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Floating in the thin air over La Paz

An innovative and unique cable car network was built in Bolivia – and tested by TÜV SÜD

The new “Mi Teleférico” spans not only a drop in elevation but a social divide, too. Located at an altitude of 1,200 meters, El Alto has a population that is 90 percent indigenous and plagued by poverty; by contrast, the city of La Paz in the valley below is more prosperous.
Photo: F1online

Major cities throughout the world are seeking future-oriented transportation solutions. In 2015, La Paz launched an efficient cable car project that could serve as an example and stimulus for other cities. 

Once complete, it will be the largest cable car project in the world. It will also serve as an example for a transportation concept that could catch on in major cities. In 2015, the Bolivian capital city of La Paz commissioned a cable car network featuring three lines and a total length of almost ten kilometers. Plans call for six more aerial tramways with a total length of 20 kilometers to be added by 2019.

Called the “Teleférico” by locals, it connects La Paz to the city of El Alto, which lies 1,200 meters above it. Approximately one million people live in both metropolises.

In the lower-income city of El Alto, located on a plateau at an elevation of 4,000 meters, more than 90 percent of the inhabitants are indigenous. In contrast, La Paz is more prosperous, boasts better weather, and has more fertile soil. La Paz is home to the country’s federal government and serves as its business center, whose residents enjoy a middle- to upper-class lifestyle. At a speed of 18 kilometers per hour, the cable car spans a visible social divide and the distance between two cities at different elevations. An initial ride makes clear why a cable car in La Paz is the ideal means of transportation. It carries its passengers over vertigo-inducing gorges and extremely rugged terrain. Other local public transportation, such as a subway or streetcars, would make no sense here. Getting from one city to the other by public transportation entails a journey of about 15 kilometers by road. Depending on the traffic, a minibus needs 40 minutes to an hour to make a one-way trip. Anyone attempting the trek on foot would require about three hours. By contrast, the cable car can whisk passengers from one end to the other in two minutes.

Doppelmayr, a well-known company based in Vorarlberg, Austria, and specializing in ropeway engineering, built the system and supplied all the technology, towers, and gondolas. TÜV SÜD experts Markus Spies and Thomas Schwab were on site in La Paz before the network was commissioned to inspect the cable cars on behalf of the manufacturer. In particular, they tested whether subsystems, such as the cable, gondolas, and brakes were properly rigged to function safely.

“La Paz lies at an elevation of about 4,000 meters and, for that reason, we had to take into consideration completely different factors than in alpine regions,” says Schwab. “At this elevation, the viscosity of the oil, or how it flows, changes dramatically.”

“At this elevation, the viscosity of the oil, or how it flows, changes dramatically.”

The extreme elevation also took a physical toll, explains Schwab, who suffered from severe headaches and appetite loss in the first several days. Both colleagues spent two weeks in La Paz. Since they worked at night so as not to interfere with the cable cars’ operations, they had time during the day to use the network themselves and explore the cities at both ends of the system.

The three lines have 11 stops, with a total of 443 gondolas en route at any one point in time. The network is also seeing the implementation of associated new technologies, such as interactive maps, noncash payment methods, and multimodal facilities in all stations. The term “multimodal” refers to parking lots, shuttle bus facilities, and bicycle locking stands. Cycling has always been a popular activity in the higher city of El Alto, but the chaotic traffic makes it quite dangerous. For that reason, plans are in place to build bicycle paths there in the near future.

The snow-covered, spectacular peak of Illimani at an elevation of almost 6,500 meters and towering high above La Paz and El Alto will probably never see a cable car system installed. The second-highest Andean mountain in Bolivia will remain a climber’s summit.