Small ropeways like the Palfries Cable Car are a typical feature of the Swiss countryside
Photo: Roman Gric
Tourism Summer in the mountains New ropeways


Small ropeways for the tourist trade

Small ropeways with cantonal operating permits are typical of many Swiss farms and mountain communities and often their only means of transport. With their simple and functional design and versatility, they have become a part of the Swiss identity. ISR has visited two small ropeways in Canton St. Gallen and one in Grisons.

Created by Roman Gric

Ragnatsch – Palfries

When Mussolini (1926) and Hitler (1933) came to power in Switzerland’s neighboring countries, and France built new fortifications to protect its borders, Sargans Fortress was upgraded to become the third national fortress after Saint-Maurice and St. Gotthard. The Palfries plateau forms part of Sargans Fortress, which was constructed to protect the Rhine Valley starting in 1938 and especially during the Second World War. In 1941, in order to supply the troops stationed there, a reversible aerial tramway was built by the Ragnatsch local authority (municipality of Mels). Like many military ropeways in Switzerland, it was engineered by the Oehler company in Aarau.

After the Second World War a proposal was made to continue to operate the ropeway for private passenger transportation. When negotiations with the interested parties in the local community finally failed, the installation was handed over to the 13th Fortress Guard Company on February 1, 1947, and public services were discontinued “until further notice”, which ultimately meant a period of almost 70 years. The ropeway remained in operation, however, as the area was used in the following decades as a training ground for the military. The advantage of that decision was that the Palfries reversible was kept in good condition. In 1980 the system was refurbished by the Garaventa company and two new carriages and hangers installed, each of them carrying a ten-seater cabin manufactured by Gangloff. The work also included the replacement of all the sheave trains and the entire drive assembly (motor, gearbox and brakes) in the bottom station.

New developments in international military doctrine in the early 1990s led to a change in strategy in Switzerland, too. The Alp Palfries area was declared unsuitable for infantry exercises, and military operation of the railway ceased in 1998. Unlike other military ropeways, the question of the liquidation of the Palfries reversible did not arise; the army found a buyer, namely the Palfries Cableway Cooperative, which was established to resume services for civil operations, i.e. tourism. However, it was then another 17 years before the many obstacles could be overcome and various modifications implemented to the specifications of the IKSS (Intercantonal Concordat for Cableways and Ski Lifts). It was only thanks to the tenacity and persistence of local idealists and the ropeway expert Reto Canale that the Palfries Cable Car was issued with a cantonal operating permit on November 4, 2015 and opened to the public on May 28, 2016. Above all, the renaissance of the reversible was only possible because of the countless hours of unpaid work performed by dozens of enthusiasts. Even today, the operation and maintenance of the reversible is in the hands of a team of 70 members of the Palfries Cableway Cooperative, who do all the work in their own free time and without pay.

The bottom station in Ragnatsch in the Seez Valley is well served by public transport. It is a concrete building painted in a camouflage finish. The top station is also a concrete structure with a flat roof and is built into the slope at the back. The two track ropes have socket connections to counterweights in the bottom station, while the tensioning system for the haul rope is in the top station, with the counterweight located in a tower standing in front of the actual station. With a length of more than 3 km, the line has nine lattice towers with pivoting track rope shoes. In 2019, the control system was refurbished by Frey AG of Stans. The power supply for the controls in the top station is provided by photovoltaic cells and batteries.

The ropeway offers access to an extremely attractive local recreation area with various walks and a cosy mountain inn. Although transport capacity is low, total rideage is almost 16,000 a year. Advanced booking is essential in fine weather especially. The Palfries Cable Car uses its own classic Edmondson card tickets, which many visitors take home with them as a little souvenir of their trip. For some visitors today, the ride on this ropeway evokes memories of their military service.

Photo: Roman Gric
With a finish that resembling camouflage, the Palfries Cable Car cannot deny its military origins.
Photo: Roman Gric
Photo: Roman Gric
The cabin of the Palfries Cable Car near the top station
Photo: Roman Gric

Technical Data

Ragnatsch – Palfries 8-seater reversible, Canton St. Gallen

Elevation of bottom station475 m
Elevation of top station1,723 m
Line length3,043 m
Vertical difference1,248 m
Number of towers9
Track rope diameter30 mm
Haul rope diameter21 mm
Track rope tensioningbottom station
Haul rope tensioningtop station
Rated output110 kW
Maximum line speed5.0 m/s
Transit time11 min
Rated transport capacity32 P/h
Manufacturer, year of commissioningOehler, Aarau, 1941
RefurbishmentGaraventa, 1980
ControlsFrey AG Stans

Malans – Älpli

The history of the Älpli Cable Car is not unlike that of the Palfries Cable Car: The decisive factor was the interest of the military in transporting supplies for troops stationed in the area of the Rätikon mountain chain. In particular, the Swiss army offered to pay 90% of the cost of construction. The municipality of Malans also approved the construction of a ropeway to transport both timber and passengers and agreed to contribute 10% of the costs. A material-handling ropeway was first erected for the project, and it was also used for the construction of the gallery behind the top station on the Älpli. The ropeway was then built between 1939 and 1941. For reasons of safety, it was initially only used for military purposes.

Following the completion of a number of modifications, a permit was issued for civilian operations in September 1945. In addition to tourist traffic, it was used to transport milk from the alpine pastures and occasionally to carry timber and various materials. It was the first licensed aerial tramway in Canton Grisons and, with a line length of 3.5 km, it was one of the longest in Switzerland.

The ropeway was very popular as a tourist attraction until it had to close in 1973 because of the need for major improvements. Due to the low transport capacity of 16 pph, revenues were too low to cover the high capital costs of refurbishment. After a seven-year shutdown, with no solution to the problem of finance found, demolition was proposed in 1980.

That is when a dedicated group of Älpli Cable Car fans arrived on the scene. In December 1980 they founded an association and later a cooperative, which raised the necessary capital for the refurbishment. The local people were also keen to help, and share certificates for a total of CHF 550,000 were subscribed in no time at all. Even the military and major ropeway operators offered their support.

The refurbishment project involved the replacement of the track and haul ropes, the track rope saddles and sheave trains, and the haul rope return sheave in the top station. A new drive with modern controls was also installed. The work was done by Bartholet Maschinenbau of Flums. For the refurbishment, the various components were dimensioned to permit transport capacity to be doubled to 32 pph at a later date. In addition to the electromechanical components, a lot of construction work was also necessary. Between 1980 and 1981, that work was done by up to 40 volunteers, who sacrificed their Saturdays and performed over 6,000 hours of unpaid work. Even after the resumption of services on July 17, 1982, there was still plenty of work to be done, including refurbishment of the towers and construction of a roof and avalanche protection structures for the top station.

The ropeway only operates in summer. At weekends in particular, the Achilles’ heel of the railway soon became apparent again following recommissioning, namely its low transport capacity. In order to double it to 32 pph, the system was upgraded before its eighth summer season in 1989 for operation with 2 x 2 4-seater cabins.

The ropeway has thirteen towers for an impressive 1,200 meters of vertical. The ride up gradually reveals a spectacular view of the whole of the Chur Rhine Valley. Most visitors come to enjoy the walking. The classic route is the ascent of the 2,376 m high Vilans, which takes about two hours from the top station. The limited transport capacity of the ropeway has a positive side-effect: Even in the most beautiful weather the Älpliis never overcrowded.

Up to 200 volunteers – operators, a group for construction and maintenance work, and the team in the mountain restaurant at the top station – continue to work to keep the ropeway and restaurant running. With such committed helpers, the Älpli Cable Carin Malans has a long life to look forward to!

Technical Data

Malans – Älpli bicable reversible gondola, Canton Grisons

Elevation of bottom station605 m
Elevation of top station1,802 m
Line length3,482 m
Vertical difference1,197 m
Number of cabins2 x 2 4-seater cabins
Number of towers13
Track rope diameter26 mm
Haul and tail rope diameter18 mm
Drivebottom station
Haul rope tensioningtop station
Rated output58 kW
Maximum line speed5,0 m/s
Transit time14 min
Rated transport capacity32 pph
Manufacturer, year of commissioningNiederberger, 1941
RefurbishmentBartholet Maschinenbau AG, 1982, 1989
RopesCIS - Schweizerische Seilindustrie
ControlsFrey AG Stans


Flums Saxli – Schönhalden

Back in 1945, the first aerial ropeway on the Flums Kleinberg led from the bottom station in Flums Portels to the Schönhalden Kurhaus with a carrier in the form of a simple box. Like most small material-handling ropeways at that time, it was also occasionally used illegally to carry passengers. Four years later, in 1949, a real passenger ropeway was built to serve Schönhalden from Flums Saxli using components from Italian army stocks. It was a two-cable tandem reversible aerial ropeway with open carriers, which were later replaced with enclosed cabins (2 x 2 two-seater cabins). In addition to the normal ticket, passengers also received a voucher worth 90 centimes to pay for a coffee at Schönhalden, as the installation was only licensed for hotel guests. With a few improvements, this ropeway continued to serve the mountain-top hotel until 1976.

In 1976, it was replaced by a reversible monocable system with 2 x 2 4-seater cabins, the first ropeway to be built by Bartholet Maschinenbau AG of Flums, which is now a globally operating company. The towers, which are still in use today, were taken from the first Pizol Cable Car in Wangs, the ropeway that used the unusual Oehler detachable carrier system, with fingers at regular intervals on the rope for carrier attachment using hooks. While the first Saxli ropeway was operated manually in the bottom station, today’s automatically controlled system is operated from the top station, with a telephone located in the bottom station for passengers to request an uphill ride. The bottom station is now remotely monitored in the top station on a display connected via a WLAN radio relay link. The 70 kW drive, a replacement installed in 1998, is located in the bottom station, while the carrying-hauling rope is tensioned at the top with a 24 t counterweight. In 2003 a fire broke out in the top station, after which the building was replaced by a concrete structure. In 2014 the bottom station was refurbished by the Bartholet company and its apprentices. The carrying-hauling rope was good for a total of about 180,000 trips over a 41 year period from 1976 to 2017 before it was replaced in the course of a general overhaul.

The ropeway is open in summer and winter, as is the Hotel Schönhalden, which stands next to the top station. For the last 25 years the restaurant and hotel have been run by Reto and Priska Flury. In April 2015 a fire broke out in the hotel. Fortunately there were no guests in the hotel at the time; only the landlady was in the building. She immediately alerted the fire brigade, but because of the snow, the emergency services could not reach the burning hotel with their vehicles. It took two helicopters and about 100 firefighters to finally extinguish the blaze, but by then the hotel was gutted. It was a timber building more than a hundred years old, with 50 beds in 21 rooms. The ropeway was not affected by the fire.

It was only thanks to the tenacity of Reto and Priska Flury and the effective help of the insurance company that the mountain hotel and restaurant could be completely rebuilt, furnished and reopened on May 16, 2017 – smaller but more modern. It now has direct barrier-free covered access from the top station of the cable car, and two of the hotel’s twelve rooms are suitable for handicapped persons. The new hotel also has a seminar room with seating for 15 participants. Today, this wonderful location with its unique views is popular with hikers, paragliders, cyclists and holiday makers who simply want some peace and quiet. The Schönhalden is an ideal choice for those looking for an alternative to mass tourism.

Technical Data

Flums Saxli – Schönhalden monocable reversible gondola, Canton St. Gallen

Elevation of bottom station639 m
Elevation of top station1,486 m
Line length2,407 m
Vertical difference847 m
Number of cabins2 x 2 4-seater cabins
Number of towers14
Drivebottom station
Tensioning systemtop station
Rated output70 kW
Maximum line speed4.0 m/s
Transit time10 min
Rated transport capacity47 pph
Year of commissioning1949
RefurbishmentBartholet Maschinenbau AG, 1976
CabinsLorünser, Schlins (Vorarlberg)

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