Although the term “funicular” might not be on the tip of most tongues, everyone — even if they don’t know exactly what to call it — has one of two reactions when first catching a glimpse of one:
OMG, I want to ride that NOW.
No. You aren’t making me get into that wooden boxcar-thing crawling up the side of a mountain.
Although it takes on different names and serves different purposes, the idea behind this curious Austrian-born import — also known as an incline railway — is the same as it was during the turn of the 20th century when Europeans (and Pennsylvanians) were erecting them at a crazed pace.
A pair of wheeled passenger carriages — sometimes a tiny wooden box, sometimes a more spacious tram — sit on rails built on a slope, be it the face of a mountain or a short urban hill. Connected by a cable that moves through a pulley, the two cars counterbalance each other as one ascends the hill and the other descends it. An electric motor — once coal-powered steam engines and, before that, humans and animals — provides the winching action. Just think of the funicular as a hybrid of a trolley and an elevator and you’re somewhat close.
A relatively rare sight in the U.S. unless you happen to live in Ketchikan, Pittsburgh or a handful of other places, funicular railways are a common way for people to get from Point A to Point B in more distant locales, from dizzying Swiss ski slopes to South American cities with beautiful but challenging topography. In European cities like Naples where annual funicular ridership is in the millions, they function just like public subway systems.
Join us for a ride (in spirit) on 14 particularly far-out funiculars from around the globe. Although a couple of these unique inclines are currently out of commission, all are still standing — a few are even protected historic landmarks.
Photo: Javier Rubilar/Flickr
Ascensor Artillería — Valparaíso, Chile
As those who have set foot in the eye-poppingly colorful Chilean port city of Valparaíso could tell you, you can’t swing a you-know-what by its tail without hitting a funicular. Seriously, this slightly bananas boho paradise by the sea — a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2003 — is teeming with incline railways, which scale the steep hillside residential districts that ring the city. At one point home to nearly 30 funiculars (a majority built in the 1890s and early 1900s), Valparaíso has only a handful of its famed ascensores (elevators) still in active use. Many have been declared national landmarks.
So how to pick just one ascensor in a city that’s basically the world capital of old-school counterbalancing cable cars? We’ve settled on Ascensor Artillería (1893).
Scaling Cerro Artillería (Artillery Hill), this funicular isn’t the city’s oldest (the Concepción and Cordillera funiculars came first) nor is it the longest (a trip up and down the 574-foot track lasts a mere 80 seconds). Yet this particular funicular has emerged as Valparaíso’s most photo-friendly. Perhaps its popularity has to do with its brightly hued wooden carriages or the fact that many claim the sweeping views enjoyed from the top are among the best in the city.
Photo: Nan Palmero/Flickr
Angels Flight — Los Angeles
Although the gritty-artsy-glitzy wonderland that is downtown L.A. doesn’t scream funicular, you’ll find just that in Angels Flight (1901), the last incline railway remaining in a city that once boasted a modest handful of them. Here’s hoping the “Shortest Railway in the World” reopens soon.
First built on a steep but short slope connecting Hill and Olive streets in the Bunker Hill section of downtown L.A., the 298-foot funicular and its two cars, Sinai and Olivet, were dismantled and placed in storage in 1969 after 68 years of service to make way for a contentious — and ongoing — redevelopment of the neighborhood. Nearly 30 years later, in 1996, Angels Flight was taken out of mothballs and rebuilt near its original site. And then the problems began.
In 2001, an accident at Angels Flight killed one person and injured several others. After an investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board found design failures in the new haulage system were at fault. In 2010, with Sinai and Olivet restored and the faulty drive system replaced, Angels Flight reopened. It was briefly taken offline for repairs in 2011 and then, in September 2013, shuttered indefinitely after a nonfatal derailment.
In the meantime, Los Angelenos have been forced to take the stairs, with many (Sinai and Olivet, included) left wondering when the iconic railway will once again welcome passengers. The L.A. Times wrote in an editorial published after the latest closure: “Angels Flight is one of the country's few remaining funiculars and among the historic landmarks of downtown. In 1901, people rode up and down for a penny each way. Today, the one-minute-and-four-second ride costs a still-exquisitely-cheap 50 cents. As long as it's safe, let's keep riding.”
Photo: Chris Yunker/Flickr
Carmelit — Haifa, Israel
Although most of the funicular railways on our list promise singular, sweeping views that can be experienced only by slowly crawling up the side of a mountain in a cable car, that’s not the case at all with the Carmelit (1959), a completely underground inclined railway with bragging rights as one of the smallest subways in the world.
A popular — and as the website points out repeatedly, green — method of traversing the dauntingly steep terrain of Haifa, a vibrant Mediterranean seaport built onto the northern slope of Mount Carmel, the Carmelit is also Israel’s one and only subway. It was extensively renovated from 1986 through 1992. The line consists of only four cars (two per train) and six stations, with Gan Ha’em station at the top nearly 900 feet above sea level and Paris Square station as the lower terminus. Riding the Carmelit through its single, 1.1-mile long tunnel from top to bottom (or from bottom to top) takes about eight minutes.
So what subway is smaller than this tiny subterranean marvel? That would be Istanbul’s Tünel, a two-station funicular that went into operation in 1875, making it the second oldest subway in the world behind the London Underground. Other notable underground funiculars include Metro Alpin (often billed as the highest subway in the world) and the Sunnegga Express, both built to transport skiers in the canton of Valais in Switzerland.
Photo: Perry Quan/Flickr
Duquesne and Monongahela Inclines — Pittsburgh
At the turn of the 20th century, the rolling Rust Belt town of Pittsburgh was positively lousy with inclined railways that, in the absence of safe roads, moved cargo and residents up from the city’s bustling river banks to burgeoning hillside neighborhoods populated by an influx of German immigrant workers. Today, only two of Pittsburgh’s storied funiculars are still in operation, both climbing from the South Side to the top of Mount Washington or, as a longtime Yinzer would refer to it, Coal Hill.
The supersteep, 635-foot Monongahela (Mon) Incline (1870) is the oldest continuously operating funicular in the U.S., and the 794-foot Duquesne Incline (1877) was rescued by preservation-minded local residents shortly after it was shuttered in the early 1960s. Both are owned by the Port Authority of Pittsburgh, but the Duquesne Incline is operated by the nonprofit Society for the Preservation of the Duquesne Heights Incline.
Both listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, the formerly steam-powered inclines aren’t quite the workhorses they were when other means of reliable transportation simply did not exist. They are, however, quite the tourist draw, particularly the stunningly restored Duquesne Incline, which has a small museum, gift shop and observation deck at its Mount Washington terminus.
As most Pittsburghers could tell you, there are plenty of ways to see Steel City but the only way to view it in its full topographical glory — seriously, it’s one gorgeous city — is by hopping on a historical funicular for a 6 mph ride to the top of old Coal Hill. Acrophobes might want to sit this one out.
Photo: Harvey Barrison/Flickr
Fløibanen — Bergen, Norway
A bustling maritime city that’s simply irresistible despite persistently inclement skies, Bergen’s tourism scene is all about the F’s: fjords, the Fisketorget (fish market) and the fabulous Fløibanen (1918), a 2,789-foot funicular that whisks visitors to the top of Fløyen, one of the seven mountains encircling Norway’s stunning second city.
Despite the relatively short 8-minute trip to the top, with three local stops on the way, this is one funicular ride many visitors wish would last forever. The views from the railway’s two panorama-windowed, glass-ceilinged cars, Rødhette (the red one) and Blåmann (the blue one), simply defy description. And once you reach the top, you may never want to come down.
If the weather allows and you have time to poke around Fløyen, be sure to rent a canoe for a leisurely paddle around Skomakerdiket (Shoemaker’s Dike), grab a hiking map and wander off along a wooded path with a picnic lunch (just be mindful not to feed the trolls) or nosh on a traditional Norwegian seafood dish at the popular Fløien Folkerestaurant at 1,000 feet above sea level.
Photo: SD Dirk/Flickr
Fourth Street Elevator — Dubuque, Iowa
The funicular railways included on our list were built for a variety of reasons: shuttling skiers to the tops of mountains, providing residents with easy access to hard-to-reach hillside neighborhoods, entertaining tourists with a thrilling and scenic diversion. Dubuque’s Fourth Street Elevator, also known as the Fenelon Place Elevator, was erected because some rich guy was insistent on taking lunch/nap breaks at home but couldn’t be bothered to spend 30 minutes driving his horse and buggy to get there.
To be fair, half an hour was a long time for J.K. Graves, a banker and former state senator, to have to travel for his 90-minute daily siestas considering that his office was within spitting distance of his home, perched above town on the top of a steep bluff. And so, beginning in 1882, Graves began commuting to work and back via a rudimentary funicular built into the bluff.
A fire destroyed the steam engine-powered funicular in 1884, but Graves, fond of his new, speedy daily commute of about 98 feet from top to bottom, rebuilt. About this time, Graves’ neighbors, similarly tired of making the tedious trip to town via horse and buggy when town was literally sitting beneath them, began asking to use the funicular. He agreed and began charging 5 cents a head.
The funicular went up in the flames again several years later, but Graves was unable to fork out the cash needed to rebuild. The neighbors, who had grown dependent on the thing, took charge and formed the Fenelon Place Elevator Co. Although the fare has gone up significantly through the decades, this 296-foot funicular, still operated by the Fenelon Place Elevator Co. and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, continues to welcome riders on a seasonal basis.
Photo: Armando Mancini/Flickr
Funicolare Centrale — Naples, Italy
Pizza. Pickpockets. Funicolares. If you plan on navigating the hilly topography of Italy’s third largest city like a true Neapolitan, a ride on the Metropolitana di Napoli and one (or all) of its four famed funicolares — the Chiaia (1889), the Montesanto (1891), the Centrale (1928) and the Mergellina (1931) — is a must.
You needn’t worry about the funiculars in question being too touristy, with trinket-peddling kiosks and photo-op-friendly platforms marking each terminus. Naples’ incline railways are not about the view from the top. Because of the city’s chaotic orientation and ungodly traffic congestion, everyone's a funicular rider, with the four-station Central Funicular being the most highly trafficked of the railways with an annual ridership of 10 million. Workday ridership averages about 28,000 passengers.
Not only is it one of the most bustling public incline railways in the world, it’s also among the largest, at more than 4,000 feet. A gently sloping ride from Piazza Fuga Station in the chichi Vomero district down to Augusteo Station or vice versa takes a little longer than 4 minutes.
And on the topic of funiculars and Naples, it’s only appropriate to make mention of the now-defunct (we’ll let you guess why) Vesuvius Funicular, a volcano-scaling incline railway built in 1800 that was so special they wrote a song about it — later performed by Pavarotti, Bocelli and Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Photo: Greg Hume/Wikimedia Commons
Johnstown Inclined Plane — Johnstown, Pennsylvania
Although funicular aficionados may flock to Pittsburgh to ride the city’s surviving pair of inclined railways, you’ll find what’s billed as the “steepest vehicular incline in the world” about a 90-minute drive east in Cambria County.
What the Johnstown Inclined Plane (1891) lacks in sweeping urban vistas, it makes up for in jaw-dropping grade. With a total length of 896.5 feet, the system’s generously sized cable cars travel up the side Yoder Hill at an incredibly steep maximum grade of 70.9 percent, reaching an elevation of more than 1,600 feet. Designed by Budapest-born Samuel Diescher, the same engineer responsible for Pittsburgh’s inclines, the Johnstown Inclined Plane wasn’t erected just for the convenience of residents sick of hoofing it up the side of a hill.
Built in response to the Johnstown Flood of 1889 — which claimed the lives of more than 2,200 people and ranks as one of the worst disasters in U.S. history — the incline was meant as a quick mode of evacuation from the city to higher ground in the event of future floods. During major floods in 1936 and 1977, the incline served its intended purpose. When not used for evacuation purposes, it’s popular with tourists and commuters (mostly the former) with adult fares costing $4 for a round trip.
Photo: Patrick Chan/Flickr
Lookout Mountain Incline Railway — Chattanooga, Tennessee
Goodbye, choo-choo train; hello, near-vertical cable car!
Dubbed “America’s Most Amazing Mile,” Chattanooga’s Lookout Mountain Incline Railway (1895) spans just that — an entire dizzying mile from the historical St. Elmo district to the summit of Lookout Mountain, reaching a maximum grade of 72.7 percent.
Those who don’t do well with heights may be inclined to cover their eyes for a duration of the darn pretty 15-minute ride up and down the side of state-straddling (Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama) Lookout Mountain. This is a shame considering the knockout panoramic views — they don’t call Chattanooga “Scenic City” for nothing — of the Tennessee Valley on display from the windows in the funicular’s 42-person capacity cars. It is to be hoped they’ll remove those hands when up top and enjoy the sweeping vistas from Lookout Mountain station’s observation deck.
Given the $15 round-trip cost to ride the Lookout Mountain Incline when you can easily drive (or hike) to the top, this “technical marvel” of a funicular is predominately a tourists-only affair. It’s a particularly popular ride with American Civil War buffs eager to explore Lookout Mountain’s Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park, the site of the famous three-day “Battle Above the Clouds.” Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway is operated by the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority.
Photo: Matthew Black/Flickr
Montmartre Funicular — Paris
Though it’s certainly no Switzerland, France has its fair share of working funiculars. With a few exceptions, most of them are in ski resorts, not urban areas. And then there’s Montmartre.
Opened to the public in 1900 and subsequently rebuilt in 1935 and then again in 1991, when the system became fully automatic and took on a supermodern allure. Today, the 354-foot Funiculaire de Montmartre in Paris’ 18th arrondissement is one of the world's most recognizable funicular railways and has more than 2 million annual riders.
Considered part of the Paris Métro system, the Montmartre Funicular provides a less daunting and entirely less time-consuming (the entire trip takes 90 seconds) alternative to scaling Rue Foyatier, the 300-step staircase leading to Sacré-Cœur.
That said, hiking up the stairs to the white-domed basilica that towers over the city from the summit of Montmartre like the world’s most pietistic cake topper is a quintessential Paris experience. But bunion-suffering tourists tend to opt for the funicular, at least on the way up. Originally a water-driven funicular before going electric during the 1935 renovation, the current Montmartre Funicular is no longer a funicular in the traditional sense but an incline elevator given that the railway’s two cable cars now function independently using angled lift technology and don’t, as classic funiculars do, serve as counterweights.
Photo: Roland Zumbühl/Wikimedia Commons
Niesenbahn — Bern, Switzerland
Picking a single incline railway to represent Switzerland, the most funicular-full country in the world, is a truly difficult task.
We settled on the Niesenbahn, a funicular in the Bernese Oberland region of the Swiss Alps that connects the village of Mülenen to the summit of Niesen, aka the “Swiss Pyramid.”
Opened to the public in 1910, the Niesenbahn is neither the oldest funicular in Switzerland (that would be 1879’s Giessbachbahn) nor, with a maximum gradient of 68 percent, the steepest (the Gelmerbahn is tops with a legitimately terrifying maximum gradient of 106 percent). Spanning a total of 2.2 miles, the dual-section Niesenbahn, however, is among Switzerland’s longest funicular railways — quite the accomplishment in a country that’s chock-full of them.
But what really makes this funicular special is the fact that if riding up the side of a mountain in an overcrowded cable car just isn’t your thing, you can totally take the stairs. Yes, the stairs. Built directly alongside the Niesenbahn is the longest stairway in the entire world — all 11,764 steps of it. OK, so you can’t really take the stairs all the way up to the summit of Niesen for safety reasons — it’s a service stairway for the funicular — but it is open to the public once a year for a rather grueling-looking charity run up to the summit.
Photo: Marko Mikkonen/Flickr
Peak Tram — Hong Kong
Although a roughly 5-minute ride on the Peak Tram (1888) won’t allow you to completely escape from the oft-oppressive chaos that is Hong Kong, it does provide for a scenic respite from the madness below — provided you don’t mind sharing a cable car with as many as 120 other passengers.
Running 4,475-feet up the face of Victoria Peak with a history museum at the bottom and a shopping mall-cum-observation platform up top, this dizzying, six-station joyride has a heavily touristy daily ridership of more than 17,000.
The line observed travel class segregation during its early years. First class was reserved for British colonial officers and the mostly European residents of upscale Victoria Peak who previously were forced to make the precariously steep trip up the mountain via sedan chair. Second class was composed of British military officers and Hong Kong’s police force. Third class was for animals and everyone else. Each section paid a different one-way fare: First class passengers doled out 30 cents; second class, 20 cents; and plebs, 10 cents. Naturally, the governor of Hong Kong had his own reserved seat from 1908 through 1942.
Although the travel class rules have long been suspended and the fares raised (a ride cost about $5 a head round trip), the original 1888 track, the first incline railway in all of Asia, remains intact. The tram system itself has gone through several overhauls in its history, most notably the switch from coal-fired steam engine to electric motors in 1926 and a complete refurbishment in the late 1980s with the addition of significantly larger cars and then-state-of-the-art funicular technology.
Photo: Hans-Rudolf Stoll/Flickr
Schwebebahn Dresden — Dresden, Germany
Last but not least, this slope-ascending railway in the German city of Dresden will manage to stop even the most worldly, been-there/done-that funicular aficionados dead in their tracks. “Hold up there just a minute, Betty Sue. What in god’s green Earth is that?”
That would happen to be the Schwebebahn Dresden (Dresden Suspension Railway), a nearly 900-foot-long upside-down monorail of sorts — the railway’s cable cars move below a fixed track — that scales the side of a hill with the support of 33 pillars.
Opened to the public in 1901 and emerging completely unscathed from World War II, the Schwebebahn Dresden is the world’s oldest suspension railway and also, technically, a funicular, as the two cable cars act as counterweights — that is, the car climbing the hill is pulled by the weight of the car going down the hill. Dresden also happens to be home to a nondangling funicular railway, Standseilbahn Dresden. Despite traveling across a bridge and through two tunnels during a scenic — and never too steep — 5 minute journey high above the River Elbe, the more “traditional” funicular option in Dresden has nothing on its suspended cousin.
And on the topic of suspended cousins, Schwebebahn Dresden was designed by Eugen Langen, the German engineer responsible for Wuppertal’s iconic hanging monorail — aka the “Wuppertal Floating Tram” aka the “Electric Elevated Railway (Suspension Railway) Installation, Eugen Langen System" — that boasts a total of 20 stations and makes several dramatic background appearances in Wim Wenders’ outstanding 2011 film, “Pina.”
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