Milan, 15 June 2021
It’s not often that I write about technologies, they are mostly workhorses of some sort without much else to commend them. But from time to time I come across a technology that catches my eye. Sometimes it’s because the technology in question is genuinely lovely to look at – solar power towers come to mind – but sometimes it’s simply because it’s quirky and fun and brings a smile to my world-weary, seen-it-all-before, been-there-done-that face. Funiculars fall into the latter category.
My wife and I have been taking funiculars quite often this last month or so. Actually, we’ve been taking one specific funicular quite often, the one between Como and Brunate, the village perched high above Como, on the steep hills – cliffs, almost – that plunge into the lake. It is the jump-off point for a number of our hikes.
Wikipedia informs me that the line was inaugurated in 1894, and certainly the style of the station in Como fits with that date.
We pile into one of those weird carriages that all funiculars have.
They are the only thing I’ve ever come across in the real world which look just like those parallelograms we used to draw in geometry classes at primary school.
Entering a funicular carriage is like entering a world where everything leans to one side. Luckily for us, as readers can see from the picture of the carriage its’ designers have rigged up the inside into a series of flat platforms connected by steps, so we can sit in a normal position and not like those astronauts who are about to take off from Cape Canaveral.
At departure time, a bell rings sonorously, the doors slide shut, and the steel cable starts dragging us up this impossibly steep hillside.
Halfway up the climb, the down-going carriage hoves to on the horizon.
It’s on the same track as ours, and coming straight at us.
But just before the inevitable head-on crash, the two carriages veer sideways – one to the left, one to the right – they slide past each other
and continue on their way. Soon after, we ease slowly into the upper station at Brunate, the doors open, and we stride off to yet another hike, after briefly stopping to admire the view.
It’s not just their quirkiness that makes me like funiculars. They are also clever pieces of design. The key design principle behind them is to have two carriages attached to the same cable. I personally haven’t dragged anything up a very steep hill, but I would imagine that it’s pretty hard work, requiring the outlay of a lot of energy – and an overseer to whip the bejeezus out of me to make me pull harder. A picture from Asterix and Cleopatra shows what I mean.
Attaching another carriage to the cable means that at least the weight of the carriage being dragged up the hill is now counterbalanced by the weight of the carriage sliding down it, so the only energy you need to add to the system is the energy required to drag the people sitting in the carriage up the hill. And if you can get people into the carriage going down the hill, they can pretty much balance the people coming up, reducing even more the energy required to get the upcoming carriage to the top of the hill.
I can’t find any claim on the internet to an inventor for this key idea. I suspect it’s an old idea, with the inventor lost in the mists of time. The most immediate precursor comes from the golden age of canals, where similar systems were used to drag boats up from a lower canal to a higher one, counterbalanced by boats being let down from the higher canal to the lower one. My wife and I have walked down the slope of one such system, the Keage Incline, in Kyoto. It used to connect the canal from Lake Biwa to the canal 36 meters lower which ran through Kyoto.
It was taken out of use in 1948. Now only tourists like us use it, especially during the Spring when the cherry trees, which have been planted along it, are in bloom.
This clever idea of the counterbalancing act was taken one step further in a few funiculars, where a water tank was attached to the carriages. An operator at the top of the funicular would fill the tank of the downward-going carriage with enough water to make it just a bit heavier than the upward-coming carriage, so that the downward-moving carriage could pull the upward-coming carriage up the hill without the need for any extra energy input. At the bottom, the tank was emptied out, and the whole cycle started over. Unfortunately, this alternative to the funiculars’ basic balancing act was never very common, because it needs a good (cheap) source of water at the top of the hill, whereas most sources of water are at the bottom of hills. I also suspect these types of funiculars were more complicated to manage. Over the years, a good number have been switched to more conventional hauling engines, but a few still exist, for instance the Bom Jesus funicular in Braga, Portugal (the water tank is below the carriage)
and the Neuveville-St-Pierre funicular in Fribourg, Switzerland.
The Fribourg funicular has reached a maximum of cleverness. It uses the treated wastewater from a treatment plant located on the top of the hill to fill the tanks. At a minimum, that makes it a win-win-win solution, and I think there must be another “win” in there somewhere.
The next important invention in the funicular story does have a name and a face attached to it. Originally, cables were made of hemp or other natural fibres. As readers can imagine, they were not that strong. If the weight being pulled was too great they would snap. In practice, this meant that the hills up which things were dragged could not be too steep or the loads too heavy. This limitation was overcome when the German Wilhelm Albert figured out how to make stranded steel cables, with the first steel cable being put into use in 1834.
Initially, the steel cables were stranded by hand, which obviously limited output, but in 1837 an Austrian by the name of Wurm developed a machine to strand cables. The German rope-makers Felten & Guillaume then got into the game and by the 1840s were churning out more, and cheaper, steel cables. We see here their factory in Cologne in the 1860s.
This greatly expanded the scope of where funiculars – and anything else being dragged up inclines – could be used.
The final important invention had to do with track layout. In the first funiculars, each carriage had its own set of tracks. This funicular in Hastings in the UK, which was actually built quite late in the day – 1902 – shows the principle.
Two tracks laid side by side, plus four platforms – each track had to have its own top and bottom platforms – took up a lot of space, space which was often carved out of the living rock. If only one track could be used (and only two platforms), the construction costs could be lowered considerably. But how to get the two carriages past each other when they met at the midpoint? This knotty problem was solved by a Swiss engineer by the name of Carl Roman Abt.
He came up with this set-up for the tracks.
As the diagram shows, to make it work the wheels on the left of one carriage are flanged on both sides, while it’s the other way around on the other carriage. Like that, when the carriages come to the passing point, the carriage flanged on the left always veers left, the carriage flanged on the right always veers right. The inner wheels aren’t flanged at all. Quite simple, really – although I’m sure the execution in real life is more complex than that two-sentence description.
Abt first used this system in 1886 on the funicular in Lugano which connects the old town to the railway station. Which is great, because it allows me to throw in a picture of one of the funiculars which my wife and I have used in our lives. Readers can see that the cars are thoroughly modern, fruit of a makeover in 2016.
While I’m at it, I can throw in pictures of the two other funiculars we have travelled on:
The Angel’s Flight in Los Angeles (which uses a 3-rail track layout)
The Eizan Cable Car, to the north-east of Kyoto
I’m racking my brains to think of other funiculars we’ve travelled on but I think that’s it: four in total, counting the one in Como. Not a huge number given that there are some 300 funiculars around the world. We really have to do better. I shall review with my wife Wikipedia’s list of funiculars around the world, to see which ones we should try to ride (this could be an excuse to visit places we haven’t been to yet, like Rio de Janeiro or Santiago in Chile). And then, when (if) COVID-19 is brought under control, we can be on our way!