Runaway Equipment Damages the Zugspitze Cable Car

An ugly scene on the Zugspitze.  Photo credit: Kreisbote.de

This is not a good week for tramways in Europe.  An incident last night on the highest mountain in Germany severely damaged one of two Eibsee Cable Car cabins during a practice exercise.  Apparently a rescue carrier broke loose due to a broken chain hoist and crashed into the 120 passenger tramway cabin below at high speed.  Like with the fire at a French tram on Tuesday, the lift was free of passengers and luckily no one was injured.  A Zugspitze spokesperson says the Garaventa-built tram will be out of service until further notice.

The lift became the pinnacle of ropeway technology when it opened last December, breaking world records for the tallest lattice tower (416 feet), longest ropeway span (10,541 feet) and highest vertical rise (6,381 feet), making this a truly stunning setback.  When a cabin on the Alyeska, Alaska tram hit a tower in 2013, technicians were able to replace it with a counterweight in just a few weeks until a new cabin could be manufactured.  We’ll have to wait and see whether CWA can repair the Zugspitze cabin or must fabricate a whole new one.

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Twin VonRoll Tramways Burn in France

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The Lognan tramway station on fire in Chamonix, France. Photo credit: Rob Atkinson

A rough summer turned even worse today for Compagnie du Mont-Blanc, the firm that operates lifts in the Chamonix Valley.  The middle station of the two section Grands Montets tramway caught fire, severing five cables and sending two of the four 60 passenger cabins to the ground.  VonRoll built both systems in 1962-63 and the first section was renovated in 1974, followed by the second in 1989.  The upper stage got new cabins in 2009 and the lower two were replaced in 2014.  The lifts are a combined 15,700 feet long with a massive 6,700 feet of vertical.

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The fire began around 1:50 pm in the roof of the intermediate station building, as captured on a nearby webcam.  Although the system operates in both winter and summer, apparently no trips were in progress at the time as the building was being renovated.

Helicopters fought the fire all afternoon and it is now extinguished.  The public is being warned to stay clear of the area as three ropes are still hanging on but could give way.  There are no reports of injuries, thankfully.

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Avalanche Damaged New Zealand Lift is Down for the Season

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In the end, the haul rope sealed the deal.  Turoa, one of the two ski resorts on Mt. Ruapehu, announced today that its summit lift will not reopen this season following damage from a large avalanche last week.  The top terminal of the High Noon Express is located inside a building and was spared, however snow caused the tube of tower 15 to give way.  Communication from the resort, particularly chief executive Ross Copland, has been stellar from beginning to end.  Here’s a recap.

Mr. Copland posted a Facebook update from the site within hours and an entertaining selfie video soon after.  “It’s a pretty sorry state as you can see behind me.  Tower 15 has taken the brunt of a massive snow loading.  The shape of the building for the return of the High Noon Express has actually protected it really nicely.  The snow has come down right over the roof and basically launched right into the top tower.”  He exclaimed at the end “It’s not the first time we’ve had to replace a tower on the High Noon Express!”

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Government: Human Error Caused Gudauri Rollback

Georgian Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development Dimitry Kumsishvili held a press conference today to announce initial findings of an investigation into the rollback of a 2007 Doppelmayr quad chair at the Gudauri ski resort, which injured 11 people a week ago.  French firm Bureau Veritas confirmed the lift’s initial stop was caused by a power outage.  “After the chairlift was stopped, the operator had to introduce specific sequence of procedures and after implementation of the certain actions, the operator had to switch the chairlift on to the diesel generator power and bring the tourist to the safe site,” a translated press release reads.  “Unfortunately, according to the current conclusion, the operator made a mistake. The combination of the actions that he should have had carried out were not implemented in compliance with the relevant instructions – it was a human error.”

The report notes the chairlift had undergone an inspection in December and was in “perfect technical order.”  The operator on duty at the time has been fired and may face criminal charges at the conclusion of the investigation.  The Head of Gudauri Mountain Management and Deputy Director of the Mountain Resort Development Company have both resigned in the wake of the incident.  Georgia is in active talks to retrain employees from Gudauri and other ski areas, though staff had been to training courses at Doppelmayr headquarters in Austria in 2017 and Poma was on site offering training opportunities as recently as January.  The government says there are 15 total chairlifts in the country that are “in line with the world’s advanced standards.”  A statement from Doppelmayr linking to the release notes, “We hope that the injured persons are getting well soon. This remains the most important point at the moment.” According to Minister Kumsishvili, all of those injured have been released from hospitals and invited to return to ski next year for free.

High-Speed Rollback in Georgia Injures Eight

While we in North America were sleeping, a serious lift incident unfolded in the Caucasus Mountains, where Europe and Asia meet.  Videos posted to YouTube and Facebook show a Doppelmayr fixed-grip quad picking up speed in reverse and chaos ensuing on an already crowded powder day.  Any riders who didn’t jump were thrown from the lift at the drive bullwheel or pinned between mangled chairs.  Georgia’s Ministry of Economy says eight people sustained non life-threatening injuries.

Another picture shows chairs piled up after the lift came to a stop on what would normally be the arrival side of the drive station.  Some grips held on while others were ripped from the haul rope after going around the bullwheel.

From looking through Doppelmayr Worldbooks, I believe the lift in question is called Sadzele, built in 2007 as one of six lifts at the Gudauri ski resort.  Note that fixed-grip lift models Doppelmayr sells in the U.S. and Canada differ significantly from those found in Europe and elsewhere.

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Wind Damages Lift, Leads to Christmas Evacuation at Bromley

None of the 115 skiers and snowboarders riding the Sun Mountain Express at Bromley Mountain, Vermont were injured yesterday despite a serious wind-related incident.  The Burlington Free Press reports a gust caused at least one empty chair to contact a communications line while the lift was moving.  “The cable snagged a grip on an empty chair, derailing it and causing the lift to stop,” the paper wrote.  It’s not clear from the article whether the snagged grip and chair remained on the haul rope.  Bromley’s Assistant General Manager Michael van Eyck commented to the media, “a super high 20 or 25 second burst of wind” led to the accident.  “The winds were not predicted to be that high,” he noted.  A rope evacuation was initiated following the deropement, which took two and a third hours to complete.

The Sun Mountain Express is a mile-long detachable quad featuring torsion grips built in 1997.  The Doppelmayr lift services the vast majority of Bromley’s terrain and remained closed the rest of Christmas Day and this morning.  The mountain’s snow report currently reads: “the Sun Mountain Express will be on a delayed opening schedule today, while it undergoes some maintenance. Stay tuned for updates on its projected opening time, but our lift crew is working hard and should have it up and running by this afternoon.”  Poor Bromley also lost its primary snowmaking pump house to fire just ten days ago.  The family-focused ski area is owned by the Fairbank Group, which also operates Jiminy Peak, Massachusetts and Cranmore, New Hampshire.

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I haven’t taken pictures of the lifts at Bromley yet, but this is the Doppelmayr Worldbook entry for the Sun Mountain Express.

Chairs Collide on Opening Day at Tussey Mountain

Multiple media outlets are reporting chairs full of skiers and snowboarders slid into each other near the top of Tussey Mountain, Pennsylvania today, the first day of the season for the area. It appears four grips slipped down the haul rope and were stopped by a fifth grip and chair.  All of the chairs were occupied but thankfully, injuries to five people are being described as non-life threatening.  Passengers on the entire lift were brought down by rope.  A spokesman for the mountain told CBS News that an operator manually stopped the lift, which is a 1982 Borvig center pole model and one of two Borvig chairlifts at the ski area near State College.

Borvig brand lifts have been involved in at least six recent incidents including a deropement causing serious injuries at Sugarloaf in December 2010, a rollback at the same mountain in 2015, a tower separation in West Virginia in February 2016 and a foundation grout failure at Sunday River later that year.  Also in 2016, two chairs slid into each other on a relocated Borvig double at Granite Gorge, New Hampshire, sending two people to the hospital.

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Not So Happy: Reopening Spout Springs Just Got Tougher

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The Happy chair at Spout Springs, Oregon seen May 28th, 2017 after a rough winter not operating.
I was expecting a typical recently-lost ski area scene as I drove toward Northeastern Oregon this morning.  Located in the Blue Mountains where Idaho, Oregon and Washington converge, Spout Spring Ski Area once featured three Hall lifts: two doubles and a T-Bar. When I arrived at the first lift, called Echo, I was pleasantly surprised at the shape it was in, looking as if it had operated this season with ANSI signs neatly stacked and chairs flipped.  After all, it has only been 15 months since these lifts hauled skiers.

Next I rounded the corner to the base-to-summit Happy double, which looked anything but happy.  Surveying the scene above, I instantly assumed vandals had somehow knocked over the building that houses the 1965 double chair’s bottom drive bullwheel.  But another clue was all around me.  The massive snow load from this winter in the Blue Mountains was probably too much for the almost 55-year old building to handle.  Not only did it fall on top of the terminal, wood got hung up in a chair which bent like a pretzel and caused the light side to de-rope in two places.

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The Echo double is the only lift at Spout Springs remaining in operable condition. Its bottom terminal building is similar to the one that fell on the Happy chair this winter.
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Granby Ranch Investigation Report Released

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The Quickdraw lift at Granby Ranch, Colorado is a 1999 Leitner detachable quad where a “rare dynamic event” last December caused a a chair to contact this tower, killing one and injuring two children.

The Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board released its 151-page final report on last December’s fatal accident at Granby Ranch this afternoon.  The investigative team included seven professional engineers with more than 250 years of combined lift experience with support from Leitner-Poma and Granby Ranch personnel, among others. The team conducted extensive tests on the Quickdraw lift from the afternoon of the accident through January 5th and spent months writing this detailed analysis, identifying contributing factors and making recommendations for changes.  Appendices include witness statements, photographs and prior inspection reports but the core of the document is 13 pages which everyone who works on ski lifts should read.  I’ve done my best to summarize below.

Chair 58 contacted tower 5 at a 40-degree angle that morning due to two contributing factors.  The first was the tuning of a new drive installed last Fall by an independent contractor.  Two specific parameters may have created pulses of energy and rope instability, the report notes.  “It is probable that the combined effect of [these two settings] may have resulted in the drive trying to respond too aggressively to lift demands when changing from ‘Fast’ to ‘Slow’ and back to ‘Fast’ again.”  The second contributing factor was the influence of one or more speed changes leading up to the incident.

Other potential contributing factors were:

  • Control system complexity resulting from the new ABB DCS800 drive’s interface with older Pilz/Leitner low-voltage controls.
  • A control board replacement from February 2016.
  • Possible damage to the electric motor encoder.
  • Unknown electrical cycle shown in data logs that had occurred at a 3.7 second interval over the entire life of the lift.
  • Tension factor(s) that would require more testing to determine.
  • Natural instability of the profile.  “There appears to have been a very unique combination of rope tension, carrier spacing, tower spans, tower height, carrier loading and natural carrier movement that led to the transverse carrier swing that resulted in Carrier 58 hitting Tower 5,” the document states.
  • Natural harmonic response of the haul rope.

Wind was not found to be an outside influence, nor was passenger conduct.  “The incident that occurred on December 29th, 2016 at Granby Ranch was unprecedented,” the investigative team wrote.  “Although many factors may have combined to amplify the effect of the rope instability leading to Carrier 58 colliding with Tower 5, the performance of the new drive is considered to be the primary cause of the incident.”  The report explains electronic drives such as the DCS800 added to Quickdraw last year and used on many lifts are also used in a wide variety of other applications.  The tuning and “fine-tuning” of a drive is complex and unique to each application and lift.  “It appears the new drive was not comprehensively tuned to this particular lift during installation,” the document says.

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Loveland Closes Two Yan Lifts for Unspecified Repairs of Similar Issue

Loveland Ski Area has closed its two oldest chairlifts – Lifts 1 and 6 – following discovery of similar problems at each.  Lift 6 is a 1977 Lift Engineering double chair that closed in the middle of the day on Sunday, January 15th due to a problem at the top terminal.  Lift 1 is a 1981 Lift Engineering triple that operated until an inspection found the early stages of a similar issue today (interestingly, Lift 1 opened as a double chair before being upgraded with larger chairs a few years later.)

“We are dedicated to safe lift operations and have decided to close Lift 1 to immediately perform the necessary repairs,” Loveland said in a statement this evening.

While Loveland’s social media posts do not specify what is wrong, they say repairs to Chair 1 should take about two days with Lift 6 taking longer.  Both chairs are bottom drive/bottom tension, so the list of things that could go wrong up top is limited.  In the meantime, the mountain is offering $51 discounted tickets.

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Update 1/20/17: