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.
From Fjord to Sky in Five is the tagline for the Loen Skylift, a spectacular new sightseeing tramway and adventure destination in Norway that debuted this morning. Rising from the sea to 1,011-meter Mt. Hoven, the brand new Garaventa aerial tram becomes the steepest jig-back built in modern times and is already being hailed as one of the world’s great lifts. “The Loen Skylift is the quickest and easiest way to explore the best of what Norwegian mountains have to offer,” said Richard Grov, general manager of Loen Skylift. “The trip from the fjord to the mountain only takes a few minutes.”
An ascent from dock to dock is 3,248 feet over a slope length of 5,021 feet, yielding an insane average grade of 53 degrees. That’s much steeper than every lift in North America, the steepest of which averages only 34.3 degrees. At seven meters per second, a Skylift ride takes just five minutes and the machine can transport 460 passengers each hour in two 45-passenger CWA Kronos cabins. As the Doppelmayr annual brochure notes, “[The Skylift] features one strongly-overhanging tower standing on two feet and anchored back with a tie bar. The tramway has two sets of track ropes and no track rope brake.”
Every Spring, Doppelmayr publishes a sweet book with pictures of and technical info for every installation the company completed worldwide in the prior year. Often called the Worldbook, this year’s edition features 106 projects on 189 fascinating pages with particular emphasis on the company’s next-generation platform called D-Line. Among the achievements realized by Doppelmayr and Garaventa in 2016:
Construction of eight new D-Line lifts including the first with direct drive and the first with chairs instead of gondolas.
A Garaventa tramway with the world’s largest cabins and the planet’s tallest lift towers across Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.
One of the steepest aerial tramways ever built alongside a Norwegian fjord.
The Giggijochbahn – a gondola with never-before-accomplished throughput of 4,500 skiers per hour at 6.5 m/s.
The five-station first line of Mi Teleférico phase two in La Paz, Bolivia.
The world’s only fully air-conditioned gondola system at the new Wynn Palace in Macau, a system which also makes five turns.
A five-passenger detachable chairlift in South Korea serving tobogganers instead of skiers.
The first ProTow, an innovative surface lift for mountain bike parks.
If you don’t happen to get the book in the mail as a Doppelmayr customer, luckily the company now publishes an online version of the Worldwide book for all to enjoy. The pictures alone are worth your time.
Heavenly’s Comet Express remains closed following a Jan. 1st rope evacuation, apparently due to a gearbox issue. This is one of the reasons Vail Resorts is replacing its fleet of 1980s-vintage detachable quads.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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 highest, longest and most expensive aerial tramway system in the world will open this month at the Sierra Nevada National Park in Northwestern Venezuela. Teleférico de Mérida, as it’s known in Spanish, is really four separate jig-backs built in series totaling a crazy 40,735 linear feet with a vertical rise of 10,464 feet. Garaventa won a contract in 2011 to replace ropeways built along a similar route in the 1950s that closed down due to safety concerns in 2008. The world-leader in tramways spent the last four years building four lifts that would each be notable but combine to form an unparalleled 7.8-mile journey from the town of Mérida to 15,633-foot Pico Espejo. Of note, the world record for the longest tramway in a single section still belongs to the 3.5-mile Wings of Tatev, also built by Garaventa and completed in 2010.
The four original ropeways at Mérida were built by Haeckel of Germany and Habbeger of Switzerland and opened in March 1960. Interestingly, both of those companies came under ownership VonRoll and later the Doppelmayr Garaventa Group. Seven 36-passenger cars carried riders to Pico Espejo until 2008, when Doppelmayr advised the Venezuelan government the tramways had reached the end of their useful life and needed to be replaced. The Venezuela Ministry of Tourism, which owns Teleférico de Mérida, opted to invest $468 million towards modern tramways and all-new facilities.