What is Pakistan’s homemade cable car system?

Pakistani's sit on a makeshift cable car to cross a river to get to their home in 2007
Image caption,There are many different designs of the makeshift cable cars (file image from 2007)

By Farhat Javed in Islamabad & Antoinette Radford in London

BBC News

Eight people, including children, were left stranded in a cable car dangling above a ravine in Pakistan’s north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Tuesday.

Footage of the chair lift, dangling precariously at 274m (900ft) above ground, is the stuff of nightmares for many.

But makeshift cable cars are widely used in eastern Mansehra and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and stretch all the way up to Pakistan-administered Gilgit-Baltistan in the north.

With little infrastructure in the area and long-distances between facilities like schools – the cable cars, often thrown together with scrap metal – are born from necessity.

They are built by local communities – mostly illegally, because it is cheaper and there is no alternative infrastructure.

Sometimes they are made of the upper body of a pick-up truck. For example, a Suzuki may be converted into a large cabin used to transport people and cattle. They are then attached to the cable – which can also be scrap iron – using ropes.

Though dangerous, people often use them to cross rivers and to shorten the distance needed to travel between valleys in the mountains.

In Allai – the mountainous area where the group were trapped on Tuesday – there is no road infrastructure or basic facilities.

As a result, a local resident obtained permission from the city administration to build the cable car, police confirmed to BBC News.

Known to locals as “Dolly”, it links the village of Jangri to Batangi, where the local school is located.

What would usually be a two-hour walk was reduced to just four minutes in the cable car.

Police said they checked the lift every month, however BBC News has been unable to independently verify this.

Army soldier slings down from a helicopter during a rescue mission to recover students stuck in a chairlift in Pashto village of mountainous Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, on August 22, 2023
Image caption,Strong winds made the rescue particularly difficult, as army soldiers dangled from helicopters, trying to reach those trapped in the cable car

The affordability of the Allai cable car also makes it an attractive mode of transport.

It costs far less than road travel, and while the fare varies depending on the distance being travelled, it begins from as little as 20 PKR (£0.053; $0.067).

One local, Mohabbat Shah, said residents were willing to take the risk with the cable cars. Since there had been no problems with these particular cars before, they were a good option for people trying to move around the region.

“We pay only 10 rupees per person on a one way trip. If we book a cab, this will cost up to 2000 rupees (£18.91; $24.09)”, he told the BBC.

While this particular cable car had not yet encountered any challenges, others across Pakistan have.

In 2017, an illegal car crashed in Murree, Punjab, killing 11 passengers as it plummeted into a ravine.

And last December, local media reported that 12 children had to be rescued after a rope snapped in Abbottabad, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Those children were on their way to school, and were stranded 61m over a river until they could be rescued.

Following Tuesday’s incident, Pakistan’s caretaker http://sayurkole.com Prime Minister Anwaar ul Haq Kakar ordered “safety inspections of all such private chairlifts to ensure that they are safe to operate and use.”

But without significant investments into new infrastructure, the lifts will continue to be the main mode of transport for most people in the mountainous region.

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