Hanging by a Thread

Higher, more spectacular, further. Aerial railways are constantly breaking new records and simultaneously hold the titel of safest form of transport bar none. 

Mi Teleférico in Bolovian La Paz is the highest and longest urban commuter aerial railway network. Once completed in 2019, at least ten lines will connect the city at altitudes in excess of 4,000 meters. This will provide spectacular views of the Andes. Photo: Getty Images – Florentina Goergescu

Woven baskets swinging across deep gorges and ravines, hanging from a rope made of hemp strung between bamboo supports – the courage it must have taken to clamber aboard the ancestors of our modern cableways was incredible. The first of these is reported to have been in action more than a millennium ago in Japan. The cargo – people and products – was only able to traverse relatively short distances due to the limits of both the engineering and materials employed. Europe’s first functioning cable car began operation in 1644, when Dutchman Adam Wybe transported ­buckets full of materials for building a new bastion near Danzig. Once the closed wire cable was developed in the 19th century in ­Germany, aerial railways really took off – literally and figuratively.

Cable Cars are tourist attractions

Of course, we were still miles away from today’s high-tech offerings, which feature computer-designed cabins with 360-degree panoramic windows, and even “cabriolet” versions, and can transport hundreds of people simultaneously thanks to modern engineering prowess. Cable cars are predominantly employed in tourism applications – be this in the Alps, Vietnam or Canada. Austrian manufacturer Doppelmayr states that such projects account for 80% of orders. The company from Vorarlberg is the global market leader, claiming it holds a 60% stake of the international market. In second place is the Italian firm Leitner AG from South Tyrol. Between the pair, they ­control approximately 90 percent of the global ­aerial ­cableway business.

The Dagu Glacier Gondola in Northern China is only 2.4 kilometers in length, but the upper terminus in the Dagu Glacier National Park is 4,843 meters above sea level. With this, it claims the title of the world’s highest cable car. Oxygen masks and tanks are readily available to its passengers. Photo: Doppelmayer Seilbahnen The Jericho Cable Car has connected the city of Jericho with the Greek Orthodox monastery Qarantal on the Mount of Temptation since 1999. Built entirely below sea level, the cableway starts at 230 meters below sea level, and reaches its destination at 50 meters below sea level. Photo: Getty Images - Gosiek B With the greatest ground clearance of all cable cars (436 meters), the Peak 2 Peak Gondola claims this record. It spans two summits, from the ski resort on Whistler Mountain, over a deep valley to the next attraction on Blackcomb Peak. Photo: Foto: Getty Images - John Crux The largest gondolas of an aerial railway can be found in the Savoy Prealps, on the Vanoise Express. In total, 200 people spread over two floors can be carried in each direction from the La Plagne ski area to Les Arcs. Photo: Getty Images - Angelo Cavalli - Robertharding The cableway that climbs Rio de Janeiro’s Sugarloaf Mountain is a celebrity in its own right. The legendary fight scene in the James Bond “Moonraker” film took place on the top of a Teleférico do Pão de Açúcar cable car. Photo: Getty Images - Michael Marquard The two-story pendulum aerial tramway CabriO Stanserhorn allows passengers to glide up the 1,900-meter-high Stanserhorn in the Swiss Canton of Nidwald beneath open skies, as a spiral staircase allows passengers to access the one-of-a-kind upper deck. Photo: Doppelmayer Seilbahnen, Markus Müller

The emphasis is winter sports, with traditional ski areas predominantly focusing on building replacement systems. One of these is the new cable car to the summit of Zugspitze, which entered ­service in Garmisch-Partenkirchen at the end of 2017, replacing the old Eibsee cableway that had served since 1963. With a sole 127-meter high support column, the gondolas glide along a free span of 3,213 meters to Germany’s highest peak. This has secured the new system two world records. The third was already the property of its predecessor – the greatest single-section height difference for a pendulum cable car – at almost 2,000 meters.

The Zugspitze Cable Car replaces a system that first entered service in 1963. With the highest steel support (127 meters), the longest free span (3,213 meters) and the largest altitude difference in a single section (1,945 meters), it has claimed three world records. Photo: Bayerische Zugspitzbahnen, Matthias Fend

The Zugspitze Cable Car replaces a system that first entered service in 1963. With the highest steel support (127 meters), the longest free span (3,213 meters) and the largest altitude difference in a single section (1,945 meters), it has claimed three world records. Photo: Bayerische Zugspitzbahnen, Matthias Fend

The world’s highest aerial railway is in Northern China and employs some very special safety measures due to its location: So that the passengers of the Dagu Glacier Gondola arrive safely at the ­glacier 4,843 meters above sea level, the cabins and stations feature readily-available oxygen masks and tanks. Although breathtaking in its own right, these measures that are not required at the Hòn Thom cableway in Southern ­Vietnam, whose gondolas provide a spectacular panorama on the journey between two tropical islands.

The longest aerial railway on Earth entered service in February 2018 in Vietnam. Spanning almost 7,900 meters, Hòn Thom connects two popular vacation islands, and beats the previous record-holder Fansipan Legend, which is also located in Vietnam, by almost one-and-a-half kilometers. Photo: Doppelmayer Seilbahnen

The longest aerial railway on Earth entered service in February 2018 in Vietnam. Spanning almost 7,900 meters, Hòn Thom connects two popular vacation islands, and beats the previous record-holder Fansipan Legend, that is also located in Vietnam, by almost one-and-a-half kilometers. Photo: Doppelmayer Seilbahnen

Lots is done to make the journey through the skies even more magical. From heated seats and windows to glass floors, no expense is spared in making the experience a comfortable and extravagant one. Equally important is the sense that one’s dream of flying is fulfilled. Cable railways unlock previously inaccessible areas, floating up steep mountains, crossing roads, rivers and straits in the most direct fashion. Increasing effort is being put into ensuring that the stations and cabins blend into the landscape in an attractive manner and are enjoyable to simply gaze upon.

Aerial railways are the safest of all modes of travel, with the probability of a fatal accident approximately 1 in 1.7 billion. And a lot of work is put in to ensure that it remains so. Automated driving has been employed in this sector for years, and aerial railways also represent an environmentally-conscious option – they are electrically powered and can thereby be designed in an ecologically sustainable manner. Stations and supports require relatively little space. Commuting in many cities would be inconceivable without the use of cable cars. The world’s largest urban commuter cable car network connects the 3,600-meter-­altitude Bolivian capital of La Paz with El Alto, at 4,200 meters above sea level. Mi Teleférico helps defuse the traffic chaos down below, which is why many other traffic-overloaded cities are also considering establishing such transport systems. And just as it was more than a thousand years ago, it’s going to take some courage.

On the Line with DEKRA

Damit die Sicherheit von Seilbahnen gewährleistet ist, sind regelmäßige Kontrollen unabdingbar. Foto: DEKRA

To ensure the safety of cable cars, regular checks are essential. Photo: DEKRA

In order to guarantee cable car safety, regular inspections are indispensable. At French DEKRA subsidiary DEKRA Industrial SAS – Activité montagne, Denis Basset discharges this critical task. One can find him in France’s largest ski area of La Plagne, or in La Clusaz in the Savoy Prealps, located 2,477 meters above sea level. The annual inspections concern the mechanics and control technology, explains Basset. “I test the brakes both in an empty state and loaded, as well as the coupling mechanisms.” Should a brake fail when stopping, another must automatically be activated. Also, in particular focus are the cable tensioning devices, and the cables themselves.

These are inspected with a device that envelops the cable and consists of a magnet and an inductor. Inconsistencies are sensed by electrical voltage. “Correctly interpreting the recorded data does require a little more experience,” explains Basset. When it comes to inspecting fixed bearer cables, the device must be guided along the cable. “That is performed up in the air,” says Basset. A fear of heights is quite prohibitive in his line of work.

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