In a daring rescue operation, the Pakistan Army’s Special Services Group (SSG) successfully saved eight stranded passengers from a cable car mishap in Allai Tehsil, located in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Battagram district. This incident sheds light on the widespread use of homemade cable cars in the northern regions of Pakistan. These improvised transportation systems, though risky, play a crucial role in connecting remote communities that lack traditional infrastructure.

Homemade cable cars have become a familiar sight in the remote corners of Pakistan, where conventional infrastructure is absent. While venturing onto these makeshift contraptions involves risks, they offer an indispensable solution to transportation challenges faced by communities with limited alternatives. This trend is particularly prevalent in eastern Mansehra, Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), and Gilgit Baltistan, areas marked by geographical obstacles and scarce amenities such as schools and roads.

Necessity breeds innovation, and in the absence of official provisions, locals in these remote regions have taken it upon themselves to construct cable cars using scrap materials. These rudimentary structures are often assembled from the discarded upper bodies of pickup trucks or Suzuki vehicles. These cabins are then affixed to cables, sometimes comprised of scrap iron, using ropes. The impromptu nature of these constructions often flouts legal requirements, but the cost-effectiveness and lack of viable alternatives drive the locals to resort to this approach.


Risking it for convenience: Benefits and hazards

The risks of using these cable cars are undeniable, yet they remain a popular choice for crossing rivers and shortening travel distances between mountain valleys. Take, for instance, the Allai region, where the recent incident unfolded. A local resident secured permission to construct a cable car named “Dolly,” transforming a two-hour, arduous trek into a mere four-minute cable car ride. The affordability factor, with fares as low as Rs20, renders these cable cars the preferred mode of transportation for numerous residents.

While offering a practical solution, these cable cars have an unsettling history marred by safety concerns. In 2017, an illegal cable car crash in Murree, Punjab, led to the tragic loss of 11 lives. Similarly, in Abbottabad, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, last December, a cable car’s rope snapped, prompting a rescue operation to save 12 stranded children. These incidents underscore the dangers associated with these makeshift transportation systems.

In the wake of the recent mishap, Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar has taken a decisive step. He has ordered safety inspections for all private chairlifts, ensuring their safe operation. This move underscores the need to balance the convenience these cable cars offer with ensuring the safety and well-being of the passengers who rely on them.

Despite the recurring safety concerns, these homemade cable cars are unlikely to disappear from the landscape anytime soon. The absence of substantial investments in new infrastructure means that these improvised transportation systems will remain the primary mode of conveyance for residents living in the rugged terrains of the mountainous regions. The onus lies on the authorities to find a way to harness the advantages while mitigating the risks associated with these makeshift marvels.

The incident that unfolded in Allai Tehsil serves as a stark reminder of the significance and perils of homemade cable cars in northern Pakistan. These resourceful creations bridge the gap between isolated communities and essential services, even though they come with inherent risks. As Pakistan grapples with balancing necessity and safety, it becomes evident that while these makeshift cable cars fill a void in infrastructure, their continued usage necessitates a renewed focus on ensuring passenger safety and exploring long-term solutions for transportation in remote regions.

What should Pakistan do to prevent something like this from happening again?

To prevent incidents like the recent cable car mishap from happening again, the government can take several proactive measures:

1. Regulatory Framework: 

The government should establish comprehensive regulations governing the construction, operation, and maintenance of homemade cable cars. These regulations should include safety standards, inspection procedures, and penalties for non-compliance. The guidelines should be communicated clearly to the local communities involved in building and operating these cable cars.

2. Safety Inspections: 

Regular safety inspections of all cable cars, both existing and under construction, should be conducted by qualified engineers or inspection authorities. These inspections should identify potential risks, structural weaknesses, and maintenance needs, ensuring that the cable cars are in optimal condition for operation.

3. Technical Training and Support: 

The government can provide technical training and support to the local communities involved in building and operating cable cars. This training could cover proper construction techniques, rope and cable maintenance, emergency procedures, and passenger safety measures.

4. Permits and Approvals: 

The government should streamline the process of obtaining official permits and approvals for constructing cable cars. This would help ensure that the cable cars are built according to safety standards and guidelines, minimising the use of substandard materials and makeshift construction.

5. Public Awareness Campaigns: 

Launching public awareness campaigns about the risks and safety precautions associated with using homemade cable cars is crucial. Informing both passengers and operators about proper conduct, emergency procedures, and potential hazards can contribute to safer transportation practises.

6. Subsidies for Safer Materials: 

To discourage the use of substandard materials, the government can provide subsidies or incentives for purchasing safer materials and equipment for constructing cable cars. This can encourage communities to invest in higher-quality materials that enhance the overall safety of the transportation system.

7. Alternative Infrastructure Development: 

While homemade cable cars address an immediate need, the government should prioritise the development of safer and more sustainable transportation infrastructure in remote areas. This could involve building bridges, roads, and official cable car systems that meet safety standards and provide a reliable mode of transportation.

8. Emergency Response Planning:

Establishing clear and efficient emergency response plans for cable car incidents is crucial. Local authorities and rescue teams should be trained to respond quickly and effectively in case of accidents or cable car malfunctions.

9. Collaboration with NGOs:

Collaborating with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and international agencies that specialise in infrastructure development and safety can provide valuable insights and resources for implementing safer transportation solutions in remote regions.

10. Monitoring and Enforcement:

The government should enforce the regulations and guidelines consistently to ensure compliance. Regular monitoring of cable car operations, construction sites, and safety measures will help identify potential risks and ensure corrective actions are taken.

By implementing these measures, the government can work towards minimising the risks associated with cable cars and ensuring the safety of passengers and operators in remote areas of Pakistan.