The funicular is a relatively rare form of transportation which uses a rope mechanism to pull itself up and down hills or cliffs. They are a combination of the technology of an elevator and a railroad, but are unique from both of these in that the weight of the two vehicles means they balance each other out; one moves up whilst the other moves down. The name of this unusual mode of transport comes from the Latin word ‘rope’ (funiculus).
They usually look very unique as each city and country has designed funiculars in their own way. They exist in many countries, but are most common in Europe, South America and North America. The first ever funicular was built in 1875, and they have been functioning ever since.
1. Valparaiso is the City with the Most Funiculars in the World
Valparaiso is a port city on the west coast of Chile. It has a bohemian and punk style to it, and this is because it is full of artists, and, of course, funiculars. Valparaiso is unique as it is comprised of many colourful houses built onto hills and cliffs which gives you a view to the expansive glittering ocean below. The best way to experience this is on a funicular ride. Originally, 30 funiculars were built in Valparaiso, now 15 of these remain and the government is in the process of restoring others.
Each funicular has a name, usually after a person or a mountain (“Polanco Funicular” after Polanco mountain, for example), and a ride costs between 100 – 300 Chilean pesos either way (less than half a dollar). The oldest in Valparaiso is “Concepcion”, which was built in 1883.
2. Austria’s Funicular Won the Stirling Prize for Architecture
Austria owns a remarkable, double-curved glass funicular called “Hungerburg”. This masterpiece of engineering was designed by “queen of the curve” (the Guardian), Zaha Hadid, and opened on the 1st of December in 2007. This Iraqi-British architect won the UK’s top award for architecture the Stirling Prize, in both 2010 and 2011.
The Hungerburg has taken more than 4.5 million passengers since 2007, which makes it one of the busiest funiculars in the world, and an incredible success. The funicular itself is sleek, but the most impressive feature is it’s station, a huge white curve which stands glittering in the sun on top a concrete base. Hadid was inspired by the surrounding snow and ice mountains, and the stations have the appearance of ‘weightlessness’. The funicular is the first step on a journey towards the mountain itself, which can be further reached by panorama cable cars, Seegrube and Hafelekar.
3. Bournemouth Puts the ‘Fun’ in Funiculars, and is the Shortest in the World
England boasts 17 funiculars in total, one of which is the shortest in the world; the “Fisherman’s Walk Cliff Railway” in Bournemouth, at only 39 metres (128 feet). This 1935 funicular is used to access one of Bournemouth’s long sandy beaches from the top of the cliff and vice versa.
The funicular was used as a stage in May 2018, by artist ‘Language, Timothy!’ who performed two pieces, one on either of the passenger cars whilst the funicular was running. The performance, ‘Sound Journeys – The Longest Second’, was an intimate exploration of the question “what if the separate journeys of two strangers with interconnecting stories, travelling on opposite cars of the cliff lift, were to cross for just one second?” It drew an audience of over 500, proving funiculars can be both short, and fun.
4. The Swiss Own the Steepest, Sleekest and Suspended Funiculars
The “Dresden Schwebebahn” suspension railway in Dresden, Switzerland, runs across 33 pillars suspended 84.2 meters in the air. Built in 1891, it is the oldest suspended monorail in the world.
Exposing their unprecedented talent for modern engineering, the Swiss also own the second steepest railroad in the world (after Katoomba). The “Stoosbahn” funicular has a gradient of 110% and ascends from the Schwyz village, south of Zurich, up into the snowy mountains of Stoos Alpine resort. Built to replace the Schwyz-Stoos funicular, the project took 5 years and cost €44.6m. It has a modern design of small, circular, barrel-like pods with glass windows which rotate in order to keep the floor level. The Stoosbahn took 14 years to plan and design, and designers went through 15 different options before it was created.
5. There is a Funicular Built on a Volcano
In 1880, a funicular was built on top of Mount Vesuvius, a 4,190 feet high volcano in Naples, Italy, for tourists to visit the steaming hot precipice.
The building began in 1870, supervised by Hungarian engineer Ernesto Emanuele Oblieght to allow visitors easy access. There was a great public excitement when the funicular opened on June 1880. The song ‘Funiculi-Funicula’ was even written by Luigi Denza in celebration. It took him just a few hours to write but was a big success. Every day after this, around 300 tourists took the funicular to the volcano’s ascent.
The volcano has erupted several times since 1906 and as such the funicular has been out of function since 1943.
6. In Late 19th Century Paris, a Funicular was used to Build the Basilica of the Sacred Heart
Funiculars are not only functional for tourists, but for building projects too, as Paris proves to us. The Basilica of the Sacred Heart is a huge, royal, Roman Catholic Church built in 1875. To carry the necessary materials up and down Montmartre hill, a funicular was built. The bottom carriage was loaded with stones, and travelled to the top of the hill where a horse drawn carriage took it along a railway to construction workers at the foot of the basilica. There was a second funicular, built in 1900, to bring tourists smoothly up the hill to the Basilica’s entrance.
The Basilique du Sacre-Coeur de Montmartre was built following the Franco-Prussian war in the 19th century. The nation agreed that if Paris survived the war, they would build the basilica. Constructed by Paul Abadie in Romanesque-Byzantine style, the architecture is medieval. Standing in the grand dome at the top you will see all of Paris spread out below. All made possible, by a funicular.
7. In the United States, More than 50 Funiculars are No Longer in Use
Funiculars are beautiful, but for the US they have also become nostalgic. In the 19th century funiculars boomed in the United States, however, by the 1950s almost all of them had gone into disuse. As other transport systems developed, interest in funiculars became lost, and many were destroyed by fires and never rebuilt. The “Mount Manitou Incline Railroad” (1907-1989) was one of the last to close, and today it’s empty track is used for down hill running races.
Ohio is a city built onto many mountains, so the government built funiculars as a way to transport people and goods up and down the mountains. Their funiculars are unique in that rather than being composed of two closed vehicles, their platforms are open with entrances in level with the road. This meant that horses, wagons, cars, buses etc. could drive straight onto the funicular. Somewhat forlornly for funicular lovers, by 1948, all Ohio funiculars were out of use.
8. Katoomba’s Funicular, in Australia, has the Steepest Railway Incline of any in the World
In the beautiful Blue Mountains of Katoomba, a small mountain town west of Sydney, is a tourist attraction called ‘Scenic World’. It includes “The Scenic Railway”, a 415m long funicular, which rests at a 52° angle. This makes it the steepest railway in the world. The seats include buttons which you press to alter how far you want to sit back, being able to move the seat as far back as 64 ° (almost flat). The roof of the funicular is made of glass, allowing riders to look up at the trees along the way. This roller coaster-style funicular also has gull-wing doors which open at the roof rather than the side, batman style.
10. Funiculars Used to be Operated using Tanks of Water
When funiculars were first built, many of them used a water tank system, as opposed to the modern motors. They were called “Hydraulic Lifts”, as opposed to funiculars. Empty tanks rested on the floor of each car and were filled and emptied until the vehicles balanced each other out and began moving, aided by the force of nature.
The “Bom Jesus do Monte Funicular” is a Portuguese funicular built in 1880, and is the oldest in the world to use this system. The “Neuveville – St-Pierre” funicular in Switzerland runs on the water balancing system. It is unique in that it uses sewage water. The funicular was built in April 1897 to connect Neuveville to Saint-Pierre, which are areas within the city Fribourg. A transport organisation in Switzerland proposed renovating the funicular to become electronic, but they gave up on the project and so it remains functioning this way today.