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Articles > Roosevelt Island Tramway

Flying over Manhattan
on the Roosevelt Island Tramway

The First Aerial Tramway Used for Mass Transit in the U.S.

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the Roosevelt Island Tramway, which extends 3,100 feet across the East River in New York City. Frequented by commuters and sightseers alike, it connects the Upper East Side to the narrow stretch of land named Roosevelt Island in Manhattan.

By Barbara Spencer

Published in Rope News & Sling Technology February 2017

The Roosevelt Island Tramway, the first aerial tramway used for Mass Transit in the U.S.
The Roosevelt Island Tramway, the first aerial tramway used for Mass Transit in the U.S.,
travels parallel to the Queensboro Bridge, crossing the East River in New York City. (Courtesy Leitner-Poma)

On a sunny, warm October day, a small group gathers to embark on the approaching cabin of the Roosevelt Island Tramway. Meanwhile, envious drivers travelling over the Queensboro Bridge between 59th and 60th Street in Manhattan sit in bumper to bumper traffic. There, off to their right, they catch a glimpse of the bright red tram cabin. For a $2.50 debit on your MetroCard (the same as a subway ride) you can enjoy a pleasantly short ride (less than five minutes) in what some New Yorkers call “the bubble.” Actually, there are two “bubbles,” which run at fifteen-minute intervals daily and continuously during rush hour.

Although each tram cabin can accommodate about 110 people, 70 or so board the tram on this early weekend afternoon. Those with cameras jostle to get a view out the front window as the doors close. But the cabin has windows on all four sides, offering 360 degree views for those more interested in just enjoying a few moments away from the busy city streets.

Roosevelt Island Tram riders in cabin.
Riders in one cabin view the other as the two cabins pass. For added safety, the Roosevelt Island Tramway is a “dual-haul”
or “to and fro” system, meaning that the two carriers can travel independently of one another. (Photo by Barbara Spencer)

Propelling along track ropes

Roosevelt Island Tram riders in cabin.
The track rope spool. The tram travels along two stationary track ropes, which
are attached at one terminal and tensioned by counterweights at the other.
(Courtesy Leitner-Poma)

The Roosevelt Island Tram is a ‘to and fro’ ropeway, which means there are two carriers that run independently of one another. It differs from a typical ski tramway’s ‘reversible,’ or ‘jig back,’ design, where the two cabins move with one drive system. Each of the two carriers are comprised of a carrier cabin, which houses the passengers, a hanger, and the carriage (the wheel assembly that attaches the cabin to the rope). The carriage wheels evenly distribute the weight of the carrier across the rope. The rope system for the carriers consists of the haul rope and track ropes. The track ropes, which are stationary, are attached at one terminal and tensioned by counterweights at the other. The carriers, attached to the haul rope, propel along the track ropes.

Terminals at either end of the ropeway power the ropes. One is the drive terminal and the other is the return terminal. Each terminal houses a huge bull wheel which moves the haul rope (the rope that moves the carrier). The drive terminal’s bull wheel is attached to the main power unit, which operates the ropeway. During their short journeys, both carriers travel over three towers, which support the haul ropes and track ropes between terminals. The towers have guides to keep the carriers from hitting them or other objects.

A new tram, an island reborn

track roaps.
The cabin carriage rides on track ropes. The carriage wheels evenly distribute
the weight of the carrier across the rope. (Courtesy Leitner-Poma)

Ropeways have been used in the U.S. since the mid-1800s by mining operations out West to transport materials. But tramways for passenger transport weren’t built until the 1890s. In 1893 a 16-passenger carrier reversible ropeway was constructed across the Tennessee River in Knoxville. The Niagara Falls tramway, which still operates today, was built in 1912.

The first double reversible tramway was built in 1938 on Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire for skiers and tourists. The idea of transporting skiers up the mountain by ropeways took hold quickly, but resort operators needed cheaper solutions for transporting people up the slopes. Chair lifts were devised, and in 1946 the first fixed-grip double-chair continuous ropeway was introduced. After that, the popularity of skiing and sales of ski lifts exploded. (Dwyer, Charles, OITAF 1988)

track roaps.
The Manhattan Station track rope saddles. (Courtesy Leitner-Poma)

The Roosevelt Island aerial tramway was the first used for mass transit in the U.S. It opened to the public in May, 1976, when Roosevelt Island was experiencing a rebirth. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the island had been a receptacle for society’s cast-offs. At various times, it had housed a penitentiary, a lunatic asylum, a workhouse and a small pox hospital. In the 1970s the city saw a promising future for the island, with the construction of new businesses and residences. The plan was to use it until the F train subway station could be built on the island. The tramway would then be used only as a tourist attraction. But the station wasn’t completed until 1989, and by then the tram had become a New York City institution. Today it is still used by many to commute between the island and Manhattan, as well as by tourists.

Leitner-Poma modernizes tram

With a slight bump, the carrier transports its riders smoothly skyward to its maximum height of 250 feet. Travelling less than 20 miles per hour along a route that follows the north side of the Queensboro Bridge, they have ample time to enjoy the views of the East River below, the East Side of Midtown Manhattan and Roosevelt Island.

Although there are no worries of breakdowns on this sunny afternoon, during a spring evening ten years ago, that happened. On April 18, 2006 at about 5pm, the two trams stalled over the East River for seven hours, trapping 69 people. Travelers were rescued by baskets which could hold up to 15 people. Each rescue took 20 minutes. The baskets also carried supplies such as blankets, baby formula and food for the passengers still waiting to be saved. This was the second incident. Eight months before, the tram had lost power, leaving about 80 people trapped for 90 minutes. State inspectors cited the Roosevelt Island Tramway for not having an operational diesel backup, or motor-generator system.

In 2010, the tramway closed for renovations – a $25 million project to upgrade and modernize the system. With the help of Leitner-Poma, all components except the three tower bases were replaced. One key improvement is that the new tram cables and cars now operate independently, in a “dual-haul” system. This ensures ease of maintenance and emergency response. Also, cabins are now equipped with blankets, water, food, and a toilet with a privacy curtain. And car attendants carry a cell phone with their radios.

Roosevelt Island Tram riders in cabin.
The Roosevelt Island Tramway has two sets of motors and a completely
separate backup evacuation bull wheel. In case of emergency, the haul rope
can be moved from the primary bull wheel to the evacuation bull wheel in minutes.
(Photo by Barbara Spencer)

Jon Mauch, Sr. Sales Manager of Leitner-Poma, emphasizes the importance of what he calls the tramway’s “built-in redundancies.” “In a ‘dual-haul’ or ‘to and fro’ system, each unit runs separately so that we can work on one unit at a time, making it much less likely that the whole system will need to be shut down,” says Mauch. “Also, there are two sets of motors and a completely separate backup evacuation bull wheel. In a matter of minutes, we can move the haul rope from the primary bull wheel to the evacuation bull wheel. With this system, there is no need for a ground-based rescue.”

“To ensure safety, the maintenance staff does a cursory inspection every morning, and a detailed inspection once a month,” says Mauch. The tram’s 6 strand haul rope is tested twice a year with built-in magnetic wire rope testing equipment located in the station. Outside inspectors test the “z” lock track strand regularly.

A better people mover

In Manhattan, millions of people depend on mass transportation daily. On weekdays, the population swells from 1.6 million to 4 million during the morning rush. More than 55% of the commuters use public transportation to move around this 22.96 square-mile borough. When disasters strike, getting mass transit back up and running is key.

Because the tramway transports passengers above the ground, it is often the first mass transit system to move people after major catastrophes, according to Mauch.

“This tram has alpine cousins,” reminds Mauch. Trams are designed for tough weather conditions. And the Roosevelt Island Tram has a wide gauge design, which gives it even more stability than a conventional tram. That allows it to remain in operation in rough weather and higher winds.

“For instance, the tramway was the first mass transit system that was back up and running after Hurricane Sandy struck the city on October 29, 2012,” Mauch says. “There was some flooding in the stations, but it was operating within a few hours.”

Easy way to visit the island

About 14,000 residents live on Manhattan’s two-mile-long island. Despite its diminutive size, Roosevelt Island boasts a pleasing choice of attractive restaurants, as well as a large grocery store, emergency clinic, and nursing home. Construction is underway for the technology campus of Cornell University.

If you want to stay awhile rather than hurry back to the mainland, it’s fun to walk around – or even ride your bike or scooter. From the tram station, it’s a 10-minute walk to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park (the first memorial dedicated to the president in his home state of New York), located at the southern tip of the island. Nearby are the ruins of the smallpox hospital. Walk back to the tram station, and continue walking for another 20 minutes north to see the North Point Lighthouse. If you’re not in the mood to travel by foot, free shuttles circle the island frequently.

Since the island subway station opened in 1989, ridership on the tram has declined. But for many island residents and visitors, the choice is easy: for a mere $2.50 they can get a respite from New York hustle, and take a short, easy flight on the Roosevelt Island Tramway.

Roosevelt Island Tram riders in cabin.
In less than five minutes, the tramway takes passengers from the busy Manhattan mainland to picturesque Roosevelt Island. (Photo by Barbara Spencer)

About Leitner-Poma

Leitner-Poma of America offers a complete line of cable transport systems, including surface lifts, chairlifts, gondolas, MiniMetro ® urban transport, trams, inclined elevators, industrial trams, etc. Their worldwide network has installed more than eight thousand transportation systems, in sixty-one countries, safely transporting eight million passengers each hour. Leitner was founded by Gabriel Leitner in 1888. The company built the second reversible ropeway in the world (Kohlererbahn) in 1910.

POMA came to Colorado in the early 1950s under the name of Pomalift, Inc., and has maintained a continuous presence in the United States for almost 50 years. From that start, the word “Pomalift” became synonymous with platter type surface lifts, a cable system most often used on beginner ski slopes by skiers and snowboarders where riders remain on the ground as they are pulled uphill.

Leitner-Poma of America, Inc. is a North American subsidiary of Pomagalski S.A., a corporation with headquarters in Voreppe, France and Leitner Technologies, a corporation with headquarters in Sterzing, Italy. Leitner – Poma of America engineers, manufactures, installs and services all types of ropeway systems for the ski industry, amusement parks, and urban transport

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