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Funiculars: Strange Water-Powered Mountain Transport

Funiculars use only gravity to get up and down steep slopes.

When it comes to traveling up a steep slope along a mountain or large hill in modern times, we have plenty of options. Whether that be cars, gondolas, or ski-lifts, they're all fairly modern inventions. In the late 1800s, there was another way to travel up mountains call funiculars. These train-like vehicles are some of the most energy-efficient ways of traveling up and down a slope, and they're quite mechanically simple.

The setup of funiculars

Funiculars function in a system of two counterbalanced cars attached at the end of a long cable that goes from one car, up the slope, around a pulley, and back down to another car. This means that as one car goes up the slope, the other one must go down. Movement is accomplished through the changing of the weight of each car, or through the use of a motor to move one car up.

Funiculars: Strange Water-Powered Mountain Transport
Source: Tony Hisgett/Wikimedia

Focusing on the more rudimentary power technique of changing a car's weight, this can be done through the pumping of water. Underneath each car, there will be a tank that can be emptied and filled upon command. At the beginning of any journey, the tanks are usually empty.

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Passengers will then board onto both cars, and once ready to go, the operator at the upper station is informed of the number of passengers that have entered the lower car. This gives him the knowledge he needs to know how much water to pump into his car to allow for a moderate ascent or descent. Once there is an imbalance in car weight, with the upper car being heavier, the brakes on both cars are released, allowing the upper car to descend and the lower car to ascend. At the end, the water is drained, and the process starts all over again.

Funiculars: Strange Water-Powered Mountain Transport
Source: Cmglee/Wikimedia

How were funiculars powered?

While many funiculars were originally powered by this water imbalance system, most of these systems were later fitted with electric motors, which allowed a little more control. However, there are still many funicular systems that operate on the original water technology.

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The Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway in North Devon is one that's been in operation since 1890. There's also the Bom Jesus do Monte Funicular in Braga, Portugal, and the Neuveville St. Pierre in Fribourg, Switzerland. The Neuveville funicular is particularly interesting because it uses wastewater from a sewage plant to power the car's travel up and down.

In most water-powered funiculars, pumps are needed to fill the tanks of the cars. However, the Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff funiculars actually work without any pumps. The water is taken from a nearby river which allows for the cars to travel up and down, with the only input being the diversion of water.

If you ever get a chance to travel up a mountain in a funicular utilizing water weight as the propulsion technique, definitely take it. It's one of the purest examples of simplicity being better than complex mechanics that are still around today.

Interesting funiculars around the world

Now that we've learned how funiculars work and a little bit about their history, let's take a look at some of the more interesting funiculars that are still functioning around the world. Surprisingly, there are still quite a few functioning funiculars in countries across the globe. However, most modern funiculars are still operational purely as tourist attractions in the area. As you have likely already discovered, riding a funicular up a steep slope makes for a rather memorable experience. 

Buda Hill Funicular - Hungary

The ride up the Buda Hill funicular only takes a few minutes, but due to its height, you'll get a number of beautiful views of the surrounding city of Budapest. The Funicular specifically connects the banks of the Danube River and the Buda Castle. Completed in 1870 and in operation ever since, this site is worth a visit if you ever get the chance. 

One notable aspect of this funicular is how visually interesting the cars are. Taking on a more box-like old-style appearance, it's a trip back through time. 

 

Penang Hill Railway - Malaysia

First opened in 1923, the Penang Hill Railway in Malaysia takes roughly 5 to 20 minutes to complete the journey up the hill. This variance depends upon the number of passengers and whether the tour takes stops or not. 

The historic funicular railway was initially designed for British colonialists in the area to take a day-long vacation up the hill. It's also a rather long railway, stretching 2,976 feet up the hillside.

 

Old Quebec Funicular - Canada

The Old Quebec funicular was originally built in 1879. It's a rather short train right, but on a steep gradient of 45%. Its purpose is to connect the lower town to the upper town in Kabuki, stretching up 210 feet of hillside. 

Two cars can ride at the same time and offers stunning views as you make your way up.

 

Hong Kong Peak Tram - Hong Kong

The Peak Tram in Hong Kong takes on a more traditional train-like aesthetic. It runs 4,475 feet up the Victoria Peak in the area, making it one of the longest funiculars in the world. 

Even with that significant length, the ride only takes 5 minutes as it moves rather quickly. Covering a total elevation change of 1,312 feet over the journey, it makes for a fun trip.

Monongahela Incline - Pittsburgh

The Monongahela Incline in Pittsburgh is one of the few funiculars located in the United States. It is actually the oldest continuously running funicular in America, with operations having started as far back as 1870. 

This funicular was originally constructed for business purposes rather than purely tourist reasons. The cars transported coal workers to the Ormsby mine on Mount Washington. The lower station is now a shopping mall and a rather popular tourist attraction in the area.  Running a little over 600 feet long, if you're ever in the area, it's definitely worth a trip up... or down. 

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