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Aerial tramway suspended on two track cables with an additional haulage rope.
An aerial tramway in Italy.

An aerial tramway (U.S. English) or cable car (British English) is a type of aerial lift in which a cabin or other conveyance is suspended from a fixed cable and is pulled by another cable.

Because of the proliferation of such systems in the Alpine regions of Europe, the French and German language names of téléphérique and Seilbahn are often also used in an English language context. "Cable car" is the usual term in British English, as in British English the word "tramway" generally refers to a railed street tramway. In American English, "cable car" is most often associated with a type of cable-pulled street tramway with detachable vehicles, e.g. San Francisco's cable cars, so careful phrasing is necessary to prevent confusion. It is also sometimes called a ropeway or even incorrectly referred to as a gondola lift (a gondola lift has the cabin suspended from a moving cable, and is not to be confused with a gondola).



An aerial tramway consists of one or two fixed cables (called "track cables"), one loop of cable (called a "haulage rope"), and two passenger cabins. The fixed cables provide support for the cabins. The haulage rope, by means of a grip, is solidly connected to the truck (the wheel set that rolls on the track cables). The haulage rope is usually driven by an electric motor and being connected to the cabins, moves them up or down the mountain.

Aerial tramways differ from gondola lifts in that the latter use several smaller cabins suspended from a circulating looped cable.

Two-car tramways use a jig-back system: A large electric motor is located at the bottom of the tramway so that it effectively pulls one cabin down, using that cabin's weight to help pull the other cabin up. A similar system of cables is used in a funicular railway. The two passenger cabins, which carry from 4 to over 150 people, are situated at opposite ends of the loops of cable. Thus, while one is coming up, the other is going down the mountain, and they pass each other midway on the cable span.

Some aerial trams have only one cabin, which lends itself better for systems with small elevation changes along the cable run.


The first aerial tram was built in 1644 by Adam Wiebe. It was used to move soil to build defences. Other mining systems were developed in the 1860s by Hodgson, and Andrew Smith Hallidie. Hallidie went on to perfect a line of mining and people tramways after 1867 in California and Nevada. See Hallidie ropeway


In mining

Ore bucket on the aerial tramway leading from the Mayflower mine, near Silverton, Colorado, USA
Cableway from abandoned coal mine just south of Longyearbyen, Svalbard.

Tramways are sometimes used in mountainous regions to carry ore from a mine located high on the mountain to an ore mill located at a lower elevation. Ore tramways were common in the early 20th century at the mines in North and South America. One can still be seen in the San Juan Mountains of the US state of Colorado. Over one thousand mining tramways were built around the world--Spitsbergen, Russia, Alaska, Argentina, New Zealand and Gabon. This experience was replicated with the use of tramways in the First World War particularly on the Isonzo Front in Italy. The German firm of Bleichert built hundreds of freight and military tramways. Strangely, Bleichert even built the first tourist tramway at Bolzano, in then Tyrolian Austria in 1913. (That town being near the terrible Isonzo battles in the Tyrol some two years later. )

Other firms entered the mining tramway business- Otto, Leschen, BRECO, Ceretti and Tanfani, and Riblet for instance. The perfection of the aerial tramway through mining lead to its application in other fields including logging, sugar fields, beet farming, tea plantations, coffee beans and guano mining. A resource on the history of aerial tramways in the mining industry is "Riding the High Wire, Aerial Tramways in the West", by Robert A. Trennert, University Press of Colorado, 2001.

Moving People

In the 1920s the rise of the middle class and the leisure industry allowed for investment in sight seeing machines. The cable car to the top of high peaks in the Alps of Austria, Germany and Switzerland resulted. They were much cheaper to build than the earlier rack railway. One of the first trams was at Chamonix, while others in Switzerland and Garmisch soon followed. From this, it was a natural transposition to build ski lifts and chairlifts. The first cable car in America was at Franconia, New Hampshire in 1938. After the second world war installations proliferated in Europe, America, Japan, Canada and South Africa. Many hundreds of installations have emerged in mountainous and seascape areas.

The aerial tram evolves again in latter decades-- one tram in Costa Rica was built to move tourists above a rainforest, while one in Portland, Oregon, was built to move commuters. Presently, the mining role of tramways has lessened, though some still work, and moving people remains a starring role for the device.

Many aerial tramways were built by Von Roll Ltd. of Switzerland, which has since been acquired by Austrian lift manufacturer Doppelmayr. Other German and Austrian firms dominated the cable car business--Pohlig, PHB, Garaventa, and Mueller. Now there is only one firm. Doppelmayr.

An escape aerial tramway is a special form of the aerial tramway that allows a fast escape from a dangerous location. They are used on rocket launching sites to offer the launch staff or astronauts a fast retreat. The tramway consists of a rope which runs from the launch tower downward to a protection shelter. On the launch supply tower several small cabs can be occupied by the launch staff or the astronauts. After a barrier is loosened these roll downward to the protection shelter. An escape aerial tramway exists on launch pads 39A and 39B at Cape Canaveral.

Some aerial tramways have their own propulsion, such as the Lasso Mule or the Josef Mountain Aerial Tramway near Meran, Italy.


One interesting offshoot of the aerial tram was the telpher system. This was an overhead railway, which was electrically powered. The carrier basket had a motor and two contacts on two rails. They were primarily used in English railway and postal stations. The original version was called telpherage. Smaller telpherage systems are sometimes used to transport objects such as tools or mail within a building or factory.

The telpherage concept was first publicised in 1883 and several experimental lines were constructed. It was not designed to compete with railways, but with horses and carts.[1]

The first commercial telpherage line was in Glynde, which is in Sussex, England. It was built to connect a newly-opened clay pit to the local railway station and opened in 1885.[1]

Double deckers

There are aerial tramways with double deck cabins. The Vanoise Express cable car carries 200 people in each cabin at a height of 380 m (1,247 ft) over the Ponturin gorge in France. The Shinhotaka Ropeway carries 121 people in each cabin at Mount Hotaka in Japan.


  • Longest (at time of building) and years operated:

35 km (21.3 miles) 1906-1927 Chilecito - Mina La Mejicana, Argentina (34.3 km+0.86 km branch)
39 km (24 miles) 1925-1950 Dúrcal - Motril, Spain (33.4 km+5.5 km branch)
75 km (46.5 miles) 1937-1941 Asmara - Massawa, Eritrea (71.8 km+3 km branch)
96 km (60 miles) 1943-1987 Boliden – Kristineberg, Sweden. 13.2 km still working as Norsjö aerial ropeway
second longest: 76 km (47.2 miles) 1959-1986 Moanda - Mbinda, Gabon - Republic of Congo

  • Longest over water:
1.0 km (0.6 miles) 1906-19?? Thio, New Caledonia. ship loading
2.4 km (1.5 miles) 1941-1997 Koskela - Koping, Sweden. crossing of Hjälmaresund. 42 km system
  • Highest lift: 3374 m (11,070 ft) from 1074m to 4448 m at Chilecito - Mina La Mejicana, Argentina (drops back to 4404 m at upper terminal)
  • Highest station:
past 5874 m (19,271 ft) 1935-19?? Aucanquilcha, Chile
present 4765 m (15,633 ft) 1960-2008 Mérida cable car, Venezuela

List of accidents

  • August 15, 1960: between Castellammare di Stabia and the Monte Faito, near Naples, Italy.
  • August 29, 1961: A military plane splits the hauling cable of a cabin railway on the Aiguille du Midi in the Mont Blanc massif: six people killed.
  • 1963: Cabin of the renovated PKB crashes at the valley station, one person killed, several injured.
  • December 25, 1965: Power failure on the aerial ropeway at Puy de Sancy in central France causes abrupt cabin halt, cabin wall breaks. 17 people fall, seven killed.
  • July 9, 1966: A cable breaks on a cabin railway at Aiguille du Midi in the Mont Blanc massif: three cabins fall, four people killed.
  • December 6, 1970: Five people killed at Meran, Italy.
  • August 1, 1971: Four people killed in a mid-air collision between two gondolas in Alagna Valsesia Italy.
  • July 13, 1972: 13 killed at the crash of a cab in Bettmeralp, Switzerland.
  • October 26, 1972: During a test at an aerial tramway at Les Deux Alpes in France, two cabs collide, nine people killed.
  • July 9, 1974: Hauling cable breaks on the aerial tramway at Ulriken, Norway. One cabin fell, four people killed.
  • March 9, 1976: In the Italian Dolomites at Cavalese, a cab falls after a rope break, killing 42. (See Cavalese cable-car disaster (1976))
  • March 26, 1976: Damage to the carrying rope leads to crash of multiple cabs of the aerial tramway at Vail, Colorado, USA. Four people killed, five injured.
  • April 15, 1978: In a storm, two carrying ropes of the Squaw Valley Aerial Tramway in California fall from the aerial tramway support tower. One of the ropes partly destroys the cabin. four killed, 32 injured.
  • February 13, 1983: Two cabs collide in Champoluc, near Aosta (Italy), 11 dead.
  • January 13, 1989: Eight people killed during a test of the French aerial tramway Vaujany in the Alpe d'Huez area.
  • June 1, 1990: 15 people killed after a rope break in Tbilisi, Georgia.
  • 1995: Operator error causes the cabin of Muttereralmbahn near Innsbruck, Austria, to crash. No casualties or injuries.
  • February 3, 1998: U.S. military aircraft severs the cable of an aerial ropeway in Cavalese, Italy, killing 20 people. (See Cavalese cable-car disaster)
  • July 1, 1999: 20 people killed at the crash of an aerial tramway at the Bure observatory in the French alps.
  • July 6, 2000: Entering the middle station of Nebelhornbahn, a cabin fails to brake. 23 people injured.
  • October 19, 2003: Four were killed and 11 injured when three cars slipped off the cable of the Darjeeling Ropeway.
  • October 9, 2004: Crash of a cabin of the Grünberg aerial tramway in Gmunden, Austria. Many hurt.
  • November 14, 2004: Empty cabin of tramway in Sölden, Austria, falls after becoming entangled with rope. No casualties, 113 people rescued from other cabins
  • April 18, 2006: New York's Roosevelt Island Tramway experiences a power failure, leaving 69 passengers in two trams stranded over the East River for approximately seven hours, just eight months after a similar incident in which trams were stranded for 90 minutes. No injuries or fatalities occurred in either incident.
  • October 31, 2007: The Flaine lift Les Grands Platieres or DMC broke down for six hours and was evacuated.


Some cities are currently looking into the possibility of aerial tramways as a viable option for Public Transport. In the city of Haifa, Israel there is a plan to use an aerial tramways as an important way of solving the city's traffic problems. (See Haifa Cable Car). There is also a plan in Toronto, Canada to install aerial tramways over the city's steep valleys, as well as over major transportation routes, to relieve traffic congestion.[2]


Cableways in Fiction

See also


  1. ^ a b Lusted, A., 1985: The Electric Telpherage Railway. Glynde Archivist 2:16-28.
  2. ^

External links


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