Cable Propelled Transit: An Open Technology?

Post by Steven Dale

Plaques depicting the the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway's original builder, Von Roll, and the rebuilder, Doppelmayr. Image from flickr user bossco.

The new Roosevelt Island Tram (RIT) is likely to generate renewed interest in cable transit and urban gondolas. What it may also do is demonstrate to the wider transit planning community that Cable Propelled Transit is an “open” platform and not (necessarily) subject to the issue of proprietary technology.

Let me explain:

The Roosevelt Island Tram was built in the 1970’s by the Swiss lift manufacturer Von Roll. Two decades later, Von Roll was acquired by the Austrian manufacturer Doppelmayr in 1996. You would expect, therefore, that the Roosevelt Island Tram would’ve been rebuilt by Doppelmayr as well.

If you did expect that, you’d be wrong.

The Roosevelt Island Tram was in fact rebuilt by Leitner-Poma; Doppelmayr’s closest and most direct competitor.

I have no knowledge about the selection process behind the RIT rebuild. I don’t know why Leitner-Poma was chosen over Doppelmayr, nor do I really care. I don’t even know if Doppelmayr participated in the bidding process or even if there was a bidding process. None of this matters to me.

What matters to me is this: Having three different companies (two of which are fierce competitors) working on the same system over a span of 30 years demonstrates that cable transit is an open technology.

That is, the fundamentals are so common across the industry that any of the players can work on each other’s systems. That encourages competition and keeps prices low. It also prevents white elephant situations where cities find themselves trapped out-of-production technologies, desperate for parts that no longer exist; a situation plaguing Toronto’s ill-fated ICTS vehicles.

The argument for open technologies in transit is common enough that it took me just under one minute to find three espousing the idea:

Try it yourself. Google “proprietary technology” and “transit” and/or “public transportation” and you’ll find no shortage of arguments in favor of open platforms. None favor closed platforms.

(Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a strong argument in favor of closed platforms in public transportation. If you can think of one, I’m all ears, but I’m not sure it exists.)

As transit moves towards things like smart fare cards and ticketing systems, the current debate about “openness” centers around information technology platforms, but the principal still applies to vehicle and mode choice.

Basically, cities don’t like playing with proprietary technology. They need it to be as open as possible. Certainly every transit manufacturer will have their own patents and intellectual property, but at the end of the day, the fundamentals behind a given technology have to be similar enough across the industry to allow any major competitor to build, operate and maintain any given system.

Collectively, the Doppelmayr-Garaventa Group and Leitner-Poma (and/or their parent companies) have built 22,000 ropeway systems around the world. Those systems need parts, operators and maintainers. Yes, there are subtle differences between urban ropeway systems and non-urban systems, but the fundamentals are the same. It seems highly unlikely that any city that chooses to build an urban gondola would have any trouble finding parts in the future.

And it’s not like these companies are going out of business any time soon:

Leitner was founded in 1888 and Doppelmayr in 1892. If you want industry stability, that should speak for itself. For the sake of comparison; Bombardier, one of the world’s largest LRT manufacturers, is a relative youngster. It was founded in 1942.

By virtue of this attachment to history, the industry uses (literally) centuries old techniques and technologies not subject to strict intellectual property and patents. The technology is common enough across the industry to allow different companies to work on and maintain each other’s systems.

In other words: Cable Propelled Transit is an open technology. While examples shouldn’t be necessary to prove this fact, it’s great that the Roosevelt Island Tram demonstrates that the cable industry is indeed up to the task of openness.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.

Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.


  1. The electric streetcar was invented by Siemens and Siemens is still in Business. Bombardier was not founded as a rolling stock manufacturer it just acquired a lot of companies which had a longer history than bombardier itself. If you look closer at gondola technology there are different grip mechanism some of them are not allowed anymore just because they are consider unsafe now despite the worked very reliable for decades. And many alpine gondolas where torn down and completely rebuilt. So it is safe to say that if you chose only system you depend on the manufacturer for spare parts and the like. The ICTS is a linear metro apart from Bombardier there also Japanese Manufacturers which builds them with or without driverless operation. Monorails and AGT are standardized in Japan and there are several manufacturers of it. As in any business there are always some companies which try to sell their proprietary non standard solution. But that does not mean that the basic technology cannot be standardized.
  2. Well, different trains run also on the same rails. And in case of NYC everything was removed but the tower main structure and the station structure. In the end I agree: I think it's phantastic to see these changes - though to get to know the reasons for that change would also be veeeery interesting to know.
  3. @ Matthias, "The ICTS is a linear metro apart from Bombardier" actually the ICTS was acquired by Bombardier after the technology failed to deliver the results the Ontario Government wanted. The ICTS was basically a government initiative to create a new transit technology. There are two versions of the technology: The Mark I and the Mark II. Basically no one but Toronto runs the Mark I and that's the problem. If they wanted spare parts for it, they would have to pay to restart production. Otherwise, they'd have to convert the entire thing to Mark II's, which would cost a fair bit. The Mark IIs are best known in Vancouver's skytrain.
  4. @ LX, Agreed. Most of this post was about explaining why cable isn't the proprietary technology most seem to think it is.
  5. Steven: You blame ICTS or Bombardier because there are no more spare parts for a 25 years old vehicle and that the vehicle is out of production. However the Mark II is available from the same manufacturer plus there is also a second source for a compatible system. The Toronto ICTS was the first application and thus kind of a prototype. It is only logical that the technology has evolved and a successor vehicle. Try to find spare parts for a 25 years old car. On the other side the Roosevelt aerial tram was a complete rebuilt everything has changed there are new cabins, a complete new technology funifor instead of aerial tramway. New drive mechanics etc only the civil work could be reused.
  6. @ Matthias, I'm just trying to say that the Roosevelt Island Tram helps demonstrate how cable is "open concept" like many other standard transit technologies. Beyond the rebuild aspect, I know that cable companies are often hired to work on each other's systems due to a variety of reasons. I also know of one situation where the client began manufacturing their own spare parts.
  7. Would be interesting to hear more about that situation, wouldn't it?
  8. @ matthias car example, bad example finding parts for a 25 year old car is not tough. people fix and rebuild much older cars all the time. also, to an extent you can mix and match. lots of parts are interchangeable, standard sizes. and most mechanics can fix most cars, generally speaking you don't need to take your car to a brand-specific specialist. i would guess that whats starting to become proprietary about cars is their on board software.
  9. Frankie of course it is possible to repair an old car, train or gondola. You even can built an replica of an old vehicle. But it is not cost effective. If a systems has a certain age the patents run age and anyone could reverse engineer it. Instead of repairing or rebuilt an old design a new product has lower cost and up to date features. There are also many exceptions for historical vehicles. Even if you built a replica or renovate a historical vehicle you are not allowed to use asbestos for example. Thus many materials and parts are not available anymore especially for a system like the ICTS which was a prototype and only a few vehicles where built. BTW i checked teh web about the Scarborough RT ICTS and it seem its mostly the TTC to blame for the extra cost. Even back in the 80ies the ICTS now Bombardier ART was designed as an fully automated driverless metro. But for political reason the design had to be altered for operation with driver so the vehicles got a driver cab. First extra cost is the alteration is to add drivers cost. Second is much higher operating cost and less flexibility because drivers are needed. And third capacity if the trains is significantly reduced because the drivers cab need space. This is a good example how extra wishes cause extra cost with little benefits for the passengers. It also shows why gondola manufacturers prefer to sell their systems to private ski resorts instead of public transit agencies. And it explains why the Bombardier ART is a success in Vancouver and other cities but not in Toronto.
  10. matthias, "It also shows why gondola manufacturers prefer to sell their systems to private ski resorts instead of public transit agencies." ... how? "And it explains why the Bombardier ART is a success in Vancouver and other cities but not in Toronto." and how again? also, how much space is really taken up by a driver cabin, from vehicles i've seen around the world, the space can be as little as 2 seats. not sure how this causes a "drastic" reduction in capacity.
  11. 1. If private companies buy something usually the chose teh best manufucturer regardless of politival consideration. Also they mostly work together with teh manufacturer to get the best solution. On the other side public entities have more requirements for a supplier. For public transit it is often the case that a certain amount of manufacturing must be in the country. So Toronto, Canada cannot by a linear metro from Hitachi, Japan, restricting itself purchasing from Bombardier as the sole supplier. Example for Aerial Tramways might be the Portland tramway which has a unique design but cost much more than the off the shelf solution for ski resort while the transport capacity and passenger comfort is the same. 2. The Bombardier ART or ICTS has relative short trains. So the percentage wasted by drivers cab is higher than with longer trains. Also while the drivers cab only have two seats there is additional space needed for the instrumentation panels. Metro vehicles are also often optimized for standing capacity so two seat cost maybe the space of over 10 standees. The drivers can in the opposite direction of travel is usually empty and if two units are coupled together 3 out of 4 driver cabs are empty. For a Bombardier ART system driver cab can reduce capacity by ca. 10% which is significant.
  12. It seems to me this is a sliding scale situation, meaning the question is not whether, but how much, of a CPT system is open. If the open list includes towers, cables, stations, vehicles (maybe minus grips), and basic maintenance if not full replacement of the drive mechanism--well, that is a lot!

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