California tram is engineering marvel

Posted on May 1, 2001

The aerial tramway at Palm Springs, Calif., is one of three such in the world, and an engineering marvel. It whisks riders from the floor of the Great Sonoran Desert at 2,643 feet to the top at 8,516 feet in about 15 minutes. The ascent then is 5,873 feet in 12,800 feet traveled, hugging the mountain most of the way. Each of two cars of the new tram, which began service last September, holds 80 passengers and an operator. The cars get crowded. I tried counting the large passenger load on the way up, but it was impossible. There were many passengers. Counting is difficult for two reasons: There are no seats and the cars spin so everyone gets a good look out the spacious windows. I got a good look only by smooshing small children out of my way. The big excitement on the way up was when the cable passed near a tower, there was a quick bump and grind and all the passengers yelled “YEEEEE-haw,” which I thought sounded a bit strange for a passenger load that appeared mostly foreign. Must be TV. These are billed as the world’s largest operating tram cars. The Rotair model was manufactured by CWA Construction in Olten, Switzerland. Each car cost $480,000. It is 18 feet in diameter, eight feet high inside and carries 13,000 pounds of passengers or cargo. The car weighs 22,000 pounds. There are one or two rotations per trip. Other Rotairs are in Titlis in Engelberg, Switzerland, and Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa. The first tram that ran in Palm Springs was in 1963 and was from Van Roll Tramways of Thun, Switzerland, now Dopplemayr Tramways. The company completed the $7.4 million project which included new cables, five towers and new cabins. Total cost of refurbishing, including additional rock removal, was $12 million. Average gradient for the cars is 26 degrees; maximum is 42. The car has a three-phase regenerative DC SCR. Maximum output of DC hoist motor is 1,100 horsepower (HP) at 1,350 KW. Continuous output is 675 HP at 855 KW. The tallest of the five towers is 228 feet. Maximum span between towers is 3,455 feet. Weight of steel of the five towers is 263 tons. The weight of the 11 cables combined is 330 tons. Horizontal distance between center lines of the cabins when passing is 34 feet, and it does happen very quickly. The ride, $20.25 for adults round trip, was boring. Narration on the way up consisted of more information on height of the towers, which we had seen several times already. Narration on the way down went like this: Narrator Kerry: “Notice those guys working on top of the tower.” Me: “Impressive. What kind of pay do those guys get?” K: “A little more than minimum wage.” M: “Well, can you tell us something about the many climate zones we’re passing through?” K: “We don’t do narration on the way down, but that’s the Sonoran Desert below us.” Well, excuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuse me! The food at the top was okay, and a bit pricey as expected. The slide show was exceptionally dorky. The gift shop was nice. The tram does open up a whole wilder-ness around Mt. San Jacinto, which tops out at 10,804 feet, and where there are great year-round activities. I talked to a gentleman volunteer, 73, in a visitor center and he was telling us about the mountain lion, 85 lbs. or so, he had seen while he was hiking by himself earlier in the week, and the mama bear nosing her cub up a tree the same week. That tale made the trip for me. He should find himself a hiking partner.

— Lenny Levine

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