Feature Story
Going Further Afield: The Swiss Transport Museum in Lucerne, Switzerland 2
Author thumbnail By M. Scott Smith, DCSki Editor

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.

Aerial lifts are a common sight in the mountains of Switzerland. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

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.

In Switzerland, you can often transit from one town to another using nothing but aerial lifts. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

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.

Located on the banks of Lake Lucerne, the Swiss Museum of Transport is the most-visited museum in Switzerland. Photo by Verkehrshaus.

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.

This modern tram, installed in 2013, connects the Arosa and Lenzerheide ski areas in Switzerland. It features two independent cables that allow two trams to operate independently of each other. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

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.

Examples of three steel cable designs used in modern lifts. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

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.

Guests can board a modern gondola cabin at the museum, but don’t expect it to go anywhere. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

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.

A working model shows how high-speed chairlifts work, using a series of tires rotating at different speeds to accelerate or decelerate a chair as it arrives or departs a station. Once the chair leaves the station, a spring-loaded clamp grabs onto the high-speed cable. Photo by M. Scott Smith.
For many years, chairlifts could only go in nearly straight lines. The museum includes an example of an ingenious design that removed this restriction, connecting a chair to two cables via double wheels that could pivot to rotate around corners. Photo by M. Scott Smith.
A working model of an aerial tramway. Photo by M. Scott Smith.
Examples of different aerial cabins. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

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.

Lift technicians perform maintenance on a lift at the Arosa ski area in August, 2023. Photo by M. Scott Smith.
An example of the equipment worn by lift technicians. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

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.

The Swiss Museum of Transport can be reached from downtown Lucerne by a scenic 30-minute stroll along the shores of Lake Lucerne, or a 10-minute boat ride. Photo by M. Scott Smith.
Aerial cables stretch across the Swiss mountainside. Photo by M. Scott Smith.
Many lifts in Switzerland, such as this gondola at the Arosa ski area, operate year-round, although typically close for a period in spring or fall for annual maintenance. Photo by M. Scott Smith.
About M. Scott Smith

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.

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Reader Comments

bousquet19 - DCSki Supporter 
9 months ago
Member since 02/23/2006 🔗
780 posts

Fascinating, Scott!

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.

Woody

Scott - DCSki Editor
9 months ago
Member since 10/10/1999 🔗
1,251 posts
I'm glad you enjoyed the story Woody!  Switzerland is amazing.  I don't know if I could narrow it down to just one area to visit.  There is such diversity.  But, the Luzerne area is certainly a great place.  If you do start to plan a trip to Switzerland, feel free to ping me; I'd be happy to offer tips or answer questions.  I might post some more photos I've been shooting in the forums.

Ski and Tell

Snowcat got your tongue?

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