funicular pittsburgh

Unless you live in Pittsburgh, it’s unlikely you commute to work every day via funicular.  Actually, unless you live near a very steep hill or cliff it’s unlikely you even get exposed to a funicular.  Funiculars are fantastic train-like cars that travel up and down steep inclines via cables or the tug-and-pull of equally weighted cabs.  Independently-powered trains, whether electric, steam or diesel cannot climb steep grades.  While funiculars may run on railroad tracks, they do not have on-board engines like trains.

As Bruce at explains:

The really clever aspect of a funicular is that it uses two cars at once, connected to each other by the cable, which passes through a large wheel at the upper station. In this way, the two cars serve as counterweights to each other. When the car at the top goes down, the car at the bottom goes up at the same time. A motor is still needed to pull the cable, but it only needs to overcome the difference in weight between the cars, which is the weight of the passengers, and the friction inherent in the system. The motor is permanently installed in the upper station, and transfers its power to the driving wheel through which the cable runs.

By my count there are at least 11 active funiculars that any individual can visit in the United States.  This excludes funiculars that may be on private property.  Here is the list of operating funiculars and the year they opened.

The funicular is a truly elegant system that I wish was used more often.  These days we tend to grade roads around mountains and clifs and build trams that do the same job without the necessity of tethering a car to the ground.  I personally hope the funicular has more of a future than just a historic relic and occasional novelty.  If you see a hill with need for direct transport, keep the funicular in mind.