A Reminder on Cable Car Safety

Post by Gondola Project

In the past weeks, a few lift incidents made headlines across North America. Dozens were evacuated after a chair fell down at Heavenly Mountain Sky Resort (Nevada), while a stranded passenger captured some incredible footage of his own rescue at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort (British Columbia).

Naturally since safety on Cable Propelled Transit is always a top concern, we thought it was important to provide readers not only with a refresher on this topic, but with a few updated stats to help keep discussions grounded in reality and not just perceptions.

To begin, a few years ago we came across data from Switzerland. In short, when compared to rail, trolley buses, auto buses and trams, funiculars and gondolas/aerial trams ranked the first and second safest amongst the transit technologies.

This of course, is quite significant since Switzerland is home to the highest, if not one of the world’s highest per capita use of cable transport systems.

For those that live in the USA, the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) keeps a fantastic database on lift safety. In their latest 2015 report, they found that there has been zero fatalities related to ski lift malfunctions since 1993. In fact, since record keeping began in 1973, only 12 deaths are attributable to lift malfunction. Compared to fatalities per 100 million miles transported, ski lift passengers are five and eight times less likely to suffer a fatality than riding an elevator or driving.

However, these stats are slightly misleading for urban cable transit since this NSAA report included only chairlifts. And because cities never build open-air chairlifts, parsing gondola/aerial tram (that have fully enclosed cabins) systems from the dataset is important.

From my research online, the last deaths that I found on an aerial lift (with fully enclosed cabins) in the US happened in 1976 and 1978. These incidents occurred respectively in Vail (cause: frayed cable, maintenance negligence) and Squaw Valley (cause: act of god, high wind a likely contributor). This means that fully enclosed aerial lifts in North America have safely operated without a fatality in almost 40 years.*

So by any stretch of the imagination, these findings help reconfirm the incredible safety record of cable transport. At the same time, it is also a testament to professionalism and dedication of ropeway staff who work day in and day out to ensure that these systems are designed, and operated to the highest standards.


*Note: Fatalities were reported in Disneyland’s Skyway in 1994 and at the State Fair of Texas Skyride in 1979. However, these systems feature open-air gondola cabins. So for purposes of discussing safety levels of fully enclosed gondola systems (which are built in cities), these systems were not included in the analysis. 

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. Matt the Engineer
    Careful with that Squaw Valley one. They called it an "Act of God" because they couldn't figure out why it failed. That's a much more terrifying reason than knowing why something failed - if you know the cause you can fix it. That said, it sounds like it was probably the high winds. They changed the design, and it hasn't happened again in 38 years so that probably fixed it. But that "probably" is completely unsatisfying. Of course, I'll take that "probably" over the probabilities that airbag designs don't fail (4 deaths compared to how many?), but it's still a problem.
  2. Thanks Matt. I've added a note to the Squaw Valley system to clarify.
  3. Can't see any reference to fatalities in the cited Wiki article for the Skyway. Sounds like the fall was deliberate so could be excluded entirely from an analysis of accidents anyway.

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