For the mathematical and architectural curve known as funicular, see catenary.
Funicular in Hastings, England
Funicular in Lyon, (France)

A funicular (/fᵿˈnɪkjᵿlər/), also known as an 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. Funiculars of one sort or another have existed for hundreds of years and continue to be used for moving both passengers and goods. Its name derives from the latin, funiculus, diminutive of funis, meaning "rope".


The basic idea of funicular operation is that two cars are always attached to each other by a cable, which runs through a pulley at the top of the slope. Counterbalancing of the two cars, with one going up and one going down, minimizes the energy needed to lift the car going up. Winching is normally done by an electric drive that turns the pulley. Sheave wheels guide the cable to and from the drive mechanism and the slope cars.

Track layout

Illustration of four-rail, three-rail and two-rail layouts. Rails coloured green are shared by both cars. Note the unconventional wheels and the gaps in the rails in the two-rail layout.
Duquesne Incline, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., with full-length parallel tracks
Passing track with Abt switch on the Flying Dutchman Funicular at Cape Point, South Africa

Early funiculars used two parallel straight tracks, four rails, with separate station platforms for each vehicle. The tracks are laid with sufficient space between them for the two cars to pass at the midpoint. The wheels of the cars are usually single-flanged, as on standard railway vehicles. Examples of this type of track layout are the Duquesne Incline in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and most cliff railways in the UK.

Layouts that require less width have been developed, with only two or three rails for the most part of the slope and four rails only at the passing section.

The Swiss engineer Carl Roman Abt invented the method that allows cars to be used with a two-rail configuration: the outboard wheels have flanges on both sides, which keeps them aligned with the outer rail, thus holding each car in position, whereas the inboard wheels are unflanged and ride on top of the opposite rail, thereby easily crossing over the rails (and cable) at the passing track.

Two-rail configurations of this type avoid the need for switches and crossings, since the cars have the flanged wheels on opposite sides and will automatically follow different tracks, and in general, significantly reduce costs (especially when the funicular runs in a tunnel, such as the Funicular de Bulnes, in Asturias[1]).

In layouts using three rails, the middle rail is shared by both cars. The three-rail layout is wider than the two-rail layout, but the passing section is simpler to build. If a rack for braking is used, that rack can be mounted higher in a three-rail layout, making it less sensitive to choking in snowy conditions.[2]

Some four-rail funiculars have the upper and lower sections interlaced and a single platform at each station. The Hill Train at Legoland, Windsor, 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 Car in New Zealand was rebuilt with two rails.

History of different track layouts

Spezialbillett (2000)

Until the end of the 1870s, the four-rail parallel-track funicular was the normal configuration. Carl Roman Abt developed the Abt Switch allowing the two-rail layout, which was used for the first time in 1879 when the Giessbachbahn funicular opened in Switzerland.[2] In the United States, the first funicular to use a two-rail layout was the Telegraph Hill Railroad in San Francisco, which was in operation from 1884 until 1886.[3] The Mount Lowe Railway in Altadena, California, was the first mountain railway in the United States to use the three-rail 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. These layouts enabled a funicular boom in the latter 19th century.

Bottom towrope

The cars can be 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 a tensioning wheel to avoid slack in the ropes. In this case, the winching can also be done 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.[2]

Gravity plane

Funiculars used in mines were sometimes unpowered gravity planes, also known as self-acting inclines or brake inclines. The weight of descending loaded wagons was used to pull the empty mine wagons.[4]

Water counterbalancing

The Funicular of Fribourg in Fribourg (Switzerland) uses waste water for counterbalancing.

A few funiculars have been built using water tanks under the floor of each car that are filled or emptied until just sufficient imbalance is achieved to allow movement. The car at the top of the hill is loaded with water until it is heavier than the car at the bottom, causing it to descend the hill and pulling up the other car. The water is drained at the bottom, and the process repeats with the cars exchanging roles. The movement is controlled by a brakeman.

The oldest funicular in the world moving by water counterbalancing is the Bom Jesus funicular built in 1882. The funicular track in Bom Jesus do Monte near Braga, Portugal is 274 metres (899 ft) long and descends 116 metres (381 ft). The funicular of Fribourg is special since it utilizes waste water, coming from the upper part of the city, for counterbalancing.

Inclined lift

The Lärchwandschrägaufzug in Kaprun, Land Salzburg, Austria. Constructed to transport building materials to two reservoirs and, at 8,200 mm (26 ft 10 2732 in), having the widest gauge of any railway.

The inclined lift, or inclined elevator, occasionally inclinator is not a funicular, since it has only one car carrying payload on the slope. The car is 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 lifts were constructed along the pressure lines of storage power plants for transporting building materials. Examples are the Gelmerbahn leading to the Gelmersee and the Funicolare Piora–Ritom leading to Lago Ritom, both in Switzerland.

The steepest funicular in the world is the incline lift Katoomba Scenic Railway in Australia.[5]

Modern versions resembling an elevator are used in some installations, such as at the Cityplace Station in Dallas, Texas, the Huntington Metro Station in Huntington, Virginia, the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego, the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The London Millennium Funicular provides an alternative to staircase access to London's Millennium Bridge.[6][7]

A mixture between an inclined lift and a funicular with two cars was the second Angels Flight in Los Angeles. The funicular closed in 1969 and was reinstalled in 1996 using separate cables for each car, which were winched on separate winch drums in the station at the top. 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 fatal accident in 2001. The funicular was then closed until 2010, and since 5 September 2013.[8]


Angels Flight, Los Angeles, three-rail configuration with passing track
The Great Incline funicular of the Mount Lowe Railway (1893–1938). The arrow indicates the location of the car on the Macpherson Trestle. Grade: 62%.

The oldest funicular is the Reisszug, a private line providing goods access to Hohensalzburg Castle at Salzburg in Austria. 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.[9][10]

The first railway in England with wooden rails was probably made for James Clifford, lord of the manor of Broseley. He was working coal mines there by 1575 and had a wagonway delivering coal to barges on the River Severn by 1606. This is after the first record of a railway in England, the Wollaton Wagonway, but seems to be earlier.[11]

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 Dukart's Canal in County Tyrone, Ireland, 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 States. 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 Jersey, which connected the Delaware River to the Passaic River using 23 planes, as well as a series of locks along the gentler gradients. The Allegheny Portage Railroad, part of the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal, built in 1834 with ten planes as the first railroad across the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania, was steam powered.[12]

Modern funicular railways operating in urban areas date from the 1860s. The first line of the Funiculars of Lyon (Funiculaires de Lyon) opened in 1862, followed by other lines in 1878, 1891 and 1900. The Budapest Castle Hill Funicular was built in 1868–69, with the first test run on 23 October 1869. In Istanbul, Turkey, the Tünel has been in continuous operation since 1875 and is both the first underground funicular and the second-oldest underground railway. The oldest funicular railway operating in Britain dates from 1875 and is in Scarborough, North Yorkshire.[13]

In Quebec City, Canada, the Old Quebec Funicular has been operating since 1879, connecting the Haute-Ville (Upper Town) to the Basse-Ville (Lower Town). The Dresden Funicular Railway was opened in 1895.

One of the most famous funiculars was the Great Incline of the Mount Lowe Railway in Altadena, California, designed by Andrew Smith Hallidie of San Francisco cable car fame. The Mount Lowe Railway combined its funicular, raising passengers 2,800 feet (850 metres) up the steep side of Mount Echo (elevation 3,500 ft (1,100 m), with electric narrow-gauge trolley systems at each end (the Rubio Canyon line was standard-gauged after being acquired by Henry E. 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.[14]

Montesanto Funicular in Naples, Italy, in 2008.

The eastern United States had several incline railways, most engineered by the Otis Elevator Company of Yonkers, New York (today a subsidiary of UTC in Connecticut). Perhaps the best example was the Mount Beacon Incline Railway in Beacon, New York, the steepest funicular Otis built in the northeast. It had an average gradient of 64% and a maximum gradient of 74% and operated for over 75 years, from 1902–1972 & 1975–1978. It was added to the National Historic Register in 1982 & destroyed by fire in 1983. A not-for-profit society is currently working toward its restoration.

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


Hong Kong Peak tram car approaching the upper terminus
Vesuvius funicular, lower station. Note the wheels and track. Stereo card by Giorgio Sommer, year unknown.

Fløibanen is a funicular in Bergen, Norway, which runs up the mountain of Fløyen. It is one of Bergen's major tourist attractions and one of Norway's most visited attractions.

Hong Kong's Peak Tram was one of the first funiculars in Asia, opened in 1888, with a maximum grade of 48%, 1.4 km (0.87 mi) long, and is now one of Hong Kong's major tourist attractions.

Another funicular in Asia is located on Penang Hill, Penang, Malaysia. Located 6 km (3.7 mi) from George Town, Penang Hill (Bukit Bendera) is one of the most popular destinations in Penang. Penang Hill is actually a complex of hills and spurs, and the highest point is Western Hill, which is 830 metres (2,720 feet) above sea level. The most convenient way up to Penang Hill is by means of a funicular railway, which is in Air Itam. There is a tunnel that measures 258 feet (79 m) long and 10 feet (3.05 m) wide starting at steepness of 35 feet (11 m) high, which is the steepest tunnel in the world. The funicular train leaves every half an hour and can carry up to 100 passengers. It takes about 10 minutes to get to the top. Prior to the latest train deployed, journey can take up to 30 minutes and requires passengers to change trains halfway up.

In Spain, the Bulnes funicular is an unusual two-rail installation that runs in a tunnel. The passenger cars are augmented by trailers used for carrying goods and/or animals.

Valparaiso, Chile, has fifteen funiculars, the oldest dating from 1883. Some of them are inside the historic quarter, which has been 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.[15]

The Carmelit is an underground funicular railway in Haifa, Israel. It is one of the smallest metro systems in the world, having only four cars, six stations and a single tunnel 1.8 km (1.1 mi) long. It operated from its construction in 1959 until 1986 after showing signs of aging. It subsequently reopened in September 1992 after extensive renovations.

The Scenic Railway at Katoomba Scenic World, Blue Mountains, Australia (which supports multiple tourist attractions such as the Skyway and Cableway), is claimed to be the world's steepest passenger-carrying funicular railway, with a maximum incline of 52 degrees or 122%, with a total incline length of 310 metres (1,020 feet) and a vertical lift of 206.5 m (677 ft) in a horizontal distance of 243.4 m (799 ft). The railway is on the old mining track.[16]

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

The Niesenbahn in the Swiss Kandertal is the longest continuous-cable funicular in Europe. In Lugano, a funicular connects the city centre with Lugano railway station on the hillside above.

In Ukraine, The Kiev Funicular serves the city of Kiev, connecting the historic Uppertown, and the lower neighborhood of Podil through the steep Volodymyrska Hill overseeing the Dnieper River. Funicular was constructed during 1902–05.

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 Railway in North Devon, England; the CAT Funicular at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Gwynedd, Wales; the Nerobergbahn in Wiesbaden, Germany; and the Bom Jesus funicular in Braga, Portugal (the oldest, still working, in the world).

The Great Orme Tramway is the only cable-hauled tramway still operating on British public roads. It runs from Church Walks in Llandudno. It first opened on 31 July 1902 and runs on a daily basis from late March to late October, taking visitors to the summit of The Great Orme, climbing one mile (1.6 km) of track to the summit complex at a height of 679 feet (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 an exhibition of the history of this funicular tramway at the half-way station.[17]

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

Naples, Italy, has four funiculars. The Chiaia Funicular was built in 1889, followed within two years by the 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, which was destroyed various times by Vesuvius eruptions. It appears to have been originally constructed as a monorail. It was partially modified to become a rack railway in its last section, it was destroyed by the eruption in 1944. It became famous worldwide because the Neapolitan song "Funiculì Funiculà" was dedicated to it.[18]

The Johnstown Inclined Plane (built in 1890) in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, United States, is claimed to be the world's steepest vehicular inclined plane, at 70.9%. In addition to passengers, it can carry one automobile in each direction. Chattanooga, Tennessee, is home to the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway (built in 1895), which travels from the base to the top of Lookout Mountain and falsely[16] claims to be the steepest funicular in the world,[19] with a maximum grade of 72.7%.[20]

The Industry Hills Golf Club funicular in the City of Industry, California

In addition to the historic Angels Flight and Mount Lowe Railway, Southern California has two recently constructed funicular railways. Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California, has a funicular that 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[21] in the City of Industry, California, formerly the Industry Hills Sheraton Resort, utilizes a funicular to transport golfers and their carts. The 400-foot (122 m) 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.[22] The railway was installed in 1979 as part of a 650-acre (260 ha) brownfield reclamation project that transformed a collection of hills containing a former refuse dump into a resort and 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 Mountains.

The Falls Incline Railway, originally the Horseshoe Falls Incline, at Niagara Falls, Canada, gives access to hotels above the falls.

The funicular in Baku, Azerbaijan connects the hilltop Alley of Martyrs with Neftchilar Avenue on the Caspian seaside. The Baku Funicular is 455 metres (1,493 ft) long and has been in operation since 1960.

Private funiculars

Track and bottom station of the Lucerne funicular

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, such as Wellington, New Zealand, which has about 300.[23] These have a small car for two to four people permanently attached to a cable from a winch, which runs on an inclined pair of rails (beams) or a single rail at a low speed (0.3 to 1.0 metres/second). They are often called "cable cars" or "lifts" (elevators), e.g., in the New Zealand standard for private cable cars.[24] Larger and faster models can improve access to commercial buildings.[25]

GreenWood Forest Park in Gwynedd, Wales is home to the Green Dragon roller coaster. This coaster uses a funicular railway pulley system to lift the empty roller coaster using the weight of the people about to ride in it.[26]

An apartment complex in San Francisco called Las Casitas has its own inclined elevator shaped like the city's Cable Cars. It was built and installed by Dwan Elevator Co..

Hillbilly Golf, a miniature golf course in Gatlinburg, Tennessee has a private funicular which takes patrons from the parking lot/office at the bottom of the mountain to the first hole (of either one of two courses); and picks up patrons from the 18th holes (about midway between the bottom and top).[27]

Smallest public funiculars

The smallest public funicular in the world is the Fisherman's Walk Cliff Railway in Bournemouth, England, at a length of 39 metres (128 ft).[28]

The smallest funicular in Croatia is the Zagreb Funicular with a length of 66.0 m (216.5 ft).[29]

The smallest funicular in Italy is the Ferata Gran Risa, located in La Ila in South Tyrol, with a length of 66.7 m (219 ft).[30]

The smallest funicular in Switzerland is located in Lucerne. 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 (length: 85 m or 279 ft).[31] The travel time for both directions is 60 seconds.

See also


  1. Bulnes Funicular xvid. YouTube. 18 March 2011.
  2. 1 2 3 Walter Hefti: Schienenseilbahnen in aller Welt. Schiefe Seilebenen, Standseilbahnen, Kabelbahnen. Birkhäuser, Basel 1975, ISBN 3-7643-0726-9 (German)
  3. "Telegraph Hill Railroad". The Cable Car Home Page – Cable Car Lines in San Francisco. Joe Thompson. 1 July 2009. Retrieved 20 September 2009. The Telegraph Hill Railroad was not a cable car line ...; it was a funicular railway
  4. Lake, R.D. (2009). "British Railways 1920–1970". Retrieved 29 December 2010.
  5. "Top five funicular railways". Sydney Morning Herald. 30 October 2005. Retrieved 5 November 2012.
  6. "The Millennium Bridge Inclined Lift". Dunbar and Boardman. 18 October 2012. Retrieved 7 April 2013.
  7. London Millennium Funicular,, 5 December 2003, retrieved 7 April 2013
  8. Wall Street Journal. 16 March 2010. p. A6. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  9. "Der Reiszug – Part 1 – Presentation". Funimag. Retrieved 22 April 2009.
  10. Kriechbaum, Reinhard (15 May 2004). "Die große Reise auf den Berg". der Tagespost (in German). Retrieved 22 April 2009.
  11. Peter King, 'The first Shropshire Railways' in G. Boyes (ed.), Early Railways 4: Papers from the 4th International Early Railways Conference 2008 (Six Martlets, Sudbury, 2010), 81–4.
  12. "Allegheny Portage Railroad Reading 1: Riding on the inclined plane". Retrieved 20 February 2009.
  13. "Blunder traps eight on cliff lift". BBC News. 24 April 2009. Retrieved 2 April 2010.
  14. The railway opened on 4 July 1893, and by 1902 it was operated by Pacific Electric Railway. It ran around the edges of the foothills to Ye Alpine Tavern, only 1,100 ft (340 m) from the Mount Lowe summit. In 1936 the last of the standing buildings, the Tavern, burned down, and the railway was abandoned after the Los Angeles deluge of March 1938.
  15. LOGIN.CL reports on bad state of repair of elevators |
  16. 1 2 "Top five funicular railways". Sydney Morning Herald.
  17. For more information on The Great Orme Tramway go to
  18. "Funiculì, Funiculà".
  19. Lookout Mountain Incline Railway website, accessed 2015-11-22
  20., accessed 2015-11-22
  21. "Industry Hills Golf Club". Retrieved 17 December 2010.
  22. "The Cable Car Home Page – Los Angeles Area Funiculars". Retrieved 17 December 2010.
  23. "Cable-car Standard Ensures Safety".
  24. NZS 5270
  25. NuWave. "Commercial Inclined Elevator & Lift, Inclinators – Access Automation".
  26. Weisenberger, Nick (2012). Coasters 101 : an engineering guide to roller coaster design (1st ed.). CreateSpace. ISBN 1468013556. Retrieved 12 June 2015.
  28. Guinness World Records 2015. p. 191. ISBN 9781908843630.
  29. "Funimag".
  30. "Ferata Gran Risa". lift-world.onfo. Retrieved 23 November 2015.
  31. HOMM interactive – Luzern ::: Strategien sichtbar machen. "in the last fourth of the movie". Retrieved 17 December 2010.
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