The Steepest Railways on Earth
Before trains were ever imagined, funicular railways were created to transport people and goods from Point A to Point B. Interestingly, in the funicular design, Point A and Point B are separated by a sharp change in altitude.
Though it would seem that getting a car up a hill is harder than moving it across a flat surface, using a design technology similar to a rope pulley, the funicular railway was possible. Two funicular railway cars are attached to each other via cable, counterbalancing to minimize the energy required to move the ascending car.
The need for uphill railways was strong in the middle ages because the wealthiest people, who could afford to build a new technology, lived snugly and safely at the highest peak in the town.
The first funicular railway appeared in Austria in 1515 to transport goods to the Hohensalzburg Castle at the top of the mountain. Mechanical transportation of crops and goods was more efficient and less labor intensive than horses dragging carriages up an unfairly steep slope. The original funicular railways were operated by animal or man and were constructed of wooden rails and hemp rope. Today, an electric motor has replaced manpower, and the structure and cables are of steel.
Eventually, the thrill of the climbing design of the funicular railway outsold its practical use. Thus, funicular railways began to be built as tourist attractions, providing scenic and exciting rides to access lovely panoramas.
The most famous of these was the Mount Lowe Railway in California, created in 1893. The railway’s entire route traveled 7 miles, with the primary attraction the funicular cable car which brought visitors to the Echo Mountain Promontory along the Great Incline. The funicular ascended 3250 feet with an incline of over 60%. The railway was abandoned by 1938, due to the heavy costs of upkeep.
Funicular railways are currently found around the world. These include Hong Kong’s Peak Tram, built in 1888 and still used to transport people; Malaysia’s Pekang Hill, a very popular tourist attraction; Valparaiso in Chile, which has 15 funiculars dating back to 1883 that have become UNESCO World Heritage sites; and Australia’s Katoomba Scenic World in the Blue Mountains, which is the planet’s steepest funicular railway, with an incline of 128%, or 52 degrees. Private funiculars for home use have become popular as well, transporting homeowners who prefer riding by rail to walking up stairs.