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Water Powered Funiculars

Funiculars are an odd mode of transport, but at the same time, they are one of the most energy-efficient one. The system consist of two counterbalanced cars attached at the ends of a long cable that goes up a slope and over a pulley and then comes back down. So when one car goes up, the other comes down. The weight of the two cars counterbalances each other, so that only a minimal amount of energy is required to pull up the ascending car, which is usually provided by an electric motor. Some historic funiculars made the system even more energy-efficient by using water as the motive force.

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Funiculaire Neuveville-St.Pierre, the world’s only poo-powered funicular. Photo credit: Norbert Aepli/Wikimedia

These funiculars have water tanks built under the floor of each car that could be filled or emptied to weigh them down just enough to allow movement. Usually, the tanks are empty at the beginning of the journey. After passengers had boarded both cars, the operator at the upper station is informed of the number of passengers that had entered the ascending car. He then knows the exact amount of water that needs to be filled into the tank of the upper car to make it heavier than the car at the bottom of the hill. Once a sufficient imbalance is achieved, the brakes are released and the funicular is set into motion solely by gravity. At the end of the journey, the descending car is emptied of water and the process is repeated.

Many water-powered funiculars were later fitted with electric motors. Thankfully, some still operate to this day. A few examples of water-power funiculars still operating are the Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway, in North Devon (operating since 1890), the Bom Jesus do Monte Funicular in Braga, Portugal (operating since 1882), the Leas Lift in Kent, England (operating since 1885), the Nerobergbahn in Wiesbaden, Germany (operating since 1888), the Saltburn Cliff Lift in North Yorkshire, England (operating since 1884), and the Funiculaire Neuveville-St.Pierre in Fribourg, Switzerland (operating since 1899). The last one is of particular interest as it utilizes waste water coming from a sewage plant to power the funicular.

The Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway is also unique. Most water-powered funicular needs water to be pumped up the hill to fill the tanks at the upper station, but in Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway the water is discarded and fresh water is taken from a nearby river requiring no pumping. The Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway is one of only three fully water powered railways in the world. The other are the Bom Jesus do Monte Funicular in Braga, Portugal, and the Funiculaire Neuveville-St.Pierre in Fribourg, Switzerland.

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The Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway releasing water from the tanks.

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Leas Lift in Kent, England. Photo credit: Phil Beard/Flickr

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