No cable car in Tirol has a larger transport capacity than the Giggijochbahn in Sölden in the Ötztal Valley. It is able to carry up to 4,500 people per hour – a world record. Head engineer Thomas Santer tells us about the technology behind this record-breaking gondola.
It’s still pitch black as we drive through the Ötztal Valley on the way to the resort of Sölden. Head lift engineer Thomas Santer has arranged to meet us at 6:30am. Why the early start? “Then you will get the best pictures when things swing into action,” he promises us a few days earlier on the phone. We are as good as our word and arrive on time, keen to find out what there is too see at this time in the morning.
Thomas is waiting for us in front of the elegant new cable car station in the middle of the village. “The station was designed to make it as easy as possible for guests to access the cable car,” he explains. “It was a really challenge, because here in the village there is only a limited amount of space available.” We take the first gondola of the day and are surprised by how smooth the journey is on this single-wire system – almost as smooth more modern triple-wire systems. Another pleasant surprise is the amount of space we have inside the gondola – 20 centimetres more than in similar ten-man cabins. Nevertheless, we somehow can’t escape the feeling that there is something missing – until we suddenly realise that our gondola is the only one on the wire! The remaining 133 are stored not at the bottom station down in the village but at the top station, 920 vertical metres further up on the mountain. When we arrive at the top Thomas gives us 10 minutes to find the best place to film and then flicks the switch which sets the precisely choreographed early-morning dance of the gondolas in motion. As the sun rises over the horizon, the mountains reflect in the windows of the many cabins. We are almost hypnotised and can’t stop filming. After 20 minutes the show is over and all the cabins are attached to the wire.
It is then time to head back down into the valley. Thomas wants to show us the innovative system for accessing the cable car. “It is essential that guests can get on and off the lift quickly and easily,” he explains, “because the Giggijochbahn transports more than 60% of the skiers and snowboarders to the resort. The old cable car was at its limit, especially on busy days.”
We prepare ourselves for the usual ritual of pushing and shoving, but things are actually incredibly calm. There are lots of skiers and boarders using the lift, yet there are no hold-ups or bottle necks. After buying the lift pass on the ground floor, guests take either the escalator or lift to the first floor where five gondolas are waiting to be filled. Time, we decide, for classic time-lapse shot of people getting on and off!
As we set up the camera in the motor room directly above, Thomas tells us about the innovations the new cable car has brought. “This is the first cable car using a wire with a diameter of 62mm. That means we also needed completely new rollers and a new system for attaching the cabins to the wire. This is the only way we are able to have such a smooth journey at such high speeds, even when the wind is blowing.”
Once the initial rush of people has died down, we get onto the lift and ride back up to the top. On the way, Thomas tells us more about the technology behind the cable car’s record-breaking transport capacity of 4,500 people per hour. “First of all, the cabins are just 52 metres apart on the wire – that is a lot shorter than on most similar cable cars. Second, our transport speed of 6.5 metres per second is the fastest of any single-wire cable car, which makes it possible to travel the 920 vertical metres from bottom to top in less than nine minutes. Third, there is the fact that the lift stations in the village and at the top of the mountain are both very large – three times longer, in fact, than normal stations. Guests have 40 seconds to get on the cable car, which means we are able to fill each cabin to capacity.” As we arrive at the top, Thomas points out that the area where guests disembark is shaped like a bone – narrow in the middle, becoming wider at the end. No other ski resort uses a concept like this. Though as many as ten cabins line up at any one time, passengers have plenty of time to get off without hurrying.
We follow Thomas into the engine room. With a mixture of pride and respect he shows us the largest cable car engine ever built, a 16-tonne giant driven by four electric motors each producing 630kW. The heat generated by the motors, the gears and the electric circuits is collected and used to heat the building.
The time has come to say goodbye to Thomas and settle down in the sun on the terrace of the Wirtshaus Giggijoch. Our heads are still spinning with numbers and superlatives. With the construction of the Giggijochbahn, cable car technology has reached a point where it is genuinely worth asking if it makes sense to build gondolas which are even more comfortable and even faster. We soon realise, however, that people have been asking themselves this same question for decades. This iteration of the Giggijochbahn, for example, is the third cable car to be built on this site – each one faster and modern than its predecessor. We stay sitting in the sun for a long time and watch as the gondolas arrive and depart over and over again. Our next stop is the Pitztal Glacier, where we will be visiting Austria’s highest cable car: the Wildspitzbahn.
The invention of lifts and cable cars has made many mountains accessible to everyone, not just hikers and climbers. In this series we showcase six extraordinary cable cars in Tirol, each unique in its own individual way.