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Home > Online Magazine > Online Magazine: Edition 38 - December 2010 / January 2011 > Faith in the Cables (by John Morris)

Faith in the Cables

by John Morris

Faith in the Cables - Lessons from Cable Car Safety

What a ride, up nearly 1,800 metres in 15 minutes with a startling view out of the canyon to the north and the rugged façade of Mt San Jacinto at your back. Kosciuszko gets passed by. The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway takes you from the Valley Station at 806 metres above sea level to Mountain Station on San Jacinto Peak at 2,596 metres in 15 minutes.

I visited the area in March 1997 as part of a 12 day exercise visiting hospitals operated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church in California to assess what assistance might be available by way of second hand equipment that could be used to upgrade services in Fijian Hospitals. The first port of call was to Loma Linda University located 95 km east of Los Angeles. Palm Springs is a further 80 km east on the way to Phoenix in Arizona via Highway 10. Having arrived in Los Angeles courtesy of Qantas, and dropping straight into a Hertz rental, what was between Los Angeles and Loma Linda was a bit of a blur. Just keeping on the correct side of the road was a major job. It was another 24 hours before I felt comfortable about driving on the wrong side of the road.

On Sunday as I drove with Stafford Ormsby to Palm Springs my eye focused on an extensive area of wind generators located on the ridge tops to the north of the highway. Then the valley started to close in with the heights of the San Jacinto Mountain looming large on the southern side of the Highway.

Palm Springs is called by locals "unquestionably the world's most famous desert playground". (1) It is located on the western edge of the Colorado Desert, with well known features a short drive away. Drive into the 800,000 acre Joshua Tree National Park, drop down literally to one of the resorts on the Salton Sea at 70 m below sea level, spend a few hours at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens where you can see close up and touch local desert animals. For the entertainment-minded there are a number of casinos and museums and the Palm Springs Walk of Stars that honours celebrities such as Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Cary Grant, Clarke Gable and Sonny Bono.

The mountain was the drawcard for this visit. Spring was at the door. The day was sunny but it was bound to be cold on top of the mountain with a temperature difference to the Palm Springs area of some 20o C. We were expecting to find plenty of snow, and to meet many happy campers heading off to the close-by nature trails and to the more demanding snowshoe and cross country tracks over and around the high country wilderness areas. We did.

It was some trip, nearly 4 km on the cables, climbing at an average grade of 26 degrees. The higher we went, the greater the view as we passed above the confines of the canyon walls. The cabin occupants (60 if memory serves me right) were looking over each other's shoulder to the north where we could see across to Death Valley in the distance and beyond. The rugged rocks of the Coachella Valley were also worth a look. In 2001 the aerial-tram cars were replaced with new cars carrying 80 passengers with a floor that slowly rotates during the trip, no doubt giving occupants a better view than the one we had. Still, the ride was comfortable with a little rumbling as the car mechanisms rolled over the towers. The dusting of snow on the ground on the way up turned into a full spread at the top of the tramway.

You have got to have faith in the structures and the cables. Cables sizes range from 40 mmm to75 mm. Total cable weight is 330 tons. The steel towers weigh 263 tons. Counterweights for the track cables weigh 120 tons each and those for the haul and counter ropes 67 tones each. All of the supplies for the restaurant and shop at the top of the ride are carried on the cars including drinking water which is carried in tanks under the car floor. The only other way to the top of the mountain is an over 2 hour track from Idyllwild to the south with no vehicle access. The operators put their money where their mouth is.

The Christchurch Gondola is quite a contrast though in principle identical. Running up to the rim of the Mt Cavendish Crater, each of the gondola cars provide seating for only 4 passengers. The ride is spectacular, lifting you gently up to 500m (1500ft) above sea level over the 945m ride. Stunning 360° views extend over Pegasus Bay and the Pacific Ocean to Kaikoura; over Banks Peninsula, Lake Ellesmere and Lyttleton Harbour, and across the Canterbury Plains to the Southern Alps. Mt Cavendish is part of the crater wall of the extinct volcano that formed Lyttleton Harbour,and the peak itself is one of the notable features that give the rugged skyline of the crater rim its dramatic quality. The Mount Cavendish Reserve displays some of the best examples of lava flow to be seen on the Port Hills.

Rather than ragged rocks under the cars, the hills are grass covered, softening the steep angles of the hills. There are walking trails in the vicinity, including one around the edge of the crater. As you are walking you can monitor the traffic as it flows toward and through the Christchurch-Lyttleton road tunnel below.

The gondola ride was about 10 minutes, though the system can run faster.

I had flown over to Christchurch in 1998 combining 2 activities - researching industrial property values in Christchurch and to see a mate who had been diagnosed with Lymphoma. Christchurch is not a big city and it was easy to move around to the various industrial property areas within the one day.  I had time to slip around to the gondola for a ride which would allow me to get a 3600  view of the city and the region.

A different place again is the Scenic Railway at Katoomba. Here are three attractions of which the Scenic Railway is the key (my assessment). "The Term 'Scenic Railway' dates back to late 19th century English amusement rides at funfairs and seaside amusement parks that were, by today's standards, very tame roller coasters. They consisted of a freely running carriage on rails that was raised to the top of a slope by various means, including horse drawn, pushed manually, or later, steam driven. The carriage, which carried 8 or 10 passengers, then rolled past a series of backdrops painted with exotic scenes - usually Swiss alpine, Egyptian Pyramids, jungle scenes with tigers, elephants and so on. Hence they were known as 'Scenic Railways'. The use of the term widened as time passed and by the 1930s was readily accepted as a name for what was to become the steepest incline railway in the world, at Scenic World, Katoomba." (2)

The railway was part of a development of the late 1800's to mine coal and kerosene shale from the Jamison and Megalong Valleys. An aerial ropeway was constructed across Jamison valley to bring kerosene shale from the Ruined Castle to the base of the railway. Sad to say, the ropeway collapsed after 6months and the ruins and cables can be seen today in various locations across the valley. The main efforts were at the Glen Shale Mine in Megalong Valley separated from the Jamison Valley by the Bullwark or Narrow Neck. Mining lasted until around 1895 with the shale operation being abandoned in 1903.

Coal mining began again in 1925 supplying coal to the Katoomba Electric Power House, but ran out of steam about 1933. In the late 1920's tourists began to arrive and after 1933 the railway was 100% devoted to tourism.  It is quite a ride, at its steepest part 52 degrees, dropping 178 metres for a track length of 415 metres. You depend on twin 54mm diameter cables for support and a 24mm dia  cable to haul the car over the tracks. For the first 20 metres of your trip you are lounging back in the seats, then you drop over the edge and are for the rest of the trip leaning forward into the back of the seat in front. The railway passes through a sandstone tunnel then the rock steps back to provide a lush rainforest gully background as you cast your eyes out over the Jamison Valley to Mt Solitary.

Adjacent to the Scenic Railway terminus is the Skyway. The Skyway opened in 1958, very much an amateur operation. It first used wire rope from the defunct Glen Shale Mine, cladding was marine ply painted bright pink, changing to bright yellow in 1970 when aluminium replaced the  plywood. Security was "guaranteed" by wire mesh above the low height side walls. The current vehicle features an Electro-Scenic glass floor. A simple switch and the centre section of the floor becomes transparent and you can watch the valley floor below. The ride crosses 720 metres of valley, 270 metres below the car.

Off to the other side of the Scenic Railway is the Cableway. The Cableway runs down into the valley with a slightly lower destination level than the Scenic Railway. This facility is the newest of the trio of rides opening in 2000.  The ride takes about 8 minutes and drops 215.5 metres at 39 degrees. The track ropes (2) are 57mm diameter. The haul rope 35 mm diameter. The Scenic Railway and Cableway both carry 84 passengers.

A pleasant trip is to drop into the valley on the Cableway, walk on "the Boardwalk" around to and then up the Railway or for the energetic, climb Furbers Stairs instead of riding the rail. I cannot remember the first time I visited the Scenic Railway, the last time was a few months ago when we took the energetic option to test our muscles.

Now, why think about cable cars, gondolas or rope-hauled and supported railways? Just this, that to step into one of these "vehicles" requires a heap of faith. Sure, there is a substantial wire rope providing both support and the means of movement, but things do happen and often in a different way to what you might have thought. In 1984 a bolt from a shock absorber on one of the Palm Springs Tramway cars snapped. A 30 pound piece of metal fell through the Plexiglass roofing and one passenger was killed.

A little research will remind you of the time that a USA fighter jet cut through the cables of an Italian aerial tramway and 20 people died. Yet we still take the risk and ride. We value the thrill of the ride, or maybe it's the only logical means of movement; to walk and climb may be too exhausting.

However, there is usually some support for our day to day faith exercises. WorkCover in New South Wales provides a back-up by way of test and inspection routines. Various tests occur to ensure that the load carrying capacity of the cables is as claimed, that the cables are in order without any failure of the wires forming the cable, that the operating mechanism, wheels and brakes perform to standards or specification.

Day to day faith exercises are but small steps - take a giant leap and

Have faith in God -
His might and power are vast;
Have faith in God -
Whose love will ever last;
Have faith in God -
Till night be overpassed.
Have faith, dear friend, in God (3)



1.  Things to do in Palm Springs, California. Villa Royale Inn   (Accessed 04.09.2010)

2.  Scenic World Blue Mountains Australia   (Accessed 23.11.2010)

3.  Voice of Prophecy Founder's Page  (Accessed 24.11.2010)

Palm Springs Tramway pictures courtesy of  (Accessed 4 September 2010)

Christchurch Gondola picture courtesy of Gondola Christchurch New Zealand  (Accessed 24.11.2010)

This article and the pictures it contains are Copyright © 2010 by John L Morris.  Used by permission.

Home > Online Magazine > Online Magazine: Edition 38 - December 2010 / January 2011 > Faith in the Cables (by John Morris)