies invented to create mini-metros that sit somewhere between regular light rail schemes and road-based taxis. Like most of them, it has never really found its niche, and with small pod-based public transport proposals increasingly looking at autonomous technologies to provide guidance rather than tracks or rails, they probably never will.
SK, a French system developed by Soulé, was supposed to be used at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport and the Noisy-le-Grand office development. The failure of SK in both locations is told much more comprehensively than I could ever manage in a fascinating recent article at Benjamin Chadwick’s Fabric of Paris (4 March 2020). Bund Sightseeing Tunnel is now the only location where SK is still operating.
Sometimes erroneously referred to as a maglev (as here) the SK system in fact uses cable hauled passenger cars which run on rails and grip or release from a continuously moving low-level cable, essentially the same technology used by San Francisco’s historic cable cars. Getting the SK cabins from one track to the other at the end of their journeys is a curious affair; they are spun on a small turntable from the arrival track to the departure track (there is a brief shot of the process from 0:48 in this video).
The SK technology works for Bund Sightseeing Tunnel because its passenger cabins are driverless, ensuring passengers get a 360-degree view. There is no escape. It’s definitely the right technology to employ. The trip would probably do peculiar things to the minds of drivers if they were required to shuttle back and forth along this light and sound show on a repeated basis.
Bibliography and Further Reading
As far as I can tell, Bund Sightseeing Tunnel doesn’t have its own website. Neither does Soulé or its SK system.
Shanghai tour operator Shanghai Highlights has some basic information on the Tunnel despite some muddles over its technological basis, here
…otherwise, anything linked to in the text above.