Hang loose – spectacular cable cars

By Carsten Paulun
As far back as thousands of years ago, they were regarded as an ideal means of transportation across ravines and rivers: cable cars. By now, airborne gondolas have become established in many cities of the world and even in local public transportation systems. Join us on a journey and discover the most spectacular cable cars.
© Leitner

The most commonly known cable car

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Locals only call it O Bondinho, the little car. The cable car that’s meant here is the Teleférico do Pão de Açúcar in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the one at which 007 Agent James Bond, played by Roger Moore, was engaged in a minutes-long fist fight with the “biter” in the movie “Moonraker.”

In 1972, O Bondinho replaced a previous cable car built as far back as in 1912/1913. The cable car is split into two sections without supporting columns and takes passengers from the beach across 1,263 meters to the 395-meter-high (1,296-foot-high) Sugarloaf Mountain, a steeply rising granite rock. From there, visitors have a stunning view from the Atlantic across the many bays and hills all the way to Copacabana, arguably the world’s most famous beach, and to Cristo Redentor, the statue of Christ about five kilometers (3 miles) away.

The highest altitude above ground

© Peak 2 Peak

People with a fear of heights should avoid the Peak 2 Peak Gondola in the Canadian province of Columbia. Up until the Zugspitze cable car was put into service it held two records. At 3,024 meters (9,921 feet) it had the biggest span of all cable cars until then. The record it has retained is the highest altitude above ground.

Anyone looking through the glass floor of one of the 28 gondolas will be looking downward to a depth of 436 meters (1,430 feet) at the lowest point. Yet the difference in altitude between the two terminuses is merely 36 meters (118 feet) because the Peak 2 Peak, as its name suggests, bridges the deeply incised valley of Fitzsimmons Creek, and connects the two ski resorts on Whistler Mountain and on Blackcomb Peak. All gondolas are equipped with radar warning devices to warn aircraft of the cable car traversing the valley.

The fastest cable car

© Florian Pépellin (Wikimedia)

At full speed from one skiing area to another: 45 km/h (12.5 mph) doesn’t sound very fast – but for a cable car that’s nearly a breath-taking pace. The Vanoise Express connects the ski resorts of Les Arcs and La Plagne in the French Alps. Its special feature are the cabins with two levels, each accommodating 200 passengers, and the cable system that spans the 1,600-meter (5,249-foot) distance without support columns. The cabins cross the valley at altitudes of up to 380 meters (1,247 feet). However, the difference in altitudes between the Plan Peisey and Montchavin stations is only 64 meters (210 feet).

The oldest cable car

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The Predigtstuhlbahn in Bad Reichenhall, Germany, is the world’s oldest cable car that’s still in service. Since its inaugural trip in 1928 this technological masterpiece has been soaring above the Bavarian countryside. The Predigtstuhlbahn overcomes 1,107 meters (3,631.9) of difference in altitude on a distance of 2,380 meters (7,808.4 feet) and impresses not only with its long life but also with its charming, nostalgic elegance.

The technology of this historic cable car is as rugged as it’s ingenious. The combination of a circulating carrying and hauling rope enables smooth and safe service. Amazingly, the original carrying rope from 1928 is still in use. For technical and safety reasons, it’s offset every 12 years. The spare lengths will still suffice for several decades.

The longest cable car

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An online search for the world’s longest cable car produces a variety of results. Typically appearing in one of the top spots of the search engine results page is the Cablebus 2 in Mexico-City. With a length of 10.55 kilometers (6.55 miles), it’s the world’s longest urban cable car. It’s designed to mitigate the traffic chaos on the ground that sees even city buses regularly get caught in traffic jams and help pedestrians get from one neighborhood to another one quickly.

Another cable car that regularly appears in the results lists is Teleférico in La Paz, Bolivia, that with a length of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) is just insignificantly shorter. It connects the metropolis with the mountain town of El Alto and is also designed to “circumvent” traffic problems.

The cable car that’s truly the longest one in the world tends to rarely appear on the lists. That may be the case because it’s less spectacular but rather slow-paced. Traveling at a speed of merely 10 km/h (2.8 mph), the trip across the 13,163-meter (43.18 feet) distance of the aerial tramway in Norsjö, Sweden, takes a little more than 90 minutes – with a magnificent view far into southern Lapland. Due to age-related damage to the 73 concrete cable support columns, service was discontinued in 2018.

The longest column-less cable car

© Teka77 (iStock)

The carrying and hauling ropes of the Zugspitze cable car near Garmisch-Partenkirchen traverse nearly 3,213 meters (10,541.34 feet) without a supporting column – more than any other cable car. With 1,945 meters (6381.23 feet), it also boasts the biggest difference in altitudes within one section. The Zugspitze cable car was opened in 2012. It has only one pylon – the highest aerial tramway pylon featuring a steel construction and a height of 127 meters (416.7 feet).

The two fully glazed cabins can each accommodate 120 passengers and travel at a comparably high speed of up to 38 km/h (24 mph). Each carrying rope tips the scales at 153 metric tons (168.7 short tons). The design of the rope system enables safe service even at wind speeds of up to 100 km/h (62 mph). At the upper terminus of the Zugspitze, visitors can enjoy a 360-degree panoramic view of more than 400 Alpine summits.

The highest cable car

© Jiuzhai

Its lower terminus is located at an altitude at which other cable cars, as a maximum, have their upper terminus: although the Dagu Glacier Gondola in the Chinese Dagu Glacier National Park is only 2.4 kilometers (1.5 miles) long it starts at an impressive altitude of 3,617 meters (11,867 feet).

Its destination is a flat and extensive area of the Dagu Glacier at an altitude of 4,843 meters (15,889.11 feet) where people can take walks at no risk. There’s no other cable car that puts people in equally close touch with the sky. Due to the high altitude and related thin air for breathing, oxygen bottles and breathing masks are available both on the glacier and in the 36 gondolas. At a speed of 21.6 km/h (13.4 mph), the Dagu Glacier Gondola tends to be one of the slower-paced cable cars, which contrasts its impressive height.

The most unusual cable car

© Goddard_Photography (iStock)

This cable car is not about snow and ice. At 40.5 meters (133 feet), it doesn’t travel at a particularly high altitude either, but even so, offers a stunning view of the tropical rain forest in the north of the Australian state of Queensland. The 114 gondolas seem to be floating above the tree-tops. Six passengers per cabin thus get in close touch with the primeval forest in a very unusual way.

The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway can travel at a speed of up to 18 km/h (5 mph) but never does in order to provide passengers ample time with the rain forest. For the distance of merely 7.5 kilometers (4.7 miles), the cable car needs about 90 minutes. Aside the Olympic flame for the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, famous passengers included the former British Queen, Elizabeth II, and her husband, Prince Philip.

The lowest cable car

© Tamar Hayarden (Wikimedia)

It sounds like something out of a fairy tale but the Jericho cable car in the Palestinian Autonomous Territories some 10 kilometers (6.21 miles) south of the Dead Sea has its lower and upper terminus and the entire distance of 1,330 meters (4,363 feet) below sea level. The cable car starts in Jericho, the world’s lowest city, 230 meters (755 feet) below sea level and across seven pylons travels to the Greek-Orthodox monastery Qarantal on Mount of Temptation (Dschabal al-Quruntul) in the West Bank. This mountain is still located 50 meters (164 feet) below sea level.

Travel time of the Jericho cable car that was completed in 1999 is five minutes. Because the carrying rope must be stopped for passengers entering or exiting the other gondolas stop during that time enroute.

The breeziest cable car

© Leesle (iStock)

You’re familiar with the typical double-decker buses with an open upper level? Well, then imagine something like that as the gondola of a cable car. It really exists. In Switzerland, or more precisely at Stanserhorn. The Stanserhorn aerial tram that was put into service in 2012 offers two gondolas, each one with a convertible top. It can be reached via a spiral staircase inside the gondola.

The suspension of the gondolas is the special technical feature of the convertible cable car: due to the convertible level, these gondolas cannot be suspended on a long swing arm that mitigates the horizontal acceleration when the cable car runs across supporting columns. In the convertible gondolas, hydraulic cylinders compensate for the uncomfortable swinging motion.

The cable car of the future

© Connx

… autonomously travels from the mountain through the city. At least, that’s what the ConnX hybrid vehicle presented by cable car specialist Leitner in 2021 is designed to do. In principle, it’s a gondola that’s automatically placed on an autonomously acting chassis at a lower terminus.

Consequently, passengers no longer need to leave the gondola and can comfortably reach their destination. Cable car specialist Leitner intends to use the concept also for promoting cable cars as urban transportation alternatives in metropolitan regions. Currently, Leitner is using ConnX only in testing operations at its business premises in Sterzing in South Tyrol but the company is working on obtaining approval for public transportation.

Sustainable generation of energy using cable cars

The “Bergwind” startup would like to make better use of the wind conditions in the mountains and upgrade cable cars to wind and solar power plants. Outside of operating hours, wind turbines of photovoltaic modules are supposed to be clamped to the ropes instead of chairs, gondolas, or towing bars. The startup company is working on the development of powerplants that are adapted precisely to the conditions on cable cars. At high altitudes with little vegetation wind turbines suggest themselves for that purpose and further down at the lift photovoltaic modules would be better. A major advantage of suspended powerplants is their space-saving design that would not use up any additional space. Ski resorts could cover part of their electric power requirements in an eco-friendly way themselves.

Hang loose – spectacular cable cars© Bergwind