Rust in peace

Looking back at Nepal’s first cargo ropeway built a 100 years ago, and a historical timeline of infrastructure planning in the past century.

One of the few remaining photographs of the चन्द्र आकाश तार माल चलानी अड्डा (Office for Transporting Goods by Sky Wire) that hauled goods from the Tarai to Kathmandu from 1923 till 1964. Photo: Daniel W Edwards

January 1902 Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher Rana informs the British he is considering a “wire tramway” between Bhimphedi and Thankot and wants to hire a European engineer to make a preliminary survey. This plan is not carried out perhaps because the technology was not yet sufficiently developed.

1912 Chandra Shumsher has a survey made for a ropeway from Bhimphedi to Kisipidi (Thankot). 

January 1913 British ropeway engineer R.S. Underhill, employed by the Nepal Government in connection with a ropeway scheme arrives in Kathmandu. 

1914 The Nepal government plan for a ropeway is dropped, probably due to the onset of World War I.

1918 Chandra Shumsher gives Keymer, Son & Company of London standing instructions to proceed with an aerial ropeway between Kathmandu and Bhimphedi.

Office for transporting goods by sky today
The old warehouse of Office for Transporting Goods by Sky Wire in Bhimphedi today. Photo: Daniel W Edwards(Photo: Daniel W Edwards)

Old warehouse
The same old warehouse in Bhimphedi today.(Photo: Daniel W Edwards)

June 1919 PM Chandra Shumsher says he is sending Rs1.2 million to England to meet the cost of materials. He reports a route has been selected which takes off from a point 20 to 25 miles due north of the Bairagnia railway station (near the Nepal border with Bihar) and would enter the Kathmandu Valley east of the trail for foot passengers (ending at Thankot). The ropeway would be 20 to 23 miles long.

August The War Office in London states that all available ropeway material has been placed at the disposal of the India Office. Indian Government says that material has been assigned for building a ropeway through the Khyber Pass. Keymer Co. states that due to the requirements for the “Afghan and Frontier Trouble,” it has no spare materials available.

One report says Chandra Shumsher later purchased the British ropeway that had been used during the Third Afghan War.

1922 Construction of trestle (tower) foundations begins, but a strike of Indian workers delays the work. The route has been changed to go from Dhorsing to Thankot. Messrs. R. Pearson and A.J. Knight are consulting engineers.

March 1923 Erection of trestles begins. Work can only be done during six months of the year.  

June 1924 Engineer Underhill estimates cost of the ropeway to be about £100,000. Upon its completion, he gives this description of the ropeway:

'The Nepal ropeway (a mono-cable system) is 14 miles long as the crow flies. It carries general merchandise in average loads of 5 cwt at the rate of 8 tons per hour in either direction, and the heaviest individual load permissible is 10 cwt. (Cwt refers to 'hundredweight', a unit of measurement equalling 45.35kg.)

The ropeway comprises seven sections, each being a complete unit in itself, driven by an electric motor. Each section comprises a single endless wire rope 7/8" thick and of 29 tons strength, which passes round a horizontal wheel 10 feet in diameter at each end of the section. An electric motor drives these wheels through suitable gearing and causes the rope to travel continuously at 4¼ miles per hour. The loads are hung from clips on this rope at regular intervals 240 yards apart and travel with the rope; loads going up to Kisipidi on one side and traveling down to Dhursing on the other. 

The rope is supported by sheaves running on ball bearings carried on cross-arms at the tops of 106 steel trestles, which vary in height from 12 feet to 100 feet to suit the configuration of the ground. The largest span between two trestles is 1,300 yards.

Route of the ropeway
Route of the ropeway from Dhorsing near Bhimphedi to Teku in Kathmandu, a distance of 128.4km. It was the cargo lifeline to Kathmandu until the Tribhuvan Highway was completed in 1956.

At the end of each section, the clips automatically disengage from the wire rope, run along an overhead rail through the station, and then engage with the rope of the next section, so that a load can travel continuously from end to end of the ropeway.

The power required to drive the ropeway when fully loaded is about 80 horse power. The supply of electricity comes from a plant near Pharping.

One obstacle in building the ropeway was the belief in scattered villages that the opening of the ropeway was to be celebrated by the immolation of children at the foot of the trestles, and in some cases, Mr. Underhill found villages emptied as he approached them.

In several places trouble was caused by roaming elephants using trestles under erection as rubbing posts.'

1925 Ropeway construction is completed but probably does not come into regular operation until the Nepal Government Railway (NGR) begins operations from Raxaul to Amlekhganj in February 1927.

Nepal Government railway
The Nepal Government Railway (NGR) from Raxaul to Amlekhganj linked the Indian border with the ropeway terminal.

1932 The Tainathwalla (chief official) of the ropeway and five other projects is Maj. Gen. Krishna SJB Rana, assisted by Col. Chet SJB Rana. 

1941 The चन्द्र आकाश तार माल चलानी अड्डा  (Office for Transporting Goods by Sky Wire) is headed by Subba Hiranyaswar Lal Pradhananga, annual salary of Rs1,145. Other employees: 2 dittha, 4 mukhiya, 1 naib mukhiya, 6 naib writter, 1 bahidar, 3 nausinda, 1 tahvildar, and 2 'opretar' (operators), for a total staff of 21. At the Dhorsing Godam (warehouse) is Capt Prem Bahadur Thapa, annual salary of Rs1,200, who oversees a staff of 24. 

October 1945 It is reported the ropeway operates eight hours a day, transporting about 55 tons of goods. The freight rate is eight annas (about 15 cents) per maund (37kg). A British engineer, Roy Kilburne, is in charge of maintenance. 

April 1947 The ropeway extends 122km. It cost approximately $300,000. Kilburne has just completed a survey to extend the ropeway to the customs house at Teku. The estimated cost of this 6.4km extension is approximately $100,000, but the project is being held up until the necessary materials to complete the work have been delivered. The rate charged on the ropeway averages Rs1/12 per maund (37kg). Coolie charges per maund from Kathmandu to Dhorsing average from Rs3-5 depending upon the load. 

January 1950 The Government says the ropeway will be extended from Thankot to Panchali (Teku), where the goods transported by the ropeway will be weighed at the eG;f/ c•f.

1950-51 [2007 BS] Government expenditures (in Rs) from general revenues:

Main ropeway 2007BS 2008BS

Salaries & allowances 99,000 133,000

Equipment & supplies 24,000 24,000

Contingency expenses 3,000 3,000

Total 126,000 160,000


Renovation of cables (existing cables are 5 years old) 42,000

Procurement of equipment x 10,000

Expansion of ropeway (nearly complete) x 668,000

Swayambhunath ropeway 4,000

Total 884,000

1951 Ropeway hauls 570,000 tons of goods.

Railway receipt
The receipt showing charges for the ropeway from Dhorsing to Thankot and then railway charges from Thankot to Teku customs office. The railway was the Motor Trolley Railway built in 1933 connecting the ropeway terminal at Thankot with the customs office. Courtesy: KAMAL R. TULADHAR

1950-52  General income from ropeway operations (exclusive of freight on goods belonging to the government, as well as on paddy, salt, etc.) is Rs425,000 each year. 

1952-53  Expected ropeway income: Rs700,000; ropeway expenditure: Rs629,000 

13 March 1953 Ropeway Tariff from Dhorsing to Matatirtha (per maund) 

Dhan (paddy) 45 paisa

Chamal (husked, uncooked rice) 60 paisa

Tori (mustard) 60 paisa

Kodo & gahun (millet, wheat) Rs1.40

Lumber more than 6 feet in length and more than 1 maund in weight  Rs1.50

Lumber less than 6 feet long and less than 6 maunds in weight Rs1.20

Rahar & mugo (red and green pulse/lentils) Rs2.10

Mas (black pulse) Rs2.10 

Musuro & khesari (reddish & yellow pulse) Rs1.05

Items that must be carried in double loads/containers Rs3.60

Salt No charge

1954 A 6.4km extension of the ropeway from Matatirtha to the Teku customs house has been completed. But it is not yet operating, because its carriers and spare parts have been cannibalised to keep the original ropeway in operation.

July 1954 Floods heavily damage the ropeway.

1955-56 Ropeway’s revised income: Rs661,000, revised expenses: Rs461,000 & Irs38,000. Recurring budget expenses: Rs444,000 and Irs40,000.

New budget expenses: Rs26,000 and Irs400,000 (these & figures below from Nepal Gazette).

1955 Wear and tear and the non-replacement of essential parts have reduced the ropeway’s carrying capacity to 5 tons per hour or less. Sixty tons of goods are transported daily, and 75% of the total traffic consists of foodstuffs for the deficit areas of the valley. 

1956-57 Budget estimated income: Rs842,000; Revised income: Rs367,000, Revised expenses: Rs436,000 and Irs50,000.

1957-58 Estimated income: Rs928,000. Estimates expenses: Rs564,000 & Rs463,000.

January 1959 The 6.4km ropeway extension from Thankot to the Teku Customs Office finally begins operations.

April 1959 For the first time, the ropeway begins to carry mail. 

October 1959 The press reports that ropeway employees have not been paid for the past three years.

 1961 The ropeway operates for only six months and carries 80,000 tons of goods. Worn-out cables, the lack of spare parts, and grip failures increase the frequency with which carriers derail from the supporting sheaves, and many goods are lost or damaged.

New ropeway from Thankot
The 1923 ropeway was superseded by a new ropeway from Thankot to Hetauda built with US assistance in 1964. (Photo: Daniel W Edwards)

New ropeway from Thankot
View from Chitlang pass looking down at Kathmandu Valley.(Photo: Daniel W Edwards)

 8 April 1964 The Dhorsing to Matatirtha Ropeway is shut down with the inauguration of the new Hetaunda to Teku (Kathmandu) Ropeway built by USAID. In its last seven months of operation, the old ropeway handled 446,000 maunds (17,840 tons) of goods and took in Rs742,000.