After 45 Years, Snowbird Tram Still Soars

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The iconic Snowbird Aerial Tram has carried skiers up Hidden Peak in style for 45 years.

Few lifts in the world are as iconic as the Snowbird Tram with its 125 passenger red and blue cabins rising from Little Cottonwood Canyon to Hidden Peak.  When it opened in 1971, the tram was one of the longest, largest and most powerful aerial tramways in the world and remains so today.  In his 168-page book dedicated to this machine, Walt McConnell said of the tram, “It was loaded with innovative features and immediately became the symbol of Snowbird.”  A timeless style combined with recent upgrades mean the tram is sure to remain an icon of the Wasatch for years to come.

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The tram has just four support towers along its 8,395-foot length.

Decades after the founding of nearby Alta, Ted Johnson envisioned a carefully-designed, 40-acre resort village with modern American design anchored by a tramway.  After a trip over from Vail, Dick Bass agreed to join team Snowbird and provide financial backing.  Ted quietly began buying mining claims in Little Cottonwood Canyon while still working at Alta.  In Ted’s mind, a tram was the only lift to build and the route to Hidden Peak was clear.  “The awesome massiveness of the tramway and its terminal buildings-to-be set the stage for the bold architectural statements of all of Snowbird,” he declared.    He went public with the Snowbird development in 1966, forming Snowbird Design Group.

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Snowbird’s twin tram cars are designed for 125 passengers or 21,420 lbs. each.

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Bartholet Completes Zero Gauge Tramway in France

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Workers recently hung the two Gangloff cabins on an innovative new tramway in Brest, France. Photo credit: Ouest France

What if you could squeeze a large double-reversible tramway into the footprint of a much smaller single-haul system?  The city of Brest, France and Bartholet of Switzerland will open such a tram in October.  Because its two cabins are never on the same half of the line at the same time, the Téléphérique de Brest has only one dock at each end and cabins pass directly on top of one another near a 270-foot tall center tower. Other lifts have been built with zero-gauge sections before (notably in Caribbean rainforests) but never on this scale or for their entire length.  The new ropeway is also France’s first lift in a true urban environment.

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Facing a need connect two points high over The Penfeld river in this Navy port, the City of Brest selected a ropeway instead of a massive bridge or expensive tunnel.  The government held a design competition in 2014 and selected the Swiss firm Bartholet Maschinenbau Flums (BMF) together with the French construction conglomerate Bouygues.  Fellow BMF Group subsidiary Gangloff supplied two ultramodern 60-passenger cabins.  The project cost €19 million versus an estimated €30 to 60 for a new bridge.  BMF also recently built two double-reversible tramways in Mexico.

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The City of Brest will open its new tramway in October.  Photo credit: Bartholet

The system has four track ropes, two haul rope loops and four drive motors. The cabins are hung like those on a funitel and can operate in winds up to 70 miles per hour.  Each loop is driven by two 135 horsepower motors but if one fails the loops can be mechanically connected and run using the remaining three motors to ensure near 100 percent uptime.  The slope length of the tramway is a short 1,352 feet with a line speed of 7.5 m/s.  The system will transport up to 1,220 commuters per hour in each direction starting in October.  Check out videos of system testing here.

Will North America Build a New Tram Ever Again?

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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World’s Largest Aerial Tram Opens for Business

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Photo credit: Doppelmayr/Garaventa

The Nu Hoang Cable Car’s 230-person cabins carried their first public passengers across Ha Long Bay in Vietnam Saturday after a dedication with owner Sun Group, builder Doppelmayr/Garaventa and representatives from the Guinness Book of World Records.  The spectacular 7,100′ reversible aerial tramway crushes records for the largest cabins and tallest towers of any lift worldwide.

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Photo credit: Doppelmayr/Garaventa

Meaning Queen in English, the Nu Hoang Cable Car links Ha Long City with Ba Deo Hill and a huge observation wheel. It’s part of a $270 million, 500-acre development called Sun World Ha Long Park.  The taller of the tramway’s two concrete tripod towers is 619 feet while the other is only 436 feet.  The old record was 373 feet on a tramway in Austria built in 1966.

CWA built the monster red and yellow Kronos cabins in sections and shipped them to Ha Long for assembly.  Each cabin has two levels and six sets of doors!  With these new cabins, the double-decker, 200-passenger Vanoise Express in France loses the title of world’s largest tram.

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Photo credit: Doppelmayr/Garaventa

The Queen is the latest mega lift project for Doppelmayr and Vietnam’s Sun Group, which also operates the world’s second longest gondola and the longest 3S.  In 2015, Sun Group ordered an even longer 3S to link three islands and the mainland on Vietnam’s Southern Coast.  This stunning 26,000 foot gondola will become the world’s longest lift of any type when it opens in the second quarter of 2017.