An aerial tramway, sky tram, cable car, ropeway or aerial tram is a type of aerial lift which uses one or two stationary ropes for support while a third moving rope provides propulsion. With this form of lift, the grip of an aerial tramway cabin is fixed onto the propulsion rope and cannot be decoupled from it during operations.
Because of the proliferation of such systems in the Alpine regions of Europe, the French and German names, téléphérique and Seilbahn, respectively, 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 while in American English, cable car may additionally refer to a cable-pulled street tramway with detachable vehicles; e.g., San Francisco's cable cars. As such, 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 cabins suspended from a continuously circulating cable whereas aerial trams simply shuttle back and forth on cables. In Japan, the two are considered as the same category of vehicle and called ropeway, while the term cable car means Cable car (railway) and funicular. An aerial railway where the vehicles are suspended from a fixed track (as opposed to a cable) is known as a suspension railway.
An aerial tramway consists of one or two fixed cables (called track cables), one loop of cable (called a haulage rope), and one or two passenger or cargo cabins. The fixed cables provide support for the cabins while the haulage rope, by means of a grip, is solidly connected to the truck (the wheel set that rolls on the track cables). An electric motor drives the haulage rope which provides propulsion. Aerial tramways are constructed as reversible systems; vehicles shuttling back and forth between two end terminals and propelled by a cable loop which stops and reverses direction when the cabins arrive at the end stations. Aerial tramways differ from gondola lifts in that gondola lifts are considered continuous systems (cabins attached onto a circulating haul rope that moves continuously).
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 or cargo 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 design of an aerial lift was by Croatian polymath Fausto Veranzio and the first operational aerial tram was built in 1644 by Adam Wiebe in Gdańsk. It was moved by horses and used to move soil over the river to build defences. It is called the first known cable lift in European history and precedes the invention of steel cables. It is not known how long this lift was used. In any case, it would be another 230 years before Germany would get the second cable lift, this newer version equipped with iron wire cable.
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.
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, and even built the first tourist tramway at Bolzano/Bozen, in then Tyrolian Austria in 1913.
Other firms entered the mining tramway business—Otto, Leschen, Breco Ropeways Ltd., Ceretti and Tanfani, and Riblet for instance.
In the beginning of the 20th century the rise of the middle class and the leisure industry allowed for investment in sight seeing machines.
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 North America was at Cannon Mountain in 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, Swiss, and Austrian firms played an important role in the cable car business: Bleichert, Heckel, Pohlig, PHB (Pohlig-Heckel-Bleichert), Garaventa and Waagner-Biró. Now there are three groups dominating the world market: Doppelmayr Garaventa Group, Leitner Group, and Poma, the last two being owned by one person.
While typically used for ski resorts, aerial tramways have been ported over for usage in the urban environment in recent times.
One offshoot of the aerial tram was the telpher system.
The telpherage concept was first publicised in 1883 and several experimental lines were constructed.
There are aerial tramways with double deck cabins.
- First – Adam Wybe construction in Gdańsk (1644).
- Longest (at time of building) and years operated: 35 km (22 mi) 1906–1927 Chilecito – Mina La Mejicana, Argentina (34.3 km or 21.3 mi and 0.86 km or 0.53 mi branch). 39 km (24 mi) 1925–1950 Dúrcal – Motril, Spain (33.4 km or 20.8 mi and 5.5 km or 3.4 mi branch). 75 km (47 mi) 1937–1941 Asmara – Massawa, Eritrea (71.8 km or 44.6 mi and 3 km or 1.9 mi branch), technically a Funifor. 96 km (60 mi) 1943–1987 Kristineberg-Boliden, Sweden. 13.2 km (8.2 mi) still working as Norsjö aerial ropeway.
- Second longest: 76 km (47 mi) 1959–1986 Moanda – Mbinda, Gabon – Republic of Congo.
- Longest over water: 1.0 km (0.62 mi) 1906 – the same century; Thio, New Caledonia. ship loading. 2.4 km (1.5 mi) 1941–2006 Forsby-Köping limestone cableway, Sweden. crossing of Hjälmaren strait. 42 km system. 3.0 km (1.9 mi) 2007 Nha Trang City – Vinpearl Land, Hon Tre Island, Vietnam. Total length 3.3 km.
- Longest currently operational: 13.2 km (8.2 mi) Norsjö aerial tramway Mensträsk-Bjurfors in Norsjö, Sweden. Passenger tramway, a section of the former 96-km Kristineberg-Boliden industrial ropeway. 6.07 km (3.77 mi) Grindelwald–Männlichen gondola cableway, Switzerland 5.7 km (3.5 mi) Wings of Tatev, Armenia, the world's longest reversible cable car line of one section. 4.94 km (3.07 mi) Medeu-Shimbulak tramway near Almaty, Kazakhstan. 4.35 km (2.70 mi) Sandia Peak Tramway, reversible tramway in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
- Highest lift: 3,374 m (11,070 ft) from 1,074 to 4,448 m (3,524 to 14,593 ft) at Chilecito – Mina La Mejicana, Argentina (drops back to 4,404 m or 14,449 ft at upper terminal).
- Highest station: Greater than 5,874 m (19,272 ft) 1935-19??
- Lowest station: 257 m (843 ft) below sea level Masada cableway, Israel.
- Tallest support tower: 113.6 m (372.7 ft) Gletscherbahn Kaprun, Austria.
- As mass transit: The Roosevelt Island Tramway in New York City was the first aerial tramway in North America used by commuters as a mode of mass transit (See Transportation in New York City). Passengers pay with the same farecard used for the New York City Subway. The Portland Aerial Tram in Portland, Oregon, was opened in January 2007 and became the second public transportation aerial tramway in North America. In Medellin, Colombia, both the Metro and the recent Metrocable aerial tramway addition can be used while paying a single fare.
- Largest rotating cars: Palm Springs Aerial Tramway in Palm Springs, California.
List of accidents
Despite the introduction of various safety measures (back-up power generators, evacuation plans, etc.) there have been several serious incidents on aerial tramways, some of which were fatal.
- August 29, 1961: A military plane split the hauling cable of the Vallee Blanche Aerial Tramway on the Aiguille du Midi in the Mont Blanc massif: six people killed.
- July 9, 1974: The hauling cable broke near the top station of the Ulriksbanen aerial tramway in Bergen, Norway. The top cable car then detached in high speed and hurled into the ground, killing four of eight occupants.
- March 9, 1976: In the Italian Dolomites at Cavalese, a cab fell after a rope break, killing 43. Cavalese cable car disaster (1976))
- April 15, 1978: In a storm, two carrying ropes of the Squaw Valley Aerial Tramway in California fell from the aerial tramway support tower. One of the ropes partly destroyed the cabin. Four were killed, 32 injured.
- June 1, 1990: Twenty were killed and fifteen injured after a hauling rope broke in the 1990 Tbilisi Cable car accident
- February 3, 1998: U.S. military aircraft severed the cable of an aerial ropeway in Cavalese, Italy, killing 20 people.
- July 1, 1999: Saint-Étienne-en-Dévoluy, France. An aerial tramway car detached from the cable it was traveling on and fell 80 metres (260 ft) to the valley floor, killing all 20 occupants. The majority were employees and contractors of an international astronomical observatory run by the Institut de Radioastronomie Millémétrique. Saint-Étienne-en-Dévoluy cable car disaster)
- October 19, 2003: Four were killed and 11 injured when three cars slipped off the cable of the Darjeeling Ropeway.
- April 2, 2004: In Yerevan, Armenia on an urban cable car one of the two cabins derailed from the steel track cable and fell 15 m (49 ft) to the ground killing five, including two Iranian citizens, and injuring 11 others.
- October 9, 2004: Crash of a cabin of the Grünberg aerial tramway in Gmunden, Austria. Many injuries.
- December 31, 2012: The Alyeska Resort Aerial Tramway was blown sideways while operating in high winds and was impaled on the tower guide, severely damaging the contacting cabin.
- December 4, 2018, an exterior panel of the Portland Aerial Tram dropped at least 100 feet and struck a pedestrian walking below.