The Wall Street Journal
April 8, 2014
By Joe Parkinson

Stalin-Era Cable Cars Make for Thrilling Daily Commute, but Some Want Upgrade

CHIATURA, Georgia—The world's most terrifying commute isn't on the 405 in Los Angeles or the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in New York. It is in a rusty gondola high above this town in the Caucasus Mountains, built when Joseph Stalin still ruled the Soviet Union.

In Chiatura, a mining town in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, residents each day pack into tiny, rusting cable cars suspended hundreds of feet over steep slopes and gorges. Known here as the "metal coffins," the corroding cabins creak along a metal pulley system that dates back to the 1950s.

Most of the cars have now rusted away, but 21 remain in service, forming the perilous "Kanatnaya Doroga," or "rope road" network. The gondolas were built by Stalin to showcase how Soviet technology could conquer the town's extreme geography to help extract the area's huge metal deposits.

Leaders in this part of the world still build gondolas as a show of force, as witnessed by the remarkable 13-mile network of cable cars Russia built in the mountains just 250 miles away to serve alpine venues for the Sochi Olympics. The Chiatura gondolas serve a more basic—if not always reliable—form of transportation for mountain residents, who are pushing hard for an upgrade.

The rope roads operate 24 hours a day with no tickets, no fines and no timetable. Each of the 32 lines, which officials say comprise the world's largest cable car network, has a suitably utopian Soviet name, like Pioneer, Peace and Mining. Most of the tramways still use the "jig back" system, in which two cabins are connected to the same cable; an electric motor pulls one cabin down and uses that cabin's weight to pull the other cabin up.

Travelers riding the cable cars must wait until several people are lining up at a station before operators start the pulley system. Smoking is permitted and passengers sometimes bring bottles of the local firewater Cha-Cha to drink on the trip.

"This is extreme commuting. If you saw these cable cars In New York or London, you wouldn't go near them," said Badri Gaprindashvili, a 51-year-old cable-car operator who has worked the rope road for nine years. "But we're used to it. After all, they've needed an upgrade for four decades," he said.

The rusting, wood-bottomed cabins—coated in decades-old graffiti and grime—groan and squeal as they shake and vibrate their way up the mountainside. Some of the steel wires suspending the cabins have frayed, splaying metal cords at ominous angles. Strong winds cause the carriages to bob and swing wildly. Regular power cuts mean the tram operators have to wind the cars down manually. In 2008, one of the cables snapped, leaving passengers dangling for 12 hours above rocks or rapids waiting to be rescued. One of the rusty gondolas has an emergency telephone, but operators say it stopped working in 1994.

Despite the safety hazards, local officials are eager to assert that nobody has died riding the rope road. By contrast, residents in this town of 55,000 cherish the network, which is by far the fastest means of transport for occupants of the Soviet-era housing blocks built on the steep slopes. Locals say riding the creaking cars each day gives them a chance to catch up and trade gossip with friends and neighbors. "It may not be pretty these days, but we'd be lost without it," said Dalia Tutveridze, a 47-year-old tram operator.

The network is especially vital through the long winter, when heavy snow blocks roads for weeks at a time. Chiaturans quip that the cable cars make their town "like Venice, but with fewer tourists."

"Without it, my seven-minute journey would take an hour," said Tiko Chobinidze, a 29-year-old municipal worker who commutes daily from her hilltop apartment next to a rusting Hollywood-style sign that reads "Chiatura Is Our Pride.""It's our heritage and no one wants the cars to be axed. We just want them fixed."

The rusting rope road stands as a monument to the demise of Chiatura, a town that boomed during Soviet times because of its huge deposits of manganese, an element used in steel production to stop rusting. The town had a special place in Soviet folklore: Stalin, himself born in Georgia, once hid in Chiatura's mines as a revolutionary fugitive wanted by the Russian czar. Manganese is still mined here, but in much smaller quantities, and many of the town's factories have become lifeless carcasses, long ago stripped of glass, wood and machinery.

According to Zurab Vashikidze, a doctor, town councilor and amateur rope road historian, the malaise speaks to a broader problem across some former Soviet countries—aging facilities that pose a significant physical or environmental risk.

"In Soviet times, we were the envy of the U.S.S.R., but the transition to the market has been rough. The people here are educated and we deserve better and safer infrastructure," Mr. Vashikidze said, over a wine-soaked Georgian lunch of grilled meat, dumplings and walnut salad.

The man who has made it his mission to upgrade the network is the region's new governor, Sulkhan Makhatadze.

The energetic 31-year-old says he has already persuaded Georgia's government to rebuild the four cars still owned by the state. Now he must persuade Georgia Manganese, a U.S. company that bought the mines and the rest of the network in 2007, to pay for upgrades. The company, which maintains the current network at no cost to residents, has refused to pay, and locals are becoming increasingly angry.

"We're now fighting a war with them. They are paying virtually no tax and refusing to upgrade the network. But we will find a compromise," Mr. Makhatadze said. Georgia Manganese, in response to requests for comment, issued this statement: "We will continue to work with the local administration to come to a resolution that will allow for the renovation of the tramway."

Mr. Makhatadze says a rejuvenated cable car would not only guarantee residents safety but also help brighten Chiatura's economic future. "The car is our town's business card. Right now it has become a handicap, but it could also be the town's ticket to a resurrection," he said.

For now, Chiatura's dream of a tourism-fueled recovery is just that. But the spectacle of the nail-biting commute has already attracted niche visitors, adventurous tourists drawn by what travel agencies describe as an "adrenaline-fueled trip." 

"We've started to see more people coming here to take pictures of themselves on the trams," says Mr. Makhatadze, gesturing toward the town's oldest line, which climbs the steep mountainside. "But there's a long way to go. When an Estonian government delegation came, they were too scared to ride it."