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About this Article
Written by: Anna Harley-Trochimczyk
Written on: July 7th, 2009
Tags: transportation, lifestyle
Thumbnail by: Michael Azema
About the Author
In Spring 2009, Anna Harley-Trochimczyk was a junior studying chemical engineering with an emphasis in nanotechnology at the University of Southern California. She stumbled upon Angels Flight while exploring downtown Los Angeles and it incited her passion for historical oddities.
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Volume X Issue IV > The Fun of Funiculars
Humans have been using funiculars for close to 500 years to transport people and cargo up steep inclines, and in that time, the technology has not changed significantly. Initially developed to move through steep terrain, funiculars remain relevant because of their efficiency and simplicity of design. By using a counterweight pulley system, the funicular uses the kinetic energy of the descending car to raise the ascending car in a manner similar to that of an elevator. This works in combination with wheeled cars and tracks to allow for long routes and reliable rides. Although some added energy is required to overcome frictional losses of the system, funiculars represent a sustainable method of transportation because no fuel is consumed. Instead, funiculars harness the energy inherent in the motion of the cars. These railways demonstrate the lasting value of simple solutions and are a testament to engineering ingenuity.

Introduction

Humankind has made some impressive technological advancements in our relatively brief time on Earth – landing a spacecraft on the moon, diving to the ocean floor, zipping across land in magnetic levitation trains. In this high-paced world, it can be easy to overlook the magnitude of the accomplishments of centuries past. However, there are lessons to be learned and beauty to be found in the simplicity of many ancient technologies. Before the days of electricity and steam engines, humans still managed to erect the Pyramids, sail the oceans in wooden ships, and pump water in aqueducts. One example of human ingenuity is the funicular railway (also called an incline railway). Using a simple pulley system, the funicular railway allows passengers and cargo to be carried up mountains with minimal energy expenditure. The elegantly efficient design of the funicular has not changed a great deal over its 500-year lifetime.

Origins and History

Many of us have probably never heard of funicular railways, or if we have, it may have been in the context of a tourist attraction. As a long-time resident of Los Angeles, I was surprised to learn quite recently that one exists right here in downtown Los Angeles, on Bunker Hill. When I finally got a chance to see it, I got the impression that it was more of a historical novelty than a practical mode of transportation in modern society. However, upon further research, I realized that this type of railway continues to be a useful addition to the public transportation systems of cities all over the world. Similar technology has also been adapted by companies for use in more residential or commercial settings, at ski resorts or golf courses, for example. Even though funiculars serve a fairly narrow range of transportation needs, they do so in such an effective manner that many of those running today have been in operation for over a hundred years. Because they are so uniquely suited to such a specific purpose, funiculars remain relevant to this day.
Funicular railways were developed in response to the needs of very specific terrain problems – namely moving cargo up and down inclines, or rapid changes in elevation. The first predecessor of the modern funicular railway was developed in the 1500s at Hohensalzburg Castle in Salzburg. It ran on wooden tracks and consisted of one cart attached to a pulley, powered first by prisoners, then by oxen [1]. Funiculars grew in popularity during the 18th century in the Industrial Age; they were especially useful along canals to help move barges over elevation changes that were too steep for locks [2]. Many of those that exist in the eastern United States were originally created for this purpose, as well as cities in South America and other parts of the world. Some cities situated on steep mountains like Valparaiso, Chile, depend on funicular railways to connect the different levels of the city. Because funiculars provide an efficient method of traversing inclines that requires little physical exertion from users, they have been implemented on hills and mountains across the globe.