An Australian Alps cable car on a mountainside
Cable car at Zell am See in the Austrian Alps

Cable transport is a broad class of transport modes that have cables. They transport passengers and goods, often in vehicles called cable cars. The cable may be driven or passive, and items may be moved by pulling, sliding, sailing, or by drives within the object being moved on cableways. The use of pulleys and balancing of loads moving up and down are common elements of cable transport. They are often used in mountainous areas where cable haulage can overcome large differences in elevation.

Common modes of cable transport

An aerial tram part of a cable car system in Portland
The Portland Aerial Tram

Aerial transport

Main article: Aerial lift

Forms of cable transport in which one or more cables are strung between supports of various forms and cars are suspended from these cables.

Cable railways

Main article: Cable railway

Forms of cable transport where cars on rails are hauled by cables. The rails are usually steeply inclined and usually at ground level.


Other forms of cable-hauled transport.


Rope-drawn transport dates back to 250 BC as evidenced by illustrations of aerial ropeway transportation systems in South China.[12][13]

Early aerial tramways

An aerial tramway used in mining, at the Shenandoah-Dives Mill in Silverton, Colorado

The first recorded mechanical ropeway was by Venetian Fausto Veranzio who designed a bi-cable passenger ropeway in 1616. The industry generally considers Dutchman Adam Wybe to have built the first operational system in 1644. The technology, which was further developed by the people living in the Alpine regions of Europe, progressed and expanded with the advent of wire rope and electric drive.[14]

The first use of wire rope for aerial tramways is disputed. American inventor Peter Cooper is one early claimant, constructing an aerial tramway using wire rope in Baltimore 1832, to move landfill materials. Though there is only partial evidence for the claimed 1832 tramway, Cooper was involved in many of such tramways built in the 1850s, and in 1853 he built a two-mile-long tramway to transport iron ore to his blast furnaces at Ringwood, New Jersey.[15]

World War I motivated extensive use of military tramways for warfare between Italy and Austria.[14]

During the industrial revolution, new forms of cable-hauled transportation systems were created including the use of steel cable to allow for greater load support and larger systems. Aerial tramways were first used for commercial passenger haulage in the 1900s.[12]

The first cable railways

A gravity incline in use in 1955 at Llechwedd quarry in Wales. Empty wagons are arriving at the top of the incline – the winding drum is in the shed in the background
A test run on the Westside and Yonkers Patent Railway Company line in 1867
Hallidie's Clay Street Hill Railroad, the first successful cable railway running at street level

The earliest form of cable railway was the gravity incline, which in its simplest form consists of two parallel tracks laid on a steep gradient, with a single rope wound around a winding drum and connecting the trains of wagons on the tracks. Loaded wagons at the top of the incline are lowered down, their weight hauling empty wagons from the bottom. The winding drum has a brake to control the rate of travel of the wagons. The first use of a gravity incline isn't recorded, but the Llandegai Tramway at Bangor in North Wales was opened in 1798, and is one of the earliest examples using iron rails.[16]

The first cable-hauled street railway was the London and Blackwall Railway, built in 1840, which used fibre to grip the haulage rope. This caused a series of technical and safety issues, which led to the adoption of steam locomotives by 1848.[17]

The first Funicular railway was opened in Lyon in 1862.[18]

The Westside and Yonkers Patent Railway Company developed a cable-hauled elevated railway. This 3½ mile long line was proposed in 1866 and opened in 1868. It operated as a cable railway until 1871 when it was converted to use steam locomotives.[19]

The next development of the cable car came in California. Andrew Hallidie, a Scottish emigre, gave San Francisco the first effective and commercially successful route, using steel cables, opening the Clay Street Hill Railroad on August 2, 1873.[20] Hallidie was a manufacturer of steel cables. The system featured a human-operated grip, which was able to start and stop the car safely. The rope that was used allowed the multiple, independent cars to run on one line, and soon Hallidie's concept was extended to multiple lines in San Francisco.[21]

The first cable railway outside the United Kingdom and the United States was the Roslyn Tramway, which opened in 1881, in Dunedin, New Zealand. America remained the country that made the greatest use of cable railways; by 1890 more than 500 miles of cable-hauled track had been laid, carrying over 1,000,000 passengers per year. However, in 1890, electric tramways exceeded the cable hauled tramways in mileage, efficiency and speed.[22]

Early ski lifts

The first surface lift was built in 1908 by German Robert Winterhalder in Schollach/Eisenbach, Hochschwarzwald and started operations February 14, 1908.[23]

A steam-powered toboggan tow, 950 feet (290 m) in length, was built in Truckee, California, in 1910.[24] The first skier-specific tow in North America was apparently installed in 1933 by Alec Foster at Shawbridge in the Laurentians outside Montreal, Quebec.[25]

The modern J-bar and T-bar mechanism was invented in 1934 by the Swiss engineer Ernst Constam,[26][27] with the first lift installed in Davos, Switzerland.[28]

The first chairlift was developed by James Curran in 1936. The co-owner of the Union Pacific Railroad, William Averell Harriman owned America's first ski resort, Sun Valley, Idaho. He asked his design office to tackle the problem of lifting skiers to the top of the resort. Curran, a Union Pacific bridge designer, adapted a cable hoist he had designed for loading bananas in Honduras to create the first ski lift.[29]

More recent developments

More recent developments are being classified under the type of track that their design is based upon.[citation needed] After the success of this operation, several other projects were initiated in New Zealand and Chicago. The social climate around pollution is allowing for a shift from cars back to the utilization of cable transport due to their advantages.[30] However, for many years they were a niche form of transportation used primarily in difficult-to-operate conditions for cars (such as on ski slopes as lifts). Now that cable transport projects are on the increase, the social effects are beginning to become more significant.[31] In 2018 the highest 3S cablecar has been inaugurated in Zermatt, Switzerland after more than two years of construction. This cablecar is also called the "Matterhorn Glacier ride" and it allows passengers to reach the top of the Klein Matterhorn mountain (3883m)[32]

Social effects

A large long cable car system in Bolivia
The La Paz cable car system in Bolivia is both the longest and highest urban cable car network in the world.

Comparison with other transport types

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When compared to trains and cars, the volume of people to transport over time and the start-up cost of the project must be a consideration. In areas with extensive road networks, personal vehicles offer greater flexibility and range. Remote places like mountainous regions and ski slopes may be difficult to link with roads, making cable transport project a much easier approach. A cable transport project system may also need fewer invasive changes to the local environment.

The use of Cable Transport is not limited to such rural locations as skiing resorts; it can be used in urban development areas. Their uses in urban areas include funicular railways,[33] gondola lifts,[34] and aerial tramways.[35]




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Further reading