The Swiss know a thing or two about cable transport.
Graced by the majestic Alps, Switzerland is anything but flat. Steep mountains rise up to the sky across the landlocked European country, creating breathtaking vistas. And climbing all of those hills and mountains can also be breathtaking. To ease that burden, a variety of cable-based transport mechanisms have been installed across Switzerland: cable cars, gondolas, trams, chairlifts, and even buckets attached to a rope. Hundreds of aerial lifts rise up the mountains, with many open year-round.
Many of these aerial lifts operate on a common principle: some type of passenger vehicle is suspended in the air by a cable, which itself is suspended across tall towers planted firmly into the mountain. An engine rotates the cable, causing the vehicle to move up — and then down — the mountain between two or more loading/unloading stations.
As skiers, we’re intimately familiar with cable transport. Virtually every ski resort has at least one fixed grip chairlift, while many have more sophisticated high-speed lifts, capable of slowing down at loading stations and speeding up during the ascent and descent. Some resorts have enclosed (and sometimes heated) gondolas in place of open chairs, while others have higher-capacity trams that shuttle a crowd of people up the mountain all in one go. While all of these methods are capable of efficiently and safely transporting large numbers of passengers up and down significant vertical distances, they vary in their technology and design.
Located in the beautiful lakeside town of Lucerne, Switzerland, the Swiss Museum of Transport (Verkehrshaus der Schweiz, or literally “Transportation House of Switzerland”) is a modern, captivating museum that highlights different modes of transportation used throughout Switzerland, with a focus on trains, automobiles, ships, and airplanes. But the museum, fittingly, also has a section dedicated entirely to cable transport, which will be of particular interest to passionate skiers and snowboarders.
The museum traces through cable transport from the early days to modern times, showing how the engineering of lift systems has evolved. You can see an example of early hand-operated cableways (some of which are still used in private settings in Switzerland), up to modern systems that are computer-controlled and loaded with electronic sensors.
Cable-based aerial lifts are all dependent on — of course — the cable itself, and the technology for cables has evolved over time, beginning with natural fiber ropes and moving to much stronger steel-based cables, consisting of hundreds of woven steel strands. The museum has examples of aerial cables you can feel and touch, including the most common types of steel cables used today on your favorite chairlifts. Newer cables weave plastic strands into the steel cables, increasing their resilience and lifespan and also presenting the opportunity to sneak data and electric feeds directly into the cables. The museum describes the relative strengths of each cable type, along with how they are manufactured.
There are many examples of the passenger vehicles that attach to these cables as well, from uncomfortable wooden boards you sit on up to modern gondola cabins. In fact, an example lift tower is located outside of the museum, with a modern gondola hanging from it; you can exit a door from the exhibit and step into the suspended gondola, pretending you are on the way to make some first tracks.
There are working models of lifts, showcasing the different techniques used to transport the vehicles up and down. A cabin from the Wetterhorn Elevator, a tramway installed in Switzerland in 1908, is housed at the exhibit, along with a section of the old Grindelwald-Männlichen gondola cableway. The museum also includes a model of a modern high-speed gondola, showing how the chairs detach from a constant-speed cable and decelerate through a series of rubber tires as they enter the lift station, enabling both faster speeds up the mountain and more comfortable loading and unloading for passengers.
If you’ve ever been curious about the maintenance required to keep lifts running at their best, exhibits at the museum delve into this topic. One exhibit describes how minor defects in a cable can be detected electronically during regular inspections using a special device that injects electricity through the cable. With cables under enormous tension and running continuously day in and day out, wear and tear is inevitable; all cables must be repaired or replaced eventually. The museum describes how this complex process is performed.
Switzerland is known for having perhaps the best public transportation system in the world, and the museum provides an in-depth look at all of the main categories of transportation, with particular attention paid to trains. One could spend several days wandering through the detailed exhibits. A special treat greets visitors near the aerial lift section: a piece of kinetic art that highlights popular themes of Switzerland including cows, clocks, and chocolate.
Once you’ve absorbed the history and technology of aerial lifts at the museum, you can of course sample real-world examples right near Lucerne. A quick bus ride takes you to the base of Mount Pilatus, a 6,983-foot peak overlooking the town. To reach the top, you can hike (although that’s quite a demanding hike, even for world-class athletes), or you can take a combination of a gondola and tramway. For the return trip (or vice-versa), you can opt to take the Pilatus Railway, the world’s steepest cogwheel railway that uses a toothed rack rail between parallel rails to help the train climb up and down grades that reach as high as 48%.
And Mount Pilatus is only one of numerous tall peaks within sight of Lucerne, with many offering cable-based lifts to get to and from the peak.
If you find yourself in Lucerne, the Swiss Museum of Transport is well worth a visit. It’s about a 30-minute scenic walk from city center, or you can take a 10-minute boat ride to reach it. In addition to the main museum, add-on options include a Planetarium and the Swiss Chocolate Adventure, a multimedia-heavy, trackless ride that takes guests through the process of making chocolate, complete with samples. In 2023, the price to enter the museum was 35 Swiss Francs, with substantial discounts provided to students, children, and holders of the Swiss Travel Pass.
M. Scott Smith is the founder and Editor of DCSki. Scott loves outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, kayaking, skiing, and mountain biking. He is an avid photographer and writer.
I've long wanted to visit the Alps, not necessarily to ski but to see. From your report, it looks like the Luzerne area alone would easily reward a five-day visit. Several hours or maybe a whole day for the Swiss Museum of Transport, for starters. I had no idea this museum existed, let alone that it's the most visited museum in Switzerland.
Thanks for the descriptions, photos, and practical tips.