“What’s a funicular?” The question surprised me, coming from someone who has travelled quite a lot. I was talking about travelling on one in Switzerland, but I’ve also been on many of them around the world. These old-fashioned cable-cars, hauling up steep inclines to otherwise somewhat inaccessible places are wonderful inventions, and are known by a variety of names.
A funicular is a cable railway (sometimes called a cliff railway), in which a cable attached to a pair of tram-style “cars” on rails moves them up and down, with the ascending and descending vehicles counter-balancing each other. I love them – apart from anything else, a ride usually costs just a few dollars and gets you to some of the world’s best views.
After my trip to Switzerland – where I travelled on two of them – I wanted to find out who invented this ingenious method of transport. That seems to be lost in the mists of time, but I did find out that the Swiss engineer Carl Roman Abt adapted an earlier system of two parallel rails (one in each direction) to allow the cars to pass on the way up or down. Now why should that not surprise me? The Swiss are such clever people.
And even more wonderful to learn was that Abt’s invention, known as the Abt Switch (or passing loop), was used for the first time in 1891 when the Giessbachbahn funicular opened in Switzerland. And it was the Giessbachbahn funicular (pictured above) that provided one of my two rides on my recent trip. This short ride carried me up to one of the most spectacular hotel locations I’ve ever seen, the Grandhotel Giessbach in the mountains above Lake Brienz. The Giessbach funicular is the oldest in Switzerland still in operation. Hotel guests (of which I was one) and small dogs travel free; others pay a small amount for the five minute trip. And it’s worth it for the views of the Giessbach Falls which cascade from even higher in the mountains above you.
The second funicular ride I took in Switzerland was in Montreux. Again, I was bound for a room with a view, this time Hotel Victoria, perched at 700 metres above Lake Geneva. To get there, we joined a gaggle of schoolchildren taking their daily afternoon commute, treating the funicular as if it was a school bus. This funicular has linked the suburbs of Glion and Territet (at the bottom) since 1883. Unlike most other funiculars, the cars on this one are painted gold and white. It turns out they used to be red, but a few years ago were repainted as part of a branding exercise for the Golden Pass ticketing system that encompasses other buses, trains and trams in Switzerland.
In New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, the Wellington Cable Car runs to Kelburn, a suburb with the best views of the city. You jump aboard in Cable Car Lane, off downtown Lambton Quay, and ascend to the Wellington Botanic Garden and Kelburn lookout. There are three stops along the way, mostly used by local residents and students at Victoria University’s Kelburn campus. At the top you’ll also find the free Cable Car Museum, which has two of the original cable cars from 1902 on show, and the Carter Observatory and Planetarium. If you prefer to walk back to the city centre, it’s a pleasant 40-minute downhill stroll, mostly through the gardens.
Wellington is a very hilly city, and many private homes also have small private funiculars to provide easier access from the street to the house – no toiling up steep paths or hundreds of steps for these clever Kiwis! In fact about 300 houses are estimated to have them; a good spot to see them is along the waterfront at Oriental Bay.
The steepest passenger-carrying funicular in the world is in Australia’s Blue Mountains. The Katoomba Scenic Railway, which runs on an old mining track, has a maximum incline of 52 degrees or 122 per cent. After a redevelopment last year, the railway now has glass-roofed carriages with views of the surrounding rainforest and the Jamison Valley. What’s also new is the ability for you to adjust your seat incline up to 20 degrees. From “cliffhanger” at a very steep 64 degree incline, a more “laid back” ride, or just sticking to the “original” at 52 degrees.
The Scenic Railway descends 310 metres through a cliff-side tunnel, emerging into the lush rainforest on the Jamison Valley floor. Since it opened in 1945, the Scenic Railway has carried 25 million passengers and has been a popular attraction for five generations of Australians.
There are lots of funiculars around the world. The first one I ever went on (I think) was one of the world’s most famous, the Peak Tram in Hong Kong. One of the first funiculars in Asia, it has been running since 1888. It has a maximum grade of 48 per cent, is 1.4 km long, and is now one of Hong Kong’s major tourist attractions. It’s red too!
Have you ever had fun on a funicular? And does anyone know why they all seem to be painted red?