Will North America Build a New Tram Ever Again?

Car 1 of the Jackson Hole Aerial Tram approaches its dock at 10,450′ in June 2016.

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort stunned the ski world June 24, 2005 announcing the iconic aerial tramway up Rendezvous Mountain would carry its final riders in 2006. The Kemmerer Family, owners of the resort since 1992, decided to retire the 40-year old jig-back at the first concerns about safety.  “This decision has been extremely difficult and quite honestly a very sad one,” Jay Kemmerer lamented at the announcement.  “We know this may impact our business, business to Jackson Hole and the State, but we must move on.”

JHMR did move on but not in the way many feared.  After two years of study, the Kemmerers opted to build a new 100-passenger Garaventa tramway at a cost of $31 million.  A bi-cable gondola was cheaper and seriously considered but failed to uphold the tradition set by the original tram in 1966.  National Ski Areas Association President Michael Berry said of the 2006 deal with Garaventa, “This huge investment by JHMR ownership to build a new tram stands alone in our industry.  The tram at Jackson Hole is recognized around the world as a lift that access some of the most spectacular terrain in North America.”  Big Red, as it quickly became known, was the first new tramway built at a U.S. or Canadian ski resort since the Alyeska Tramway in 1992.  The next newest tram was Cannon Mountain’s, dating back to 1979. Almost a decade later, only Jackson Hole and Alyeska have built large new aerial tramways in the last 37 years (for this post I’m talking about multi-cable tramways carrying 25+ passengers.  Arguably the “beer can” trams at Big Sky and Snowbasin are really reversible gondolas.)

Poma of America built the Mt. Roberts Tramway in 1996 not for skiers, but for cruise ship passengers.

Switzerland is home to 97 large aerial tramways.  Italy has 59, Austria 40, France 35 and Germany 18 for a total of 249 in the Alps.  Compare that with 21 tramways operating in all of North America: 14 in the United States, 4 in Canada and 3 in Mexico.  Only a third of those are directly used for skiing with the rest dedicated to sightseeing or public transportation. More than half the trams operating in North America were built in the 1960s and 1970s with varying degrees of upgrades along the way.  As the chart below shows, the aerial tramway staged a slight comeback in the last decade but aside from Jackson Hole and Alyeska, the trend has nothing to do with skiing.

NA Tram Timeline
Aerial Tram openings in North America over the last 50 years.

The Royal Gorge Bridge & Park in Colorado hinted at the future of tramways in 2013 when it lost its tram to a wildfire.  Instead of rebuilding, the park contracted with Leitner-Poma to build a reversible gondola at a fraction of the cost of a new aerial tramway.  Even with just six 8-passenger gondola cabins, the new system can move more passengers than the old tram.

The new face of the tram may not be a tram at all.
The new tram at Royal Gorge, CO isn’t a tram at all but is functional and efficient.
NA trams brand
Half of North America’s tramways were built by companies that went out of business decades ago.

There are many other trams that, once retired, are likely to be replaced with a gondola, chairlift or nothing at all.  The oldest tram in on the continent at Heavenly could be torn down tomorrow with little impact thanks to the huge new gondola that opened there in 2000. Grouse Mountain, Jay Peak, Snowbird and Gatlinburg could similarly replace their tramways with more efficient and less expensive gondolas.  There’s a reason 178 gondolas have been built in North America in the same time as 23 tramways between 1962 and 2016.

NA gondolas vs trams

The Jay Peak Tram will get $4.9 million in upgrades next spring that could extend its life for a few decades.  The project includes new tower saddles, controls, carriages, drives and safety systems.  Setting aside tradition, it’s tough to argue this makes financial or technical sense.  Because of the increased weight of the new carriages, capacity will drop from 60 to 45 people per cabin, cutting hourly capacity to 550.  Jay Peak already has a high speed quad that covers 90 percent of the tram’s route moving five times as many people with a similar ride time.  A modern gondola could replace the tram for under $10 million and move as many guests as Jay Peak desired in greater comfort for the next thirty years.

NA trams capacity
A graphical representation of the trams of North America by size.

With the advent of the 3S gondola, the set of conditions where an aerial tramway makes sense is getting even narrower.  Jig-backs are inherently inefficient at moving large numbers of people. One of the best stickers I’ve seen around Teton Village is of a golden dollar that reads: Bridger Gondola – 4x the capacity, 1/5 the price – Since 1997.  Jackson’s new tram cost $31 million, Roosevelt Island’s was $15 million and Portland’s a whopping $57 million.  The OHSU tram cost some $5 million more than the Peak 2 Peak Gondola, arguably the most capable lift on the planet with a 1.9 mile span between towers.  Its hourly capacity is twice that of Portland’s over four times the distance with 75 percent of the speed and no waiting.  Still, aerial trams can make sense where only modest capacity is needed and there are obstacles requiring long spans.  Plus they offer that iconic look that Jackson Hole paid a premium to keep.

By some accounts demand has already outstripped capacity at the Portland Aerial Tram, which averages some 6,000 riders per day in the summer.  OHSU probably could have built a bi-cable gondola for less money with the same single tower design and higher capacity.  It wouldn’t have looked nearly as cool though!

For these reasons we may never see another big tram built in North America, especially in the ski world.  Perhaps the strongest remaining argument for an aerial tramway is that they last a long time.  Only Jackson Hole and Roosevelt Island’s trams have ever been completely replaced. But at $30-50 million for a new tram, you could buy a lot of gondolas. Even if a new one never gets built, many of our existing trams will be around for awhile. Snowbird just installed new track ropes, Sandia Peak and Gatlinburg recently purchased new cabins.  Ride them while you can because they may never be replaced!


7 thoughts on “Will North America Build a New Tram Ever Again?

  1. uberright (@uberright) August 22, 2016 / 4:20 pm

    “Portland’s a whopping $57 million”. The Portland OHSU tram is the kind of Government waste we all should be appalled at. I could afford to ski more if government wasn’t wasting our taxpayer money. And I sit in traffic for over an hour every weekend coming back from Mt. Hood because ODOT (Oregon Department of Transportation) won’t install another lane on Hwy 26. Government officials should be ashamed. Efficiency should be the goal of every organization, public or private.


    • Peter Landsman August 22, 2016 / 9:48 pm

      $57 million is a ton in the ski context but you won’t find me criticizing Portland for spending a boatload of money on a world class tram. Light rail costs $200 million a mile. By most accounts the tram is a huge success with double the anticipated ridership.


      • Reed Lehto August 23, 2016 / 12:17 pm

        I don’t use the OHSU tram myself, but as a Portlander and a fan of lifts, I must admit that I enjoy the sight of the tram and knowing that it is heavily used – just ran under its line last night! (Although I wish the cabins were a bit more boxy on the outside). At the same time, you can’t deny that gondolas are much more cost effective – I would be thrilled if Tri-Met incorporated a gondola line into our transit mix. Need to beat DC to the punch! I haven’t seen anything about feasibility studies in Portland – have you Peter?


  2. Robert Von Roll August 22, 2016 / 4:59 pm

    The reason Von Roll trams are still alive is they overbuilt them. Very tough lifts..Sad that Von Roll still dont build ropeways


  3. Max U August 23, 2016 / 3:57 pm

    The Grouse blue tram is most likely going to be removed in a few years and there is talk of a 3S replacing it. Too far in the future to be certain now though, it will be sad to see it go


  4. Steve Smith August 25, 2016 / 10:39 am

    The statement “Only Jackson Hole and Roosevelt Island’s trams have ever been completely replaced.” is incorrect. The Cannon Mountain tram was completely replaced.


    • Peter Landsman August 25, 2016 / 11:55 am

      I forgot about the 1938 Cannon tram. It was pretty small though, I think 24 passenger capacity.


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