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A funicular, also known as a funicular railway, incline, inclined railway, inclined plane, or cliff railway, is a cable railway in which a cable attached to a pair of tram-like vehicles on rails moves them up and down a steep slope, the ascending and descending vehicles counterbalancing each other.

The word is from the Latin funiculus, a diminutive of funis, "rope".



The basic principle of funicular operation is that two cars are permanently attached to each other by a cable, which runs through a pulley at the top of the incline. Counterbalancing of the two cars, with one ascending and one descending the slope minimizes the energy needed to lift the ascending car. Winching is normally done by an electric drive working on the pulley. Sheave wheels guide the cable to and from the drive mechanism and the incline cars.

Bottom Tow Rope

The cars are attached to a second cable running through a pulley at the bottom of the incline in case the gravity force acting on the vehicles is too low to operate them on the slope. One of the pulleys must be designed as tensioning wheel to avoid slack in the ropes. In this case the winching can be done also at the lower end of the incline. This practice is used for funiculars with gradients below 6%, funiculars using sledges instead of cars or any other case, where it is not ensured that the descending car is always able to pull out the cable from the pulley in the station on the top of the incline.

Track Layout

Early funiculars use two parallel straight tracks, with separate station platforms for each vehicle. Between the tracks is sufficient space for the two cars to pass at the mid-point. The wheels of the cars are usually single-flanged, as on standard railway vehicles. Examples of these type of track layout are the Duquesne Inclinemarker in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvaniamarker and most cliff railways in the UK.

Later new layouts using less space have been developed. These layouts usually have only two or three rails for the most part of the slope,with four rails only at the dead center or passing section of the funicular.

Cars used with a two- or three-rail configuration have flanges on both sides of the outboard wheels, which keeps them aligned with the outer rail, thus holding each car in position. The inboard wheels are unflanged and ride on top of the opposite rail, thereby easily crossing over the rails at the passing track, and avoiding the need for switches and crossings, since the cars have the flanged wheels on opposite sides and will therefore automatically select different tracks.

In layouts using three rails the middle rail get shared by both cars. The three rail layout is wider than the two rail layout but the passing section is simpler to build. Furthermore in a three rail layout the rack used for braking the cars can be mounted higher making it less sensitive for choking in snow fall conditions.

Some four-rail funiculars have the upper and lower sections interlaced and a single platform at each station. The Hill Train at Legoland, Windsormarker is an example of this configuration.

The track layout can also be changed during the renovation of a funicular, and often four rail layouts have been rebuilt as two or three rail layouts; e.g. the Wellington Cable Carmarker in New Zealandmarker was rebuilt as two rail.


Until the end of the 1870s the four-railed parallel-track funicular was the normal configuration. Carl Roman Abt developed the so called Abt Switch allowing the two rail layout, which was used for the first time in 1879 when the Giessbachbahn opened in Switzerlandmarker . The oldest funicular using a two rail layout was the Telegraph Hill Railroad in San Franciscomarker, which was in operation from 1884 until 1886 . The Mount Lowe Railwaymarker in Altadena, California was the first mountain railway in US to use the three track layout. Three and two rail layouts considerably reduced the space required for building a funicular reducing grading costs on mountain slopes and property costs for urban funiculars. Therefore these layouts enabled a strong funicular boom towards the end of the 19th century.

Inclined Lift

The inclined lift is a special version of the funicular, since it has only one car carrying payload riding up and down the slope. The car will be either winched up to the station on the top of the incline where the cable is collected on a winch drum or the single car is balanced by a counterweight and operated the same way as a funicular with two cars. Many inclined liftswere constructed along the pressure lines of storage power plants for building material transport. Examples are the Gelmerbahn leading to the Gelmerseemarker and the Funicolare Piora–Ritom leading to Lago Ritommarker, both in Switzerlandmarker. The steepest funicular in the world is the incline lift Katoomba Scenic Railway in Australia.

A mixture between an inclined lift and a funicular with two cars was the second Angels Flightmarker in Los Angelesmarker. The funicular closed in 1969 and was reinstalled in 1996 using separate cables for each car which were winched in on separate winch drums in the station on the top of the incline. The winch drums were connected to the drive motor and the service brake by a gear train. The system failed because of gear train breakage causing a deadly accident. The funicular was closed and not yet rebuilt.


The Great Incline funicular of the Mount Lowe Railway (1893 - 1938).
The arrow denotes location of ascending car on the Macpherson Trestle.
Grade: 62%.
The oldest funicular is the Reisszugmarker, a private line providing goods access to Hohensalzburg Castlemarker at Salzburgmarker in Austriamarker. It was first documented in 1515 by Cardinal Matthäus Lang, who became Archbishop of Salzburg. The line originally used wooden rails and a hemp haulage rope, and was operated by human or animal power. Today steel rails, steel cables and an electric motor have taken over, but the line still follows the same route through the castle's fortifications.

In the 18th century funiculars were used to allow barge traffic on canals to ascend and descend steep hills. An early example were the three inclined planes on the Tyrone Canal in County Tyrone that were in use as early as 1777. They were used primarily in the early 19th century, especially during the height of the canal-building era in the 1830s in the United Statesmarker. Such railways operated by allowing water in feeder canals at the top of the plane to drive a turbine, raising or lowering a canal barge along a steep slope.

Examples of hydropower inclined plane railroads in the United States included the Morris Canal in New Jerseymarker connected the Delaware River with the Passaic River using 23 planes, as well as a series of lock along the gentler gradients. The Allegheny Portage Railroadmarker, part of the Pennsylvania Main Line Canalmarker, built in 1834 with ten planes as the first railroad across the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvaniamarker, was steam powered.

One of the most famous funiculars was the Great Incline of the Mount Lowe Railwaymarker in Altadena, Californiamarker, designed by Andrew Smith Hallidie of San Francisco cable carmarker fame. The Mount Lowe Railway combined its funicular, raising passengers 2,800 feet (859 m) up the steep side of Mount Echo (elevation 3500 ft or 1067 m), with electric narrow-gauge trolley systems at each end (the Rubio Canyon line was standard-gauged after being acquired by Henry Huntington's Pacific Electric Railway). The Incline had three grade changes, the lower end at 62% easing to a 48% at the top, and the cars were designed to adjust to the grade changes for the comfort of their passengers. It had three rails to reduce the width of the formation and the materials required, though a complicated cable routing system was needed at the passing track.

The eastern United States had several incline railways, most engineered by the Otis Elevator Company of Yonkers, NY (today a subsidiary of UTC in Connecticut). Perhaps the best example was the Mount Beacon Incline Railwaymarker in Beacon, NYmarker, the steepest funicular Otis built in the northeast. It had an average gradient of 64+%, a maximum gradient of 74% and operated for over 75 years. It was desroyed by fire in 1983 and a not-for-profit society is currently working toward its restoration.

The funicular on Mount Vesuviusmarker inspired the song Funiculì, Funiculà, composed in 1880. That funicular was wrecked repeatedly by volcanic eruptions and abandoned after the eruption of 1944.

The oldest funicular railway in Britain dates from 1875 and is in Scarborough, North Yorkshire.


Funicular at the Port of Valparaíso
Katoomba scenic railway

Hong Kong's Peak Trammarker was one of the first funicular in Asia, opened in 1888, maximum grade 48%, 1.4 km, and is still daily transport for many people today.

Valparaisomarker, Chile has 15 funiculars, the oldest dating from 1883. Some of them are inside the historic quarter declared a World Heritage area by Unesco. Many are currently in disrepair and have been shut down by municipal authorities. There has been recent controversy regarding five of the elevators in the downtown area, where there have been protests about safety and operation. The Polanco Elevator, perhaps the most unusual, had been closed for repairs to the structure and recently re-entered service.

The Scenic Railway at Scenic World, Blue Mountains, Australia claims to be the world's steepest passenger carrying funicular railway, with a maximum incline of 52 degrees or 128% , with a total incline length of 310 Metres and a vertical lift of 206.5 M in a horizontal distance of 243.4 M.

The Great Incline of the Mount Lowe Railwaymarker (above right) had multiple grades with cars that adjusted to the variations. The gentlest grade was 48%, the steepest 62%.

The Niesenbahnmarker in the Swissmarker Kandertal is the longest continuous-cable funicular in Europe. In Luganomarker, a funicular connects the city centre with the above train station of SBB-CFF-FFS and Ferrovia Lugano-Ponte Tresa.

In Poland the most popular is the Gubałówka Hill Funicular, operated by Polish Cable Lines (Polskie Koleje Linowe, PKL).

Water-powered funiculars include the Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railwaymarker in North Devonmarker, Englandmarker; the CAT Funicular at the Centre for Alternative Technologymarker in Gwyneddmarker, Walesmarker; the Nerobergbahnmarker in Wiesbadenmarker, Germanymarker; and Bom Jesus funicularmarker in Braga, Portugalmarker (the oldest, still working, in the world).

The Great Orme Tramway is the only cablehauled tramway still operating on British public roads. It runs from Church Walks in Llandudno. It first opened on July 31 1902 and runs on a daily basis from late March to late October taking visitors to the summit of The Great Orme, climbing a mile of track to the summit complex at a height of 679 ft (207)m. There are panoramic views of the Welsh mountains and as far as the Isle of Man, Blackpool and the Lake District. There is a exhibition of the history of this funicular tramway at the half-way station.

Pittsburghmarker, Pennsylvania has two operational funiculars, called "inclines". The Monongahela Inclinemarker travels between the top of the Mount Washingtonmarker hillside to Station Squaremarker at the base of the mountain along the Monongahela River. It serves as a tourist attraction and mass transit system. The Duquesne Inclinemarker connects Duquesne Heightsmarker with the lower elevations of Pittsburgh.

Naplesmarker, (Italymarker), has four funiculars. The Chiaia Funicular was built in 1889, followed within two years by the Funicolare of Montesanto (Montesanto Funicular), and after some years by Central Funicular and Mergellina. The most famous funicular in Naples was the Mount Vesuvius Funicular (1880-1944), the first railway track in the world built on an active volcano, and destroyed various times by Vesuviusmarker eruptions. Partially modified to became a rack railway in its last section, it was destroyed by eruption in 1944. Itsworldwide fame was because the Neapolitan song Funiculì Funiculà was dedicated to it.

The Johnstown Inclined Planemarker (built 1890) in Johnstown, Pennsylvaniamarker in the United States claims to be the world's steepest vehicular inclined plane at 70.9%. In addition to passengers, it can carry one automobile in each direction. Chattanoogamarker, Tennessee is home to the Lookout Mountain Incline Railwaymarker (built 1895) that travels from the base to the top of Lookout Mountainmarker, and claims to be the steepest funicular in the world with a maximum grade of 72 percent.

There is one in the Blue Mountains at Scenic World near Katoomba, Australia. Its centre supports multiple tourist attractions such as the Skyway and Cableway. The railway is on the old mining track and is 52 degrees (122%) at its steepest point. Scenic World claims that this is the steepest funicular in the world.

In addition to the historic Angel's Flightmarker and Mount Lowe Railwaymarker, Southern California has two more recently constructed funicular railways. Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California has a funicular which takes guests up the Mountain from an area near the park entrance to a station near the Ninja coaster entrance. It was called "Funicular" for many years, introducing thousands of people to the word, but is now known as the "Orient Express" to fit in with the Far Eastern theme at the top of the Mountain. The Pacific Palms Resort in the City of Industry, Californiamarker, formerly the Industry Hills Sheraton Resort, utilizes a funicular to transport golfers and their carts. The 400-foot line runs from the 9th Green of the "Ike" Course and 18th Green of the "Babe" Course to the St Andrews Station, a replica of a Scottish station that houses concessions and eating areas with spectacular views of the two hillside courses. The railway was installed in 1979 as part of a 650-acre brownfield reclamation project that transformed a collection of hills containing a former refuse dump into a resort, convention and recreation center. The funicular was devised as a perfect solution for transporting golfers among the steep and dramatic terrain of the demanding and highly regarded golf courses. The railway is currently not in operation, but remains fully intact awaiting necessary maintenance until it can once again ferry golfers up the 33% grade overlooking the San Gabriel Valley and San Bernardino Mountainsmarker.

The Falls Incline Railwaymarker, originally the Horseshoe Falls Incline, at Niagara Fallsmarker, Canadamarker gives access to hotels above the falls.

Private funiculars

Private funiculars on steep sections provide easier access from the street to a house than steep paths or steps. They are common in hilly cities like Wellingtonmarker, New Zealandmarker. They are often called cable cars or lifts (elevators), but have a small car for two to four people permanently attached to a cable from a winch. The car runs on an inclined pair of rails (beams) or a single rail at a low speed (0.3 to 1.0 metres/second). Larger and faster models may give access to commercial buildings. Examples are USA, NZ, Legal requirements (NZ).

Smallest funicular

The smallest funicular worldwide is located in Lucernemarker, Switzerlandmarker. It serves the guests of the 100 year-old hotel "Montana" and is of the same age as the hotel. One single cabin shuffles between the top station and the bottom station at the lake-promenade. The travel time for both directions is 60 seconds.

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