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Kris De Decker


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Michelangelo Du


Dear Mr. De Decker,

This might be of interest to you to --- its a proposal for a macro-engineering project using catapults, tramways and gliders to shuttle people in Indonesia. Please check it out here:




Very good read, i was surprised that ski lifts were not mentioned anywhere, i would assume that these would fall into this class of aerial ropeways.

Brendan Buggeln


The principle of ropeways doesn't seem far from that of conveyor belts, a very commonly used technology in many industries. Much of the discussion here was about mining applications. Conveyor belts are also very common in mining and in bulk loading and unloading of materials.

The primary differences seem to me to be that (1) the load is suspended as opposed to supported (almost irrelevant) and (2) the load is in discreet bundles, not a continuous flow. This could be seen as a major disadvantage for ropeways.

I’d be interested to know how the technologies compare in other respects, i.e. in terms of maximum span, wind susceptibility, friction losses, construction cost, etc.

Very interesting article.

John Fisher


Another great article.

@4 you leave out the energy-recovery benefits of the ropeway as described. But possibly a conveyor belt like a flat waterwheel, with buckets or flanges, could provide the same benefit? You can see that over long distances, the extra machinery of a conveyor would be prohibitive, compared to traveling buckets.

Kris De Decker



Brendan (#4): conveyor belts are still used in mining, that's correct. However, most of these are not elevated structures. Many are even located underground, in the mines (where they actually replace yet another wire rope transportation technology from the past that I did not mention here - carts on rails pulled by wire ropes).

One of these (a pipe conveyor) runs underneath streets and buildings: http://www.phoenix-conveyor-belts.com/pages/world-records/longest-pipe/longest-pipe_en.html

Elevated conveyor belts for mining or loading are generally very short (less than 100 metres). However, there is one (partly) elevated structure that I missed. It has a length of 100 km, is located in the Sahara and is used by the phosphate mines of Bu Craa. It has a capacity of 2,400 tons per hour.

Also, a few have been built in India, but these are much shorter:

Concerning the differences in capacity between ropeways and conveyor belts: the RopeCon system described in the article is a combination of both technologies and can be considered as an improvement of ropeway technology. Capacities of the RopeCon systems are considerably higher than those of most ropeways. Nevertheless, it seems to me that a traditional ropeway remains the better option for certain cargoes.

More examples of present-day conveyor belts used in mining and cargo handling can be found here:

Kris De Decker


@ Michelangelo (#2):

Kinetic aviation technology? Winged shipping containers? Interesting concept, but do you really need a speed of 900 km/h to cross a 30 km strait? And how much energy do you need for the catapults?



Sorry for my tribal language: http://he.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D7%A8%D7%9B%D7%91%D7%9C_%D7%94%D7%A8_%D7%A6%D7%99%D7%95%D7%9F

This article describes a cable car that was used in Jerusalem, when it was partitioned between Israel and Jordan. The cable ran over the Hinom valley from western Jerusalem (Israel) to an enclave on Mt. Zion. It was first installed during the Israeli-Arab war of 1948-1949 and then remained a military secret until the reunification of the city in 1967. Even when it was still in use (during the war) the cable was lowered to the ground during the daytime so the Arab Legion (Jordanian military) never actually saw it. The Israeli public knew about the secret only in 1972!

Kris De Decker



It's hand-cranked!

If the hebrew wikipedia puts all text upside down then why not the pictures? :-)

Steven Dale


Great article! But you missed the fact that they've resurfaced as mass public transit in the last ten years:


Kris De Decker


Steven, I decided to ignore passenger ropeways because I wanted to keep the article ...eh... short. You should check the second link listed in the bibliography, "Hercules Aerial Tram Mobility Study & Report". It was of great help for my research, even though it investigates passenger ropeways, not cargo ropeways. The researchers conclude that passenger ropeways have a large potential in the US. One problem is that most traffic engineers don't even know them. The second problem, however, are insurance costs, which "tend to be so high that they cancel the cost benefits of energy savings and lower capital costs". That is not a problem for cargo tramways.


An addition to my comment # 6: Another important difference between ropeways and the existing conveyor belts in mining applications is this: if they are elevated structures, conveyor belts in mining industry are supported by a great amount of pillars, similar to a bridge or a viaduct. One advantage of a ropeway (and of the RopeCon system) is that fewer towers are required, which means that the lines can be built almost anywhere. This is why RopeCon is so innovative. The 3.4 km line in Jamaica only has 3 support towers.



An excellent article, in the long tradition of Low-tech Magazine. Two comments:

- I went to the Wikipedia page for "ropeway" to insert a link to this article. The Wikipedia page is only a small stub. It would be great if some of the contents of this article could be used to extend the Wikipedia page.

- Modern ropeways could be installed to facilitate urban-rural transport. There is vast potential in re-establishing nutrient cycling systems betweeen country and city. The processed organic waste from the city (compost, humanure)would be be transported back to the country to be used as fertilizer. The process could even be powered by the energy that is still contained in the waste (by heat engine, biogas-fired turbine etc.). There could also be farmers' markets and CSA (community supported agriculture) distribution points along the ropeway, selling products from the country to the city.

Kris De Decker


Thanks, Rasmus

The Wikipedia page on ropeways is a stub, but it refers to the "aerial tramway" page and to the "cableway" page which have some more information on cargo lines. Both pages also link to other wikipedia pages with more detailed information on some of the longer systems, particularly in Sweden (they are linked in the article).

There seems to be a lot of confusion about the correct terminology: "ropeways", "cableways" and "aerial tramways" mean different things to different people. I used them as synonyms because frankly I don't see that much difference. I think it's an expert discussion. We also have SUV's, pick-ups, sedans, etcetera, but in general we are talking about "cars" or "automobiles".

Such a general term does not seem to exist for the technology we are talking about here, and personally I thought "ropeways" was the best bet. It is the word with the longest history. So I think what should happen on Wikipedia is making one page out of three pages, and maybe distinguishing between cargo and passenger applications.

Concerning your second point: indeed, ropeways (or whatever you call them) seem to have a very large potential in agriculture.

Paul Nash


Kris, my hat off to you for another great article, and good to see an old system that is still being built today.

Having worked in the ski industry, I am well familiar with their use there, though I was surprised to learn the "detaching" car has been around for so long. I can also confirm that in British Columbia, Canada, the official term for the ski lifts is "passenger ropeways" regardless of whether they are chair, gondola, tram etc.
I was always amazed at how little electricity these lifts actually used - the 400kW motors usually running at 1/3 output. I can also say the safety and insurance requirements for these (passenger) systems are VERY rigorous.

Cargo ropeways do get used for construction projects, particularly large dams, where, as you indicate, they solve transport problems in mountainous terrain where large dams, by definition, must be located. Mines, however seem to prefer large dump trucks, even though the ropeways make obvious sense in many cases - the mining engineers mostly stick to what they are used to.

I did have occasion to ride an urban mass transit ropeway in Portland, Oregon, USA. It moves 1.1km, up a 150m hill at 35km/h and is far faster than you could get up there by driving, and a much easier alternative to walking, especially in Portland's rainy climate. http://www.portlandtram.org/faq.htm

For future urban cargo use, it seems the best way is to make them suitable for handling 20 and 40 foot containers, though this would require substantial towers and cables.

There is much scope for cities to make use of these to move people and cargo over self created bottlenecks - may we see more of them!



More ideas for applications of these systems:

1.) biochar transport: a biomass-rich region can produce a surplus of biochar, which could be transported to a biomass-poor-region to improve the soils there (example: Sahel zone in Africa).

This would make no sense from an energy/emissions point of view if it was done by traditional ground transport. But a ropeway system could certainly change that.

Another example: In the Rocky Mountains, there are billions of tons of dead wood that resulted from pine beetle kills. But turning that wood into biochar and leaving it locally would only make it last until the next wildfire (unless buried deep underground). If this carbon could be transported out into an agricultural area without wildfires, that would keep the carbon out of the atmosphere permanently. Same situation in Siberia, where wildfires release billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. What if this carbon could be turned into biochar and then transported to a non-forested area, say in Central Asia or Mongolia ?

2.) More broadly, ropeway systems could be used to restore degraded soils. Rebuilding our degraded soils globally is one of the best investments into our future that we can make. Very high returns, economic and ecological. Some regions around the Mediterranean sea were deforested in Roman times and soils have subsequently been eroded down to bare rocks (parts of Syria used to be lush forests). A similar case is the southwestern U.S. During the heyday of the Anasazi culture, there were dense forests in New Mexico, and the soil was fertile. It will take large amounts of energy to bring back the topsoil and to reforest these regions. Ropeways might be the least costly and most energy-efficient option to do that. These new forests would cool the local microclimate, thereby bringing precipitation. A beneficial positive feedback ensues. The forests would also suck gigatons of carbon out of the atmosphere and return it to the biosphere where it came from.

3.) Need for local, distributed financing. As you have shown in this article, financing needs for such systems are greatly reduced when compared to other forms of transportation. Still, this will need to be paid for. Studies on wind turbine acceptance have shown that NIMBYism is greatly reduced if turbines are owned by the community where they are located.

4.) combine ropeway towers with wind turbine towers at negligible additional cost

5.) Carbon fiber as rope: the energetic efficiency of a ropeway is higher the straighter the rope runs between the support points, i.e. the more tension there is on the rope. Carbon fibers are many times stronger than steel, although currently still very expensive and energy-intensive to produce. In the future, carbon fibers may bring additional energy savings from more tension on the cable

6.) Mobile support poles for a completely mobile system. The poles could be mounted onto wheeled supports which could be pulled by a truck to the new location whenever needed.

7.) Terrain engineering to improve yield of wind turbines. As shown in the article, ropeway systems can be used to build up an artificial hill (Adam Wybe, Danzig 1644). The terrain around a wind turbine can have critical effects on performance. It could be improved before the wind turbine is installed, possibly increasing the number of suitable sites.

8.) The Femecol website shows a small container being transported by ropeway. Such a capability would offer the chance to integrate ropeways with the sea freight system that uses standardized containers (20ft, 40ft). Makes most sense if the ropeway is connected to a sea port and if containers could be lifted directly from the ship onto the ropeway.

Kris De Decker


I have corrected a mistake in the article: "generating about 1,300 kW per hour of braking energy" should be "generating about 1,300 kWh of braking energy per day". Thanks, Jiri.

@ Rasmus, thank you for all those ideas.

Sergey Osipenko


I think, the main disadvantage of goods delivery by such kind of transportation is that one ropeway or conveyor belt is less reliable than several vehicles or trains.
What happens if conveyor will stop?



In 1644 Gdansk/Danzig was part of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth so IMO one should use current Polish name Gdansk not Danzig. Danzig was the name from 1308 till 1466 and from 1793 until 1945.



Mr. De Decker,

Great article. I was watching a TV show the other day about aircraft carriers in the US Army. They often transport goods from ship to ship using aerial ropeways. Just thought you might be interested.

Björn van der Meer


Thank you Kris, another wonderful article!

Congratulations on getting /.'ed too.

I see you removed the Paypal donation, well done, I also cancelled my account. Check out flattr.com, maybe that would be something for your site.

Greeting from Düsseldorf, Björn.




I know the Hercules study well. It's a shame it was so poorly done. One of the main problems with the report is that it conflates the terms "aerial trams" and "gondolas" yet the terms mean very different things. Basically the study uses the performance cost package of aerial trams to disprove the viability of a gondola system.

Problem is, the performance cost package of a gondola system is far higher than that of an aerial tram.

Great site, by the way!

Tim Boyden


Definitely a great article discussing the benefits of roped transit. Unfortunately the author fails to provide a balanced bias to the story by discussing the system's shortcomings. The number one shortcoming, and the reason why we don't have these systems all over the place, is the cost and availability of land for their implementation. Regardless of whether such a system uses only few peers to support the system; builders/owners of the system would still be required to purchase the land that exists beneath the system, or negotiate an aerial right-of-way with local governments. Neither of which is a cheap or easy thing to accomplish, at least in the United States.

Clearly, train transit is an efficient and cost effective way to move people and goods across the country, but all of your not-in-my-backyard (NIMBA) activists constantly block such projects that could solve most of our transportation problems. It would be no different with a rope system. And if that doesn't kill your project, the vision of ropes, towers, and cargo/people carriers transiting "scenic communities" (read with sarcasm) will cause much of the population to come out against such a project.

These systems work well in the locations advertised because the local governments control the land and construction decisions in the respective locales. Once you win those politico's favor, you can proceed without having to worry about the population's opinion or protests on the matter.



My question would be, if the aerial tramways/ropes or whatever you want to call them were installed across the world, what sort of security would there be? I can just imagine pallets of electronics being transported cross-country, and a thief setting up a ladder somewhere in the middle of the cargo's journey to boost some merchandise. I can't imagine there would be an easy way to secure the entire distance against this type of thing?



Never heard of these before - great comprehensive article and well written.

Slight correction offered:

"This is not only because a vertical rise can turn the ropeway into a power generator instead of a power consumer,"

This is the wrong way around.

Kris De Decker


More comments can be found at Slashdot:

SpOOk (24): really?

Brunurb (23): theft was a problem on the line Granada/Motril, where a bandit specialized in robbing the ropeway. How to prevent this? Don't know. Automatic guns? Electrocution? Drones? Falcons?

Lewis (19): interesting. I could not find any information about it.

Marian (18): I will mention both Gdansk & Danzig, I don't want to get in trouble with the Germans.

Sergey (17): Correct, but that's also a disadvantage of trains.



KDD and Lewis,

It is the US Navy that does this. It's called alongside connected replenishment (CONREP).

Here's the wiki article on underway replenishment (UNREP).

A search for UNREP on youtube will pull up a large number of videos of the process.




About (24): In the article, vertical *fall* would be more appropriate than vertical rise.

Thanks for great article, KDD.

Paul Dixon


This is very interesting. But I wonder if the author knew, when telling about the construction in La Oroya, Peru, that oroya is a quechua word for..... rope bridge and the place was so named because there was always a rope bridge across the Mantaro river at this point in Inca times.

Dan Merrick


In 1981 I recall seeing the then operating Hetauda-Kathmandu Ropeway. It was 42 km long and carried goods over the hills to Kathmandu. It was built before there were adequate roads for cargo and continued in use until a few years ago. As I recall, some of the first automobiles in Kathmandu were disassembled, shipped on the ropeway and reassembled.



Here's a thought re how to develop use of these systems (note: it involves a military application of this technology, so sorry if that is counter to some readers' ethical outlook).

U.S. military develops system of mobile raised carbon fiber tram transport (MRCRTT, or 'Mr. Cart'--gotta have an acronym for military use, right?). This would involve SEABEE type troops, with stockpiled equipment, know-how, etc. who can helo-into-place the towers and lay cables in short periods of time, crossing terrain that otherwise would be physically impassible or where a military presence on the ground would arouse hostilities. A main 'trunk' ground route could be established as needed with spurs of MrCart transport to hill villages or fortifications (in, Idunno, say, Afghanistan?). Saves having to carve/maintain roads on the mountainsides.

These transport systems would still be vulnerable to attacks, but that means the military will work out how to minimize the effects of a catastrophic failure: brakes/clamp-devices at each tower to sense loss of tension on the line if a neighboring tower were destroyed. The brakes/clamps lock onto the line to keep it from dropping to the ground until it/the cargo on it could be safely lowered. Also, replacement towers would be easily installed, again by helo-transport, so interruptions would be short. That sort of technology/know-how would help in the civilian use, bringing the liability costs for passenger use down.

The mention of a line in Holland that covered a mile or so, but could be moved in a day by 5 men suggests the ease, flexibility of use that would make this useful in a military context.

But also, this could be a back-up to use when a natural disaster/human actions have taken out a bridge.

And lastly, I live in Michigan, near Detroit. There is a single, old bridge connecting Detroit and Cananda. That bridge is insufficient to handle modern traffic. If a carbon fiber tramway carried containers from semi-bed to semi-bed across the river, that would be a much cheaper option than building an entire, new, additional bridge.

I love the idea of this, but am not at all technically savvy. Sorry if my imaginings are stating the obvious or impossible. Thanks for the article and I look forward to exploring this site/magazine. This is the first I've seen of it, but it seems very well written and intelligent.



If we use ropeways to send goods uphill, could we power them by filling ballast tanks with water for each downhill run?

praveen maranat


Dear sir,
Please give me details for constructing a rope way to carry farm goods weighimg 70 kg in each bucket overa length of 500 meters. I intend to make the rope wat demountable so that the same pillar and the wires can be used in many places.
Please guide me on this.
I still am unable to visualise how a bucket passes over a middle post withour obstruction.

Richard Tucker


Excellent article. Around the mid 1980's I worked for British Gypsum at their gypsum mines in East Sussex, England. The company used an overhead ropeway for hauling the rock back to the production facility which if my memory serves me correctly was at least 6 miles distant. There is a photo in the article below that shows it exiting the mine at the start of it's journey:


Later the ropeway was replaced by this covered converyor:




This appeared recently and makes a good addition to the topic: http://englishrussia.com/2013/08/21/the-ropeway-city/

Jim Baerg


According to this table:
rail is over ten times more efficient than trucks & water transport is somewhat more efficient than rail. I got the impression from your article that ropeways are highly efficient but are they better than rail or water when as much cargo is going up as going down?

Also, did you find figures for the cost per km of ropeways vs roads canals & railways, & the cargo capacity for each?

I wonder Why so few ropeways in latter half of 20th century? Are trucks more convenient IF petroleum is cheap?

Re Security against theft from the ropeways: The present availability of cheap cameras should make that easier than it was decades ago.

Kris De Decker



Aerial ropeways are never considered when comparing different transport modes, so this information is not available to the best of my knowledge.

However, it seems certain that they are cheaper to build than anything else. And in mountains, it seems obvious to me that they are more efficient to operate than canal boats or trains, both options that work best on flat terrain.

Cargo capacity is dealt with in the last part of the article.

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